Smackdown: LNP Blocks Macfarlane Defection Bid

THE OBSCENITY of Ian Macfarlane’s attempted switch to the National Party — just weeks after seeking and receiving endorsement as a Liberal, whilst engaging in subterranean negotiations to defect — has been correctly torpedoed by the Queensland LNP, in a win for good sense that avoids a dangerous and insidious precedent. Macfarlane had threatened to quit politics if this outcome eventuated. He should now feel free to do his worst.

At the bottom line, Ian Macfarlane won the seat of Groom in 1998 as a Liberal Party candidate — backed by that party’s money and resources, and supported by that party’s members — and even though the Liberals and Nationals merged in Queensland seven years ago, Macfarlane’s debt to the Liberal Party for enabling him to have a political career at all is a continuing one.

As readers know, I have followed this issue with complete disgust and unbridled outrage ever since it broke a couple of weeks ago; extensive discussions with Liberals (and rather a few Nationals) across the country have shown my own reaction is hardly unique, although the opinions I’ve heard from those I’ve spoken to range from sheer fury among Liberals at the utter bastardry that has been attempted, to much hilarity that anyone would try to stop Macfarlane making good his threat to stomp out of politics if he didn’t get his way, and to some Nationals who are aghast that the sleight of hand and deceit underpinning the “coup” attempt were undertaken in the name of their party, which they feel has been sullied.

This afternoon — in a win for common sense, decency, principled politics, and what is right — the state executive of the Queensland LNP slapped down Macfarlane’s attempt to dump on the Liberal Party in a switch to the Nationals that was apparently motivated by disappointment over the loss of his ministerial post, and the half-baked idea he was an appropriate candidate to reclaim it through grubby and dubious means.

It disturbs me that the outcome of the vote of the 26-member state executive was by the narrowest possible margin — 14-12 — and in my view, the 12 who voted to allow Macfarlane’s defection ought to go away and have a good, long, hard look at themselves.

It doesn’t matter that Macfarlane’s local branch members voted 4-1 to sanction his defection; after all, since the Liberals and Nationals merged, Groom is one of a myriad of electorates across Queensland in which ex-Nationals outnumber ex-Liberals at the membership level, but one where voter preference in recent years has been for a Liberal MP in three-cornered contests rather than a National.

It might be human nature for ex-Nationals to support something that accords with their historical party allegiances, but it doesn’t automatically follow that they are right.

If the Nationals — as opposed to Macfarlane — had prevailed, it would have confirmed every suspicion held by Liberals in Queensland about their motives in merging the parties in the first place, and the fact an ex-National now sits in the LNP’s safest state seat in Brisbane underscores the breach of trust such an outcome would have constituted: if the merger was simply cover for a National Party land grab, as many of us suspected, it was completely unacceptable. The acquisition of Groom by using a disgruntled backbench Liberal MP as a cat’s paw would send the signal to Liberals in Brisbane that their interests would be better served back in their own, eponymous party.

Fortunately, that has been averted as well.

What is unquantifiable for now is the bad blood and hostility that will linger in the wake of what has been a tawdry, unsavoury affair, and whilst Macfarlane has received the only sanction his intentions merited, the scope for recriminations and squabbling is all too real.

For something that wasn’t even an option until his “friend” Malcolm Turnbull sacked him from the ministry, the opportunity cost of Macfarlane’s dalliance with the Nationals may yet prove high; it is inconceivable this move could have been attempted for any other reason than seeking to reclaim a ministry through the back door, and it is to Turnbull’s credit that he signalled, as I demanded yesterday, that Macfarlane would be unacceptable as a candidate for any additional ministry the Nationals might be entitled to if his defection attempt had succeeded.

When all is said and done, “Macca” — as Macfarlane is known by his mates — isn’t such a bad bloke.

But his behaviour over the three months since Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, and since losing his ministerial position, has rightly enraged virtually every active, committed Liberal in the country, and has left everything to be desired on a great many levels.

The unbelievable crassness of the enterprise is underlined by the statist, quasi-Marxist, pseudo-socialist performance he turned in as “Industry Assistance” minister that apparently and pompously helped legitimise his proposed course of action to himself, but which in truth showed him up as an irrelevance, and incompatible with a government of free enterprise, free markets, and small government.

It was also a public relations disaster for the government, although to be fair, some of the blame for that lies with the Prime Minister’s Office as it existed under Abbott, and the defective communications apparatus that operated on its watch.

Even so, Macfarlane is no loss to the ministry, be he a Liberal, National, or anything else. The subterfuge and intrigue, apparently contrived to get him his job back, was reprehensible.

Today’s vote by the Queensland LNP was the only possible outcome consistent with principle and decency in politics. To have sanctioned the Macfarlane move would have been to set the terrible precedent that an individual comes before the party, and that any disaffected failure could retrieve his or her fortunes simply by holding their party to ransom and selling it out to any other available bidder.

