Labor’s task – unite behind Shorten, and do it quickly

October 13, 2013

It was supposed to be an exercise in participatory democracy. It was supposed to show the country that the Australian Labor Party was open and inclusive when it came to deciding who its leaders would be. Most of all, it was supposed to be a signal that Labor had moved beyond the kind of factional manoeuvring that had turfed out two sitting Prime Ministers.

It captivated news cycles, drawing attention away from the new Abbott government as pundits tried to find the flaw in the system, and waited with bated breath for attack-type electioneering that never materialised. The campaign between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was civil to the point of being almost boring. The two men praised each other’s record in Parliament, and refused to be drawn when invited to criticise. If anything, they were in danger of being seen as too similar.

The procedure was simple – the candidate who achieved an overall majority of votes would be elected leader. That majority was composed of 50% of Federal Caucus, and 50% of rank-and-file membership votes. In theory, this would achieve the most representative result, and silence those critics who insisted that Labor was entirely at the mercy of its factions, ignoring the membership.

There was an inherent problem in the procedure, however. If the caucus and the membership voted different ways, and the Caucus vote was ultimately the deciding factor, the result could easily be seen as a sign that nothing had really changed. For the procedure to be seen as truly ‘representative’ and free of factional politicking, the new leader needed to be elected via the rank-and-file vote. It’s all in the perception.

Unfortunately for Labor, the new leader – Bill Shorten – was elected on the Caucus vote. His numbers broke down this way:

Caucus vote: 63.9% (55 of 86)
Rank-and-file vote: 40% (12,196 of 30,426)
Overall vote: 52.2%

It’s absolutely clear that Shorten did not have the confidence of the rank-and-file – and with the new procedure effectively weighting the result such that one Caucus vote is roughly equivalent to 350 membership votes, it’s fair to say that this system does not provide a clear picture of the party’s wishes. Nor is it necessarily truly representative. Unless the rank-and-file overwhelmingly votes against the Caucus, their preferred candidate has little chance of gaining the leadership. More likely, factions within the Caucus will continue to exert control.

These flaws leave Labor entirely vulnerable to attack from the Coalition government, on grounds with which the latter are entirely comfortable. The situation is worsened by the election of Bill Shorten, who is perhaps irrevocably tainted by his past actions. His ties to the unions are, perhaps, the least of the problem. Labor has always drawn much of its strength from the union movement. His role as the prime mover in removing first Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard, from their positions as Prime Minister, however, is far more damaging to Labor in Opposition.

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

The attack ads and speeches write themselves. Labor has handed the Coalition a perfect way to avoid scrutiny. Take the asylum seeker issue, for example. Let’s say Shorten holds a press conference criticising the government over its high-handed attitude towards Indonesian sovereignty. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison need not answer any charge Shorten might bring – he has a script available to him to deflect attention onto the ‘ongoing disunity’ within Labor.

It’s already happening. Within minutes of the announcement, Jamie Briggs fronted the media. As expected, he called on Shorten to vote to repeal carbon pricing – but on the heels of that came the first test of the new script, courtesy of the media. What did Briggs think of the fact that the Caucus and the rank-and-file had voted differently? Briggs obligingly picked up his cue, and the rest was entirely predictable.

Of course, none of this speaks to Shorten’s ability to lead Labor. There’s no reason to believe he will be anything but a good leader – and, however flawed the new system, he was properly elected. The problem is entirely in the perception, and manipulating perceptions is a key strength of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his front bench. Shorten is vulnerable, and there’s every reason to think Abbott will exploit both his history and the leadership ballot result. Had Albanese been elected, there would be no such opportunity for the Coalition, but there is little point in wasting time on counter-factuals.

In the coming days, Albanese’s action will go far towards countering any message of disunity. He’s seen as perhaps the most loyal of Labor’s front bench, putting the party first and wearing that loyalty on his sleeve. There’s no doubt he will attract a great deal of media scrutiny, looking for any sign that his support for Shorten is anything but unconditional – and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll find one.

The heavy lifting cannot be purely left to Albanese, however. One of Labor’s major failings, both in government and during the election campaign, was its inability to clearly communicate its message. It’s true that the media had largely written the narrative, often without even speaking with Labor – or had discounted the party entirely. It’s also true that the Coalition embraces the tactic of ‘repeat something often enough and others will come to believe it’. Nonetheless, Labor did not – and perhaps could not – cut through, and the election result was partly of its own making.

Now, in Opposition, the party has an opportunity to rehabilitate its image – but it must be a party-wide effort. With Shorten as leader, an uphill battle has become that much harder. Labor needs to do everything possible to bury Shorten’s history – not deny it, not attempt to explain it away, but to drown it out with a show of unity that is not undermined by disgruntled factional members or damaged by strategic leaks. (And no, this doesn’t mean Kevin Rudd. People really need to get over it.)

Above all, Labor needs to do it quickly. It can’t afford to let the government gain any momentum with a disunity message – it has to take the fight right up to the coalface of policy, and show itself entirely unmoved by the insistence that it has no choice but to fall into line with the Coalition’s platform. If the party falls in behind Shorten and sticks to its stated principles, it can become an extremely effective Opposition.

If it doesn’t, it will only have itself to blame.


Campaign 2013: Not an auspicious start

August 5, 2013

2013 Campaign, Day 1.

Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m rather over it already. In the last 24 hours, these are just a few examples of how things are shaping up.

