The Liberal rebellion is far from over

With blood now in the water, an off-the-radar battle is taking place between the right-wing conservatives and the moderates in the Liberal Party, which could decide their future leadership.

Having seen off internal critics this morning by garnering enough votes to defeat the spill motion, Prime Minister Tony Abbott must now deal with the ramifications of the vote itself.

With 39 out of 101 votes tallied in favour of the spill, the PM must now confront what is essentially a vote of no confidence by 40 per cent of his colleagues. In reality this number is likely higher, if one was to count disgruntled ministers who nevertheless supported the PM after being pressured to uphold the principle of ministerial solidarity.

Abbott and his supporters may claim today’s vote puts an end to the matter, but they will be keenly aware that it has sometimes taken more than one attempt to bring down a sitting PM.

Even the formidable Paul Keating was unable to dislodge Australia’s once-most popular PM Bob Hawke with a single shove, and for a time languished in despair after the first strike before regrouping for the second and ultimately successful attempt.

More recently, it took Kevin Rudd two attempts to bring down his successor, PM Julia Gillard, or three attempts if one also counts the aborted attempt forced by the political suicide bomber Simon Crean, at which time Rudd declined to be a candidate.

The chances of second attempt against Abbott’s leadership will remain high as long as his approval ratings and support for the Government remain low.

Today’s Newspoll reinforced the enormity of that task, finding the Labor opposition had a 57-43 lead over the Government with preferences, and that 68 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with Abbott as PM. Only 24 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the Prime Minister, giving him the third lowest Newspoll approval rating ever for a PM.

In an attempt to insulate against any further poll-driven panic, considerable pressure has been brought to bear on Liberal MPs to give Abbott more time to turn things around, including an entreaty from former PM John Howard in today’s media. The PM’s supporters pointed to the concessions made in his address to the National Press Club last week as evidence of Abbott’s willingness and ability to change for the better.

It is true that Abbott took the paid parental leave scheme “off the table” and swore off choosing new knights and dames. He did promise to crack down on home-grown terrorism and bend the knee to party xenophobes anxious about foreigners buying up Australian property.

But at no point did the PM vow to abandon two of his biggest problems – the dysfunctional operation of his office, and his Government’s dogged pursuit of a reform agenda that singularly lacks in empathy. Without fixing his office, Abbott will continue to lack the confidence of many backbenchers. And without adjusting his Government’s policies, he’ll continue to be spurned by the Australian people.

This latter point may have not yet occurred – or perhaps is being diligently ignored – by members of Abbott’s ministry. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann encapsulated this problem on the weekend when he stated in a media interview that no member of the ministry had ever told him that last year’s budget was unfair. As the interviewer swiftly replied, that says a lot about their political antennae.

Today’s vote has undoubtedly winged the PM. He may well be given a chance to recover, with the option of putting him out of his misery later if that is necessary. But now there is blood in the water, an off-the-radar battle is taking place between the right-wing conservatives who want to protect the Government’s current agenda and the moderates who seek to change it.

This battle is also the reason there’s no clear alternative to Abbott in the leadership stakes. The conservatives have been grooming former immigration minister Scott Morrison as their Plan B, in the event that Abbott fell under a bus. But without experience in an economic portfolio, Morrison is not yet ready for the top job.

Meantime, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has played the long-game, managing to keep moderate voters onside despite his spruiking of the Coalition’s technologically sub-optimal broadband network and keeping schtum on climate change. Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop has the potential to be a compromise candidate, with Liberal voters preferring her over Turnbull, but is not (yet) considered competent enough by the right, who still have the numbers.

Accordingly, there will be no change to the Liberal leadership until the right accept the Government is electorally doomed under Abbott, and that some policy purity will have to surrendered to maintain a fighting chance at the next election.

While this subterranean battle escalates between the conservatives and the moderates in the Liberal Party, the PM and his supporters will attempt to draw a line under recent events as nothing more than an ill-judged dummy-spit by a unrepresentative minority.

However judging by the size of the anti-Abbott vote, and the PM’s track record in failing to live up to his word, the rebellion is far from over.

ABC cuts: Controlling the Bleeding

If Mark Scott is able to maintain the ABC’s support through its digital presence over the next two years, while successfully laying blame for the closure of regional offices and rural programs at the Coalition’s feet, pro-ABC policies could be a deciding factor in the election, particularly among Australia’s highly contested rural electorates.

Weekly column for The Hoopla (3 free reads each month).

