Cyclone Clive could tear through minor parties

Towards the end of the Gillard years, voters had had enough of independents and minor party MPs holding the balance of power. This disenchantmentlikely stemmed from the two country independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, giving Julia Gillard the numbers to form minority government and their support for the price on carbon.

Even though Australians were dissatisfied with Tony Abbott and Gillard, political pundits anticipated that at the 2013 federal election voters would take out their resentment on the bit players and return to the major parties in droves.

This proved mostly to be true. The Coalition secured government with a healthy majority, including the seats relinquished by the retiring Windsor and Oakeshott, while Labor lost fewer seats than the opinion polls suggested. The only new independent to be elected was Cathy McGowan, who tapped into grassroots determination to get a better local MP and ended up snatching a seat from the incoming Coalition Government.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and the Greens’ Adam Bandt did well too, with both increasing their vote, even though in Bandt’s case the Green vote decreased nationally.

McGowan’s success in particular heralded a continuation of the legacy left by Windsor and Oakeshott, replacing their considered voices with hers in the Parliament. Independents and minor party MPs were therefore given a reprieve, and with McGowan as their new torchbearer it was tempting to think their future would be a long and fruitful one.

But their colleagues in the Senate may yet squander what remains of voter goodwill towards politicians that are not from the major parties. For when the new Senators take their places on the red leather benches in July, Australian voters will reap the whirlwind that is Clive Palmer.

Granted, Palmer sits in the House of Representatives, but his populist and mercurial approach to facts, policies and legislation will guide his party’s voting bloc in the Senate.

Palmer may seem a novelty politician, bringing delicious schadenfreude to anyone who lodged a vote against Abbott at the last election, but in reality he is a wilful source of political chaos.

Palmer has become emboldened by the knowledge that Abbott needs six of the eight Senate crossbench votes to pass any legislation that is opposed by Labor. With three PUP Senators and the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, Palmer now has control over four of those votes.

As a result, Palmer’s behaving like a bully on the beach, flexing his Senate numbers while kicking demands into the face of the diminutive Abbott. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Palmer was agitating for selfless or even consistent causes.

But Palmer is all over the shop, careening from narcissistic disdain (Abbott needs to be able to count) and near incomprehensible politico-babble (we can make an impact in the field of ideas) to painful ignorance of our nation’s democratic processes (such as the implications of blocking supply).

Palmer tells people what they want to hear, with seemingly little thought given to the possibility that conflicting promises will be exposed or indeed whether they can be achieved at all. One week he’s telling Western Australia voters that he’ll deliver them a greater share of GST revenue (which is not actually determined by Parliament), and the next he’s claiming he can protect Indigenous Australians from racial vilification by the NT Government.

By the time the Palmer party is over, voters may well have given up on minor parties and independents altogether.

Having sold PUP to voters as the only party that can scrap the carbon and mining taxes, Palmer is now threatening to block their repeal unless the carbon tax cancellation is made retrospective (thereby saving Palmer’s mining operations many millions of dollars) and a $200 top-up payment for the orphans of defence personnel that was meant to be funded from the mining tax is retained.

These two demands demonstrate the murky mix of self-interest and public good that make up Palmer’s political agenda. He may well believe taxpayer funds would be better spent raising pensions than paying for emissions reduction, but that’s more a reflection of the coal magnate’s belief that man-made carbon emissions are not the problem than on the efficacy of the Coalition’s Direct Action policy.

And if Palmer is prepared to block a supply bill to stop the introduction of Direct Action, to what lengths would the politician who still runs his multi-million dollar coal mining operation also go to protect tax breaks for business, reduce environmental regulations, have the GST increased, or have industrial relations reforms brought on earlier than Abbott would prefer?

Windsor wrote on the weekend in a cautionary note to the “Senate’s wildcards” that the political class was expecting PUP MPs to be “self-serving, particularly towards Clive’s business interests, and to be novices in a world of political strategy and propaganda.”

Windsor added, hopefully, that PUP would come under the most scrutiny because “it has the capacity, if credible, to encourage voters away from the two-party dominance in our lower house.”

Regrettably, Windsor’s hope is ill-founded.

Palmer is more intent on causing havoc for Liberal and Coalition governments around the nation than he is on “making an impact in the field of ideas”.

The resulting chaos will produce more than amusement for those wishing to see Abbott’s legislative ambitions poetically frustrated.

It will result in perverse outcomes that have little to do with good government and everything to do with Palmer’s patchy political priorities.

And by the time the Palmer party is over, voters may well have given up on minor parties and independents altogether.

Shine a light on shady lobbying

In contrast with Labor’s calls for reforms to prevent future political corruption, and the Liberals’ quiet acceptance of the same, the other main protagonists in NSW’s shady political practices have remained steadfastly silent.

