Dragon’s diary: Tragedy and farce

Joosep Martinson/Getty Images
Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

I won’t add my thoughts to the likely millions of condolences expressed at the sudden death of Phillip Hughes. Mainly because I’d never heard of him until this week as I don’t follow cricket.

That’s not to say Hughes’ death didn’t affect me. I was reminded of my own fragile mortality, gave thanks for the health and safety of those I love, and also looked afresh at the week’s political antics.

Continue reading “Dragon’s diary: Tragedy and farce”

Lambie doesn’t want to stay, doesn’t want to quit

It’s no longer a matter of when but how Jacqui Lambie will leave the party that delivered her one of the most decisive (and divisive) roles in today’s polity.

Back in 2013, with minimal experience in party politics and a fast-diminishing campaign war-chest, Lambie had her heart set on getting into the Senate despite having unsuccessfully tested the waters with Labor and been rejected by the Liberals.

The offer from cashed-up Clive Palmer to join the Palmer United Party’s Tasmanian Senate ticket must have seemed almost too good to be true.

And so it has been. Lambie may have ridden on PUP’s short-lived swell into the Senate – a feat she would not have achieved in her previous incarnation as an independent candidate – but since becoming a minor celebrity due to her pivotal membership of the Senate crossbench, the new Senator has quickly outgrown the limits of party solidarity.

Lambie has been agitating about her right to speak out on matters of interest, even if not necessarily of interest to PUP, ever since she arrived in Canberra. Various thought bubbles have ensued, starting with the one on mandatory national service for young Australians and most recently the even more controversial call to ban the “burqa”.

In response, Palmer has evolved from commenting that Lambie is entitled to express her own views, to having to reject some of her suggestions such as the call for a “silent protest” at Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Lambie has consequently been unhappy that party solidarity is not a two-way street, even though according to Palmer the Senator appears to have made no effort to bring those issues to the party room for discussion or to determine a PUP position.

Whether she’s perceived as behaving like a petulant teenager, or a passionate defender of those she represents, Lambie is ratcheting up the pressure on Palmer to throw her out of PUP. (Or her senior adviser is doing so, depending on the extent to which one believes Rob Messenger is Lambie’s David Oldfield or Svengali.)

Earlier this week Lambie delivered on her commitment to oppose all Government legislation until the ADF pay decision is overturned, and split from her party to vote against the revised social services bill. She also voted against anti-doping legislation that in other circumstances she says she would likely have supported.

Today’s news that Lambie will join Labor and most of the crossbench Senators to disallow the FOFA regulations continues that war of attrition. In voting to disallow the regulations, Lambie will directly oppose a deal her party leader made with the Government.

If Lambie had been a Labor member, voting against her party in this way could be grounds for expulsion. However, the Coalition is somewhat more flexible on such matters, with Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce being two high-profile examples of Coalition MPs having crossed the floor against their parties and not only survived but been appointed to Cabinet.

There is no question that Lambie will soon be an independent member of the crossbench. Over past days, the Senator has removed the PUP logo from her website, refused to attend PUP meetings, chosen to sit away from her party colleagues when attending the joint meeting of the Parliament, and removed all trace of yellow from her wardrobe.

In turn, Lambie has essentially been excommunicated from PUP: cut from the list of PUP MPs on the party’s website, removed as the party’s deputy Senate leader and deputy whip, and (in a classic case of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted) suspended from attending party meetings.

In short, Lambie is daring Palmer to sack her, while he in turn is trying to make her leave. This manoeuvring is all about who can position themselves as the victim once the split has taken place. Lambie wants to be sacked, firstly so she doesn’t have to break a previous commitment made to Palmer to stay, but more importantly so she can continue to claim underdog status.

Palmer however didn’t come down in the last shower. The canny operator is biding his time, putting pressure on Lambie to leave by isolating her and her staff from the party, while offering empty platitudes so that he can capitalise on what would be her broken commitment to stay and paint himself as the wronged party.