On the politician front, we saw Clive Palmer, head of the Palmer United Party, assert that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ‘afraid’ to debate him. This fear, he claimed, was because Labor had no ideas, and couldn’t make a decent counter-argument to his calls for a ‘revolution’. I didn’t see any flags or chanting crowds with upraised fists, and Palmer wasn’t wearing a beret with a red star badge on it, so I’m not quite sure what he means by that. But then, he could be right. It’s hard to make a counter-argument when there isn’t something against which to argue.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, speaking on behalf of his leader, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott grudgingly praised each other’s families when pressed to name one good quality about their opposite numbers. Ah, family. Isn’t it heart-warming that even bitter enemies can say, ‘Well, at least they love their kids?’

Of course, had Julia Gillard still been Prime Minister, we’d have heard nothing of the kind. Likely, Abbott would have given us one of his trademark snide comments, while reminding us all that he’s married with kids. At least that issue is neutralised, though that’s hardly something of which we should be proud. The presence or absence of family is in no way an indicator of whether someone can be an effective Prime Minister.

With his early morning media appearances over, Abbott decided to get some work done early. No sense waiting until the election actually takes place, is there? Of course not. Democratic process? Pffft.

Abbott wrote to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, virtually instructing them to cease their activities. Thoughtfully, he also gave its employees plenty of advance notice that he’d be shutting them down altogether once he was in government.

Tony Abbott's letter to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation

Tony Abbott’s letter to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (my emphasis)

While he was at it, he told the media that he’d informed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet of his first activity as Prime Minister – which would, of course, be repealing the ‘carbon tax’.

The arrogance is breathtaking. Publicly, Abbott’s out there saying it’s going to be a long, hard fight, that it’s hard to win from Opposition, that Labor has the advantage. Privately, he’s already throwing his weight around the Canberra bureaucracy, claiming the authority of a Prime Minister and, apparently, expecting to be treated like one.

And then there were the Greens. Oh dear, dear, dear.

Now, no one could ever accuse the Greens of lacking in absolute commitment to their principles, and a willingness to pursue them with passion. But leader Christine Milne’s media conferences last night and today were, frankly, cringe-worthy.

She spent the bulk of her media time calling both major parties ‘cruel’, so many times that even experienced commentators lost count. This was largely directed at their respective asylum seeker policies, and it’s fair to say that at best those policies could be considered completely self-interested. A word repeated too many times, however, loses its impact, and that’s what happened here – particularly after Milne extended her accusations of cruelty to include environmental policies.

The other problem was that Milne backed herself into a corner on the issue of another possible minority government. After her condemnation of both Labor and the Coalition on asylum seeker policy, she stated flatly that the Greens would not, under any circumstances, enter into an agreement with the Coalition. Of course, the natural follow-up question was, would the Greens back Labor – and that’s where she came unstuck. It was clear Milne was more inclined to agree to that arrangement, but since she’d described both parties as almost identical in their ‘cruelty’, she had no justification for saying so. Instead, she fell back on repeating she wouldn’t support Labor’s ‘Papua New Guinea gulags’.

To say the media smelled blood in the water then was an understatement. Her appearances dissolved into incoherence.

Speaking of the media …

The Daily Telegraph’s front page left us in no doubt as to their opinion.

The Daily Telegraph's calm and measured start to its election campaign coverage.

The Daily Telegraph’s calm and measured start to its election campaign coverage.

Hilariously, the paper solemnly assured us that it was declaring its support for the Coalition ‘calmly and reasonably’, that it would not ‘play Labor’s game’.

I pause for howls of derisive laughter.

News Limited can hardly be accused of showing bias towards the government. A quick perusal of their headlines and op-eds shows that. For them to claim otherwise is a bald-faced lie. Today’s headline, though, goes one step beyond even Fairfax’s pathetic bleat that under Gillard’s leadership, it was impossible for the media to have a policy-driven debate.

The Telegraph isn’t merely complaining. It’s outright telling people how to vote. Yes, this tends to happen as a campaign goes on, but on Day 1? In tones best reserved for a pub owner dealing with a few rowdy drinkers? And on the front page?

This is nothing more than the Tele treating its readers as mindless mugs. Where Fairfax wrung its hands and wailed, News Ltd has opted for the blunt instrument approach. It’s crass, it’s obvious, and it’s insulting.

Finally, this piece of do-it-yourself campaign material deserves a mention, if only because it shows just how toxic the political atmosphere is right now.

It turned up in the form of three badly printed, badly photocopied pages shoved in the mailbox of a friend. That friend lives in a predominantly middle-class, ‘Anglo’ neighbourhood – which is right next door to one of the largest concentrations of Middle Eastern and Muslim populations in Melbourne. Here’s a sample:

Anti-asylum seeker campaign material

Anti-asylum seeker campaign material

In case it’s difficult to read, it boils down to: all refugees are trying to get to Australia so they can claim welfare payments. Once they’re here, they go back to their own countries, bring over fake families, and then settle down to have as many children as possible so they can claim even more welfare money. Just to be sure the message is properly communicated, the anonymous author/s of this piece of ranting garbage draw a false contrast between post-WWII European migrants (‘ALL THEY EVER ASKED FOR WAS A JOB, ANY JOB NO MATTER HOW DIRTY, STINKING LOW PAID IT WAS’ – original punctuation and capitalisation) and ‘refugees’ (who ‘GET NAMES THAT ARE MILES LONG AND UNIDENTIFIABLE’ … who ask ‘WHAT CAN I GET, WHAT WILL YOU PAY ME FOR JUST LANDING ON YOUR SHORES/COMING TO AUSTRALIA’.)

These pages are accompanied by selected ‘Letters to the Editor’ badly clipped out, pasted crookedly and photocopied, with helpful commentary in the white spaces.

There’s no organisation identified as being behind this material, although the use of the word ‘LEVIATHAN’ to name the text file from which it’s printed suggests the author’s have read at least a few articles in The Australian or the odd right-wing blog (which is rather fond of using that word to describe welfare or taxation of any sort).

