Mythbusting the Vote

August 19, 2013

It’s less than three weeks to the Federal Election on September 7, so let’s take a step back from the campaigns to look at actual voting. In every election, there are misconceptions, half-truth and outright lies peddled by various groups, all designed to do one thing: convince you that your vote is only worth what they say it is.

That’s the first lie. Let’s bust the rest.

MYTH 1: I live in a safe seat. My vote won’t make any difference.

Political parties just love this one. The more they can convince voters that any given seat will remain in the hands of the current holder, the less work they have to do to keep those voters happy – and that gives them more time and money to campaign in marginal seats they might be in danger of losing. Prime Ministers and senior Ministers tend to hold ‘safe’ seats. Politicians tapped to be future leaders often move to a safe seat held by a party member who might be about to retire. It’s all very organised and stable.

Except when it isn’t. Safe seats may well be anything but. Usually, a seat would be considered safe if, at the previous election, the candidate won with 60% or more of the vote. At the 2007 election, however, a shock result saw Prime Minister John Howard lose his seat in a massive swing to Labor novice Maxine McKew. Howard became only the second sitting Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his seat (the first being Stanley Bruce in 1929). And in this year’s election, there are seats held with margins of over 12% that are considered ‘in play’.

When it comes to your vote, then, questions of ‘safe’ and ‘marginal’ are somewhat less meaningful than perhaps they used to be. It’s possible to overturn a safe seat with only a handful of votes. One of those could be yours.

MYTH 2: It doesn’t matter how I number my House of Representatives ballot, as long as I mark the party I want as number one.

This is a common mistake. The green House of Reps ballot requires you to number all boxes, and often people feel that they only need to focus on which candidate they designate as their first preference. As a result, they simply number the remaining positions straight down the paper.

Preferences determine the outcome of most marginal seats. That could mean a result that at first seems unlikely. For example, a Greens candidate ahead in first preference votes could well be defeated after second preferences were counted, if most of those preferences were for one of the major parties. The way you organise your preferences ensures you have the greatest possible influence on the outcome.

MYTH 3: A vote for a minor party or Independent is just a waste.

Oh dear. Another great piece of misinformation from the major parties – and one you’re likely to hear as you front up at the polling booth. The argument goes like this:

1. Minor parties/Independents don’t get elected.
2. You want to make sure your vote counts, don’t you?
3. You should cast your vote for a party that will get elected.

It’s all based on that first premise – which is rubbish. You only have to look at the Parliament just gone to see that. In the Lower House, we had four Independents and a Greens MP. In the Senate, there were 9 Greens, 1 DLP and 1 Independent. The make-up of that Parliament meant that the government of the day was required to be far more open to negotiation than previous, two-party situations.

There’s no clearer illustration that a vote for minor parties or Independents can be extremely effective.

MYTH 4: Electing someone from a minor party or an Independent will lead to a Parliament that doesn’t work.

You’ve heard this one from the Coalition, both in and out of Parliament’s chambers. Peppered with wonderfully ridiculous terms like ‘shambolic’, ‘unworkable’, ‘held hostage’, the Opposition did its level best to paint the 43rd Parliament, and particularly the minority government under Labor, as utterly useless.

Of course, it’s nonsense. That Parliament passed hundreds of pieces of legislation, including major reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, carbon pricing, and the Better Schools program. Additionally, it implemented a number of reforms to the way Parliaments conduct their business – streamlining Question Time, briefing minor party and Independent MPs and giving them access to Treasury for costings being only a few.

As for the notion that the Parliament was ‘held hostage’ – again, this is entirely down to a Coalition attempt to damage the Labor government. The idea there was to convince voters that Labor was somehow so beholden to the Greens that it would betray its own base just to hang onto power.

The minority government worked, whether people (or the Coalition) liked it or not. There’s no reason to think that another minority government would be any different.

Oh, and since Liberal leader Tony Abbott never bothers to remind voters – any Coalition government has also been a minority government, comprising the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Country Liberal Party, and the Liberal National Party. Those governments functioned – and, presumably, Mr Abbott thinks any future Coalition minority governments would do so again.

MYTH 5: It doesn’t make any difference if I vote above or below the line in the Senate, so I might as well save myself some time.

Oh, where to start with this one?

How can I put this simply? IT MATTERS.

Now, it can be an utter pain to fill in every little box, making sure that you haven’t doubled up or skipped a number. If you live in Victoria, this election is likely to be particularly onerous for you. But don’t be tempted to simply stick a number above the line and be done with it.

Why? Because once you do that, you’ve given your vote away to that party. And while you may think that party represents your views, what about those to whom it’s directed preferences? Do you even know who those parties or individuals are, for that matter?

It’s not too hard to find out the preferences for each Senate ticket – all the information is clearly available on the Australian Electoral Commission website. And there are a few unpleasant surprises when you do look. For a start, some tickets in Victoria didn’t even lodge their preferences with the AEC – so you have no way of knowing what would happen if you did simply hand over your vote.

