It might not have been the most polished or nuanced; but it was certainly the most honest and most passionate debate we’ve yet seen – or are likely to see – in this election.
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.
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.
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.
Few would argue that under the current government, Question Time in the House of Representatives has become little more than a farce. Questions from the Opposition tend to be variations on the themes of ‘When will the government abandon its toxic carbon tax’ or ‘When will the government pick up the phone to the President of Nauru’. Add a liberal sprinkling of revisionist history on Building the Education Revolution, a soupcon of ‘you knifed Kevin Rudd’ and garnish liberally with transparent Dorothy Dixers designed to allow the government to verbally bash the Opposition – and you can just about write the script for each sitting day.
Then there’s the censure motions. Out of 28 sessions of Question Time, the Opposition has attempted to suspend standing orders preparatory to censuring the Prime Minister or the Treasurer no less than twelve times. It’s become so common that those who tune in each day to join the Twitter #qt conversation run a mock sweep on what time it will be before Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stands up to utter the familiar lines, ‘I move that so much of standing orders be suspended’. That group includes many members of the media who are physically present in the Canberra press gallery as well as independent journalists, teachers, lawyers, full-time parents, students and a host of others. It’s quite a remarkable cross-section.
There’s no doubt that these constant censure motions are a source of both hilarity and frustration for those watching. On the one hand, the predictable nature of it all is utterly absurd. On the other, however, it disrupts proceedings and wastes the Parliament’s time.
The motions to suspend are always defeated. Really, it comes across as an exercise in futility.
So why do they do it? Is it such a matter of deeply-held principle for the Opposition? Or is it – as many suspect – an opportunity for the Coalition to make long speeches accusing the government of everything from forgetfulness to incompetence to criminal behaviour – all protected by Parliamentary privilege. Factor in the daily Matters of Public Importance – where various Opposition speakers deliver long diatribes to a largely empty House – and it starts to look more and more as though the Coalition are just going with the theory that something repeated often enough eventually enters the public consciousness as truth.
It’s a clumsy ploy, to say the least. And it carries the very real risk that people will not believe, but rather ‘switch off’ as soon as they realise it’s being tried once again.
Today’s Question Time was a case in point.
At 2.25 pm, Abbott moved to suspend standing orders in order to censure the Prime Minister. The immediate reaction from those watching was confusion that he’d chosen to do it so early – usually, the motion happens just before 3 pm. That quickly gave way to the usual dissatisfaction and mockery from the Twitter gallery as the government benches emptied. The consensus could well be summed up as, ‘Meh, we’ve seen it all before’. We had indeed – out of three sessions this week, this was the second time Abbott employed this tactic.
There was one significant difference this time, though. Abbott was acting on a motion brought by Greens MP Adam Bandt earlier today:
That this House:
(1) condemns the Gillard Government’s deal with Malaysia that would see 800 asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters and sent to Malaysia; and
(2) calls on the Government to immediately abandon this proposal.
That motion passed 70-68, with the support of Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and KAP MP Bob Katter. A similar motion was passed by the Senate in May, making this the first time on Parliamentary record that both Houses had directly condemned the government. It wasn’t quite open revolt – such motions are not binding, but it was a very clear signal to the Prime Minister that she did not have the support of the Parliament on her Malaysia policy.
Her refusal to accede to the motion set up the conditions for a censure, and rightly so. Finally, Abbott had firm grounds. It was an opportunity not to be wasted – but waste it he did.
Unable to confine his argument to condemnation of the Malaysia plan, Abbott couldn’t resist extolling the virtues of Nauru. ‘There is a better way … Nauru is a humane solution! It’s cost-effective! There are no whipping posts in Nauru.’ It was the same argument the Coalition pushed all this week.
Julie Bishop, seconding the motion, was similarly unable to keep to the issue. She covered a wide range of subjects in accusatory tones: ‘She’s betrayed her leader … this arrogant Prime Minister looked down the barrel of a camera and said “There will be no carbon tax under a govt I lead”.’
The vote eventually saw the motion to suspend standing orders defeated – and the effective end of Question Time with less than half of its alloted 90 minutes/20 questions expired. All in all, it accomplished precisely nothing.
