Waiting for tomorrow all of my life

July 1, 2011

So, it’s been a long time between posts. Part of that is due to illness and deadlines … but let’s be honest here. Most of it is simple disenchantment.

And that’s something I thought I’d never say about politics. I’ve lived, slept and breathed political issues and events for as long as I can remember. In fact, the whole reason for starting this blog was to communicate that love (the unkind might say, obsession) to others – because political engagement is important. It’s not a matter of turning up once every few years to tick a few boxes – or worse, simply voting ‘Mickey Mouse’ and then complaining until the next time that things haven’t got any better. It’s about doing something to shape your world.

But dear God, the current state of Federal politics is as bad as I’ve ever seen it.

It’s not like the wheels are falling off. Legislation’s been passed, resolutions made, the Budget funded. On the whole, government infrastructure is barrelling along merrily – pensions paid, building projects underway, the NBN rolling out. You only have to compare Australia to the United States to see that we’re far better off – after all, we’re not calling emergency Parliamentary sessions to try to raise our credit limit just to keep functioning.

But to hear the Opposition and the pundits talk, we’re one step away from social collapse and riots in the streets. The flood levy will take food from kiddies’ mouths! The mining tax will destroy our major primary industry! The carbon tax will cause the sky to fall and civilisation as we know it will no longer exist! Plain packaging on cigarettes takes away our freedom of choice and turns us into a nanny state! And let’s not forget the oft-repeated lie that any moment now, the Greens will seize the balance of power in the Senate and we’ll all be forced to go back to horse-and-cart travel and hand-grinding our wheat for bread.

The polls show that Tony Abbott is leading Julia Gillard by one per cent! More people want Kevin Rudd to be Prime Minister than Julia Gillard! The government is failing, and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But wait – Abbott will bring back WorkChoices, install notorious climate change denier (and some say, troll) Lord Monckton as his official science adviser and give the richest people in the country even more money while taxing the poor right out of their homes!

The Greens! The Greens will save us! But wait, incoming Senator Lee Rhiannon wants to destroy the coal industry. Bob Brown will drag us kicking and screaming to the altar of Marx! People will get gay married! Only an early election will save us! Only a plebiscite will save us!

The hysteria goes on … and on … and on.

And there’s only so long you can battle that sort of thing. You can speak out, you can write blogs, you can contact your local member or relevant Minister, hold protest rallies, but after a while it starts to feel that no one who’s in any position of power cares. Because the loudest voices are the ones with the most money, right?

The Minerals Council mounts a campaign to tell us that mining companies will be forced to close, leaving thousands out of work and whole towns bereft of the income they need to survive – while they close yet another deal guaranteed to bring them millions in selling coal for steel manufacture to China.

Big Tobacco waves lawsuits at the government to try to frighten them into dumping the idea for plain packaging while filing record profit statements and intimidating into silence people whose loved ones are dying because of their products.

The gambling industry lies through its teeth to panic venues and patrons into opposing any form of strategy that might mitigate the harm of problem gambling that is any stronger than a sign saying, ‘Don’t gamble too much’, also while recording huge profits.

GetUp puts out statement after statement, but sinks to the same level of attack and just looks amateurish and bolshy in comparison.

Pro-carbon price ads suffer from having dared to put a known face to the campaign – and the simple argument that ‘hey, this is a good thing’ comes across as ridiculously weak against the fear-filled rhetoric it tries to counter.

And then there are the election ads. Yes, not even a year after the last election, we already have to put up with the kind of rubbish that usually only litters our viewing in the run-up to a national vote. No substance, just clever-clever lines, half-truths and catchy phrases designed to bypass critical thought and stick in the mind.

Meanwhile, one in five Australians doesn’t want either Gillard or Abbott to lead the country. No one knows what to think. No one knows who to believe. Should we blame the minority government? The Independents? Surely things wouldn’t be this bad if we had a clear majority? To the polling booths! Let’s elect a government with a mandate! That’ll fix everything!

