Monday, 9 July 2012

With allies like that, who needs enemies?

The whiff of discontent between the Federal Labor Government and their alliance partners, the Greens, spells trouble for both parties.

In the middle of the Peacock/Howard years, Bob Hawke said if you can't run yourselves, you can't run the country. Discord within the ranks makes the business of government very difficult because the main players end up spending most of their time extinguishing political fires lit by their colleagues.

What makes this situation different is that the Greens are in the Gillard tent, but they will not hesitate to walk outside and turn the blow torch on their allies. They have their cake and eat it too; all care, but no responsibility.

In contrast, within the coalition of the National Party and the Liberal Party there is, most of the time, a common political objective to win seats and then government. For the Greens, they don't want to be in government with Labor; they want to supplant the Labor Party.

Of course, they are entitled to try but when you look at the record of the motley crew sitting behind Senator Milne and if you look at their policies, they are so far removed from mainstream Australia , the prospects of them bumping off Labor is negligible.

The Greens stopped the first legislation on climate change and, as a result, set off a chain of events that has given Labor grief. It took away the tax cuts for business, which were a quid pro quo on the mining tax, and it scuttled the Malaysia solution. Prime Minister Gillard should be asking herself with allies like that, who needs enemies?

But the disasters are not all behind Labor. Labor has done deals with the Greens for referendums on local government and Indigenous Australians. Back in 1988, the referendum on local government was put to the voters and it was thrashed. Nothing has changed since in terms of constitutional matters so another referendum would be a rerun. This proposal is just tokenism and fiddles with a constitution that has been guarded by the Australian public who need very good reason to make any change.

Even if the Coalition supported the proposal, I would expect Coalition State governments to oppose it. This would be enough to seal its fate. Even without opposition from the States, a lot of people think councillors are too full of themselves and it could be easily defeated anyway.

The second referendum is on recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. The Australian Constitution was drawn as an agreement between the States and the Commonwealth to decide who would be responsible for the different activities of each level of government. Our constitution is not a set of cherrios to people who have made a  contribution to our society. It is not a Bill of Rights. That has been discussed since the constitution was first drafted. Australia followed the Westminster approach. We could adopt a change, but a mini Bill of Rights was also turned down in 1988.

You can tell that some Labor ministers want to push the issue, but they have nearly left it too late for this year and the Party's faceless men will not want a referendum campaign leading up to next year's election.

The Minister forcing the issue seems to be Jenny Macklin, another one of Labor's many dud ministers.

Both sides of politics will often use a form of shorthand to attack the arguments of their opponents. As long as the party has a clear policy position, there is nothing wrong with reducing an argument down to "sound grab" dimensions.

In the 1988 referendum campaign the Coalition had a simple theme. It was intended to encourage voters to look behind the proposed referendums and see the complexity of the proposals. Our theme was "there is more to this than meets the eye".

It worked well because the 1988 proposals were complex and we had distributed substantial written arguments that demonstrated the 'No' case.

The Labor Party's hymn book for attacking Tony Abbott includes various themes which are repeated around the country ad nauseam. A Labor Minister who cannot think of anything else to say will invariably parrot favourite lines like "Abbott's relentless negativity" or a plea for bipartisanship quickly followed by a claim that Abbott is "seeking to politicise" an issue for base political motives.

When last week, I heard Jenny Macklin attack Abbott over the idea of a referendum to include recognition of Indigenous Australians and when she reached down for Labor's hymn book, it reminded me of very similar remarks made by Labor in the 1988 campaign.

It is standard practice for Labor to claim that anyone, who does not agree with their plans to change the constitution, are negative and political. These are exactly the same sort of comments that were made in 1988, which produced the biggest 'No' votes in the history of referendums. The problem for Macklin is that there are substantial reasons to oppose the foreshadowed referendum.

The problem for the Coalition is that it is not enough to say that any referendum put up by Gillard will be defeated because she is unpopular. The Coalition should oppose the proposal, but they don't want to be seen as 'negative'. So they are left with a half reasonable claim, but one which does not grapple with the substantive issues.

Labor is spending $10m to whip up interest in the proposal. It would not surprise me if the spending is contrary to the spirit of legislation. Labor has form on this; in 1988 the Coalition had to take legal action in the High Court to stop the Labor government from breaching the law. The pity is that instead of splashing money on consultants some of those funds might have gone to a practical project like education.

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