The ties that bind

Tuesday, 22 April 2014    

Cutting funding to ICAC would be a coward’s response to the most important accountability mechanism in the state.

John Kaye, Greens Upper House NSW MP

It’s perhaps understandable that an Upper House MP may be unaware, relying as they do on the benefice of party machines, that the “most important accountability mechanism” in NSW remains the electorate, which in the last election did a pretty good job of making a tawdry and corrupt Labor government accountable by removing not only the Premier, but the entire Ministry and over half of the government MPs from their jobs. Beat that ICAC!

Actually it’s pretty easy to do, since, as has been pointed out, ICAC has all the overweening powers of a Star Chamber but rarely gets an actual result – making it a particularly ineffective body for legally dealing with corruption. But, of course, that probably wasn’t what Kaye meant by accountable. He was more likely referring to the job ICAC does within the political system, by replacing that other “accountability mechanism” – a political opposition.

This was why O’Farrell had to go. Having come to power on little more than leading the party “that’s not the corrupt one”, lying in front of the Commission (intentionally or not) made O’Farrell’s position untenable. It was a rational response to the emptiness of his mandate, but there have been few others since it happened.

The O’Farrell resignation has come as a palpable shock to many, especially on the right, summed up by the histrionics of Gerard Henderson the other night. Having just discovered ICAC’s existence, Henderson was so upset that he not only forgot his manners, but his homme du peuple pose by talking about tucking into a $3,000 bottle of wine with all the casualness of the most effete inner city elite.

Partly the shock comes from the weakness of tenuousness of a Premier’s hold on power, even after an historic landslide. However, the turning of ICAC from Labor to the Coalition side of politics in recent weeks has revealed that the problem goes much deeper than the way that it was discussed when ICAC was investigating Obeid and pals.

Both sides are grappling with their ties at the moment. But because the attention has been on Labor and its relations to the unions, it has been conducted in a way that has allowed it to be distracted from the deeper problems underneath.

An example of the useful scapegoat role of the unions for Labor was the fall-out from its historically disastrous showing in the WA Senate election. The common verdict was that it was largely a result of the ham-fisted comments made by Labor’s lead Senate candidate, union shoo-in Joe Bullock, on the second runner Louise Pratt’s sexuality and the sanity of Labor party members, that led to a loss of votes to the Greens. Yet there are some reasons to doubt that this was the real reason behind Labor’s poor showing.

Not least because Labor didn’t think so itself. At the time, Labor didn’t feel the need to repudiate Bullock’s comments, but shrugged them off, with Pratt making what she must have thought was the politically expedient display of unity with Bullock before the vote. It was only when the actual numbers came in on the night that Sam Dastyari decided to blame it on Bullock and the union stitch-up that brought him in, and disown the comments. It was a line eventually followed by Pratt herself in what no doubt she thought was a principled stand against Bullock’s “homophobic” comments, but the less kind might regard as rank hypocrisy.

Secondly, a study of the votes cast in WA suggest that Labor’s votes didn’t just go to the Greens, but to Palmer’s party as well (offset by votes coming in from the Liberals) – something hard to explain from simply a reaction to Bullock’s comments. In a way, Bullock’s comments provided a useful way of detracting from the more difficult questions a poor showing against an unpopular government may have caused.

In this way, Labor’s whole debate about party reform and the role of the unions, is a useful distraction. Party democracy has little relevance to anyone else. Indeed to those outside Labor, opening up to anybody, than a particular social group, is the opposite to what had been the basis of representative democracy for most of the last century. But internally it has allowed Labor to grapple with a more fundamental problem of what it is about these days, in a language that ALP members can get their heads around.

This is why the turn that the ICAC has taken is so unsettling for the right, more than the Obeid revelations were for Labor. It is effectively criminalising what would be regarded as a normal means of operating (in both parties) with lobbyists buying influence, but in a way that leaves the Liberals with no scapegoat than the politicians themselves.

It is the obliviousness to this read across that was evident in an interview with ICAC’s previous victim, former NSW Premier Nick Greiner, when he saw nothing wrong with what most people now would, using gifts to buy political influence. It was also apparent in O’Farrell’s replacement, whose car crash first interview revealed that the idea that there might be a problem replacing a Premier who received gifts from Di Girolamo with someone who had personally given him a plum board job had not occurred to neither Baird, nor the party that appointed him.