I wrote back in September last year that:

‘We have a government. We don’t have to endure another election campaign. The Independents and Adam Bandt have secured strong Parliamentary reforms that will change the way business is done in the House. Local members will find that their voices are louder, and more likely to be heard. We’ll see election advertising closely scrutinised, and some actual information communicated to the People via both advertising and Question Time in Parliament. We have a government committed to serving out a full term, and that will have to seek consensus to pursue its legislative agenda.

Whether you’re left- or right-leaning, this can only be a cause for celebration.’

How wrong I was.

Maybe things will change when the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate. Maybe the big reforms – carbon pricing, tertiary education, mental health, water, human rights, asylum seekers – will finally happen. Maybe we’ll even see Parliament itself get the shake-up we were promised – more substantive questions, less abuse of process and less outright bullshit being flung around in the name of scoring a couple of political points and maybe getting your head on the evening news.

Yeah, maybe things will be better tomorrow – but then, I’ve been waiting for tomorrow all of my life.

Crisis averted – for now

June 1, 2011

Question Time in the House of Representatives yesterday was anything but business as usual. For a few minutes, we teetered on the brink of a Parliamentary crisis.

It started when the level of rowdiness and generally un-Parliamentary conduct finally proved too much for Speaker Harry Jenkins. He issued a general warning to every member. Now, as he often reminds the House, if the Speaker formally warns someone, it’s the equivalent of telling them they have one strike left. Any further misbehaviour would see that member ‘named’ – and when that happens, the member can be suspended from the Parliament for 24 hours.

In a situation where one party has a clear majority, this is not such a dire prospect. When the numbers are as tight as they are in this Parliament, however, a 24 hour suspension might be the difference between winning and losing a vote. Every member knows this – and usually the warning is sufficient to pull them into line. Yesterday, however, Bob Baldwin (Liberal member for Patterson) apparently chose to risk it, and for his pains was formally named.

Anthony Albanese, Manager of Government Business, immediately moved that Baldwin be suspended. It should have been a pro forma vote; after all, the motion was merely designed to support the Speaker’s decision.

It wasn’t. The Opposition, effectively challenging the Speaker’s authority, called for a division. In the resulting vote, Independent MPs Bob Katter and Tony Windsor were conspicuous by their absence. My feeling is that they’d decided to unofficially pair themselves, thus having no effect on the eventual outcome (since Katter has generally sided with the Opposition on most votes, and Windsor with the government). The Greens’ Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie voted with the government. The real surprise, though, was Independent Rob Oakeshott. His was the deciding vote – and he voted against the Speaker.

By voting against him, the House had in essence declared that they had no confidence in him.

At that point, Jenkins announced that, following Question Time, he would ‘consider his position’ – in other words, that he might resign. You could see the shock on some members’ faces.

In doing so, he was following the example of Speaker Jim Cope, who resigned from the chair in 1975 after the government refused to support his decision to suspend Minister for Science and Consumer Affairs Clyde Cameron.

There’s no rule that compels a Speaker to do this, although it’s considered Parliamentary protocol. Jenkins could have simply continued with the business of the day. In declaring his intention to consider resigning, however, Jenkins was sending a message.

That message was clear; the current House consistently disrespects the Speaker. Anyone who’s listened to or watched Question Time will be familiar with Jenkins’ frequent cries of ‘Order!’ and the extent to which those instructions are ignored. Members, particularly those on Opposition benches, argue with many of his decisions. At times, four or five Opposition MPs have risen, one after the other, to challenge a single ruling.

In itself, questioning a ruling is not objectionable; when the challenges are simply repetitions of the original objection, however, it ceases to be anything but bullying. When that bullying goes on day after day, it’s scarcely a surprise to find that the Speaker might consider that the House has no confidence in him. And when his own ruling is overturned, that can only confirm such a suspicion.

