17 June 2011

Black is white in the red room

The press gallery are usually rubbish at reporting events in the Senate.

Legislation can and does come out of the Senate changed utterly, with far-reaching changes when measures are enacted and it takes months for the journosphere to catch up. This happens parliament after parliament, so let's not have more nonsense about the current configuration. They place too much focus on briefings from the major parties and so-called "parliamentary theatre" in the House, ignoring minor parties or consigning them to the fringes. Then, when the issue (a piece of legislation, or a subject facing committee scrutiny) goes to the Senate, the entire journosphere just throws up its hands as though anything could happen, as though it hadn't actually listened and done its job in studying the tectonics of the Senate. Asking journos to provide some understanding how the Senate might react given a particular set of circumstances is real your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine stuff, a cop-out for so-called insiders. The idea that legislation and the issues that attend them disappear behind some black screen and reappear in changed form is one of the absurd pantomimes that people just have to love put up with, apparently.

The idea that the 2010 election was tantalisingly close for the Liberals is about to be put to the test starkly exposed. During 2005-08 the Coalition had a majority in the Senate. They lost it in 2008-11, having to rely on former Liberal Nick Xenophon and nincompoop Stephen Fielding - but oh wait, they were in opposition by then and they didn't set the legislative agenda any more, nor did they slow down anything that the supposedly vulnerable Gillard government wanted to do.

In less than three weeks, the Coalition will go backwards again. The numbers will stack up as follows:

34 Coalition
31 ALP
9 Green
1 Xenophon

76 TOTAL (minimum number needed for a majority: 39)

Given that Abetz has been utterly useless at tipping a knife-edge parliament to the favour of his party, where is he going to get five votes from?

Only Niki Savva can see this as a positive for a party that had its head handed to it at two elections now. The arguments she puts forward require you to be the most giddy Coalition booster with no sense of history (indispensible for a conservative in normal times), and no sense about Australian politics generally.
[DLP Senator-elect] Madigan is acutely conscious of his party's place in Australian political history. He is equally conscious of the part he could play in shaping events in the future.
It's a pity that Savva isn't. Her article assumes that Madigan is some sort of in-the-bag vote for the Coalition. Madigan beat an actual member of the Coalition, Julian McGauran, to take his seat in the Senate - yes, McGauran was a waste of skin, but if you like that sort of thing he was an actual Coalition vote rather than a maybe.

The Green-Labor alliance - what brings them together, what drives them apart - is the fascinating story of the coming two years. It is the Senate which will determine the configuration of government in the House, and not the other way around. Press gallery journos waiting for independent MHRs to align with Abbott are the same lazy lumps who predicted breathlessly that Costello would definitely challenge Howard, definitely, later this week or early next week, definitely ...

Just because the DLP kept the Liberals in office during the 1950s does not mean they are some sort of lucky charm for the prospects of conservative government today. When Stephen Fielding was elected, it was interpreted by the less cogent members of the press gallery as some sort of vindication of Howard's picket-fences-and-family image imported from the US Republicans. Madigan is replacing Fielding, and rather than being the titan of Savva's dreams he is likely to be every bit the chucklehead Fielding has been and is. On what is arguably the greatest challenge of our time, the Senator-elect upon whom Savva places so much faith is just as wishy-washy as Fielding:
Madigan says he believes in climate change, but does not necessarily believe it is man-made, and is not convinced a tax will fix it.

That sounds very much like he would vote against it, and when I put that to him in a phone interview a few days ago, his reply was: "At this point I am a no."
On that basis, Savva thinks Madigan is some sort of loyal footsoldier of the right. It's almost like she doesn't care what else he thinks. Unlike his co-religionist Tony Abbott, Madigan is more likely to push traditional Catholic preoccupations of abortion, euthanasia etc. His views on drug treatment would be shunned by both major parties.
According to party strategists, if Abbott wins government, and replicates the 2004 Senate result for the Coalition ...
This time - and any "strategist" worth their salt should know this - the boofhead is leading the Liberals. All Labor has to do is remind voters what happened last time the Liberals got control of the Senate: a giddy ride to the peak of hubris, followed by a death-plunge at the hands of the ALP.

