Last Saturday Australia was unable to decide whether to vote in the ALP or the Liberal/National Coalition. As a result, we have a hung Parliament, with the balance of power resting in the hands of five, possibly six men – four Independents, a Green, and a maverick National.
Right now, it seems Australia is unable to decide whether that’s good or bad.
Some are rejoicing at what they see as a real opportunity for Parliamentary reform. This might be a chance for the backbenchers – the ‘little Aussie battlers’ of politics – to get a real say in what goes on. Maybe we can have fixed terms. What about putting a cap on donations, clamping down on election and government advertising, or even forcing disclosure on fundraisers? Way out at the extreme end is even the idea of a unity government, with ministers from both Houses or even outside politics altogether. The wish list goes on. With the balance of power being held by traditionally disenfranchised MPs, this might finally be a way to change what many see is a corrupt and outdated system.
But hang on a moment, say others. The majority of us didn’t vote for these people. Some of them only got elected on the back of preferences from the major parties. Why should they have the balance of power? Who are they to hold our entire system of government to ransom? Most damning of all, what if this were to happen with someone like Pauline Hanson or a Family First member in that position? What kind of terrible damage can be wrought here?
There’s merit in both arguments. It’s both startling and somewhat unrepresentative that our government for the next three years may well be decided by a handful of MPs whose policies – and names – most of us didn’t even know a week ago. To place that much power in their hands effectively makes both major parties hostages to their agendas.
As we saw yesterday, those agendas can differ wildly. Bob Katter really doesn’t want either a price on carbon or a mining super profits tax. He’s incredibly vocal on the subject. Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, however, support both principles. We can take it as read that Adam Bandt wants to see both ideas come to fruition in much tougher forms than have been previously proposed. Wilkie’s a little more cautious – he likes the idea of a mining tax, but not its current form, and wants a price on carbon. As for Tony Crook – well, that’s anyone’s guess. He’s still nominally a National, and therefore might be expected to follow the party line of no mining tax, no carbon price. His insistence on being considered a cross-bencher, however, could well signal a break with their policies.
How is any prospective government supposed to sort all that lot out?
Back up a second, though. We’re not talking about setting up a formal coalition to be in lockstep with either major party on all legislative decisions. At its base, this is just about getting enough numbers to defeat a no confidence motion, and to make sure the Budget passes through the House. Obviously the various stances on policy will be a factor in the decision-making process – five of the six have said their priority is stable, workable government – but it’s not necessary to meet every policy demand in order to form government. So we’re not really talking about ‘ransom’ here.
The six will have their own wish lists, of course. Oakeshott would dearly love to see more consensus politics in Parliament, for example, and Katter wants attention paid to areas of crisis in bush electorates. There’s no sense that they’re going to the leaders with a shopping list, though. On the contrary, what they’ve said so far indicates that they are focused on making the best possible choice for the country.
The three country Independents – Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter – presented seven requests to both Gillard and Abbott yesterday. Much of these requests are for access to information from various government departments, as well as a commitment to work for the national, rather than party, interest. They are after electoral reform – truth in election advertising, political donations and electoral funding – and are looking for a timetable to accomplish this.
One item is proving something of a sticking point with the Coalition, however – a request for access to Treasury’s costings for both the Opposition and government. If you remember, the Coalition flatly refused to submit their costings to Treasury under the Charter of Budget Honesty during the election campaign, claiming that Treasury was – at the very least – hopelessly corrupted. Instead, they submitted their numbers to an outside firm, resulting in a series of highly optimistic – and, apparently, highly inaccurate – figures.
Abbott has refused once again to give Treasury his costings so that the Independents can take economic advice about them. There’s a different reason this time, though. Now it’s because Treasury can’t understand Opposition policies. They are public servants, and it’s simply ‘not appropriate’. Instead, he says the Independents can have access to the firm that did their costings during the campaign, and the numbers themselves – the ones that received little scrutiny, and are still in question.
