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 That episode also featured the birth of the ‘Labor-Green’ scare campaign, using a sadly out-of-date ‘Reds under the Bed’ playbook.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.


Mythbusting

September 9, 2010

An old teacher once told me, ‘Myths spread. After a while, people treat them as real facts. As time goes on, they become history.’

I’m not a fan of that idea. It might be fun to speculate about the possibility that there are alien spaceships held in a not-so-secret hangar in the middle of the Nevada desert, or that the Illuminati/New World Order/Elders of Zion control the world; but myths can also do damage if they go unchallenged.

This is especially true of political myths. Weapons of Mass Delusion, anyone?

So, with apologies to the Discovery Channel, Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman and the rest of the crew, here’s a little mythbusting about the recent election and our new government.

Myth No. 1: The Coalition won more seats at the election.

This is one of the arguments that the Coalition used – and is still using – to bolster its claims that it was the only legitimate choice for government. It won 73 seats, Labor only had 72. Unfortunately for them, it’s based on some creative tallying.

The final shake-down of seats saw Labor and the Liberal/National/CLP/NLP Coalition tied at 72 seats each. To get the extra seat, the Coalition assumed from the start that Tony Crook, the Western Australian National, was part of their alliance. This simply isn’t true.

Although Crook eventually declared that he would support a Coalition bid for government, he made it clear that once government was formed, he would act as a cross-bencher. In other words, he’s no different to Bandt, Wilkie, Windsor, Katter and Oakeshott. Each of them made a decision to support a particular party to form government – which extends to promising to pass the Budget and not to pass ‘frivolous’ no-confidence motions.

If the Coalition is going to insist that Crook must be counted in their final tally, then so too must the other five MPs. That leaves us at Labor – 76, Coalition – 74. If it acknowledges that Crook is a cross-bencher, the tally is 72 all. Either way, claims of a ‘right to form government’ made on the basis of seats won fails to favour the Coalition.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 2: The Coalition won more of the primary vote, so it effectively won the election.

The vagaries of Australia’s preferential voting system render this statement meaningless. We do not operate on a ‘first-past-the-post’ basis, as the UK does. Where there are multiple candidates, those with the lowest number of votes are eliminated, and their second preferences distributed among those remaining. And so on.

The primary vote is interesting, and statistically significant, but it doesn’t determine who wins. In fact, Kim Beazley’s Labor won both the primary and two-party preferred votes in 1998, but lost the election because the Coalition won more seats. It happens. It’s a quirk of the system – but that’s all.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 3: The Independents made up their mind ages ago, but Gillard gave them extra time to grandstand and screw over the Coalition.

This accusation surfaced yesterday, and is based on the fact that Governor-General Quentin Bryce was in residence at Yarralumla on Tuesday. What was she waiting for? How did she know to be around? She must have been tipped off – and the only way that could happen was if Gillard already knew she’d won.

What can I say? This one belongs in the wingnut file along with ‘we never landed on the Moon’ and ‘missiles hit the Twin Towers’. If there was anyone in Australia who didn’t know that Tuesday September 7 was Decision Day, they had to have been living under a rock. Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter had all said repeatedly that they would make the announcement. It would have been remarkable if the Governor-General hadn’t been on stand-by.

No conspiracy required here – just common sense.

Conclusion: BUSTED, MOCKED AND LAUGHED OUT OF THE BUILDING.

Myth No. 4: Australia is now being run by a Labor-Greens ‘rainbow’ alliance and will be the most Socialist government we have ever known.

Where to start with this one?

Well, firstly, there is no ‘alliance’. The agreement between Labor and Adam Bandt – which is freely available for anyone to read – extends to Supply and no-confidence motions only. Labor gave certain undertakings in order to secure this agreement, primarily in the area of parliamentary reform. At no point did the two parties agree to a formal Coalition, such as that which exists between the Liberal and National parties.

The Greens are under no obligation to vote with the government – and the government are under no obligation to support the Greens, should they put up bills that conflict with Labor’s policy agenda.

As for the argument that this will be the most Left-leaning government in Australian history? I pause for howls of derisive laughter. Labor has been moving to the Right for decades. It may have done away with WorkChoices, but it hasn’t done much else that could be considered even remotely ‘Left’ – it hasn’t restored power to the unions, significantly expanded public health care, implemented protectionist agricultural policies or re-instituted free education. In fact, it’s difficult to tell sometimes which is more Right-wing – Labor or the Coalition.

