Bishop has resigned, but the entitlements war isn’t over

Bishop has resigned, but the entitlements war isn’t over

And so it took three weeks – arguably two-and-a-half weeks longer than it should have – for the Prime Minister to deal with the excesses of his close friend and personal choice for Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

After a succession of Bishop’s extravagant and barely-legitimate travel claims were exposed in the media, the Government taking a hit in the opinion polls, and finally being likened to her chauffer in a weekend tabloid, Tony Abbott prevailed yesterday on the Speaker to resign. Which she promptly did.

Yet the PM was at pains to explain the tricksy entitlement system was in fact to blame for Bishop’s profligacy, claiming “the problem is not any particular individual” but “the entitlement system more generally”. Accordingly, the PM announced a review to produce a new entitlements system that is “simple, effective and clear”.

The review is undoubtedly a sop for outraged voters, but it will also provide cover between now and the election for any other MPs whose use of entitlements in dodgy-looking ways may arise in the days and weeks to come. Any such instances will be said to have been pre-emptively dealt with by the review, heading off the need for any disciplinary action or the vengeful sparking of a mutually destructive arms race.

The latter point is particularly important because no side of politics is blemish-free when it comes to the creative use of entitlements.

Perhaps the most common rort is to schedule an official commitment with a party or private event, so that the taxpayer foots any associated travel and accommodation bill.

This was likely the case when 16 Government frontbenchers happened to be in Melbourne for official business around the same time as a major Liberal fundraising event. And when former PM Julia Gillard used a RAAF jet to travel to Byron Bay to inspect roadworks the morning after she attended the wedding of two staffers.

There’s also the totally legitimate but politically questionable practice of MPs using their away from home allowance to pay the mortgage of a second residence in Canberra. The major parties even push the boundaries of MP entitlements at election time, leaving the official launch of the campaign until as close to polling day as possible, because at this point the taxpayer stops footing their travel and accommodation costs.

Not that any of this is news – or at least it should not be. The Australian National Audit Office’s most recent examination of parliamentary entitlements, published in June this year, found that even though there had been numerous reviews of the system, it was “difficult to understand and manage” because of its complexity and because there are no clear definitions of terms such as “parliamentary business”, “electorate business” and “official business”.

This vagueness helped former speaker Peter Slipper successfully appeal against his conviction for misusing travel entitlements.

The audit office also notes the last “root and branch” review of parliamentarians entitlements was held in 2010, and that by April this year only 17 of the review’s 39 recommendations had been implemented.

As a result, the audit office says, “fundamental weaknesses in the framework remain … because the independent recommendations for substantive legislative and administrative reform … have not been actioned”, with travel entitlements being “one of the areas most affected by those factors”.

Abbott would have known this when he fronted the media yesterday to regretfully announce Madam Speaker’s resignation.

Despite misjudging how “choppergate” would play out in the media, particularly once the revelation was followed by the litany of Bishop’s other extravagances, Abbott acknowledged that “we have a situation where spending is arguably inside the rules but plainly outside of community expectations”.

The PM knows this better than most, given he’s been under fire for claiming travel allowance to compete in sporting events.

The former Speaker may have been the worst culprit to date, but the culture of privilege among parliamentarians appears to be entrenched and in urgent need of addressing. According to the audit office, 72 separate allegations of potential entitlement misuse had been lodged with the Department of Finance between August 2009 and June last year. Only the Australian Federal Police has the power to investigate such allegations.

In seeing off one of the most partisan Speakers the Parliament has seen in a long time, Labor has taken a scalp and managed to further diminish the Prime Minister in the process. Yet if the party was genuinely concerned about the rorting of MPs’ travel entitlements, Labor had the opportunity to implement the recommendations of the last “root and branch” review held under their watch in 2010.

Labor’s reluctance to do so belies its indignation over the former Speaker’s excesses.

With the genie that is community outrage now released, the Opposition will have to genuinely participate in reform of the entitlements system, and show leadership by tackling the culture of privilege within its own ranks. In fact, Labor probably has more to lose if the latest review shows as little progress as the last one.

Voters will now expect Abbott to take a “fairer” entitlements system to the next election. If the expectation is not met, it may even be a vote-changer. And if Labor is unable to impose on the Government to produce an entitlements system that is also transparent and accountable, the Opposition will be seen to be as dodgy and untrustworthy as the other mob.

