This week’s [free] column for The New Daily.
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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.
The Political Weekly: The Government’s budget update was an amateur affair.
The Political Weekly: The Government’s budget update was an amateur affair.
Weekly column for The Hoopla (3 free reads each month).
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.