Win-win for Rudd

February 23, 2012

As expected, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has called a leadership ballot for Monday, citing a need to settle the issue ‘once and for all’. Rudd is still to declare whether he will contest that ballot, although it’s likely.

With that in mind, let’s examine some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Rudd loses with the support of more than a third of the caucus.

Result: Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem for Gillard. To have the support of two-thirds of the caucus should be conclusive. In fact, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott won his challenge against Malcolm Turnbull by only one vote, he spun the narrowest of victories as indicative of party unity.

There is a problem, though. Gillard’s supporters are out there talking down Rudd’s support as vanishingly small, well short of having enough numbers to even mount a challenge under party rules. If they are proved wrong, it raises the question of whether Rudd is a viable alternative to Gillard – perhaps not today, but soon. The Keating model. And once the question is raised, Rudd becomes a focus for discontent with Gillard.

Gillard tried to stave that off in her speech today by effectively challenging Rudd to a dare. She announced that if she lost – adding quickly that she did not expect that to happen – she would go to the back bench and promise never to challenge again, and called on Rudd to make a similar undertaking. Of course, that’s nonsensical. Any such undertaking isn’t worth the bytes it’s recorded on (oh dear, the old print metaphors really are the best). There are any number of get-out clauses, from the tried-and-true ‘I know I promised but people are begging me’ to the weak but difficult to refute ‘that was then, the world has changed’.

So she’s left with Rudd on the back bench as a credible alternative who’s free to speak his mind, not bound by the usual constraints on Ministers.

Scenario 2: Rudd loses comprehensively.

Result: This should spell the end of Rudd’s leadership ambitions. But again, he could employ the Keating model. This time, though, he keeps his head down. He publicly supports the government when called on to specifically do so, but looks pained about it. He reminds the media at every turn that he is a back bencher, and refers them to appropriate Ministers or to Gillard herself.

And, as in the previous scenario, he becomes a focus for discontent among back benchers. A leader ignores the possibility of a back bench revolt at their peril – after all, there are more of them than the Cabinet, many with personal axes to grind on behalf of their individual electorates.

Both of these scenarios presume that the Coalition wins the next election. On the strength of polling trends, this seems likely. Rudd losing a challenge now and going to the back bench sets him up as someone to lead Labor out of the electoral wilderness. He has a proven track record in winning elections – and not via the skin of his teeth, either.

Scenario 3: Rudd wins.

It’s an outside chance, at best. Although Centrebet reports that Rudd’s odds are shortening (no link provided, in the interests of avoiding spam trackbacks, but it’s easy enough to find), enough Labor figures have already declared support for Gillard to make it unlikely that he could snatch victory. But let’s look at it anyway – just for fun.

Obviously, there would be a huge sense of personal achievement for Rudd, not to mention a fair amount of ‘best served cold’ satisfaction. It might also bring disaffected, left-leaning voters back to the party – those who objected to the way Gillard became Prime Minister in the first place, or who reject her policy stances (which can be described as Centre Right at best). If Rudd bullies through his stated aims on party reform, constraining the power of the factions and unions, it removes a key plank from Abbott’s anti-Labor platform. And he just might squeak an election victory, if enough voters forgive him for the political manoeuvring he undertook to get back the top job.

Even if he doesn’t win the next election, he can argue to keep the leader’s job in Opposition, on the grounds that he needs time to consolidate reforms.

An outside chance, yes – but it has to be one he’s considered.

Scenario 4: Rudd does not challenge.

This is by far the least likely scenario. All the rhetoric suggests Rudd is positioning himself to contest the leadership on Monday – and possibly that he expects to lose, setting up the groundwork for a later challenge (at least, according to Labor strategist and Rudd backer Bruce Hawker). In the interests of completeness, though …

It’s a very, very dangerous strategy. Rudd risks looking like a coward, talking big about the need for good leadership and touting his own credentials, then not following through. He also risks having his supporters – both public and Parliamentary – turn on him.