And, as usual, that obliviousness was fully on display by Abbott when he decided to make an example of a News Ltd journalist for daring to call the NSW government “corrupt”, so pinning himself for the evening news with whatever comes up in NSW. There might also be more disquiet over his calling a Royal Commission into union corruption. Even leaving aside that past Commissions have a history of going horribly wrong, what might have been a splendid political ruse a decade ago, may not look so good now. The problem these days is not so much what used to be known as corruption, but the whole political process of lobbying and winning favour with whoever is in power.

It is this idea that there is something more rotten in the state than just normal corruption that is picked up by Waleed Aly, arguing that this sense of a problem with the nature of politics is why voters are turning away from both parties in droves. But there are a couple of important qualifications that should be made.

The first is that the the public’s problem is not with buying influence as such. When the major parties regularly attracted over 90% of the primary votes, the financing role of the unions and business in political parties was much more direct and open than it is today. The difference was that in those days unions had some social meaning, and business backing the Coalition to oppose the unions and their state spending agenda meant something as well. It is the lack of any social significance of such influence, beyond narrow self-interest of the business/union, that annoys the public today.

This distinction is important as it is not the case that the “stables are being cleaned out” to restore the way things once were. This is moving towards something new: cutting any overt links to social groups and special interests and formalising the detachment of the political system from voters that is already there.

This leads to the second point that is implicit in Aly’s piece but becoming more explicit with social commentary elsewhere. While there is a strong anti-political mood now more openly recognised, it is hardly new. Politicians have long been held in low regard in Australia, and it has shaped the major parties even when they were riding high (the conservatism of Labor, the weak authority of the right).

The decisive change in recent years has been less in the electorate but in the parties themselves. After having grappled with their loss of social bases for the last twenty years, ignoring the attitude of the electorate has become harder – especially since Rudd brought that anti-political mood into the centre of Australian politics to support the popularity of his Prime Ministership and to regain it later on.

As we have seen in the last few years, the convolutions of the major parties to deal with this problem have often had little to do with electoral reality. Nevertheless there is a trend amongst some social commentators, especially “new thinkers” on the left, to directly read these convulsions on to the electorate at large. We saw it early on with the rise of One Nation being seen by some as a racist shift in the electorate rather than saying more about the dilemma faced by a Liberal party losing its rationale – just as in the UK today where the rise of UKIP has had more to do with the problems of the Conservatives than signifying a shift in voter mood towards a party that is little different to what the Conservatives ran on a decade ago.

In Australia, a current example of this reading the parties’ mess back onto the electorate is the fuss around former Queensland LNP big-wig Clive Palmer and what is little more than an expensive personal spat with his former colleagues. Before the WA election, the Coalition was making grave warnings of the dangers of Palmer buying votes with a massive spend. Leaving aside the irony of either major party making this claim, the picture of the electorate is that of gullible apathy swayed by the latest ads. The success of the joke of the Palmer party is seen as a verdict on the electorate, rather than what it really is, just the latest opportunity for the electorate to give a long-held verdict on the political system.


A hollow debate

Monday, 7 April 2014    

There are some important issues arising from the government’s move to repeal 18C in the Racial Discrimination Act. Unfortunately they are obscured by posturing anti-racism on the left and posturing libertarianism on the right when in reality it is about neither. Read more …



Monday, 24 February 2014    

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

This is a breach of our sovereignty and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric about the Australian Government breaching their sovereignty

Lord Downer, just a few months ago

We will decide.

From happier times.

The panic about asylum seekers is primarily a panic of the political class, that politicos on the left and right continually project onto the public, but for whom polls show it remains no more than a middling concern. It is a panic out of all proportion to its real impact because asylum seekers capture two concerns that the political class has no solution for: a declining social base (Labor) and authority and “sovereignty” (the Coalition).

During the Rudd-Gillard period we saw asylum seekers become a political football between Rudd and Gillard centred on Labor’s insecurities about its lack of social base. Under the Coalition, asylum seekers are now becoming a political football over an even more sensitive issue, sovereignty. Read more …


Politics of the void

Monday, 20 January 2014    

Don’t worry. He’s not looking at you.

