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The Ashby Decision and Living by the Same Rules

Earlier this week the Federal Court in Sydney threw out the sexual harassment suit against former Speaker Peter Slipper which was brought by his former staffer, James Ashby.

It was a spectacular turn of events after a tough year for Australian politics. The year has been book-ended by scandal, with allegations against Craig Thomson dominating debate particularly at the start of the political year. And now the dramatic collapse of the case against Peter Slipper, brought in April, sees the year end with a twist. 

Federal Court judge, Justice Steven Rares found that former Howard Government Minister and LNP candidate for Slipper’s electorate of Fisher, Mal Brough acted “in combination” with James Ashby and a second staff member ”to cause Mr Slipper as much political and public damage as they could inflict upon him.”

Of course the Gillard Government, as any would in the same position, has jumped on this and are now calling on Mal Brough to be disendorsed by the Queensland-based LNP.

But the ALP are seeking much, much more. Since the judgement was handed down, various Labor ministers and MP’s, including the Prime Minister have called upon Tony Abbott and other senior Coalition members to explain their knowledge of the affair.

And the government has not ruled out an inquiry into the events which have led to this crescendo.

Whether or not Mal Brough is disendorsed could depend on two factors: whether or not an appeal, (which James Ashby flagged his intentions of submitting), is successful, or whether the party organisation considers Brough damaged enough to not allow him to proceed with his candidacy for the Sunshine Coast electorate.

So far no appeal has been lodged and the LNP and senior federal Liberal MP’s have publicly endorsed Mal Brough to continue as their representative for Fisher in the 2013 election.

If no appeal is lodged, then of course Mal Brough should swiftly fall on his sword.

The case, in the way it is being prosecuted by the government, has strong parallels with the recently highly public AWU allegations levelled against Prime Minister Gillard.

Some members of the Labor Government appear to be alleging that there has been wrongdoing and a broader conspiracy involving shadow ministers in the federal Liberal Party.

Like the ALP required of the Opposition when the shoe was on the other foot, they will have to make clear what questions they have, but also which Liberal Party representatives should be answering those questions.  Further, the Labor Party needs to outline what acts of illegality or wrongdoing they are alleging transpired. And finally, the Gillard Government need to outline what evidence they have of wrongdoing.

There is a need for questions to be answered by senior Liberal MP’s, both to dispute the claims and for the sake of transparency.

Liberal MP’s were slow to react to the news and subject themselves to interviews about the claims. Some have however fronted the media in different parts of Australia and the world. But Christopher Pyne has so far avoided media scrutiny and Tony Abbott upon his return to Australia should perhaps face a slightly larger press pack, if anything for the sake of the image it would portray.

The next part of the equation is up to the Labor Party alone.

The ALP as a whole must outline what acts of illegality or moral wrongdoing they believe has occurred here. So far the strongest claim made by any Labor MP was of a broad conspiracy, but a number of senior Labor figures are singing slightly different tunes on this.

Finally, the Labor Party must produce hard evidence showing what they believe has gone on within the Liberal Party.

So far there is evidence of some communication between Christopher Pyne and James Ashby which has seen Mr Pyne change his story multiple times, but this does not prove collusion between the two, nor other unlawful acts. At the very least it is embarrassing and looks ugly.

Any proof that the Labor Party may have or think they may have of misdeeds will need to be presented. Labor might also use an inquiry as a vehicle for gathering evidence and that is their prerogative.

This saga is likely to extend well beyond Christmas and into the election year. But Labor, in the Prime Minister’s own words, must “put up or shut up.”

Hypocrisy is Here to Stay

Hypocrisy is something that we are literally faced with almost every day in politics and would only just play second fiddle to lies in politics. The rule that hypocrisy abounds lives on healthily whether you are talking local, state or federal politics. Hypocrisy in politics is a product of many things, not the least of which is a blind greed for power. But hypocrisy is not just a problem for politics, it’s a manifestation of human nature in wider society. Everyone is a hypocrite from time to time, even those of us that rail against it will inevitably fall into its trap, especially when fighting for something that we deeply believe in. That’s the lovely thing about feeling emotions for a cause.

Today, in the wake of the comments from Alan Jones about the Prime Minister’s father, the Liberal Party through Manager of Opposition Business and Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne accused former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the broader ALP of hypocrisy over the matter.