Bishop must resign over incompetence, not bias

Bishop must resign over incompetence, not bias

It’s easy to get caught up in the chase when a political villain stumbles and their opponents close in for the kill. In the case of the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, it’s important, however, to stay focused on her actual misdeeds to ensure political accountability doesn’t degenerate into an opportunistic blood sport.

Bishop’s offence is not so much that she is tribal or biased – for most speakers are. Her crime is that she is just not up to the job.

Australian politics doesn’t enjoy the benefit of an independent speaker, such as in the UK, although our speaker is expected to show “impartiality in the Chamber above all else“. The British speaker resigns from his or her party and is generally unopposed at election time. For only once they are out of the reach of their former party can a speaker be truly independent.

The tradition is not followed in Australia’s smaller Parliament because governments can’t afford to give up their speaker’s vote. However, this exposes the speaker to the whim of the government. When speakers have taken their impartial role too seriously, such as in the case of former Liberal speaker Bob Halverson, they’ve sometimes been forced to step down from the role.

Nevertheless, in recent times, the Rudd-Gillard government speakers Harry Jenkins and Anna Burke decided to distance themselves from their party in order to protect the dignity of the speaker’s office. Compared with the determination of Jenkins and Burke to make the speaker’s role as impartial as possible, the incumbent’s flagrant tribalism is particularly shocking to political observers.

Yet having always been a political warrior, Bishop is more like the Labor speakers of old than Jenkins or Burke.

Labor would be in less of a position to criticise Bishop’s lack of impartiality if she had directly followed on from the Hawke-Keating government speaker Leo McLeay. Like Bishop, McLeay held party fund-raising events in the speaker’s suite, and also had a number of no confidence motions brought against him.

It is often forgotten, or perhaps not even known, that every speaker has a tendency to throw out more MPs from the other side. A paper prepared by the parliamentary library shows that from 1994, when the new 94(a) rule was introduced giving speakers the power to “sin bin” an MP for an hour, until August 2013, 91.3 per cent of MPs ejected under the new rule were non-government. Bishop’s score so far is 98.25 per cent.

The imbalance in the ejectees is partly a function of the expectation placed on the speaker to protect the government of the day. It’s also a reflection of the opposition’s behaviour during Question Time, when ministers have to contend with a wall of noise as the other side tries to intimidate, distract or wrong-foot the government with cat-calls, insinuations and abuse.

A weak speaker, who can’t manage the chamber well enough to minimise the cacophony, is likely to resort to throwing out the troublemakers. The fact that Bishop has ejected more MPs in her time than any other speaker is one of several indicators that she is unable to effectively perform the role.

Another indicator is that Bishop regularly struggles to call MPs by their correct titles, as even a casual observer of Question Time would notice. The Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, is often called the Member for Burke and some MPs have been called by the names of electorates they’d held in previous parliaments. Even ministers assist the Speaker with their correct titles when she calls them to the despatch box.

Tony Burke has begun to exploit Bishop’s failing acuity, and has at times managed to fluster the Speaker – who once had an encyclopaedic recall of “the Practice” – on parliamentary procedural matters. In response Bishop has taken to lashing out at the Opposition, ejecting one Labor MP for laughing and another for saying “Madam Speaker”.

The third indicator that Bishop is unfit for office is her lack of judgement. It is not so much that she, like Labor’s McLeay, thought it acceptable to use her entitlement as Speaker to participate in a party fundraiser. It is more that Bishop did not see the trip in the luxury helicopter as politically unwise until it hit the tabloids.

The Prime Minister has been open about his choice of Bishop for the speakership, even performing the traditional backbencher role of escorting her to the chair when she was appointed to the role. So it is smart politics for Labor to try to pin responsibility for Bishop on Abbott.

But Labor will only get so far complaining about Bishop’s partisan behaviour. Before Jenkins and Burke, Labor speakers were similarly tribal. Even the most impartial speakers we’ve had – Jenkins, Burke and Slipper – between them threw out non-government MPs 89.5 per cent of the time.

And considering it was a personal decision by Jenkins and Burke to place themselves at arms length from Labor, there’s no guarantee the next Labor speaker will be any less partisan than Bishop.