Abbott had strong grounds for a censure. He could have built an effective argument based on the Bandt motion alone, stressing the Parliament’s lack of support for a policy widely condemned as futile at best, inhumane at worst. He could have pointed out that a leader prepared to ignore the Parliament’s expressed will set a dangerous precedent. He could have appealed to everything from people’s sense of humanity to the need for democracy to be consultative.
He might have started that way – but he fell back on the same old formula – haul out every campaign slogan, every slur, every tired bit of rhetoric the Opposition has employed against this government. In so doing, he virtually assured it would fail – and he lost the support of any who might otherwise have put aside party loyalties.
Perhaps there was no chance that the censure could work. It would have taken the co-operation of all the Independents, Katter and Bandt to accomplish that. But the attempt was rightly made.
When the vote was defeated, someone on the Opposition benches called out, ‘A moral victory!’
It wasn’t. It was a wasted opportunity to properly criticise the government. And it was a wasted opportunity to gather public support for an issue with potentially dreadful consequences.
Abbott’s cried ‘Censure!’ so many times, and for such trivial reasons. People have come to expect that anything he says on the subject will be the same kind of noise, designed to do little more than get a few sound-bites into the evening news. Crudely put, it just looks like he wants the attention.
Now, at a time when a censure was not only appropriate but almost necessary, no one can be bothered to listen.
The Coalition have already made comments pointing the finger at Bandt, who did not support them on the motion to suspend standing orders. The implication is clear: Bandt doesn’t have the courage of his convictions when push comes to shove.
But really, Abbott’s got no one to blame but himself here. Gillard is free to defy the Parliament – because he couldn’t stop himself from crying ‘Wolf!’ once too often.
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.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott met with his Shadow Cabinet today. The topic was flood recovery, the aim to come up with an alternative plan to Labor’s two-pronged approach of flood levy and spending cuts. Tipped off that Abbott was going to interrupt proceedings to make an announcement, the media – mainstream, new and social – pricked up its ears.
Since the release of details of the flood levy, the Coalition have insisted that the entire amount for flood relief could be raised through spending cuts. To date, however, there have been no specifics. Apart from a re-hash of the ‘NBN is bad’ message and a vague notion that – because devastating floods have occurred – we don’t need a water buyback scheme, it’s been all about the rhetoric. There’s ‘fat in the budget’. There are ‘savings to be had’. Abbott is happy to sit down ‘in a spirit of bipartisanship’ to show Labor exactly where those might be. The Coalition, it seems, are great believers in the idea that if you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it.
What we expected today, then, were a few details as to exactly where Abbott had found the ‘fat’.
What we got was five minutes of railing against the government – accompanied by Abbott’s trademark ‘I’m really savouring this moment’ grin – followed by a reassurance that people supported the Coalition, and that details would be forthcoming. Soon.
Shades of the Abbott-Hockey-Robb merry-go-round during the election campaign. Heavy on the sizzle, light – or in this case, non-existent – on the sausage.
But what we did get was the clearest possible indication of the Coalition’s goals in this Parliamentary session.
‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government,’ he said.
‘Every month that this government lasts is, in a sense, a worse month for our country than it should be … it’s our job to bring about change for the better.’
So much for ‘we’re just trying to hold the government to account’. So much for ‘we need to provide a credible alternative government’.
You can’t spin this. It’s a declaration; the Coalition are dedicating themselves to bringing down the Labour government, before July rolls around and the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate.
Listening to Abbott, you could be forgiven for thinking that the election campaign has already started. He accused the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ (yes, he’s still using that line) of being ‘addicted to taxes, addicted to spending and … [having] no agenda for the country other than its own survival’. They ‘can’t be trusted with money’, and they know it. (The mere fact that they’ve established an oversight authority to ensure that all flood recovery money is properly spent proves it, apparently.) The Coalition has a ‘better’ plan, but we won’t find out about it in a hurry.
Sound familiar? Remind you of August last year? It should.
In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, it’s ‘de ja vu all over again’.
There’s one crucial difference, though. It’s only been six months since the election.
That doesn’t seem to matter to the Coalition, though. Their entire attitude since the Independents decided to support Labor has been that this is not a legitimate government, and that somehow the Liberal/National parties were cheated of their ‘rightful’ place as leaders of the country. The ‘we were robbed’ rhetoric dropped off fairly quickly, but the sentiment remains. They protested that they weren’t just out to ‘wreck’ everything the government tried to do, but their actions showed a consistent, almost mindless adherence to the principle of ‘if Labor’s for it then we’re agin it’.
