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Limping to the Election

Federal parliament returns tomorrow, bringing with it Question Time and all the shouty goodness we’ve grown to expect from our parliamentarians. And today the new Gillard Government ministers were sworn in by the Governor-General in Canberra. After that there was time for a meeting of Labor caucus which endorsed Senator Stephen Conroy as the Leader of the Government in the Senate and back Senator Penny Wong as his deputy. Finally, in that same caucus meeting there was time for a little bit of a warning from the Prime Minister.

All of today’s events, in their own separate ways, provide lessons. They should serve as a reminder that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about participating in the business of party politics.

Two senior Gillard Government MP’s announced their retirements at the weekend, sparking a reshuffle of the ministry late in the election cycle, close to seven months before the 2013 election. This is not an irregular event before an election, especially one where the incumbents are expected to lose. To have two go in the same day is particularly bad, especially when one is the Attorney-General.

Such a public exodus of ministers, especially when combined with MP’s, does the job of reinforcing to the public that the incumbents are on the way out. It also fuels the cynic’s, in many cases the realists’ fire. It looks like they are going to preserve the best possible parliamentary pension that they can.

It is strange that so close to an election that the Labor Party will likely lose, that the Prime Minister would choose to finally promote some of the more talented members of her caucus. Mark Dreyfus QC  has been made Attorney-General, in place of Nicola Roxon and is, in terms of legal prowess and standing, a much more robust choice for the role. Chris Bowen finally breaks free of the shackles of the immigration portfolio, while Mike Kelly takes on Defence Materiel.

What happens to the talent in the event of a stint in opposition? Surely some will want to return to their private lives before being granted the chance to govern again?

Let’s not forget that the Liberal Party will also see a number of MP’s making an exit at the election too. In fact, at this stage more Liberal member’s of parliament are leaving the Australian parliament. This is not however about electoral prospects, but rather, more liberal Liberals giving up representing an increasingly conservative Liberal Party.

The ALP caucus today erred on a further two fronts. First of all, endorsing Senator Conroy as Leader of the Government in the Senate is a poor decision, though of course it will not matter so much in terms of the election result. Senator Conroy is one of the most underwhelming parliamentarians and one of the poorest communicators. His new deputy, Senator Wong, would have made a much better choice. In fact almost anyone on the Labor side in the Senate bar Senator Ludwig, would have been a better option.

Finally this afternoon, the Labor Party was given a bit of a lecture from the PM where Ms Gillard warned against leaks. Leaks are inevitable, that’s politics. But to be outwardly warning your party against such unwise actions after a recent history of damaging tit-for-tat backgrounding is unfortunate. It also helps reinforce the argument that tensions within the government are making it unstable. How many warnings against harmful leaks need to go completely unheeded? If everyone in the party room does not yet know that the enemy is the opposition and not each other, then that is a real shame for the Australian Labor Party.

There needs to be far more discipline shown by Labor. They need to prove they are not in complete disarray and at the very least mitigate against the potential for a major loss of seats on September 14th.

After close to 6 years in office, the Labor Party should have finally learned to make the right decisions in terms of internal governance. Instead a still stewing split between the Gillard and Rudd supporters has helped hijack the chances of more sensible  and more strategically sound decision-making.

It’s too late for any of that to make a real difference now.

The Five-Year Backflip

Senator Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Communications in the Gillard Government yesterday announced that the Labor Party would not be pursuing a mandatory internet filter. The very proposal put forward by Senator Conroy back when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister had always been a political problem for Stephen Conroy and now it has been resolved, but not without all that now unnecessary political pain.

Luckily for the Labor Senator, debate over the proposed mandatory filter has been absent from the headlines for some time. All the while, Conroy was still working behind the scenes with telecommunications companies on a solution to the complex issue

But was taking all this time really necessary?

In the first instance, the strong opposition to a mandatory filter should have been a big enough sign for the Minister of Communications to consider looking at other avenues for arriving at the same, or a similar outcome. Instead, the government decided to continue pursue a policy that has proved a long and drawn out problem.

The backflip performed by Senator Conroy has to be one of the longest backward steps taken by a minister that appears way out of his depth not just in the narrow area of internet regulation, but also his broader portfolio responsibilities.

After 5 years of  both pontificating about the filter and working behind the scenes to achieve an outcome, Minister Conroy announced that instead of a mandatory internet filter, he had reached an agreement with internet service providers to block sites listed on Interpol’s ‘worst of’ database. That means that approximately 1400 websites monitored by Interpol will, once the policy is implemented, not be able to be accessed from Australian computers.

This seems like a much more sensible outcome, a much smarter approach than an Australia-wide internet filter which would have been much more widespread and at the same time a very secretive process with the list of blocked websites hidden from the public view.

It is very interesting how Mr Conroy has shifted from pushing a policy of wider censorship of the internet in a secretive manner, with no published list of banned materials for public oversight, to a narrower policy of just combating access to child abuse websites.

The fact that the new policy is limited to child abuse material is a victory for common sense with concerns around the barring of a wider array of websites actually amounting the censorship.