Julie Bishop: right woman, wrong time

Julie Bishop’s popularity may be soaring but any ambition she may harbour for the prime ministership will be undone by geography and the sexism that dwells in pockets of the community and media.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott isn’t the only Government MP riding a wave of national security-inspired popular support at the moment. So is his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, whose capable handling of Australia’s response to the MH17 disaster has seen her profile and popularity soar.

Bishop is the politician du jour, feted by political columnists and a coterie of personal supporters as the Liberal Party’s next big thing. This has emboldened her in recent days to put a cold spoon to the ambitions of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who was manoeuvring for a new Homeland Security super ministry as reward for having “stopped” the boats.

However, proponents of Bishop as a future Australian prime minister are ignoring the realities of both geography and politics – no matter how well credentialed she is or becomes.

Bishop’s geographic impediment is that she hails from the west. Since federation, only one prime ministerhas come from that state – Labor’s John Curtin – and there has never been a Liberal PM, or opposition leader for that matter, from our western shores.

This is because the power bases of both major parties are located in Sydney and Melbourne. More often than not, NSW and Victorian MPs determine the leadership of those parties because the more populated states hold a higher number of seats in the parliament.

As a result, the Coalition has a long tradition of splitting the spoils of office between the two states, with a leader from NSW often being paired with a deputy leader from Victoria and vice versa. There have been exceptions of course, one notably being opposition leader Andrew Peacock’s onetime deputy Fred Chaney, who was from Western Australia.

Nevertheless, history has shown that geography weighs heavily against any chance of Bishop making it to prime minister.

An even more overwhelming obstacle is that Bishop is a woman. No matter how well the former moderate has adjusted her positions to appeal to the Liberals’ dominant hard-right, and no matter how charming or competent she is as Foreign Minister, Bishop will never be seen by the conservative powerbrokers within her own party as a contender for the top job.

Just as they were unsettled by the unmarried and childless Gillard, the same Liberal traditionalists would be uneasy about the capacity of Bishop, who is similarly unencumbered, to understand the importance of traditional family values when she has chosen not to embrace the whole “hearth and home” experience.

And it’s not just internal party politics that could prevent Bishop from becoming PM. Any political strategist worth half their salt should advise against it on the grounds that Bishop’s elevation could spell electoral suicide for the Liberals.

It should be obvious to any clear-eyed observer of contemporary Australian politics that many of those who responded negatively to our first female prime minister would likely react the same way to the second one.

In fact there’s nothing to suggest that sexism is the sole preserve of one side of politics or the other. The gendered abuse currently being generated online against Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, the Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, and the mining magnate Gina Rinehart, for example, casts just as ugly a light on perpetrators from the left as it does on similar abuse coming from the right.

And let’s not forget the political media, which admittedly grapples with its pockets of inherent sexism. It will nevertheless remain a bastion of chauvinism until the current stable of senior reporters has retired.

Given this reality, a hypothetical PM Bishop would not be spared any of the gendered opprobrium that was levelled at Gillard, particularly if Bishop was to incur the wrath of the left with unacceptable policies on, say, asylum seekers or climate change.

Granted, Bishop has proven to be personable if not charming, a diligently hard worker, and in possession of a sharp mind when it comes to mastering departmental briefs. Yet Gillard also displayed those qualities as deputy Labor leader, but they dissipated under the combined pressures of difficult politics, bad decisions and destabilisation from Kevin Rudd.

Gillard may still have prevailed if it had not been for the added burden of sexism directed at her by elements of the Australian community and media. The combination of those factors led to Labor’s electoral defeat.

The same pitfall awaits Bishop if she were ever to become PM.

The eminently capable Foreign Minister may yet be able to reshape the Sydney-Melbourne nexus of Liberal Party power to accommodate her west-coast genesis. And she may be able to convince the good old boys that she actually is one of them. But our times simply do not suit Bishop’s ambitions.

It will be a very long wait before Australia is ready to welcome its second female prime minister.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right

Aside from its alarming treatment of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, one of the other disconcerting things about the first Abbott Government Budget is the counterintuitive behaviour it’s provoked from the major players.

Not only the Coalition government itself, but the Labor opposition and the Greens are behaving in ways that are counter to what voters would normally expect of them.

This is making it more difficult to work out who exactly is on the side of the angels, and could further entrench the unease that voters are currently feeling about the Budget and politics more broadly.

These behavioural contradictions are disturbingly numerous, and seemingly without logic.

For example, anyone with a half a brain would have thought the Government would avoid any perceived or real broken promises after Tony Abbott brutally reframed oath-breaking as a sign of political incompetence during his time as opposition leader.

And yet we find Abbott in recent weeks audaciously denying that clearly breached promises have been flouted; claiming that a previously unknown hierarchy of commitments somehow forgives lesser oaths being sacrificed for major ones; and insisting that Budget decisions that are “consistent with our promises” will suffice.

