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.

Shorten must break the union stranglehold

Labor is on the nose and Bill Shorten has a plan to appeal to the middle ground. But as with Labor leaders before him, he will need to confront the unions if he hopes to make a change.

There’s no way to put a gloss on it: the Labor Party is on the nose with voters.

The Liberals and Labor both suffered swings of about 5 per cent against them in the weekend’s Western Australia Senate election re-run. But given the chance to protest against the Abbott Government for its litany of flaws and failures, voters chose to flock to the bombastic Clive Palmer and Greens social media hero Scott Ludlam instead of Labor’s alternative prime minister, Bill Shorten.

Shorten didn’t really need the rejection to know he has a problem. The unwillingness of some Labor supporters to choose either the gay marriage advocate Louise Pratt or the Neanderthal Joe Bullock likely reinforced his existing view that the ALP needs to reconnect with voters in the middle ground in order to survive.

The Labor Leader foreshadowed this last month at the National Press Club when he announced that he wanted to mainstream the Labor Party by opening it up to non-traditional party members and “modernise” Labor’s relationship with the union movement. By integrating middle Australia into the party’s ranks, Shorten clearly hopes Labor will better reflect the needs and aspirations of the broader political centre and thereby secure their elusive votes.

Shorten was expected to announce his proposed reforms today.

It’s hard to pinpoint which of the anticipated changes will be resisted more by the unions: those that affect their ability to influence Labor’s policies or those that curb their right to gift seats in Parliament.

Both powers are responsible for driving voters away.

The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), for example, continues to influence its faction members’ position on same-sex marriage, ensuring that even a conscience vote on the matter would not produce a majority of supportive Labor MPs. Meanwhile the CFMEU has no qualms about whipping up xenophobia to further its campaign against 457 visas for foreign workers, giving little regard to how that exacerbates community prejudice against asylum seekers.

Equally alienating for centrist voters is the ALP’s all-too-common practice of relegating high quality candidates to tenuous positions on Senate tickets or unwinnable House of Representatives seats while lesser quality candidates are given safe positions as a reward for their time served in the union movement.

It seems nothing was learned in 2012 when the faceless man, SDA member and factional heavyweight, Don Farrell, gained and then gave up the number one Senate spot in South Australia to then Finance Minister Penny Wong.

The practice continued in 2013 when right-wing unions muscled in longtime SDA official Joe Bullock as the number one WA Senate candidate for the upcoming federal election. They did so again for last weekend’s Senate election re-run, both times consigning the more politically prospective but left-wing Louise Pratt to the challenging second position on the ticket and possible defeat.

Granted, Senate sinecures are not the sole province of Labor; the Liberals are also good at slotting former party operatives into winnable senate positions. But in the case of Senator-elect Joe Bullock, who cruelly ridiculed his running mate and called all Labor members crazy, this may well have been the last straw for Western Australian Labor supporters on polling day.

In a perverse way, the poor Senate result may be just what Shorten needs to take the edge off resistance to his proposed weakening of the unions’ hold on the party.

Following last month’s Press Club address the Labor Leader has reportedly been calling party officials and union leaders to talk them through his proposal. Trusted others such as Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek and former Senate leader Chris Evans have been singing the same tune. And today’s announcement is the next step in creating a sense of momentum and inevitability for the changes.

Yet if he is to succeed, Shorten will need something that evaded the two previous Labor leaders who tried to sever the nexus between the ALP and its labour roots.

He will need unions to be willing supporters of the reforms, or at the very least for them not to plot against him as they did with Crean and Rudd. Thanks to Rudd’s antipathy for the unions and the rules he imposed to make it harder to change the party leader, it will at least be much harder for recalcitrant unions to remove Shorten before he attempts to save his party from future electoral oblivion.