The problem with the previous policy was not so much about what would be blocked, but the fact that we would actually never know what the government would be blocking and even why.

At the same time, the ALP need to be careful that they do not think they can combat child pornography and exploitation material just by blocking websites.

As Shadow Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull made clear in an interview today, “[the filter] would have been quite ineffective in the battle against child pornography because people who trade child pornography and other material of that kind do so through peer-to-peer networks, they’re not posting it up on websites.”

Stephen Conroy and his party can now breathe a little easier, with a needlessly prolonged problem finally off the table, but the embarrassment will be experienced for a little while yet. Luckily, in the scheme of things, this issue probably has not leaked votes for the ALP.

It has, however, exposed a poor minister.

The Big Spill: All the Wash-up

This morning the ballot for the ALP leadership overwhelmingly confirmed that the ALP want Julia Gillard to continue to be the Prime Minister to take the Labor Party to the next election. This comes after a prolonged period of terrible polling dating back almost to the August 2010 federal election where the ALP Government swiftly lost its majority after Gillard wrested the Prime Ministership.

The Prime Minister won the leadership ballot today 71 votes to 31 for Kevin Rudd, a strong victory, though one that will continue to raise questions about the ongoing unity of the Gillard Labor Government nonetheless.

The lead-up to this big day was incredibly ugly, one of the most de-stabilising times for any party in my living memory (27 years).

The ugly, strong and vitriolic words started to accelerate a week or more before the Minister for Foreign Affairs decided, at a snap press conference at 1:30am in Washington DC to resign his posting, with Simon Crean coming out and declaring open warfare on Mr Rudd.

Those hurtful and damaging words and claims only intensified after that early morning press conference which signified the likelihood of a leadership challenge being brought to the Member for Griffith. This challenge came late last week with the Prime Minister calling for a spill with the former PM on his way home to announce his future, which was always going to be a tilt at the Prime Ministership.

Simon Crean continued his strong words against the former Prime Minister with notable contributions, for all the wrong reasons from Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy, Nicola Roxon and others.

The Rudd camp could quickly count in its corner the likes of Kim Carr, Doug Cameron, Martin Ferguson and Robert McClelland, both of whom came out publicly and supported Mr Rudd. They were followed slowly by Chris Bowen and in an emotional weekend announcement, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese.

It was very clear, almost from the outset of the spill announcement, that the Rudd camp would struggle to get close to the numbers required to take back the leadership of the ALP Government. The Rudd camp thought that they would have around 40, but of course ended up on the comparatively low 31 votes.

So with the vote now dispensed with and the hostilities finally quelled, at least from the public view, what happens now for the Gillard Government, to borrow a phrase, in “moving forward”?

This afternoon one of the factional heavyweights, Mark Arbib resigned his post as Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Sport and as a Senator for NSW, citing the need to heal the party and also family reasons for his shock decision. This will lead to at least one new face in the Gillard ministry.

More importantly, the Government need to find a new Foreign Minister, with Craig Emerson, the Trade Minister acting in the portfolio until a replacement is announced. Dr Emerson was in the frame for the job in the wake of the Rudd resignation from the post, but you would think him acting in the portfolio means that someone else would be chosen to take on the role full-time.

I have maintained for over a week now that Simon Crean was behind the scenes angling for the job in the event of Rudd going to the back-bench or leaving the parliament altogether. I said this for dual reasons, one that Simon Crean was the first to come out strongly against Kevin Rudd for backgrounding and causing de-stabilisation and two, because Mr Crean has had a long history in parliament and was Trade Minister under Kevin Rudd in fact, a portfolio under the same department as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

On the Foreign Affairs front still, the other option being put forward in the media is for Stephen Smith to go back to the role that he held under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, though this seems unlikely as he has much work left to do in defence.

The Prime Minister will also need to work out whether she will replace any of the ministers that spoke out against her leadership and who, if any Ms Gillard would replace them with.

On that front, one Rudd backer, the Infrastructure and Transport Minister and Leader of the House, Anthony Albanese in his teary, heartfelt speech offered his resignation from the front bench which was not accepted by the Prime Minister. This signals that the Gillard Government will try to portray a sense of unity within the Government.

Other Ministers, like Robert McClelland, Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson  and Kim Carr, all Rudd backers, according to some commentators, may face demotion or replacement in a reshuffle in the wake of this damaging time in the ALP. The former and the latter both faced demotion in the last ministerial reshuffle which occurred last year.

It is arguable that for the sake of maintaining the last shred of a facade of unity within the ALP caucus that Gillard should keep all of the key Rudd backers there in their respective places.

This challenge today has also shown that there is a not insubstantial percentage of the Labor caucus that think the Prime Minister is doing a bad enough job to be replaced with the peoples choice, Kevin Rudd and consequently does not shut the door on Rudd or another candidate taking the job if poor polls continue in the election year.

The damage is far from over and the Liberal/National Party Coalition will certainly be out to capitalise on all the material provided to them over the last few weeks in particular and undoubtedly events back to the successful leadership spill in 2010 and the goverment are certainly pedalling up a very steep hill indeed.

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