Now we have it confirmed straight from the horse’s mouth. Abbott says it’s the Coalition’s ‘job’ to change the government. The only way to do that is to force an election, preferably before the dreaded ‘Labor-Greens alliance’ comes into full effect. And – short of unforeseen circumstances necessitating a by-election – that means blocking the government at every turn, until there is no alternative for Gillard but to declare the government unworkable and call a double dissolution.
It’s an incredibly risky proposition. To make it work, Abbott needs the three Independents on side. That means either wedging them against their own electorates’ best interests, or convincing them that the government simply can’t deliver what it promised. Either will take a good deal of wrangling. Senator Barnaby Joyce in particular is vicious in his attacks on Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and even manages to incur the wrath of Bob Katter (arguably the most right-leaning of the three).
Even if the Coalition can’t convince the Independents, however, they can create a bottleneck. When nothing gets done, people get frustrated; and sometimes, the most appealing alternative is to simply wipe the slate clean and start again.
Whether Abbott can manage to bring down the government is arguable. What’s clear, though, is that he intends to try, and he’s not even bothering to hide it anymore.
Yesterday on Insiders, the Opposition Leader twisted and turned over an incredibly insensitive email asking for donations for the Coalition’s campaign to stop the flood levy that was sent just as Cyclone Yasi bore down on far north Queensland. He refused to take any responsibility, or even apologise on behalf of his party. In an otherwise lightweight interview, he stammered and sweated and would only say that it wasn’t his fault – and in any case, he was just concerned for the well-being of all Australians.
Today, with Deputy Leader Julie Bishop giggling at his side, he embraced the role of wrecker with a huge smile and undisguised relish. Gone was the serious man worried about small business and working families, the self-proclaimed protector of Australia’s standard of living. Instead we were treated to Abbott-as-headkicker, gleefully aggressive and seemingly interested in nothing more than the opportunity to usurp the throne.
It was all a little bit Richard the Third, really.
So the next time Tony Abbott or the Coalition stands up on television or at an event and says they’re just looking out for the ordinary Australian, remember his words today:
‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government.’
This isn’t about us. This is about ‘vaulting ambition’, that takes nothing into account but itself. And if we are thrown into turmoil by Opposition blockades, stalled programs and – potentially – another expensive election campaign and the chaos that would result from a Coalition government killing one initiative-in-progress after the other?
That’s just a price we’ll have to pay.
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.
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.
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.
In what’s looking a bit like a game of ‘Hard to Get’, the three country Independents are still not sure when they will make their decisions. Katter initially indicated that he would decide yesterday, but then made it known that it might not be until Tuesday. Windsor and Oakeshott agree on this, although Oakeshott even speculated that Wednesday wasn’t out of the question. Today, they’re talking again with the leaders of the major parties.
Surely they’ve made up their minds by now? What else can they possibly have to talk about?
Well, we don’t have any idea how they’re leaning, although that hasn’t dampened the speculation – and the condemnation. Here’s a sample – see if you can pick the pundits from the punters.
‘Sadly, the independents have apparently been sucked into the Labor Party orbit, taking advice from partisans such as Bruce Hawker and GetUp.’
‘ …the independents should not return this failed government.’
‘If there is a Liberal-National government formed, then that government will do its best to get those three out of office because they think that those seats belong to them.’
‘What a circus this is turning out to be. Windsor and Oakeshott are carrying on as if they have not made up their minds.’
‘Three formerly conservative Independent candidates, each humping baggage from their past affiliations get to choose the government. Three amigos? Three inflated egos more likely. If that is democracy, God help us.’
‘The longer this interregnum goes on, the more public sentiment skews towards another election.’
Those are some of the nicer comments. A quick tour around media websites and Twitter shows just how strongly people are prepared to put their views, however – lovely words like ‘farce,’ ‘power-mad’, ‘incompetent’, ‘insignificant’, ‘jumped-up’, and my personal favourite, ‘holding the country to ransom’.
