‘Attack by inquiry’ the latest political whip

Just when political pundits thought Parliament couldn’t descend any further into farce, last week the Abbott Government lowered the bar. In doing so, it may have assisted in damaging a political ally and set a risky new precedent.

As part of the deal negotiated with Clive Palmer to repeal the mining tax, the Government agreed to support an inquiry into the establishment of what is essentially a slush fund for failing businesses – even though it doesn’t support the idea.

Dubbed the Australia Fund, the proposed entity would “support rural and manufacturing industries in Australia in times of crisis and support communities affected by natural disasters” through a range of measures including emergency or ongoing financial relief, loans, acting as guarantor, purchasing debt, waiving interest, or even assuming control of the business for a period.

Essentially it’s an industry protection scheme slanted towards struggling operations in the farming sector.

In addition to establishing whether such a fund is needed, the inquiry will also examine whether “existing bankruptcy and insolvency laws” should be modified or temporarily relaxed for businesses in times of crisis.

Unsurprisingly the Government’s most vocal opponent of industry protection, Treasurer Joe Hockey, does not support the concept, stating in Parliament that industries should not become reliant on taxpayers’ support, “because ultimately industry assistance is revenue from another person”.

Hockey did, however, make it clear the Government would  “allow the parliament to have its inquiries and not pre-determine the outcomes”. That’s code for “it’s better to agree to an inquiry and have control over the chairmanship, than have an ALP-chaired one imposed on us by the Senate.”

Committee work goes mostly unnoticed in the to-ing and fro-ing of national parliament; conducted mainly by backbenchers, it is one of their few perks. The chair and deputy chair receive a salary increase, while other committee members benefit from travelling the nation to hold public meetings and receive evidence.

Even more important than that, committee inquiries are a way of raising one’s profile and building political capital through the pursuit of agendas and the gathering of ammunition to be used against one’s foes.

The inquiry into the Australia Fund clearly has this purpose. Being conducted by a specially-created committee, and comprising MPs from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it will give Palmer and his senators the opportunity to visit rural communities all around the country.

Under cover of the inquiry’s public meetings, PUP MPs will be able to lend a friendly shoulder to representatives of those communities as well as business interests that are under pressure, while exposing the “shortcomings” of various governments that have “failed” to support them. Expect much of the committee’s early action to take place in Queensland as a consequence.

In short, the inquiry into the Australia Fund will be little more than a taxpayer-funded road show that allows PUP to build political capital in rural Queensland for both the state and federal elections.

No wonder Queensland LNP Senator, Barry O’Sullivan has jumped on board, supporting the establishment of the committee inquiry despite seeing no merit in the Australia Fund, noting that he’s nevertheless “keen to start a conversation about how we can encourage investment in agriculture and in rural communities”.

Palmer has made it abundantly clear that he intends to do whatever is necessary to destroy the Newman Government, be it through legal action or the ballot box.

Having snatched voters from the Nationals federally, and more importantly from the LNP in Queensland, as a result of this inquiry, Palmer will ultimately not give a fig whether the Australia Fund is realised. His mission will have been accomplished.

While the Australia Fund inquiry will facilitate PUP’s rearguard assault on the Queensland LNP, Palmer is also negotiating the establishment of a more direct attack on Campbell Newman’s regime with Labor and the Greens.

With the support of the opposition parties, Palmer aims to use his numbers in the upper house to establish a Senate inquiry into the Queensland Government itself. The inquiry’s proposed terms of reference focus on identifying rorting of Commonwealth funds, human rights abuses in the administration of the state’s judicial system and prisons, and breaches of approval processes for the export of resources of services administered by the Commonwealth. They also propose the inquiry committee of five be chaired by Labor, while the deputy chair is to be elected by the committee.

Most tellingly, the inquiry is due to report by March 31, 2015 – in time for the Queensland state election.

Palmer has made it abundantly clear that he intends to do whatever is necessary to destroy the Newman Government, be it through legal action or the ballot box. This Senate inquiry will help him gather further ammunition to do so, while garnering more publicity for PUP in Queensland along the way.

Labor has reportedly indicated it will not obstruct “a senator’s ability to inquire into issues where there are resources available”, while the Greens are said to be reserving judgement until they see the final terms of reference.

