Australian politics is the poorer for the loss of Oakeshott and Windsor

June 26, 2013

Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are two reasons why this minority government has – in spite of all dire mutterings and pronouncements of doom – functioned, and functioned well. It’s due to their insistence on examining legislation on its merits, refusing to be pressured by either the Government or the Opposition, that we have been faced with neither paralysis nor a runaway agenda. They’ve taken pains to consult with everyone from the Prime Minister to fellow Independent Andrew Wilkie to their local constituents, and helped broker significant parliamentary reforms.

And for their pains, what have they received? I’ve already written about the amount of ridicule levelled at Oakeshott for his tendency to speak his mind at length. Windsor became the target of an extraordinary amount of venom from the National Party, accused of everything from treason to megalomania. Nonetheless, they’ve continued to do their jobs, and done them well.

Their dedication to behaving as politicians should – as representatives who put the nation’s interests above their own gain – has gained them little praise, and far too much criticism. Australian politics is richer for their contribution.

And now, Australia will be far poorer.

This morning, Oakeshott announced that he will not contest the September 14 election. He described the last three years as the toughest of his life – which, frankly, is an understatement. Remember, this man has been subject to relentless criticism simply for doing his job.

He was followed a little later by a tearful Tony Windsor, who cited family and health issues as the reason for his resignation. He added that the ‘vitriol’ to which he’d been subjected had affected his family, and said, ‘I don’t really want to be here in three years’ time’.

With their resignations, their respective seats will probably return to the National Party, adding to what looks like an increasingly decisive Coalition victory in September. Senator Barnaby Joyce should now successfully move to the Lower House without Windsor to stand against him in New England. Lyne is a little more uncertain; the landslide to Oakeshott in 2010 left both major parties neck and neck.

This is a dreadful day for Australian politics. After the election, there will be two less independent voices, two fewer voices of reason. If the minor parties don’t succeed in increasing their share of seats, there’s a real possibility the Coalition will control both Houses outright. That would reduce the Senate to nothing more than a rubber stamp for any legislation (or, indeed, any of the Coalition’s promised repeals). Opposition would be completely ineffective. Even with Windsor and Oakeshott in the Parliament, we may well see that result. The more voices to speak up, to question, to represent a different point of view, however, at least there would be proper scrutiny.

Both men made the point that they’re not ‘quitting’. Oakeshott, in particular, said he had no fear of the upcoming election campaign. There’s no doubt, though, that bullying was a factor – and I don’t use the word lightly. Being subjected, day after day, to relentless harassment, wears down even the strongest of us.

Some might say that constant criticism is something any politician should expect. Of course, that’s true. Just as with the vicious insults heaped on the Prime Minister, however, there is a material difference between criticising someone’s decisions and attacking the person.

Christopher Pyne just remarked piously on the curious fact that people never believe it when a politician announces their resignation ‘for family reasons’, even though that’s why most politicians leave. Not five minutes later, he asserted that the ‘real’ reason Windsor and Oakeshott were leaving was because they didn’t want to lose their seats in September. It’s not only an asinine statement, given their 2010 election results – it’s a perfect example of the nonsense to which the Independents have been subjected.

Oakeshott and Windsor deserve praise – not because they were knights in shining armour, or martyrs to a cause. They deserve praise because they are reasonable men who took their job seriously. Because they insisted on scrutiny, and research, and consultation. Because they always tried to act in the best interests of the nation, even when it had the potential to damage their own causes.

Because they did their work wisely, and well.

Mr Oakeshott, Mr Windsor, the nation will be poorer without your voices in Parliament. You have been an example of how politics should work. You are men of integrity who did not flinch in the face of enormous pressure. We can only hope that future politicians will look to your example, rather than some of the more volatile, high profile figures of today.

Thank you, Mr Oakeshott.

Thank you, Mr Windsor.

We wish you well.

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Honesty is its own punishment

March 19, 2013

There’s an old saying that goes something like this:

How do you know when a politician is lying? Their lips are moving.