This is an extraordinary claim. Remember, Abbott was part of the government that instituted the Charter of Budget Honesty, designed to evaluate both policies from both major parties. There was no talk then that Treasury would only be able to understand those that came from the government of the day – nor did this turn up as a ‘reason’ to refuse submitting the Coalition’s costings during the campaign. It has materialised out of nowhere.
And to claim that Treasury – the body responsible for evaluating all economic policy, that routinely looks at costings from both sides when providing advice to a new government – is unable to understand the figures that the Coalition have come up with this time around? That’s so far beyond ludicrous there aren’t words to describe it.
The immediate question is, what have they got to hide? If they are confident in their numbers, surely they can only win by providing them to Treasury? They want to form government, and to do so they will have to negotiate with those who will hold the balance of power. Refusing a key request does nothing to improve their chances.
Perhaps the Coalition are gambling that the three country Independents, ex-Nationals, will run back to the fold. Perhaps they looked at Galaxy poll numbers today that suggest constituents of those electorates would prefer a Coalition government. Perhaps it’s simple arrogance, as we’ve seen displayed throughout this extended caretaker period.
What it looks like, though, is fear.
Gillard’s response to the requests was completely co-operative. She sounded only one note of caution, in that there may need to be changes to caretaker conventions in order for Treasury to release its documents, and that she would also need to talk to Abbott. She made it clear, though, that she was willing to comply with every one of the seven requests, including giving a commitment to a full term of government – even going so far as to promise to consult with them when the time came to set a date for the next election.
The two approaches could not be more different. One is co-operating, the other is drawing a wholly unnecessary line in the sand. Gillard is offering more than was asked (for example, a briefing with the head of NBNCo to explain the broadband roll-out), while Abbott is dictating terms. Abbott is giving every indication that he believes it is his moral right to rule, and that he should be accountable to no one – least of all three Independent MPs who he expects to fall into line and help him into government.
It’s not hard to draw the parallel between the country Independents and the Australian people. Towards both, the Coalition has acted in a high-handed, arrogant manner, giving the strong impression that they have the right to tell us what we need to know, when they feel like it. These latest actions only confirm what they’ve been signalling all along – some rules don’t apply to them, because they are above scrutiny or reproach.
As Bob Katter said today, ‘If you think the Australian people are going to put up with this sort of tomfoolery, you’ve got another thing coming’.
Andrew Robb, appearing on Sky’s PM Agenda program this afternoon, dragged out the ‘we don’t trust Treasury because of the leaks’ argument. (Apparently, the Coalition realised that Abbott’s ‘Treasury doesn’t understand’ line was attracting nothing but scorn and disbelief.) He went further, though. If Treasury were to get their hands on the Coalition’s costings, he asserted, he believes that they would ‘fiddle’ with the numbers to give Labor the advantage.
This is completely outrageous. It goes well beyond the idea that there might be someone in Treasury who favours Labor, and leaked a document to ‘help’ them during the election campaign (not that there is any proof that such a person even exists). After all, it’s not inconceivable – remember Godwin Grech? What Robb is saying now, though, goes to the heart of Treasury’s integrity as the economic managers of the country.
The Coalition says it wants to form government. It says it wants to ‘pay down Labor’s massive debt’. To do that, it would have to work with Treasury – an organisation that it now alleges is so corrupt that it would falsify its figures in order to deny them the chance. At least, at this point, Andrew Robb isn’t suggesting that WHK Horwath take over the job.
Any way you look at it, this accusation doesn’t wash. If Treasury is corrupt, everything they’ve done for at least the last three years must be called into question. If Treasury isn’t corrupt, this is yet another transparent attempt to avoid public scrutiny – and Robb’s tactic is shameful. It attacks the central pillar of Australia’s economic credibility.
It appears Robb doesn’t actually care whether this affects the markets. or our standing with the rest of the world. It’s as though he’s focused on one aim – government by any means necessary.
I leave as an exercise for the reader this thought: if a party is prepared to risk destabilising Australia’s economic standing purely in order to gain political power, what would they be like if they actually held it?