Royal commission stand-off could define the election

Royal commission stand-off could define the election

If there’s certainty about anything that will happen this week in politics, it’s that the Labor Opposition will do everything it can to bring down the royal commission into union corruption. Labor knows that doing so will seriously disrupt the Government’s re-election strategy.

The royal commission has always served a dual purpose for the Government. Over the short term, it’s been a mechanism for digging into the union pasts of Labor leaders in the hopes of tainting Julia Gillard’s legacy and crippling Bill Shorten’s future.

But over the longer term, the royal commission was intended to create voter distrust for the union movement – and by extension, Labor – by highlighting the worst behaviour of union officials.

The Government intended to exploit the resulting antipathy for unions by drawing Labor into a battle over laws meant to curtail union power. Accordingly, a bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission is due to be debated in the Senate today.

Also to be debated today is the re-introduced bill aiming to establish a Registered Organisations Commission, which would have the power to “supervise” the conduct of employer organisations and unions, including the use of coercive investigatory powers and criminal penalties. Once Labor and the Greens combined to defeat this bill, which they can with the support of three other Senators, the Government would then have a double dissolution trigger.

At least that was the plan: the momentum created by the mounting evidence of union rorts at the royal commission, paired with Labor’s protection of unions by defeating the ABCC and ROC bills, theoretically would have created a favourable anti-union re-election climate for the Government either at the end of this year or in early 2016.

Labor knows this momentum can be arrested by killing off the royal commission.

It won’t be enough to protest about the perceived or real conflict of interest that has arisen from Dyson Heydon’s foolish acceptance of an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party function, or even to boycott the commission’s proceedings.

If the inquiry continues to publicly gather evidence of union thuggerydodgy deals and rorts, then the vast majority of disengaged voters will more likely dismiss complaints about the royal commissioner’s bias.

Only by bringing the royal commission to an early end will Labor have any chance of repairing the damage already done to the party – and its leader – through guilt by association with the dark element that patently exists within the labour movement.

According to another Drum columnist, Michael Bradley, Heydon’s removal would bring the inquiry to an end. But it is highly unlikely Tony Abbott will sack Heydon or impose on him to stand down – if reports are correct that the royal commissioner was his personal appointment, the PM can hardly afford to admit to another failed captain’s pick.

And given the royal commission has unearthed actual evidence of less than desirable union practices, it’s unlikely voters will raise arms against Heydon in the same way they felt compelled to do over the excesses of the former speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

However, if Labor does manage to bring down Heydon and thereby the royal commission, the Government will have to rewrite this re-election strategy.

At least one commentator has pointed out that John Howard faced dire opinion poll ratings like those currently being experienced by Abbott, but that Howard turned this around with an ambitious reform agenda that led to re-election (albeit with less than an outright majority of the vote).

Yet there is nothing to suggest Abbott or his Government have the political nous required to devise, let alone run, an election campaign based on serious reform.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s efforts to end our “entitlement” mentality have failed, thanks to an ill-judged first horror budget, an indulgent second magic pudding budget, and footage of stogies being puffed and helicopters landing on golf courses.

Parallel efforts to get the premiers to take the running (and grief) on increasing John Howard’s GST have been somewhat more successful, but the case for an increase (to pay for schools and hospitals) is much less electorally compelling than the original argument for the tax’s introduction (which included the scrapping of several other taxes and a tax cut for everyone earning up to $60,000).

Then there is the business community’s most favoured reform, workplace relations, which the PM will not even contemplate for fear of raising the ghost of WorkChoices.

Without a reform agenda, the Government is left with national security and asylum seekers – two sides of the same coin as far as the Prime Minister is concerned – on which to fight the next election. However, Labor’s recent decision not to rule out boat turn-backs makes it more difficult for the Government to argue it’s tougher on asylum seekers than the Opposition.

