24 May 2012

The right room for an argument

After Craig Thomson made an unexpectedly robust defence of his position to Parliament on Monday, the truth has finally begun to dawn on some of the more sensible members of the politico-media complex. There are no easy answers to the problems before this Parliament. Stunts, planned quickly and executed quickly and endlessly discussed by a press gallery consisting largely of easily impressed and dull people, are not that useful over the long term for those who perform them. Those who put the hard work in are increasingly taking the initiative from those who are fully occupied with stunts.

This is a reversal of the way politics has been practiced over the last two years and a departure from the trajectory of US politics, where the far right set the initiative and the rest of the politico-media complex follows them down the rabbit-hole.

By "the problems before this Parliament", I mean:
  • The question of whether Parliament can choose to reject those who were elected to it; and
  • The fact that the government might prefer not to associate with one of its members who, however unwittingly, represents all that it would seek to avoid; taking workers for granted, being less than frank with the truth, casting further doubt on the overall competence Fair Work Australia;
  • The fact that the Opposition would prefer be in government, and will trash and subvert due process in order to secure its preference, and
  • That the Coalition really needs to force a change of government before July.
The people elect representatives to Parliament. For the Parliament to decide that it won't accept those whom the people elect places them above the people. Parliament is where legislation is passed and policy is reviewed. It does not have the ability to investigate the activities of its members in a disinterested and discreet way. If it had that capacity, inherited from nineteenth-century Britain (in an age where what united members was ultimately more important than what divided them), it doesn't have it now. What you sacrifice in a stop-at-nothing lunge for office is that understanding that we're all human, and that you have to back off a bit sometimes. The Coalition are less prepared for that than they might appear.

To determine whether Craigs Thomson or Kelly have done anything sufficient for them to be suspended or expelled from Parliament is a matter for the courts. The Parliament will simply have to wait for the courts to plod through its procedures of sifting, hearing, considering and weighing evidence. This will probably take more than two months: too bad.

The idea that Parliament might develop a Code of Conduct is a classic Canberra make-work scheme. Jack the Insider said that the law that applies to everyone else should be a sufficient code, and I agree: imagine if a parliamentarian were found in breach of the Code but not of the law, or vice versa; any such Code would be vitiated straight away. Surely the law applies to us all, including - if not especially - our representatives. This is why Laura Tingle is wrong to regard the situation as "murky", looking at the situation as a political one that can only be solved politically. If the Coalition are to govern this country they must do so within the law, and people like Laura Tingle should call them to account for wilfully refusing to do so. They can smell government, it's so close and it's driving them crazy.

It's driven George Brandis, Thomson's Javert, crazy. He believes that Thomson has to prove his innocence with documentary proof according to rules of evidence. To confuse the role of parliaments and courts shows that Brandis understands neither. He does, however, want to be Attorney General and could see himself in that role within weeks, if only he puts his shoulder to the wheel that he hopes would crush Thomson, and through the gap would rush a Coalition government. His temptation is understandable, for himself and his team, but his succumbing to it is pathetic to behold.

The process of getting to the truth of what did (not) happen is more important than the fact that the Coalition are pretty much left without an agenda for government if the economy fails to collapse once the carbon price starts in July. The carbon price will require a lot of adjustments, and some of that will mean jobs are lost faster than they are being created. There will be a lot of devil in that detail, and the Opposition will play up that devil to the point where many which consider the whole carbon price scheme to be infernal. Overall, however, the idea that it will be a complete disaster for the country (Whyalla being wiped off the map, &c.) is an idea that will probably have more potency before it is introduced than afterwards - remember what happened when the GST was introduced, all those scare campaigns about price hikes and "rollback" from the then-Opposition looked mighty silly in the cold light of day.

In much the same way that Cinderella's presence at the prince's ball was time-limited, with the risk of the magic wearing off after a given point, so too the prospect of a Coalition government demands that its proponents punch through a weak link in the alliance that keeps the Coalition out of government. Thomson is that weak link now that the Pyne-Ashby affair increasingly negates whatever the Coalition might bring against Speaker Slipper. That's why the Coalition is going after Thomson unrelentingly.