On the other hand, if he’s clever enough, he can spin it. His speeches weren’t a job application – he was defending himself, and warning people of the need to work hard to (a) defeat Abbott and (b) come through the looming Eurozone financial crisis. It would take some brilliant speechifying – and while he’s capable of it, I think it’s too great a risk.

So there you have it.

But no matter what scenario ends up being played out, Rudd’s already won. He’s drawn out into the spotlight the venom with which Gillard’s supporters regard him. Steve Gibbons called him a ‘psychopath’. Simon Crean said he was a ‘prima donna’. Nicola Roxon advised us to get over the idea that he’s a ‘messiah’. And from Treasurer Wayne Swan (also Treasurer under Rudd) came an extraordinarily petulant spray that his media advisors clearly never saw until it was too late.

This morning, Rudd spoke about the damaging nature of those comments, how they showed disunity and helped only the Coalition. He urged those speaking out on his behalf not to be drawn into the same kind of personal comments, confined his remarks to policy decisions, and talked himself up rather than criticise of Gillard herself.

By contrast, Gillard – already under fire for not chastising her Cabinet and supporting Rudd as Foreign Minister – engaged in similar personal attacks this morning. She accused him of everything from deliberately sabotaging the 2010 election campaign to single-handedly paralysing the government through his ‘chaotic work patterns’ to responsibility for her government’s inability to communicate its agenda (something she’s previously ascribed solely to Abbott).

Rudd also gave credit to Gillard’s government for pushing through reforms – with the reminder that these were begun by his own government. Gillard characterised the Rudd government as entirely ineffectual, and claimed solely for herself those same reforms.

The language was clear. The contrast was clear. And yes, you can say that Rudd was talking in private, leaking to the media, undermining Gillard privately. Maybe he was. Politicians do that. Remember Gillard arguing against Rudd’s proposed pension increases? Remember the leaks against Rudd? And still, no one has yet come out and categorically stated that they were briefed in a de-stabilising campaign by Rudd, or named any followers who have allegedly done so.

Rudd’s not a white knight, by any means. He’s a slick political operator, as is Gillard. You only have to look at how they’re handling this issue. It’s a textbook in politics.

But Rudd’s the clear victor in one sense. He exposed the vicious side of Gillard’s team. He blindsided her by resigning from Cabinet without warning. He’s reminded people of why he became Labor leader, and why the Australian public elected him the first place.

And now he’s effectively barricaded against the media for around 24 hours. It does give Gillard a clear field – but it also means that the media will zero in on her wherever she goes. She already displayed her temper once this morning at a particularly insistent journalist.

You can bet the pressure won’t let up until Monday morning. And in the meantime, Rudd can monitor, strategise and assess the situation.

He may not have the numbers, but so far, he’s ahead on points.

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A sleazy new low for Abbott

September 8, 2011

Remember back in March, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wanted to address an anti-‘carbon tax’ rally on the Parliament House lawns? That was so important, apparently, that he felt it necessary to request a ‘pair’ from the government, in case a vote was called. Even though Abbott was effectively asking for freedom to slander the government and encourage hateful and violent sentiments, Labor granted him that pair. Thus secure in the knowledge that his absence wouldn’t upset any Coalition plans, Abbott hurried off to get himself married to the lynch mob.

The rally Tony Abbott couldn't miss

Fast forward to around three weeks ago, where Abbott declared that he would not grant pairs to the government during debate over the 13 bills that make up its Clean Energy Future package. He backed up the threat with immediate action, denying a pair to Arts Minister Simon Crean so that he could not attend the funeral of Margaret Olley AC, one of Australia’s great artists. This meant that his own colleague, Malcolm Turnbull, was also unable to attend the funeral. It was a particularly puzzling act – the absence of both Crean and Turnbull would have balanced the numbers anyway – unless you take into account that this was a shot across the bow.

Abbott quickly followed it up by denying the Prime Minister a pair so that she could meet a fellow head of state. In that case, Gillard had no choice but to risk that no vote would be called – it was that, or deliver an inexcusable snub to the President of the Seychelles.