The Opposition is also treading on thin ice if it pursues the notion that being a guest speaker at a party fundraising event is not “official business” for a speaker. Inconveniently for Labor, there is no legal definition of the term. The criticism does raise the question, however, of whether it is official business when a minister or shadow minister attends a similar event as guest speaker, and travels to the event in a taxpayer-funded car. This is a fairly common practice.

There undoubtedly is a problem with speaker bias, but that is as much a product of our parliamentary system as it is due to the tribalism of any individual. Making the role truly independent, along the lines adopted in the UK, would ensure we would no longer have to depend on the good graces of civic-minded parliamentarians like Jenkins and Burke for the speaker to be impartial.

There is also undoubtedly a problem of some holders of high office thinking it is acceptable to charge the taxpayer for a luxury helicopter flight to a party fundraiser, use taxpayer-funded vouchers to clock up $900 worth of taxi fares while visiting wineries, or hit taxpayers with a questionable insurance claim. The privileged culture that mostly turns a blind eye to such behaviour must be exposed and changed so that the entitlements system can be made more transparent and MPs more accountable for how they spend public money.

However, neither problem will be addressed with the removal of Bishop from her role as Speaker. The problem of Bishop’s unfitness for office is an entirely different matter, and it is for this she must be removed from the role or resign.

As Abbott said in 2012 when referring to the need for Slipper to stand aside, it is “very important that the prime minister act to ensure the integrity of the Parliament”. Indeed. And on this basis, PM Abbott knows exactly what he needs to do.

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.

Find Ashby and find some facts – the D&M Newshound Challenge

You might recall I said in my rant about the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign that:

“there is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme.”

Many comments followed the post, here and on Twitter, and there has been a genuine attempt to identify ways to address the latter points.

While we might disagree on some things, Margo Kingston and I do agree that the Federal Court’s judgement raises matters for which Ashby and Brough must provide explanations. While the procurement and provision of Slipper’s diary might attract legal charges, it seems unlikely that any will arise from the abuse of court processes that was identified by Justice Rares.

Margo has already challenged the Sunshine Coast Daily to tackle Brough on his involvement with Ashby’s complaint.

But where is Ashby? Is his announced appeal against Rares’ findings actually a strategy to deflect media attention until some other political drama arises? Or is the media avoiding him anyway, in the same fashion they avoided anything other than scant coverage of the Federal Court judgement?

I’ve said I’d support actions that have substance and deal with known rather than suspected protagonists. In response Margo suggested I join her in challenging journalists to find the elusive Mr Ashby and get some answers.

And so I have. Consider it the inaugural D&M Newshound Challenge.

There’s plenty that we need to know, and only one person who can tell us. Why did Ashby accept a job in December 2011 with Slipper when he was already uncomfortable with texts he’d received from the then Deputy Speaker as early as October? Why did he not use other avenues of complaint/redress rather than going straight to courts? Why turn to Brough after describing him in considerably negative terms to Slipper? Who’s paying his legal bills? And was he encouraged to turn against Slipper in January 2012 and for what incentive?

So that’s the challenge. Find Ashby and find some facts. We’d love to read, hear or watch reports from fourth and fifth estate journalists on their strategies and progress in meeting this challenge. Surely there’s someone among Australia’s many talented investigative journalists, professional and amateur, who can succeed.

Open letter to the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign

Dear proponents of the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign

I know your hearts are in the right place, honestly I do. I share your concern about 2013 ending with Tony Abbott installed as Australia’s 28th Prime Minister. I’m uneasy about Abbott’s ascendancy and what it could mean for equality, equal opportunity and protection of the disadvantaged in Australia.

I also share your concern about the state of Australia’s conventional media, which more often than not descends to lowest common denominator populism to attract eyeballs and earholes rather than serve the public good through objective reporting and unbiased analysis.

It’s because I share many of your concerns that I say you’re seriously mistaken if you think the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign will prevent Tony Abbott from becoming Prime Minister.

That IS the purpose of your campaign, isn’t it? It’s not really about Ashby and Brough colluding to entrap  Slipper in a nasty pre-selection stoush for the seat of Fisher. We already know they did (and don’t need an inquiry to tell us) because it was exposed by the Rares judgement. Nor is your call for an inquiry really about the role that journalist Steve Lewis played, because Justice Rares found that Lewis was simply doing his job.

