A tale of two reshuffles

A tale of two reshuffles

So here we are, only three weeks after an election at which voters made it clear we’d grown tired of the major parties and their shenanigans. And yet the silly political games continue.

A record 23 per cent of Australians voted for candidates from non-major parties this election. Instead of recognising this voting trend as an existential threat, both the Coalition and Labor have claimed a victory of sorts from the result, and are now squabbling over the spoils of office.

First it was the arch conservatives in the Liberal Party, demanding their man Tony Abbott be returned to the cabinet to legitimise their cloistered views on what should be the Government’s priorities.

The PM treated this call with the scorn it deserved, particularly given he’d already appointed the most talented conservatives to the ministry when he became Liberal leader last year. However Mr Turnbull did not snub the right entirely, using a vacancy in the lower ranks to promote rising conservative star Zed Seselja.

As we mentioned last week, the PM’s bigger challenge was to accommodate another two ministers from the Nationals in light of the junior party’s better performance at the election. Mr Turnbull took the easy way out of this conundrum, choosing to increase the number of ministers in the cabinet rather than demote one of the Liberals.

Clearly the PM was unwilling to risk taking away the prestige and perks of higher office from the very same Liberal MPs who he may one day have to ask to support him again in a leadership tussle.

After the new ministry was sworn in on Tuesday, Mr Turnbull may have thought he’d gotten away with managing the competing interests within the Coalition.

But no, according to a media report on Friday, the particularly idiosyncratic collection of Queensland MPs known as the Liberal National Party belatedly decided they had not been allocated enough goodies from the cookie jar during the ministerial reshuffle.

The LNP is an amalgamation of the Liberal and National parties that exists only in Queensland. It’s officially the Queensland Division of the Liberal Party but also associated with the Nationals, meaning some federal LNP MPs sit with the Libs and others with the Nats when in Canberra.

The LNP MPs’ reported solution to the apparently graceful rebuff from the PM was to propose leaving the Liberal Party to form a separate party so they could supposedly lay claim to more seats in the ministry.

This is a politically delicate situation – the LNP federal MPs who sit with the Libs get a vote when the Liberal party room elects the leader and so are important to Mr Turnbull. And Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce depends on the LNP MPs who sit with his party to bolster their numbers in the Government as well as claims to the frontbench.

So it’s no surprise the move by the LNP to claim more seats on the ministerial gravy train was quickly nipped in the bud by Mr Joyce and the LNP’s most senior office holder, Senator George Brandis.

Ordinarily, Opposition leader Bill Shorten would seek to exploit such an outbreak of tensions within the Coalition, perhaps even holding a press conference to denounce the unseemly spectacle of MPs grimly defending their place at the trough while more deserving colleagues miss out.

But the Labor leader remained quiet on the Coalition’s travails.

Unlike the Liberal and National parties, Labor’s factions determine which MPs will be in the ministry. Having been presented with the list of chosen MPs, it is simply the Labor leader’s task to allocate the portfolios to those honoured by their factions with the sinecure.

But this week the Opposition leader had to deal with his own civil revolt. Labor MPs had also been brawling over who was more entitled to the pay boost and title that comes with being a “shadow” minister.

Mr Shorten is, if nothing else, a faction man. While he once wielded the numbers to depose Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard, the Labor leader has become deeply dependent on other factional warlords to wrangle the votes, such as those needed to beat Anthony Albanese for the Labor leadership or stymie the left’s attempts to embarrass him at national conference.

The man Mr Shorten is most beholden to in this respect is Senator Kim Carr, whose Victorian left faction abandoned him to make room for new talent on the frontbench. Senator Carr has been a minister or shadow minister almost continuously since his first appointment in 2001, except for a short period early in 2013 after Kevin Rudd’s non-leadership coup.

Like Mr Turnbull, Mr Shorten took the path of least resistance in order to protect (the protector of) his numbers. Instead of prevailing on a supporter who’d already had a good innings to move on for fresh blood (as Mr Turnbull did with Ian Macfarlane last year but failed to do this week), Mr Shorten increased the ministry from the legislated limit of 30 to 32 to make room for Senator Carr.

This means two Labor MPs will be shadow ministers in name only, and will not receive the $40,000 pay rise that normally comes with the title.