Continue reading “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”

Lock up the war chest for fairer elections

Reform of electoral funding could remove the temptations of big-dollar elections and provide a pathway to refreshed democratic processes and candidates who genuinely engage with their constituents.

It seems every pet shop parrot has been squawking about electoral reform since a motley collection of micro and minor party candidates audaciously gamed the Senate preference system in 2013 to ensure at least one of them was elected.

Ricky Muir prevailed with his Australian Motoring Enthusiast’s Party attracting 0.51 per cent of the primary vote, while Family First’s Bob Day was elected with 3.76 per cent.

Since then the major parties, some minors and even independents have been calling for the system to be changed so that Senate candidates can no longer be elected with such a small proportion of the vote.

But these proposals are about to become overwhelmed by demands for a different kind of electoral reform. The manner by which political parties raise – and by implication, spend – their funds, has become a much more pressing political problem.

Most adages were coined for good reason, and the one about exercising caution before launching a political inquiry continues to hold weight. Perhaps the then NSW Premier Nick Greiner truly believed the Liberal Party had its own house in order when he established the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1988. Or the thought of exposing Labor’s underbelly was simply more tempting than any perceived risk to the Liberals.

Yet it didn’t take too long for Greiner to learn that justice is blind, even to its progenitors, and now his political descendants are facing the counter-swing of the ICAC pendulum.

The lure of grubby money also appears to defy the boundaries that ostensibly separate Labor from Liberal.

Money is the lifeblood that keeps politics flourishing. Without cash, even the most prospective candidate is unable to compete with those who can afford to print letterbox flyers and posters, set up phone banks, and run advertisements on radio, TV and online. It’s no surprise then that potential political dominance is measured by the girth of one’s campaign war chest.

ICAC has revealed it’s not necessarily the money itself that is corrupting, but the means by which it is acquired. The Royal Commission into union corruption is anticipated to produce a similar result.

As the cost of running campaigns has skyrocketed over successive elections, individual MPs and political parties have become increasingly dependent on the benevolence of big corporates and unions. Such reliance is only a small step away from being beholden to political donors, and corruption is merely another small step from there.

ICAC has laid this bare, and the parties that have been deeply embarrassed, not to mention politically nobbled, by the exposure of venality in their ranks are now belatedly proffering a cacophony of solutions.

On the weekend Liberal Party doyen, Michael Kroger, called for all of parties’ campaign costs to be met with public funding, or at the very least for individual donations to be capped at $1000. Candidates already receive an indexed amount ($2.49 at the 2013 federal election) from the government for every vote received, as long as they obtain at least 4 per cent of first preferences.

This is a sub-optimal solution for democracy as it disadvantages any new entrants to the political circus. They must find the funds to run a campaign and meet the minimum threshold of votes before getting access to any public funds.

Limiting donations as well as campaign expenditure would force parties to be creative in finding inexpensive ways of getting their message to voters.

The Coalition’s Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, has alternatively suggested that all political donations from corporates and unions be banned, leaving only those from individuals. Even if such a proposal survived a likely constitutional challenge from the unions, it wouldn’t prevent wealthy individualsfrom bestowing largesse on their party of choice unless a $1000 cap such as that suggested by Kroger was imposed.

It wouldn’t stop another self-funded multi-millionaire candidate like Clive Palmer, either.

Labor has only tentatively stepped into the field so far, recommending to the parliamentary inquiry that occurs after each federal election that public funding be increased and reforms made to “remove the distorting influence of vested interests and big money politics”. It’s not yet known whether “big money” includes funding from the unions.

The Liberals’ submission to the post-election inquiry is even less forthcoming, particularly in light of the interventions made by Kroger and Pyne. The party claims to be strongly committed to “appropriate disclosure of significant donations to political parties” but wants the requirement for political donors to declare their contributions to be dropped as it duplicates similar disclosures required of the parties.

Finally, considering they have so much less to spend, the Greens’ proposed reforms for electoral funding unsurprisingly aim to “ban corporation donations, place limits on the amount of money individuals can spend on campaigning, lower the threshold for disclosure of donations, rely more on public money and put an overall cap on parties’ election spending.”

A limit on election spending is clearly in the interests of smaller parties, which cannot afford the advertising blitzes bankrolled by the major parties. It could, however, have a broader benefit, removing the need for parties to source ever-increasing funds that ultimately line the pockets of advertising agencies and the commercial television broadcasting networks.

Limiting donations as well as campaign expenditure would force parties to be creative in finding inexpensive ways of getting their message to voters. This would likely involve more grassroots campaigns such as that deployed by Scott Ludlam in the recent WA Senate election re-run and Cathy McGowan’s successful campaign for Indi.

