Greens become the very thing they rebelled against

Greens become the very thing they rebelled against

Have the Greens become part of the establishment? It would appear so, judging by their push to deny micro parties the use of preference harvesting to get elected to the Senate.

The Greens, along with the major parties and Senator Nick Xenophon, have recommended in a parliamentary review of the 2013 federal electionthat party registration and Senate voting rules be changed. These changes will make it more difficult for micro parties to run and almost impossible for their candidates to be elected.

Reform of Senate voting has been on the Greens’ agenda for a while, with former party leader Bob Brown unsuccessfully calling for such changes in 2010. Brown advocated the scrapping of group voting tickets, the mechanism used for preference harvesting, because allowing “parties to lodge … their choice of preference flow has led to the dark art of manipulation of preferences for unwarranted electoral advantage”.

But what is “unwarranted electoral advantage” exactly? Is it an election result that is not truly reflective of voters’ intentions, such as being elected with only a small amount of the primary vote?

At the last federal election Motoring Enthusiasts’ Ricky Muir was elected with 17,122 votes, or 0.51 per cent of the state’s vote. In 1996 Bob Brown was elected to the Senate having secured 26,830 votes, or 8.68 per cent*, of the less populous state’s Senate vote. Both MPs made a start that fell considerably short of the 14.3 per cent quota. Obviously other parties’ preferences helped Brown get over the line, yet he describes the current system that allows parties to dictate preferences as “corrupting”.

Perhaps the issue is more that while the Greens rely on leaching the disenfranchised progressive vote from Labor, they are unhappy that a similar splintering of the right-wing vote away from the Coalition has delivered the balance of power to arch conservatives on a number of occasions.

One such conservative, Family First’s Steve Fielding, beat the Greens’ candidate for Victoria in 2004 after benefiting from a preference deal with Labor. Bob Day, the current representative of Family First in the Senate, was elected in 2013 as the direct result of a preference deal personally negotiated by Brown with representatives of the micro parties, Palmer United Party and Nick Xenophon.

Senator Day is only one of the eight crossbenchers who have made the Greens almost redundant in the current parliament – unless the progressive party chooses to vote with the Coalition Government on legislation, which is usually unlikely. Of that eight, only Muir and Day were elected predominantly through preference harvesting.

Other than risking the wrath of their constituency by doing deals with the Government, the only other way the Greens can be relevant in the current parliament is to make allegiances with Labor and at least three members of the crossbench to block Government legislation.

This is a long way from the power-broking position the party held during the Gillard era. Nevertheless, such allegiances can be achieved, as the Labor-initiated but Xenophon-led “coalition of common sense”demonstrated last year.

It’s all very well for the Greens, and the major parties for that matter, to claim the proposed reforms would make Senate voting more “democratic” by returning power over preferences to the voters. In reality, the changes merely strengthen the position of the established parties, including the Greens.

The only voters who seemingly demonstrate independence in allocating their preferences are Greens voters. Labor and Coalition voters are more likely to follow their party’s how-to-vote instructions, and these instructions have increasingly directed preferences away from the Greens (especially after the Greens first lower house MP Adam Bandt was elected on Liberal preferences in 2010).

The Greens are hopeful that if Senate voting was changed to optional preferential voting, Labor and Coalition voters might be more inclined to allocate their preference to the Greens – even if it was against the major parties’ wishes. Perhaps that would occur.

However, the ABC’s resident psephologist Antony Green has calculated that under such an optional preferential voting system, the last federal election would have produced two more Senate seats for the Coalition, two more for Labor, one more for Xenophon and one less for the Greens, leaving only three independents/others. So it’s easy to see why the major parties and Xenophon are keen on the changes too.

The proposed Senate voting changes are less about democracy than they are about keeping our democracy politically “tidy”. It would be fair to say established political interests wouldn’t have advocated these changes if non-establishment senators hadn’t used their balance of power to hold governments to ransom or thwart parliamentary opposition in recent years.

The calculation would undoubtedly be that the less micro party and independent MPs there are in parliament, the less chance there is for marginal interests to have a say. It’s only when such a marginal voice is that of an honourable and thoughtful Senator like Ricky Muir, that the calculation becomes nonsensical and transparently about protecting vested interests.

The Greens like to differentiate themselves by describing the major parties as old and obsolescent, but they too have become part of the mouldering establishment. By resisting the pathways for fresh talent to enter the parliament with protestations about “improving” democracy, they are doing little more than defending the status quo.

Business lobby is full of false bravado

Business lobby is full of false bravado

The Canberra lobbying world has a dirty little secret: business just doesn’t get politics, and the industry is built on that ignorance.

More often than not, the disconnect between business and political reality isn’t much of an issue. Lobbyists wheel their naïve clients through politicians’ offices and are paid handsomely for what is little more than glorified door-opening. In return, the business figures feel influential even though they’ve done little more than whinge to a marginally relevant MP.