Whatever policies end up dominating the next 12 months and the next federal election campaign, trust and competence will be the underlying themes. This will not be so much a matter of “who do you trust to tell the truth?”, because no one expects politicians to be honest, but “who do you trust to run the country?”. This trust will be dependent on the extent to which voters are convinced the competing parties have cohesive, competent teams with economically responsible but fair policies.

Labor may manage to kill off the royal commission and neutralise public concern about its association with unions, but it will still have to contend with its Rudd-Gillard past and all that entails.

However, an even more difficult challenge faces Abbott and his team. The Coalition Government has proven to be neither cohesive nor competent over the past two years, and seemingly incapable of balancing economic soundness with the public good. It is on this that the Government will be judged on election day, and no amount of union corruption will spare it from that scrutiny.

2013 in politics: the power of three

2013 in politics: the power of three

Considered the holiest of numbers by Christians and Wiccans alike, the number three has eerily presided over our past political year. From people to politics and policies, the rule of three was ubiquitous.

The most obvious triumvirate was Gillard, Rudd and Abbott, three prime ministers in one year, which is not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, this was the fifth time that we have had three PMs within one calendar year: the others were in 1904, 1939, 1941 and 1945.

Not only did the nation have three leaders in quick succession, so did the Labor Party. Kevin Rudd’s dark revenge fantasy played out to its inevitable end, with Rudd finally stalking Julia Gillard to ground and Bill Shorten arising from the bloody remnants of the party to bring Labor’s tally to three party leaders in four months. The worst the Liberals could do was three in eight months when the party shifted from Hewson to Downer and then Howard, the then-touted ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’, in the 1990s.

But even before we were graced with our third PM for the year, Australians were well-familiar with the rule of three in political communication. Not a day had passed without us being bombarded with the Coalition’s three word slogans, vowing on the attainment of government to stop the boats, axe the tax and eliminate the debt. Apparently the necessary caveat – but only if the Senate will let us – couldn’t be condensed into three words and had to be ditched as a non-core slogan.

Rudd’s quest to be a thrice-anointed PM – after his elections by the Australian people in 2007 and the Labor caucus in 2013 – was thwarted. For yes, the man’s ego was so immense that he thought he might actually win. But he was prevented from doing so by three not insignificant matters: voter concerns about Labor’s unity, competency, and adherence to core Labor values such as equality and social justice.

The dominant factor was competency, though, and in electing the Abbott Government, voters quite justifiably assumed they were getting the grown-up government they were promised.

In the gloomy days that followed the not-as-much-of-a-landslide-as-expected, Labor dusted itself off and for the first time in history had not one but three leaders simultaneously. While the two contenders for election to the Labor leadership, Albanese and Shorten, traversed the country doing and saying leadership things, acting Labor leader Chris Bowen was doing and saying leadership things too. Labor members loved the new-fangled ‘democracy’ imposed on the party by Rudd (to prevent any further coups like the one he’d just pulled on Gillard), while the rest of Australia’s political classes looked on in bemusement.

And then finally, over 60 days since being elected and after early stumbles on women in Cabinet and the wedding-rorts saga, the members of the Abbott Government placed their shiny arses on the green leather benches and showed us they could do chaotic and incompetent just as well as the previous mob.

Since then the carbon tax has not been scrapped, the boats haven’t stopped, deficits have become an acceptable necessity and debt is no longer a dirty word. Public service cuts may or may not continue because they may or may not have already been counted. It’s become acceptable to say sorry to pretty much every nation in the region unless it’s one that Australia has been caught spying on. And a broken promise is not broken even if there’s physical evidence that you made it and that you broke it.

Even amongst the detritus of this incompetence, the power of three continues to rule. Australian businesses have faced the challenge of keeping up with three climate action policies (Gillard’s carbon price, Rudd’s ETS and Abbott’s Direct Action). The combined wrath of the nation’s teachers and education ministers brought about an extraordinary triple-backflip from Pyne on Gonski. And those who don’t have the cojones to take responsibility for unpopular decisions establish a Commission of Audit, Productivity Inquiry or Royal Commission to take the flak for them.