Then there’s the issue of the Wikileaks Party. Broadly considered sympathetic to Left-leaning parties, the WLP was expected to direct preferences to the Greens – and, allegedly, had indicated that it would do so. Instead, it preferenced the extreme Right-wing Australia First Party in New South Wales; and in Western Australia, preferenced the National Party above the Greens.

WLP supporters demanded an explanation, and were told that the NSW preferences came about as the result of an ‘administrative error’.

There are no clearer illustrations of the need to know where your preferred party directs its preferences, and of the need to vote below the line in the Senate. To put it bluntly, it’s the only way your vote can be truly representative.

Thankfully, there are some very clever people out there at Below the Line. They’ve collected the ballot positions and full tickets for all seats and both Houses, and are in the process of setting up their ballot editors. You can find out who’s running in your electorate or State, organise your voting preferences with these editors and print those out on a sheet to take with you into the polling booth. Yes, you still have to write down a lot of numbers, but the majority of the work is already done.

CONCLUSION: So there you have it. Five myths, all easily busted. If you’re skeptical about politicians when they talk about policy, then it’s worth extending that to anything they say about voting. The vote is your power – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


One last ‘Order!’ for Harry

November 24, 2011

To some extent, we’ve come to expect ambushes from our Parliament under the minority government. Maybe it’s Opposition Leader Tony Abbott trying for yet another censure, or an Independent suddenly announcing ‘no deal’ on legislation unless certain conditions are met. Regardless, we know that there are some constants. One is the utter lack of anything resembling a non-party line from the major parties. The other is the presence of the Speaker, who gets dragged to the Chair when a new Parliament opens, and stays there until the next one begins.

All that changed today when Harry Jenkins, Member for Scullin, dropped a bombshell. He announced that he after 1387 days, he would step down as Speaker, effective immediately.

He explained that while he had done his best to uphold the Speaker’s traditional neutrality, distancing himself from party matters in this minority government situation, he had become ‘progressively frustrated at this structure’. He wanted to engage in Parliamentary and policy debate, and therefore his resignation was necessary. Without further elaboration as to his reasons, Harry – as he is affectionately called by thousands of Twitter fans and political wonks both amateur and professional – simply thanked his staff and the Clerks, not forgetting to tip a nod to his ‘trouble and strife’, Michelle, in the gallery.

Clearly caught unawares, Abbott was nonetheless quick on his feet. As might be expected, he praised Harry’s service to the Parliament – but apparently, he couldn’t resist the temptation to make a few political remarks. He commented no less than three times in his very short speech how unexpected it all was, how ‘out of the blue’. Not content with that, he then surmised that there must be ‘extraordinary’ things happening in the Labor Party for this to happen – and there was no mistaking the smirk on his face.

For her part, Gillard withheld her remarks until later today. It’s expected she’ll make a formal speech thanking Harry at the start of Question Time, for maximum broadcast coverage.

Harry was appointed Speaker after the 2010 election. Unusually, he’s become one of the most recognisable figures in Parliament – second only to party leaders and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

It’s often said lately that Question Time bears more resemblance to the playground than to halls of statecraft. It’s also often said that without Harry, there would be nothing to stop it degenerating into utter chaos. Harry’s trademark bellow of ‘Order!’ (usually rendered ‘Orrr-daaahhhhh!’in text) came to define him as a man struggling to maintain some semblance of civilised discourse among an increasingly rowdy rabble of politicians.

Any Speaker faces the charge of partisanship, but in Harry’s time in the Chair, it seemed that he erred on the side of caution. Although quick to wield the notorious phrase, ‘The Member will leave the chamber for one hour under 94A’ to those who persistently bucked his authority, Harry was as likely to pull up the Prime Minister for blatant irrelevance as he was Education Shadow Christopher Pyne for arguing a point of order. There were also times when the Opposition Leader blatantly defied the Chair, and engaged in both disruptive and unParliamentary conduct – Harry, respecting the office, declined to do more than issue an informal admonishment.

Although Harry stated his reason for leaving was a wish to engage in Parliamentary process, one can’t help but wonder how far his ‘frustration’ was a product of his daily battle to maintain order. Back in June, defiance of his ruling set the House careering towards a Parliamentary crisis, averted only when Members realised that their behaviour might disrupt their own tenuous positions. Given incidents like this, along with persistent arguments, tantrums at the despatch box and ratbag behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated in a primary school, it’s likely no one would blame him if he’d resigned long before now.

As tweeter @Riotcub commented: ‘Unexpected resignation? Not to anyone who has watched QT. I’ve been waiting for Harry to say “fuck y’all” for a while.’

