A tale of two farces

Monday, 18 June 2007 

In parliamentary jostling running up to the winter recess, two issues emerged that give an interesting picture on political trends.

One was a farce posing as a real issue, the other, a real issue posing as a farce.

The farce posing as a real issue was, of course, industrial relations. The absurdity of the government attacking the unions for campaigning for Labor has been pointed out in the media. What has been missed is that union bureaucrats need an instruction manual to tell them how to do it. The government seems continually, wittingly or not, to be highlighting examples of union power that are actually signs of union weakness. The sad flight of trade union refugees into the parliamentary Labor party is a sign that the game is over in the union movement rather than growing union influence. In the medium term, the unions’ decline may cause embarrassment for a party whose historical role had been to represent them, but in the longer term it just speeds up Labor’s transition.

Where this transition is going is suggested by the real issue, which appears like a farce, the “Cash for canapés” affair. Let’s get clear on what is being raised here. It is apparently all right for the PM to bring his personal friends home, he may also presumably bring government officials home, but if he entertains political party members or supporters, then this is not acceptable and the Liberals must pay up. Essentially, this issue is about separating political special interests from the functions of the state, which as said earlier, is in complete contrast to the basis of Australian democracy for the past century. It is interesting to see Gillard and Penny Wong from the left keen to attack business financers of the Liberal Party. However, the logic of this is that it will not just apply to financial supporters, and indeed now Hockey has been forced to defend entertaining ordinary party members as well.

The “Cash for canapés” affair suggests that Labor, having lost its role as representing union interests, now appears to be turning it into a principle. Under a leader who is unusually isolated from both the union movement and their party factions, Labor is responding to government pressure by arguing for a full separation of political special interests and the state.

This is a new development and is a result of the winding down of the representative roles played by both sides of the political class. It is why Gillard can brush off Hawke’s confessions that he did the same twenty years ago and talk about Howard being out of line with the “contemporary debate” as she did yesterday on Insiders. It points to a transition for political parties from representing particular interests to representing no one at all, except perhaps the apparatus of government. If this is the case, the ALP shows at the state level that it is much better than the Liberals at being nothing more than state functionaries. By attacking the end of the Federal ALP’s historical mission, the Liberals could be setting up the end of their own.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 18 June 2007.

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