Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Parliament

First, but least in the nation

Overnight, US President Obama stepped in to support the rights of citizens of Washington D.C

The White House released this statement by President Obama urging Congress to grant voting representation to residents of Washington, D.C.:

“On this occasion, we remember the day in 1862 when President Lincoln freed the enslaved people of Washington, DC – nine months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. I am proud that an original copy of that document now hangs in the Oval Office, and we remain forever grateful as a nation for the struggles and sacrifices of those Americans who made that emancipation possible.

“Americans from all walks of life are gathering in Washington today to remind members of Congress that although DC residents pay federal taxes and serve honorably in our armed services, they do not have a vote in Congress or full autonomy over local issues. And so I urge Congress to finally pass legislation that provides DC residents with voting representation and to take steps to improve the Home Rule Charter.”

Given the presidents courage, it would be nice to see a similar statement from his close friend Kevin Rudd to support the rights of Canberran citizens. Canberran residents are the least represented citizens in the country. In the House of Representatives,the Seats of Canberra and Fraser are some of the largest in the country in population size (With 122′000 and 116′000 respectively) when the AEC tries to maintain all electorates at a much lower level. (Indeed the NT with 200′000 citizens gets 2 seats, the ACT with 325′000 also gets 2 seats, and Tasmania with 480′000 gets 5 seats.
A similar pattern (though even more disadvantageous!) occurs in the Federal Senate with the ACT gaining only 2 senators for our population, with Tasmania and all other States enjoying 712 senators. Finally, when it comes to Federal Referendums, residents of the ACT are given only a half vote. A referendum needs to pass a majority of states, and a majority of australian citizens to be made law. Yet votes from the ACT are not counted as representing an area in their own right, and only contribute to the overall majority.

Not only is the principle strong, but it makes good politics as well. A further seat for Washington will surely become a safe democratic seat, as would a third one for Canberra, and fixing the gerrymandering of the states ought to be a long term ALP goal (or goal for any who care about popular representation given that the major parties split the ACT’s senate seats).

Bring out your dead

Politician: 'But i'm not dead yet'

Media: 'You will be soon, get on'

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of reading Doris Kearne Godwin’s book Team of Rivals on the rise to power and administration of Abraham Lincoln. Not only a great read, it illustrates a point I’d been wanting to make for a while: Our current ‘one strike and you’re out’ culture in politics is historically unique and damaging to the quality of our governance and polity.

In 1860 when Lincoln ran for the Republican party nomination, he had spent a few years in both the Illinois legislature, and House of Reprsentatives, but lost his last two US Senate runs A very able though provincial lawyer, his political career was one of regular failure alongside a constant effort of putting himself forward for office. Likewise his primary challengers and later cabinet members, Seward, Chase and Bates were all career politicians who had failed regularly yet chose to continue running (some like Chase even following Lincolns election!).

Closer to home the same pattern emerges. The most successful leaders seem to have all suffered significant setbacks before rising to power. John Curtin lost his seat in 1931 in the disastrous Scullin Government, before returning to become PM by 41. His rise to power came with the humiliation of Robert Menzies who was deemed unsafe even by his own party to lead the war effort, yet Menzies would go on to become our longest serving Prime Minister. And of course his biggest fan, John Howard was written off by most after his disastrous 1987 campaign, yet he was undoubtedly a better leader for it by the time he became PM in 1996.

Politics has never been a game that offers mulligans, but today we have a media and political culture that offers no second chances either. Tony Abbott is now the 11th Leader of the opposition since 1990. Only one of those got a second shot (Beazley), with 2 going on to become Prime Minister. This compares to only 5 between 1960-80. (Though the case can well be made that Evatt, Fadden & Whitlam held on far too long!).

This is a trend which seems to be driven largely by the media, with the politicians nervously following behind. Witness the outright mockery of Tony Abbott for giving shadow cabinet positions to Kevin Andrews, Browyn Bishop and Phillip Ruddock positions (The last of whom had only an explicit advisory role as cabinet secretary). There seems an unwritten rule that politicians are only on the make or on the demise.

Those who have faltered such as Downer, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Brogden, Nelson, Turnbull, have been quickly cast aside by the press. Downer took years to re-gain credibility as Foreign Minister, while Beazley’s short term role as shadow defence minister under Latham was quickly dismissed despite his outstanding qualifications for the job. His later ascension to the leadership after Latham faltered, was undermined from day one by the media; not because of bias, but because they have seemingly decided that second acts are impossible in Australian politics.

For this we lose significant talent. Malcolm Turnbull has much to offer, as does John Brogden from NSW yet neither are likely to be taken seriously again as future leaders or even significant political figures.. When he loses next year, Tony Abbott too will face this relentless and ruthless principle. Likely he will take the Crean, Downer path of trying to hold on regardless but with significantly reduced credibility. If the person who succeed’s him tries to keep Abbott in their shadow cabinet, they will likely be punished by the media for not following the rule of incessant ‘generational change’.

Of course not all want a second chance (Latham being a prime example), but politics is a profession which takes as much if not more time to learn than any other. Not only do individuals have to be across great swathes of policy detail, they need high level skills in administration, management, media, and understandings of human nature. And yet our media treats them like fireworks, praising their burning lights as they fly up, but quickly looking away once they first seem to level off.

And we joe public are the poorer for this attitude. It reduces focus on the rest of the parliament, reduces the emphasis on experience and puts undue pressure on young career politicians to put themselves forward early, perhaps too early if they want media support. It also makes politicians far too reticent to risk any undue policy or political defeats, when sometimes it is advantageous in the long run (in the publics view) for a politician to fight and lose on an important issue to prove their real commitment.

ETS: The Final Countdown – Todays Primer

Here is a quick primer for those of you unsure of what’s happening, or wanting to double check you’ve got the lay of the land down pat. I’ll also be live blogging the days events, so check back regularly to keep up to date.

3:25pm – It’s Over. No vote today.
Labor under Chris Evan’s passionately blames the libs ‘fillibuster’ argues “you have ratted on that agreement”. Cites 295 amendments, with only 34 dealt with. Labor must share some of the blame with its poorly organised chamber and inability to get supportive libs in chamber. Whinging about a ratted on agreement just looks week. This weekend is going to be ugly for all involved in the Liberal Party.

Liberal rebels have sent a letter asking for leadership spill Monday morning (suggestions might occur Tuesday instead), however notables such as Senator Minchin have not signed it.
Talk has now turned to how Labor responds, particularly if they call a Double Dissolution in response early next year. Rudd will have a trigger under section 57 of the Constitution if

the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree

If this happens twice, with a 3 month wait in between, then the Govt has it’s trigger. Deferral is not blocking or failure to pass, but could be left to lawyers. So whilst the test isn’t a full block, it’s also not clear a failure today will be enough for a DD. I’ll follow up on this in a post in a few days when some of the dust has settled.