With his resignation, Deputy Speaker Peter Slipper takes on the primary role. His situation bears scrutiny; a former member of the National Party, he defected to the Queensland Liberal National Party in 1987. His seat of Fisher is currently under pressure, with the party considering holding early pre-selection votes as punishment for Slipper inviting long-time friend Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to his electorate. Former Howard government Minister Mal Brough, announced he was prepared to challenge Slipper for the seat. If an early pre-selection is called, Slipper’s remarks on the subject indicate he would seriously consider resigning from the LNP and moving to the cross-benches. From that position, he could comfortably take the Chair and weaken the Opposition’s ability to influence Parliament.

With Slipper in the Chair, and the government holding a 76-73 majority, we could expect to see poker machine legislation and possibly the proposed changes to the Migration Act introduced into the House.

Labor went into caucus, joined by Harry for the first time since the election. By contrast, Peter Slipper was noticeable by his absence from the Coalition party room.

The government has already indicated it would select Slipper as the new Speaker, and Slipper is apparently prepared to take up the role. Abbott immediately responded that no Coalition MP would endorse that selection, which would put the matter in the hands of Adam Bandt and the Independents.

In his media conference, Abbott tried hard to turn Harry’s resignation into a cheap political stunt ‘to shore up its numbers’. ‘This is a government that lost its way, then it lost its majority, and now it’s lost its Speaker’, he said, invoking the spectre of the Whitlam dismissal to bolster his doomsaying. He followed that up with the incorrect assertion that it was the government’s responsibility to provide a Speaker from its own ranks, or it should expect to lose office.

He then made it clear that ‘anyone’ from the Coalition who accepted the Speakership would be expected to immediately resign. Not once would he mention Peter Slipper by name, and even claimed to have ‘not looked for him’ in the party room. The ostracism has already begun – and Abbott’s actions will almost certainly drive Slipper to the cross-benches. And if that happens, the Opposition Leader will have placed his own party in a weakened state with clear evidence of division, no matter how loudly he thunders about ‘a government in crisis’ and ‘a bad day for democracy’.

In all the political wrangling, however, let’s not lose sight of Harry’s contribution as Speaker. He did an oustanding job in a thankless role, and put up with harassment, defiance and outright abuse. Abbott’s attempt to sully his decision to resign should not detract from Harry’s service or from his integrity.

Harry concluded his resignation speech with ‘I go placidly with my humour intact’. As last words go, those would have been particularly good. But there was one last moment that was pure Harry.

As the applause swelled and MPs stood to acknowledge him, Harry bellowed one last cry of ‘Order!’

UPDATE:

As expected, Peter Slipper is the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. Anna Burke, Labor Member for Chisholm, is the new Deputy.

Mind you, this result didn’t come about until after a good 30 minutes of utter farce. After Slipper was nominated, Pyne rose nine times to nominate Labor backbenchers for the position. His speeches for each nomination were little more than cut-and-paste jobs – Labor is trashing the Westminster tradition, the Member for X is honourable and capable, why would Labor overlook the Member for X, etc. Really, he might as well have simply stood and said, ‘I nominate the Member for X – ditto’.

Each Labor nominee, unsurprisingly, declined.

Finally, an exasperated Tony Windsor nominated Christopher Pyne – ‘because it might be the only way we get him to shut up’. Pyne reacted with red-faced fury, accusing Windsor of turning the Parliament into ‘high farce’.

High farce, Mr Pyne? Your Question Time performances certainly qualify as that. Your ridiculous chorus line of nominations qualifies as that. Your Party’s incessant censure motions, your constant bleating that democracy is dead, your currying favour with extremist groups and riot-inciting shock-jocks not only make Parliamentary process a farce, but show absolute contempt for the very traditions you claim to hold so dear.

In a final show of petulance, the Opposition refused to applaud Slipper’s elevation to Speaker, turned their backs and began talking loudly as he was dragged to the Chair (in the best Westminster tradition). A few deigned to notice him – they shouted ‘Shame on you!’

If anyone should feel shame today, it is the members of the Opposition. The government outplayed them, and they did not even have the good grace to congratulate the new Speaker – the man they expelled from their own party because he dared to accept a role of considerable responsibility that demands integrity.

Many warm words were said in praise of Harry immediately afterwards – but no doubt, what makes the evening news will be the spectacle of Pyne’s parade of nominations, and his sputtering rage when Windsor called him out for making a fool of himself and wasting the Parliament’s – and the country’s – time.

And the farce isn’t over. Question Time has just started. Pyne’s first question (or rather, accusation)? ‘We know you did secret deals to make Harry resign, admit it!’

And Tony Abbott, predictably, has just called for a censure.

Same old, same old.


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.


Fair game: the Opposition’s sustained attack on the public service

August 4, 2011

Last night, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared on Lateline. Among other things, that interview touched on the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ plan to tackle climate change. This is a policy that’s been held up as a viable alternative to the government’s carbon pricing scheme announced a few weeks ago – both cheaper to implement, and less damaging to household budgets. Tony Jones zeroed in on a problem with the figures, though – for all the Opposition’s claims, the Department of Climate Change identified that the policy would cost the average Australian household around $720 per year, with no compensation such as is planned under the carbon price.