Nonetheless, this is the direct result of a political discourse that thinks nothing of using a vulnerable group of faceless people as little more than a football. Scoring political points by stirring up ill-feeling against asylum seekers is, unfortunately, an effective tactic. It panders to the most xenophobic aspects of human character – and in doing so, tacitly gives approval for the kind of propaganda that paints all asylum seekers as potential welfare cheats, breeding uncontrollably in order to overwhelm the ‘real’ Australians and bring in sharia law.

I’m sure there’s more out there, from Christopher Pyne absurdly claiming three different policy decisions in less than 24 hours to the Katter Australian Party supporter in a giant hat who photo-bombed an ABC News24 reporter who was desperately trying to fill time while waiting for the Prime Minister’s plane to land.

This is just a sample.

And it’s only Day 1.

Strap in, folks, and lay in a good supply of whatever gets you through all this.

You’ll need it.


Husic’s oath a cause for celebration, not abuse

July 2, 2013

Prime Minister Rudd’s new cabinet was announced and sworn in yesterday. Though there were few surprises, there were several appointments of note – and one who attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese picked up the Communications portfolio in addition to his current responsibilities for Infrastructure and Transport. This is a natural, and very clever move. The NBN is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in our history, and Albanese is a practised debater with a proven ability to think on his feet. You couldn’t find a better advocate for what will undoubtedly be a major plank in Labor’s election campaign.

Mark Butler, who’s perceived to be somewhat above the usual gutter-level politics of day to day governing, moves from Mental Health and Ageing to Climate Change and Environment. It’s a major step up for Butler, but his appointment conveys the message that the portfolio is in safe – and, perhaps more importantly, untainted hands.

There are 11 women in Rudd’s cabinet, including a number who enter the ministry for the first time, such as Melissa Parke, who heads up the newly created International Development portfolio. Given Rudd’s emphasis on engagement with the Pacific Region, and China in particular, this is a major responsibility.

Inevitably, those who supported Rudd all the way along were rewarded. Recent convert Bill Shorten picked up Education along with Workplace Relations; and far be it from me to suggest that there’s more than a little irony in his taking on almost identical responsibilities to those first held by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the first Rudd cabinet. Encouragingly, though, many of those who held ministries under Gillard retained those positions (such as Penny Wong with Finance), or were reshuffled (O’Connor moving from Immigration to Employment).

It’s a new cabinet, with very little time for a shake-down cruise. Far from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s sneer that this is ‘not the B team, it’s the C team,’ however, more than half of Rudd’s ministers are extremely experienced, both as politicians and in various portfolios, many of those major areas of responsibility. Their expertise will be available to new ministers, who will also be ably served by their departments.

The transition to the new cabinet went off without a hitch. The swearing-in ceremony is a formality at best; though technically able to do so, a Governor-General is hardly likely to object to any appointments. Usually, the new minister reads out a Christian oath or secular affirmation and signs a copy of said oath, which is then witnessed and proclaimed by the Governor-General. Yesterday, something new happened.

For the first time, an Australian cabinet minister swore their oath upon the Koran.

The person in question was Ed Husic, new Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and for Broadband. At his election in 2010, he was the first Muslim to enter Parliament, and took his oath alongside Jewish MPs Josh Frydenberg and Michael Danby (who swore on what The Age fatuously called ‘the Jewish bible’).

The evening news reported Husic’s use of the Koran in a relatively neutral way, commenting on it as a curiosity more than anything else. Social media was more polarised. Husic’s Facebook page became a battleground for religious commentary that went far beyond general argument, and entered the realm of personal abuse directed at the MP.

With the breathtaking arrogance that seems to accompany only the truly uninformed, Husic was told: that it was ‘impossible’ for him to take that oath, since Islam and democracy were completely incompatible; that he was committing ‘treason’; that his appointment was un-Constitutional; that he’s not a ‘real’ Muslim, so shouldn’t use the Koran; that he was exploiting Australia for his own (no doubt nefarious) purposes; and – at the height of the absurdity – that Husic’s appointment meant sharia law was on the verge of being instituted.

This is why we can’t have nice things, Australia.

Husic made a decision to take his oath of office upon the holy book of his religion – which he was perfectly entitled to do. Nothing in our Constitution prohibits that, despite those amateur Constitutional Scholars who quoted s.116 as justification for their ranting. That particular section guarantees that the government may not establish a religion, nor impose a religious test for office. No minister is required to make an oath upon a religious text – they always have the option of taking a secular affirmation.

The notion that Islam is incompatible with democracy simply shows the ignorance of those asserting such nonsense. Islam is a religion; it is not a political system. Whether it is the dominant religion within a country may influence the politics, but there is a world of difference between that and a theocracy.

As for the accusation of the country being on the verge of the sudden imposition of sharia law – well, really. There’s ridiculous, and then there’s the kind of idiocy that leaves one open-mouthed with awe. This is on a par with Senators Cory Bernardi and Mitch Fifield thundering that we are being ‘forced’ into eating halal meat, leading to ‘Islamisation-by-stealth’ of our ‘Christian’ country. According to the wingnuts on Husic’s Facebook page, however, our way of life is in danger. Oh, and apparently shows just how low Rudd is willing to go.

I confess, that one escapes me. Perhaps the poster was suggesting that Husic has secret powers over ‘The Muslims’, and will instruct them all to vote for Rudd in the upcoming election – on the condition that Rudd will bring in sharia law as soon as he takes office?

That Husic’s appointment as a Parliamentary Secretary should provoke such bigotry is perhaps not surprising, although it is disgusting – and shows just how far we have to go.