It also shut down the prospect of the LNP being rent asunder into separate Liberal and National parties, at a time when unity is paramount in one of the Coalition’s strongest states, and in the immediate runup to a federal election that is almost certain to be held in March or April.

To that end, if Macfarlane holds good to his threat to quit politics and does so with immediate effect, it isn’t even likely to force the government into the potential embarrassment of a by-election.

All of these things were the likely consequences of Macfarlane getting his way. Common sense and saner heads have prevailed. One insignificant MP has been prevented from causing serious and perhaps irreparable damage to the federal Coalition. If he has wounds to lick, he has only himself to blame.

If Macfarlane now wishes to act on his threat to walk away from Parliament altogether in a fit of pique, there remains only one thing to say.

Go for your life, Ian.

 

Insidious Dog: Macfarlane Must Not Be Given A Ministry

IF ALLOWING Liberal dog Ian Macfarlane to defect to the Nationals is unavoidable — we’ll know tomorrow, when Queensland’s LNP upholds or scuppers a blessing given by his branch members — he must not, in good conscience and based on performance, be given a ministry. Macfarlane deserves scorn and contempt. A well-resourced Independent should regard him, and his seat of Groom, as fair game if the LNP implicates itself in his treachery.

Whilst I have great affection and respect for our friends over at the National Party, readers know very well the contempt with which I view political disloyalty and treachery, especially where self-interest, personal gain and delusional ambition are involved; in any case, and as far as I am concerned, the Nationals are having someone’s backside wiped on them in the distasteful process being played out on the Darling Downs at present, and if ejecting Ian Macfarlane from the Coalition altogether is impossible, the next best thing is to marginalise the bastard completely — and to ensure the country isn’t once again encumbered by having his dubious services as a minister inflicted upon it.

I have been reading the Courier-Mail this morning, which is carrying a story that suggests (as we already knew) that if Macfarlane’s defection is permitted to stand by the Queensland LNP’s state executive, the National Party will be entitled to an additional Cabinet post at the expense of the Liberal Party, and whilst this may be an unavoidable outcome of the bastardry Macfarlane has seen fit to engage in, he cannot and must not be allowed to secure that Cabinet spot for himself.

What it also suggests, however, is that the LNP will roll over and allow Macfarlane’s act of treachery to stand, which speaks to some of the very real objections I had to the amalgamation of the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland in the first place — specifically, the consequent ability of ex-Nationals to use their superior grassroots numbers north of the Tweed to ride roughshod over ex-Liberals if and when desired — and which I spelt out in an opinion piece in the same newspaper at the time.

To be sure, what is going on in relation to the prized conservative electorate of Groom right now is and was a foreseeable repercussion of that stupid merger, and it has the potential to cause tremendous instability and political trouble not just in Queensland, but to adversely affect Coalition relations across Australia.

This has been a tawdry, noxious affair, and it isn’t even finished yet; nobody will publicly confirm it, but it does rather seem that at least part of Macfarlane’s motivation was to help prop up Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce in the ballot for the National Party leadership if, as expected, Warren Truss retires from the post early next year.

I have been a long-time advocate and supporter of Joyce, and it must be said that if this is true, he has lowered his colours; if the reports that he made overtures to fellow Queensland Liberal Scott Buchholz to also defect to the Nationals for the same reason are correct, then he has well and truly lowered his colours indeed.

There are those in the National Party who dislike Joyce, or at the very least, regard him as “unsuitable” to lead their party; that, of course, is a matter for National MPs to resolve among themselves when the time to do so arrives.

But aside from the fact he is alleged to have sought to import leadership votes from the Liberals, Joyce offers the National Party something it hasn’t had for decades: brand recognition. Public visibility. National awareness (no pun intended). And a profile that permeates not just the regional and provincial centres that continue to sustain the National Party in the first place, but one that can penetrate marginal electorates in the outer suburbs of capital cities and extend the appeal of the party.

If the stories of Joyce’s vote-gathering activities are true, let it be shown that my disapproval has been expressed.

Even so, it would be political lunacy for the Nationals to replace Truss with anyone other than Barnaby Joyce.

There is a story that has been doing the rounds over the past week or so — dormant for now, but not quite extinct — that Macfarlane himself could replace Truss, and aside from the grotesque prospect of the Nationals surrendering their leadership to an interloper and turncoat, Macfarlane as National Party leader would be tantamount to providing grounds for the Liberals to dissolve the Coalition agreement and govern in minority, at least until next year’s election.

(After all, even with Macfarlane’s defection, Liberals would still hold 75 of the 150 lower house seats: and as I put it to an associate during the week, who did not disagree with me, Liberals would probably win between a third and half of the National-held seats if freed from the Coalition agreement and allowed to stand against them: bye bye National Party, although that’s a discussion for another time).

But either way, this brings us back squarely to the merits or otherwise of Macfarlane — as we discussed last week, here and here — and just as he is utterly inappropriate as a potential “leader” of the National Party, he is also a completely inappropriate choice to fill one of its allocated ministerial slots.