1:50pm – The deal for Hockey to lead seems to be firming. However I have some doubt if that is the liberals desire, or the press’s. So the ugly side of twitter may be an increase of the press’s power to judge who is a valid candidate (as they universally and negatively did for Andrews). The Senate is finally getting around to debating the Govt-Opposition deal on the CPRS, but time is escaping, and no sign of any liberals willing to stand up and vote today. This sage may well go until monday lunchtime if not next few months…

12:15pm – Confusion if Bishop did or did not ask Turnbull to resign. Deal may be in works for Hockey leader, Dutton deputy. Abbott starting to waiver. May not have numbers, or be content to simply take Turnbull’s scalp and move up to Shadow Treasurer under Hockey. Who knows where this would leave ETS (prob delay to post Copenhagen, but who knows what then? & why would Hockey accept such a bad deal with the mal-contents emboldened)

11:30am – Deputy Julia Bishop has called on Turnbull to resign. Hockey is firming to run against Abbott on Monday. The Senate is crawling in pace. Not looking good for vote by 3:45pm (when Senate is due to rise).

History: Labor passed an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The Liberals demanded amendments, with Ian McFarlane(Lib) and Penny Wong(Lab) doing the negotiations. These included major new breaks for polluters and households. Details here. After a 10 hour meeting on tuesday, Turnbull claimed he had the support of a majority of the party. Many dissented, claiming he was in minority. Anger at being over-ruled, led to a vote on whether to change leadership, with Kevin Andrews running as the potential replacement. The Vote failed 48-35. Party members pledged to support the bill or hold their tounge. After Question Time on Thursday, two leading dissenters, Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin, both members of the shadow cabinet went to Turnbull and demanded the vote be held off until Copenhagen summit or they would resign. Turnbull refused, and about 10 members of the Liberal Party cabinet resigned, starting with Abbott. Late Thursday night, Turnbull gave a defiant press conference saying he would fight on and try to pass the legislation. The Govt capitalised on this, and has rushed the bill forward to be voted on by 3:45pm today (Friday 27th Nov). Tony Abbott (denier) has declared that he will challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership, with a vote due on Monday morning. Pressure has been applied to Joe Hockey(supporter) to also run. Most MP’s have gone home to their electorates, so are not in canberra to vote on the leadership right away.

The Numbers: To pass a bill you need 39 senators to support the bill
Labor: 32
Coalition: 37 (33 Liberals and 4 Nationals)
Independents: 2 (Xenephon and Fielding)
Greens: 5

Who else supports an ETS

Greens: The Greens opposed the CPRS strongly. Though the most active on the issue and with the strongest supporters, they see the bill as a sell out and refuse to support it. Likely they will continue to make perfect the enemy of the good and vote with the climate deniers against the bill. However, they could also choose to at least vote with labor on procedural issues almost ensuring a vote will occur. With their support the CPRS would be almost guaranteed, without it will be very tough.

Notionally the Liberal Party supports the bill. Malcolm Turnbull has made a very strong claim for it, and is risking his position to support it. This may be stubborn digging in, but it’s also very courageous & principled stuff. Claims have been made that “15 of 32” or “a majority” of liberal senators support the bill. Many have reservations about the nature of the bill, and the push to pass before Copenhagen (Dec7-18 2009) On a vote on tuesday to delay the bill until after Copenhagen only 12 Liberals voted for delay, leaving potentially 20 in support. Only 7 are needed to vote today to support the bill. Of those who seem most likely to vote yes are:

Birmingham, Simon – Senator for South Australia
Brandis, the Hon George – Senator for Queensland
Coonan, the Hon Helen – Senator for New South Wales
Humphries, Gary – Senator for Australian Capital Territory
Kroger, Helen – Senator for Victoria
Payne, Marise – Senator for New South Wales
Ronaldson, the Hon Michael – Senator for Victoria
Troeth, the Hon Judith – Senator for Victoria
Trood, Russell – Senator for Queensland

How does this bill get passed?
1) 7 Liberals vote with Labor to over-ride any procedural motions against and vote by 3:45pm today in favor. For liberals who support the ETS this is their best chance as they are still technically voting with the majority of the party. If on Monday Abbott wins a spill (as expected) then any vote they cast for the ETS would be against the will of the party leadership. Far more extreme pressure could be brought to bear. Passing an ETS today would also take all the wind out of the sails of the deniers (for it would become law with Labors support in the HOR), and so could also guarantee Turnbull’s continued leadership (protecting and indebting those who vote for an ETS today).

2) The Greens come down from the mountain and support Labor, with 1-2 Libs supporting it.

3) ?? (Ie anything could happen. Xenephon has been against it, but could change at last minute if Labor offered a big enough bribe (as they did on Murray-Darling legislation).

4) The bill fails today. Abbott takes over and official Liberal policy becomes to oppose the bill. Labor goes to an election (potential DD if CPRS bill is voted down), and wins additional senate seats. Pass legislation on their own or with greens support.

5) It doesn’t.

Who’s going to be Liberal Leader next week?
Good question.
Malcolm Turnbull: could only remain if he gets an ETS passed before Monday, pre-empting Abbott’s campaign to become leader so as to stop the legislation. He’s been very impressive these last few days, but has about 20% of remaining leader.
Tony Abbott: Most expected him to wait until post election loss. Spurred into action by ETS which he has claimed is just a policy issue, though now will challenge. Likely to win such a challenge on Monday (Turnbull had only a 7 vote buffer, against the non-starter Kevin Andrews. Likely Deputies include Julie Bishop (if she abandons Turnbull), Tony Smith, Andrew Robb, Joe Hockey
Joe Hockey: Supported Turnbull, but seen as next best Pro-ETS, moderate leader. Being pressured to take on Abbott on Monday. Like Abbott doesn’t want leadership before the election (loss). But may have little choice if Turnbull is abandoned/moderates want to stop Abbott.
Andrew Robb: Was considered a serious contender as a caretaker leader till the election. Unlikely now that Abbott has thrown his hat in the ring. Still too early after taking a break for depression to be a serious contender.
Kevin Andrews: …..Just Joking. On a day like this we all need a laugh.

I’ll update this as information comes in. If you have anything to add or challenge, please post a comment or email me could either be a fizzle, or the start of a fundamental re-alignment of Australian politics (with Turnbull type liberals leaving the party for Labor, and the Coalition becoming a far more conservative body). Keep refreshing that webpage, and of course follow me on twitter for all the latest. (Though i also highly recommend adding the following people (Annabel Crabb, David Speers, Samantha Maiden, Latika Bourke, James Massola)

Memo to Turnbull: Politics has its own skill set.

As I type, Malcolm Turnbull is probably sinking back into his office chair after just about the worst day of his leadership. Todays meeting was supposed to go for 4 hours, and sources expected he would get 2/3rds support. Instead it went on for about 10 hours, and he has gotten just half, if not having a majority oppose him in the party room. He has emerged battered and bruised, but at least has a deal. As he was at pains to remind everyone he is still the leader, but does he actually know how to practice politics?

Despite the fact that Turnbull has held the superior hand (the science, the polls, even Govt support) he has been consistently out maneuvered on this issue. He is being out played, if he does escape beyond this week it will have more to do with others lack of interest in his job(for the time being), than a sign of capability. (Word is that Tuckey and Jensen have written to ask for a leadership spill on Thursday morning) So why is it that a man who could outwit the intelligence services before the High Court, take on the Packers and Fairfaxes in the Business world, has crumbled before former real estate agents like Barnaby Joyce and cardigan wearing mofos like Minchin? Indeed only his decision to simply declare the discussion over tonight around 8pm has left him with any credibility, and seems his best move of the entire day.

The press like to think leadership is a beauty contest, with them able to define beauty, and the polls just the public endorsing their narrative. But it’s also about brains and using the system. To lead you need not be older, wealthier, more capable, more sucessful or even better looking, you only need to be able to consistently out politik your opponents.