If the inquiry is established with Labor’s sanction, it will set a risky precedent for similar inquiries to be held into current or former state governments, with the results being released in time for respective state elections. Such tit-for-tat inquiries could quickly become part of the new campaigning landscape.

Of course, this tactic would not be restricted to scrutiny of state governments. There appears to be an increasing appetite for governing parties at the federal level to launch inquiries and Royal Commissions into each other once elected.

“Attack by inquiry” may soon become the new political game in town. However, the participants would do well to remember that increased scrutiny of this kind tends to come doubly-edged, as the Liberals have learnt in NSW.

Jacqui Lambie: the PUP is outgrowing the kennel

For the vengeful and electorally rampaging Clive Palmer, disaffected disability pensioner Jacqui Lambie would have been little more than the means to an end when he coaxed her to run for the Palmer United Party before the 2013 federal election.

The born-and-bred Tasmanian nursed her own reasons for putting one up the establishment, and her outspoken vehemence dovetailed conveniently with Palmer’s own mangled sound grabs castigating the Coalition at federal and state levels.

But having been peremptorily preselected and then elected on a sweet preference deal, the PUP Senator for Tasmania is now fast outgrowing the kennel.

If the blossoming of Lambie’s political brand continues apace, and canny political operators can find the right enticements to unravel her ties to Palmer, Lambie could become an independent Senate champion for her embattled home state.

Such a turn of events would allow the unashamed champion of the underdog to deliver bounties to Tasmania not seen since the heyday of the late Brian Harradine.

If not for Palmer, Lambie would have been just another Australian downtrodden by bureaucracy.

She joined the army early in life, serving in transport and military policing roles and later losing a stripe for punching a colleague. Lambie finally left the army after 11 years due to a back injury sustained in 1997 from carrying a 40kg pack for a two-day bush skills course.

What does she stand for?

  • Veterans Affairs: Concerned about misogyny in the Australian Defence Force and the high rate of suicide amongst former ADF personnel. Has demanded the Government extend the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce indefinitely, and called for a Royal Commission into the Veterans’ Affairs Department.
  • National Security: Believes Australia’s national security is weak and that defence force spending should be bolstered. Advocates compulsory National Service for all young Australians.
  • Tasmania: Wants an extra $5 billion over four years diverted from foreign aid to establish a special economic zone in Tasmania to help business employ more workers and lower the unemployment rate.
  • Transport: Wants $180 million cut from mainland road and infrastructure to be invested immediately in the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme.

She battled the veterans’ affairs bureaucracy over the next 5 years, to overcome accusations of malingering and finally be allowed to draw a disability pension. These experiences awakened Lambie’s political awareness in 2008 when she was given work by former Labor senator Nick Sherry as part of her rehab. But in 2009 she attempted suicide, and then spent time in a psychiatric ward, following which she found God and lost 40 kilos. She then led an unsuccessful run for Liberal pre-selection in Braddon for the 2013 federal election.

After deciding to run as an independent anyway, Lambie accepted Palmer’s invitation to jump on the PUP bandwagon after realising she couldn’t afford to bankroll a decent campaign on her own.

Lambie’s and Palmer’s political relationship may be one of convenience, but it is nevertheless a fruitful one.

While the multi-millionaire Palmer may claim to be a man of the people, Lambie is genuinely representative of the underclass that most politicians would never encounter unless they visited the local dole office. Lambie shares the concerns and language of this under-represented segment of the Australian community, and unashamedly gives voice to the disdain they hold for the establishment they believe has abandoned them.

Through Lambie, Palmer has a direct line to these disgruntled voters and the opportunity to harvest their protest votes.

The problem for Palmer is that he needs Lambie more than she needs him. Whether she’s inside PUP’s yellow tent or out, Lambie wields one of the six votes needed by the Government from the eight crossbenchers to pass legislation when Labor and the Greens oppose it. Without Lambie, and on the occasions when Muir decides to vote with the Government, Palmer’s bloc is reduced to two and he no longer has the power of veto.

What does the future hold?

Lambie shares Palmer’s passion for political vengeance, but her future will be determined less by revenge than by ambition.