The #AshbyInquiryNow campaign is really about pinning the whole sordid mess on Tony Abbott – isn’t it? – in the hope that …. well, what do you hope to achieve?

  1. Maybe the inquiry would find Abbott favoured someone running against a sitting Liberal candidate? That’s not a sackable offence and has plenty of precedents.
  2. Perhaps it would show that Abbott had knowledge of Brough/Ashby’s plans to undermine Slipper in the preselection contest for Fisher? If irrefutable proof was produced this would certainly blunt Abbott’s capacity to accuse Gillard of complicity through prior knowledge in the AWU saga. It would be unlikely however to sway undecided voters not already turned off by Abbott’s other unsavoury characteristics such as wall-punching and anachronistic views of women.
  3. It’s likely you’re hoping an inquiry would find Abbott actively participated in the Brough/Ashby scheme. But why would he? Why would Abbott get personally involved in one of the 150 preselection battles that will have occurred before the 2013 election? Remember, Slipper was not Speaker when Ashby set his plan in motion and there was no inkling the current Speaker Harry Jenkins would retire from the position.
  4. Some campaigners also seem keen to prove Abbott was involved in treason/sedition. Firstly, see 3 above. Also, Ashby’s plan was to bring Slipper down for Brough, not to bring the Speaker and the government down for Abbott. The government was never at risk, having gained a spare vote when Harry Jenkins stepped down from the chair. So there was no act of treason or sedition.

Now perhaps I have misunderstood your campaign, and you’re calling instead for an inquiry into the parlous state of Australia’s conventional media. Well we already had one of those and you’re unlikely to get another media inquiry soon or a different outcome.

In short, you can call for an #AshbyInquiryNow until you’re blue in the face but there’s nothing to be achieved by it. The Government would have already established one if they saw it as a way to get  at Abbott.

Instead, the Government may be pondering whether charges can be laid against Brough/Ashby for the “abuse of process of the court” identified by Justice Rares. This may be the most effective way to get justice for Peter Slipper.

There is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme. That’s not to mention the shameful way in which News Ltd media dropped the story once it diverged from their political narrative.

Nevertheless, the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign does nothing to address those wrongs. It is nothing more than an empty campaign, a hysterical witch hunt, driven by a single-mindedly desperate wish for Abbott’s downfall. As a result, #AshbyInquiryNow is seen as nothing more than tweet-spam; the left’s equivalent of #JuLIAR. While chants, hashtags, ranty blogposts and automated tweets may reinforce the views of your campaigners, it’s simply annoying for others and puts off any potential new supporters.

Social media prides itself on being what the traditional media is not – focussed on substance not political dramas, conducting analysis not witch-hunts, and being objective not pig-headedly partisan. Unfortunately, the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign meets none of these criteria and I’ll be filtering it from my tweetstream from now on.

But if you find a way to challenge Tony Abbott with substance, analysis and objectivity, be sure to let me know. I’ll be one of the first to join the campaign.

Regards, Drag0nista

Glasshouses, stones and the problem with player journos

Sometimes I feel like the political equivalent of Methuselah. I really shouldn’t, because I can only remember back to the latter days of the Hawke Government. There are plenty of others around who can remember even further back than me, to the Fraser and Whitlam years.

Aside from feeling extraordinarily old, the benefit of being able to remember back that far is that contemporary political events don’t feel unique but part of an evolving continuum. For those of us who’ve been watching politics a long time, it’s not often that one hasn’t seen something similar happen before.

The most striking recent example of this is the role that Steve Lewis played in the Slipper saga.

There was a lot of comment on Twitter that cast Lewis as the villain; accusing him of actively plotting with the protagonists on one side of the political drama to bring down the players on the other. In bringing down his perspicacious judgement on the matter, Justice Rares said that Lewis was simply doing his job.

Former SMH Chief of Staff and National Editor, Bernie Lagan, now writing for The Global Mail, casts a sharp but pragmatic eye over that part of Justice Rare’s finding:

If, as the judge finds, the whole of the Slipper affair was a calculated effort by James Ashby to politically damage Peter Slipper by abusing the court process, then some might say that Steve Lewis and News Ltd were remiss for going along with it by relying on the protection of court filings for their stories; that indeed Lewis should have seen through Ashby’s motivations from the outset.