Having the Greens in close proximity to the government might well prove to be beneficial for the country. If nothing else, they have the ability to mitigate some of the more damaging conservative trends in contemporary politics. ‘Socialism’, however, is the boogeyman word. It elicits a response from many Australians worthy of Pavlov’s dogs. Rational thought ceases, and people salivate in fear at the thought that the ‘Reds’ are coming to take away our hard-earned middle-class prosperity. It doesn’t matter that generally, those who rant most loudly against Socialism don’t know what it is – they just know it’s ‘bad’. To quote The Princess Bride: ‘that word … I do not think it means what you think it means’.

Those banging the drum would do well to read Glen Worthington’s Research Note on Socialism. They might be surprised to learn just how much of Australian social policy has been shaped by Socialist ideas.

Conclusion: THOROUGHLY BUSTED.

Myth No. 5: ‘As sure as night follows day’, we will have a carbon tax from this new government.

Abbott trotted this one out during the campaign – sometimes several times a day. He seemed to think he was blowing the whistle on a secret conspiracy within the Labor Party and the Greens to dupe the Australian public into voting for them. Then, as soon as they were elected – WHAM! Unexpected carbon tax! Bankruptcy for all! We’ll have to huddle together in our Snuggies because we won’t be able to afford to heat our homes anymore.

His strategists should probably have bothered to do their research. Neither party ever any attempt to hide proposals for a price on carbon – whether an Emissions Trading Scheme or a carbon tax. One quick visit to their respective websites, or tuning in to a media conference, could have told them that. Sure, Gillard weaselled around with the ‘citizens’ assembly’ idea, but she never made any secret of the fact that Labor wanted a price on carbon.

Conclusion: TRUE, BUT WE KNEW THAT ANYWAY.

So there we are. That wasn’t terribly painful, was it? What’s worse, perhaps, is that it wasn’t terribly hard to find the answers – yet somehow, we hear those myths repeated every day. We’ve come to expect it from our politicians – even in this ‘kinder, gentler polity’ that Abbott promised us – but there’s no excuse for these myths to be mindless quoted in the media, and allowed to go unchallenged.

I’m hoping mythbusting won’t have to become a regular feature of The Conscience Vote; on the other hand, I think there’ll be quite a bit of mythmaking going on in the next few years.

If you notice a myth, or something you suspect is a myth, being repeated as fact – challenge it. Do some research. Let me know, and I’ll publish it here.

Above all – don’t let an unquestioned myth become history.


Greens back Labor for government

September 1, 2010

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

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

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

In the area of parliamentary reform, there will be:

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

* Introduction of legislation to ensure truth in political advertising.

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

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

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

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

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

Other undertakings include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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


Mandate, mandate, who’s got the mandate?

August 31, 2010

Mandate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Neither messiahs nor upstarts

August 30, 2010

The seat counting is all but finished, and it looks like shaking down into a dead heat between the major parties. Although the Coalition are still counting Tony Crook in their numbers, the new member for O’Connor has made it clear that he wants to be considered a cross-bench MP; given that, the Coalition can’t realistically claim to be leading the count. Even if Crook does decide, in the end, to side with them, the presence of Adam Bandt – who backs Labor – evens out the number again. That leaves us exactly where we thought we would be; looking to four Independent MPs to decide who forms government, perhaps by the end of this week. And of course, everyone has an opinion about that.

Some are delighted. To these people, this situation is a real opportunity to send a message to the major parties – you don’t get away with not listening to the people. All things are possible now, whether we’re talking about changing the rules for Question Time, more say for backbenchers or reining in election advertising. At the very least, we’ll see a change in the way things are done in Canberra. The Independents have a weighty responsibility, and are going about it in a sensible way. It’s up to the major parties to prove themselves capable of running a stable government.

But there’s also an interesting little vein of poison starting to run through public commentary as the days wear on. Who are these jumped-up backbenchers to decide our government, anyway? Most of us didn’t vote for them, after all. How can we be disenfranchised like that? Are our votes worth nothing? What they should be doing is obeying the will of the people and falling into line behind the Coalition. They’re ex-Nationals, after all, and what has Labor ever done for the bush? Why, even their own electorates want a Coalition rather than a Labor government. They should get off their high horses and stop grand-standing.

