Leaders whip up foreigner fear to win Canning

Leaders whip up foreigner fear to win Canning

Pretty much everything said and done in the Parliament over the next fortnight will be done with an eye to how it plays out in the Canning by-election.

It’s an understandable preoccupation, given the poll is being depicted as the ultimate test of Tony Abbott’s leadership. And if the voters of Canning remain as unimpressed with the PM and his Government as the rest of the nation appears to be, Abbott is headed for turbulent times.

The PM won’t go down without a fight, quite literally, and will ask Cabinet this week to sign off on Australia joining the US air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.

This chest-beating exercise would normally be a vote-winner for the Government, but it has become complicated by the response of the Australian community to the plight of the Syrian people fleeing the death and destruction that wracks their nation; the very same devastation to which Australian fighter jets will soon contribute.

Even with the emergence of the heart-rending imagery of the Syrians’ flight, the PM might have been tempted to stall any decision to accept more refugees from the region until after the Canning poll, given that Australians have recently shown more antipathy than empathy to asylum seekers.

But Abbott was left with little choice once Australia’s most popular politician, NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird, and other Liberals made it clear that Australia needed to do more. So the PM has done some fancy footwork, accepting the need for Australia to take in more asylum seekers from Syria, but emphasising this will not increase the overall number of refugees resettled in Australia.

In case the voters of Canning missed the nuance of this commitment, which is to avoid offending voters who oppose any increase in Australia’s refugee intake, the Western Australian newspaper made it clear, stating:

Tony Abbott is unwilling to increase Australia’s overall refugee intake beyond an already planned rise, instead of just making more places available for Syrians at the expense of other nationalities under the existing 13,750 cap.

Abbott will be hoping this commitment, along with sending Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to the United Nations to offer “assistance”, will neutralise (or at least quieten) voters’ humanitarian concerns about Syria so that they can focus instead on the terrorism-busting benefits of blasting the nation to smithereens.

This is because the war on terror is pretty much the only thing left going for the Abbott Government as it prosecutes its case in Canning. The Coalition’s only other natural strength, a reputation for superior economic management, has taken a beating in the West following the economic downturn that occurred there under the state Liberal Government’s watch.

And while much of Western Australia has an unemployment rate less than the national average, the Mandurah region in Canning has almost double the national unemployment rate at 10.8 per cent. This has created the unusual situation where federal Labor is campaigning in the by-election on an issue that has traditionally been the Coalition’s strength, namely jobs.

Along with the union movement, to which Labor Leader Bill Shorten owes a few favours, the Opposition is using foreign worker permits under the yet-to-be-ratified free trade agreement with China to whip up voter anxiety about job availability and further undercut the Abbott Government’s standing with voters.

Some of Shorten’s colleagues are disconcerted, however, by the Opposition Leader’s apparent willingness to trash an important trade deal for political expediency.

Labor-aligned columnist Troy Bramston writes in The Australian today that former Labor PM Bob Hawke said opposing ChAFTA was “against Australia’s best interests”, and that these sentiments had been echoed by most of the Labor state premiers. Bramston also lists other Labor supporters of the trade deal, which include Bob Carr, John Brumby, Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Luke Foley and Peter Beattie.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely Shorten will back down from this xenophobia-tinged campaign until the Canning poll is decided.

His colleagues may feel, as Bramston suggests, that this approach puts Labor “at risk of trashing its legacy on free trade and forging the modern Australia-China relationship” but Shorten’s priority is clearly to deliver support for the unions who delivered for him at national conference, and to give Abbott a mighty scare in Canning.

And with the parliamentary vote to ratify CHAFTA not expected until after the by-election, there is scope for the Labor Leader to come back to the fold if he so chooses.

Clearly, the Prime Minister has more to lose from the Canning outcome than the Opposition Leader, but both men have stooped to either whipping up foreigner-anxiety or appeasing xenophobia in order to maximise their party’s vote.

Western Australian voters will have been observing this at close range for the past fortnight, and now it is our turn to see the unedifying spectacle writ large on the national stage. Regrettably only those who live in Canning have the chance to do something about this sorry state of political affairs. The rest of us must wait until next year’s election.

Royal commission stand-off could define the election

Royal commission stand-off could define the election

If there’s certainty about anything that will happen this week in politics, it’s that the Labor Opposition will do everything it can to bring down the royal commission into union corruption. Labor knows that doing so will seriously disrupt the Government’s re-election strategy.

The royal commission has always served a dual purpose for the Government. Over the short term, it’s been a mechanism for digging into the union pasts of Labor leaders in the hopes of tainting Julia Gillard’s legacy and crippling Bill Shorten’s future.