Almost before Jenkins finished speaking, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott leaped to his feet and moved a motion of confidence. In speaking to that motion he was both eloquent and – unexpectedly – heartfelt. He didn’t quite acknowledge the Coalition’s role in bringing about this crisis, but he admitted that the minority government situation was difficult for everyone to navigate. Nonetheless, he had complete confidence in the Speaker. ‘Please, please, Mister Speaker, please do not take this as anything other than an example of the difficulties of this new paradigm’. In fact, he said ‘Please’ nearly half a dozen times, and each time it sounded genuine.

Gillard clearly had long to think about her answer, and didn’t shy away from making a political point in her speech. The government had always supported the Speaker, she argued. It was the Coalition that had voted against the motion to suspend Bob Baldwin.

Finally, Rob Oakeshott stood. He was unapologetic about his role in the vote, stressing that he would always consider the rights of a private member in such situations. In this he was at least consistent; he voted against a similar motion to suspend Christopher Pyne back on March 23rd). Nonetheless, he too supported the Speaker – ‘Don’t go,’ he said. ‘Don’t go, Mister Speaker’.

Jenkins finally called the vote, which passed unanimously without a division – and business resumed. A potential crisis was averted yesterday – but had the Speaker followed through and actually resigned, it could have been a very different story.

Remember, Labor holds government by the slimmest of margins – only two seats. One of those seats needed to be sacrificed to install Jenkins as Speaker, reducing their margin to 1, which is incredibly tenuous. Should the Independents decide to vote against the government, any given bill or motion can be defeated just as happened yesterday. If Jenkins stepped down, the government would return to its 2 vote margin – but a new Speaker would need to be immediately elected.

Logically, Deputy Speaker Peter Slipper would be next in line. He is a member of the Liberal Party, however – and if elected, the Opposition would have only 73 seats, making it much harder to defeat any government bills or pass their own. It’s fair to say that Abbott would probably resist any move to reduce his bargaining power.

When the Parliament was first formed, there was considerable speculation that Oakeshott would take the chair. If Jenkins stepped down, no doubt that speculation would resurface. His support for the government on crucial issues such as carbon pricing and the National Broadband Network is very solid – the loss of his vote could jeopardise these two initiatives. The same would be true of any other Independent.

It’s likely, then, that the government would be forced to fall back on another of their MPs, returning us to the situation we have now. But there’s always the possibility that both parties would simply engage in a staring contest, and hope that the other blinked first. And if neither did … well, we could end up back at the polls. Given Abbott is positively champing at the bit to fight another election – and you could be forgiven for thinking that’s what he’s been doing ever since the last one – Gillard would be crazy to let it go that far.

So for now, the crisis is over, and it’s back to business as usual – yelling across the chamber, trotting out the lies and distortions, and pushing talking points instead of answering question. The government avoids giving out any information, while the Opposition reverts to the same kind of rowdy, disrespectful behaviour that provoked the situation in the first place.

I’d like to think Abbott’s speech to the confidence motion was an indication that he realises the tenuousness of the situation, and the extent to which his Opposition has contributed to nearly plunging the Parliament into a potentially disastrous situation. I’d like to think everyone took a step back and re-evaluated their behaviour, and decided to put the country ahead of the opinion polls.

I’m watching Question Time now, though – and it’s like yesterday never happened. Christopher Pyne has already received a warning.

But it did. And it should not be allowed to pass out of people’s minds with the next day’s news cycle. Jenkins showed that he has a point beyond which he won’t be pushed. And perhaps next time, it won’t be resolved so quickly and easily.

The kind of spectacle that Question Time has become is neither desirable nor irreversible. Debate and challenge can be respectful and rational. It requires discipline, and a willingness to set aside opposition for opposition’s sake.

Our Parliament has been given another chance. It should make the most of it.

And the winner is …

September 7, 2010

Not who you might think.

Yes, Labor was given the numbers to form government today. With the support of Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, they now have the requisite minimum of 76 seats. )Bob Katter, earlier today, threw his support behind the Coalition, and made it clear that one of his reason for doing so was because Labor had ‘dumped’ Kevin Rudd.)