But that would be naïve. More likely was that Lewis was well aware of Ashby’s motivations and those of other players, such as Mal Brough. Sources have all sorts of motivations for giving up information. What matters to the reporter is whether the material offered is newsworthy, factually correct and can be defended once published. The facts of the various sexually charged exchanges between Slipper and Ashby aren’t in question (what can be drawn from this most certainly is). And Lewis had waited to publish with the legal cover that came once Ashby had commenced his court action.

Looking at it from this perspective, one can easily think of other examples where journalists have published newsworthy stories in the knowledge that it may be damaging for the opponent of the person who furnished the story in the first place.

Laurie Oakes’ Walkley Award winning story on Cabinet leaks unfavourable to Prime Minister Gillard during the federal election campaign immediately come to mind.

As does the running commentary that Peter Hartcher provides against the Prime Minister in favour of the vanquished Rudd.

So the journalist as political player, to the extent that knowingly publishing harmful information makes one a player, is not exactly new or even considered to be unprofessional.

Unless you’re a self-styled journalism vigilante like Margo Kingston. Yes, that’s the same Margo Kingston who, while still working as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, published Not Happy John, which excoriated the Prime Minister of the day, John Howard. Following her retirement from journalism, Kingston also became actively involved in the campaign run against Howard in the seat of Bennelong, which claimed its genesis in her book.

Not surprisingly Kingston’s Wikipedia entry says she may be seen as part of the larrikin/ratbag Australian journalistic tradition which also encompasses Alan Ramsey and Stephen Mayne. “This tradition is characterised by a willingness to break with convention, espouse controversial opinions and intervene in the events which the journalist is reporting.”

I can attest first hand to this: I clearly remember being a wide-eyed newbie media adviser sitting with Kingston and her SMH colleague Mike Seccombe over coffee one day, listening to them discuss what else they could do to help Paul Keating oust Prime Minister Bob Hawke. From that day on, I knew that some political journalists saw their role as shaping political stories, not just reporting them. (See comment from Margo Kingston below that she was no big fan of Keating so this might have been spoken in *irony font*).

Right now Kingston is shaping another narrative, running a campaign this time against Tony Abbott based on him misleading the Australian Electoral Commission about a slush fund back in the late 1990s. I wish her the very best in that endeavour.

Kingston has so far refrained from accusing Lewis of being a player, retweeting without comment the Lagan piece mentioned above.

She’s been less restrained in accusing other sections of the media from taking a side, railing on Twitter about the editor of the Daily Telegraph burying Justice Rare’s findings on page 17 and Latika Bourke not asking about Ashby in a recent interview with Julie Bishop. In the latter case, Margo even implicitly encourages others to lodge a formal complaint against Bourke:

Those cheering the actions of Margo Kingston now and in the past as some sort of journalistic white knight need to think carefully about how her actions are different, or not, from those of Lewis, Bourke, the Daily Telegraph, Oakes or Hartcher.

In covering the points raised by Kingston in her latest campaign on Abbott’s slush fund, Michelle Grattan recently wrote:

Obviously, there were clear differences between Abbott’s slush fund, which was aimed at a broad political purpose (the destruction of Hanson and One Nation) and the limited self-serving objectives of the AWA body, let alone the vehicle for illegal behaviour that it became. But the point is, Abbott does not bring an unblemished record to the argument.

Next time Margo Kingston is tempted to accuse a journalist of being a political player, she should remember that she does not bring an unblemished record to the argument either.

Abbott and Gillard both complicit in exploitation of Slipper

Kudelka, Aust 14 Dec 2012
Kudelka, Aust 14 Dec 2012

Some politicians are just accidents waiting to happen. They’re incendiary devices that, once triggered, may cause only enough devastation to harm themselves or widespread and indiscriminate collateral damage. While some are unobtrusive until their tripwire is breached, others tick loudly causing those nearby to glance anxiously and frequently in their direction.

Peter Slipper sits firmly in the latter category, and most people in federal politics know it.