Speaking this morning, Mr Pyne said that Mr Rudd and the Labor Party have been guilty of “vomitous” hypocrisy.

Christopher Pyne stated that “it makes me feel vomitous…listening to the hypocrisy dripping, spewing from the mouths of the Labor ministers.”

But the Manager of Opposition Business singled out former PM Rudd for special treatment. Pyne argued, “Kevin Rudd for example, he worked as hard as he could to get onto Alan Jones when he was the Leader of the Opposition- he couldn’t get enough of Alan Jones.”

Kevin Rudd, like all politicians, is indeed guilty of hypocrisy, the most recent example brought to light. But by tomorrow there will undoubtedly be another example, or multiple displays of hypocrisy, you can be sure of that. The hypocrisy of one though, in an ideal world should not serve to legitimise the hypocrisy of others, but unfortunately that is a reality.

Hypocrisy is here to stay, in politics and in life. People will take the moral high ground from time to time. However, when we are or are not purveyors of double standards is inherently a product of the desires and wants of individuals or groups.

Hypocrisy is also a result of the need, particularly in the case of politicians, to have and maintain power and fight fire with fire. Politicians and to an extent people outside of the political sphere are capable of saying or doing anything in order to maintain hegemonic power.

There really is no point for politicians especially to lecture each other over hypocrisy. But for short-term political gain this will continue to happen and this phenomenon probably plays a major role in making politics an area which is to be avoided by the masses at just about any cost.

What we can hope for is less hypocrisy from our politicians. That is the only real eventuality we can have any hope for as comparatively less hypocritical beings to our parliamentary representatives. Even that though, for the most part, is a vain hope. Emotions and power relationships will continue to facilitate the need, rightly or wrongly- more leaning toward wrongly, for more “vomitous hypocrisy”.

Yes, Kevin Rudd is today’s hypocrite, there are probably others too. Who will the contenders be tomorrow?

Harry Jenkins Leaving the House and Ending an Era

Henry Alfred “Harry” Jenkins entered the federal parliament in Canberra representing the electoral division of Scullin from February 1986. He replaced his father, Dr Harry Jenkins who served in the electorate from 1969 until his son replaced him in office. Today Mr Jenkins announced that his now 26 years in the parliament would be coming to an end at the 2013 federal election, one the ALP is almost certain to lose.

Harry Jenkins’ father after 14 years in the parliament rose to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives under the former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, serving in the role for 3 years from 1983 until his retirement in 1986 when his son took up the role of MP for Scullin.

It (the Speaker’s chair) appeared a place that Harry Jnr was destined for. Seven years after becoming the member for Scullin, Harry Jenkins, in 1993 under Prime Minister Paul Keating was Deputy Speaker for 3 years until the 1996 election when John Howard won government from the longest serving Labor administration of Hawke and Keating.

After the election of the Howard Government, Jenkins enjoyed the support of the lower house to become the 2nd Deputy Speaker during John Howard’s government, a role he stayed in until the end of the Howard Government in late 2007.

When Kevin Rudd was swept to power in a crushing defeat for the Howard Government, in office for over a decade, Harry Jenkins was elected by the house as Speaker, the role his father had enjoyed. He stayed in this role under both Prime Minister Rudd and his successor, PM Julia Gillard. The MP for Scullin served in the role until he left under interesting circumstances, suddenly one morning late in 2011 informing the parliament he would resign from his role to become a regular everyday MP.

It is widely acknowledged by both sides of parliament, Labor and Liberal alike that Harry Jenkins was a good and fair practitioner in the role of Speaker, helped along in the later years by changes to the Standing Orders, the rules that dictate how House of Representatives process is undertaken and policed.

Manager of Opposition Business and Liberal MP for Sturt, who enjoyed a run-in or two with the long-serving Speaker Jenkins said today that Mr Jenkins’ retirement would be “our loss, but his family’s gain”.

In acknowledging the bipartisan respect for the role Mr Jenkins played as Speaker, Mr Pyne also said “I always found Mr Jenkins a fair Speaker. It is a tough job and he did his best to perform with dignity.”

Mr Jenkins was also a Speaker known to take little nonsense from misbehaving MPs, with a healthy appetite for the usage of Standing Order 94a which allows for naughty MPs constantly interjecting or calling other MP’s names among other things to be sent from the chamber for one hour in what should become known as the “coffee order”.