Gillard, predictably, was modest about Labor’s victory. Her speech revolved around the ‘new era’ of Parliament and her pledge to work for the good of the nation. She also extended a hand to the Coalition, inviting them to work in consensus with the government. The big surprise came when she confirmed that she has offered Rob Oakeshott a role as a Minister in her government, so that he could help bring about the promised Parliamentary reforms. (Oakeshott says he’s considering it.)

Before Tony Abbott could make his speech, we heard from Barnaby Joyce, who let fly with scathing criticism of the Independents. Oakeshott and Windsor had ‘betrayed’ their electorates, who clearly wanted a Coalition government, and they would pay for it at the next election. All in all, not a good look.

Abbott was gracious in defeat, but reminded everyone again that the Coalition had garnered more of the primary vote. He also didn’t waste any time in sledging Labor on their broadband policy, describing it as ‘school halls on steroids’ and ‘a minefield of waste and incompetence’. (I’m sure those are phrases we’ll hear repeated many times in the coming year.) This was remarkable, given that broadband had been a major factor in both Windsor and Oakeshott’s decision process. If Abbott was looking to build rapport with the Independents to aid the Coalition in their role as Opposition, this was definitely the wrong way to go about it.

Warren Truss, dismissive of what he called the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ of Labor and the Greens, sounded the Red Scare warning. He didn’t quite say that the new government was full of Socialists, but the implication was clear. He also made much of the fact that none of Labor’s cabinet lived in rural or regional Australia. Apparently, we are supposed to conclude that this means Labor can’t understand regional needs.

On Thursday the Coalition party room meets for a leadership challenge. Both Abbott and Julie Bishop confirmed that they would be standing for the positions of leader and deputy leader respectively. Speculation is running wild as to whether Malcolm Turnbull or Joe Hockey will challenge.

I said the winner isn’t who you think. The winner today isn’t Gillard. It isn’t Oakeshott, or Windsor.

We won. The people of Australia. There’s a lot of fear and anger flying around the airwaves right now. ‘We’re one by-election away from chaos’, ‘this government is too weak’, ‘we’ll be back to the polls inside six months’, ‘Abbott will just block everything’, ‘it’s a subversion of democracy’ – the sentiments are a more extreme version of what we’ve been seeing with increasing frequency as the days wore on. That fear is unwarranted – or at the very least, premature.

We have a government. We don’t have to endure another election campaign. The Independents and Adam Bandt have secured strong Parliamentary reforms that will change the way business is done in the House. Local members will find that their voices are louder, and more likely to be heard. We’ll see election advertising closely scrutinised, and some actual information communicated to the People via both advertising and Question Time in Parliament. We have a government committed to serving out a full term, and that will have to seek consensus to pursue its legislative agenda.

Whether you’re left- or right-leaning, this can only be a cause for celebration.

Don’t panic

September 6, 2010

In what’s looking a bit like a game of ‘Hard to Get’, the three country Independents are still not sure when they will make their decisions. Katter initially indicated that he would decide yesterday, but then made it known that it might not be until Tuesday. Windsor and Oakeshott agree on this, although Oakeshott even speculated that Wednesday wasn’t out of the question. Today, they’re talking again with the leaders of the major parties.

Surely they’ve made up their minds by now? What else can they possibly have to talk about?

Well, we don’t have any idea how they’re leaning, although that hasn’t dampened the speculation – and the condemnation. Here’s a sample – see if you can pick the pundits from the punters.

‘Sadly, the independents have apparently been sucked into the Labor Party orbit, taking advice from partisans such as Bruce Hawker and GetUp.’

‘ …the independents should not return this failed government.’

‘If there is a Liberal-National government formed, then that government will do its best to get those three out of office because they think that those seats belong to them.’

‘What a circus this is turning out to be. Windsor and Oakeshott are carrying on as if they have not made up their minds.’

‘Three formerly conservative Independent candidates, each humping baggage from their past affiliations get to choose the government. Three amigos? Three inflated egos more likely. If that is democracy, God help us.’