She has not been afraid to brandish the leadership baton kept in her knapsack, reportedly stating not long after the federal election that she would become Leader of PUP if Palmer was not successful in getting elected in Fairfax.

So it’s hardly surprising that other reports have emerged suggesting Lambie is unhappy with her colleague from Queensland, Glenn Lazarus, being unilaterally made Leader of the PUP in the Senate.

Such quibbles would be music to the ears of Government strategists looking for a way to cleave Lambie away from the PUP voting bloc. It would however be a mistake for the plotters to focus only on Lambie’s ambitions for herself.

More important by far appears to be the Senator’s ambitions for the state she represents and the disadvantaged people she’s determined to champion.

The spoils of victory will go to the party that can deliver on that ambition for her.

A multimedia version of this piece appears on the ABC’s tablet app The Brief, which can be downloaded here.

Leash the PUP and deal direct with Labor

It’s hard not to get the sense the Abbott Government’s budget strategy is spiralling out of control.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann insisted repeatedly yesterday in a television interview that he and his colleagues were “working in an orderly and methodical fashion” to implement the budget. Yet one only had to listen closely to pick up the quiet keen of panic underlying his rushed and automated responses to see that even Cormann does not believe his own lines.

The Minister’s weekend television appearance was in stark contrast to his interventions last week, when he had to mop up after Treasurer Joe Hockey’s unfortunate comment about poor people not driving cars.

Cormann was assured and confident at the time, dismissing Labor’s clunky allusions to the budget having more reboots than a Macintosh or Commodore 64.

He wrested back control of the budget debate, pointing out that “no government in recent political history had passed all of its budget measures through both houses of Parliament by the end of August”, and that “a number of the measures that are the subject of the most intensive post-budget debate are not due to take effect for some time”, which left ample time to keep engaging with the Senate crossbenchers.

This was necessary because voters not only think of the budget as unfair, they perceive the Government as having lost control of its implementation.

Coalition strategists would see the latter as far more troubling because the Government can ride through, or if necessary change, a tough budget but it is much harder to cast off the burden of perceived incompetence. Just ask members of the former Gillard government.

And yet yesterday, just one week later, Cormann had been reduced to the same gibbering mess as his Government colleagues, rapidly reeling off numbers, acronyms and other econo-babble and attacking Labor instead of reminding voters what “orderly and methodical” is supposed to look like:

If we stay on a spending growth trajectory that takes us to 26.5 per cent of the share of GDP, when tax revenue on average over the last 20 years was 22.4 per cent of the share of GDP and you don’t want to balance the books by reducing spending, then the only alternative to balance the books is to increase taxes.

The Finance Minister may be correct, but such an “explanation” would have caused most voters’ eyes to glaze over rather than win Cormann any new-found support or respect.

Cormann’s interview was an unfortunate conclusion to the five-week parliamentary break in which the Government was meant to consult and ideally negotiate with the crossbench on the more contentious elements of the budget.

Instead of doing this in a low-key fashion, the Government chose to accompany the negotiations with ham-fisted threats in the media, deploying an artillery of dud firecrackers in an attempt to soften-up the belligerent Senators.

Hockey’s threat to re-introduce legislation on asset recycling/privatisation as an appropriation bill, only gave Clive Palmer a free kick with a headline on being prepared to block supply.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s “speculation” that he may have to cut university research funding if the Government’s reforms to university fees are not accepted, will have gone down as well with Senators as his comment that university students are being asked to pay an additional 10 per cent of their course cost, not “donate their left kidney”.

And now tax increases are being threatened as the way of repairing the budget, which in itself is nonsensical and empty: if the Government can’t get any of its existing tough measures passed, how does it intend to get tax hikes through the same intransigent Senate? It’s certainly not the policy an unpopular Government would take to the next election either.

Very little seems to have been gained from all this tough talk. Palmer said a week ago that his Senators would not support the GP co-payment or the changes to university fees, although he has been known in the recent past to simply change his mind when presented with more information. It would seem this variability is the constant upon which the Government is depending.