Reality check.

Katter, Oakeshott, Windsor and Wilkie are not our saviours. They will not ride into Canberra on white horses (although Katter just might, you never know) and sweep away decades of convention with the righteous light of their convictions. At best they could get a dialogue going on matters of parliamentary reform, and if the major parties decide to band together against them, they’d be reduced to voices crying in the wilderness. After all, look at how effortlessly the Greens have been defeated in the Senate, over and over, on the issue of same-sex marriage.

They’re also not a ‘message’ to anyone. The vagaries of the Australian political system put us in this situation, not some coordinated effort to spank the major parties. None of us went to the polls thinking, ‘Aha, with my vote I will make them have to beg humbly for government’. Some of us may have suspected that a hung Parliament was likely, but none of us were capable of orchestrating it. The result can certainly be read as Australia rejecting both major parties – or at least failing to convince more than half the country that they were worthy of our votes. The Coalition doesn’t believe that; they’re sticking to the line that the result is a resounding mandate for them to form government, and this Independent business is just an annoying hurdle to get over.

As for the discontented grumblings about disenfranchisement? We really should get over this idea that if the result isn’t something we like, we’ve been cheated. There are losers in every election; and yes, it’s painful to watch a government whose ideology is the polar opposite of your own step into power. A good friend once called democracy ‘the tyranny of the majority’, and it’s a brutal – but accurate – description. Everyone has a voice, but it’s the biggest number of people saying the same thing that get the prize.

If we voted formally on August 21, we made our voices heard. That we are now in a situation where there is no clear winner, and that we are now waiting for a handful of MPs to decide who to support, doesn’t change that. In every election, it comes down to that. Usually, it’s a few major party seats that hang in the balance. This time, those parties are sidelined. It’s not a case of too much power being vested in too few hands – it’s just that this time, they’re different hands.

Then there’s the argument that the Independents are somehow obliged to crown the Coalition. Why? Because three of them are ex-Nationals? The operative word here is ‘ex’ – they’re not Nationals, and should not be expected to feel any residual loyalty. For that matter, no one should expect them to automatically reject the Coalition, either.

What about the idea that the country electorates want them to back the Coalition? Well, let’s have a look at that. This argument hinges on newspaper polls in the local media showing 50-60% support for the Coalition – but these polls were available online. Anyone in Australia could vote in them, and skew the results. There’s literally no way to tell how far the numbers reflect the feelings of the actual constituents. Those polls should rightly be tossed out.

Finally, there’s the question of grand-standing. Are the Independents overreaching themselves in asking to be briefed by Treasury and various government departments? This is perhaps the sneakiest argument of all. Implicit in the accusation is the idea that these Independents have somehow ‘forgotten their place’. They represent three country electorates, and they’re not even members of a political party; why don’t they remember that and stop getting ideas above their station?

As the most vocal advocate of parliamentary reform, Rob Oakeshott has been the biggest target for those who subscribe to this idea. His calls for a unity government and for parliamentary and ministerial reform were soundly rubbished – there’s a note of offence in the voices of the major parties, and of patronising indulgence in the media when they reported on it. Now sure, he might be wildly idealistic, but there was a sense that he had no business talking about such things in the first place.

Why not? At what point did Oakeshott – or any of us – lose the right to criticise our parliamentary system, and suggest ideas for reform?

The accusations of ‘grand-standing’ have a nasty, unspoken corollary – ‘get back in your box’. Get out of the way and let the ‘real’ politicians get on with the business of government. Well, the ‘real’ politicians should probably take a step back and look at how well they’ve been doing so far – and then perhaps start taking their situation seriously, instead of arguing which one of them has more right to rule.

Katter, Oakeshott, Windsor and Wilkie are neither messiahs nor upstarts. They are elected representatives who find themselves in a position of incredible responsibility. And they’re taking it very seriously. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in the last week, they have shown more integrity and commitment to the good of Australia as a whole than either Gillard or Abbott.

For this, they should be absolutely commended.


Two households, not alike in dignity

August 26, 2010

Last Saturday Australia was unable to decide whether to vote in the ALP or the Liberal/National Coalition. As a result, we have a hung Parliament, with the balance of power resting in the hands of five, possibly six men – four Independents, a Green, and a maverick National.

Right now, it seems Australia is unable to decide whether that’s good or bad.

