The votes are in and the Liberal leadership spill has been averted. Tony Abbott remains the Prime Minister after a party room meeting at 9am confirmed his leadership. The Liberal Party voted 61-39 against a spill of the Leader and Deputy Leader Positions. Just how far into this story are we? Is it a novella or a saga which will continue to play out before our already astonished eyes? Australian politics since 2007 has certainly been an epic tale and will likely continue to be a volatile environment for all of the players, from the voters to the politicians.
The first point to make is both an obvious and not so obvious conclusion. On the face of it the vote of the Liberal Party caucus was an emphatic one. More than half of the MP’s gathered voted at the very least to give the Prime Minister more time.
On the other hand, 39 members of his parliamentary team – over 40% of them and likely multiple ministers – delivered a vote of no confidence in his leadership. And it is a point made by many observers that this is an untenable position. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke did not save his leadership from a very similar vote to that which the Liberal Party delivered today. And Julia Gillard did not recover from a much better position than the one furnished to Tony Abbott by Liberal MP’s.
It can easily be argued that the Prime Minister would not be able to recover politically if he received as little as 25 or more votes in today’s ballot. The public have largely switched off and that is largely because of Tony Abbott, but also Joe Hockey. It is not the fault of any backroom figures and any move to shift the blame to them is just ridiculous. Politicians make the final decisions and while it is the job of staffers to persuade against particular directions, it is not their fault if good advice is not heeded.
There can be little doubt that Tony Abbott’s leadership will continue to further implode. Prime Minister Abbott has had months to stop making mistakes, without the threat of a leadership spill and has not done so. In recent times he has even appeared to be making fun of his penchant for ‘captain’s calls’. Tony Abbott should be solemnly proving by his actions, at every opportunity, that he is no longer going to make these unilateral decisions. He has not.
The PM can continue to talk about getting himself and the party out of this invidious position, but it will likely be to no avail.
If there was any small skerrick of a chance of Tony saving himself and the Coalition, then the government would have to change or dump some of the policies. The overall narrative simply has to remain, and the public will accept that. Voters accepted the debt had to go under John Howard and Peter Costello – for 12 years. At the very least, the co-payment idea and knights and dames must no longer be countenanced, even at arm’s length or in consultation with others. Recent history shows any changes will be cosmetic.
The current Treasurer’s commission has to be terminated too, regardless of whether Tony Abbott wants to stay in the job or not. Joe Hockey has gone from a pretty good Shadow Treasurer to a hopeless and abrasive embarrassment in the Treasury portfolio. Mr Hockey lacks the temperament to be able to deal with difficult negotiations. He has been far too stubborn. The trouble here is that the best candidate for the job is also the ideal replacement to Prime Minister Tony Abbott – Malcolm Turnbull.
The Treasury portfolio does deliver a difficulty in terms of the leadership equation. If there is no change of the leadership of the Coalition and at the same time, the Treasury portfolio, within a month, any new economic team after that would have less than two months to prepare the budget.
If the Liberal Party were to give Tony Abbott a further 6 months as leader and keep the Treasurer, as has been reported, then problems would arise on that front too. An incoming leadership team and their likely new bean counter would have to sell or quickly dump elements of a budget delivered by a politically compromised team.
Obviously the situation is absolutely dire. The Coalition will be in an even worse position if a likely transition to a new leader is not handled well. Another spill would not look great, even thought it would almost certainly deliver a new Liberal leader. The Liberal Party will need to be mature and know that the best way forward, whether it be almost immediately or after 6 months, is an orderly transition. Tony Abbott will have to swallow his pride and resign when it gets to that point.
This is not an easy situation to be in. But it is a situation cultivated by less than a handful of people and allowed to continue by dozens more. The actions of a few in that handful of people could determine how the next 18 months plays out.
‘Question Time Ahead of Time’ has appeared on this blog for some months now. It was written as a way to inform the public about the issues of the day that were more than likely going to be the subject of questions from both the Opposition and the government. It was written in a way as a public service, so that you, the faithful readers did not have to go through the excruciating pain of parliament if you chose not to, but still wanted to keep abreast of the parliamentary discourse.
Sadly, this has become too predictable, too transparent. This does not apply to one side more than the other. Both sides of politics have been relentlessly consistent about the areas of policy and politics that they have chosen to prosecute during this, the 43rd parliament of Australia.
On the Opposition side, we’ve had, the carbon price, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, asylum seekers and the Thomson and Slipper matters be the big focuses of Questions Without Notice since this particular preview piece started. We’ve also had in recent times, the new spending priorities of the Labor Government given significant attention during parliamentary sessions.
On the government side there has been a number of different issues canvassed, but they too have been regularly canvassed. These areas of policy have included the comparative strength of the economy, education reform, health, infrastructure, workplace relations, business and the environment.
Let this be a warning to our politicians that repetition is grating and plainly, just f-cking annoying. There has to be a better way and that has to involve variety. But this is just as much a fault of the 24-hour news cycle as it is about our politicians, where even in 24 hours of news there is generally less than a handful of issues covered in any real depth.
Politics is at quite the low ebb at the moment. Most of us get pretty frustrated from time-to-time about the way in which the major political parties are heading. We even get frustrated about certain issues that we wish the political party we most identify with would deal with in a way that we and the public overwhelmingly want. Essentially, we choose one of the two main parties, Liberal and National (Coalition) or the Australian Labor Party. Most of us don’t overwhelmingly agree with the platform of the party we vote for, whether that vote is delivered by first preference or flow of preferences.