The election of an indigenous person to Parliament was a moment of celebration, lauded by all comers – and rightly so. Politicians often trot out their children-of-migrants credentials, telling fond anecdotes about when their parents first came to this country. People, apparently, like to feel that they have something in common with their representatives. Unless they’re Muslim, I guess. Oh, it was fine for Husic to be a Muslim while he was a lowly backbencher, but in the cabinet? That’s going too far.

There’s more than a whiff of tokenism about that, a sense that Australian Muslims should be satisfied with having someone in Parliament who’s ‘one of them’ (never mind that Islam, like Christianity, is a religion with many sects and diverging beliefs). What more do ‘they’ want?

I don’t know about what ‘they’ want, but what we should want is more diversity. More voices bringing different perspectives, different heritages, different ideas. We should celebrate the fact that Husic felt he could show his commitment to serving us by taking the oath on his religion’s holy book, as we should celebrate others who take affirmations or swear on other sacred texts.

Diversity does not dilute; it enriches. It allows us to embrace what is new, while affirming traditions that continue to serve us well. In doing so, we become a stronger, more compassionate nation.

Congratulations on your appointment, Mr Husic.


‘L’ Plate Cabinet or Safe Pairs of Hands?

March 25, 2013

There’s not going to be a blog about last week’s non-spill in the Labor Party. I considered it, but then … what was the point? Really? What could be said that wasn’t either pointing out the obvious, or banging my head against a wall of stupidity in both mainstream and social media?

So, in the immortal – and dreadfully twee – words of the Prime Minister’s last election campaign … this blog is ‘moving forward’. (Ugh. Who thought of that, anyway? Worst. Campaign slogan. EVER.) Last Friday, a slew of Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries offered their resignations, which the PM accepted (the exception being Simon Crean, who was sacked after he publicly called for the leadership spill and excoriated the government in the process of doing so). Martin Ferguson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Kim Carr, Janelle Saffin, Ed Husic, and Chris Bowen all went to the backbench, leaving the PM no choice but to reshuffle.

Usually, a reshuffle is not terribly good for headlines. Sometimes you get an unexpected inclusion (such as Gillard’s oft-criticised decision to appoint Rudd as Foreign Minister when he resigned), or a predicted punishment (sending Robert McLelland to the junior ministry after he supported Rudd in his challenge last year). This time, though, there are more than a few areas of interest.

First up, we’re only six months out from the September 14 election. That means any new Cabinet has a very short shake-down cruise. Second, Gillard has to show that the government has enough depth of talent to replace those who resigned – no easy task in the case of someone like Martin Ferguson.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott went on the attack almost before the ink was dry on the resignation letters. The depth simply wasn’t there, he proclaimed. Any new Cabinet would be on its ‘L’ plates – read: inexperienced, unable to do their job without the supervision of a ‘grown-up’, and potentially dangerous. He invited Australians to compare what’s left of the PM’s choices to his own, ‘stable’ front bench. There was simply no contest – and just by the way, he’ll be tabling a no confidence motion when Parliament resumes for the May Budget. (Not that this was any surprise to anyone.)

Leaving aside the posturing, Abbott did have a point. The PM was under pressure to show her Cabinet was not only competent, but experienced – and there weren’t really a lot of choices. Her solution was to side-step altogether the question of who to bring in from the backbench.

Her first announced appointment was Anthony Albanese, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. Added to this is now Regional Development and Local Government. This is a resounding show of confidence in Albanese, whose support for Rudd is well-known. After last year’s failed challenge, he offered his resignation to the PM, who refused. Last week, he told media that he would not try to depose a sitting PM, and that he had, in fact, urged Rudd not to challenge. Nonetheless, many expected him to end up on the backbench.

In fact, this is a promotion – and a very pointed one, too. Albanese’s taken on part of Crean’s former responsibilities. It doesn’t take a political genius to see the subtext there.

Tony Burke picked up the other half of Crean’s portfolio – Arts. It’s a slightly odd fit with his current position as Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, but Burke has always had a great deal of interest in the Arts.

Craig Emerson adds Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research to the Trade portfolio. Even with two assisting junior Ministers, this is a huge amount of responsibility.

The Department for Climate Change is now merged with Industry and Innovation, all under the purview of Greg Combet. Again, somewhat strange bedfellows here – although, arguably, Combet is now in a position to drive policy encouraging business to innovate in ways that mitigate the effects of climate change. The Greens may not see it that way, however. It will be interesting to see if Christine Milne considers this merger an irreconcilable conflict of interests.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus also picked up extra responsibilities, adding Special Minister of State, Public Service and Integrity.

The appointment of Gary Gray to Resources, Energy, Tourism and Small Business surprised exactly no one. He’s a West Australian, experienced in dealing with the Resources Sector.

Jan McLucas is the new Minister for Human Services, and Jason Clare remains Minister for Home Affairs and Justice, but becomes a full Cabinet member. Finally, the PM announced a number of new junior Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, including Andrew Leigh, who will now serve as Parliamentary Secretary to Gillard.

In a way, this isn’t really a reshuffle at all. With the exception of Gray, McLucas and Clare, there are no new appointments, no moving around. Instead, Gillard’s largely loaded more responsibility onto existing Ministers, effectively creating super-portfolios.

And take a look at those Ministers – senior, highly experienced, without a breath of incompetence clinging to them. There’s no Peter Garrett here, forever tainted by the debacle with the insulation program. Yes, Combet’s linked with carbon pricing, and Albanese is associated with Rudd, but there’s no doubt that they have performed well in their positions. More importantly, perhaps, they project the image that they are safe pairs of hands.

Albanese, Dreyfus, Emerson, Burke and Combet are Gillard’s answer to the ‘L’ plate accusation. No one could argue these are ‘drivers’ in need of supervision. (Even if Emerson does have a tendency to occasionally quote Monty Python in Question Time, or filk old Skyhooks songs in Parliament House courtyards.)