This has never been more true in recent times. Lies about children being thrown overboard. About young single women trying to get pregnant so they can buy televisions with their baby bonus. About people who ‘jump the queue’ so they can laze around on welfare. About same-sex marriage threatening our Judeo-Christian way of life. About unions, who only exist to line their pockets. About those same unions not being responsible for sacking leader after leader. About third parties who hold themselves, self-righteously, above the trough.

And it goes on. Lies, lies, lies. And the worst lies of all? The ones that we hear, day after day, when someone says that an issue is ‘too important to politicise’ – and then goes to to do exactly that.

Abortion. The National Disability Insurance Scheme. Asylum Seekers. Newstart. Climate change. Bridges, trains, the NBN, the list goes on.

And not one party is immune. Not Labor, with its ringing tones of condemnation. Not the Coalition, with its fake sorrow that the government ‘just doesn’t listen’. Not the Greens, with their insistence that only they truly care, even as they’re busily politicising every issue that comes near them.

And you know what’s really sad about all this? The few people in Parliament who aren’t solely interested in scoring political points, or holding power for power’s sake, are either silenced or sidelined as nuts.

Look at the ridicule heaped on Bob Katter. This is a man who stands up, time and again, and politically shoots himself in the foot for his beliefs. He champions his farmers, excoriates the duopoly of Coles and Woolworths, roundly criticises all and sundry for taking advantage of indigenous people. He gets very little air time, either in the Parliament or the media – and when he does, what gets reported has nothing to do with what he says. Instead, there’s laughter if he can’t get his question out in the allotted time, or applause if he does. There are barely concealed smirks around the chamber when he rises.

How about Tony Windsor, possibly the sole voice of sanity in the House of Representatives? He holds a huge amount of power – his vote can make or break legislation, and he knows it. When he gets asked how he’ll vote, he says he’ll consider the matter very carefully, and refuses to be drawn. That’s not good enough, apparently, and out come the accusations that he’s a traitor, that he holds his seat under false pretenses, since what people ‘really’ wanted was for him to support the Coalition. Then there’s the uglier muttering, never quite said to his face, but implicit in so many comments from media outlets – that he’s power-mad, and just enjoys making the major parties wait upon him.

That same accusation gets flung at Rob Oakeshott, but it seems to be far more ‘fun’ to make comments about his tendency to be long-winded in his speeches. Ever since his joint speech with Windsor announcing support for a Labor government back in 2010 – in which his contribution lasted around 17 minutes – people make a point of ridiculing him. Strangely, those same people don’t stop to consider there may be a good reason for such comprehensive answers – that perhaps Oakeshott may simply want to be clearly understood. Heaven forbid.

Andrew Wilkie – accused of everything from being a turncoat from the Liberal Party to something of a tinpot dictator destined to fall in some kind of 2013 election ‘coup’ – exposed the hypocrisy of the entire minority government bargaining process, at least as far as the Coalition was concerned. For that he was viciously attacked, and the Coalition simply haven’t let up. His concern for problem gambling made him the target of an amazing smear campaign, and when he was hung out to dry by the government, his justified anger received nothing but indifference.

Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie & Tony Windsor

Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie and Tony Windsor

These are the MPs who hold the balance of power in the House. These four men have exercised their responsibilities wisely and well. They don’t play the game. They don’t lie to make themselves look better, or to score a point. They engage with their electorates and across social media personally. Take a look at their Twitter feeds and see how many threats they receive every day – threats of personal harm, harm to their families, even death. The language is vicious, and frightening.

Of course, they’re not the only ones to receive that kind of abuse. The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader are just as much victims as the Independents, and that is something we shouldn’t forget – or condone. It doesn’t matter who the targets are – there’s no excuse for threatening someone’s safety.