Hockey’s response? You can’t trust that Department’s figures. They get things wrong.

But then there’s this:

TONY JONES: But are you saying they’re putting out false figures about your direct action plan?

JOE HOCKEY: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

That’s a serious accusation right there. Hockey didn’t equivocate, or use any weasel words – he flat out accused the Department of Climate Change of deliberately falsifying their figures for the sole purpose of discrediting the Opposition.

Sound familiar? It should.

Remember back around the time of the election, when the Coalition dodged the question of getting their election promises costed by Treasury? Their stated reason for doing so was that Treasury couldn’t be trusted to do it right, or do it fairly. Back then, the accusations flew thick and fast. Treasury was ‘incompetent’. Treasury was ‘corrupt’. In essence, the Coalition did their level best to convince the public that the Treasury was little more than a political agent for Labor, willing to stoop to any level to keep them in power.

Remember Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb? At the time, he blustered that ‘It could mean that they [Labor] steal an election through the actions of a criminal act. We are not going to be patsies and be played off a break by people who are engaged in criminal activities to create a political problem for us’.

Then there was Opposition Leader Abbott’s sledge at the Solicitor-General. Upon hearing that the proposed minority government arrangement was all in order, Abbott did more than just hint that the Solicitor-General might well be both incompetent and corrupt. Again, the message was clear: that department is part of the public service, and – just like Treasury – should be viewed with at least a measure of suspicion.

Now, it seems, it’s the turn of Climate Change.

Understand, the Opposition are not talking about government ministers here. They’re not out there attacking Greg Combet or Robert McLelland. They’re saying that the Departments are engaging in corrupt and criminal acts – essentially, that major areas of the Public Service are so compromised by some kind of partisan loyalty to the Australian Labor Party that they simply can’t be trusted.

These are not party political organisations. They’re staffed by people who, in some cases, have held their jobs under successive governments from both major parties. To listen to the Coalition, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking these Departments do little more than give jobs to Labor’s mates.

As I said before, these are serious accusations – the kind that need to be backed up by strong evidence. If proven, there would have to be criminal proceedings, and that could potentially see the government – and the country – undermined at its very foundations. So what is the evidence?

The Coalition says so.

That’s right. They’ve offered no proof of falsified figures. They’ve secured no sworn confessions of wrongdoing. There are no memos discussing how best to help the government attack the Opposition. Just unsubstantiated bluster delivered in ringing tones of condemnation.

This is nothing more than the continuation of a smear campaign that started around the time of the election. It’s designed to deflect attention from shaky policy that doesn’t stand up under rigorous scrutiny. By casting doubt on the organisations whose job it is to catch these sorts of errors and omissions, the Coalition hopes to effectively get waved through the gate without a ticket.

It’s also designed to take advantage of a particular gap in most people’s education. We learn at school about how our government works, or at least we can grasp the basics. You vote, a party gets elected, and the one that doesn’t get in make up the Opposition. Then the government makes laws. What we don’t often learn about is the massive bureaucracy that ensures government can work at all. We see the Minister at the head of those Departments on the news, and we identify the organisation with the person. We don’t get told that Treasury, or Climate Change, or the Solicitor-General’s Department is made up of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the business of winning elections – people who are experts in their fields, administration assistants with long years of experiences, accountants, legal advisors, etc. When the Coalition accuses Treasury of participating in criminal acts, or Climate Change of deliberately falsifying numbers purely to discredit rival policies, they’re hoping that we won’t realise that.

The Coalition is apparently so committed to tearing down everything even remotely associated with this minority government that they consider these people’s good names to be expandable. Moreover, they apparently have a complete disregard for the personal consequences to the people they’re so merrily disparaging.

That’s not clever strategy – it’s a calculated, callous decision to do whatever it takes, and never mind the collateral damage.

The important thing is that we do realise it. The next time Abbott, or Hockey, or Robb stands up in front of a camera and accuses a Department of corrupt or criminal acts, keep it in mind. It’s not the standard political tactic of discrediting a policy by discrediting the Minister in charge. It’s an attack on hundreds of largely unknown people whose only crime is to be working in government administration under the current government.

Those people keep the country working. They deserve better.

So, Mr Abbott, Mr Robb, Mr Hockey – here’s your chance. If you have proof to back up your accusations, deliver it to the Australian Federal Police. Right now. Put up or shut up.

If you don’t, why don’t you take your own advice to Prime Minister Gillard? Go down to those Departments and personally visit every single employee there. Explain to them why you decided that destroying their reputations and their peace of mind was an acceptable part of your campaign to bring down the Gillard government with baseless accusations. Why you decided that they were fair game.