Now it’s Craig Thomson’s turn. You probably remember him – during the last sitting of Parliament, the Opposition used Parliamentary privilege to consistently assert that Thomson was guilty of multiple acts of fraud, and incidentally employed sex workers (because a good ol’ morality campaign never goes astray). The New South Wales police, who looked into the matter after Opposition Senator George Brandis decided to make a few phone calls putting pressure on the state’s Police Minister, announced that it had insufficient evidence to even warrant launching a full investigation – let alone bring charges. Effectively, this means that Thomson has no case to answer, at least in NSW.

Not that this matters to the Opposition. Abbott declared that NSW had very high standards of proof that needed to be met in order to bring charges – so high, in fact, that even with all the ‘evidence’ that it had, it couldn’t go any further. Brandis chimed in with his own brand of spin, asserting there was prima facie evidence of Thomson’s guilt – though apparently the NSW police don’t agree. The message was clear – no let-up on Thomson in the near future.

But the Coalition may have undone themselves this time. As part of the ongoing campaign against the government in general, and Thomson in particular, Abbott has denied Thomson a pair in the upcoming session. ‘No way,’ Abbott said. ‘We have made it crystal clear that only in the most extraordinary circumstances will pairs be offered for the carbon tax vote.’

Well, that’s somewhat softer than his earlier ‘not under any circumstances’ stance. Which begs the question – for what apparently trivial reason has Thomson been denied a pair?

His wife is due to give birth soon.

Yes, you read that right. Attending the birth of your child, supporting your spouse in labour – that’s not enough reason to miss a vote in Parliament.

Remember, this is the man who asked for and received a pair merely in order to attend a violent, hate-filled rally in order to make a speech and get his photo taken in front of signs recommending Gillard burn in hell. It’s arguably ‘extraordinary’ – but more important than being there for the birth of your child?

Abbott prides himself on being a family man. Remember during the election, when he took every possible opportunity to sideswipe Gillard for being unmarried and childless? When his wife Margie accompanied him on the campaign trail, and his daughters sat in the audience during speeches to the faithful? And that’s without listing the numerous times he’s used his ‘Dad’ status to bolster his opinions on everything from abortion to same-sex marriage.

Yet he doesn’t consider the birth of another man’s child sufficiently ‘extraordinary’ to allow a pair.

Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne confirmed Abbott’s statement. He went further, claiming that it was up to the government to make sure it didn’t schedule any votes while Thomson was with his wife and new baby. This is nonsensical in the extreme. Debate and votes are usually scheduled in advance – is Pyne suggesting the government employ a psychic to determine when the birth will be? He also completely ignored the possibility that the Opposition might take advantage of numbers to attempt a suspension of standing orders to attempt a censure or throw the bills back into committee. In other words – what he said is simply meaningless.

Perhaps the Coalition thinks the baby should just wait until it can be squeezed into a packed schedule. After all, ‘the first duty of members of parliament is to be in the parliament when critical votes are taken,’ as Abbott said. Never mind his own record of sleeping through a crucial vote on the ETS under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, or Pyne’s own vote missed through bungled scheduling – a vote that was re-cast after the Coalition insisted it was ‘only fair’ that Pyne be allowed to record his vote anyway.

That baby has no business interfering with the business of Parliament, by the Coalition’s reasoning – and Thomson’s wife should really be more considerate about her timing.

This isn’t just petty politicking. It isn’t even simple, mean-spirited points-scoring. This is sleazy. Not content with smearing Thomson’s reputation from the safety of Parliament (and perhaps not coincidentally, suggesting that he’s a poor husband), Abbott has now attacked Thomson just for wanting to be with his wife when she’ll need him. Apparently Abbott doesn’t realise the contradiction there – he’s as happy to attack Thomson for being a supportive husband as for allegedly being a two-timing lowlife.