This raises the question of the role that we play in the political process. Do we play a role entrenched in one of the political parties as a rank-and-file member? Do we seek committee or organisational representation within a party?
Or do we influence the political debate from the periphery? Is this influence from the outer limits of the political process at the ballot box? Or is it closer to the political discourse in the form of representing sectional interests trying to influence public policy?
Most importantly, what is best and most influential, change from within, or attempting to affect change just a little step away from political machinations?
This is a debate than will again be raised as a result of the public discussion entered into recently, particularly over the last week, but also for some months prior by the always intriguing and never dull Clive Palmer.
In recent times, the outspoken billionaire has both spoken strongly in favour of the Coalition stance on government taxes and then, more recently, strongly against the stance of both sides of politics on the charged issue of asylum seekers. Then there is the small matter today of a donation to Together Queensland to compensate workers sacked by the LNP administration.
Now, Clive Palmer isn’t one to be reliably taken on his word. He promised us he would run for Lilley, Wayne Swan’s seat, then elsewhere in Queensland but has since reneged on both counts, the latter supposedly over asylum seeker treatment by the Liberal and National Party at the federal level.
But let’s think the best of him and take him on his word that this is the legitimate reason he chose not to seek pre-selection for a parliamentary seat in Canberra. It’s not the first time he’s made a foray into the often ugly debate over some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
But is it best for him to not at least attempt to seek a seat in the parliament where he could have influenced the debate from within? Admittedly his stance over asylum seekers would have probably provided somewhat of a stumbling block, a big hurdle to get over in winning the chance to represent the LNP in the electoral race.
Put that aside for a minute. If there were enough like-minded people that chose to get so heavily involved in the process, and it’s a sure bet there would be a number of people, socially liberal in nature, then change could be influenced from within.
Even if it were just one person, Clive Palmer, or a small number of people, like in the parliamentary debate on refugees and asylum seekers at present, then engaging in the t0-and-fro with an honesty, forthrightness and passion would begin to influence change from with. Yes, the progress might well be slow, but it starts people talking.
But there is a role for those at the ballot box. More importantly in some ways there is a role for those organisations that directly engage in the political goings on.
Because people at the ballot box generally vote for a number of issues that a political party stands on, it often becomes blurred, even completely obstructed as to just how far that endorsement of the policies of any one political party goes.
Voters can attempt to force change by writing letters to their local MP or Ministers, can protest or can show their opinions on any particular issue through polls on topical issues. But these fora are not the best way to get involved in the change process. They are helpful but will likely result in even slower change than people massing from directly within.
Then there is somewhat of a middle ground of influence. That middle ground exists in engaging in special interest groups which often have direct access to politicians, bureaucrats and government and can therefore have a greater impact on the evolution of political debate. In truth, lobbying groups are much closer to having a direct influence on government policy than the middle ground on the scale between everyday voters and actually being in the parliament.
It’s clear that the closer you are to the political process, the more impact you can have on change. Mr Palmer, despite some of his failings, everyone has them, would have been best to continue his fight to pursue change from within. He undoubtedly still will, behind closed doors within the LNP organisation and through the media, but not directly through attempting to get into parliament. His independent voice, if it continues, might help attract more like-minded people into the party organisation and that is a positive.
Change from the boundaries while not the best, will still result in the shifting of minds over time, though the depth of this shift and the time taken to achieve change from this perspective is likely much shallower and will take much longer to foment.
We must realise as voters that our selection at the ballot box will likely be misinterpreted by government as a full endorsement of their policies. It is not and all possible action must be taken to let government know just what we think about everything that our elected representatives do.
To not engage fully is to be a passive participant and an enabler for the occasional, sometimes often, horrific decision which can be made by governments.
In an ideal world, with ideal adherence to governance and independence standards, Allan Asher should have resigned from his role immediately. The Ombudsman, at the moment the situation came to light, to save face for the Office of the Ombudsman in the eyes of the wider Australian community, should have resigned last week, before appearing at committees and making other statements of apology as has happened since.
Furthermore, as the Ombudsman is independent, the argument that the Government were shirking accountability on the issue of asylum seekers, while a grave allegation, could have been circumvented in part by a press release or series thereof, being put to the media.
However, the Ombudsman was not the only party involved, nor the only party or individual to take blame for the situation. The Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the Senator who met with and accepted and then used the list of questions provided must also share blame for her part in the situation.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young should not have accepted, in any case, the list of questions provided by the Ombudsman. This whole event smacks of Australian Greens hypocrisy given their stance over the Godwin Grech affair, which resulted in the Greens putting up a list of standards to meet and which have been flouted in this case.
Ideally, an MP or Senator involved in such a situation under Westminster accountability standards should at least stand aside from their portfolios responsibilities, shadow or not and at best, resign from parliament. However, with precedents set against such an occasion, in this day and age that level of accountability is unlikely to be reached and at times could be unworkable.
The Australian Greens, in the wake of this imbroglio, will put forward an idea of an oversight function for the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. In any case, coming from a party not involved in the recent events, this would be a welcome development. However, in this case it smacks of a diversion from the involvement of Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in what has led to this quite sensible announcement.
In the end today, we have reached basically the right outcome, with the Ombudsman eventually, under considerable pressure, being somewhat nudged into resignation from his post. Furthermore, we have learnt that as far as accountability goes, no party is fully immune from errors of judgement and when confronted by the facts, will attempt to put forward a solution to distract from their original involvement in not so smart encounters.