But this is about honesty. This is about not playing the game of politics with false pronouncements of truth and compassion. This is about what happens to those who do their jobs without always looking to the next poll, or the next election, but who actually want to get something done – even at the expense of their own careers. Does anyone believe Wilkie, Oakeshott and Windsor are under any illusions that both major parties will go easy on them in the upcoming campaign? The Coalition’s already said it will throw everything it’s got at them – don’t think the government will do any less, or the Greens in Tasmania.

We live in an era where lies are spoken with utter sincerity by those who are supposed to represent us, and go unchallenged by those who are supposed to investigate and interrogate on our behalf. We live in a country where those who buck this trend are attacked, abused, undermined and ridiculed.

Honesty is its own punishment, I guess. And if that doesn’t make you wake up and start doing something – well, I guess nothing will. And you’ll get the government you deserve, come September.


Election 2013 – we’ve set a date!

January 30, 2013

It’s finally happened! After all the speculation, after the incessant cries of ‘Election, now!’ from the Opposition, and the whimpers from the electorate of ‘how long will this never-ending campaign go on, anyway?’, Prime Minister Julia Gillard set a date for the 2013 Federal Election.

Put it in your calendar apps, folks: the date is Saturday, September 14, 2013.

(Or, for those of you who still use paper diaries, I’m told there’s this thing called a pen that works without being plugged in and charged! It doesn’t even use the internet! Ahem. But I digress.)

In setting this date, the Prime Minister accomplished several pieces of brilliant political strategy. Some she was happy to foreground, but others snuck in under the radar. So let’s have a close look.

The most obvious – and one she used to tweak the collective nose of the media at the National Press Club – is that it takes away the potential for speculation about the date to be read into every move the government makes. This sort of opinion piece is a staple in the months leading up to an election. With it removed, the government has an opportunity to better force media focus onto issues of substance, rather than whether the PM’s itinerary takes her anywhere near Yarralumla.

The other overt effect is that it pushes the Opposition onto the back foot with regard to costings. As the PM was happy to point out, with such a long lead time before Parliament dissolves and the campaign officially begins, the Coalition has no excuse not to deliver its costings to Treasury and release them to the public. In her own words, ‘No surprises also means no excuses’.

The Coalition has previously claimed that they were not given enough time to submit costings, or that access to Treasury was limited due to election campaign pressures. Now, they will have the May Budget, and more time than any Opposition has had in decades to thoroughly develop, cost and release their policies. Of course, they may try recycling the argument they used in 2010, that Treasury was effectively too corrupt to be trusted with their costings – but that didn’t work too well last time around.

And then there are the covert effects.

Clearly, this date fulfils her promise to Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to ensure her government served its full term – and on that score, the government needs all the help it can get. Both MPs immediately expressed their approval of the date, in interviews shortly after the announcement. Windsor says the PM spoke with them some weeks ago, and agreed there were only a few dates that could realistically be chosen – though he stopped short of saying the decision was made at that time.

While this has little effect on the electorate, it buys her good credit should this election also result in a minority government – and with the rise of minor parties and Independents, that’s a real possibility. It also offsets Labor’s backdown on its promise to Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie poker machine regulation. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon also endorses the early announcement, as do the Greens. This leaves the Coalition out on a limb. They have to join the chorus of approval – which they will no doubt do grudgingly, suggesting that it’s about time the PM ‘took their advice’, a tactic that will backfire horribly with the public (no one likes those who say ‘I told you so’. If they don’t, they look like hypocrites.

Lastly, there’s possibly the sneakiest effect. The PM went to great lengths to stress that announcing the date was not a de facto campaign launch. ‘I do so not to start the nation’s longest election campaign … it should be clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning,’ she said. Now, obviously this is disingenuous; campaigning will be inevitable in the coming months, and anything not actually labelled as a campaign statement will certainly be interpreted as one by both media and the opposing parties. It does, however, give Labor something of a moral high ground, not to mention an excuse not to answer curly election promise questions until after the writs are delivered.