Judging from the previous sitting of the new Senate, Palmer will deliver in spades his very own brand of parliamentary unpredictability and its attendant drama. His political viability and that of his party depends upon it.

And yet, there is another path that Abbott could take to dispel the sense of chaos that pervades the budget and his Government.

Instead of making empty threats in an attempt to arrest its ill-fated budget, the Government could make better use of its time working out which is the greater threat to its political survival. Labor may compete with the Coalition for the swinging vote, but Palmer and PUP are stealing the Coalition’s base.

On this measure, Labor is clearly the lesser evil and ironically the means by which Abbott could regain control of his careening budget.

By negotiating with Labor, the Prime Minister could secure Senate passage of mutually agreeable legislation. This would of course require some eating of humble pie and incorporation perhaps of uncomfortable changes into Government policies. It would also give the main opposition parties some brownie points in the eyes of voters.

But such an approach would completely neutralise Palmer. It would negate his balance of power position and relegate his media stunts to irrelevancy. Most importantly it would rob the renegade MP of the kudos and increased support he gets every time he makes life difficult for Abbott.

Is the budget Palmer’s plaything no more?

Like a half-dead mouse, the Abbott Government’s first budget has so far endured seven weeks of being Clive Palmer’s plaything, arising timidly from one indignity only to be batted about by another.

Abbott has taken this fairly meekly until now, clearly preferring to minimise the opportunity for Palmer to take any more umbrage from him, the budget or the Liberal and National parties more generally.

But following the eponymous party leader’s outburst against the Chinese on Monday night, it appears this strategy is changing.

Protection of Australia’s crucial relationship with its number one trading partner has swiftly taken precedence over the need to save the budget, with a veritable conga-line of Coalition cabinet ministers denouncing Palmer for calling the Chinese government “bastards” and “mongrels” while claiming they “shoot their own people“.

Treasurer Joe Hockey may well have wondered at this point why he had even bothered taking his travelling supplicant show around the country.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called the comments “abusive” and the airing of them on national television as inappropriate, while Treasurer Joe Hockey said they were “hugely damaging”. Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce was more circumspect, commenting that such “emotive and colourful language [is] not the way you do business”.

Even the Prime Minister has taken Palmer to task, describing the tirade on commercial radio in Palmer’s home state of Queensland as “over the top, shrill and wrong”.

Palmer has rallied his own troops in response. The former military police corporal and now Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie issued an impassioned press release warning against “the threat of a Chinese Communist invasion”, while Chinese-born PUP senator Dio Wang said Palmer had been “taken out of context”.

This is of course not the first time Palmer has made outrageous accusations against the Chinese, nor will it be the last as the miner continues to battle with his Chinese-government owned business partners Citic over royalties and other payments.

The altercation adds to the reasons why voters around the country, but particularly in Queensland, are now reassessing their perception of Palmer as an honest broker. It follows on from his sexist comments about the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, questions over his use of business funds for election campaign advertising, and what appears to be blatant nepotism in the pre-selection of candidates for the upcoming state election.

Meanwhile, the federal budget sits whimpering in the corner. What little hope the Government took from Palmer dithering over the past week or so over the GP co-payment and university fees dissolved on Monday night when the PUP leader declared:

I don’t want to destroy the values of this country and I assure all Australians that we will stand as the last sentry at the gate. There will be no co-payment. There will be no changes to the education establishments in Australia. There will be no deregulation of universities. That’s why people elect us and that’s what we’re going to do.

Treasurer Joe Hockey may well have wondered at this point why he had even bothered taking his travelling supplicant show around the country over the past few weeks to personally meet with Palmer and the PUP senators.

However, Hockey’s better half, the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, has stepped in to stress the budget is not dead, but just resting.

Cormann essentially called for political commentators to take a chill pill, pointing out that “no government in recent political history had passed all of its budget measures through both houses of Parliament by the end of August”, the supply bills had already been passed, and “a number of the measures that are the subject of the most intensive post-budget debate are not due to take effect for some time”, leaving ample time to keep engaging with the Senate crossbenchers.

This may well be a message for Palmer, which when decoded from Cormann-speak means “we do not negotiate with terrorists”.