The lobbyists – be they door-openers, influence-wielders or policy-shapers – are employing a small-target strategy in the hope of surviving the rout.

By staying low and keeping quiet, lobbyists are hoping the latest political storm will pass over without their practices being placed under similar scrutiny. For the lobbyists know that any such exposure could lead to other reforms that could seriously curtail their business and livelihoods.

There are essentially three types of lobbyists: consultants, corporates and lobby groups. The consultants work for lobbying firms, charging healthy retainers to keep clients informed about relevant issues and get meetings with politicians when the clients feel the need to be “influential”.

With door-opening and intelligence-gathering being their main concerns, the consultants tend to be former political staffers and retired politicians. Their currency is who they know, which is usually based on who they used to be.

Corporate lobbyists are an in-house version of the consultant, dedicated to providing their company with political information and access. They’re usually former political staffers too, sometimes even poached from the relevant minister’s office to ensure they have the most up-to-date policy knowledge and political contacts. Both consultant and corporate lobbyists tend to rely on political networks and influence to get their desired results.

And then there are the lobby groups, who can be advocates for anything from environmental and social concerns to industry and business interests. These lobbyists spend the bulk of their time trying to influence legislation that impacts on their members’ issues, but their success comes from understanding the interaction of politics and policy.

Lobby groups spend a great deal of time working with government departments with the aim of shaping legislation while it is being developed. They tend only to knock on a politician’s door when there is a need to create political momentum or reinforcement for what they’re trying to achieve at the policy level within departments.

Because of this focus on policy as well as politics, lobby group advocates come from a broader range of backgrounds; some are indeed former political staffers (and there is even a former chief minister running one business lobby group), but there are also ex-journalists and people with business and departmental backgrounds.

By and large all three types of lobbyists are ethical operators. But they ply their trade in a murky world of politics that is governed by power plays, allegiances, and the inevitability of numbers in cabinet, the party room or the electorate.

The challenge for any lobbyist is to be aware of, and use, these elements without actually becoming involved in them. This risk is exacerbated when political and party operatives take on lobbying roles. And it exponentially grows when lucrative government contracts and lobbyist success fees are involved.

Which brings us to ICAC and the unfortunate case of Barry O’Farrell’s misplaced wine.

The government contractor-on-the-make who gifted the Grange to O’Farrell was not only a lobbyist and Liberal Party donor but CEO of a company that depended on government patronage to survive. Nick Di Girolamo lobbied for Liberal government contracts to be granted to AWH, and employed a party official and former senior political staffer (Arthur Sinodinos) as well as another party official and former state MP (Michael Photios) to do the same.

It’s one thing to lobby for preferred policy settings and laws, which is what most lobbyists do. It may be tricky sometimes to get the balance right between good politics and sound policy, but at least the public interest test can be applied in Parliament and the media.

The granting of government contracts is far less transparent, and when there’s no official tender process the transaction can be completely opaque. It’s therefore no surprise that this avenue for using influence and extracting favours, protected as it is from public scrutiny, has been exploited by lobbyists (and politicians) who stand to gain from transactions made under such cover.

It’s commendable that Tony AbbottJohn Robertson and the Greens are putting in place reforms in an attempt to inoculate their parties against shady lobbying practices. It’s a good start to insist that party officials cannot also be lobbyists, and that a broader range of relevant pecuniary interests be declared.

But political patronage and the risk of corruption will remain unless the very nature of lobbying evolves from being about access and influence to being about an open and informed government.

To achieve this, lobbying for government contracts should be banned. Former parliamentarians and staffers should be barred from taking on any lobbying roles for at least 12 months, which is a broader proscription than currently set out in the federal government’s Lobbying Code of Conduct. All lobbyists, and not just the consultants, should be required to place their interests on the lobbyists register. And all ministers should keep open diaries so that any member of the public could see which lobbyists had darkened their doorways and on what issues.

Finally, political parties should stop selling access to politicians at exclusive fund-raising dinners and through the business observer programs at their political conferences. Such a hit to the parties’ bottom lines may prove the hardest reform of all but would be necessary to change a political culture that is currently based on access and influence for those who have the capacity to pay.

John Robertson, although breathtakingly hypocritical in light of his own party’s track record, is right to point out the insidious nature of paid influence in today’s political and government processes. But he and all other political leaders need to broaden their scopes.

Political parties may be intent on calling each other out over undue influence and favours, and the media transfixed by every thrust and parry, but unless the actual practice of lobbying is cleaned up, the rest is mere rhetoric.

Bullock and the ghosts of turncoats past

“Self-preservation is a strong motive in politics” – Mal Colston, The Odd One Out, 1975.

Other than indulging in a serious case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted, Labor’s left unions should be very careful about trying to retrospectively disendorse Senator-elect Joe Bullock or force him to step aside for the more prospective candidate, Louise Pratt.