It should be fairly clear by now that no one is going to hurry the Independents. That didn’t stop Abbott publishing an open letter in the Sunday Telegraph that can best be described as three-parts ‘the country is doomed if you back the Labor-Green alliance’, two-parts ‘the electorate has told you to back us, and besides, we like the bush’ and one-part ‘we love the bush so much that we’ll make it our priority in government’.
It was an extraordinarily clumsy move on Abbott’s part. It smacked of desperation – whether true or not, it gave the impression that Abbott was failing in his bid to form government. It also delivered a pretty hefty insult to the Independents. In going to the media to deliver his message, Abbott was turning up the pressure. Nothing in that letter needed to be taken to the public – it was clearly a signal to the Liberal/National base to turn up the heat. Supporters responded enthusiastically, bombarding comment columns with advice for the Independents that ranges from heartfelt pleas to strident commands.
Luckily, most of that appears to be water off a duck’s back as far as Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter are concerned, although Katter seems to be increasingly irritated by the whole process. And who can blame him? He’s got people calling him every hour, stopping him on the street, even following him to lunch dates, all wanting to know if he’s made up his mind yet.
Maybe they truly haven’t decided. Maybe they’re arguing details. Oakeshott hinted that there was a possibility one of them might need to consider changing his mind in order to vote as a bloc with the other two – which might well signal a split in the ranks. There’s no whiff of coercion, though – they seem to be genuinely committed to figuring out the best possible solution. Consensus politics in action.
There’s another factor here, though. Oakeshott drew up a list of parliamentary reforms, many of which parallel those requested by Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie – an independent Speaker, for example. Labor signed on, which was hardly surprising, given that they have already committed to substantial reforms. The Coalition has not yet done so – in fact, is balking at some of the proposals.
Oakeshott wants both parties to sign on. It’s the clearest indication yet that the Independents are really committed to parliamentary reform – they want a guarantee that no matter who gets to form government, the reforms will take place.
Glenn Milne is reporting today that there are mumblings favouring Gillard, although he is careful to stress that there are no firm indicators. Meanwhile, Gillard has announced a media conference for 4.20pm today.
With only about 48 hours left in the decision-making process, perhaps the task now is to stop second-guessing and pressuring the Independents, and start thinking about how the business of government is going to function for the next three years.
Whoever ends up in government is going to have to work closely with these Independents, and with Bandt and Wilkie. They won’t be able to rely on their numbers to push through legislation. Given the huge political divide between the major parties, and the flat refusal to even consider adopting each other’s policies, passing any new legislation is likely to rely on those five (possibly six, if Crook sticks to his avowed wish to be considered a cross-bencher) men.
It’s a matter for panic in some quarters. The fear-mongering ranges from speculation that the Independents might simply insist on lots of goodies for their own electorates, to assertions that they will cause irreparable economic damage with their narrow focus on the bush and their failure to understand ‘big picture’ issues. Far better that we go back to the polls now. (Of course, this last sentiment conveniently ignores the very real possibility that we would simply end up in the same place six weeks from now.)
A poll commissioned by a NSW lobby firm made the headlines today. Australians don’t want a hung Parliament, they want another election! We’re ‘fed up’, apparently. We’re ‘worried’. We ‘think it would be better’ if one of the major parties had a clear win. After all, who knows what these Independents could do? Can we trust them? Are they up to the challenge? It’s all too frightening. Let’s just pretend the election didn’t happen, and do it all again.
The optimism of the first week after the election has transformed into scared nostalgia, if you accept that poll. We’ve had a glimpse of the future, it suggests, and – to quote the movie Wayne’s World – ‘we fear change’.
Wait. Stop. Breathe.
Look at how these MPs have behaved so far. Every one of them has shown themselves to be principled, thoughtful, and concerned with the good of the country as a whole. Wilkie turned down $1 billion for his own electorate in order to secure an equitable arrangement for the nation. Bandt’s concerns range far outside the ‘traditional’ Greens focus on environmental issues. All five are absolutely committed to parliamentary reforms designed to redress imbalances in government and perhaps bring us back to a point where we are more concerned with getting things done than whether we can smear our opponents.
Hardly reason to panic, really.
Minority governments can work. They already do work in Australia. And where they don’t, it’s likely to be the fault of a major party that sees itself as disenfranchised, rather than of those who hold the balance of power.
So how about this – we all just unclench those white knuckles, take a deep breath and settle down.
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.
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.