Purists and pragmatists clash on climate action

The harrowing events that began to unfold in Ukraine at the end of last week firmly put into perspective the preceding fortnight’s wrangling in the Senate.

The seemingly endless days of political point-scoring, filibusters and guillotines seemed even more shallow than usual, and the supposed victories felt all the more hollow.

Any enjoyment of the proceedings, either in witnessing the repeal of the carbon price or Clive Palmer giving the Prime Minister a lesson in wilful obstructionism, was dispelled by the singularly horrific act of barbarity.

Having therefore been stripped of its triumphalism and schadenfreude, the scrapping of the carbon price revealed the stark quandary that remains: is some climate action better than none at all?

The “idealist or realist” dilemma goes to the heart of the deal that former Greens’ adviser Ben Oquist reportedly shepherded between former US vice-president Al Gore and parliamentarian Palmer, who happens to own one of Australia’s top 400 greenhouse gas emitters.

The realists would emphasise that without the Gore intervention, Palmer would have sided with the Coalition to completely scrap the Clean Energy Future package negotiated by Julia Gillard with the Greens and country independents in 2011.

Palmer vowed instead to protect key elements of the package including ARENA and the CEFC, which support development and commercialisation of the next generation of renewable energy technologies, and the advisory Climate Change Authority.

Palmer also said he would protect the Howard-era RET (until the next federal election), which drives the adoption of mature renewable energy technologies.

The idealists would in turn point out that Gore took a hit to his credibility by appearing with Palmer, and that by being seen to sanction his vow to repeal the carbon price Gore and his handlers were essentially turning a blind eye to the miner while he continued to benefit from enterprises that produce high levels of carbon emissions.

They’d also note that saving a few climate action entities, at no political expense or financial cost to his coal and nickel operations, would have seemed to Palmer a negligible price to pay for the world-class green-washing bestowed by the former US vice-president.

There is of course no easy solution to this impasse.

The idealist-realist conflict has long been a point of contention within the environment movement. Purists like Greenpeace refuse any government or corporate funding and rely on high-visibility media campaigns to make an impact on public policy.

Pragmatists like WWF see benefit in stepping inside the tent to work with businesses and governments to improve environmental standards throughout the economy. This cooperative approach can extend to WWF endorsement through vehicles such as the forest certification scheme, which many purists see as just another form of green-washing.

Much of the friction between the idealists and realists on climate action was minimised with the launch of the CEF package. Granted, the purists wanted a much higher price on carbon to drive changes in consumer behaviour, but were placated with serious money being directed to the development of renewables instead. And the pragmatists saw compensation to middle-income households as a necessary concession even though it neutralised the price signal.

Things remained relatively quiet until the election of the Abbott Government and the prospect of Gillard’s climate action architecture being totally dismantled became reality.

The differing interests have since begun to clash again over what is the best approach to maintaining climate action under the Abbott regime.

Prior to the great unveiling of the Palmer-Gore “understanding”, the most notable recent example of the purity/pragmatic contention on climate action was the struggle within the Greens to finalise a position on petrol excise. Greens Leader Christine Milne took the idealistic view, supporting the indexation of excise in accordance with party policy. However, political pragmatists within the party prevailed with cost of living concerns instead.

No increase in the cost of a fossil fuel was preferred to the sub-optimal alternative, just as had been the case when the Greens rejected Kevin Rudd’s seriously flawed ETS in 2009.

A similar choice will befall the Greens, and Labor, when Palmer’s “dormant” ETS and the Government’s Direct Action package of greenhouse gas mitigation initiatives are considered by the Parliament after it returns in late August.

The idealists will want to dismiss the initially zero-rated trading scheme as a hollow gesture, while the realists will want to support it in the desperate hope that a benevolent future government will one day transform the fake into the real thing.

Similarly, the purists will press to have Direct Action denounced as the fig leaf policy that it is.

And what position will the pragmatists take? If they adopt a similar approach to the one taken with Palmer, they’ll turn a blind eye to Abbott’s carbon emission free-for-all and accept the limited emission reductions that are on offer as better than nothing.

While the realists usually dominate when it comes to the vexed question of climate action in Australia, in the case of Direct Action it’s a fair bet the idealists will be the ones to prevail.