More useful for the government is the probable consequence for the Opposition. The Coalition has already been roundly criticised for conducting what amounts to a non-stop election campaign since the 2010 election, calling for another poll even before the Parliament sat for the first time. On numerous occasions, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has declared that he will not rest until he ‘changes the government’, which he considers illegitimate due to its minority status. In fact, this sentiment underpins virtually every statement the Coalition makes.

It’s hard to imagine that Abbott would stop now. Indeed, this week he launched what he called a ‘mini-campaign’, apparently intended to bolster his falling approval numbers, and undercut any gains Labor might make. Now, he needs to deal with the reality of a fixed election date 227 days away. Given his propensity for hammering home a message ad nauseam (usually while wearing a Hi-Vis vest), and holding a media conference virtually every day, we face the possibility that he will simply step up this activity.

Imagine it. Seven months of election campaigning. Seven months of Abbott recycling slogans like ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Axe the Tax’. Seven months of vicious rhetoric and media stunts.

Sorry about that.

If the government has any intelligent people in its media unit whatsoever, they won’t rise to the bait. They’ll let Abbott have his head, and – to mix a metaphor – he’ll hang himself. People are already tired of the unofficial campaign. The backlash is likely to be devastating in terms of poll numbers.

In one stroke, Labor has rendered the myth of the ‘inevitable 2013 Coalition victory’ powerless. And the Opposition knows it – which may account for its first appalling statements on the election date. It happens to be Yom Kippur, arguably the most important holy day in the Jewish religious calendar. The Coalition wasn’t about to let that golden opportunity go by.

See what they did there?

This is amateur hour stuff. See how evil and mean-spirited Labor is! They chose to have an election on a religious holiday! What a terrible thing to do to these poor Australians! We would never do that!

Let’s not forget the ugly side of those tweets, the tacit accusation of anti-Semitism. And every politician knows that labelling your opponent as anti-Jewish has incredible emotional appeal, and can be a real vote-getter.

It’s not even worth arguing about whether Labor is anti-Semitic, whether it’s as good a supporter of Australian Jews (and, by extension, Israel) as the Coalition. That’s just a stupid diversion, and it’s surprising to see Turnbull, in particular, trying on this idiocy. (It remains to be seen if any others will jump on this bandwagon, or whether the Coalition media unit has managed to keep them away from Twitter).

Elections will always be a problem for someone. Maybe they’ll fall on religious holy days (and when was the last time you heard a politician complain about any other religion’s being inconvenienced). Maybe it’ll be the AFL Grand Final. Maybe you’re flying to Bali that day, or stuck in floodwaters or in hospital. None of that should present an obstacle to your fulfilling your duty as a citizen of this country. It’s really very simple.

We have early and postal voting in this country.

That’s right. We can participate in our democratic process and live our lives. Amazing, isn’t it?

That the Coalition would even consider this sort of strategy is ridiculous. It shows how unprepared they were for the announcement of the election date. One imagines that even now, their media unit is busy shredding Abbott’s prepared speech for his appearance tomorrow at the National Press Club, and frantically scribbling.

It will be interesting to see what he has to say. I’m fairly sure he won’t mention Yom Kippur – but the damage is done.

In the meantime, we can at least breathe a sigh of relief. We know when the sausage sizzles will be.


Kevin Rudd resigns as Foreign Minister

February 22, 2012

After a week of feverish speculation, triggered by a leaked video, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd tonight resigned his post in a late-night media conference from Washington DC.

He didn’t mince words, either. ‘I cannot continue to serve as Foreign Minister if i do not have Prime Minister Gillard’s full support,’ he said, adding that Gillard had refused to unequivocally support him against particularly vicious comments from Parliamentary colleagues, notably Regional Minister Simon Crean. By contrast, Rudd had indicated support – though it was definitely lukewarm – with his statements that there was no leadership challenge on, and re-affirming her position as Prime Minister. The current situation – with MPs and advisors popping up at every possible opportunity was a ‘distraction from the real services of government’, and having a damaging effect on business. It was also, he said, taking the focus away from the current Queensland election campaign, and Premier Anna Bligh deserved better.

