Andrew Wilkie has just announced that he will support a Labor government under Julia Gillard.
Like Bandt, that support extends only to a pledge not to block Supply, and not to support any unwarranted no-confidence motions. It’s interesting that Wilkie saw fit to qualify that last point – he left open the possibility of bringing or seconding such a motion himself. He also made it clear that he will examine any legislation on its merits alone, and that Labor knows it cannot expect automatic support for its proposals – ‘Julia Gillard shouldn’t necessarily count on my support,’ he said.
Although highly critical of both the Coalition’s and Labor’s refugee policy, Wilkie said that he felt Labor could best meet his criteria for stable, competent and ethical government. When asked to clarify what he meant, he brought up the Howard government’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an example of unethical governmental behaviour. Given how shamefully he was treated by Howard and his Ministers when he blew the whistle on the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ beat-up, that had to be a ‘best served cold’ moment.
He went on to say that he felt there was an ‘unacceptable culture’ within the Coalition with regard to asylum seeker policies, and to effectively put Labor on notice that he would attempt to overturn their commitment to offshore processing.
Wilkie’s negotiations with both leaders had involved a list of 20 ‘priorities’. Most importantly, he was seeking funds for the ailing Royal Hobart Hospital, and poker machine reform. The offers he received from Gillard and Abbott were very different; Abbott promised $1 billion for the hospital, while Gillard said she would bring forward the release of $1.8 billion from the Health and Hospitals Fund, $340 million of which would go to the RHH on the assumption that it qualified under the scheme. The rest would be available throughout the country, and Wilkie said he hoped that a significant portion of that would go to rural and regional Australia.
On the question of poker machine reform, both leaders agreed to implement so-called pre-commitment technologies on every machine. Simply put, this is a smartcard or USB device that recognises an individual user, and can be used to limit how much is spent gambling. It’s currently used overseas. Gillard’s commitment apparently went further than Abbott’s; she said she would encourage the states to change their legislation accordingly, and if that proved unsuccessful, would seek to bring federal legislation to compel them to implement the technology. Wilkie said he considered this an ‘unprecedented reform’.
Wilkie volunteered that Abbott also promised $7.5 million for a multi-sports complex in the electorate of Denison.
There’s a growing suspicion that Wilkie’s ‘priority list’ was, in fact, some kind of honeytrap – that he wanted to see who would work for an ethical and equitable solution with an eye on the national interest, and who would simply offer him pork. If so, it worked. Asked where Abbott would get the money for his promises, Wilkie said he did not know – Abbott had simply made the pledge. In fact, Wilkie made the point several times that Gillard’s responses to his priorities had been considerably more detailed, and in line with proper processes already in place (such as the Health and Hospitals Fund application process). When pushed on whether he’d sold out his constituents on the matter of the hospital, Wilkie said he could not support an ‘inequitable’ solution.
This has been Wilkie’s line all the way along. Often, he’s come off looking a little holier-than-thou, especially with his refusal to take part in the briefings Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor are currently receiving. Much has been made of his insistence on ethics. I think here we can see just how real Wilkie’s commitment to ethical government really is – when offered some extremely attractive pork just for his electorate, Wilkie opted for less money, but a more equitable solution for the nation as a whole.
Wilkie’s said he’s happy to release the letter he received from Abbott outlining the Coalition’s offers, if he receives permission to do so. I doubt that will be forthcoming.
According to Sky News’ David Speers, Liberal MPs had barraged him with text messages during Wilkie’s media conference. They stressed that if the Coalition formed government with the support of the three rural Independents, Wilkie’s commitment to support whoever became Prime Minister would mean that he would vote with the Coalition on matters of Supply. I have to wonder why they bothered to do that. It was self-evident from Wilkie’s own words. There was no point to be made there.
With the support of both Wilkie and Bandt, Labor now has 74 seats of the needed 76. It all turns now on Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor.
Whatever the outcome, Wilkie seems to be shaping up as the putative conscience of the Lower House. It’s going to be fascinating to see how he responds to parliamentary process in action.