‘The longer this interregnum goes on, the more public sentiment skews towards another election.’

Those are some of the nicer comments. A quick tour around media websites and Twitter shows just how strongly people are prepared to put their views, however – lovely words like ‘farce,’ ‘power-mad’, ‘incompetent’, ‘insignificant’, ‘jumped-up’, and my personal favourite, ‘holding the country to ransom’.

It should be fairly clear by now that no one is going to hurry the Independents. That didn’t stop Abbott publishing an open letter in the Sunday Telegraph that can best be described as three-parts ‘the country is doomed if you back the Labor-Green alliance’, two-parts ‘the electorate has told you to back us, and besides, we like the bush’ and one-part ‘we love the bush so much that we’ll make it our priority in government’.

It was an extraordinarily clumsy move on Abbott’s part. It smacked of desperation – whether true or not, it gave the impression that Abbott was failing in his bid to form government. It also delivered a pretty hefty insult to the Independents. In going to the media to deliver his message, Abbott was turning up the pressure. Nothing in that letter needed to be taken to the public – it was clearly a signal to the Liberal/National base to turn up the heat. Supporters responded enthusiastically, bombarding comment columns with advice for the Independents that ranges from heartfelt pleas to strident commands.

Luckily, most of that appears to be water off a duck’s back as far as Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter are concerned, although Katter seems to be increasingly irritated by the whole process. And who can blame him? He’s got people calling him every hour, stopping him on the street, even following him to lunch dates, all wanting to know if he’s made up his mind yet.

Maybe they truly haven’t decided. Maybe they’re arguing details. Oakeshott hinted that there was a possibility one of them might need to consider changing his mind in order to vote as a bloc with the other two – which might well signal a split in the ranks. There’s no whiff of coercion, though – they seem to be genuinely committed to figuring out the best possible solution. Consensus politics in action.

There’s another factor here, though. Oakeshott drew up a list of parliamentary reforms, many of which parallel those requested by Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie – an independent Speaker, for example. Labor signed on, which was hardly surprising, given that they have already committed to substantial reforms. The Coalition has not yet done so – in fact, is balking at some of the proposals.

Oakeshott wants both parties to sign on. It’s the clearest indication yet that the Independents are really committed to parliamentary reform – they want a guarantee that no matter who gets to form government, the reforms will take place.

Glenn Milne is reporting today that there are mumblings favouring Gillard, although he is careful to stress that there are no firm indicators. Meanwhile, Gillard has announced a media conference for 4.20pm today.

With only about 48 hours left in the decision-making process, perhaps the task now is to stop second-guessing and pressuring the Independents, and start thinking about how the business of government is going to function for the next three years.

Whoever ends up in government is going to have to work closely with these Independents, and with Bandt and Wilkie. They won’t be able to rely on their numbers to push through legislation. Given the huge political divide between the major parties, and the flat refusal to even consider adopting each other’s policies, passing any new legislation is likely to rely on those five (possibly six, if Crook sticks to his avowed wish to be considered a cross-bencher) men.

It’s a matter for panic in some quarters. The fear-mongering ranges from speculation that the Independents might simply insist on lots of goodies for their own electorates, to assertions that they will cause irreparable economic damage with their narrow focus on the bush and their failure to understand ‘big picture’ issues. Far better that we go back to the polls now. (Of course, this last sentiment conveniently ignores the very real possibility that we would simply end up in the same place six weeks from now.)

A poll commissioned by a NSW lobby firm made the headlines today. Australians don’t want a hung Parliament, they want another election! We’re ‘fed up’, apparently. We’re ‘worried’. We ‘think it would be better’ if one of the major parties had a clear win. After all, who knows what these Independents could do? Can we trust them? Are they up to the challenge? It’s all too frightening. Let’s just pretend the election didn’t happen, and do it all again.

The optimism of the first week after the election has transformed into scared nostalgia, if you accept that poll. We’ve had a glimpse of the future, it suggests, and – to quote the movie Wayne’s World – ‘we fear change’.