One of these MPs is Sam Dastyari, the Miley Cyrus of Australian politics who would probably do his job for nothing as long as it meant keeping his high profile with the media. Senator Dastyari is also a factional powerbroker from the NSW right, so he must have seen strategic value in getting promoted to a phantom ministry.

Then there is Andrew Leigh, a shadow minister in Mr Shorten’s previous frontbench who will now have the pleasure of performing a similar role but with a hefty pay cut.

It goes without saying that Dr Leigh is considerably more credentialed than most of his Labor colleagues, but the former professor of economics is also factionally-unaligned and therefore in no position to complain. One anonymous Labor source reinforced this point to the media on Friday, saying Dr Leigh should be grateful he was still in the ministry given “he’s only got one vote”.

What will voters make of this behaviour from Australia’s only two parties of government?

Coalition and Labor MPs should treat their re-election as the honour that it is, behaving in a way that acknowledges the privilege of serving the voters of Australia.

Instead we’ve been treated to a week of tantrums, grand-standing and horse-trading. This is exactly the type of entitled behaviour that enrages voters and drives us away.

This originally appeared at The New Daily.

 

It’s on? How Abbott’s leadership is in doubt … again

It’s on? How Abbott’s leadership is in doubt … again

It’s déjà vu. This morning voters will learn from their news devices that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is facing another rebellion from within the Government’s ranks and that his leadership has again become precarious.

Press Gallery elder Laurie Oakes reported on Sunday night that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was being urged by colleagues to challenge Abbott for the Liberal leadership. There were reportedly calls from Abbott supporters too, demanding that Turnbull reiterate his support for Abbott.

There is also a suggestion the spill be brought on this week, according to Oakes, due to a concern that Abbott may try to bring on a double dissolution election straight after the Canning by-election to head off any leadership challenge.

Oakes’ revelation is the crescendo of three days of escalating ministerial paranoia, initially brought on by a suspected leak from the Prime Minister’s office that listed ministers supposedly slated for retirement or demotion. While ministers would be horrified at the prospect of a downgrade, their dismay would pale against the terror of marginal seat holders contemplating electoral slaughter at a DD election.

News organisations were already reporting on Sunday morning that some ministers believed a leadership spill was “absolutely inevitable”, with later suggestions it would occur in the next six to eight weeks. Talk of a snap DD election would likely have strengthened the resolve of backbenchers.

And so Government MPs head into this parliamentary sitting week with the prospect of the ultimate political upheaval taking place in a matter of hours, days or weeks. Or not, depending on which leaks to the media one chooses to take at face value.

Just as it did seven months ago, dissent fomented over the preceding weekend as Government MPs weighed up their electoral chances under Abbott’s leadership compared with a hypothetical scenario in which the vastly more popular Turnbull is in the role.

Back in February, frustrated backbenchers tried to bring on the change but Turnbull refused to step up, knowing most ministers would stick with Abbott due to ministerial solidarity. The non-coup was the result of that standoff, with no declared contenders and a majority of Liberal MPs voting against opening the leadership to a vote.

This time things are different, with senior ministers reportedly concluding that Abbott must go. Along with their backbench colleagues, Liberal ministers gave the PM six months after the non-coup to get the Government back on track. Abbott managed to secure a temporary but expensive poll boost with a magic pudding budget in May, but despite trying everything else in the political toolbox – including going to war – he has not been able to budge the Government’s poor opinion poll ratings.

There have been grumbles aplenty from Government MPs about their deteriorating chances of re-election, but it appears nobody was prepared – until now – to bring matters to a head. Backbenchers were reportedly telling ministers that this time it would be their turn to act. And the dominant conservative faction of the Liberal Party stuck by Abbott, possibly because their alternative – Scott Morrison – was not ready for the role.

That factor has reportedly changed with former hardliners previously opposed to the moderate Turnbull now moving towards acceptance that the “warmist” leader they pulled down to install Abbott may now be their only chance of avoiding electoral oblivion.

Even without the threat of a snap poll, time is running out for the Liberals to change leaders. Turnbull may have a high public profile but he would still need time to bed down a new ministry, explain his vision to the Australian people and possibly even deliver a pre-election budget before heading to the polls.

As we have seen over past weeks, and even in past years with the destabilisation campaigns run by the revenge-driven Kevin Rudd, leadership campaigns depend to a large extent on the creation of a sense of momentum and inevitability. If managed effectively, predominantly through the media, there comes a point when wavering MPs jump on board for fear of being left behind.

