11 March 2009

The unravelling of Stephen Fielding

Steve Fielding was elected to Federal Parliament by factional deals first, and a tiny proportion of the good people second. He's out of his depth, which didn't matter in his capacity as just another Senator, but caught between the tectonic plates of the major parties in the balance of power, Fielding is starting to unravel.

His first speech to Parliament was a declaration of principle and intent by Family First, an organisation of well-meaning souls who had broken into the club of those who wield legislative power by having representatives elected to Parliament. Since then we have seen him come down from the high plane of principle to cut deals and become a player, and pull stunts to keep up the profile. The nature of those stunts outside Parliament and the positions Fielding has taken within it show that he is not coping, and this could become a worry.

The stripping off with pensioners at Melbourne's Flinders Street Station was ill advised, to say the least. It would have been perfectly legitimate for the Senator to support the pensioners in their aims, but removing his shirt was a bad look, and more than a little creepy for anyone who believes Family First rhetoric about nudity and appropriate public behaviour. It called to mind Bob Hawke appearing on TV with the budgie-smugglers, after his Prime Ministership with Blanche, and before it at the 1975 ALP Conference at Terrigal.

The difference is that Hawke could handle the pressure and rise to the occasion where possible. Hawke could lose his temper from time to time, but in most cases the explosion was carefully controlled to bring pressure to bear on those who stood against him. Fielding's rant about "arrogant" government bypassing him over the stimulus did the opposite: it showed he couldn't handle pressure and it strengthened rather than weakened opposition to him and his agenda.

Soon after this the Federal government began to back away from internet filtering. I don't believe that Stephen Conroy has a Tony Abbott-style love for family-family-family rhetoric, but he does need to keep Fielding and the de Bruynite members of his own caucus onside, and by standing steadfastly by internet filtering he is doing that. Conroy could afford to ignore the techies who decried the fact that it would slow Australia's already snail-like internet, and wouldn't stop transmission of porn anyway - how many votes do techies have? - but if the Bible-bashing vote can't be relied upon to stick by filtering, and if it can't be used as leverage to get other Labor policies through, then stuff filtering. Next time Fielding pulls a wacky stunt that sucks in the media, watch Conroy quietly drop internet filtering altogether.

This story on Fielding is old-fashioned straight-bat reporting at its best, if only it weren't for the internet. A straight-bat story about politics where you quote one politician saying this and another politician saying that is unnecessary, you can go straight to the relevant parties' websites and check out their media releases directly. The value-add of media is no longer the transmission of this information but the evaluation of it; it's a pity that Christian Kerr didn't have time to tailor his story accordingly.
KEY crossbench Senator Steve Fielding is standing his ground as the Government increases pressure to pass its workplace relations legislation.

No, he is not standing his ground. As you read the article it's clear that Fielding has no firm ground to stand upon.
"Work Choices was too hard, the question is, is the Fair Work bill too soft."

Fielding lacks the ability to do the classic Goldilocks balance-of-power routine, of which the Democrats were past masters and which Xenophon, and Green Senators Milne and Siewert, are adept at: what, exactly, would be "just right"?
But Senator Fielding has repeated his call for a statuary body, not unions, to inspect employee records.

I hope Christian Kerr strangles the sub-editor who confused "statuary" and "statutory" - what statuary body had he in mind, the Venus de Milo perhaps? - or if that's what Fielding said, his addled participation in debate is worse than I thought. Union inspection of records is a small issue in the wider issue of the regulation of employment in an environment where unemployment is likely to rise - the emphasis has to be on regulations which don't cause people to lose their jobs who might otherwise have kept them had regulatory settings been different. Kerr missed this with his straight-bat reporting, and worse still Fielding shows no evidence of having thought about it. So much for media holding politicians to account.

(I agree with Fielding and Xenophon on the "right of entry" question though - I suspect Labor want to give all those union organisers who aspire to become MPs some real work to do rather than sitting around soaking up member contributions and scheming against sitting MPs. Unions have no right to inspect wages records for non-members, but they should have access to their members' records.)
Senator Fielding has flagged a further fight with the Government over its emissions trading scheme.

Draft legislation for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was released yesterday, but the Senator has raised concerns over its proposed start date of July 1 next year.

"We don't want to see jobs booted offshore," he said this morning.

The CPRS as mooted would not see a single job in Australia sent offshore: Fielding has taken some Coalition hack or lobbyist at face value. Pity he couldn't have raised this issue earlier. Harradine would have at least asked for information before coming to a conclusion like that. Global warming affects families, pollution affects families. Reducing carbon emissions is (or should be) a question of the very kind of economic efficiency that will promote economic recovery: Fielding has never shown any sign of being able to take in the big picture, he's a small-picture man and his world is closing in on him.

Fielding faces re-election next year, and Australia has not exactly, um, caught the fire on Christian-based politics, so there won't be any groundswell for Our Steve nor any interlocking preference deals. His election in 2004 came at the expense of a Labor-SDA Senator, and if Fielding is going to stymie every government initiative that comes up then Labor are hardly likely to preference him. The Coalition might, but then they have to get four Senators re-elected in Victoria where they'll be lucky to get three.

The pressure on Senators with the balance of power can only increase as the Rudd government makes its case for re-election, and the Coalition theirs against. Steve Fielding is likely to be confronted with more of the big issues for which the Bible offers little, or contradictory, guidance; his stunts are likely to become both more lame and erratic as unemployment increases and his own job comes up for review.

Negotiators from the major parties are likely to increase the pressure on Fielding, rather than let up as his increasing vulnerability would warrant. It is too early to tell, and I am no psychologist, whether Fielding is doing an Evatt-style slide into madness - but it won't be good enough if he is returned to the bosom of the Fielding family in mid-2011 broke and broken (he doesn't get the fat pension), unemployed and unemployable, to have both of the cliches rolled out:

  1. Politics is a tough game!

  2. Is the media to blame? (long canvassing of issues, followed by resounding no, sneering at Fielding's expense, then see 1. above)

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