Palmer United against the nation – Redux

Lost among the bustle of yesterday’s continuing Palmer sideshow, otherwise known as federal parliament, was proof that the miner’s alternative emissions trading scheme is a sham.

The ETS was brandished by Palmer last month as proof of his Damascene conversion to the need for climate action and the merits of carbon pricing.

In reality its purpose was little more than to greenwash Palmer’s coal-blackened hands and mitigate observers’ queasiness that Al Gore had been compromised into apparently sanctioning the miner’s vow to scrap the existing carbon-pricing scheme.

At the time Palmer placed caveats on what has been described as his “dormant” ETS to ensure it did not activate before Australia’s key trading partners had their own schemes in place. This was ostensibly to protect our exports from being disadvantaged by having to incorporate a carbon price when our competitors’ products did not carry a similar impost.

Continue reading “Palmer United against the nation – Redux”

Palmer gives Shorten a free ride

How lucky is Bill Shorten? After mixed reviews of his performance over the past 10 months, the Labor Leader could soon benefit from the crossbench chaos enveloping the Abbott Government in the Senate by doing little more than standing around looking statesmanlike.

Shorten has struggled since becoming Opposition Leader to get the balance right between being the alternative prime minister and the ruthless oppositionist that four years of Abbott has brought the Australian voting public to expect.

The relative merits of strategic opposition compared with all-out obstructionism also sat at the heart of the competition between Shorten and Anthony Albanese when they campaigned last year to become Labor leader. This issue continues to be a source of contention between the two men, if well-connected political commentators are to be believed.

Yet the arrival of Palmer and his wreckers in the Senate have made Shorten’s inner tussle with negativity a moot point.

While Shorten must at least couch any opposition to Coalition Government initiatives within the parameters set by ALP policies and the expectations of Labor supporters, Palmer has no such boundaries. In fact the Member for Fairfax has shown an early willingness to eschew even consistency or logic to make life difficult for the Prime Minister.

Irrespective of the cause, the Abbott Government will ultimately be held accountable for the untidy way parliamentary business is being conducted and, by extension, how the government is run. This is the key political lesson learned from the Gillard years, and the reason why Government ministers are sounding particularly shrill as they try to apportion blame for the current shambles while recognising that such protestations are a pointless endeavour.

Palmer has essentially usurped Shorten’s role since he started messing with the Senate and Abbott’s mind, but he has also reduced pressure on the Labor Leader to emulate Abbott’s destructive style.

Shorten’s relief at this turn of events has been almost palpable. In a television interview yesterday he appeared relaxed and confident, and the singsong cadence that he’s adopted since becoming Opposition Leader was mostly missing. In the space of that one short interview, Shorten become a voice of reason that cut through last week’s parliamentary cacophony.

Incidentally, an appearance by Albanese on a rival network at about the same, in a suit and tie on a Sunday no less, was also good.

Even though it’s true that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them, an opposition will not prevail unless it’s considered to be a viable alternative. Labor may be doing well in the opinion polls currently, but their primary vote is still low, which suggests voters will take some time to forget what they disliked about the Rudd and Gillard years.

Voters will also continue to be attracted to Palmer as long as his populism and conflicts of interest evade scrutiny. But on polling day they’ll choose the party they believe will best provide a responsible and competent government. That’s unlikely to be PUP if Palmer continues to claim he doesn’t care if the Government has to incur more debt to pay for the wholesale changes he’s making to the budget.

Palmer’s obstructionism not only provides Shorten with the opportunity to show his leadership credentials, but also gives Labor the chance to focus on developing and promoting its credentials as the alternative government.

While Shorten made a good start with the response to the budget, such an “alternative government” campaign would require Labor bringing forward plans to reverse the party’s reputation for poor economic management, whether it is deserved or not.

This would also be an ideal time for the ALP to sever any ties of complicity that it has with the Coalition Government on policies such as those that have led to the current inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

Shorten can no doubt improve his approval rating by just standing back from the Senate fray and saying sensible things.

But by building on the perception that Labor is the only competent party left in the Australian Parliament, the Labor leader can do more – he can reconnect with lost voters, recapture the middle ground, and take his party closer to success at the next federal election.