But there needs to be a focus or tipping point for the momentum to create a critical mass of defectors. The Canning by-election has been deliberately framed by the anti-Abbott forces as that fulcrum, even though it’s arguable whether a swing against the Government in a seat that won’t materially change the balance of power should be the ultimate test of the PM’s leadership.

The additional problem with the Canning poll being the proposed pivot is that Abbott is expected to leave the country straight afterwards for a meeting with US president Barack Obama, and Parliament does not sit for another three weeks. It could be difficult for Turnbull’s supporters to maintain the rage that was ignited this past weekend for another four weeks, even if that anger is further oxygenated by the Canning result.

That’s why a leadership spill this week could be on the cards; all MPs are in Canberra, a regular party room meeting is already scheduled, and after the supposed ministerial hit-list published by the “Government Gazette” last week, ministers are reportedly red-hot for a pre-emptive strike against Abbott. Turnbull may assess this as being his best shot, particularly if the right is prepared to back him.

Of course, Turnbull – or any other leadership contender – would have to weigh up the risk of creating such tumult in the Government one week out from a by-election. The PM and his supporters have in the past tried to ward off a challenge by invoking the case of Julia Gillard, who incurred the wrath of Labor supporters for knocking off Rudd with little apparent warning or reason.

However, there is no parallel between the Abbott and Rudd scenarios. If the popular Turnbull were to replace the belligerent, antediluvian and gaffe-prone Abbott, all but the most rusted-on of Liberal supporters would accept it was the right thing to do.

And even if there were a backlash from the voters of Canning, who apparently have not been swayed after three weeks of campaigning by the Liberals, the loss of the seat would hardly put a dint in the Government’s lower house majority.

A pointer to whether the anti-Abbott forces intend to bring on a leadership spill this week could be the source of the leak to the journalist Simon Benson on Friday that set things off, or the one to Laurie Oakes on Sunday night that kept things going. Unfortunately for us, only the two journalists are in a position to judge their sources’ true intentions.

Such is the way of a leadership challenge; much of it is run through the media, and the motivations of the players aren’t always obvious. Whether “it’s on” or whether it’s not, only one thing is certain – very little of what we read and hear about leadership manoeuvrings are truly what they seem.

Liberal right is all bark, no bite on same-sex marriage

Liberal right is all bark, no bite on same-sex marriage

News last week that a cross-party bill is being prepared to legalise gay marriage has unleashed the hounds of the conservative right. The baying beasts are doing their best to keep the Prime Minister in check, even going as far as to threaten his leadership, but what happens once Tony Abbott realises the hounds have no teeth?

It’s no secret Abbott owes his initial election as Liberal Leader to the hard right of the Liberal Party. Led by the godfather of the right, then Senator Nick Minchin, the arch conservatives backed Abbott in 2009 to bring down then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull and prevent any moves to support Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.

Yet the right have never really considered Abbott to be one of their own, partly because of his early days as a devotee of Bob Santamaria; then because of his proposed paid parental leave scheme; and later because of his refusal to go hard on IR reform, his backdown on reforming the Racial Discrimination Act and his continued support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

At times, the conservatives have gone as far as to warn the PM through the media to stay true to their Faustian pact. As News Corp journalist Dennis Shanahan wrote just last week:

Liberal pragmatists can remember it was a Liberal Party branch revolt over supporting Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme that brought down Malcolm Turnbull and ultimately put the Liberals back into government with an anti-carbon tax campaign.

Leaders need to know that you go home from the dance “with the one that brung you” no matter how nice you are to the others at the dance.

However, this time the right aren’t threatening to take the leadership from an uncompetitive opposition leader who is dangerously advocating progressive views. This time they are warning off an incumbent Prime Minister who still has a good chance of winning the next election to step away from another of the progressives’ totemic issues.

Until recently, the PM appeared relaxed about the prospect of a marriage equality bill successfully getting through the Parliament. He’d likely been comforted by the knowledge that Labor harboured its own objectors and that the numbers just weren’t there, even if Liberal MPs were granted a free vote on the matter.

