The Political Weekly: All we saw was vote-buying with money the Government doesn’t have.

And then there was one. In the Senate, at least. Palmer United Party’s Glenn Lazarus announced overnight that he’d left PUP to become an independent, leaving the party with only one vote in the upper house. Lazarus made the announcement via Facebookand Twitter just after midnight, noting this was a difficult decision and hinting at irreconcilable differences with party leader […]

Revisit the political year that kept the climate of our national parliament intemperate, even while the seasons changed outside. Feature for The Brief.

Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

I won’t add my thoughts to the likely millions of condolences expressed at the sudden death of Phillip Hughes. Mainly because I’d never heard of him until this week as I don’t follow cricket.

That’s not to say Hughes’ death didn’t affect me. I was reminded of my own fragile mortality, gave thanks for the health and safety of those I love, and also looked afresh at the week’s political antics.

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Clive Palmer’s bullying attempts to bring his rogue senator into line will sit uncomfortably with voters who prefer to see him as a benevolent maverick. Post for Guardian Australia.

I was showing someone my blog yesterday and was mortified to realise I don’t post much any more, other than links to my columns and posts that are published elsewhere. This has made my blog a pretty boring place to visit.

Today I’ve decided to rectify this with at least a semi-regular commentary on my week (or so) in politics including published pieces and observations of the discussions that followed, particularly on Twitter.

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There is no question that Jacqui Lambie will soon be on the crossbench as an independent, but there’s a lot at stake when it comes to how she gets there.

Ex-communicating Jacqui Lambie from the Palmer United Party for disloyalty would only seal her reputation as Queen of the Underdogs, and Clive Palmer knows it.

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.

For the vengeful and electorally rampaging Clive Palmer, disaffected disability pensioner Jacqui Lambie would have been little more than the means to an end when he coaxed her to run for the Palmer United Party before the 2013 federal election.

The born-and-bred Tasmanian nursed her own reasons for putting one up the establishment, and her outspoken vehemence dovetailed conveniently with Palmer’s own mangled sound grabs castigating the Coalition at federal and state levels.

But having been peremptorily preselected and then elected on a sweet preference deal, the PUP Senator for Tasmania is now fast outgrowing the kennel.

If the blossoming of Lambie’s political brand continues apace, and canny political operators can find the right enticements to unravel her ties to Palmer, Lambie could become an independent Senate champion for her embattled home state.

Such a turn of events would allow the unashamed champion of the underdog to deliver bounties to Tasmania not seen since the heyday of the late Brian Harradine.

If not for Palmer, Lambie would have been just another Australian downtrodden by bureaucracy.

She joined the army early in life, serving in transport and military policing roles and later losing a stripe for punching a colleague. Lambie finally left the army after 11 years due to a back injury sustained in 1997 from carrying a 40kg pack for a two-day bush skills course.

What does she stand for?

  • Veterans Affairs: Concerned about misogyny in the Australian Defence Force and the high rate of suicide amongst former ADF personnel. Has demanded the Government extend the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce indefinitely, and called for a Royal Commission into the Veterans’ Affairs Department.
  • National Security: Believes Australia’s national security is weak and that defence force spending should be bolstered. Advocates compulsory National Service for all young Australians.
  • Tasmania: Wants an extra $5 billion over four years diverted from foreign aid to establish a special economic zone in Tasmania to help business employ more workers and lower the unemployment rate.
  • Transport: Wants $180 million cut from mainland road and infrastructure to be invested immediately in the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme.

She battled the veterans’ affairs bureaucracy over the next 5 years, to overcome accusations of malingering and finally be allowed to draw a disability pension. These experiences awakened Lambie’s political awareness in 2008 when she was given work by former Labor senator Nick Sherry as part of her rehab. But in 2009 she attempted suicide, and then spent time in a psychiatric ward, following which she found God and lost 40 kilos. She then led an unsuccessful run for Liberal pre-selection in Braddon for the 2013 federal election.

After deciding to run as an independent anyway, Lambie accepted Palmer’s invitation to jump on the PUP bandwagon after realising she couldn’t afford to bankroll a decent campaign on her own.

Lambie’s and Palmer’s political relationship may be one of convenience, but it is nevertheless a fruitful one.

While the multi-millionaire Palmer may claim to be a man of the people, Lambie is genuinely representative of the underclass that most politicians would never encounter unless they visited the local dole office. Lambie shares the concerns and language of this under-represented segment of the Australian community, and unashamedly gives voice to the disdain they hold for the establishment they believe has abandoned them.

Through Lambie, Palmer has a direct line to these disgruntled voters and the opportunity to harvest their protest votes.

The problem for Palmer is that he needs Lambie more than she needs him. Whether she’s inside PUP’s yellow tent or out, Lambie wields one of the six votes needed by the Government from the eight crossbenchers to pass legislation when Labor and the Greens oppose it. Without Lambie, and on the occasions when Muir decides to vote with the Government, Palmer’s bloc is reduced to two and he no longer has the power of veto.

What does the future hold?

Lambie shares Palmer’s passion for political vengeance, but her future will be determined less by revenge than by ambition.

She has not been afraid to brandish the leadership baton kept in her knapsack, reportedly stating not long after the federal election that she would become Leader of PUP if Palmer was not successful in getting elected in Fairfax.

So it’s hardly surprising that other reports have emerged suggesting Lambie is unhappy with her colleague from Queensland, Glenn Lazarus, being unilaterally made Leader of the PUP in the Senate.

Such quibbles would be music to the ears of Government strategists looking for a way to cleave Lambie away from the PUP voting bloc. It would however be a mistake for the plotters to focus only on Lambie’s ambitions for herself.

More important by far appears to be the Senator’s ambitions for the state she represents and the disadvantaged people she’s determined to champion.

The spoils of victory will go to the party that can deliver on that ambition for her.

A multimedia version of this piece appears on the ABC’s tablet app The Brief, which can be downloaded here.