It’s like being in the eye of a storm; Craig Thomson fired his bullets in Parliament on Monday, and despite a lot of rough, tough talk — and the requisite Question Time ruckus — there doesn’t seem to be a great deal happening. Or is there?
Whilst political commentators are at one that the Craig Thomson scandal will now drag in indefinitely, and most — including me — agree that the government will suffer ongoing damage as a result, some have opined that the process of dealing with Thomson has reached a stalemate.
In fact, whilst there has been a lot of noise and chatter in the past couple of days, a number of small, seemingly unrelated events tend to suggest there are more turns in the road ahead in the context of this story.
I want to look at just a few of these; in and of themselves they offer nothing conclusive, but in them is sown the seeds of determining where the federal polity tracks for the next 12-15 months.
Since the melodramatic, accusatory and insult-laden twaddle that passed for the member for Dobell’s grand statement of explanation was delivered to the House of Representatives on Monday, a subtle yet significant split has opened in the ranks of the so-called Independents.
On the one hand, Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie reaffirmed their support for the Gillard government in Parliament, ruling out supporting a suspension motion against Craig Thomson and guaranteeing the government’s survival in the immediate term.
Both have made a lot of noise about not being judges, juries and executioners, and both have insisted the allegations against Thomson be tested in Court. Neither has proposed any meaningful way for that objective to be advanced; in fact, neither of them have proposed or done anything meaningful whatsoever.
Indeed, whilst they have opted to prop Labor up in government, they have as a result revealed themselves to be interested in no more than the retention of their seats in parliament for as long as possible: were they committed to integrity and probity in practice, as opposed to the form of words both have adhered to, there would at least be substantive, constructive ideas coming from them as to how to proceed.
Instead, there is nothing.
And on the other hand, there is the “Third Independent,” Rob Oakeshott.
It is generally agreed outside Labor circles that of the Independents who agreed to support Gillard after the 2010 election, Oakeshott was the most politically damaged by the act; in the past week it has become known that Oakeshott is deeply angered by the Thomson saga, and specifically with the length of time it has taken the Thomson to explain himself and with the time it is taking for these matters to be dealt with.
Oakeshott at least proposed to move a censure motion against Thomson, a move since abandoned upon confirmation that Windsor and Wilkie refused to support it. And as consistently critical as I have been of Rob Oakeshott in this column, I think it appropriate to note he was, at the minimum, prepared to do something.
It’s true Oakeshott’s motion, if moved and carried, would not have brought down the government and would not have called for Thomson’s suspension from Parliament. Even so, it remains to be seen whether this display of discord among the Independents is a precursor to them acting alone rather than as a bloc in the future.
An interesting sub-plot has been the referral of Thomson to Parliament’s Privileges Committee to face allegations his speech on Monday misled Parliament, and the route taken to get him there; for reasons of strategic insurance, the Coalition initially asked Peter Slipper — who remains Speaker despite having stepped aside from presiding over the House of Representatives on a daily basis — to refer Thomson, as Slipper is empowered to do.
The stench is already emanating from that on streets and in backyards and kitchens well-removed from Canberra; one MP accused of multiple transgressions and possible criminal offences has been seen to shelter another MP also accused of multiple transgressions and possible criminal offences from scrutiny.
It’s not difficult to see what Coalition was up to, but I think we’ll let that one rot and fester on the vine for a while before we revisit it in a later column.
Yet somewhat surprisingly, the government announced it would support a Coalition motion in the House to refer Thomson to the Privileges Committee: my guess is that Labor thinking is that it was the least they could do; to refuse would send a dreadful, dreadful message in light of its already shattered credibility and reputation for sleaze.
Perhaps ALP types are taking solace in the fact that the committee is controlled by the government; of its 10 members, 6 are Labor Party MPs.
This reality has not been lost on the Coalition leadership; the means are there by which Labor can clear Thomson of misleading the House but to do so the government may well be walking into a fatal trap.
To that end, the Coalition has made a change to its numbers on the Privileges Committee, replacing first-term Bennelong MP John Alexander with former Liberal Attorney-General and Immigration minister Phillip Ruddock.
The change is significant: Ruddock, a 39-year veteran of Parliament, has a well-deserved reputation as a tactician and strategist, and remains a wily old political bird; and whilst his presence on the committee will in no way alter the balance of its numbers, it will add an additional layer of forensic investigation and hawk-like sharpness to the Coalition’s arsenal.
Whilst all of this has been going on, a report appearing in The Australian today suggests nominations for Labor preselection in Thomson’s seat of Dobell are open, and already prospective candidates are coming forward.
In an obvious and expected move — but unpredictable insofar as any consequences are concerned — NSW Labor secretary Sam Dastyari has already declared Mr Thomson will likely be ineligible to stand on account of the probability of allegations against him being unresolved when the preselection scheduled for September occurs.
Dumping Thomson from Dobell solves one problem — how to ultimately get rid of him — but raises another for the ALP: what if Thomson himself quits Parliament? He professes to remain a “Labor Man” in spite of everything that has happened, but could the effective termination of his career tip him to the point of resignation? If so, the government could be forced to a poll before Christmas.
But that, of course, assumes the present Parliament and the current government even make it to an election in August/September 2013; the poll-driven, focus group obsessed ALP will scrutinise the next round of polling figures even more closely than usual, and that means the simmering issue of the Labor leadership will boil over again sooner rather than later.
My tip would be that the next ALP leadership showdown is a matter of weeks away, not months, and it certainly won’t take until a scheduled election loss in August or September next year to materialise.
Irrespective, now, of whether a switch to Kevin Rudd or to another candidate such as Stephen Smith occurs, it is difficult to see how another change of Prime Minister could be anything but a lit fuse beneath the powder keg on which the ALP’s stability as a government sits.
At some point — somehow — common sense will prevail over the self-interest and self-preservation which currently drives the ALP and the equally electorally doomed Independents; if it doesn’t, and even if it takes the death or resignation of an MP through ill-health, the odds on an election sooner than later are rapidly shortening.
As I said, despite the relative lull in events, much has been happening; these few examples — and other events in Canberra — could lead anywhere insofar as the sordid mess that is the Thomson/HSU scandal is concerned. Only time will tell and we will, of course, watch with great interest.
The bottom line remains that a wide majority of the voting public (and even, it anecdotally seems, among some Labor voters tired of minority government) want a fresh election to resolve the instability and the sense of chaos and crisis — to say nothing of the dishonesty of a Labor government rotten to the core — once and for all.
And if the final result of Craig Thomson’s “five minutes of fame” on the floor of the House of Representatives on Monday is to trigger such an election, then maybe he will have effected some good out of this mess after all.
Whichever way you cut it, the stakes — and the bar for survival — just got a hell of a lot higher for Gillard, the ALP, and for the government.