In terms that can only have been triple-checked by lawyers, journalists freely refer to Slipper as “Slippery Pete”, an apparent reference to his ability to survive political embarrassment, and brazenly document his enthusiastic enjoyment of the trappings of office. Some of Slipper’s other proclivities are reported too, including late night incidents in bars, being refused permission to board a plane, and catching a few zeds in parliament. Others are not reported, protected by the code of silence between politicians and the media on matters considered to be of a personal nature.

While officially Slipper is dubbed a “colourful” personality, the unofficial consensus when he became Speaker was that the experiment could only end in tears. The only unknown was whose tears would they be?

Perhaps they should be ours. The grave lesson for voters to take from the Slipper saga is that Gillard and Abbott showed not a shred of political judgement when they made him their catspaw. They recklessly exposed their parties to potential reputational devastation, and gave no thought to the emotional price that might be extracted from Slipper.

The Prime Minister would have only had to occasionally glance at a newspaper to have Slipper’s measure before she wooed him to become Speaker. Clearly the greater temptation was to finish the 2011 parliamentary year on a high political note by strengthening her parliamentary numbers and being able to rescind the politically unpalatable promise on poker machines she’d rashly made to Andrew Wilkie.

Did the PM not stop to consider that Abbott aimed to tear down anyone or anything that stood between him and the early demise of the Gillard minority government? By making him Speaker, Gillard effectively put a huge bullseye on Peter Slipper’s head.

Tony Abbott knew too, as did successive Liberal Party leaders before him, that Slipper was a potential walking disaster zone. Even a cursory due diligence investigation, such as those routinely conducted by political parties to ensure their candidates meet constitutional, statutory and civil propriety requirements, would have set off the warning bells. Nevertheless Slipper was continually re-endorsed for election by the Liberals from 1993 until he resigned to become an independent Speaker in 2011.

In reality Abbott was no more oblivious to Slipper’s ominous ticking than Gillard was. Once Slipper was made Speaker, and without even the slightest hint of chagrin, Abbott intoned that “Slipper is Gillard’s problem now”.

Subsequently either the Liberal Party or elements within it did their best to detonate Slipper, placing Ashby in his office to entrap and then claim sexual harassment. However, things did not quite go as planned.

Firstly, Slipper proved to be an excellent Speaker, showing neither fear nor favour to any MP, and being the first to eject a Federal Treasurer from the parliament in 80 years. He demonstrated an accomplished working knowledge of the House of Representatives’ powers, practice and procedures which endured strenuous testing every Question Time. The new Speaker even won over some of the cynical Twitter crowd who’d been strong fans of previous Speaker Harry Jenkins, and his idiosyncratic return to the ceremonial garments was welcomed by many as an effort to increase respect in the parliament by reinstating some of the tradition associated with the role.

Then, when the detonation finally came, it was not simply confined to Gillard’s hands. Justice Rare’s dismissal of Ashby’s sexual harassment claim redirected much of the messy and indiscriminate destruction back on to the Liberals and Tony Abbott. If it wasn’t so serious it would’ve been funny to imagine the host of cartoonish political players with an “oh I didn’t expect that” look on their explosive-streaked hands and faces.

It’s hard not to see there was always a good chance that no-one would prevail in the Slipper affair – and no-one has.  Not the PM and Labor, who made the dubious decision to offer Slipper the position despite the probable consequences. Not Abbott and the Liberals, who turned a blind eye to Slipper’s flaws when he was one of theirs but ruthlessly tried to tear him down once he wasn’t.

Not Ashby. Not Brough. Not Slipper. Not the media or even the voters. None of us have emerged from the Slipper saga with our hands or consciences clean.

In some ways we the people have chosen to be political pawns too. Even now we play our part as the chorus, cheering and hissing from the colosseum benches while our pygmy gladiators, Gillard and Abbott, continue their battle. And nary a glance is made by any of us at the carnage they continue to leave in their wake.

This time, the MSM got it right

Photo by Alex Ellinghausen

Before I get to the substance of this post, I’d like to provide some context. I’m a former Liberal staffer. The last time I was employed as a political staffer was in 1993, and I’ve never worked for the Liberal Party since, nor am I member of any party. I do not vote, and have not done so for the past two ACT and federal elections. I will not be party to any vote that results in Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister.