Meanwhile the real lobbying work goes on elsewhere in Canberra, not in the shiny marble halls of Parliament House but in far less glamorous surrounds, where myriad departmental officials actually develop and implement policy for their political masters. Lobbyists who want to deliver real policy outcomes, rather than simply act as political matchmakers, focus their efforts at this level.

But because door-opening is a relatively easy and considerably lucrative business, lobbyists often do very little to dissuade their business clients from the delusion that a few words in a politician’s ear is all that’s needed to get a favourable policy.

This can lead to the business sector – particularly the big end of town – believing it can muscle in on a government’s agenda regardless of the political issues at stake.

A good example is the recent call by senior businessman Roger Corbett for a double dissolution electionto overcome the “obstructionist” Senate. One would think that as a member of the Reserve Bank board and chairman of Fairfax Media Corbett would have a workable grasp of our political system.

However, if he did, Corbett would know that a DD election would likely increase the fractured nature of the Senate. The reduced quota for election to the upper house could result in even more independent, micro and minor party candidates being elected. Not to mention, of course, that on current opinion poll ratings, an election at this time would also see the defeat of the Abbott Government altogether.

Even if we set aside Corbett’s politically impractical call as the wishful thinking of an overly enthusiastic Liberal Party member, there are significant other examples of the business community simply not coming to grips with political imperatives.

Take the blink-and-you-might-miss-it declaration from the “group of nine” business groups earlier this month, which essentially accused current political leaders of cowardice for backing off on economic reform, saying: “Past giants of economic reform did what was right for the long-term benefit of Australia and not because it was politically expedient – it rarely ever was.”

Like Corbett, the business leaders that put their names to the statement have either deliberately ignored or simply missed the point. It was at least partly at the business community’s behest that the Abbott Government’s first budget went in so hard on economic reform. But only the Government has had to shoulder the community’s opprobrium since for doing so.

Even now, as the Government continues to struggle in the opinion polls after delivering the most unpopular budget in recent history, business continues to push it for policy changes that would amount to nothing short of electoral suicide if adopted in the current political environment.

Top of their wish list is workplace relations reform, yet only a government comprised of madmen or fools would propose this at a time when the unions’ successful WorkChoices campaign is still relatively fresh in the minds of Australian voters.

The other key reform being sought by business is tax reform, namely a cut in the corporate tax rate. This is behind the business push for an increase or broadening of the GST, which would improve the Government’s budget bottom line and consequently make a corporate tax cut more palatable to the broader community.

One of the principal business lobby groups, the Business Council of Australia, has even gone so far as to commission market research from Liberal Party pollster Crosby Textor, suggesting that the 94 per cent of respondents who agree the nation needs a “better plan” for its long-term future means voters “accept the need for change”.

Even if that were true, the same research found 62 per cent “do not trust government to manage tax reform well enough to create a better system overall”.

This is the political reality that business must face: there is no point pressuring the Government to prosecute difficult reforms when the community either fears, distrusts or holds the Government in contempt.

As Crosby Textor co-founder Mark Textor explained in an interview over the weekend, political leaders like NSW Premier Mike Baird and NZ prime minister John Key are successful because they pass three threshold tests of trust with voters: Do I trust this person at his word? Can he do what he says in this political system? And, if this thing he wants to do goes wrong, is this person of a character that would care if someone slips through the cracks?

And in the absence of that trust? Textor says it needs to be co-opted from an unexpected but credible third party, such as when the Australian Council of Social Services backed the Howard Government’s campaign for the GST.

Reform-minded business leaders need to accept that it is pointless – if not counterproductive – to pressure a government to implement change that will result in electoral defeat. Even if such a government chose unpopular policy purity over political expediency, it’s likely a new incoming government would simply overturn the change to garner public support.

Calling Government MPs cowards for backing away from reform is not telling them anything they didn’t already know, but it’s still as useless as shouting into the wind. Business must accept that reform needs a level of trust in government that is currently missing, and that new coalitions of interest, involving sections of the community outside of business, must be formed to re-establish that trust.

It may make business leaders feel important and influential to berate the Government and grandstand for the media. But like lobbyists opening politicians’ doors for a living, doing so is nothing more than a pointless and hollow charade.

New polls but same old pain for Abbott

New polls but same old pain for Abbott

Two opinion polls have emerged this morning, with results that suggest Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Government have improved somewhat in the opinion of voters but not enough to take an election-winning lead from Labor.

While Newspoll found an increase in support for the Government, the Ipsos poll claims a decrease. Nevertheless, both polls have arrived at about the same overall result – albeit from different directions– measuring the Coalition’s primary vote at 39-41 per cent with 38-36 per cent for Labor. On these numbers, after preferences are allocated, Labor remains in the lead.