With any luck, this will backfire on the Opposition. Thomson was cleared by the NSW police – just pursuing him on that matter runs the risk of looking like a witch-hunt. Add to that the absolutely inexcusable refusal of a pair, and it rapidly takes on the odour of persecution.

It’s a serious misstep – there are few people who wouldn’t make an exception to business as usual for such an important family matter, and even diehard Coalition voters are likely to think Abbott’s gone too far. He needs to back down immediately; he can easily save face while doing so, say he’s consulted with his colleagues, made an exception in this one case, wax lyrical again about the importance of family – really, whatever works. But he needs to do it quickly before he poisons his unending election campaign irrevocably.

A frequent charge levelled by the Opposition is that the current government lacks ‘compassion’. They should scrap the ‘carbon tax’ to show compassion for the ‘forgotten families’. They should send asylum seekers to Nauru to show compassion. They should scrap the mining tax. Et cetera.

This is an opportunity for Abbott to walk his own walk. Grant Thomson a pair, apologise for even suggesting his family’s welfare should be sacrificed, and provide an example with which he can task the government on future occasions.

It’s a win-win, Mr Abbott. But something tells us you won’t see it that way.

UPDATE:

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey considerably softened the Coalition’s stance on the pairing issue this morning. Appearing on the Sunrise program, he informed Environment Minister Tony Burke that, ‘If you tell us when the vote will be I’m sure we will be very reasonable’. (Notice the attempt to make the Coalition’s sleazy tactics the fault of the government?)

Hockey added, ‘We are not going to deny a person the chance to be at the birth of his child’, which seems like a laudable sentiment. Unfortunately, at the same time Abbott was telling the Today Show that he supported Pyne’s comments from yesterday. Confusion in the ranks? Or Hockey caving in under pressure?

A moment ago, Sky News reported that Abbott has since refined his position. Apparently now it might be possible for Thomson to be granted ‘brief relief’ if his wife goes into labour. It’s not at all clear what that means, but it certainly suggests that Abbott would impose a time limit on any pairing granted. In that time limit, Thomson would have to travel from Parliament House to the airport, get a seat on a flight, fly to Sydney, and take a cab from Mascot Airport to the hospital. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to spend supporting his wife.

Presumably, it would be Mrs Thomson’s fault if her labour went longer than Abbott thought it should. Just like it’s the government’s ‘fault’ that the Coalition won’t grant him a pair.


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.


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.


Let Gillard be Gillard?

August 2, 2010

It could have been the singlest stupid remark made by a politician in this campaign.

As of today, we were going to see the ‘real’ Julia Gillard. Up to now, apparently, we’d only been seeing glimpses, because the ALP campaign was being run in an ‘orthodox’ manner – which is to say, scripted events, crafted speeches and hyper-awareness of possible gaffes. All that was about to change.

The politicians, the pundist, the media – and everyone else – seized on this with almost unholy glee. ‘Will the real Julia Gillard please stand up?’ asked Tony Abbott with his trademark ‘I’m-being-naughty’ smile. ‘Just how many Julias are there?’, ‘Who is the real Julia?’, ‘I’m Julia and so’s my wife!’ went through the Twitterverse and Facebook. ‘If we are going to see the real Julia now, who have we been seeing for the last two weeks?’

It’s an interesting question. Almost universally, both campaigns have been roundly criticised for being too cautious, too concerned with avoiding missteps. In a very real sense, it’s been a ‘race to the middle’ so far – the middle being a bland, uncommitted, slogan-laden series of carefully managed events with all the offensiveness of blancmange. And all the taste and texture, too.

Laurie Oakes, interviewing Abbott yesterday, pulled the Liberal leader up every time he uttered the Coalition’s ‘stop the waste … stop the boats’ slogan. Media have been counting the number of times Gillard said ‘Moving Forward’ in a single speech. After a while, you could almost hear the collective brain of the nation switching off as the spin started up.