Some are rejoicing at what they see as a real opportunity for Parliamentary reform. This might be a chance for the backbenchers – the ‘little Aussie battlers’ of politics – to get a real say in what goes on. Maybe we can have fixed terms. What about putting a cap on donations, clamping down on election and government advertising, or even forcing disclosure on fundraisers? Way out at the extreme end is even the idea of a unity government, with ministers from both Houses or even outside politics altogether. The wish list goes on. With the balance of power being held by traditionally disenfranchised MPs, this might finally be a way to change what many see is a corrupt and outdated system.

But hang on a moment, say others. The majority of us didn’t vote for these people. Some of them only got elected on the back of preferences from the major parties. Why should they have the balance of power? Who are they to hold our entire system of government to ransom? Most damning of all, what if this were to happen with someone like Pauline Hanson or a Family First member in that position? What kind of terrible damage can be wrought here?

There’s merit in both arguments. It’s both startling and somewhat unrepresentative that our government for the next three years may well be decided by a handful of MPs whose policies – and names – most of us didn’t even know a week ago. To place that much power in their hands effectively makes both major parties hostages to their agendas.

As we saw yesterday, those agendas can differ wildly. Bob Katter really doesn’t want either a price on carbon or a mining super profits tax. He’s incredibly vocal on the subject. Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, however, support both principles. We can take it as read that Adam Bandt wants to see both ideas come to fruition in much tougher forms than have been previously proposed. Wilkie’s a little more cautious – he likes the idea of a mining tax, but not its current form, and wants a price on carbon. As for Tony Crook – well, that’s anyone’s guess. He’s still nominally a National, and therefore might be expected to follow the party line of no mining tax, no carbon price. His insistence on being considered a cross-bencher, however, could well signal a break with their policies.

How is any prospective government supposed to sort all that lot out?

Back up a second, though. We’re not talking about setting up a formal coalition to be in lockstep with either major party on all legislative decisions. At its base, this is just about getting enough numbers to defeat a no confidence motion, and to make sure the Budget passes through the House. Obviously the various stances on policy will be a factor in the decision-making process – five of the six have said their priority is stable, workable government – but it’s not necessary to meet every policy demand in order to form government. So we’re not really talking about ‘ransom’ here.

The six will have their own wish lists, of course. Oakeshott would dearly love to see more consensus politics in Parliament, for example, and Katter wants attention paid to areas of crisis in bush electorates. There’s no sense that they’re going to the leaders with a shopping list, though. On the contrary, what they’ve said so far indicates that they are focused on making the best possible choice for the country.

The three country Independents – Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter – presented seven requests to both Gillard and Abbott yesterday. Much of these requests are for access to information from various government departments, as well as a commitment to work for the national, rather than party, interest. They are after electoral reform – truth in election advertising, political donations and electoral funding – and are looking for a timetable to accomplish this.

One item is proving something of a sticking point with the Coalition, however – a request for access to Treasury’s costings for both the Opposition and government. If you remember, the Coalition flatly refused to submit their costings to Treasury under the Charter of Budget Honesty during the election campaign, claiming that Treasury was – at the very least – hopelessly corrupted. Instead, they submitted their numbers to an outside firm, resulting in a series of highly optimistic – and, apparently, highly inaccurate – figures.

Abbott has refused once again to give Treasury his costings so that the Independents can take economic advice about them. There’s a different reason this time, though. Now it’s because Treasury can’t understand Opposition policies. They are public servants, and it’s simply ‘not appropriate’. Instead, he says the Independents can have access to the firm that did their costings during the campaign, and the numbers themselves – the ones that received little scrutiny, and are still in question.

This is an extraordinary claim. Remember, Abbott was part of the government that instituted the Charter of Budget Honesty, designed to evaluate both policies from both major parties. There was no talk then that Treasury would only be able to understand those that came from the government of the day – nor did this turn up as a ‘reason’ to refuse submitting the Coalition’s costings during the campaign. It has materialised out of nowhere.

And to claim that Treasury – the body responsible for evaluating all economic policy, that routinely looks at costings from both sides when providing advice to a new government – is unable to understand the figures that the Coalition have come up with this time around? That’s so far beyond ludicrous there aren’t words to describe it.

The immediate question is, what have they got to hide? If they are confident in their numbers, surely they can only win by providing them to Treasury? They want to form government, and to do so they will have to negotiate with those who will hold the balance of power. Refusing a key request does nothing to improve their chances.