He had some harsh words for factional players within the Party, referring to his own sudden forced resignation from the top job as removal ‘by stealth’, and that it must never happen again. That was, he said, the reason he’d made his resignation announcement now, and that he would make a further announcement on ‘his future’ before Parliament sits again next week.

Most damningly, he gave us this scathing opinion of the media frenzy that’s surrounded the question of the leadership, seemingly since the day after Gillard came to power:

‘The Australian people regard this affair as little better than a soap opera, and they are right; and under the current circumstances, I won’t be part of it’.

And it has been a soap opera. Sky News referred to the speculation as going on for ‘weeks and weeks and weeks’ – as though it had nothing to do with that at all. Which is, of course, utter rubbish. The media are, perhaps, more responsible for creating the soap opera than any tensions between Rudd and Gillard. It’s undeniable that Rudd is still incredibly angry about the way he was removed – but it’s equally undeniable that the media have taken every opportunity to suggest an imminent leadership challenge. And not just for weeks, either.

After all, a soap opera is nothing more than private drama without the cameras, the reviewers and the ratings people, is it?

So, of course, speculation is now rife as to Rudd’s next move. The bulk of commentators are convinced he will spend the weekend making frantic phone calls and alliances, and challenge Gillard for the leadership on Monday. In this respect, he would be following the same plan he carried out when he deposed Kim Beazley in 2006. What’s more, the playbook throws his actions into sharp contrast with Gillard’s. Rather than orchestrate an eleventh hour ultimatum delivered from a position of power, Rudd publicly submitted his resignation and went to the back bench.

This time, though, commentators believe that Rudd doesn’t have the numbers. If he fails, he goes to the back bench, and the pressure will be on him to resign from politics altogether – or at least announce that he will not stand again for the seat of Griffith. The idea that he wouldn’t, according to Sky’s David Speers, is ‘farcical’.

There’s another possibility. Rudd may not challenge. He might go to the back bench now, and bide his time. His resignation, together with other issues on which Labor has lost traction (largely thanks to relentless campaigning from the Coalition), could be the final element that ensures Labor loses power at the next election. At that point he could easily convince the Party that Gillard was unfit to keep the leadership; that – to quote him on Beazley in 2006 – what is needed is ‘a new style of leadership’, to save the country from the damage that might be done by a Coalition government.

It’s a strategy that worked well for former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Of course, this assumes that Rudd is willing to Labor be soundly defeated. Is he quite that Machiavellian? Sure enough of himself that the Australian people would forgive him such a cold-blooded strategy, and that Labor voters would be willing to vote for him after living under a Coalition government? The suddenness of today’s announcement, coming as it did in the middle of the night while Rudd was in the capital of our most powerful ally, can be read as Rudd deciding to blindside the Prime Minister just before the evening news, ensuring he would be the story for the weekend. Or, as Graham Richardson suggests, there are articles due to be released tomorrow that are potentially very damaging for Rudd.

Or it could simply be that he snapped, unable to take any more pressure from both the party and the media. Which, given his temper, isn’t that unlikely.

There’s no doubt this is a gift to the Coalition – and an earthquake for Labor. It’s the Independents who’ll come in for close scrutiny this weekend, however.

Andrew Wilkie has already withdrawn his support from Gillard, and, as usual, is playing his cards close to his chest. His hatred for the Coalition is well-known, though that’s no guarantee. Since earlier this week, when he was briefly embroiled in the soap opera by way of a misreported conversation with Rudd, he’s been quiet.

Tony Windsor, speaking to media tonight, suggests an election might be necessary, but a change of leadership now was very risky. Judging by his performance in Parliament to date, whatever decision he makes now will be exceedingly well-considered.

Rob Oakeshott is nowhere to be seen.

Interestingly, Bob Katter may be the wild card. His refusal to support Gillard as PM was based, in large part, by his distaste for the tactics used to remove Rudd. Should Rudd challenge and win, he may change allegiances – or at least be more inclined to listen to Federal Labor. We still haven’t heard from him, either.