Life largely away from politics beckons, about a year from now should all go to plan, for an MP who is the longest serving Labor MP in the House and the second longest serving MP currently in the parliament, behind Phillip Ruddock.

May his future be bright and his future dealings be with slightly less boisterous individuals than the MP’s he presided over.

Lessons in Reforming Education: Dealing With Disadvantage and Unintended Policy Consequences

Education is by far the most important part of our lives, particularly given the competitive world that we live in. So it immediately follows that a strong education system that gives every citizen equal opportunity to fully participate in and the opportunity to succeed is a prerequisite for a strong, healthy and prosperous society.

But alas equal opportunity in education and how the broader education system operates is something that needs much work in civilised society like Australia. Education in recent days and months has been firmly back in the spotlight, as it always should be with such an essential area of public policy development and transformation.

First it was the Gonski Review by eminent businessperson David Gonski which called for a significant  further injection of funds into the education system.

Then, earlier this week, Christopher Pyne the Shadow Education Minister in the federal opposition made somewhat of a foray into the education policy debate, outlining some key ideas that would go forward as Coalition policy in the area. Most notably this included performance pay for teachers, greater local autonomy for schools and the ability to move under-performing teachers out of the sector.

From the outset, it is important to acknowledge that all politicians, regardless of political colour do at least try to attack the issue of education with sincerity and a commitment to bettering the learning experience of our young minds. Both sides of politics may come at this area of policy from different ideological directions but it is very hard to say that either side want poor outcomes for some and continued good outcomes for those who do not endure disadvantage.

Education policy is a very hard area and there are no easy solutions or proverbial silver bullets. But of course, all policies, no matter how sound, have unintended consequences. The key is looking for the best outcome for all as far as opportunity and support goes and then trusting in the individual students to do their best, though ultimately, many will prevail, but others will not.

First to the Gonski review of education. The major recommendation from this report was that the government inject a further $5 billion into the education system. It proposed assisting students of all types, from those who come from privilege, to those who experience major disadvantage which can have a major impact on educational outcomes.

In particular, the detailed recommendations called on the Gillard Government to commit to “loading” payments for schools to attract and support children that come from a life of disadvantage, including importantly, extra funding for schools to cater for students with a disability.

As yet the Prime Minister has not committed to a full implementation of the Gonski recommendations, but Julia Gillard has committed to funding all schools regardless of need and her government are working toward legislation to deal with education which will be released in the coming months.

It is essential for equality of opportunity that, at the very least the ALP Government commit to fully funding loading payments for students with a disability and those from other lower socioeconomic groups. This is one part of the policy puzzle that simply has to be implemented by the government and without delay.

On Monday, the Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne journeyed into the education debate with a focus on how to deal with the teaching profession, class sizes and giving local schools more autonomy.

The Opposition Education spokesperson focused his comments particularly on the teaching profession, advocating for performance pay and removing poorly performing teachers from the profession.

Performance pay for improved outcomes rather than for overall achievement would be the most appropriate way to reward strong teaching efforts from our education professionals. It is simply impractical to expect that all students, regardless of background and circumstance are automatically going to succeed and excel because they had access to strong teachers.

Similarly, removing teachers from the profession who are “under-performing” is also a problematic equation. For the same reason that performance pay should be based on improvements rather than broad excellence it is impossible to say in all cases that “bad teaching” is responsible for poor outcomes in educational experiences. At some point it comes down to the individual circumstances and at times want of the students.

On class sizes Mr Pyne asserted that smaller class sizes do not automatically lead to better results and this is somewhat true. Again, outcomes are still sometimes down to reasons beyond the control of individual teachers in the system. On the other hand, smaller class sizes do allow for greater teacher concentration on individual students and this is certainly a positive that must not be overlooked.

Greater school autonomy regarding staff and budget arrangements would be a big plus for schools around the country. We have to get away from the idea that bureaucrats and politicians in our capital cities know the best way of dealing with all staffing and budget requirements of all schools under their control. Many frankly wouldn’t have too much of a clue of the local and school specific issues facing every single school under their purview and a much higher usage of local knowledge and experience in the mix is essential.

The policy debate is now out there, our politicians now need to get on with the job of plugging the gaps in the education system, particularly around disadvantage. Our legislators must also be mindful of the ways in which they go about reforming the sector from whichever political standpoint they embark upon the policy process from.