That's also why Abbott's profession of concern for the man and his family are so much cant, and why people who insist Abbott is a nice guy misunderstood are, frankly, wrong. Craig Thomson stands between him and the Prime Ministership; whatever Thomson may or may not have done, Abbott will screw anyone at any cost who stands in his way. Thomson showed once again, as did Albanese in his response, that standing up to the Coalition yields positive results for the government in terms of its standing and morale. The Coalition fully expect this government to give up the ghost. A bit of effort on their part is revealing of how they would fare, not only in government but in a contested campaign.

Albanese was shrewd to throw Craig Kelly in with Thomson and warn Sophie Mirabella that she's next. If Labor drag the Coalition down to the gutter, they are finished. Once the mud has cleared, Labor has a record to run on while the Coalition has a record of saying no on which to stand still.

The Coalition is starting to ease up on Thomson and going after the Prime Minister because they fear a poll backlash, not because the good sense and decency of people like Mal Washer have carried the day. Hammering Thomson makes them look weak; the more they do it the weaker they look, and so they cut their losses. They are picking on someone their own size when they pick on Gillard.

I'm against Abbott becoming Prime Minister, it's true; but if he goes about it in the right way then my objections count for little.

Jonathan Green is right to say that the whole thing is unedifying, but the fact that it is playing out as it should. In the political theatre the Coalition are pushing and pushing, and just a little adjustment to legal conventions (innocent until proven, &c.) will see them over the line, whereupon the country will be well governed and all will be forgiven. Politics is where public disagreements are thrashed out, and where parties of government are put under pressure in order to show how they would bear responsibilities of office.

In this environment the Coalition have shown themselves to be determined, but unsuccessful. The visual image that demonstrates this best is Christopher Pyne in full apoplexy, crimson with rage, so close to a state of calm ascendancy as a senior minister and so determined to push the last little bit between where he is and where he would be. He's been there before, when Slipper became Speaker last year and now again with Thomson - not just in declaring that he didn't believe Thomson's statement, but in the umbrage that his word was not sufficient to send Thomson down. This is a test of character, and Pyne is both passing (for those who would like to see a Coalition government) and failing (for those who wouldn't, and non-partisans who don't want government won or lost over dirty tricks), Schroedinger-like, in public.

Green's insistence on parliament as moral authority is weakened by the fact that voters in Dobell returned Thomson in 2010 with knowledge of the allegations against him, and with a greater majority than many other better-behaved MPs received at that election. I doubt that Dobell would necessarily return a Liberal if a by-election were called; the prospect that they'd choose the wrong candidate, and/or that Abbott and the gang would over-egg the pudding that he'd serve up to the good voters of that electorate, cannot be discounted.

Parliament is where political debates should be thrashed out. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott insist that parliament is working when all this stuff comes out in the open rather than being fixed behind closed doors (or not fixed, in this case). The debate over Thomson and Slipper is a proxy for a wider question: that the Coalition would govern better than Labor is doing given the predicament it is in. The high dudgeon over poor, poor health workers funding degeneracy &c. assumes both that the party of Payne, Ashby and Heffernan would do better, and that the nation is right to expect better from its representatives even though it is insufficiently fussy about who it chooses to fulfil that role.

Once you start expecting Parliament to have moral authority, it will start exercising it. This is why it's in such a tizz over gay marriage: can't decide whether to endorse homosexuality, or by rejecting it also rejecting the embourgeoisiement of a once-radicalised and fringe group.

Abbott is the candidate of low expectations while Gillard the candidate of muddling through and moving on. No wonder they rate about the same, and while it might be unedifying, the first one to demonstrate that their method yields results for the rest of us, wins.


  1. Given Abbott's desire (at least three times: 2000; 2006; and 2010) for a "kinder, gentler" parliament/polity, I wouldn't mind taking a bet on which leader is more likely to "muddle through".

    If Mr Abbott were to become the Prime Minister of Australia, I would have the gravest fears for our existence as a fairly decent democracy.

  2. It is so sad that Abbott didn't have to deal with the hung parliament. He would have failed a situation where he had to negotiate. And now he'll get a huge majority and won't be tested. I pray that instant karma gets him before too long and that he suffers an ignominious fall.