Cleverly, Gillard has also managed to take some of the wind out of Abbott’s sails in regards to his assertion that there is not enough depth of talent on the government benches. (Dear me, the metaphors are mixing terribly today.) Appointing a whole group of new Parliamentary Secretaries and junior Ministers signals to the electorate that here is the next generation of Ministers, learning their trade while apprenticed to strong, competent mentors. It doesn’t entirely nullify Abbott’s suggestion, but it goes a long way to bringing new faces into public view without exposing them to potential problems.

Of course, these new responsibilities also leave the appointees open to questions and criticism regarding their ability to handle the increased workload. They have a little over six weeks to deal with that – and I’m sure there’ll be any number of announcements and media opportunities for them to demonstrate how well they’re doing before they head back to Canberra for the Budget sitting.

This is a purely political move for Gillard. She knows she has to demonstrate to the electorate not only unity, but also competence. She has to show that, even in the face of so many resignations, she has more than enough talent on which she can rely. She’s found the best possible way to do that.


Sexism, misogyny, and a Speaker’s scalp

October 9, 2012

We’re pretty much inured to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s regular attempts to suspend Question Time. Almost every time the Parliament sits, a new ‘crisis’ manifests that forces him to his feet in order to yell across the chamber for ten minutes or so. Usually it’s either the ‘Toxic Tax Based on a Lie’ or how the government’s ‘Lost Control of our Borders’. At this point, there’s often a collective switch-off from those watching. After all, we’ve heard it before – and every time, the attempt to suspend Question Time fails.

Not so today. This time, the government said, bring it on.

And the reason? The Opposition wanted Speaker Peter Slipper gone. It wasn’t enough that he stepped aside while the court case brought against him by James Ashby was still underway. He had to go. Immediately. It was time to make history, and use the Constitutional power granted to the Parliament to remove the Speaker.

Abbott started in high gear, and just got louder. Slipper was a misogynist, he said. He was sexist. Look at the disgusting text messages he’d sent, comparing a vulva (though he used a far less polite word) to the kind of mussels you buy in a jar at the Fish and Chip Shop. Look at his behaviour towards James Ashby. Look at the way he just happened to boot Sophie Mirabella from the House so that she couldn’t cast a vote on the carbon price – that was not only sexist, it was also partisan! Forget that Mirabella was being continually disruptive; apparently if she’d been a man (or, presumably, a woman on the government benches), she could have escaped discipline.

Of course, none of this is proven. The case is underway, the judgment currently reserved. Some of the text messages were released to the media, but there were no grounds for saying that Slipper was guilty of the allegations Ashby’s brought against him. It’s a niggling little detail, and one Abbott seemed happy to skip over. So, for that matter, were the other Coalition speakers, notably Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne.

With Slipper’s character thoroughly delineated as a sleazy, woman-hating popinjay (oh yes, the formal procession through the halls of Parliament House came in for plenty of ridicule), it was time for the Opposition to turn on Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and it was quickly apparent that she (and through her, the Labor government) was the real target.

The least of Gillard’s sins was poor judgment in appointing Slipper in the first place. What was that? The LNP backed Slipper for pre-selection since 1993, and only dumped him when he became Speaker, leaving them down a vote? Pshaw. Details. Astonishingly, according to Pyne, it was one thing to support this man – who had allegedly brought the Parliament into utter disrepute – in his quest for a local seat, but quite another for him to be Speaker. Pyne didn’t elaborate on exactly where the line should be drawn, but presumably there’s a sliding scale. I’m sure the good people of Fisher would be pleased to know that the LNP were happy to help them elect a man of such low character.

But back to Gillard. She ‘forced’ former Speaker Harry Jenkins aside (oh, and let’s not forget to slip in a mention of the midnight assassination of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd). She dared to ‘lie’ to the Australian people about carbon pricing just so she could hold onto power. She was ambitious, grasping for power (and isn’t it interesting that ambition is only a failing in a woman). The Opposition even intimated that she knew about the Slipper/Ashby issue when she appointed the Speaker, making her culpable in this denigration of the Parliament. Finally, she was a hypocrite. Some of her own members had made sexist remarks, and she hadn’t told them off.

She, she, she, she, she. Over and over, the Coalition speakers refused to give the Prime Minister the benefit of her title, or even adopt the convention of using her surname. As my grandmother used to say, ‘She’s the cat’s mother’; ironic when you remember Julie Bishop’s cat-scratch moment towards Gillard in another memorable Question Time. And as Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said when he spoke against the motion: ‘If you used the Prime Minister’s title instead of just ‘she’ all the time, you might have a shred of credibility’.

For a series of speeches designed to make the case that Slipper was a sexist and misogynist who needed to be dismissed at all costs, there was a remarkable degree of sexism shown by the Opposition. But nothing matched up to one comment from Abbott, which sent shock waves through the chamber and those watching on social media:

‘This government should have already died of shame’.

And just to make sure we heard, he repeated it. Again and again.

It was utterly unconscionable. Barely a week after the Daily Telegraph reported that Radio 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones had told the Sydney University Young Liberals Club that Gillard’s late father had ‘died of shame’, there was Abbott invoking the same sentiments.

It’s a familiar theme for the Opposition. Sophie Mirabella, after organising an anti-carbon price demonstration outside Albanese’s electoral office (featuring placards with such lovely sentiments as ‘Tolerance is our demise’), told him that his mother had died of shame.

Quite a coincidence. But who really believes that? Abbott had to know what he was doing. After all, he’d been hounded by the media for nearly a week about Jones’ comments, and forced to defend his decision to keep accepting invitations to appear on Jones’ show (from which over 70 major sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, have withdrawn their support). It was clearly aimed straight at the Prime Minister. Perhaps Abbott hoped to throw her off her stride when she rose to reply.