Then apologise to them. Individually. Sincerely. Unequivocally.

It’s the least you can do.


Tony Abbott, the boy who cried ‘Censure!’

June 16, 2011

Few would argue that under the current government, Question Time in the House of Representatives has become little more than a farce. Questions from the Opposition tend to be variations on the themes of ‘When will the government abandon its toxic carbon tax’ or ‘When will the government pick up the phone to the President of Nauru’. Add a liberal sprinkling of revisionist history on Building the Education Revolution, a soupcon of ‘you knifed Kevin Rudd’ and garnish liberally with transparent Dorothy Dixers designed to allow the government to verbally bash the Opposition – and you can just about write the script for each sitting day.

Then there’s the censure motions. Out of 28 sessions of Question Time, the Opposition has attempted to suspend standing orders preparatory to censuring the Prime Minister or the Treasurer no less than twelve times. It’s become so common that those who tune in each day to join the Twitter #qt conversation run a mock sweep on what time it will be before Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stands up to utter the familiar lines, ‘I move that so much of standing orders be suspended’. That group includes many members of the media who are physically present in the Canberra press gallery as well as independent journalists, teachers, lawyers, full-time parents, students and a host of others. It’s quite a remarkable cross-section.

There’s no doubt that these constant censure motions are a source of both hilarity and frustration for those watching. On the one hand, the predictable nature of it all is utterly absurd. On the other, however, it disrupts proceedings and wastes the Parliament’s time.

The motions to suspend are always defeated. Really, it comes across as an exercise in futility.

So why do they do it? Is it such a matter of deeply-held principle for the Opposition? Or is it – as many suspect – an opportunity for the Coalition to make long speeches accusing the government of everything from forgetfulness to incompetence to criminal behaviour – all protected by Parliamentary privilege. Factor in the daily Matters of Public Importance – where various Opposition speakers deliver long diatribes to a largely empty House – and it starts to look more and more as though the Coalition are just going with the theory that something repeated often enough eventually enters the public consciousness as truth.

It’s a clumsy ploy, to say the least. And it carries the very real risk that people will not believe, but rather ‘switch off’ as soon as they realise it’s being tried once again.

Today’s Question Time was a case in point.

At 2.25 pm, Abbott moved to suspend standing orders in order to censure the Prime Minister. The immediate reaction from those watching was confusion that he’d chosen to do it so early – usually, the motion happens just before 3 pm. That quickly gave way to the usual dissatisfaction and mockery from the Twitter gallery as the government benches emptied. The consensus could well be summed up as, ‘Meh, we’ve seen it all before’. We had indeed – out of three sessions this week, this was the second time Abbott employed this tactic.

There was one significant difference this time, though. Abbott was acting on a motion brought by Greens MP Adam Bandt earlier today:

That this House:

(1) condemns the Gillard Government’s deal with Malaysia that would see 800 asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters and sent to Malaysia; and

(2) calls on the Government to immediately abandon this proposal.

That motion passed 70-68, with the support of Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and KAP MP Bob Katter. A similar motion was passed by the Senate in May, making this the first time on Parliamentary record that both Houses had directly condemned the government. It wasn’t quite open revolt – such motions are not binding, but it was a very clear signal to the Prime Minister that she did not have the support of the Parliament on her Malaysia policy.

Her refusal to accede to the motion set up the conditions for a censure, and rightly so. Finally, Abbott had firm grounds. It was an opportunity not to be wasted – but waste it he did.

Unable to confine his argument to condemnation of the Malaysia plan, Abbott couldn’t resist extolling the virtues of Nauru. ‘There is a better way … Nauru is a humane solution! It’s cost-effective! There are no whipping posts in Nauru.’ It was the same argument the Coalition pushed all this week.

Julie Bishop, seconding the motion, was similarly unable to keep to the issue. She covered a wide range of subjects in accusatory tones: ‘She’s betrayed her leader … this arrogant Prime Minister looked down the barrel of a camera and said “There will be no carbon tax under a govt I lead”.’

The vote eventually saw the motion to suspend standing orders defeated – and the effective end of Question Time with less than half of its alloted 90 minutes/20 questions expired. All in all, it accomplished precisely nothing.

Abbott had strong grounds for a censure. He could have built an effective argument based on the Bandt motion alone, stressing the Parliament’s lack of support for a policy widely condemned as futile at best, inhumane at worst. He could have pointed out that a leader prepared to ignore the Parliament’s expressed will set a dangerous precedent. He could have appealed to everything from people’s sense of humanity to the need for democracy to be consultative.

He might have started that way – but he fell back on the same old formula – haul out every campaign slogan, every slur, every tired bit of rhetoric the Opposition has employed against this government. In so doing, he virtually assured it would fail – and he lost the support of any who might otherwise have put aside party loyalties.