And so Abbott had toyed with the expectations of moderate Liberals, reportedly agreeing with marriage equality supporter and Liberal MP Warren Entsch after the Irish referedum to “do something this year”. Abbott reportedly told Entsch to “talk to like-minded individuals, come back and have a yarn to me and we will say where we go with it”.

Meantime, the marriage equality lobby had gotten on with the job of persuading MPs to declare their hand – or even change their mind – and brought the numbers much closer to the line, thereby making the successful passage of legislation a real possibility.

It seems the Liberal right were initially as complacent as the PM, but once Abbott seemingly gave Entsch the nod to proceed and the numbers tightened, the conservatives became nervous about the PM’s perceived dalliance with the issue.

Columnist Miranda Divine wrote last month that the conservatives were “furious at what they see as an orchestrated campaign, with (Abbott’s) blessing, to sneak a change to the Marriage Act through parliament” and that they would withdraw their support from Abbott if he “doesn’t hold the line”.

Entsch nevertheless followed through with what he understood to be the PM’s imprimatur to obtain cross-party support for a new private member’s bill. This would fulfil Abbott’s declared requirement for any such legislation to be “owned by the Parliament” and not one party.

But once news of Entsch’s cross-party bill was leaked to the media, the PM took note of the warnings from the right and made it known that such private member’s bills rarely reach the voting stage in Parliament (remember Bill Shorten’s bill?) and so there was no need for a party room decision to allow a free vote.

Labor’s Penny Wong helpfully tweeted that six private member’s bills not only reached the voting stage but were also passed by the previous parliament. And that five were passed under John Howard’s government.

As the possibility of the proposed law being passed has moved from highly unlikely to not beyond the realms of possibility, the Liberal right have become increasingly shrill. So shrill in fact, that they’re beginning to rival the Great Unhinging of 2010. Since news of the Entsch bill has emerged, the lieutenants of the right have lined up to variously denounce gay marriage as the harbinger of bulk lot matrimony, our loss of face in Asia, a reason for ministers to walk the plank, an issue without momentum, and a distraction from the real issues of concern to everyday voters.

There is but one small problem with the arch conservatives’ determination to hold the PM’s hand to the fire on gay marriage – their capacity to punish him.

They could arrange for his removal, in the same way they dispatched Turnbull, but who would they replace him with? Some voters of the right have already made it known they’d rather lose the election with Abbott than win with TurnbullJulie Bishop fancies herself a contender, but it’s hard to see the party described by Peta Credlin as having entrenched inequality in its ranks and processes putting a woman in the top job. The right also have their man Scott Morrison lurking in the wings, but he is not yet ready for the ultimate political promotion.

And even in the fog of their self-indulgence the right must also realise that, having been recently reminded of the Rudd-Gillard turmoil, the last thing voters want is another round of leadership musical chairs.

In short, there is very little the right can do to the PM, other than speak sternly to him. However, they can – and do – exert and maintain the very influence castigated by Credlin by pre-selecting candidates who toe the conservative line. This makes it risky for moderate MPs and potential candidates to speak out in support of marriage equality.

Liberal Teresa Gambaro is reportedly one such MP. According to Dennis Shanahan, she is “torn between appealing to a large part of her marginal electorate that supports same-sex marriage and an equally large Liberal stronghold that does not – and that includes the members of her federal electorate council”. Despite facing this risk, Gambaro is backing the Entsch cross-party bill.

This brings us to the voters, an overwhelming majority of whom support marriage equality. If there was to be an electoral backlash from the minority, which party would the Liberal supporters who oppose gay marriage vote for if Liberal MPs helped the law to be passed? The ALP, which has a policy supporting marriage equality? Or maybe the Greens, who also support gay marriage?

For all the talk (through the media) of the “absolute necessity” for Abbott to “be seen to be standing up for his conservative base” after “disappointing” them on free speech, there really is nowhere else for those voters to go. They’ll begrudgingly vote for candidates like Gambaro rather than give their vote to lefties like Labor and the Greens.

It’s time for the PM to recognise the hollowness of the Liberal right’s threats and to call their bluff on marriage equality.

The conservatives have no viable options to replace him, and their determination to pre-select candidates who reflect their own minority views could lose more votes than it wins. Conversely, the right should wake up to the fact that, at least until Morrison is ready to step up, the mostly-conservative Abbott is the best option they have to remain relevant and dominant in today’s Liberal Party.

‘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.