I'd love to say that Savva was being silly in pursuit of her rosy scenario, but there is a real prospect that the carbon tax and MRRT won't go through. In that case, Gillard and Labor are finished.
With that number, plus the support of Madigan and Xenophon it could, if it sticks to its pledge, repeal the Gillard tax.
If if if if if if if if.
Xenophon, a climate change believer, is not swept up by the government's carbon pricing proposals, preferring a different model ...
Another case of Xenophon backing himself into a corner - neither major party supports that idea, so he can trade it away in return for - um, what? So that he can vote for an expensive re-realignment of the country's fiscal mechanisms? Over to you, journalists.
As well as touring the farms, [Madigan] talks to old people who while away hours on bitterly cold days in shopping malls because they can't afford to keep the heating on at home, so he is anxious not to sign up to anything that would make life even harder for them.

"I very much deal in facts and tangible things," he says.

"If there is no benefit firstly for people and secondly for the environment ... there has to be a tangible benefit. I want to enhance people's lives."

Madigan could make the DLP relevant again for the first time since Gough Whitlam wiped the party out at the 1974 double-dissolution election, and he knows it.
This is a man who would not know where to start with facts and tangible things. He seriously thinks a carbon tax is "a tax on life", and the practicalities of terminating pregnancies conceived in rape and incest simply pass him by. It's one thing to help the poor and elderly in this country, but that does not mean the country is run for their benefit. Relevance be damned.

Like Bob Katter, Madigan is a candidate for an Australia that has passed but which the poor and old can't and won't accept has gone forever. Savva may think it's smart politics trying to rope such people into the Coalition, heightening the case for the Coalition to turn its back on the future and campaign for a redux of 2006, but it won't serve the interests of the Coalition at all. Madigan will be as much help as hindrance to the Coalition, and they are in for a spell where their impotence gives them the excuse for ineffectiveness they have so far lacked.
... the passing of the balance of power in the Senate to the Greens.

The reason the Liberals look forward to it is because it will, even more than previously, cement the view in the minds of voters that Labor is beholden to the Greens.

The manager of opposition business in the Senate, the ever-alert Mitch Fifield, promises to press home that point at every opportunity.
Mitch Fifield is responsible for nobbling Jason Wood in LaTrobe in what is already the Liberals' worst state on the mainland. Please understand this: there would be a Liberal government were it not for Mitch bloody Fifield.

Keep in mind also that Labor used to "press home" that Menzies was beholden to the DLP. This didn't do either of the latter any harm at all, and many Labor MPs went home rather than to the House as a result. For all the unpopularity of Gillard at the moment, nobody is going to believe Senator Fifield over her.

Yet, even so, press gallery drones will continue quoting Abetz and Fifield as "senior strategists" and treating each new failure as an aberration. The House will be treated as a hotbed of intrigue while the pictures reveal it as a lame set-piece rebounding to the Coalition's discredit. Meanwhile, in the Senate, where the real action is, the press gallery will write it off as wacky and unknowable. We have been poorly served by the press gallery in this parliament and this will not improve any time soon. In 2010 voters voted despite the press gallery and there is every indication that they/we will do so again. If the people vote against the press gallery, sooner or later the press gallery will be out of a job.


  1. Looks like the liberal party are the least competent pollies left in the room...but judging by their willingness to dump on Gillard and back Tony, the electorate is even less competent. Which means all bets are off, and as soon as someone blinks, the libs will be back in. My only hope is that they at least have the sense to dump Tony and put Turnbull back in as the only possibly not corrupt liberal around. I can dream on...

  2. It all comes down to the carbon tax and the mining tax. The polls do not matter.

  3. " ... sooner or later the press gallery will be out of a job."

    I live in hope.

  4. That sounds a little grandiose: what I meant to say was that there is more to politics than you can see from the press gallery, so I'm looking to end the idea that the press gallery = political coverage, and in particular those journalists who believe otherwise can find something else to do.