Howard was a great politician not just because he could be populist and give the media/people what they want, but he also used the rules and settings to his advantage. In the republican convention he set up a fight between direct and indirect electionists to ensure the referendum failed. In 2007 whilst on the nose with the polls, media and colleague, having set up Downer to see if he should quit (the infamous APEC hotel meeting) he then turned and demanded that if he was to go they would have to force him. Though a majority were against him, he knew this would be too hard and he kept his job.

Obama is another one you see who understands the need for rat cunning as the basis of leadership. He won his first Illinois legislature seat by having voting registrations for his opponents tossed out, allowing him to be elected unopposed. It might jar with his rhetoric of hope, but his skills are the best hope progressives have for real change.

The ethics of this form of hardball are always of course debatable though hardball politics needn’t be wrong. More importantly however is that to do it you first need to be able to see it, imagine it. To be able to read the lay of the land, the personalities and circumstances and politik your way into a superior position.

What does this have to do with Turnbull ? Well, constantly we have seen him be out thought and out manouvered by his own party members, who are in many ways still playing soft on him. He faces an opponent in Rudd who knows very well how to play such politics, and there is no way he should be allowed to represent Australia to the world, facing the elite of the Chinese, Americans, or Indonesians if he can’t out think those around him in far easier domestic circumstances. We know he branch stacked like crazy to win his seat in Wentworth, but it must now be doubted how much of that was his own effort.

All this points to the fact that while we decry the lack of plumber/teacher/cafe owner turned politician, politics itself is a profession. It needs to be learnt, it needs to be experienced, it has its own norms, skill sets and oddities that have to become second nature if you are to obtain and weild power. If you cant, then you are just wasting everyones time.

This is why I’m not that concerned about the number of politicians who have never done anything else, and why though I like Turnbull, he has seemed headed for a humiliating defeat ever since thinking about running for the leadership. When Costello baulked on election night Turnbull began challenging for the job, finally rolling Nelson, all for the thankless task of being leader during a first term opposition. Since then, despite numerous government mistakes (groceries, nbn, school stimulus, debt, asylum seekers, utegate, cprs) Turnbull has failed to land a solid punch. All the pain for Rudd has been either self or media inflicted.

Politics is a skill that needs to be learnt, and Turnbull is proving the classic case of a man who didn’t respect this. Like many, esp from the business world he simply presumed that skill in other areas directly translates, or that sheer force of personality will get you through. He is clearly a brilliant man, but political skill has never been about just sheer intelligence, but out thinking those around you and using the circumstances to leverage the best outcome for yourself/your position. Turnbull’s learnt a lot very quickly, but it is not quick enough if he wants to remain.

That could mean he has only 36 hours to find a new way to control his party. It saddens me to say it, but I think it would be best he lost the vote (if it occurs). If he sticks around he could take some time to lick his wounds and re-run in 2012 for the leadership. If not, then best to go out now rather than leading to an election debacle. Its not a fun club to have been leader without ever going to an election (think Crean, Downer), but right now, Nelson seems the smarter (and happier) politician than Turnbull.

Unhelpful cynicism

Over at The Stump Bernard Keane notes Turnbull is again accusing the PM of misleading parliament, this time over whether the 78 on the Oceanic Viking recieved preferential treatment. He then goes on to say what is probably common sense in the press and public:

Who cares anymore about misleading Parliament? Do voters care? Does anyone outside Parliament and the Press Gallery? Given the way in which Question Time has devolved into a cross between a particularly dire amateur theatre performance and your most boring Economics 1 lecturer’s greatest hits, does the whole supposed sanctity of telling the truth in Parliament mean anything any more?John Howard didn’t resign after being forced to admit he misled Parliament about his meetings with Dick Honan in 2002. That was an open-and-shut case of misleading Parliament, but hardly the grounds on which any Prime Minister should have had to end their career.

On the other hand, remove Parliamentary accountability and one of the critical bulwarks of accountable government is ostensibly lost. The right of Parliamentary privilege also surely is accompanied by the responsibility of truth-telling. And yet those notions look curiously old-fashioned in an era when the truth is only one available narrative, and not necessarily to be regarded as any more useful than others that may be available.

The point is, it should matter. Everyone recognises that the public are the true barometer of the PM holding their job, and it would probably do more harm than good for the PM to be forced out over such matters, whether Howard with Refugees and Businessmen or Rudd in 09 over well Businessmen and refugees. (Just what is it about those two topics?) But it should be a matter that draws parliamentary rebuke and it should be a matter of embarassment to the PM and all members of parliament to be caught out. Yet when Australia’s most scathing mainstream outlet Crikey, and indeed perhaps their most Alan-Ramsey-throwback journo Bernard Keane is willing to let the government off the hook, then how are we going to hold politicians to standard. Indeed its misplaced to ask ‘why arn’t the public outraged’ and see that as a sign, when in all likelyhood they don’t even know because the press largely hasn’t covered it.

The days are long gone from the Whitlam era, where even accidental misleading of parliament caused ministers to resign, taking the blame for mistakes of their department. During the Howard years it became a veritable competition for Ministers to see how many times they could mislead or shirk responsibility for their own departments and keep their seats, a history that hasn’t yet been fully accounted (Kelly for instance ignores it). Rudd is somewhat better, but if the press keep giving him a free pass then he’s only going to get worse.

Someone needs to switch Keane’s chai latte for some bitter black coffee and start poking him with a stick untill he gets back into form. He’s one of the nations best political writers when having a go at our politicians, but this is the sort of issue that shouldn’t just be given a free pass.

‘You cant put tears on paper’

I have to be honest: I thought this apology was a bad idea from the start. It seemed to cruely mimic the one last year to the aborigines, and I could not see what it would achieve.

I was wrong.

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an emotional apology today to half-a-million “Forgotten Australians”, including British child migrants, who faced abuse and neglect in care homes over decades.

Mr Rudd, echoing his historic 2008 statement to Australia’s Aborigines, addressed about 1000 victims of abuse in orphanages and institutions between 1930 and 1970 who packed Parliament House.

“We come together today to offer our nation’s apology. To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent, that we are sorry,” he said.

I had the good fortune to be in the parliament gallery when Prime Minister Rudd gave his apology to Indigenous Australians. I could see some who were very moved by it, but on the whole it was a solemn, dry affair, more relief at its achievement, than anything else. Today was very different, and very moving.

The press gallery may have been wondering just who Rudd is, but his unvarnished nature was clearly on display today. Rudd clearly is very passionate about the basic issues of lodging and protection. This may spring from his own background in a family too soon without a father and with uncertain finances. He made homelessness the very first issue of his new government, and he clearly had been working on addressing this issue for some time. Rudd’s speech was low key, but finely tuned. Apparently written on the plane home, it was appropriate for the man, and the moment. As easy and tempting as grand rhetorical sweeps must have been, Rudd wisely kept his usual speaking style and allowed the crowd to deliver the emotion of the moment. When they cried, cheered, clapped or occasionally heckled, the focus was always on them, and their stories. I had at first wondered why the apology was not delivered in the parliament, but instead in the Great Hall, yet the choice to invite as many involved people as possible to participate in the event was an excellent one.