Wait. Stop. Breathe.

Look at how these MPs have behaved so far. Every one of them has shown themselves to be principled, thoughtful, and concerned with the good of the country as a whole. Wilkie turned down $1 billion for his own electorate in order to secure an equitable arrangement for the nation. Bandt’s concerns range far outside the ‘traditional’ Greens focus on environmental issues. All five are absolutely committed to parliamentary reforms designed to redress imbalances in government and perhaps bring us back to a point where we are more concerned with getting things done than whether we can smear our opponents.

Hardly reason to panic, really.

Minority governments can work. They already do work in Australia. And where they don’t, it’s likely to be the fault of a major party that sees itself as disenfranchised, rather than of those who hold the balance of power.

So how about this – we all just unclench those white knuckles, take a deep breath and settle down.

Wilkie backs Labor for government

September 2, 2010

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.

Greens back Labor for government

September 1, 2010

The Greens have just announced that Adam Bandt will throw his support behind the Labor Party in its bid to form government.

This takes Labor’s seat total to 73, although Senator Bob Brown was careful to point out that this is not a formal coalition arrangement. Bandt will support Labor in any no confidence motion, and not vote to block the Budget. If we count Crook as supporting the LNP Coalition (although this is by no means certain), the count is tied up – again.

In order to get the Greens’ support, Labor has signed off on a long list of undertakings.

In the area of parliamentary reform, there will be:

* Restrictions on political donations, that would effectively undo the changes wrought by the Howard government.

* Introduction of legislation to ensure truth in political advertising.

* A leaders’ debates commission, presumably to prevent the sort of nonsense that went on in this campaign. These debates may well include the leader of the ‘third party’ – as it stands, of course, this would be the Greens.

* Two and a half hours for parliamentary debate on private members’ bills. This is a significant win; under the current system, the party Whips make all the decisions on how much time is allotted, including whether to allow debate at all. Obviously, then, any ‘unpopular’ bill can effectively be killed before it gets a decent hearing. We saw this happen to Senator Sarah Hanson-Young when she introduced a bill amending the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage in February this year.

* A ‘move’ towards fixed three-year terms. From the language, it’s clear that Labor has not agreed outright to support the idea, but at least it would be discussed.

* Establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Committee, accessible by all federally elected members. This committee appears to be an expansion of the Charter of Budget Honesty, in that it would have the ability to provide information and costings on all proposed programs.

* Treasury documents to be accessible to the Greens. This one is likely to cause alarm in some quarters.

Other undertakings include:

* A parliamentary debate on Australia’s role in the war in Afghanistan. Incumbent Defence Minister John Faulkner signalled his support for such a debate during the campaign, and it would become a reality under a new Labor government.

* A referendum on Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples as the first Australians. Both parties listed this in their election policy statements.

* The formation of a climate change committee, made up of elected representatives and experts on climate change. Brown stressed that membership was dependent on a belief in the reality of climate change and a commitment to a carbon price. The committee would investigate options and present its deliberations and recommendations to Parliament. This effectively replaces key parts of both Labor and Greens policy, including the highly-criticised ‘citizens’ assembly’ proposed by Labor during the campaign.

The glaring absence here is any undertaking on same-sex marriage. Asked about that, Brown confirmed that the matter was raised, but that no agreement could be reached.

Brown went on to say that, should the LNP Coalition form government, the Greens would not automatically take an obstructionist stance. He did state unequivocally, however, that his preference was for a Labor government, which he believed was more able to deliver both stable and effective good governance. He also absolutely ruled out any support for Temporary Protection Visas for asylum seekers – a stance that puts a major hole in the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy.

With Bandt now declared for Labor, pressure now falls even more heavily on the four Independents and Tony Crook. Andrew Wilkie has already stated that he is prepared to consider supporting neither major party, if he considers them incapable of forming good government. He may find that he has sidelined himself, however – if the three country Independents vote as a bloc, his support may well becoming meaningless.