I like Julia Gillard. She is a gutsy, intelligent and compassionate woman who I consider to be a formidable role model for all Australian girls and women. But I will not vote for her party either.

I provide this background in the hope that readers will accept that I have no political axe to grind when I say that the MSM’s coverage of yesterday’s political events is more perceptive than they are being given credit for, and that there seems to be a number of people using social media who are deluding themselves as to what actually happened.

Let’s revisit the event. After asking the Prime Minister in Question Time whether she continued to have full confidence in the Speaker and, if not, what steps she would take to remove him from the position, Tony Abbott then moved a motion to remove the Speaker due to him not being fit for office.

Abbott specifically used only the content of Slipper’s texts, which are in the public domain and uncontested, to craft his accusation against Slipper. Building upon the growing sentiment in the community against misogynist views and language demonstrated by the #destroythejoint movement, Abbott painted Slipper as a man who spoke of women generally, and one female Liberal MP specifically, in derogatory terms. He argued that a person with such objectionable views about women and who clearly had a bias against at least one MP was not fit for the non-partisan office of Speaker.

Abbott accused Slipper of being unfit for office based on the texts, not Ashby’s allegations which are still before the courts. In avoiding use of the Ashby allegations, Abbott denied the Government any grounds upon which to avoid the question of Slipper’s fitness for office, particularly that of needing to follow due process.

Nevertheless, due process was the Government’s chosen shield.

In fact, the Government had little else with which to defend itself. Having invested considerable political capital, in the form of senior female ministers, to raise and maintain concerns over Tony Abbott’s problems with female voters, the Prime Minister became wedged by Abbott’s motion. Abbott’s speech drew a clear connection between the Prime Minister’s fitness for office and Slipper’s, thereby making the motion about her judgement in recruiting him to bolster the Government’s numbers.

The PM was faced with a stark choice: oppose the motion and be seen to be defending the Speaker, or support it in the knowledge that this would be seen as a concession of ill-judgement on her part. Any such concession would also cast a shadow over the PM’s judgement in related decisions such as the formation of minority government with the independents and the Greens.

So the stakes were high when Abbott moved his motion. I initially misunderstood his reason for doing so, thinking that its purpose was to remove the Speaker. In fact, the purpose of the motion was to wedge the Prime Minister into having to oppose it, defend her own judgement, and by association, that of Slipper’s too. It does not matter that Julia Gillard said not one word in defence of Slipper during her speech: Abbott expected that her opposition to the motion would be damning enough.

What Abbott did not expect was the damning words that the PM levelled at him during her speech; a speech which appears to have divided Labor supporters due to its visceral content and emotive delivery. Some voiced concern that the speech was not befitting of a Prime Minister and that it might be seen by casual political observers as an intemperate outburst.

Conversely, the PM’s speech was embraced by the people who have recently formed a front line against misogyny, chauvinism and disrespect against women in public discourse. The coincidental timeliness of the PM’s rousing words raised the spirits of those now experiencing and witnessing a withering backlash against the #destroythejoint movement.

And what of those not involved in or supportive of the DTJ campaign? It is important to look outside that bubble to really understand how yesterday’s events are being interpreted.

For those much less engaged in politics than us – and let’s accept that there are many of them – the event played out thus: Slipper sent texts that were derogatory of women and Abbott claimed a person that held such views was not fit to be Speaker. In opposing Abbott’s motion to remove the Speaker (read: defending the Speaker), the Prime Minister unleashed a tirade against Abbott recounting the many sexist views leveled against her personally, or women generally, which he had never withdrawn or denounced.

In base political terms, Abbott won the day: he wedged the Prime Minister into supporting the Speaker, and was unintentionally rewarded with Slipper’s scalp later that evening. Abbott has however set a dangerous precedent for judging an MP’s character based on their private text messages.

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s impassioned speech compelled some concerned female voters away from Tony Abbott and towards her. Maybe, if they are prepared to overlook her refusal to see Slipper’s texts as evidence that he was unfit to be Speaker. And maybe, if they are also comfortable with the PM delivering highly emotive attacks in Parliament.

Looking at it this way, it is understandable why the media may interpret yesterday’s events as being a potential setback for the Government. Sometimes we need to take a step back to see the whole picture.