Both polls also found the gap closing between Abbott and the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on approval ratings. However, Newspoll suggests Abbott has closed in on Shorten as preferred PM (at 40 per cent compared to Shorten’s 41 per cent) but Ipsos found the opposite with Shorten at 46 per cent and Abbott at 38.

Even with the Government’s preferred opinion poll, Newspoll, showing a more favourable result for the Coalition, Government MPs would understandably be frustrated with the incremental nature of the improvement. PM Abbott has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at voters, ditching a wagonload of unpopular policies while hitching himself to populist causes such as food labelling and curbs against foreign ownership.

Unfortunately for the Government, the wholesale abandonment of tough budget measures may have been counterproductive. According to the Ipsos poll, 58 per cent of respondents said they want the budget deficit addressed as a high priority, but only 41 per cent saw the Coalition as better economic managers. That’s not to say Labor was considered any better: only 32 per cent of respondents saw the party of the former Rudd and Gillard governments as superior in managing the economy.

Agitators within the Government could seize on the Ipsos results to rekindle leadership speculation. According to the poll, Treasurer Joe Hockey’s approval rating has dropped to 33 per cent, with 58 per cent disapproving of his performance. This is an almost complete reversal of the Treasurer’s standing in March last year, just weeks before he delivered one of the most unpopular budgets ever.

Now the advocates for change might promote a 2-for-1 offer, suggesting the only way to offload the deadweight Treasurer is to dispense with the Prime MinisterA similar line has been used in the past about the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.

It’s likely too that the antipathy Government MPs hold for Credlin will resurface in light of news on the weekend that NSW Liberal state director Tony Nutt will not be joining the Prime Minister’s Office as first suggested.

Nutt’s addition to the PMO would have been good for Abbott. If the experienced fix-it man had replicated the role he played in former PM John Howard’s office, Nutt could have taken on the enforcer part of Credlin’s all-encompassing responsibilities and provided another way for backbenchers to communicate with the PM. This would have freed up Credlin to concentrate on political strategy and policy.

However, according to well-connected conservative columnist Niki Savva, Nutt was unable to obtain assurances of access – presumably to the PM – and responsibilities, which is code for Credlin being unwilling to accede to a power-sharing arrangement.

Nutt joins a growing line of experienced and respected political or policy talent that has either been rebuffed or shown the door by Credlin and Abbott since the Coalition regained Government. Well-credentialed departmental secretaries such as Andrew Metcalfe, Blair Comley and Martin Parkinson were given the axe early onHockey reportedly wanted to keep Dr Parkinson as head of Treasury but was over-ruled by the PM and his CoS. Next month’s budget will therefore be in part a measure of the new Treasury head, John Fraser, who is said to have been Abbott’s preferred candidate for the role, as well as a test for Treasurer Hockey.

In total, eight departmental heads have been sacked or resigned since the change of government.

Such personnel changes, and arguable losses of vital experience and knowledge, have not been restricted to the public service. A recent media profile on Credlin claimed she had directed that Tony O’Leary, Abbott’s director of communication while in opposition, be escorted from a private election night victory party as his services were no longer required. Like Nutt, O’Leary is another former long-time Howard staffer, and both men are highly respected by the vast majority of Government MPs.

Those MPs will no doubt be wondering to what extent the Government’s electoral standing could have been improved if those two “old hands” had been in the Prime Minister’s Office over the past year or so, directing political and media strategy. This is particularly the case given Credlin’s charm offensive following the failed leadership coup in February has had only limited success.

Since the Coalition’s election 18 months ago, valuable corporate memory has been either eschewed or discarded by Abbott and his most senior adviser to shore up their power base. Given that today’s opinion polls will be used to recast a negative light on the PM and the Treasurer, it would be fair to conclude that power base remains fractured and in danger of being shattered.

Next month’s federal budget is the next leadership test for PM Abbott, but there is no guarantee it will be his last. Particularly if he continues to be saddled with a Treasurer who’s seen to be incompetent and an adviser who’s seen to have too much power.

Labor factions still rule, women pay the price

Labor factions still rule, women pay the price

Oops they did it again. The only political party in Australia to use quotas to increase the proportion of female MPs in its ranks has again flouted the principle by choosing a man over a woman for a safe parliamentary seat.

This time it has occurred in Queensland, with the Labor Party’s left faction hustling former federal minister, Senator Jan McLucas, from her post in favour of former Queensland MP Murray Watt.

Watt is expected to be the number one candidate on Labor’s Queensland ticket, assuring him of success at the next federal election.

At first glance, the ousting of McLucas could be seen as much-needed renewal, given the former teacher and city councillor was first elected to the Senate in 1998. Watt, on the other hand, is a practising lawyer who has also been a senior public servant, chief of staff (to former Queensland premier Anna Bligh), Labor campaign director, and a state MP. He’s also 15 years younger than McLucas.