Question Time Ahead of Time

The day is Thursday, the last day in a sitting week in the Parliament of Australia in Canberra and that usually means fireworks as parliamentary politics winds down for the week. Yesterday it was the unexpected topic of customs and their role in gun control which stole the show in Question Time in the House of Representatives. Today the proverbial battle lines should be much clearer with the Fair Work Australia investigation into the Victorian branch which has just concluded the sure focus of Coalition questions to the Gillard Government.

The Fair Work Australia Investigation into Victoria Number 1 branch has reached a conclusion and was reported yesterday and will see 3 former officials from the union seeking possibly pecuniary penalties as a result of their alleged actions in the Federal Court of Australia. The officials will not be subjected to criminal prosecution.

At the same time the Commonwealth Ombudsman has commenced an investigation into the actions of the General Manager of Fair Work Australia, Bernadette O’Neill over the 3 years of the investigation into the Health Services Union. The complaint seeks an imminent end to the investigations into the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, in addition to answers over the snail-like pace of the overall investigation into the union

The Coalition, likely led in the questioning by Tony Abbott and key front-bencher’s like Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop will continue to pursue the government over the issue focusing on the length of the investigation and seeking help to draw the remaining examinations to a close in the very near future.

The Opposition may follow up with a few questions following on from yesterday where it launched an attack on the Government over the importation of firearms and government cuts to customs.

The ALP Government will certainly continue to highlight the spending that is associated with its mining tax, the MRRT in particular, but also the carbon tax. The government is also likely to draw attention to the Coalition and the Greens blocking the big business tax cuts, albeit for different reasons with the Greens blocking it because big business in their mind shouldn’t receive cuts and the Coalition, because the cuts are associated with the mining tax which they say they will rescind.

There is a high likelihood that the tensions which have been exhibited all week, including yesterday when more than a handful of Coalition MPs were booted for an hour under Standing Order 94a will continue today. This would likely see a comparative number of MPs booted, again heavily expected to be from the Coalition side.

A motion to suspend Standing Orders is also a high possibility, likely in relation to the Fair Work Australia investigation into the HSU and Craig Thomson, a focus of Opposition questions for some time now.

All will be revealed and debated with nothing held back from 2pm AEDT

Question Time Ahead of Time

Day 3 of federal parliament is upon us and will bring with it another rambunctious hour and a half of Question Time from the House of Representatives. We know what the issues will be but not from what angle they will be approached by either side, but the lines are drawn and both sides firmly mired in their respective positions of attack.

The Opposition will again focus on the economy in their attacks of the Government, as they have in the two sessions previous, basing their interrogation around perceived impacts of the carbon tax and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT), to not do so would work against much of the poll gains made.

It is also likely that events surrounding the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson will be brought into question, again, as they have this week, not so much attacking the man, but attacking the glacial pace of the Fair Work Australia (FWA) investigation. It does so because FWA is the Prime Minister’s baby where under Kevin Rudd Prime Minister, workplace relations was in her portfolio, beginning the post WorkChoices era.

The Government will again focus on the economy from their viewpoint of comparative strength to other economies in relation to jobs, debt and deficit. The overwhelming percentage of Dorothy Dixer’s will focus on these areas from one angle or another.

The Government is also likely to take the opportunity through the Dorothy Dixer to talk about either the perceived benefits of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and the NBN, perhaps even both as they try to establish credibility in delivery, albeit expensive action.

The new shorter questions, shorter answers, shorter Question Time has now been delivered thanks to Speaker Peter Slipper coming to the chair with his own thoughts on the way Question Time and the House of Representatives procedure more broadly should run. The much shorter questions and shorter answers are a good start but could be strengthened further as they have appeared to have little difference on the quality of Question Time, except to herd it into a slightly shorter package.

The final factor to keep an eye on for the final Question Time of the week will be the ever-present spectre of the censure motion being brought to bear by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott or perhaps Manager of Opposition Business, Christopher Pyne. With the almost routine manner  in which we have seen the motion appear it would be remiss of me to not include the eventuality, especially with the Gillard Government failing in so many areas.

Be listening or watching at 2pm AEDT to see what plays out in the theatre that is Question Time. Who will take the upper hand at the end of the first parliamentary sitting week, hoping to convert it into ongoing momentum for the political year?

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