Perhaps the Coalition are gambling that the three country Independents, ex-Nationals, will run back to the fold. Perhaps they looked at Galaxy poll numbers today that suggest constituents of those electorates would prefer a Coalition government. Perhaps it’s simple arrogance, as we’ve seen displayed throughout this extended caretaker period.

What it looks like, though, is fear.

Gillard’s response to the requests was completely co-operative. She sounded only one note of caution, in that there may need to be changes to caretaker conventions in order for Treasury to release its documents, and that she would also need to talk to Abbott. She made it clear, though, that she was willing to comply with every one of the seven requests, including giving a commitment to a full term of government – even going so far as to promise to consult with them when the time came to set a date for the next election.

The two approaches could not be more different. One is co-operating, the other is drawing a wholly unnecessary line in the sand. Gillard is offering more than was asked (for example, a briefing with the head of NBNCo to explain the broadband roll-out), while Abbott is dictating terms. Abbott is giving every indication that he believes it is his moral right to rule, and that he should be accountable to no one – least of all three Independent MPs who he expects to fall into line and help him into government.

It’s not hard to draw the parallel between the country Independents and the Australian people. Towards both, the Coalition has acted in a high-handed, arrogant manner, giving the strong impression that they have the right to tell us what we need to know, when they feel like it. These latest actions only confirm what they’ve been signalling all along – some rules don’t apply to them, because they are above scrutiny or reproach.

As Bob Katter said today, ‘If you think the Australian people are going to put up with this sort of tomfoolery, you’ve got another thing coming’.

UPDATE:

Andrew Robb, appearing on Sky’s PM Agenda program this afternoon, dragged out the ‘we don’t trust Treasury because of the leaks’ argument. (Apparently, the Coalition realised that Abbott’s ‘Treasury doesn’t understand’ line was attracting nothing but scorn and disbelief.) He went further, though. If Treasury were to get their hands on the Coalition’s costings, he asserted, he believes that they would ‘fiddle’ with the numbers to give Labor the advantage.

This is completely outrageous. It goes well beyond the idea that there might be someone in Treasury who favours Labor, and leaked a document to ‘help’ them during the election campaign (not that there is any proof that such a person even exists). After all, it’s not inconceivable – remember Godwin Grech? What Robb is saying now, though, goes to the heart of Treasury’s integrity as the economic managers of the country.

The Coalition says it wants to form government. It says it wants to ‘pay down Labor’s massive debt’. To do that, it would have to work with Treasury – an organisation that it now alleges is so corrupt that it would falsify its figures in order to deny them the chance. At least, at this point, Andrew Robb isn’t suggesting that WHK Horwath take over the job.

Any way you look at it, this accusation doesn’t wash. If Treasury is corrupt, everything they’ve done for at least the last three years must be called into question. If Treasury isn’t corrupt, this is yet another transparent attempt to avoid public scrutiny – and Robb’s tactic is shameful. It attacks the central pillar of Australia’s economic credibility.

It appears Robb doesn’t actually care whether this affects the markets. or our standing with the rest of the world. It’s as though he’s focused on one aim – government by any means necessary.

I leave as an exercise for the reader this thought: if a party is prepared to risk destabilising Australia’s economic standing purely in order to gain political power, what would they be like if they actually held it?


None of the above

August 23, 2010

Just when we thought it was all over …

Australia stepped up and did its democratic duty on Saturday. Amid accusations of dirty tricks, last-minute frantic electioneering and the heady smell of the sausage sizzle, we shuffled up to the ballot box and cast our votes.

The result? As my Magic 8-Ball said around 10.30pm Saturday night, ‘Ask again later’.

That’s right. We don’t have a government. With five seats still in doubt, the ALP holds 70 seats, the Coalition 72, Independents 2 and Greens 1. (And then there’s Tony Crook, the National MP who looks as though he will take Wilson Tuckey’s seat of O’Connor – and won’t necessarily support the Coalition). Neither of the major parties were able to make it over the 76-seat line to form government in their own right.

So what do we do now? We wait. And speculate. And horse-trade. Because it’s looking increasingly likely that we will have a hung Parliament. If that’s the case, then the business of politics may well start to resemble some kind of Japanese game show. Abbott and Gillard will race to collect enough MPs to survive a no-confidence motion, then see who makes it to the Governor-General first. We’ll have to supply our own frenetic commentary and chase music, of course. And sadly, no sumo suits.