    1. I doubt he'll get that majority, Benny. So close ...

  3. Meanwhile, Abbott calls on Thomson to resign for the sake of his health and his family! Leaving aside the rank disingenuousness, it just shows - yet again - that Abbott can't help himself! He's constitutionally incapable of 'flicking the switch'. Who the hell thought it a good idea for Abbott to all but confess to the world that he's trying to drive Thomson to resign?

  4. What did Albo threaten La Mirabella with, Andrew? I no longer read the papers, and I don't recall Our ABC mentioning it.

    "Pyne-Ashby affair" is an interesting slip of the pen, btw.

    1. He threatened her with referral to the Privileges Committee (as Thomson is going through now) over her failure to declare gifts/inheritances from Colin Howard.

  5. "Stunts, planned quickly and executed quickly and endlessly discussed by a press gallery consisting largely of easily impressed and dull people, are not that useful over the long term for those who perform them.'

    I was one of the many people who underestimated Abbott and thought he would have been gone by now. Where I think I got it wrong was in understimating his ability to keep the press pack distracted by his daily stunts for this amount of time. I thought (hoped?) someone would have called him on his nonsense by now, but I cannot deny how effect he has been in his destruction of public life in Australia.

    However, I stand by my initial instinct that he is not capable of good government.

    1. I thought Abbott would be gone by now too, but I think the Libs are playing a deeper game. All the Libs and Lib voters I know dislike, or even loathe him, one told me he thought Abbott was 'dangerous'. I expect the party to replace him with someone more palatable a few months prior to the next election, so the gloss will not have worn off the new LOTO against Gillard's relentless (and effective) plodding towards results. In the meantime they let slip their dog of war to smear anyone and everyone in the belief that voters' memories are long enough for the mud to keep sticking.

  6. Tony Abbott is incapable of the give and take that goes with the hung parliament, or even a normal lower house majority parliament. Anything less than an absolute majority in both houses would be unworkable for him. He needs that election now, when government support is low enough to just possibly give him those numbers.

    Which probably explains the fact that he has the worst case of political blue balls since Hunter S. Thompson first applied the term to Richard Nixon.

  7. Thank you for presenting the facts in your usual eloquent fashion Andrew. Were I not a dear little old lady and you a respectable young man, I would kiss you...publicly. I am not a political commentator's bootlace but as a metaphysician in that arena I have the floor almost to myself methinks. And I say this: Mr Abbott's tactics to gain power are without principle, substance, truth, love or soul and will therefore wither faster than the looks of contempt he flashes at his bullied victims. Bless you for your relentless quest for the Truth.

  8. DINR

    Albo said to her, after she interjected with one of her usual illuminating comments I believe, something to the effect, of "I would be careful if I was you, we haven't even started with you".

    1. Lachlan Ridge25/5/12 9:46 p.m.

      I remember Albo saying those words to David Tierney. Never heard of David Tierney? Was a big wheel in Young Labor with Belinda Neale, Morris Iemma, Tourism Chris Brown and John Hatzistergos. Unlike the others, Tierney never really made it into public life. Albo took on Sussex Street in the eighties and won - twice. If Albo turned on the opposition what he has turned on the Fewrguson's over the years a raincoat would be useful for watching politics. Remember Albo when the talkback crazies turned up on his doorstep?

      They need to let him and Combet off the leash. They know how to take an opponent down.

  9. When Abbott lowers his voice, talks in his sincere mode and suggests "we are all human" then even the media realise "Abbott has jumped the shark".
    To make matters worse, Abbott has now had to slightly change tactics and attack Gillard and hope she will collapse. Yeah, that will work.

    1. He had to admit today that she will not lie down in a gutter and die and she certainly responded in a spirited manner.

      Therein lie abbotts problem: he expected the weak woman would collapse under his relentless misogynism and sheer nastiness and she did not.He is now running out of options because he has no substance ,no moral standing and sfa in the way of policy.

  10. "I am such a lovely person - a veritable St Francis - that I am advising you to get out of the way before I kick you to death."
    T Abbott