But over the longer term, the royal commission was intended to create voter distrust for the union movement – and by extension, Labor – by highlighting the worst behaviour of union officials.

The Government intended to exploit the resulting antipathy for unions by drawing Labor into a battle over laws meant to curtail union power. Accordingly, a bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission is due to be debated in the Senate today.

Also to be debated today is the re-introduced bill aiming to establish a Registered Organisations Commission, which would have the power to “supervise” the conduct of employer organisations and unions, including the use of coercive investigatory powers and criminal penalties. Once Labor and the Greens combined to defeat this bill, which they can with the support of three other Senators, the Government would then have a double dissolution trigger.

At least that was the plan: the momentum created by the mounting evidence of union rorts at the royal commission, paired with Labor’s protection of unions by defeating the ABCC and ROC bills, theoretically would have created a favourable anti-union re-election climate for the Government either at the end of this year or in early 2016.

Labor knows this momentum can be arrested by killing off the royal commission.

It won’t be enough to protest about the perceived or real conflict of interest that has arisen from Dyson Heydon’s foolish acceptance of an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party function, or even to boycott the commission’s proceedings.

If the inquiry continues to publicly gather evidence of union thuggerydodgy deals and rorts, then the vast majority of disengaged voters will more likely dismiss complaints about the royal commissioner’s bias.

Only by bringing the royal commission to an early end will Labor have any chance of repairing the damage already done to the party – and its leader – through guilt by association with the dark element that patently exists within the labour movement.

According to another Drum columnist, Michael Bradley, Heydon’s removal would bring the inquiry to an end. But it is highly unlikely Tony Abbott will sack Heydon or impose on him to stand down – if reports are correct that the royal commissioner was his personal appointment, the PM can hardly afford to admit to another failed captain’s pick.

And given the royal commission has unearthed actual evidence of less than desirable union practices, it’s unlikely voters will raise arms against Heydon in the same way they felt compelled to do over the excesses of the former speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

However, if Labor does manage to bring down Heydon and thereby the royal commission, the Government will have to rewrite this re-election strategy.

At least one commentator has pointed out that John Howard faced dire opinion poll ratings like those currently being experienced by Abbott, but that Howard turned this around with an ambitious reform agenda that led to re-election (albeit with less than an outright majority of the vote).

Yet there is nothing to suggest Abbott or his Government have the political nous required to devise, let alone run, an election campaign based on serious reform.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s efforts to end our “entitlement” mentality have failed, thanks to an ill-judged first horror budget, an indulgent second magic pudding budget, and footage of stogies being puffed and helicopters landing on golf courses.

Parallel efforts to get the premiers to take the running (and grief) on increasing John Howard’s GST have been somewhat more successful, but the case for an increase (to pay for schools and hospitals) is much less electorally compelling than the original argument for the tax’s introduction (which included the scrapping of several other taxes and a tax cut for everyone earning up to $60,000).

Then there is the business community’s most favoured reform, workplace relations, which the PM will not even contemplate for fear of raising the ghost of WorkChoices.

Without a reform agenda, the Government is left with national security and asylum seekers – two sides of the same coin as far as the Prime Minister is concerned – on which to fight the next election. However, Labor’s recent decision not to rule out boat turn-backs makes it more difficult for the Government to argue it’s tougher on asylum seekers than the Opposition.

Whatever policies end up dominating the next 12 months and the next federal election campaign, trust and competence will be the underlying themes. This will not be so much a matter of “who do you trust to tell the truth?”, because no one expects politicians to be honest, but “who do you trust to run the country?”. This trust will be dependent on the extent to which voters are convinced the competing parties have cohesive, competent teams with economically responsible but fair policies.

Labor may manage to kill off the royal commission and neutralise public concern about its association with unions, but it will still have to contend with its Rudd-Gillard past and all that entails.

However, an even more difficult challenge faces Abbott and his team. The Coalition Government has proven to be neither cohesive nor competent over the past two years, and seemingly incapable of balancing economic soundness with the public good. It is on this that the Government will be judged on election day, and no amount of union corruption will spare it from that scrutiny.

Bill Shorten feels the slow burn of royal commission’s interrogation

Bill Shorten feels the slow burn of royal commission’s interrogation

Prime Minister Tony Abbott may have bounded out of bed this morning with more than his usual vigour. For him, a former industrial relations minister in the Howard Government and now the self-appointed scourge of Labor PMs, the much-anticipated day had arrived when former union leader and now Labor leader Bill Shorten would face Abbott’s Royal Commission into union governance and corruption.

This would be the interrogation of a third Labor leader by an Abbott Government-commissioned Royal Commission, following on from Kevin Rudd’s attendance at the inquiry into the Home Insulation Schemeand Julia Gillard’s appearance before the same Royal Commission being faced by Shorten today.