Meantime, the indignities wrought on asylum seekers defied even the rule of three and became almost too horrifyingly numerous to count.

Kevin Rudd may have entertained the fantasy that he could win the 2013 election by sheer force of will and popularity. Tony Abbott would have never suffered from such a delusion. He knows full well his success was more dependent on voters being sick of the other side than them preferring him and his policies.

In the end it came down to perceptions of competency – Labor was seen (whether fairly or not) as chaotic and ineffectual while the Coalition was seen as holding the promise of a dependable and competent government.

So, as the remainder of 2013 is measured in long summer evenings and the ruling triumvirate is the beach-barbie-cricket, Prime Minister Abbott would do well to ponder one last three word slogan. Without delivering “a competent government” in 2014, Abbott’s own days may well be numbered.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Why are the Greens so surprised?

While Labor is using its shiny new leadership process to distract members from election loss disappointment and take the heat out of ensuing acts of retribution, the Greens appear to be floundering in response to a poor election performance that was a surprise to no-one but themselves.

It was becoming clear as far back as the end of 2011 that the Green vote had peaked at the 2010 election. The Greens’ hagiographies claim this result as the point when they emerged as the third force in Australian politics.

In truth the minor party was as much a lightning rod for those protesting against the invidious choice offered between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott as it was seen a legitimate alternative to the major parties. The almost doubling of deliberate informal votes during that election compared with 2007 (from 1.48 to 2.70 per cent), and the ultimate minority government outcome confirm that many voters were looking for someone, anyone, other the Labor and the Coalition to vote for in 2010.

So in believing their own PR, perhaps it’s not so suprising the Greens didn’t foresee their poor result at this election.

An inflated sense of importance may have also contributed to the some of the Greens’ decisions that drove voters away, such as their refusal to pass Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’ for asylum seekers.

Wanting to sit at the big table while maintaining policy purity was another. As the Democrats learned when they bartered with John Howard to ultimately pass the GST, the Greens also learned it’s hard to claim you’re keeping the bastards honest when you’re also doing deals with them. The Greens’ constant laying of claim to forcing Gillard’s hand on the carbon tax/price, but being unable to deliver a carbon penalty that would actually drive achange in behaviour is the most notable attempt by the minor party to justify their decision to join the bastards.

Christine Milne’s later announcement that she’d told the Gillard Government ‘you’re dropped’ did little to assuage the concerns of those supporters who thought the Greens had got too close to their shared-power partners.

Another factor likely to have contributed is that, like the two major parties, the Greens have to accommodate disparate supporter groups and juggle the risk of upsetting one group to satisfy another. Labor has the Left and the Right, the Liberals have moderates and conservatives, and the Greens have the far Left, progressives and environmentalists.

Yet to compound this challenge even further, Milne announced when she succeeded Bob Brown as leader that the party would be reaching out to rural voters as well. It would be fair to describe the reception given by long-term farmers to the Greens – the party opposed to live animal exports, conventional farming methods and land clearing – as mixed. The Greens vote went down in the vast majority of rural seats, although they increased in those which included alternative lifestyle communities, regions threatened by coal-seam gas projects and those seats from which Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott retired. A nine per cent increase in Green primary votes to 18 per cent in Fairfax was the standout exception.

Milne has rightly declared she’ll review the Greens’ 2013 election performance. Her vow before the election to return the party to one of protest and holding the government to account will be tested with only one Greens member in the new House of Representatives that has no chance of influencing the outcome in that chamber, and a short-lived balance of power before the new Senate commences on 1 July 2014.

The review will necessarily scrutinise whether it was worth funnelling limited resources into retaining Bandt’ssymbolically important but practically useless green leather seat. Just as importantly it should seek to understand how the Greens failed to deliver on the expectations of potential supporters. Ultimately, like Labor, the prospect for a strong future lies in the Greens determining what they stand for and who they represent.

This post originally appeared at SBS Comment & Analysis.