Parliamentarians placed under similar pressure have been known to inconveniently jump ship, particularly when they’re offered attractive inducements by the other side to do so.

Federal Labor’s most notorious rat, Senator Mal Colston, was lured away by the newish Liberal PM John Howard in 1996. Colston was peeved that his own side wouldn’t nominate him to become deputy president of the Senate, a plum role he’d held previously from 1990 to 1993. So after advances from the Coalition, Colston resigned from Labor and became an independent. Later that day he was nominated by the government and duly elected as deputy president.

Colston’s defection gave Howard one of the two extra votes he needed to get government legislation through the Senate. Brian Harradine, the canny former Labor man and staunchly conservative independent Senator from Tasmania, wielded the other. Notwithstanding the price Harradine extracted for his votes, this was easier for Howard than having to negotiate with Labor, the Democrats or the Greens.

Labor didn’t take this well. They hounded the turncoat Colston for (previously forgiven and other) travel allowance indiscretions, causing him to resign from his cherished deputy president position less than a year after he regained it. He was charged with 28 counts of fraud for misusing his travel allowance, leading Howard to vow that the government would not accept the disgraced Senator’s vote in the Senate (although this undertaking proved to be short-lived). Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Colston was never prosecuted for his alleged misdeeds.

If you thought one unedifying saga involving a MP with questionable party loyalty and an appetite for the spoils of office would be a salutary lesson for all concerned, then think again.

Proving that Labor can just as easily play this game, the Gillard government tried to turn not one but two disaffected Liberals to shore up its numbers in 2011. Initially Labor tried to entice Queensland Liberal Alex Somlyay with the deputy speaker position in return for his support in no confidence votes and budget bills. When this strategy failed, Labor’s sights moved to Somlyay’s nemesis and neighbour in an adjacent electorate, Peter Slipper.

Slipper was already subject to allegations of travel allowance misuse and under pressure from former Howard government minister, Mal Brough, who was lining up to challenge him for preselection.

Slipper accepted the government’s nomination for deputy speaker (over their own Anna Burke) but insisted he’d made no deals with Labor to support them in parliamentary votes. Yet a year later, when speaker Harry Jenkins resigned from the chair to shore up the minority government’s precarious numbers, Slipper accepted the government’s nomination to become speaker and promptly resigned from the Liberal Party to become “truly independent”.

The Liberals were no less assiduous in their pursuit of turncoat Slipper than Labor were with Colston. Even if the James Ashby allegations had not emerged, it’s likely Tony Abbott’s opposition would have pursued the man who was arguably the most impartial and effective Speaker we’ve had in recent times, on travel allowance misuse.

Tragically for both Colston and Slipper, their fondness for the perks of office ultimately made it easier for their political enemies to tear them down.

And today, as Abbott surveys the political landscape emerging after the Western Australia Senate election re-run, he cannot but consider the opportunities presented by a disgruntled Joe Bullock.

Depending on the final outcome of the WA ballot, Abbott may need up to seven of the eight crossbench votes in the Senate to pass his totem bills. If we are to believe media reports, Bullock and Abbott were once good friends with similar political philosophies but who ultimately took divergent paths once they left university. Considering their comparable views, the defection of Bullock to the crossbench could make Abbott’s negotiation task just that little bit easier.

Of course, Bullock would have to feel disaffected enough by his own party to want to leave. Despite the calls from the left for Bullock to step aside, so far the right-wing Labor Leader Bill Shorten is standing by his man. But watch Bullock closely if Shorten starts to wobble.

Even then, Abbott would have to provide the Senator-elect with something valued if the PM is going to have any chance of luring Bullock away from Labor.

Does this portend yet another Labor turncoat being nominated by the Government and elected as deputy president of the Senate?

It could be déjà vu.

Women at work (and in politics)

The Fifth Estate, at The Wheeler Centre
At The Wheeler Centre

A fortnight ago I was surprised (and seriously chuffed) by an invitation from The Wheeler Centre to participate in a panel discussion on women at work and in politics.

Facilitated by the tremendous Sally Warhaft (anthropologist, broadcaster and editor), the panel also included former Liberal Senator Judith Troeth and Victorian State Labor MP, Danielle Green.

I was proud to share the stage with these three seriously impressive women.

The event took place on Tuesday this week and it was amazing. Around 150 women and men braved an atrociously wet Melbourne evening to listen to the panel and ask questions. We tackled a range of matters including the question of women having ‘merit’ in the Liberal Party, Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech and whether she played the ‘gender card’, and the hard edge of life in politics.

If you’d like to hear what we had to say, the podcast is now available. The event was part of The Wheeler Centre’s fortnightly Fifth Estate series. If you’re based in Melbourne, be sure to check them out. (P.S. The events are free.)