In the cases of Rudd and Gillard, their scrutiny under the veil of a Royal Commission was an attempt by the Abbott Government to recast history and blacken the names of the two former Labor Prime Ministers: to depict Rudd’s determination to roll-out stimulus spending as irresponsible and fatal; and designate Gillard as a dodgy lawyer who had personally benefitted from doing special deals for unions before embarking on a political career.

It is too early to tell whether either attempt will have any permanent impact on the two former PMs’ historical reputations.

However Shorten’s appearance before the union Royal Commission, jauntily known as #TURC on social media, has another purpose altogether. This interrogation is not only meant to besmirch but to bring down the Labor leader, to cast enough doubt on him – even if only in the eyes of his own colleagues – to either precipitate another Labor leadership change before the upcoming federal election, or exacerbate existing voter concern about Shorten’s suitability for high office.

Royal Commission examinations are not for observers who like to cut to the chase. They do however make compelling watching for those of us with a penchant for the slow-burn lawyerly interrogation that’s become the staple of myriad popular crime shows.

In this respect, the Commission’s counsel (or prosecutor), Jeremy Stoljar, has not disappointed, systematically taking Shorten, the former state and national leader of the influential right-wing union the AWU, though a series of documented events to determine whether he personally benefited from arrangements made with his knowledge during that period.

Of the three Labor leaders who have endured these Coalition-inspired witch-hunts, Shorten appears the most relaxed. He’s been well-schooled by his lawyers to use concise language, and has felt confident enough to offer mini-dissertations to provide context. In response, Stoljar has sternly asked for shorter answers.

One of the main issues investigated today was whether the services of an employee of the labour hire firm Unibilt was in effect hired and then donated to be Shorten’s campaign manager when Shorten was a Labor candidate in 2007, and whether this donation had been declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.

The campaign manager’s wages were later paid by the AWU, although Unibilt continued to furnish the cash for that purpose. Reference was also made to another worker on the Shorten campaign whose wages were paid by the AWU.

It’s certainly not unusual for political operatives to move in and out of various roles, and the funding of those positions is not always straightforward. Staffers employed by party headquarters, for example, may work in politicians’ offices, or corporate lobbyists aligned with one party or another may take leave to work on election campaigns. Political staffers employed at the territory, state or federal level may take leave to work in election campaigns at other levels.

Some political staffers may even have their salaries topped-up by the party machines, to compensate for their low remuneration compared with equivalent roles in the corporate world.

So in itself, it’s not unusual or necessarily underhanded for an employee of another organisation to work on the campaign of a Labor candidate, or their office, or to be funded by someone else. And it’s not often that such a resource is declared as a donation (even though it should be).

It became clear during Shorten’s evidence that he had indeed declared the Unibilt employee as a donation – sometime in the past few days. Given that Shorten’s experience with “donated” staff is a common practice, we should expect to see a number of other updated candidate returns in coming days, from both sides of the political fence.

Then there was the question whether Shorten gained a personal advantage by getting the donated staffer from Unibilt at the same time the company was negotiating a wage agreement with the AWU. Shorten denied he was involved in the wage negotiations.

The more troubling element of the donated campaign manager was not so much that he was an undeclared donation but that he might not have known he was actually employed and paid by Unibilt.

This question of unknowing employees leads to the other, more politically dangerous, matter being examined today. This is whether Shorten knew of, or was involved in, wage agreements that required employers to pay union memberships for employees who were unaware they’d been signed up to the union.

The rationale for such a practice would be to boost the official membership numbers of the AWU and therefore the number of votes it was allocated within Labor Party decision-making processes.

Accounts differ as to whether the employees in question knew they were members – and had agreed to be, for compulsory unionism is illegal – but current AWU secretary Ben Davis told the Royal Commission he stopped this practice because it weakened the union’s bargaining powerSome of the relevant paperwork from that time has also become unavailable, apparently due to a computer upgrade.

We are yet to hear what Shorten knew about these deals, and whether they were sanctioned by him. The Commission has resumed this afternoon to further apply the screws to Shorten concerning these arrangements.

No doubt our erstwhile PM is hoping Shorten’s hand will be caught in the tea caddy, not only demonstrating to the Liberal base that Abbott is tough on unions, but that those dastardly unionists just can’t be trusted. This strengthens the campaign narrative that will be rolled out by the Coalition at the next election.

However, Shorten may not have to be caught red-handed to be damaged by this inquisition. If he loses his nerve, slips up on a key detail, or starts to obviously lie, his party will lose whatever faith they still have in him.