The question for Labor, then, becomes whether its members can set aside personal animosity and vote for the person they feel has the best chance of beating Abbott at the next election. Although there’s no specific current polling, Labor’s miserable figures on both Two Party Preferred and Preferred Prime Minister questions suggest that Gillard can’t do it. Her own unpopularity with the public compared to Rudd only reinforces that. (And interestingly, take a look at the informal poll in the link above from The Age.)

But it’s the caucus who’ll decide the leadership, in the end. They’ll have to weigh up whether they want to preserve the kind of factionalism that ousted Rudd in the first place – or take their chances with someone they treated appallingly for the sake of retaining government, and hope his words of needed party reform are just that – words.

The Prime Minister will be releasing her statement later tonight, but won’t front the media until tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

The contenders - Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the man she forced out, ex-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd


Gracious in defeat on carbon pricing? Hardly.

November 8, 2011

The government’s package of carbon price related bills has finally passed both Houses of Parliament. Despite months of scare campaigning from the Opposition, hundreds of column inches given over in editorials and opinion pieces, astro-turfed rallies on Parliament House lawns, and hours and hours and hours of hysterical lies, the bills have passed.

Even at the last minute, the Opposition tried every possible tactic to delay the final vote in the Senate. They tried for amendment after amendment, which were designed to render the bills useless and which had no chance of passing. Senator Eric Abetz led a desperate charge to suspend standing orders after debate ended, arguing that there hadn’t been sufficient time to examine the legislation properly.

Of course, he carefully didn’t mention that of the nearly 30 hours allotted for debate, almost all the Opposition’s speeches boiled down to nothing more than, ‘Gillard lied to us and we should have an election’. Virtually no substantive debate whatsoever.

When that failed, votes on the last amendments were held up by Opposition Senators leaving the Chamber to force longer-lasting divisions. And what did they gain from that? Around 12 minutes in total.

In the end, though, the vote was called. Even during the vote, there were objections. Could the Opposition hear the question again? Why were they being asked to vote on a whole group of bills at once? (Never mind that this was agreed upon when the bills first came before the Senate.) They did everything but sneak out and set off the fire alarm – and I’m not sure it didn’t cross their minds.

The vote was decisive – 36-32. And a packed Senate gallery erupted with cheers and applause.

So that’s it. End of story, right?

Foolish optimists.

Within seconds, Abetz was on his feet again wanting a suspension of standing orders. The reason? He wanted to have a chance to condemn Labor politicians for their ‘betrayal’ of the Australian people. By name. At length. It was all about the ‘will of the people’. Why couldn’t Labor just accept it?

Accept what, exactly? The result of the 2010 election, when we voted in such a way as to bring about a minority government? The dozens and dozens of polls showing popular support for pricing carbon dioxide emissions? Oh, of course not. The ‘will of the people’ is what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says it is, apparently.

Senator George Brandis thundered that it was the ‘most infamous day in politics’ in Australian history. He railed against the government’s ‘alliance of infamy’ with the Greens, and contemptuously dismissed the ‘ragtag bunch of people in the gallery’ who’d applauded the vote. Finally, he warned that, come the next election, the Australian people would make sure that Labor wore ‘the crown of thorns’ and would crucify them.

That particular metaphor might have worked better had not Senator Barnaby Joyce been – at the same moment – telling the media that this was in fact, the ‘biggest betrayal since Judas betrayed Jesus’. The part of Judas, it seems, was played by Independent Tony Windsor. ‘Jesus’ was presumably the mythical ‘forgotten families’ so beloved of the Coalition of late.