He couldn’t have picked a worse tactic.

Gillard let fly. Almost shaking with rage, she condemned Abbott for his hypocrisy in bringing this motion, given his history of sexist comments and alleged unacceptable behaviour towards women. Pointing at Abbott, she declared, ‘I will not be lectured by this man on misogyny and sexism. Not now, not ever.’

With devastating effect, Gillard used Abbott’s own sexist and misogynist words against him. His assertion that inequality might not be a ‘bad thing’. His claim that women were ‘physiologically’ unsuited to positions of authority. (Here he was echoing Alan Jones, who infamously declared that women in power in Australia were ‘destroying the joint’.) The outrageous statement that abortion was ‘the easy way out’. And so it went.

Gillard declared that Abbott was using a double standard in seeking to remove Slipper for sexist comments, and vowed that she would not allow that to rule the Parliament. Her fury was palpable, and for once, Abbott didn’t turn his back. There was a court case under way, and Parliament had no right to pre-empt the judgment. Slipper had voluntarily stepped aside, she reminded the House. She would not permit Abbott to impose a standard to which neither he, nor his Opposition colleagues, would adhere.

There was one moment when Gillard’s emotions threatened to overcome her – when she finally spoke about Jones’ comments, telling Abbott, ‘The government is not dying of shame. My father did not die of shame. If anyone should be ashamed, it is the Leader of the Opposition who should be ashamed of his behaviour.’

The motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 69-70. There were no questions, no points of order. Just an incredible eruption, immediately followed by business as usual.

But we saw something today. We saw an Opposition attempt to paint itself as a champion of morality and a protector of women – led by a man notorious for sexist language and bullying behaviour. We saw an Opposition attempt yet again to turn the House into a kangaroo court; Julie Bishop went even further, stating that it didn’t matter that there was as yet no verdict.

But we also saw a Prime Minister who seems to have finally been pushed too far. The bland, polished, vaguely condescending voice reminiscent of a tranquillised Margaret Thatcher gave way to a passionate, cutting anger. No mockery, no stock phrases, no cut-and-paste speeches praising the government’s record. This was the Gillard of old, the Deputy Prime Minister who took on all comers and did more than hold her own.

It’s a Gillard we haven’t seen for a long time.

Whether the government’s successful defence today of Slipper’s position as Speaker will prove a continuing problem remains to be seen. The outcome of the court case will, presumably, determine his future in the chair. In the meantime, the Opposition will undoubtedly find yet more ‘reasons’ to attempt a censure, or force an election. Having embarked on this course from the moment he was denied government, Abbott will not let up until after the next election – an election he expects to win with a majority comparable to that gained by the LNP in the Queensland state election.

The question is, though: will Gillard return to the measured, soporific cadences that many have described as seeming ‘fake’, ‘put on’? (And the question must be asked: did she adopt that way of speaking in the first place because she was told she’d appear ‘shrill’ otherwise?)

Or will it be the Prime Minister we saw today, who takes the fight to Abbott and confronts the Opposition tactics forcefully and without apology?

For Labor’s sake, it will need to be the latter.

UPDATE:

Peter Slipper has just announced in the House of Representatives that he will tender his resignation from the Speakership to the Governor-General. In an emotional speech, he said the House was more important than his own future. ‘Nothing is more important than the preservation of the dignity of our parliamentary institutions.’ According to Anthony Albanese, Slipper made his decision after today’s vote and informed the government. Slipper’s likely successor is his Deputy, Anna Burke, who has been fulfilling the Parliamentary role of Speaker since he stood aside.

This comes four minutes after Slipper tweeted, ‘Sources say Steve Lewis/News Ltd plan 2 run story based on untruths from certain LNP members&volunteers who worked on my last LNP campaign’. We can only wait to see what comes next, but one thing is clear; Abbott gained a valuable scalp today, as Slipper now joins Craig Thomson on the backbench. It’s a victory that – for all his sober words tonight as he said Slipper had done ‘the right thing’ – Abbott won’t hesitate to exploit. Stay tuned for more claims that the government relies on ‘tainted votes’ to stay in power.

It’s a pretty ugly day in Australian politics.


What’s good for the goose …

May 23, 2012

Tonight, you’ll probably hear that ‘the government shut down debate on Craig Thomson’ during Question Time today. Certainly, that’s the message Opposition Leader Tony Abbott undoubtedly hopes you’ll believe – that the government is ‘running a protection racket’ and is willing to subvert (or possibly pervert) the processes of Parliament to do it. The Opposition just wants to ‘call the Prime Minister to account’.

But how true is that?

Let’s take a look at what happened today. It’s convoluted, but see if you can follow me here.

At first it was all business as usual. The Opposition uttered dire warnings about the impending ‘carbon tax’ – which, due to its terrifying ability to travel back in time, apparently caused aluminium manufacturer Norsky Hydro to go belly-up. The government responded with Dixers designed to highlight the upcoming ‘clean energy package’ of compensation and the latest OECD report, which shows Australia to have the best economy in the developed world.

Then the questions about Craig Thomson. The usual stuff, which I won’t bother repeating here. It was obvious what was coming.

At 2.45 pm, Abbott sought leave to move that the Prime Minister be forced to explain to the House whether she believed Thomson’s statement, why he was still in Parliament, and a few other things that were lost in the shouting. Refused leave, he tried – for the 56th time in the life of this Parliament – to suspend standing orders, in order to allow him to move the motion just denied.

Still with me?

Leader of the House Anthony Albanese objected, saying that the matter had been referred to the Privileges Committee, and shouldn’t be further debated. The Speaker was willing to allow it, though, so off Abbott went. And immediately ignored the Practice of the House, which makes it clear that he should not make an argument about the substance of his proposed motion, just explain why it was necessary to suspend standing orders.