Of note were two important, yet unexpected applause lines. First was when Rudd apologised on behalf of the federal government for “denying you basic life opportunities; including so often a decent education.” This drew a spontaneous and strongly sustained line of applause from the audience. Their sentiments were not revenge or financial reparations, but this struck a core sentiment. The main desire was to move on, to say the greatest sin was simply the denial of the childhood that they deserved, needed and so desperately wanted after such a horrific start to life. For this was not just the institutionalization of abuse, it was the deliberate exploitation of that suffering in order to create a “better” generation.

One of the other most pleasing moments, was to see the recognition by both Prime Minister and Opposition Leader of former Senator Andrew Murray. Murray received generous praise, and a standing ovation. I do not know the particulars of Murray’s involvement, -beyond his membership of the forgotten Australian’s committee- but on a day when the national leaders spoke and espoused to nation, it was gratifying to see them both turn to a mere member of the legislature, and doff their hats to his moral leadership. Many members of the senate over its 100 years have worked without public praise or recognition, seeking a better country. In long and tired committee meetings they have toiled. Murray has toiled with them, and ought today to be seen as a representative of them. To see him praised in such manner, was very moving. This showed it was not just the leaders acting, but the entire elected representatives of the nation who participated in the moment.

All that said, the highlight was the speech by Malcolm Turnbull. Where Nelson was sanctimonious and missed the tone and meaning of the moment in 2008, Turnbull hit every note. He started ambitiously, going for the big rhetorical approach, and at first the audience was hesitant to travel with him. Turnbull is certainly capable of giving a great speech; where Rudd was homely, he was sweeping. The crowd was understandably not on his side as much as they were for Rudd, but he steadily won them over. His tearing up, twice, including at a moment describing a small boy, alone with his suitcase and neither mother or father around seemed utterly personal and real. His embrace of a man who was a victim of such abuse – mid-speech – was a truly moving moment. It may have been staged, and yet absolutely real. By the end many, if not most rose in standing ovation to Turnbull’s speech. If his path is as pre-destined to electoral failure as everyone else has written, then let it be said, this was his finest hour.

The apology also brings into stark light the Howard years. John Howard not only didn’t give such an apology (the Senate Report came out in 2004), he couldn’t have given it.
John Howard has many talents, but on the big cultural issues he never could find the words. Many have remarked on his focus on Gallipolli and mateship, seeing in it either good old fashioned conservatism, or a backward looking 1950’s mentality. It was more the former than the latter, but it really owed itself to Howard’s inability to move beyond what had been said and what he already knew on such issues. Howard introduced massive new immigration levels, and yet had neither the words nor sentiments to bring them into our community. As James Curran has documented in his book About Speech, every Prime Minister since Harold Holt struggled trying to give Australia a new rhetorical basis, after the old British-Australian one had slipped away. Howard however abandoned that quest, not because he thought it wrong, but because he had nothing to say.

He had no ways to include migrants, no sentiments to heal divided communities, no empathy to address societies failings, no vision or foresight to see where this country could saftly dock its identity from the storms of globalisation. Instead we were told to forget about it, put the problems aside and focus on our own stories. So we as a people did, and it has its merits. Yet for the new migrant who struggled to fit it, for the children of migrants born here and yet unsure of where home was, for the indigenous Australians, for those struggling to come to terms with their own identities, whether their sexuality, religion, or just what it means to be a man or woman in the modern world, for the young who had to move overseas to be listened to and taken seriously, and of course for those 500’000 who were left to suffer in institutions as children, they all suffered quietly in a nation unwilling to confront its past, or talk about its future. The Prime Minister is our communicator-in-chief. When their words fall silent, or worse, when they speak but can only find deaf ears, our society can not move forward, nor even get into gear.

Rudd will likely not solve that problem (perhaps it never will be solved), but he is at least trying. Instead of the neglect and awkward silence of his predecessor, he is bringing these issues out into the open. They can and must be discussed if we are to account for and understand ourselves and our history. Many cynics will say ‘But this apology saves no child’, yet the policy solutions they seek can only be found when we have as a nation discussed and accounted for this past. The Senate Committee’s did that, the many who have fought to raise public awareness have done that, and now, in two excellent speeches by our Prime Minister and the Leader of The Opposition our nation has done that.

This apology has seen our nation at some of its best. That said, I have to wonder, like Bernard Keane if Fielding’s timing on his revelation he was sexually abused is more about getting attention when our minds are on such matters, rather than empathetically reaching out to those who the apology was directed towards. At the very least he should have waited until the day after (and probably it would have gathered him more press)

For more, here are

Kevin Rudd’s Speech
Malcolm Turnbull’s Speech

Congratulations to them both.

States Rights Pt 2

This morning brings with it the encouraging news that the Feds are looking to prevent the under-the-flight-route-development at Tralee: (For a primer see here)

From The Canberra Times – 16th November 2009

‘Transport Minister Anthony Albanese and Canberra Airport are stepping up attempts to stop the massive Tralee residential development south of Queanbeyan from reaching a final determination.
Mr Albanese wants a national apporach to protect flight path corridors. He wrote to NSW premier Nathan Reese earlier this year saying Canberra Airport’s long-term operations should not be compromised by “inappropriate off-airport land development”.
But NSW Planning went ahead last week, issuing a certificate which allows Quenbeyan Council to begin to consult the public on a draft plan for the final stage of the development. …
Mr Albanese, who is finalising the national aviation white paper, wants the states’ input on a policy to address noise beyond airport boundaries….
Mr Albanese said previously he did not want aiports without curfews, including canbera’s to have one imposed on them in the future.’

(No online version- For more, as they say, pick up a copy of the Canberra Times)

This isn’t an issue that is ideological, but it is a useful counter-point to my musings on states rights recently. The national interest, and interest of those just across the border in Canberra, are very much served by the Federal Government over-riding the states. The development would add extra needed housing for Queanbeyan, but this is sure to be the center of controversy over flight noise, forcing re-directions across the skies of canberra’s suburbs, and probably a curfew, limiting the use of the national capitals airport. 1500 houses and 300 jobs in comparison doesn’t really cut it. (Unsaid is the threat to Canberra becoming an international airport, a vital necessity)

My ideal for dealing with the States would be a change to 12-15 regions, some the size of a city, some especially out west, semi-state size. These could be in charge of roads and rubbish, with some constitutionally guaranteed take of national rates and income taxes, to cover local issues. Issues that required national uniformity (such as health or education) would be given to the national government along with a purview for the national interests, so stopping developments such as this. Such a change would also ensure real constitutional responsibility to the feds for area’s they effectively oversee today but sometimes avoid responsibility on (such as major environmental projects like pulp mills and dams).

Such a change would mean hopefully a more locally elected regional or council representative for local issues, with seats for the house of representatives staying the same, and able to shift boundaries (The Senate would have to shift slightly -though retain it’s size-, but that has been criminally necessary for a while). What it would stress is the importance of MP’s and Senators focusing their attention on local issues. It is not enough to just do the paperwork for those who come into your office, politicians need to speak up about local issues, and be willing to challenge their own party over the issues. I’m convinced the only reason Liberal Senator Gary Humphries held onto his ACT Senate seat in 2007 was because he was willing to back canberra’s laws when they conflicted with federal ones (on issues of gay marriage and euthanasia) even when passed by previous opponents of his in the local legislature (Humphries is a former chief minister). The idea of a states house was a known farce even before it was written into the constitution (for figures such as Deakin and Parkes), but there is no reason why MP’s & Senators can’t make it an accepted norm to argue publicly, against their government on local issues, without fear of head office control. It won’t look undisciplined if widely accepted practice, it would be a boon to our democracy and be great politics to boot. If states really are to wither, then the federal MP’s and senators need to step up and ensure the public is still represented.