Not to be outdone, Senator Ian MacDonald practically frothed at the mouth in his condemnation of the government. In a stunning display of utter hypocrisy, he objected violently to Senator Evans referring to the Opposition as being ‘wreckers’ – and then went on to name the Members for Corangamite and Deakin as ‘gutless wonders’ who were too ‘cowardly’ to speak on the bills. To add insult to injury, he referred to the Prime Minister as a ‘liar’, and when asked to withdraw, he argued with the Chair that he had a right to say it because ‘it’s been said a thousand times’. And besides, he muttered, it was ‘true’.

(Incidentally, this is what the Prime Minister actually said before the last election: ‘I don’t rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism … I rule out a carbon tax.’ And what do we have? An Emissions Trading Scheme. Not a tax.)

And so it went. Speaker after speaker, all contributing nothing of substance – in fact, throwing a tantrum worthy of a room full of three year olds.

I used to help out at my local university Co-Op childcare centre. If any of those kids tried behaviour like that, we’d have put them in Time Out. It’s a great shame there wasn’t the same disciplinary option available in the Senate chamber today.

The upshot? The vote was defeated on voices alone. The Opposition didn’t even try for a division. But it wasn’t over. Out they trotted to front the media with their dire predictions of imminent doom for the government and the Greens, and the End of All Employment in Australia. Those left in the Senate chamber bravely soldiered on, pulling quorum to interrupt debate over some of the related bills (such as those designed to assist the steel industry) and regurgitating the same tired old arguments.

Many of us had parents or teachers who counselled us to be ‘gracious in defeat’. Certainly I was always told that the grown-up thing to do when you lost was to congratulate your opponent and to move on. Perhaps the Opposition wasn’t as fortunate. Nonetheless, it’s not too late for them to learn.

Mr Abbott? Mr Truss? Mr Abetz? Opposition members? GROW UP. You lost the vote. Accept that. We’re not asking you to congratulate the Prime Minister, although it would be the gracious and adult thing to do.

If you still want to repeal all this legislation, you’ll have your chance to put your case to us at the time the next election is called. And if we don’t vote you in, perhaps you might finally accept ‘the will of the people’. Do us all a favour, and hold your water until then.

* * * * *

Dear Diary,

Day 1 of our oppression under the Socialist Green Carbon Tax of Doom. Sky not fallen. No anarchy in the streets. Dishes still need washing. Cat still needs feeding. Opposition still complaining.

Same old, same old.


Carbon price a certainty, but the campaign rolls on

October 12, 2011

Well, it’s happened.

Despite a frantic, near-hysterical campaign of fear mixed liberally with lies …

Despite hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of dollars spent on saturation advertising …

Despite Coalition members flying around the country to government and cross-bencher electorates to campaign furiously …

Despite Sophie Mirabella’s tantrum in the House last night when she was not permitted to table a petition allegedly containing 12,000 signatures (which she had to know would be refused – there are times set aside for petitions) …

And despite all the rhetoric – ‘toxic tax’; ‘tax on weather’; ‘Socialism by stealth’; ‘million of people out of work’; ‘pensioners won’t be able to afford to use their heaters or turn on their lights’; and my personal favourite, ‘this will make emissions go up‘ …

The government’s Clean Energy Bills package – including legislation to establish a carbon dioxide emissions trading scheme – passed the House this morning. It goes now to the Senate, which is also certain to pass the bills.

There’s no doubt it’s a significant victory for the government. This is the issue that brought down Malcolm Turnbull as Leader of the Opposition, and contributed to Kevin Rudd’s resignation as Prime Minister in the face of a revolt from his own party. It won’t make us world leaders – we’re woefully behind in that respect – but it will contribute to a growing global effort to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Tony Abbott promised ‘in blood’ (yes, he actually said that) to repeal the carbon price scheme, as well as all the associated compensations and provisions, if he wins the next election. That would presumably include lowering the tax-free threshold, reducing pensions, reducing household assistance and small business; because you see, without the carbon price, there’s no revenue to offset those costs.

Unravelling legislation like this is the equivalent of trying to unravel the GST (which, incidentally, is a tax) – exactly what Kim Beazley promised to do during the 2001 election campaign. There was little chance it would happen, though – most agreed it would simply be too hard to roll back such a pervasive tax once implemented.