Sound ridiculous? That’s because there are, quite simply, no rules to dictate how this is supposed to work. Who gets first bite of the Parliamentary cherry, as it were.

Abbott claims he has a mandate to form government, because the total number of Coalition votes is higher than for Labor. Gillard points out Labor won the two-party preferred vote. Abbott says it’s ‘clear’ everyone wants a change. Gillard says the Australian people have not made a clear choice. Meanwhile the rhetoric and the spin and the attacks continue.

Abbott talks like he already is the Prime Minister, and is just waiting for those who hold the balance of power to come to him asking to be let into the Big Kids’ Club. Gillard’s using the ‘consensus’ word a lot and focusing on negotiation, but making sure she slips in how much good work Labor did in power.

You know what, though? None of that matters.

Here’s what matters: the people who may determine how we are governed for the next three years. Bob Katter (Kennedy), Rob Oakeshott (Lyne), Tony Windsor (New England), Adam Bandt (Melbourne), Tony Crook (O’Connor) and Andrew Wilkie (Denison).

Who the hell are they, we might ask (with some justification)? We never see these guys on the news. How can they hold our future in their hands?

This is the nature of a two-party dominated political system. Media focus falls on the big parties, because after all, they’re going to be the ones who matter, right? Sure, a few Independents may get in here and there, but overall, could they really make any difference?

The answer to that is a resounding, ‘YES‘. This time around, it could be consensus politics, not party lines, that shapes the Parliament. Given that, it’s worth getting to know who they are.

Katter, Oakeshott, and Windsor are former National Party members. Each left the party because they were dissatisfied. Katter is vocal on the subject – he feels the Nationals no longer represent the interests of the bush, particularly farmers. Windsor’s biography is pretty coy, but there’s no love lost between him and his former party. Oakeshott parted ways with the Nationals over issues of property development and an Australian republic.

All three of these MPs are passionately committed to representing their local interests. They’ve said that they’ll work with either party, since stable government is more important than personal feelings. Interviewed on The 7.30 Report last night, they all said that they supported a national broadband network, and that Labor’s proposal was better. They’re not uniform in all their concerns, however.

Katter is concerned about issues of deregulation and protection for farmers, and opposes an Emissions Trading Scheme.

Windsor supports action on climate change, and has been involved in a number of projects, including soil carbon.

Oakeshott definitely wants an Emissions Trading Scheme.

Bandt is the first Greens member to win a seat in the federal Lower House. He claimed the seat of Melbourne from Labor after Lindsay Tanner, the Finance Minister, announced his retirement from politics earlier this year. In keeping with his party’s policies, Bandt has said he is committed to action on climate change, including a price on carbon. He is also concerned with dental care, same-sex marriage and high-speed rail links.

Bandt has already stated that he will support a Labor government.

Wilkie is former intelligence officer with the Office of National Assessments, who came to media attention in 2003 when he revealed that he believed the Australian public was being misled as to the real situation in Iraq. He ran unsuccessfully against John Howard as a Greens candidate in Bennellong. He is likely to become the Independent member for Denison.

Wilkie’s a bit of an enigma – a former Young Liberal, turned Green, and now Independent. There’s certainly no love lost between him and the Coalition (being the target of particularly vicious rhetoric for his stand over the Iraq war), but he’s signalled that he won’t necessarily side with the Greens. His concerns centre on public education, Medicare and dental health, and ethical government.

Then there’s Tony Crook. Although a member of the National Party, he has not committed to supporting the Coalition. Rather, he wants to be part of minority government negotiations. This makes him something of a maverick – it’s likely that if he does not eventually side with the Coalition, the Nationals would dis-endorse him as a candidate.

These are the men who may hold the keys to government. You’d think the major parties would be mindful of that, and respect them.

Gillard’s speech on Saturday night acknowledged Abbott as a ‘formidable opponent, and recognised that Labor had lessons to learn. She congratulated the four Independents and Bandt on their wins. She said she looked forward to negotiations, and that she realised Australia expected consensus.

Gillard phoned all five on Saturday night to congratulate them, met with Bandt and Greens leader Senator Bob Brown on Sunday, and has more meetings scheduled today.