A Government of One

Always a man apart

Always a man apart

I always enjoy those insider looks at how governments operate. Horse races and polls are one thing, but what truly matters is the individual personalities at play and systems of decision making. This however was not a good way for Lenore Taylor to begins her piece:

THE Prime Minister and his three most senior ministers form a kitchen cabinet that takes the key decisions.

During the Howard years, Australia was run by the 17 or so men and women in the cabinet. Under the Rudd government, it is effectively run by four.

Oh dear. Everyone can understand that a good way to make your point more significant is to make a comparison to show it’s uniqueness. Only in this case Taylor (or a sub-editor looking for a punchy start) is completely and utterly wrong. Weirdly the rest of the article seems to make the exact same point, but in these days where Howard is being exhumed by conservatives everywhere it’s worth re-iterating how wrong it is. Howard’s government, was literally Howard’s Government.

No one who lived & followed politics during the era would record the Howard era as a period of cabinet governance, indeed most people most of the time didn’t even know any ministers names beyond the PM & Treasurer, such was his dominance of the party (a problem they are still grappling with). This was a government that almost never leaked, such was the fear of the PM, and the lack of information flow even at the highest levels. Howard clearly accepted a role for ministerial discussion, but it was to aid his decision making, rather than as the source of decisions.

Howard bypassed the cabinet consistently with senior ministers meetings on key issues, such as the Expenditure Review Committee which set the budget and the new National Security Committee which bypassed cabinet entirely on all foreign policy and security issues. Howard also created the Cabinet Policy Unit (CPU) which ran from inside his office to ensure a lot of matters were left outside cabinet, or pre-organised to ensure speedy passage by cabinet. This is all documented in great detail in the 2006 book on Cabinet Governance “Cabinet government in Australia” by Patrick Weller, which should be in the bookshelves of all political reporters. (You can even get it on Google books. Taylor quotes Weller, but no one whose read the book could write such a sentance.

There is ample documentary evidence to show that though there may have been 17 men and women in the room, but only one vote actually counted. First of course is Costello, who’s memoirs are one unabated howl at being consistently and regularly overruled by the PM on economic and some social issues. Even with issues as big as the GST Costello records that Howard would get cabinet approval and then go make the changes he wanted later in his office. Indeed Costello happily said as much publicly whilst in office

“I can tell you as a Treasurer, there are many occasions when my policy views are not accepted but I always accept a Cabinet decision. There might even be occasions when a Prime Minister’s view is not accepted although it is very rare, if it ever happens

Some of the biggest decisions such as assisting the War on Terror and the Iraq war were made by the PM with cabinet approval a later formality. Indeed in his later years Howard thought nothing of spending $10b on the Murry-Darling without even mentioning it to cabinet.

Likewise there are numerous books out on how Howard governed, including ‘Power without responsibility’ by Anne Tiernan on the unprecedented use of ministerial advisors to short-sheet ministers and center power in the Prime Ministers Office, and ‘No, Prime Minister’ by James Walter and Paul Strangio, on the rise of presidential style leadership, culminating under Howard (though Rudd fits very well too). All are sober academic texts without any agenda but clearly document the centralisation of power within the hands of the Prime Minister. Equally Taylor could have (and should have) read her colleague Paul Kelly’s book March of Patriots which documents Howard’s many presidential style decisions.

Indeed, read on in Taylors article and you see her essential point is that Rudd runs his government much like Howard did. Only slightly more centralised, and with informal groupings made formal. As a nation we are surly the poorer for this, and I suspect given recent events, people insider government are recognizing that too. But this is not Rudd’s creation, and the full scope of changes under Howard will be felt for many years to come. So why start the article with such an utterly false opening that is effectively contradicted throughout the rest of the article? The only people who will read such an article are going to be political followers who would laugh at the absurdity of the line, and probably turn the page. Anyway, the whole thing is worth reading, just ignore the first two lines.

How we can buy ourselves a better democracy

As I noted a few months ago, the sudden but praiseworthy switch of John Faulkner to the Defence Ministry has come at the cost of having his experienced hand overseeing changes to the way parliament and MP’s operate. It’s already proving to the detriment of the institution:
H/T Andrew Norton on the new regulations on use of parliamentary expenses by MP’s

As the Senate estimates hearing revealed, these rules have the following implications:
* MPs cannot send out Hansard extracts as Hansard is likely to contain ‘electioneering’ material
* bureaucrats are vetting MPs’ communications prior to sending, and so at least in theory the minister could receive reports frrom the Department on what non-government MPs are saying to their constituents
* ministers are free to keep using their departmental resources for what would be ‘electioneering’ under the parliamentary entitlements rules, further skewing the resource imbalance between government and opposition

The public concern’s are usually in good faith, but this is another instance where the financial crimps we try and apply to our politicians end up actually damaging the democracy we enjoy. The effective freeze on MP’s salaries (save CPI style increases) rob’s us of the best possible parliamentarians. The desire to not be seen as wasting money means the PM’s rightful home, The Lodge in Canberra, remains a cramped, small house, robbing the PM of a good entertaining/power play opportunity in Canberra (just think of the intimidation power of the White House) and meaning our PM’s will increasingly live in Sydney’s Kirribilli instead. And in this highlighted case, proposed changes to satisfy public concern about wasted money (following major rorts in the UK) will deny the opposition and minor parties a significant opportunity to present an alternative message to the Government. All for a pittance compared to the amount we are spending on welfare, defense, and on the economic stimulus. By spending more for better oversight on the government, we will save on wasteful government spending.

It is not celebrated as widely as we do changes like female suffrage, but the decision to pay MP’s is one of the most democratic and important decisions in Australia’s political history. For a tiny cost, we were able to ensure that our MP’s would be drawn from all sections, segments, classes and regions of the country. This fixed structural faults in our democracy of MP’s being limited to those living in the city (for it was too costly to leave the farm regularly), or to those with enough to live without doing paid work (ie the aristocratic or capital owners). The second change not only allowed the poor & middle classes to participate, but in removing the need of MP’s to do paid work whilst also trying to serve the public, significantly reduced a major cause of conflicts of interest.

You get the democracy you are willing to pay for. That’s true of the education we pay to educate our citizens, the amount you put into having elections freely and fairly run, the opportunities you provide to enable all candidates for election to put their message to the public (such as public funding), and in the amount you pay MP’s and the resources you give them to do their job. Ludwig’s proposed changes are sure to be monstered by the Opposition, independents and minor parties (cases like this are exactly why governments shouldn’t have senate control), but inevitably something will go through. Let’s hope the government keep in mind the miserable experience they had in opposition and remember they could be quickly returned there too, when drafting fair laws for conducting parliamentary business.

Kevin Rudd the Legislator

Peter Hartcher made an interesting observation in the weekend papers:

Rudd is emerging as a prime minister who defines himself by the fights he avoids. He is uncomfortable advocating an opinion that might be electorally risky. He would prefer to shut down an Opposition attack with narrow political tactics than to overwhelm the Opposition by mobilising broad public opinion.
Rudd is an immensely well regarded leader. The emerging evidence is that he will hoard every decimal point of his popularity by avoiding an argument, rather than deploy it to ask the country to follow.