Perhaps there was no chance that the censure could work. It would have taken the co-operation of all the Independents, Katter and Bandt to accomplish that. But the attempt was rightly made.

When the vote was defeated, someone on the Opposition benches called out, ‘A moral victory!’

It wasn’t. It was a wasted opportunity to properly criticise the government. And it was a wasted opportunity to gather public support for an issue with potentially dreadful consequences.

Abbott’s cried ‘Censure!’ so many times, and for such trivial reasons. People have come to expect that anything he says on the subject will be the same kind of noise, designed to do little more than get a few sound-bites into the evening news. Crudely put, it just looks like he wants the attention.

Now, at a time when a censure was not only appropriate but almost necessary, no one can be bothered to listen.

The Coalition have already made comments pointing the finger at Bandt, who did not support them on the motion to suspend standing orders. The implication is clear: Bandt doesn’t have the courage of his convictions when push comes to shove.

But really, Abbott’s got no one to blame but himself here. Gillard is free to defy the Parliament – because he couldn’t stop himself from crying ‘Wolf!’ once too often.


New paradigm or new paranoia?

September 29, 2010

Day Two of the 43rd Parliament, and the first Question Time. We might be living in the era of the Great New Paradigm, but it feels awfully like the Same Old Crap.

After yesterday refusing to give Simon Crean a pair to attend the National Press Club, the Opposition relented at 8.30pm last night. I’ve already mused on their possible reasons for doing so. At the time, I wondered if this was a shot across the bow from the Coalition. It seems that I might have been generous in that assessment.

Today in Question Time Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Home Affairs, revealed that he, too, had been refused a pairing arrangement. In this case, though, he wasn’t being denied an opportunity to speak to the media; O’Connor was supposed to attend National Police Remembrance Day services on behalf of the government. This day commemorates and honours all those members of law enforcement who have lost their lives in pursuit of their duty, so it would seem only reasonable that a senior Minister participate. Apparently, the Coalition didn’t agree.

O’Connor went on to note that, as with Crean, the Opposition changed its mind at the eleventh hour, enabling him to attend. Again – what was the point of denying the pairing in the first place? The Coalition only made itself look mean-spirited; the initial denial was a snub to law enforcement, and the backflip was patronising. What does it hope to achieve?

At the moment, all the Coalition has done is give the government ammunition. Every time it denies a pair, the government finds a way to bring that up in Question Time. It’s not even necessary to be nasty about it, either; the person at the despatch box only has to sweetly thank the Opposition for changing its mind, and the damage is done.

Is this really just a way to keep the government on the hop? Keep them guessing, never knowing when a pair might be granted or denied?

The problem of numbers in the House was dealt a further blow today when the Opposition reneged on another part of its parliamentary reform agreement. This concerned changing the standing orders to include ‘re-committing’ votes – that is, allowing a member who didn’t make it into the chamber in time through no fault of their own to cast their vote after the fact. In a delicately balanced House, this would go a long way to assuaging anxieties that an ill-timed trip to the bathroom might be the downfall of legislation.

Only five days ago, Christopher Pyne confirmed that he would honour that part of the agreement. He even indicated that the Opposition might be inclined to grant the right to re-commit in cases where ‘extreme carelessness’ was to blame.

Sounds like a great instance of co-operation, doesn’t it? But don’t get your hopes up.

Today, Pyne moved an amendment that turned a sensible, civil agreement into a potential walk of shame. Now, instead of automatically granting the right to re-commit, a debate will have to be held on whether standing orders can be suspended to allow the vote to be re-taken. The point of the debate is to force the hapless member who had missed the vote can be put through the wringer to justify their absence. This is potentially humiliating. It’s also another weapon in the Coalition’s arsenal. They can now force any member, right up to the PM, to answer a barrage of questions and effectively beg for the right to have their vote counted.

Pyne did this at a time when the government did not have all members present in the House – specifically, Tanya Plibersek was absent, probably through no fault of her own. The irony of using her absence to strike down the very reform designed to prevent such exploitation can surely not have been lost on either Pyne or Abbott – certainly not if their wide smiles were any indication.

So now we have a situation of extreme tension. Both sides will be trying to second-guess each other, to figure out when it might be all right to go to the bathroom, or make an important phone call. John Alexander, newly-elected Liberal Member for Bennelong, joked that it was lucky he was an athlete, since Parliament House was so large that he might not be able to make it to the chamber within four minutes (the time allocated for members to assemble for a vote).

It’s not all that funny, now.

So in the first two days of the new Parliament we’ve seen the Coalition renege on not one, but three parts of the reform agreement it signed in apparent good faith. They’ve refused to pair the Speaker. They’ve embarked on a campaign to create deep uncertainty regarding pairing in general (and I should point out here that pairing is a long-standing arrangement in the Parliament even without these reforms). Now they’ve refused to allow members to re-commit votes.