That criticism, combined with polls that are now clearly showing a trend indicating a Coalition victory, obviously rang alarm bells somewhere in the Labor Party. The result? This morning Gillard came out against what she called ‘modern campaign orthodoxy’. She was ‘stepping up’ to show herself more fully to the Australian people.

So what does the ‘real’ Julia Gillard look like?

We got our first look at her in a speech and media conference held in the seat of Lindsay, where she announced changes to Family Tax Benefit and school governance. The event was certainly managed – not held out in a shopping centre, but at a school assembly. The speech was definitely scripted. But what about the media conference afterwards?

The first obvious change was the accent. Much has been made of the notion that Gillard worked hard to lose the ‘Western suburbs’ twang – but it was back this morning. Along with the accent came a tone we’ve rarely heard so far this campaign, and then only when Gillard appeared annoyed. Strident, forceful, a little bit nasal, a little bit grating – 100% Gillard.

The language was simple and strong. About the most jargon-laden comment to sneak in was ’empowering’ – although she did fall back on ‘deep and lasting community consensus’ when questioned on Labor’s climate change policy. Most of the time, she was talking at a level that could easily be understood by someone without specialised knowledge or a lifetime spent decoding pollie-speak.

And she didn’t hold back on her reactions, either. Asked if she had questioned the affordability of the new Family Tax Benefit promises – a clear attempt to trip her up on recent accusations that she opposed paid parental leave in Cabinet – her response was immediate and quelling: ‘You bet I did’. Was she even aware of Cabinet rules regarding the National Security Committee? She rolled her eyes and said, ‘I know some people want to make something out of this … Of course I’ve read the Cabinet rules’. She was blunt in her answers and scathing in her criticism of the Coalition.

The most telling moment, for me, came when someone asked if the Labor Party was going to change its position on same-sex marriage. Previously, we’ve heard a lot of spin about ‘Australian culture and tradition’ from Labor, coupled with a slightly apologetic tone. Today, Gillard was direct. The Marriage Act says ‘man and woman’, we’re not going to change that, but we’re committed to removing discrimination, here’s what we’ve done so far. No apology, no justification.

Now, her answer is completely unsatisfactory. It’s not even logically consistent, falling back on the Rudd government’s very weak argument that what’s already in the Act is the final word, and is somehow not discriminatory. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s complete rubbish. But it’s the way she answered it that I want to focus on here.

Gillard had to know that her party’s position is unpopular. Every poll conducted has shown that the majority of Australians believe that discrimination in marriage should be removed – is, in fact, long overdue. Abbott gets a bit of a pass on this issue – by far, Liberal voters are under-represented in that majority, and he can speak to his base without causing too many waves. Gillard’s situation, however, is far more problematic. She could have gone for the soft-pedal approach, attempting to excuse and justify the position with a lot of weasel words and spin. It wouldn’t have changed the substance of her answer, but it would have mollified some Labor voters listening out there.

She didn’t do that. She put it out there – like it or lump it, this is what we’re doing.

I don’t like it. I imagine many, many Australians won’t like it, either. But it’s something we haven’t seen a lot of in this campaign – a willingness to be unpopular.

And whether those positions are right or wrong, it’s refreshing not to have to struggle through the spin.

Simon Crean’s responses to media questions today have been similarly forceful and blunt. You could be forgiven for thinking that the old man of Labor was back. Likewise Jenny Macklin was having no truck with fancy speech and measured delivery – she sounded as though she was having a conversation in the supermarket, not fronting a media pack who had the power to shape her image for the nation.

And they all had the same look on their faces – a rather odd mix of determination and relief. It was as though, somewhere inside them, they’d reconciled warring voices. It was more than slightly reminiscent of a certain scene in the political drama The West Wing, when an incumbent President in trouble with the polls decides to stop worrying about offending people and be ‘real’.

In the television story, that strategy wins the White House. There are three more weeks to go in this Australian campaign. It remains to be seen whether the ‘real’ Gillard will show herself as consistently different from the groomed and well-managed leader of the early campaign – but if she does, it just might be the saving of Labor.


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