Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Gillard's not-so-merry band of has-beens and hacks

When I filed last week I was not aware that the Obeid matter would be at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry, that Craig Thomson would be arrested, or that Prime Minister Gillard would make another poor decision when she announced the 2013 election.

However, I was right to predict that Thomson and Obeid would spend 2013 reminding Labor voters why they should vote Liberal and that we could expect more "ill-judged political behaviour" from Gillard. Although my mini predictions came to pass earlier than expected it was really no surprise because these issues are all constant in the chaos known as the Gillard Government.

It seems Gillard had similar thoughts about politics as well because we now know that as recently as last December Gillard postponed a ministerial reshuffle because she thought it might imperil her position as prime minister. It is no wonder many people have thought all along that the Gillard Government would not last a full term. But the reason Labor has survived is not because it is better than the polls suggest, but because people like Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Craig Thomson, Andrew Wilkie and Peter Slipper have all done their bit to support it.

Although the stench of corruption that lingers over Labor (and the union movement) is part of the "lack of moral and political purpose" (as described by ALP vice-president in The Australian (paywall)) and will cost Labor seats at the next election, what happened last week will not determine the fate of the Government. The die for the next election was already cast.

The main thing about the Gillard speech to start the year was her failure to explain how Labor can afford its big promises for more spending on education and health (NDIS). The rest is just the usual Labor circus and only interesting for its insights on how the party thinks. Gillard specifically did not want the announcement to be anything other than a once only change. In the end the whole exercise was as much an empty stunt as anything else, but not carefully thought through. It was the sort of thing John Howard would never do.

David Marr on Insiders tried to justify the stunt by saying that Gillard needed the announcement to show that she was not responding to Tony Abbott's allegedly constant calls for an early election. I thought it was a backhander for Gillard because Marr implicitly concedes that Gillard is forever trying to play catch-up politics against Abbott. When you are the Prime Minister, the idea is to set the agenda and not waste political capital on your opponent. It only elevates the competition. However, the leak that the prime reason for the deferral of the reshuffle was out of fear of a leadership challenge also plays into the hands of Rudd.

The problem with the announcement was the timing. My guess is that Gillard acted with little thought to the consequences of an early election announcement. She obviously did not check with the bureaucracy (because she would not trust public servants not to leak) on the issue of equal time in the media for the Opposition once the election date is announced.* Nor did she think about the timing for the announcement of the retirements of Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans.

There was no excuse for this oversight as Gillard knew both had been musing about leaving for 12 months and certainly must have discussed matters with them last December. Both could have stayed on as ministers until the election. That was my experience. When I was appointed defence minister I told prime minister John Howard I may not continue after the next election. He accepted that. When I announced my impending retirement he wanted me to stay until the election. It meant continuity, as it could have been the case with Roxon.

We don't know whether Gillard asked Evans or Roxon to leave immediately although in Roxon's case it was clearly in the Government's interest that she leave as soon as possible. To me, it looked like she was pushed, but very gently. If she was not pushed then she would have stayed as Attorney-General until the election. Roxon had become a liability. Only in the last week, she had to announce a proposed change to her disastrous anti-discrimination bill. Roxon has been under enormous pressure as the Senate committee hearings helped reveal the widespread view that her bill would, in its current form, restrict freedom of speech. This must have been a final blow to Roxon.

Roxon's performance as Attorney-General has not been a happy one. Her legal experience working for the unions may have sharpened her skills as a partisan operator but it did not equip her with the broader experience of the law that is so essential in the Attorney-General's role. A different lawyer would have been more cautious than her blatantly political comments and might also have better handled the payment of a $50,000 settlement to James Ashby in the Slipper case.

As to whether Mark Dreyfus will be any better remains to be seen. He is certainly better qualified but in contrast to someone like Daryl Williams (Attorney-General in the Howard government), who was especially disengaged from politics, Dreyfus looks like he will not be much better than Roxon. It appears (Paywall) Dreyfus may have already been given his marching orders to ameliorate the Roxon bill, but that is because the bill has become politically toxic. The better indicator of his form was his attack on Christopher Pyne when he called on Pyne for an apology for comments which turned out to be similar to comments made by Dreyfus in 2011 (whoops!).

The Labor Cabinet is full of very average ex-union types and union lawyers who specialise in setting up slush funds. The best thing Dreyfus could do for Labor is to demonstrate that Labor has a new Attorney-General who actually knows something about the law and demonstrates some common sense.

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