After the re-committal vote, someone on Twitter crowed, ‘Look out Joolya, here comes the no-confidence motions!’ (sic) Other responses were similarly smug – and even allowing for the vagaries of textual interpretation, the glee was unmistakable. Some of these tweets were from Coalition MPs. They were congratulating themselves for breaking their contract and destabilising the Parliament.

And the government is sinking to the same level. For all that the new Question Time was faster, less obviously argumentative and well-controlled by Speaker Harry Jenkins (who appears to have adopted a ‘Take No Crap’ attitude), the government still engaged in character assassination of the Opposition. Julia Gillard continually accused Tony Abbott of being a ‘wrecker’. Wayne Swan employed some surprisingly subtle insults, and even Kevin Rudd took the opportunity to poke the Opposition about asylum seekers when answering a question about floods in Pakistan.

About the best thing one could say about the new paradigm is that things happen faster, and that the Speaker is less inclined to grant license for personal attacks and antics. That doesn’t however, stop Julie Bishop hiding behind Parliamentary privilege while she attacks Gillard and mangles Shakespearean metaphors. (Dear? Lady Macbeth didn’t kill anyone.)

This isn’t a new paradigm. It’s a new paranoia, and every member of the House – especially on the government side – may well find themselves slipping into a state of hyper-vigilance as they constantly try to work out what’s coming next.

Finally, an annoying autobiographical pause: lately, I’ve faced a few accusations that I am not being ‘fair’ to the Coalition. In my defence, I will say that I am being absolutely fair. I quote where possible, provide references wherever possible, and invite any and all readers to check Hansard, watch or listen to Parliament themselves, and see whether I have misrepresented them.


The beginning of the end?

September 28, 2010

On this, the opening day of the 43rd Parliament of Australia, I’d like to pause for a moment, and extend my deepest sympathies to Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt on the death of their hopes for political goodwill and electoral responsibility.

It’s a sad tale. A Parliament, brimming with potential and enthusiasm, fired up with possibilities for reform, cut down before its time – really, it’s enough to bring a tear to the eye. Devastated mourners are everywhere, wailing, ‘It could have been so beautiful!’ Their voices are almost loud enough to drown out the embittered mutterings of those gathered in the corners – ‘We told you this would happen. You were foolish to get attached’.

Actually, it’s not a sad tale at all. It’s a shameful one.

First, the wholly undignified scramble to form government, in which we saw the Coalition alternately instruct, cajole and threaten the Independents. That episode also featured the birth of the ‘Labor-Green’ scare campaign, using a sadly out-of-date ‘Reds under the Bed’ playbook. The whole business was redeemed, though, when both major parties signed on to a raft of parliamentary reforms designed to streamline government business, give backbenchers a voice and encourage bipartisanship.

Then, when it looked like Rob Oakeshott might be a candidate for Speaker, the Coalition suddenly ‘discovered’ that some of the reforms to which they’d agreed might be ‘constitutionally questionable’. They ignored the fact that their own strategist, Grahame Morris, had suggested to Oakeshott that his appointment to the Chair might prevent deadlock or outright failure of Parliament. They dodged the question of why they’d signed on in the first place. They engaged their own ‘independent expert’ to test the constitutionality of the agreement to pair the Speaker – said expert being Senator George Brandis. Now, Brandis does happen to be a constitutional lawyer, but ‘independent’? Well, given that the Coalition’s choice of firm to test their election costings was associated with former Liberal WA Premier Charles Court, perhaps there is more than one definition of ‘independent’ out there.

The Solicitor-General was consulted. His verdict? Pairing the Speaker was no different to pairing any other two MPs – an informal ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ did not breach the constitution. Good news, right? But wait. The Coalition decided that the Solicitor-General was, in fact, wrong, and chose to believe Senator Brandis instead. On the basis of that, they withdrew their support for pairing arrangements.

You have to give them points for consistency, I suppose. First the Treasury, now the Solicitor-General – it seems the Coalition doesn’t trust any government department.

Faced with that, Oakeshott felt he had no choice but to back away from the idea of taking the Speaker’s Chair. Predictable political manoeuvring followed, and it seemed for a while that former Coalition Whip Alex Somlyay might step into the role of Deputy Speaker and agree to pairing – in direct defiance of his party’s position. He too, though, changed his mind, amid speculation that Tony Abbott had applied a great deal of pressure to get him to do so.

In the end, the Speakership fell to Harry Jenkins, reducing Labor’s nominal majority in the House to one seat. Now, given how vocal that Coalition had been in advocating his appointment, you might expect a degree of respect and goodwill. Not so. The traditional opening statement of the Prime Minister – containing a slap at the Coalition’s behaviour regarding the Speakership – was greeted with rowdy heckling and scornful laughter from the Opposition benches. The Opposition Leader’s reply contained remarks about the Speaker that went well beyond cheeky, and earned him a rebuke from the Chair.