Crook is playing it close to the chest. All we have from him is a stated wish to be considered a cross-bencher, and complete rejection of a mining tax.

As for the country Independents? Part of Bob Katter’s wish list appeared on the front page of the Townsville Bulletin. He’s asking for 10% of all mining royalties to be directed towards infrastructure in north Queensland, indigenous health funding, new dams and weirs for irrigation purposes, effective broadband for the bush, commitment to the CopperString power line project, and a ban on cheap imports of bananas.

The first deal has been struck, and now the horsetrading begins in earnest.

* * * * *

A postscript – the Coalition are already taking to the media attacking the Bandt-Labor deal, exactly as Bob Brown predicted. Scott Morrison, their spokesperson on immigration, slammed the Greens for not making asylum seeker issues part of their arrangement with Labor. He also referred to the ‘Labor-Greens Coalition’ several times, despite knowing full well that there is no formal coalition arrangement. This might be pure spin, a misguided attempt to panic the electorate and the Independents. The economy is in danger! The Greens want to destroy us all, and now Labor wants to help them!

It could also be an indicator. If the LNP Coalition really do see the Bandt-Labor deal as a formal alliance, perhaps that’s also how they view any pledged support to form government. In that case, Katter, Wilkie, Oakeshott, Windsor and Crook might well take that into consideration – none of them want to enter into a binding coalition, but Abbott’s government just might expect them to act as though they have.

Mandate, mandate, who’s got the mandate?

August 31, 2010


It’s an impressive word, isn’t it? Positively drips with authority. We’ve heard it bandied about quite a bit in this election by the two major parties. Abbott ‘has a mandate’ because the Coalition has a larger slice of the primary vote. Gillard ‘has a mandate’ because Labor is winning the two-party preferred vote. The Coalition has the mandate because the people rejected the mining tax. Labor has the mandate because the people want better broadband.

So it goes. But what does that actually mean? What the heck is a mandate anyway?

At its most basic, a mandate can be defined as ‘a command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative’. Seems clear enough. In this case, then, the ‘public issue’ is actually forming government. Also pretty straightforward – so figuring out who’s got the mandate should be easy, right?

Not if you read/listen to/watch the media. There are passionate arguments coming from both sides, and from all areas of the media. Most of these arguments sound rational – or at least plausible, which doesn’t help. Surely the party who got the most votes should govern? But wait – we have a preferential voting system, not first-past-the-post, so should all preferences should be factored into the final decision? The commentary goes round and round and it just gets more confusing.

The Coalition are particularly strident in their claims of a mandate. The reasoning behind it seems to be that if they say it long enough and loud enough, people will eventually realise they are ‘right’. Labor’s not getting left behind on the mandate rhetoric, either. That nearly brought them undone last night, when the Australian Electoral Commission suddenly changed the way it calculated the two-party preferred numbers, and the Coalition appeared to surge ahead.

The simple truth is this: there is no clear mandate to govern, and there won’t be – no matter which party eventually gets backed by the Independents, Green and WA National MPs. The reason? The Constitution is silent on the whole question. It doesn’t say which set of numbers indicates a mandate to form government if a majority of 50% +1 isn’t reached. As former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said last night on QandA, convention dictates that all things being equal, the current Prime Minister should make the first attempt, but that’s all it is – convention. State governments have wrestled with the question of minority governments, and the solutions have been as varied as the states themselves.

Bob Brown said it most succinctly – the party who can get the most numbers after negotiating with the minor parties and Independents will form government. That’s it.

So, whichever way this shakes down, neither the Coalition nor Labor will have any basis to claim they have a moral right bestowed upon them by the electorate. Not that this is likely to stop either of them. But it’s worth remembering. As a people, Australia did not deliver a clear mandate to anyone. No amount of number-crunching or finger-pointing is going to change that.

It’s fairly important that the major parties not be allowed to forget that, either. In a perfect world, this might be an opportunity for them to learn some humility. I’m not that optimistic, but I do hope that it will at least be an occasion for some party room soul-searching.

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