Abbott, by contrast, came out swinging. Labor had lost the election; the Coalition had won half a million more votes; the government had therefore lost its ‘legitimacy’. His acknowledgment of Gillard sounded grudging at best; she had ‘worked hard’, ‘it couldn’t have been easy for her’. He didn’t mention the cross-bench MPs until close to the end of his speech, and when he did, it was only to say that he’d talk to them about forming government.

He made one phone call after 1:00am on election night, and has since contacted everyone except Wilkie. In a remarkable display of rudeness, his media conference yesterday lasted all of three minutes, after which he left hurriedly as a reporter was in the middle of asking a question. He made it clear that he believed the Independents owed it to the country to form government with him, repeating his ‘lost legitimacy’ rhetoric. His strategist, Michael Kroger, is out this morning warning the Independents that their electorates will turn against them if they support Labor.

If respect counts for anything, Abbott may be in trouble.

There’s another thing that Abbott should try to get his head around. Yes, there was a swing away from Labor, but it mostly went towards the Greens, not the Coalition. Voter dissatisfaction with one party does not necesssarily translate into support for its major opponent. The claims that Labor has ‘lost legitimacy’, that the Coalition ‘has a mandate’ and that ‘Australian has spoken’ are nothing more than empty rhetoric designed to panic us all into thinking that the only possible outcome here is a Coalition government.

It isn’t, and people should keep that in mind. The government will end up going to the party who can gain the most seats, not who is the biggest bully.

It could take a week for this to shake down. The count is now underway, and it looks as though Wilkie may not take Denison, after all. That would make it a little easier for Labor, but a hung parliament is still likely.

In the meantime, we’ll have to endure more of the same. More slogans, more spin, more attacks and more hysteria. We can be grateful, I suppose, that at least there’ll be no more of those dreadful ads.

In all this, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the crucial fact in this election. Australia has spoken, all right. We sent a clear message to both major parties – we’re not confident in either of them. They haven’t been able to convince us that they are capable of representing our interests, or of acting on issues that we believe are important.

Australia has spoken, and it said ‘None of the above’.

We must not let either Labor or the Coalition forget that.

UPDATE:

The prime time news is reporting that Quentin Bryce, the Governor-General is ‘seeking advice’ about a possible conflict of interest, because her daughter is married to Labor MP Bill Shorten. Apparently this is in response to questions raised in the media as to whether she could truly be impartial in resolving the hung Parliament.

This is a beat-up of the first order, and here’s why.

The Governor-General does not decide who can try to form government. Her job is to wait until either major leader fronts up on her doorstep with a list of MPs that have agreed to form a coalition. If the requisite number if reached, she then swears in that leader as Prime Minister. This is immediately tested on the floor of Parliament, via a no-confidence motion brought by the Opposition. Should the putative government survive that motion, hey presto, we have a government.

To suggest that Quentin Bryce might pull some kind of sneaky trick is absurd. The only way she could interfere with this process is if Abbott fronted up with the numbers and she refused to accept them. Given the amount of scrutiny this whole election is under, the idea that she could do that and get away with that is ridiculous. Abbott would run straight to the media, and we would have a scandal of the first order on our hands.

The only power the Governor-General has here is to swear in the PM. If Gillard has the numbers, she gets in. If Abbott does, it’s his job. If neither can do it, Gillard has to seek writs for a new election.

And take a look at who was claiming this ‘conflict of interest’. Unsurprisingly, it’s been the Murdoch papers – the most partisan media group in Australia. The anti-Labor, anti-Green bias of Murdoch’s empire is well-known; you only have to look at a handful of editorials to see that. So why are they bringing this up now?

Maybe it’s because Labor is firming in the polls. It’s looking increasingly as though they will end up with 74 seats, counting Adam Bandt in coalition with them. This strengthens their argument that they will be more able to form a stable government (which is the one factor Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor have all said is most important in their decision-making process) – more seats, and a co-operative Senate to get legislation passed. Seen in that light, there’s more than a whiff of desperation about the whole notion that Bryce is hopelessly compromised by her relationship to Shorten.

In seeking legal advice, Bryce is not admitting anything. She is sensibly refuting the accusation that anything improper is going on. Already, constitutional lawyers have firmly declared that there is no conflict of interest.

This is just more noise and bluster. It’s completely in step with Kroger attempting to scare the Independents towards the Liberal-National Coalition, and Abbott’s claim that he has a moral right to form government.

It means nothing.


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