When it comes to making a forceful case for his plan, he has, in effect, vacated the field. The question is – why? It is not an oversight. Labor strategists readily concede that Rudd has deliberately created a vacuum. Because if he is silent on the issue, the TV cameras will automatically swing around and zoom in on the way the other half of the political system, the Opposition, is dealing with the issue. In effect, Rudd has handed a megaphone to the case against action on climate change. This, in turn, has gradually whittled away public support for action on global warming.

Leaders in democracies have two sources of power. One is legislative, the other populist. Over the last 60 years, the populist side has been increasingly winning out. Politicians have concluded that massive popular agreement with their policies (whether authentic or focus group created) is the secret to controlling the legislature and hence entrenching their changes via legislation. George Bush and Tony Blair went on significant stumping tours of their country to try and persuade audiences, convinced that the legislators would tune in as well and decide to run ahead of the ground swell, rather than try and stop it. Their reasoning was clear, if polls showed 80% want policy X, no legislator in their right mind would do otherwise than vote for it. Howard as Hartcher points out, also seemed to believe in his powers of persuasiveness:

John Howard was a prime minister who defined himself by the fights he picked. He would often champion an unpopular policy, then go into a mighty campaign of public advocacy. He usually managed to turn opinion and win the day, or at least get away with it. This was true of the GST, waterfront reform, the Iraq war.
Rudd is emerging as a prime minister who defines himself by the fights he avoids.

This however is an unfair claim by Hartcher, because it is not a fair comparison (2 years vs 11) and second because Rudd realises something more relevant: Public support for an issue is largely irrelevant if they support the Government. Rudd’s reckoning is that rather than having his fellow legislators (worries on his side, or the opposition writ large) take comfort that popular support for a CPRS has dropped, he is betting that his supreme domination in the approval polls will carry the day regardless. He doesn’t need to convince the public or even the opposing party members to support climate change legislation, he has only to make them scared of the consequences of opposing him.

And it’s working.

Just look at Malcolm Turnbull, and the smarter Liberals who are quietly asking if their skeptical colleagues are mad and trying to lose their seats. They may believe in doing something to fix climate change, they may not hugely like Rudd’s policy, but they are also absolutely petrified of him going before the public and holding them up as the men who stood there and yelled ‘Stop’ before the onslaught of histories judgement.

Who's your daddy?

Guess who is in charge here...

Strangely for a man who has only spent 11 years in parliament, and tends to disrespect the institution, he seems to be much more canny in using it. He knows the CPRS will most likely pass because the opposition don’t want it to give him any more arguments against them at the election. In that, it doesn’t actually matter if 40% or 90% support the legislation or even more than 20% understand what it actually does. That’s not important. Rudd is marshaling his public popularity overall to give him power within the legislature on not just specific but all issues. What’s to stop him hitting up Turnbull over workplace relations or the NBN come the election should a climate change bill pass. Instead of seeking public support for each specific issue, Rudd wants public support for him as a leader. With that, he can jump between issues as suits, retain policy flexibility as suits, and intimidate the hell out of the opposition.

Rudd’s strategy is a risky one, a drop in overall popularity would leave him without a saftey net. And it’s not one history may look on too kindly. PM’s are remembered for what the left behind in popular views as much as individual legislative bills. But it is also a much smarter approach given Rudd’s only marginal persuasive powers of rhetoric. Whilst Howard had a lawyers eye for reasoned arguments, and Keating could make you look towards the stars as he gave the opposition a blow to the stomach, Rudd knows his rhetorical command is limited. Better then to not even pretend to be a great orator, and simply to market himself as he is. A very smart, hard working, pragmatic leader, who has the best interest of the country at heart. And woe begot anyone foolish enough to think they can prevent him doing his job. Turnbull is facing a raging inferno of popularity that makes individual spot fires (wasted stimulus, asylum seekers, CPRS compensation) all utterly meaningless in the overall scheme of things.

Rudd in this sense, is actually acting as a true legislator. He will be measuring his success of his first term in the seats won off the opposition (right now looking at 5-11), and potential control of the senate (or an easing of the challenge). The discipline of his government members is his barometer of day to day success. Oddly enough in this hyper televised world, Rudd seems to count his real power entirely within the legislature. No wonder he seems to be enjoying Question Time these days.

Double-D Madness

At quieter times in the parliamentary cycle, we often see our political correspondents leading out a few rumors and stories as a way of generating some attention, controversy and generally getting something to fill the page for their bosses. This spring, its the idea of a Double Dissolution election over the Carbon Trading Scheme. While Rudd has already put up a bill that was voted down, he is already destroying the narrative by pledging “good faith” negotiations with the Coalition. If the resulting bill and amendments are substantially different to the first rejected one, and the Coalition does indeed again reject the bill (likely over the cries of Turnbull), then Rudd couldn’t use it as a trigger.

But even say he did go ahead, would the political strategists be supportive? Hell no, as Possum helpfully demonstrates:
cprs-DD election

There is strong support for an ETS, but it’s not strong enough to make people want an early poll. It may be accounting for some of the difference between the parties, but people clearly want to vote on other issues like the economy as well, and don’t in general like going to the polls early. After all for ALP voters an election would just be a lot of hassle to see their party remain in essentially the same place, perhaps slightly stronger in the senate. For Liberal voters, they know they wont be getting back into government so why bother with fiddling around in a few marginal seats. Win some, lose some, the only real difference would be the demise of Turnbull. Rudd might even look weaker or more intrusive by being seen to ‘rush’ to a DD election, despite the fact it would be held only be 6-10 months before he is likely to call one on the normal schedule. And having already raised the issue, have no doubt the media would make its narrative one of ‘racing to the polls early’. Never a good look for a PM.

Perhaps even more importantly however than all the optics is the straight maths, as Anthony Green notes:

Simply put, the mathematics of double dissolutions mean that Labor would be less well placed in the Senate after a double dissolution than it would be if it waited to have a normal House and half-Senate election at the end of 2010.
The reason for this is the complex proportional reprepresentation system used in the Senate and how this interacts with the lower quota for election that would apply at a double dissolution election.

(Full reasoning for the political junkies at his site)

Still all of that is slightly more sensible than the suggestion that Rudd would hold a DD election over a desire to means test private health insurance. If the PM is looking unlikely to use or even benefit from such an election on a issue of fundamental long term importance like Climate Change, there is no way, -unless he is literally out of his mind- that he would do so over making many Australians pay more for their health care. It’s beyond a joke, its simply misleading to the public to even speculate.

And finally, when even Australia’s weakest political mind Peter Costello can figure out that a DD election is neither a good idea, nor going to be adopted by Rudd, it is time for our political journalists and editors to take a deep breath and drop the whole story once and for all.

Headline writers everywhere will surely be disappointed at the loss of so many potential DD puns (Rudd exposes his DD’s, Turnbull crushed under DD’s, the public grapples with DD’s etc etc) its a small loss to ensure a basic commitment to honestly informing the public. Its fine to speculate and see how politicians respond, but given all the evidence to continue treating the idea of a Double Dissolution as a serious story is simply to mislead the public.