Compared to the carbon price legislation, rolling back the GST would have been simple.

Abbott’s only hope, then, is to somehow force an early election before the new legislation can be put into practice. He could cross his fingers and pray for a retirement from one of the government or cross-bench seats. He could try to force a resignation – and I predict we’ll see a resurgence of the accusations against Craig Thomson, possibly with accompanying phone calls from Senator George Brandis to the Victorian Police Commissioner. If he doesn’t succeed with Thomson, he’s certainly not above digging for dirt – either real, or confected – on other MPs and Senators.

The option he had before July this year – of blocking government bills and forcing a double dissolution – is now highly unlikely. There’s no love lost between the Coalition and Greens, who hold the balance of power. They might agree on blocking the proposed amendments to the Migration Act, but the Greens are diametrically opposed to almost every other Coalition policy. Add to that the fact that a double dissolution election contains the possibility that the Greens might lose the balance of power, and Abbott looks to be out of luck.

So, it looks like the carbon price is here to stay. And it’s all a bit anti-climactic, really. A few divisions, a round of applause here and there, and a gracious moment when Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd congratulated the Prime Minister with a kiss on the cheek, and it’s done.

Don’t think the hysteria is over, though. Abbott hasn’t stopped campaigning since the Independents agreed to back Labor for government last year – and a little setback like this won’t stop him now. Sure, the Coalition might have been defeated on arguably the biggest piece of legislation to ever come before the Parliament. Sure, all Abbott’s exhortations to the cross-benchers and rural Labor MPs to cross the floor fell on deaf ears. And sure, passage of the Clean Energy package brings the total of successful government legislation to well over 200.

Abbott won’t even break stride. The carbon price issue will fade to the background, to be trotted out whenever he can find an excuse to do so, but Abbott thinks on his feet. We’ll see a renewal of attacks on asylum seeker policy, tax reform, the deficit, the ‘assassination’ of Kevin Rudd, and – most of all – the proposed Mining Resources Rent Tax. He’ll maintain his rage, and we’ll be the ones who have to suffer through a one-sided election campaign until Gillard finally calls a vote – which she’s unlikely to do before the full term is up. Remember, part of her agreement with Independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor was a guarantee against an early election.

It’s a risky tactic. Already, the media have started to question the Coalition’s message. Already, there’s a sense that people have lost patience with both major parties. If Abbott treats the next two years as an election platform, it might well backfire – especially if the Coalition repeats its strategy of not producing policy until the eleventh hour, and refusing to have it costed.

On social media, there’s growing confidence that Abbott’s defeat will see him replaced as Opposition Leader. I don’t think that’s likely – the Coalition rides high in the polls, and, with the example of the Labor Party before them, they know full well the probable negative consequences of replacing Abbott with, say, Malcolm Turnbull. As with Labor, though, the perception that the Liberal Party are dissatisfied with their leader could contribute to a loss of popularity in the electorate.

All of this is speculation, though. The reality is that Abbott, while soundly defeated on carbon pricing, has no intention of conceding anything to the government. He’ll dodge the question in interviews and deflect attention onto other, proven points of attack (such as the failed Home Insulation Scheme or the Coalition’s misrepresentation of the BER outcomes). It’s the equivalent of shouting, ‘Look over there!’ while hurriedly burying anything inconvenient or uncomfortable under a pile of empty rhetoric.

So settle in, get comfortable, and possibly have a few kittens to pet for when the frustration and stress gets to be too much. We’ve got a long, long campaign ahead of us – and that’s before Gillard calls an election.

But it’s worth re-stating: Australia has passed legislation through the House of Representatives to establish an emissions trading scheme, pricing carbon, supporting development of renewable energy and easing tax and cost of living burdens on lower to middle income earners. That same legislation is certain to pass the Senate.

And there’s no sign of the apocalypse happening any time soon.


Crisis averted – for now

June 1, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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