It’s a fine line, and it’s one that the Opposition cross every chance they get. Of course, whoever’s in the Speaker’s chair pulls them up on it, but it doesn’t stop them. Abbott, in particular, abuses his privileged status as Leader to flout the rules, and today was no exception. He launched into a diatribe against the Prime Minister, demanding, ‘Do you believe Craig Thomson?’, and accused the government (again) of running ‘a protection racket’.

The government was having none of it today. Albanese interrupted to point out what Abbott was doing, and the Speaker cautioned the Opposition Leader before allowing him to continue. Abbott – without apparently blinking – went straight back to his attack. Cue Albanese.

Repeat.

Repeat.

Finally, Albanese moved to gag Abbott. It was a motion the government couldn’t win (since the Independents are notoriously reluctant to support a gag), and didn’t. What it did accomplish was to waste enough time to run out the allotted time for Abbott’s speech.

Up stepped Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne. And it was Groundhog Day. Again. Mercifully, however, Albanese only objected once before moving to gag. Again he was defeated, and again enough time wasted that the SSO attempt fell in a heap. The Prime Minister promptly closed down Question Time at that point, with over half an hour wasted.

But it’s not over.

At that point Abbott asked Deputy Speaker Anna Burke if, from now on, the clock could be stopped for future divisions and Points of Order. The motive was obvious: if the clock was stopped, then the Opposition would have all the allotted time to say their piece. Receiving an unsatisfactory answer (that it would be up to Speaker Peter Slipper, absent from the chamber but still in charge), he tried another tactic.

Given that the Budget had been referred to a Senate committee, was it even possible to ask questions about it? Here he was angling for a ruling that would allow him to argue that if so, he should be able to bring up the Thomson issue as much as he wanted. It was a nonsensical question, and Burke gave it short shrift – of course they could talk about the Budget, but no ruling. Pyne tried to push her, but she stood firm; it was a matter for the Speaker to make rulings.

Then this from Pyne: ‘If you’re loath to make a ruling, and the Opposition disagree with you, then how can we move dissent?’

Anyone else see the veiled threat of a vote of no confidence there?

Finally, the House moved on – nearly an hour after Question Time was derailed by the Opposition – but Abbott had one more card to play, and it was an act of breathtaking chutzpah.

He called a media conference to complain that the government was preventing debate in the House.

This is the man who shut down Question Time at 2.45pm, with over 30 minutes remaining.

This is the man who refused to keep to the rules of debating SSO motions because it was apparently more important to insult the Prime Minister and deliver a soundbite for the evening news than to respect House Practice.

This is the man who led the call for Craig Thomson to ‘explain himself’ to the House by making a statement in Parliament, and got his wish.

This is the man who led the call for that same statement to be referred to the Privileges Committee, because he claimed that Thomson had misled the Parliament.

Complaining that it was the government preventing debate.

Complaining that Thomson got a whole hour, while ‘we didn’t get one minute’.

Complaining that it was ‘a travesty of a Parliament … a travesty of democracy’.

In Australian Rules Football, I think it’s fair to say that the entire Opposition would cop a 50-metre penalty for time-wasting.

Now, obviously the government accomplished some pretty deft procedural manoeuvring today, and Albanese did succeed in derailing the Opposition’s attempt to call out the PM. But are they actually preventing debate?

Let’s see.

They could have prevented Thomson from giving his statement. They didn’t.

They could have refused to answer any questions from media or in Parliament about the issue. They didn’t. In fact, Gillard had answered two question, with supplementaries, just minutes before Abbott attempted to suspend standing orders.

And, when a Matter of Public Importance on the issue was debated, they could have limited the speakers and time allotted to the usual number. They didn’t. In fact, no less than eight speakers addressed the matter, three of whom were from the Opposition. Usually, it’s a maximum of five, taking up an hour.

Can the Opposition really say that they’ve been prevented from speaking on the issue of Craig Thomson’s alleged wrongdoings? Especially when they’ve also virtually monopolised the media coverage on the subject?

Or is it just that they don’t like to face the fact that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?

If Abbott is really so incensed about the government using procedural tactics to interfere with his own strategies, I have a solution for him. How about both sides enter into a written contract to refrain from doing so in the future? He can promise that Pyne, Bronwyn Bishop and the like don’t repeatedly interrupt the Prime Minister’s answers with spurious Points of Order designed to prevent her from delivering a decent soundbite. He can promise that he won’t use the MPI as a soapbox, and actually use it for its appointed purpose.*

And while he’s at it, he can promise not to try any more end-runs around the judicial process in order to make his political points.

I’m sure the government would be happy to do the same.

Wouldn’t they.

*(If you’re interested, take a look at the guidelines on Matters of Public Importance, and maybe spend a little time thinking about how often the Opposition uses this tactic to gain a free debating platform in the House – and whether their claims satisfy the definition.)


Department of dirty tricks

August 24, 2011

In Australian politics, there’s a little thing called pairing. Until this Parliament, it was confined to the Senate, but as part of negotiations to form minority government, all parties agreed to extend that arrangement to the House of Representatives. It was all very decent, and designed to ensure that government could function. At the time, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stated he would ‘honour the agreement’, that he ‘made the agreement in good faith and will keep to the agreement’.

It’s a shame, really, that the agreement was threatened on the opening day of the 43rd Parliament. Two government ministers – Regional and Arts Minister Simon Crean and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor – were refused pairs. In O’Connor’s case, that would have prevented him from attending the National Police Remembrance Day services, a grave insult to law enforcement.