This will be important if Palmer follows through on a suggestion made last weekend that he will pursue Lambie with lengthy and expensive legal action if she leaves.

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.

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.

Have the Greens peaked already?

So here we are, teetering over the cusp of 2012. This is the year that apparently will make or break the major party leaders, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. It’s the year that kicks off the long countdown to the next federal election, which is due anytime from 3 August 2013 to 30 November 2013.

We’re told it’s the year we’ll see whether Gillard can rebuild her battered leadership credentials, whether Rudd has enough mongrel to bring his own party down, and whether Abbott can recast himself as an alternative Prime Minister worthy of our respect.

We were presented with some fascinating entrails in 2011 from which to divine what might occur in 2012. We had two current major party leaders with substantial net dissatisfaction ratings and the opposition commanding an excruciating opinion poll lead over the government. There were two failed party leaders throwing bungers at their colleagues from the sidelines and a realignment of parliamentary deckchairs that variously affected morale, depending upon how much more or less voting power the change bestowed upon certain parties and individuals.

But an equally fascinating, and rarely discussed political artefact from the year 2011 concerns not the major parties, but the party which seeks to differentiate itself from them. Despite notching up a number of policy successes in the parliament due to having the balance of power (either partly or entirely), the Greens have singularly been unable to convert this success into voter support. It begs the question whether the Greens have already peaked, and whether the 2013 election will return to being a contest only between the major parties.

The numbers are quite clear. At the last federal election 16 months ago, the Greens polled 11.8%. Since then, across all the credible published opinion polls, their support has been around 10–12%. While this number may go up or down a few points from week to week, the change is always within the margin of error and the trend over time shows that support for the Greens has not budged since election day.

The Greens have not won any additional supporters, despite delivering on their icon issues. They secured a carbon price to battle climate change and $10 billion for the renewable energy industry, helped to ensure that refugees who arrive illegally by boat can remain in Australia while having their asylum claims assessed and raised awareness and acceptance of gay marriage amongst members of parliament from other parties.

All of these achievements would appeal to progressive Labor and swinging voters, and should have been enough to entice them to tell pollsters that they will vote Green at the next election. But this has not been the case. Perhaps that’s because most progressives already vote Green and the voters over which the major parties are battling are more interested in “kitchen table” issues such as jobs, interest rates, health and education.

This is borne out by the numbers. Voters disgruntled with the Labor Party have not gravitated to the Greens, but the Coalition. Think about that: on election day Labor polled 38% of the primary vote, the Coalition 43.6% and the Greens 11.8%. Eight months later, on 8 July, 11% had left Labor (27%), 5% of those went to the Coalition (49%) but none went to the Greens (12%). This was Labor’s lowest primary vote ever, even below that recorded when Keating was PM. Since then, voters have begun to return to Labor (34%) from the Coalition (47%) but still the Green vote remains unchanged.

This suggests the Green vote is already maximised and there’s very little the party can do to attract new voters. In addition, it’s likely that the major parties will do preference deals at the next election that edge out Green candidates in favour of each other. Mutual animosity, it seems, is outweighed by mutual resentment when it comes to the Greens having the final say in parliament.

There’s no doubt that 2012 is going to be a year to watch Australian federal politics. There’s the possibility of a surplus budget in May, compensation for the carbon price will be delivered to many Australians as a lump sum in June and the carbon price regime will commence on 1 July.

The question then will be whether we’re more parsimonious with Julia’s carbon compensation than we were with Kevin’s $900? Only time will tell. Additional compensation will come into effect in June 2013, just in time for the REAL federal election campaign.

Perhaps by then, we’ll have come to accept the carbon price as we did the GST.

Rudd may again be Prime Minister and we may have a new opposition leader. Who knows, almost anything is possible in politics, except for the Greens expanding on their primary vote.

 This piece originally appeared at the  Kings’ Tribune