We still don’t have a Deputy Speaker. The Nationals popped up and reminded their Coalition partners that, traditionally, the Deputy should be drawn from their ranks. The Liberals challenged Labor to nominate one of their own MPs, which would bring the House into parity. Labor sat back and watched the Coalition argue with itself, while Rob Oakeshott on QandA last night vehemently rejected the idea of taking the position himself. All indicators point to Bruce Scott of the Nationals, but with the way things have proceeded up to now, who knows?

In a few moments, the House will be officially open for business, and the Governor-General will announce the government’s agenda for this term. Usually, this is straightforward – but the Coalition have already fired their first official salvo in this ‘kindler, gentler polity’.

Simon Crean, the Minister for Regional Australia, is scheduled to appear at the National Press Club tomorrow afternoon. Customarily, when an MP or Senator appears at the Press Club, or undertakes official duties that require their absence from the Parliament, the opposing side agrees to a pairing arrangement. If any vote takes place during that time, someone from the other side of the House will sit out, maintaining the usual balance of seats.

The Coalition have refused to allow a pair for Simon Crean, should any votes be called tomorrow. This placed Crean in an untenable position. The government’s majority is fragile, and the absence of a single vote might be the difference between workable government and a slew of blocked legislation and no-confidence motions. Under those circumstances, Crean had no choice but to apologise to the Press Club.

The strategy is clear. The Coalition intends to hold the government to ransom. Effectively, they wish to control the movements of government ministers – and the Prime Minister herself. If this tactic of withholding pair arrangements continues (and there is no reason to think it will not), we may see Tanya Plibersek’s vote lost because she is not granted a pair when she is in labour. We may see the Foreign Minister shackled to a Canberra desk instead of attending G20 meetings. The Prime Minister could well find herself having to schedule her official duties and the legislative agenda based on the whim of the Opposition. This is pure obstruction, designed to frustrate the government and bring about a premature end to the 43rd Parliament.

This is not ‘robust debate’. This is not ‘ferocious opposition’. This is a blockade, a siege. It’s a more blatant version of the ‘Just Say No’ strategy employed by the Coalition during the last Parliament.

And it goes further than votes. With the Coalition threatening to withhold pairs, government ministers may find themselves unable to fulfil vital parts of their duties. The National Press Club Address isn’t just a nice lunch for the media – it’s broadcast live, and is a way for the public to hear their government representatives speak at length on their portfolios, and be questioned. Community Cabinets provide unprecedented access to Parliamentarians. Meetings with leaders of foreign countries, important trade talks, meetings with business – all of these now stand threatened.

Undoubtedly, some will now call for an early election, claiming the situation cannot be resolved satisfactorily. Perhaps that’s a Plan B for the Coalition – but I think Abbott’s words to his party room say more about its real goals. The Coalition want to force a situation in which they can win a vote of no-confidence. All they have to do is wait until Labor simply cannot cancel a couple of official engagements, and they will strike.

At that point, the Governor-General traditionally asks the Opposition if they can form government. The Coalition may be counting on the Independents’ desire to keep Parliament running at all costs, and expect them to support an overthrow of the Labor government. I think that’s an unreasonable expectation – Windsor and Oakeshott have already expressed their disgust at the Coalition’s tactics thus far, and Bandt is unlikely to support a party that has already ruled out any form of carbon pricing.

Which puts us back to an early election – and then watch the spin. The Coalition will claim they ‘had no choice’. The Labor government was ‘unworkable’ – they didn’t have a mandate, they had unreasonable expectations, the Coalition is the party of stable government, etc.

What they won’t say is the truth – that, from the moment they were denied government by the Independents, they have worked tirelessly to ensure that this Parliament cannot work. That they made a decision to deliberately destabilise government, hamstring the legislature and harm the nation, and ruthlessly set about accomplishing that aim – in short, to acquire executive power at any cost.

This is a dreadful prospect for Australia, and I have no doubt that there will be those who strive to prevent such an outcome. Those people – Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie and Tony Crook – deserve our absolute support, because they will be working for a higher goal than personal political power. They may be the only ones who can lift us out of this situation – and hopefully, they haven’t yet accepted the idea that the dream is dead.

And if the worst happens, and we do end up back at the polls? I can only hope that there will be enough voices reminding the public of just who was really responsible for putting us there – and that the electorate will respond accordingly.

UPDATE

Reports are now coming in that the Opposition has changed its mind, and will offer Crean a pair arrangement for tomorrow – but only because the booking with the Press Club had already been made. That immediately raises the question: why refuse the pair in the first place? It’s unclear as to whether this reversal is in response to loud criticism from Labor and some areas of the media, or whether it’s simply another tactic. This might well be the Coalition’s way of saying to Labor, ‘You depend on us for permission to act’ – a shot across the bow, so to speak – and making it clear that, next time, Labor might not be so lucky.


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