Take your medicine early

A slight follow on from yesterday’s post, but an instructive comparison in how to deal with bad news:

The Right Way:

Defence Minister Senator John Faulkner has made a personal vow to achieve greater transparency and accountability, much improved planning and better cost effectiveness within his portfolio, with the Government to shortly decide the future of a troubled $1.2 billion Defence accommodation project. Senator Faulkner…
also highlighted major challenges with ”projects of concern”. These included ongoing maintenance and crewing problems that have left only three of six submarines routinely crewed and all submarines spending part of the year awaiting scheduled and unscheduled repairs.

Every Single Defence Minister over the last 20 years has been weakened, often soon into their term, due to the constant leak of information about projects that are behind times, flawed or vastly over budget. Even those who thrived in the role such as Kim Beazley ended up looking the worse for wear, perhaps even incompetent due to the drip, drip, drip of bad news into the pres. By getting out the difficulties out now Faulkner pre-empts the media (who inevitably take much less notice of information publicly announced, over that they obtain privately) and even wins praise for his commitment to transparency.

The Wrong Way:

By deciding to vote down Rudd’s scheme in the Senate yesterday, Turnbull avoided crystallising this split on the floor of the Senate. If Turnbull had directed the Coalition to vote for the Government scheme, his weakness would have been fully exposed. The Nationals, and perhaps even some Liberals, would have defied him by crossing the floor in the Senate. But the Opposition Leader has only delayed the day of reckoning.

The Government will present the same legislation to the Senate again in three months. If it is rejected a second time it will give Rudd the option of calling an early, double-dissolution election. And that is when Turnbull’s position grows yet more difficult. An election would be, on current indications, disastrous for the Coalition. So in three months Turnbull will have to accept electoral Armageddon, or he will have to capitulate. Faced with this choice, he will yield to Rudd.

As Hartcher makes clear Turnbull will have almost no choice but to instruct his forces to vote for the bill in December/Early Next year. He has no hope of convincing such reasonable men like Joyce to vote for it, and will see some cross the floor. However enough will vote for it and the Government’s bill will become law. The only question is managing the damage.
If the Coalition had voted for the bill yesterday they would have received some praise, mixed with media mirth about those renegade senators who had crossed the floor. But whilst party unity is an obsession for party leaders and pundits, it really doesn’t matter to the wider public. The public already know about Turnbull’s problems, letting senators vote as they wanted however would have let Turnbull include both supporters and skeptics see something to like in the Liberals ‘Broad Church’ approach. By next week everyone would have forgotten who or how many senators had voted against it (Quick name the last senator to cross the floor and what the bill was? *) and the Coalition could have spent from now until the election badgering the Government both from the left (why are your targets so low, don’t you care about the environment?) and from the right (what are you doing to help Businesses and consumers who are being made poverty stricken by your scheme?). It wouldn’t have done much, but would ensure that the next election would be on issues such as Economics (where the Coalition was making ground post-budget) and not on Climate Change. Instead our media will talk about nothing else, slowly eating away at Turnbulls leadership or ability to change the topic.

So here’s today’s Politiking lesson: Take your medicine early. Admit your flaws on your own terms, take your hits as soon as possible before elections. The longer you wait the more the pressure builds, the more likely the media keep running the story.

*Update*:It may just be co-incidence, but Tony Abbott has an op-ed this morning arguing (along the lines of his book) that conservatives should note the broader historical winds and try and manage change rather than resist it. Not only does the ETS fall into this category, but the headline echo’s a theme of his book that Oppositions shouldn’t prevent Governments passing their major pieces of legislation. Abbott’s long been decried as having awful political skills, but the book shows he’s getting cannier, something Turnbull isn’t showing that much sign of.

(* Eggleston(L), Ferguson(L) & Nash(N) on the Communications Foundation December 2008)

The Politics of Climate Change #2

At the start of the week I talked a little about the Greens political strategy over the Emissions Trading Scheme, so with the Senate having this afternoon voted down the Government’s scheme, it serves to look at how this may all play out. (I also offer this because I don’t have the scientific knowledge to contribute anything beyond what has already proliferated online and in report after report, and because my own preference is for a Carbon Tax, so all the groups plans seem off kilter for my liking).

First, I think contra-common wisdom that this vote should be regarded as a defeat for the government. All governments like to see their legislation passed, and whilst this one faces a hostile senate it didn’t manage to convince any of the non-Labor senators to support the bill. Most of the public havn’t been watching the horsetrading, but they know Labor is absolutely dominating the opposition, is highly popular and yet must now square that up with an inability of the Government to get through what it promised. It also suggests the Governments legislative efforts such as combining the Renewable Energy Target Legislation with the CPRS hasn’t helped, nor their many many concessions to polluting industries such as coal and agriculture. Whilst these groups and the business lobby have accepted the need for such legislation and therefore been reasonably quiet in their complaints, expect some to demand a much better deal second time around.

For that reason, I think the Greens have probably helped their own cause at the expense of the environment, although that all depends on if they are able to fully capture the balance of power at the next election (DD or otherwise). They seem to have made the best the enemy of the good, and likely this vote will keep Australia at least a year if not 2 from getting through its legislation. Sure thats not a lot of carbon, but I’d wager even with the balance of power in the Senate the Greens could achieve more pushing through small (quiet) changes that steadily removed concessions and increased targets (and therefore carbon prices) would be an easier and more successful way to get the balance they desire than trying to get Labor to agree to it all at once. Already a number of environmental groups have voiced their dismay at the failure of the bill, and in part blamed the greens. It shouldn’t hurt the party, but it does show how varied the entire movement is and the difficult politics of leading it. Brown has gambled, first on the adds, now on the No vote, it may work but it depends on their success at the next election and if Labor feels a) more urgency b) more concilliatory towards Brown’s Greens.

For the Liberal Party this is also a bad result. Had the vote passed with independent and Greens support, most of the heat taken out and let them spend the next few years blaming the Government for rising prices and hurt industries. For now however as the old saying goes, sometimes the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it. The Government will do all it can to pin the blame of this squarely on the Opposition, and if its dominance inside parliament this week is anything to go by, it will absolutely savage the Coalition come election time. Until the Liberals get a policy they haven’t a hope. Their release of Frontier Economics Research was like a Ventriliquist rudely insulting passers by and saying the Doll said it. Either way it deserved and got a solid punch in the jaw from Labor this week and likely from the public come election. Turnbull especially for the image he brings to the role, and his former history as Environment Minister is well aware of this and yet clearly incapable of pulling his troops into line, only exacerbating the visible tensions in the party. If the Coalition passes something by the end of the year they may be OK come election, but the longer this goes on, and the closer it gets to an election (which must be next year) the fresher it will be in the public mind. The only alternative would be a radical new approach (such as a Carbon Tax) that could be simply understood by the public and supported by business and industry. Doubtful, but when your that far down a hail mary might just save a few people’s seats.

For the independents it’s a difficult business to work out. Fielding has proven himself way out of his depth here, and whilst never having a chance of retaining his seat anyway, has further cemented his loss. Who takes the Victorian senate place is tough, probably Labor in the climate (they should have had it by all merits in 2004) but it’s not certain.
Nick Xenophon wont be up for election (unless there is a DD) but I think the public (and indeed the press) are yet to make up their mind about what he’s up to. He’s beginning to be tarred with the Coalition, but can easily cut himself free as they sink. Maybe he is just playing hard to get and will place heavy demands before the government, but if fielding and the coalition remain opposed come December, he may not actually have much bargaining power.