At the eleventh hour, after considerable pressure from media, the public and (reportedly) their own back bench, the Opposition relented and granted the pairs. Since that time, pairs have been routinely granted. In fact, it looked like the whole incident might simply have been a case of the Opposition testing the waters.

But wait.

Earlier this week Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced that he would no longer grant the government a ‘pair’ under any circumstances during the upcoming debate over carbon price legislation. His objective was clear: to force the government to either delay the debate or to renege on its responsibilities to the country. No more appearances at the Press Club. No opening ceremonies for the NBN. No overseas trips to G20 conferences. In other words, to make government unworkable.

Ultimately, of course, Abbott’s aim is to have the government throw up its hands and consign the legislation to the ‘too hard’ basket. But perhaps it’s simply sabre-rattling, another shot across the bow like last year.

This time, though, the Opposition has already made good on its threat – and it’s worth nothing that this happened before any debate on carbon price legislation even started.

Crean was a victim again. He was granted a pair so that he and Malcolm Turnbull could attend the funeral of artist Margaret Olley AC, who died last month. The arrangement was made some time ago, in writing. Today the Opposition withdrew from that agreement.

It was a direct insult to Olley’s family, and to her memorial. As Leader of the House Anthony Albanese commented, ‘It was appropriate that the Australian government be represented … [and there is] no one more important than the Arts Minister to do so’. Not that this apparently mattered to the Opposition.

As if that wasn’t enough, Abbott also withdrew a previously granted pair from the Prime Minister. She was scheduled to meet today with the visiting President of the Seychelles. Protocol for these matters demanded her attendance, and as a result she had no choice but to be absent from the chamber and missed a vote.

And about that vote …

In recent days Member for Dobell Craig Thomson has come under fire from the Opposition over a convoluted series of events involving a mobile phone, one (or possibly more) escort agencies, a defamation suit and a legal defence fund. Basically, the accusations boil down to this: that Thomson, while working for the Health Services Union, misused his corporate credit card to splurge on sex workers, sued Fairfax newspapers for defamation about it and ran up such a huge legal bill that he needed the Labor Party to bail him out just so that he could avoid bankruptcy and stay in Parliament.

Never mind that Thomson is not charged with any offence. Never mind that the HSU isn’t looking to recover funds. Never mind, in fact, that Thomson has always claimed that others had access to both the credit card and the mobile phone in question. The Opposition think they smell blood in the water, and want Thomson gone so they can force a by-election.

Much of the pressure has come under the umbrella of Parliamentary privilege, which means that Thomson can’t stop the Opposition from stating as fact what amounts to little more than conjecture. Neither can the Prime Minister prevent the now-constant insinuations that she knew what was going on and may even have colluded in some wrongdoing. But that’s not all – Senator George Brandis, apparently acting in his capacity as Shadow Attorney-General, wrote to the New South Wales police urging them to open an investigation. He seemed disgruntled by the news that the Australian Federal Police had already said there was no grounds for such an inquiry.

Yesterday the NSW police said they’d assess whether it was worth opening an investigation. This is pretty much standard procedure when they receive a complaint. That didn’t stop Abbott claiming in Parliament that Thomson was ‘under investigation’, of course. Nor did it stop Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne from attempting to force Thomson to front Parliament and ‘explain himself’.

That was the vote that Gillard missed. Fortunately for the government, the Coalition failed to get an absolute majority of 76 votes, which is required for such procedural motions. Nonetheless, Pyne claimed a moral victory because more people had voted for the motion than against it.

(Sound familiar? Remember Abbott’s ‘moral victory’ at the 2010 election, otherwise known as ‘we got more seats than you’?)

It was an exercise in blatant hypocrisy. Under the Howard government, the Coalition repeatedly refused to force MPs and Senators whose behaviour was in question to explain themselves to Parliament. Famously, this included former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was saved from having to answer questions from all comers about his knowledge of the Australian Wheat Board Scandal.

Here are a couple of choice quotes:

Prime Minister John Howard, 2007: ‘The appropriate thing for me to do is to let the police investigation run its course’.

Senator George Brandis, 2007: ‘We’re entitled to the presumption of innocence.’

It seems that presumption doesn’t extend to a Labor Parliamentarian, however. Thomson has already been pressured to resign as Chair of the Economics Committee (although he is still a member), and the calls for him to resign from Parliament altogether are becoming increasingly shrill.

Meanwhile, Senator Mary Jo Fisher, currently the only Parliamentarian who is charged with a criminal offence, absented herself from her position as Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Communications, but retains it. That position earns her $12,000 per year.

She, however, has the full support of not just her party, but all sides of government:

Tony Abbott – ‘The party is right behind her and supporting her in this tough time.’

Senator Nick Xenophon – ‘The presumption of innocence is paramount.’

Anthony Albanese – ‘She’s entitled to that presumption of innocence.’

Craig Thomson, apparently, is not – at least according to the Coalition.

Really, it’s all about overthrowing the Labor government by any means necessary. If that means offering insult to visiting dignitaries or families of Australians, so be it. If it means hiding behind Parliamentary privilege in order to smear a man charged with no crime, that’s okay too. (But not, mind you, if it’s a case where the Coalition might lose any of its own Parliamentary influence.) The Department of Dirty Tricks is working overtime – and the tactics just get more and more questionable.

The Opposition have tried to excuse themselves at every turn, but the reality is that they have reneged on an agreement they signed in 2010, abused Parliamentary privilege and attempted to interfere with the work of the judiciary. Then there are the constant accusations of corruption in Treasury and the Solicitor-General’s Department.

Albanese commented today that Abbott appeared to think that the Lodge was his birthright.

It’s hard to disagree with that suggestion. And more and more, it seems that the Opposition isn’t going to let a little thing like democratic process get in the way of helping Abbott achieve his ambition.


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