In fact, Watt’s strong credentials, and qualities as a personable man in his prime, make him an ideal candidate to run in a moderately marginal seat in the lower house. But no, that’s not how things are done in the “modern” Labor party – it’s apparently more important to reward factional loyalists such as Watt with a six-year tenure on the red leather benches than it is for the party to be competitive in the chamber that actually determines government.

Queensland Labor’s right faction has made a similar move, encouraging former senator Joe Ludwig to move on in favour of – you guessed it – yet another man. In this case it’s former Queensland state secretary Anthony Chisholm who will get the sinecure. Chisholm recently ran Labor’s successful state election campaign against the Newman government.

There’s no denying both Watt and Chisholm are politically talented men. And they’re a vast improvement on the two new Labor Senators elected at the 2013 election, Chris Ketter for Queensland and Joe Bullock for Western Australia, both of whom were long-serving officials of the right-wing Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association before getting their cushy new jobs.

You might recall a deal between the left and right factions resulted in Bullock winning the number one spot on Labor’s ticket for the WA Senate election re-run, relegating the much younger and arguably more talented Louise Pratt to the second spot and the end of her Senate career.

Former Labor finance minister Penny Wong almost met the same fate, with another former SDA official turned Senator, Don Farrell, chosen by the state’s dominant right-wing faction to take the first spot on the South Australian Labor ticket for the 2013 election.

After considerable public outcry and a threat by the left’s Anthony Albanese to ask the ALP national executive to overturn the decision, Farrell relinquished the number one position to Wong. Labor then failed to secure enough votes in South Australia to elect two senators, meaning Farrell was lost to the parliamentary party instead of Wong.

Granted, Labor is wise to bring fresh blood into its parliamentary ranks, but the party tends to put men into safer seats and higher on senate tickets than it does equally qualified or sometimes even more talented women. Co-convenor of Emily’s List Australia, Tanja Kovac, has suggested only about 20 per cent of “traditionally old-guard Labor” seats go to women.

Before the 2013 federal election, one media report suggested that of the 10 safe Labor seats being vacated, only three would go to women.

They were former WA state minister Alannah MacTiernan, who replaced Stephen Smith; Joanne Ryan, who took the baton from Julia Gillard; and Sharon Claydon, who succeeded Sharon Grierson in Newcastle. These women, along with two others, were among the 11 new Labor members elected in 2013, bringing the proportion of female Labor MPs to 38 per cent and Senators to 56 per cent, and the overall average in federal parliament to almost 44 per cent. Labor’s current quota is 40 per cent.

Some with a more generous heart than this writer’s might accept Labor’s current reversion to preselect male candidates as an act of complacency, considering the quota has been met. Labor’s 21 female MPs (from 55), also compares favourably with the Coalition’s 18, which is only 20 per cent of its 90 MPs.

But in reality, the fate of Labor women is shaped more by factional influences than the quota. McLucas, Pratt and Wong (nearly) lost their places in parliament to men, not because they were poor performers but because the factions wanted to give their seats to other factional loyalists deemed more “deserving”.

Labor party renewal, while ostensibly achieved by the selection of new-blood candidates such as Murray Watt, is actually being stymied by factional cronyism.

Labor party elder John Faulkner made this clear in a controversial speech last year, in which he was reported to have said Labor must modernise and increase internal democracy by giving more power to members, re-evaluating its relationship with union leaders and “undemocratic” factions, and eliminating the “stench of corruption” in NSW.

While this wasn’t the first time Faulkner had criticised the factions, his latest entreaty followed on from similar calls by Labor Leader Bill Shorten. Following Labor’s defeat at the 2013 election, Shorten called for major reforms to the party saying “the role of unions within our party has developed into a factional, centralised decision-making role” and that Labor “must rebuild as a membership-based party, not a faction-based one.”

Not surprisingly, the factions and unions are pushing back. The Victorian Labor Party’s conference earlier this month voted down the national leader’s proposed “70-30” reforms, which would have reduced the votes of union representatives in preselection processes from 50 per cent to 30 per cent and given rank-and-file members the other 70 per cent of the vote.

NSW Labor also voted against the reform last year, despite Faulkner declaiming the state party’s current preselection processes as “by the factions, for the factions, [and] between candidates from the factions,” which had “at times produced the worst candidates through a profoundly flawed system”.

Faulkner and Shorten have taken on an ambitious challenge in seeking to rein in the power of Labor’s factions. But they do so in the knowledge that it would not only result in the selection of more female candidates, but better candidates overall.

Labor cannot renew while it continues to atrophy under its deals and cronyism. The future viability of Labor depends on it broadening its appeal to prospective members, supporters and voters. A party made small and twisted by the manoeuvrings of its factions will only achieve the opposite.