So long story short: Everybody is going to look bad from this. Internationally it makes us look regressive, domestically Labor looks weak, the Opposition disunited, Fielding incompetent, Xenophon cagy and the Greens utopian. Not a good day for anyone (well except those few who think it’s all a big hoax, I guess they are celebrating.)

Governing behind closed doors

secretRudd was already cruising prior to Utegate, but I am sure he can not believe his luck that not only did it blow up so badly, Turnbull show his weaknesses so clearly (and is still doing so), but now the Auditor-General’s report has come out to body slam the Opposition just as the new session begins. Add in the happenstance of Australian Stories’s camera’s being in Turnbull’s office when it broke (and showing them stunned and confused, raising viewer doubts on competence), and Grench’s admission he faked and scripted the whole affair, and Rudd could take the next year off and still cruise to victory next year.

But just as everyone moved on from utegate pretty soon after parliament lifted, we can be sure the media and public will largely forget it too within a few days. But what about the Public service and its relations with the Opposition? Likely this is where utegate really matters, and probably negatively for all interested in open accountable government. Leaking is a complex affair, all partisans love it when it helps them, and hate it when it goes against. More impartial observers recognise the benefit it has in keeping governments honest (particularly when the opposition is so weak as we have now) but equally government should be allowed to make its decisions largely in private. Afterall how many times have we seen good new initiatives destroyed because only part of the story got out. How often have we seen ministers ask for a range of options to fix a problem, and wake up to find the most extreme and never-to-be-chosen option splashed across the front pages as if that was the real policy of the government (such as this mistaken outcry on the govt tracking hospital staff). With a government as dominant as Rudd’s right at the moment I’d prefer to see more leaking, to keep them honest and from getting arrogant. However in a year or two when the reckoning comes to cut funding and pay back the debt, then the less media outcry over individual initiatives and more considered focus on the overall proposal the better for the nation at large.

I raise this because whilst Turnbull can still recover, the oppositions relationship with the Public Service will not. Once bitten, twice shy, the Opposition is going to stay a long way away from any leaks and suggestions from public servants, however sincerely offered. They will still filter through some claims, but by and large we can expect the flow to dry up. Whilst Howard used the AFP to intimidate public servants not to leak, Rudd has had the same service performed for him by Turnbull & Grench. Public servants watching this affair will realise the immense dangers to their careers and even well being should they get tied up with such a bumbling opposition and likely decide the risks are not worth the return (and as Turnbull’s odds on winning lengthen the incentive will further disappear).

Meanwhile, with the downfall of Joel Fitzgibbon (in part due to leaking public servants in the DOD) we have seen the move away from Special Minister of State John Faulkner into the reticent department. Where Falkner was an uncorruptable idealist, respected across the chamber on transparency and fairness issues, his replacement Joe Ludwig is for all intensive purposes a partisan hack. Ludwig is capable and smart and on historical grounds it’s likely that this government will see more openness and transparency than we saw under the conservatives. However he will not have the influence with the PM, nor the personal incentive to push for real reforms in the way government operates and its openness to the people as Faulkner would have. This is a loss to all Australians, especially those in the media and academia who make their careers based on knowing as much as possible about the actions of the government. It’s already a tough gig, with Australia way back in position 35 for overall freedom of the press. Faulkner would have had a hell of a fight to have changed that whilst the control-conscious Rudd was Prime Minister, however with his departure and the Grench implosion the potential for open government in Australia has really been set back. This is the real legacy of Goodwin Grench and the Utegate affair. A sad result for a man who seems a decent and committed public servant, who just too his partisan biases too far and ended up harming his own side most of all.

I meant to post this the other day, but circumstances took me away (well ok I was lazy) but when you are doing your taxes this year take a moment to chuck your overall income/tax paid into this website It lays out just where your money is going to be spent over the next financial year. Pretty cool, and a very good way of showing just how large the health and welfare side of our budget really is. Fixing those costs without abandoning our principles of universal healthcare and emergency income protection is the primary task for fiscal conservatives over the next decade or two. As of yet however I havn’t even seen the hint of a new policy. Likewise many on the left who feverently support these policies are refusing to even admit there is a problem. The neo-liberal revolution has run it’s course, and the public has decided: Medicare and welfare are hear to stay. The real question is how to target and pay for them.

Photo by stevendepolo used under a Creative Commons Licence.

This is not a playground

Want evidence the Greens don’t care about parliament ? They now want to turn it into a playground for kids:

SEEING her daughter taken from her arms and ejected from Federal Parliament was the most humiliating moment of Sarah Hanson-Young’s life, the Australian Greens senator says.

The South Australian senator took two-year-old Kora, into the chamber for a vote last night but the Senate President, Labor’s John Hogg, ordered the child be removed.

“I was upset by what happened,” Senator Hanson-Young, 27, said afterwards. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so humiliated in my life. What upset me the most was seeing her being upset and not knowing who I was going to hand her to on the other side of the door.”

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, wants the Senate to adopt new rules allowing infants in the chamber. He will put what is known as a “template” on the table on Monday during a debate that has been called to examine Senator Hogg’s ruling.

“I don’t think there should be any workplace where mothers or fathers and an infant as small as that should be separated in a way that happened today,” Senator Brown said.

Senator Hanson-Young said she took Kora into the chamber because she was about to be separated from her for 24 hours

There is no justification for bringing children into parliament. There is a worthy 400 year old tradition that no unelected adult is allowed into the chamber without being either elected by the people or given the express permission of the President of the Senate/Speaker of the House (always limited to a handful of staffers, chamber officials and occasional dignitaries). Not even the Queen or Governor-General could walk onto the floor with the impunity which Hanson-Young has claimed for her baby. The chambers of the Australian parliament are not simply another Australian workplace, and just as you wouldn’t be able to claim to be focused on work whilst nursing a child in the office, the senator can’t claim to have been serving her constituents whilst sitting in the chamber with her child. Being a mother and a Senator must be an incredible burden, especially at such a young age. I wish her all the best in managing the burdens, but she shouldn’t sully the institution of Parliament by bringing her home life into it. This is not the first case of children being brought into the chamber (Stott Despoja brought her kids in twice), but it should be the last time it happens. There are already childcare centres at parliament, along with staffers for every senator and MP. Parliament is not just another workplace, and unless you can give your full attention to it, you shouldn’t be there (would similarly distracted people on mobile phones, watching TV or even drunks be acceptable? Equally no one would accept the senator bringing her husband or a friend onto the chamber simply because she wanted to spend time with them).

No senator or MP is required in the chamber unless they are due to speak. Yes they may miss the vote, but that happens already for a number of reasons, and there is a long standing practice of ‘trading’ pro/against votes to ensure the views of the chamber are fully represented (Ie one Liberal or Labor Senator could have stepped outside to equalize the numbers whilst Hanson-Young was unable to give the chamber her full attention). The standing of Parliament matters far more than the needs of just one parent be they male or female. The Greens should respect the institution which has given them a voice, the institution that has so much power to improve the status and conditions of similarly struggling parents in this country and devote their full and undivided attentions towards that goal, not wasting time being distracted or transparently symbolic in their indulgences.