Before their current inquiries are over, ICAC and the Royal Commission into union corruption will cause a world of pain for the Liberals and Labor. It’s impossible to tell the extent of the upheavals that are yet to come, but there is a strong chance that good could come from the disruption.

Reform of electoral funding is the key. An authentic effort to remove the distractions and temptations of big-dollar elections could provide a pathway to refreshed democratic processes involving grassroots campaigns and candidates who genuinely engage with their constituents.

Bullock and the ghosts of turncoats past

There’s a history of MPs under pressure jumping ship, so Labor should be careful about trying to retrospectively disendorse Senator-elect Joe Bullock.

“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.

Manus Island riot: a plague on both your houses

Labor will attack Scott Morrison over the Manus Island riot, but both sides of the political divide are guilty of inhumane policies spanning more than two decades.

Voters paying attention to recent events on Manus Island are going to be disappointed by this week’s parliamentary session; particularly if they think it will go any way to lessening Australia’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

Following Scott Morrison’s dance of the euphemisms – conceding but not admitting on the weekend that he told untruths at media conferences following the fatal Manus Island riot – the Labor opposition will latch onto the Immigration Minister having misled the media and Australian people but dance around the morality of what caused the riot in the first place.

Their Question Time tactics and a likely attempt at a censure motion will focus on Morrison’s poor briefing, obfuscation and implied incompetence. But there will be little soul-searching over the wisdom of locating a processing centre in a sovereign state that still struggles to control violence and anarchy within its own populace.

Labor’s demands for Morrison to be held to account already sound tentative and hollow. That’s because they’re picking their way through a minefield. Calls for accountability and censure can be tricky manoeuvres when almost everyone shares the blame. And perhaps more than any other contemporary political issue, the events on Manus Island are the product of successive Australian governments’ mandatory detention policies, regardless of the party in office.

The Keating Labor government introduced onshore mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992, resulting in the first cases of self-harm, riots and escape attempts. The Howard Coalition government upped the ante, introducing offshore processing, establishing detention centres across a troupe of island states and surreally designating some Australian territories as no longer part of the nation for immigration purposes. A processing centre on PNG’s Manus Island was established as part of this Pacific Solution.

Labor’s Kevin Rudd vowed to dismantle the Pacific Solution, and so he did on the attainment of government in 2007, only to have this taken as a sign by people smugglers that Australia’s borders had reopened. The renewed influx of asylum seekers created all manner of difficulties for the Rudd, Gillard and re-ascendant Rudd governments, which over time reintroduced much of the worst elements of Howard’s offshore approach.

These extreme actions were taken by parties on both sides of the political divide ostensibly to protect Australia’s borders, prevent deaths at sea and destroy the people smugglers’ business model. Yet the principal purpose of “stopping the boats” is considerably less honourable: it’s to allow politicians to claim kudos for protecting Australians from a threat that doesn’t actually exist.

Both sides ruthlessly exploited nascent voter anxiety about asylum seekers into a full-blown paranoia. By framing the issue as one of border protection rather than immigration or human rights the Howard government implicitly encouraged voters to make a connection between asylum seekers, terrorists and the war on terror. It’s hard not to conclude that Howard’s ill-founded observation about “people like that” throwing their children overboard wasn’t similarly confected to demonise asylum seekers.

Then as the events of September 11, 2001 faded, at least in the minds of Australians, voter unease over asylum seekers emerged as a by-product of the industrial relations battle. Having been brought to a state of high concern by both parties claiming the other was putting their job security at risk, voters began to equate asylum seekers as yet another threat to their employment prospects. Neither side has ever attempted to dissuade this misapprehension, with prime minister Gillard even reinforcing it by capitulating to the unions and imposing a limit on the use of 457 visas for skilled foreign workers.

Voter antipathy for asylum seekers has been kept at a fairly vigorous simmer ever since – it’s just too electorally valuable to the parties to be let to go off the boil.

Perhaps most shockingly, Kevin Rudd exploited it on his re-election as Labor leader in an attempt to consolidate his Messiah 2.0 status. Erasing from that prodigious brain any memory of his denunciation of the inhumanity that was the Pacific Solution, Rudd unleashed the ultimate deterrent (and hopeful vote-winner) by vowing that no asylum seeker would ever reach Australia and instead would be settled in PNG.

After Rudd’s defeat it was no surprise Tony Abbott also embraced this extreme policy, having pinned his electoral legitimacy on “stopping the boats” (shorthand for “not letting those foreign devils steal Australian jobs, crowd our trains or marry our daughters”).