I firmly believe the battle of ideas is an important one for politicians to engage in.

Senator Cory Bernardi

#dearcory why is it that you just hate people so much? Did the other kids make you eat slugs when you were at school?

Senator Hanson-Young

Cory is deluded. He is one of the least effective or important members of the parliamentary team. Cory is a person without any intellect, without any base, and he should really never have risen above the position of branch president. His right-wing macho-man act is just his way of looking as though he stands for something.

Liberal “colleague” quoted in The Monthly

Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics because it shows that there is a fundamental unity,

New Prime Minister Tony Abbott

You have to be tough to get to the top. Read more …


The year Australian politics imploded

Sunday, 29 December 2013    

Who were these two again? Oh yes.

Who were these two again? Oh yes.

It’s not right for Australians to not face this year with certainty and stability.

J Gillard with rather too many negatives, 30 January 2013

The year began as it meant to go on. Gillard’s early announcement of the election date to bring about certainty and stability promptly kicked off one of the most uncertain and unstable periods in Australian politics. If Gillard’s attempt to stabilise those behind her by declaring it produced the opposite result, she was not alone. Rudd returned to power just in time to shield those who brought him down from the consequences of that disastrous decision by saving their seats. Probably not quite what he had been plotting three years to do. Truly, 2013 was an exemplar of that unwritten rule of politics, the tragedy of the political will. Read more …



Tuesday, 24 December 2013    

It’s only the first two weeks of sitting in the house with years to come but the Abbott government has made a strong start.

Dennis Shanahan 22 November 2013

The Prime Minister is now faced with the reality of growing disillusion from the electorate that goes well beyond the carbon tax.

Dennis Shanahan three weeks later

Of course, the importance of the last Newspoll was not the poll itself, it merely confirmed the downward drift in government support a little later than others. The importance of the poll was that The Australian, and especially its political editor, had to explain it. Only three weeks after claiming that the Coalition frontbench was using every crisis to grow in confidence – which given that the Coalition had a large part in causing them, suggested a quite unique winning formula – Shanahan now claimed that the poll slip showed the public becoming increasingly disillusioned.

It’s hard to see why. Read more …


The New Regionalism – an update

Wednesday, 4 December 2013    

David Rowe AFR

David Rowe AFR

It’s not goodies versus baddies, it’s baddies versus baddies.

TA on Australia’s foreign policy dilemma

Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970′s Pilipino [sic] porn star and has ethics to match.

Liberal media strategist

It’s getting hard to keep up. Government disarray, a non-existent honeymoon, and the most hostile media faced by any Liberal government in living memory have all meant the issues are now stacking up. On the international stage (let alone the domestic one) the Indonesia row has been overtaken by the Chinese row and now even East Timor feels up for having a go. Good grief.

This is all a shame. Read more …



Thursday, 14 November 2013    

Even down to the Hundred Days.

Even down to the Hundred Days.

The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and to elevate this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide.

Rudd, The Apology speech 2007

With the exit of Rudd from politics, Labor loses the only leader that has managed to win an outright election victory for the party in the last twenty years. Read more …


Unity – an update

Monday, 14 October 2013    

I don’t think most MPs – the vast, vast, vast majority – are out to do anything wrong. If there is this confusion and there is this uncertainty, then it does need to be cleaned up for the public confidence in the system.

Bill Shorten on expenses

The rules are pretty clear.

Anthony Albanese on expenses

It was quite appropriate that about the only difference that emerged in Labor’s leadership election was on expenses since it went to the very heart of what the leadership contest was about. Read more …



Monday, 30 September 2013    

Let me make this point for Mr Natalegawa’s benefit: Indonesian boats, Indonesian flagged boats, with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our territorial waters. This is a breach of our sovereignty, and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric.

Alexander Downer, 27 September 2013

Well Alexander is Alexander, and I’m now the Prime Minister of our country.

Tony Abbott. 28 September 2013

It’s probably overdue to turn attention away from Labor’s convulsions and focus more on the Coalition now that it is in government. But it’s not easy. Read more …


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