If they were so inclined, shock jocks could rightly claim both Labor and the Coalition have bloodied hands after the fatal riot on Manus Island.

Mandatory detention and offshore processing are bipartisan policies. The Manus Island facility was established by the Coalition and reopened by Labor. And it was Labor’s policy, since adopted by the Coalition, to deny any asylum seekers settlement in Australia that reportedly sparked the protest and subsequent riot.

This week’s parliament will be filled with raised voices, dramatic gestures and righteous calls for Morrison to be held to account. It’s likely former Labor immigration ministers will join the fray. Look closely for looks of chagrin or embarrassment on their faces – this may be an indication of the extent to which they also feel accountable for the policies that led to fateful events on Manus Island.

More than one message in SPC decision

The government’s decision to rebuff SPC Ardmona’s request for assistance may well be a line in the sand, but not just for the business community.

Not one but three messages reverberated from the Abbott government’s cabinet decision yesterday to reject a request from iconic Australian fruit-processing company SPC Ardmona for $25 million assistance.*

Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane stated in no uncertain terms that the decision was a message for business that the days of government being a crutch for business were over. Labeled “an important marker” by Abbott and a “defining point” by Macfarlane, the rebuff signaled that industry restructuring should be led (and, by extension, resourced) by business alone.

Doing as much as possible to deflect any inferred responsibility for jobs lost through the decision, Abbott made a big play on the size, profitability and social conscience of SPC’s parent company, Coca-Cola Amatil. He expressed confidence that the multinational would do the right thing by the canning company and its workers.

And for the second time this week, the government also drew attention to the responsibility of companiesto strike wage agreements with unions that do not threaten their business’s sustainability over time. This is part of a strengthening government homily that companies must take more responsibility for their actions.

However, the big dose of tough love for the ever-demanding Australian business community will likely give little comfort to the recipients of the second message. Taken together, the Cadbury and SPC Ardmona decisions starkly tell voters one thing: some jobs are more equal than others.

Yesterday the Prime Minister rationalised the Coalition’s 2013 election campaign decision to support Cadbury with $16 million in assistance as development of “regional tourism infrastructure” and not simply propping up another struggling business. But at the time he seemed particularly focused on the continuing viability of Cadbury in Tasmania and the 200 jobs that the factory upgrade would add to state’s depressed economy.

The key to this apparent contradiction lies in votes – or more precisely seats in the federal parliament. The SPC Ardmona facility is nestled in the very safe Liberal seat of Murray, which Sharman Stone holds with a whopping two party preferred vote of 70.87 per cent. This healthy margin gives Stone some latitude to be a rebel at times, but it also means the Coalition can treat Murray’s voters with impunity without risking a backlash that bites. In fact the Abbott government could probably slay every first male child in the electorate and still retain the seat.

In contrast, the Cadbury factory is located in Andrew Wilkie’s Tasmanian seat of Denison, and is supplied by the dairy industry in the adjacent seat of Lyons. Not coincidentally, Liberal candidate Eric Hutchinson went on to take Lyons at the 2013 election from Labor’s big man Dick Adams with an almost 14 per cent (two party preferred) swing in his favour.

So the SPC Ardmona decision revealed that if you live in a marginal seat or one represented by a potentially influential independent MP, your job is important to the Coalition. Otherwise, not so much.

Finally, the decision not to protect the jobs of canners and, by extension, their fruit-producing suppliers, sent a decisive message to the Nationals: you can’t always get what you want.

Even though it remains perennially puzzling why this rural rump of agrarian socialists wields greater influence on Coalition decisions than its total vote or number of seats in parliament, they continue to do so. Most recently they were successful in convincing Treasurer Hockey to reject the $3.4 billion foreign takeover bid by US agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland for local grain-handler GrainCorp. The “national interest” grounds on which he did so were spurious at best and sent a ripple of unease through the business community.

But now a similar public campaign in support of assistance for SPC Ardmona by Agriculture Minister (and deputy leader of the Nationals) Barnaby Joyce has failed. It may be that the Nationals expended their political capital on keeping the Yanks’ hands off our grain-handling infrastructure, or that any preparedness by the free traders in Cabinet to countenance further protectionist assistance for Australian businesses was consumed entirely by the GrainCorp decision. Perhaps it was simply because there are more marginal votes in the grain belts of rural Australia than in Murray.

Either way, the messages conveyed by yesterday’s SPC Ardmona decision may prove counterproductive for Tony Abbott. While he sees them as “an important marker” and a veritable line in the political sand, the message recipients may see them more as a challenge, an ultimatum and a call for retaliatory action.