Liberals, if his defection is sanctioned by the LNP, can scarcely object to the Nationals being given an additional Cabinet berth; the defection of Nationals Senator Julian McGauran to the Liberals a decade ago was used as the pretext to take a Cabinet spot from the junior Coalition partner by John Howard, although Howard did see to it that the Nationals’ overall frontbench representation remained unchanged.

Some of the sting was taken out of that episode, however, by McGauran declaring he wasn’t interested in a ministry: he just wanted to serve out the remainder of his term as a Liberal. It’s a mitigating precedent Macfarlane would do well to follow — voluntarily or involuntarily.

Yet “Minister for Industry Assistance” Macfarlane — whose botched and spectacularly inept performance in the Abbott government made him a candidate for disendorsement altogether, if objectively assessed — cannot and must not be restored to the ministry now, let alone to Cabinet.

For starters, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — who exhibited the good sense to dump his friend to the backbench when his first ministerial line-up was announced — should show some backbone and some bottle, and flatly refuse to allow Macfarlane to serve in his government; the circumstances of Macfarlane’s infiltration of the National Party alone are more than enough to justify such a position, and his quasi-socialist, interventionist, market-distorting approach to his last ministerial post merely underlines just how unwarranted a promotion would be now.

There is the small matter of the abhorrence and repugnance of Macfarlane’s political conduct, which I regard as little better (or different) to that of turncoat South Australian state Liberal MP Martin Hamilton-Smith, who went off and jumped into bed with the ALP, and those who missed it can see what I thought of that particular piece of handiwork here.

The article I linked to earlier from the Courier-Mail raises “fears” within the National Party that it won’t have a Cabinet minister from Queensland after Truss retires as a justification for entertaining Macfarlane’s behaviour; I say those fears are based on a false premise — he’s not suitable to hold high office as a Liberal, and the idea he is any more suitable to do so as a National is fatuous — but in any case, someone like Matt Canavan from Queensland would be a far more appropriate beneficiary of the extra Nationals spot than Macfarlane.

And if Canavan is deemed unsatisfactory, for whatever reason — and if he is, then that reflects on LNP preselection standards and processes more than anything — then elevating Macfarlane is a poke in the eye to interstate Nationals who thoroughly deserve promotion when the opportunity arises.

Bridget McKenzie from Victoria is, in my view, at the top of such a list, but Darren Chester, Luke Hartsuyker and Fiona Nash would all be justified in feeling aggrieved if passed over for a dud and an opportunistic party-hopper like Macfarlane.

To me, it doesn’t matter that LNP branch members in Groom overwhelmingly voted to approve Macfarlane’s party-hopping; their ranks are heavily skewed in favour of the National Party, and to the extent that vote is relevant at all, it is merely to highlight what was wrong with the amalgamation of the conservative parties in the first place.

There is no principle that can vindicate what Macfarlane, re-endorsed as a Liberal just last month by largely the same people, has done, and it cannot be said the branch members have voted “on principle” now. They have simply seen the opportunity to pilfer a seat from the Liberals and taken it.

The last line of defence against Macfarlane — and an opportunity to instil any decency at all in this process — now rests with the LNP’s state executive.

And for what it’s worth — now aged 60, hardly a long-term prospect, and armed only with a ministerial record under Tony Abbott that would make interventionist socialists blush — I don’t think Macfarlane offers any value to the Coalition whatsoever, irrespective of what party he thinks will best serve his own prospects for advancement.

If being a National Party backbencher is the least odious outcome possible, then thus it should be, but the LNP now has a moral and ethical obligation to halt the Macfarlane “buggernaut” in its tracks.

For, frankly, what it is being asked to sanction is nothing less than an act of political buggery.

In the final analysis, Macfarlane is an endorsed Liberal candidate who has opted to stand for someone else, and as far as I’m concerned that makes him fair game: he’s already standing against the party whose endorsement he secured just a few weeks ago.

If that endorsement was obtained under false pretences to enable him to spit in the Liberal Party’s eye, which seems likely, then in my view he’s owed nothing: the finer points of the Queensland LNP’s subterranean mechanics notwithstanding.

A well-credentialled independent conservative candidate standing against Macfarlane in Groom — able to attract donations and resources locally — would merit the support of those voters who share the disgust of many in the LNP and the Liberal Party across the country, and who find the machinations in which such a mediocrity and ministerial failure has chosen to indulge himself repugnant at best.

But should such a candidate fail to emerge, the only appropriate vote in Groom at the coming election, for non-Labor voters, is an informal vote: and if that means the classic blue ribbon Darling Downs seat has to spend a term in unfriendly hands to flush the insidious Macfarlane out of Parliament once and for all, then so be it.

The LNP state executive should carefully consider the ramifications of its actions before it votes on Macfarlane tomorrow, and at the very minimum it should look beyond the obvious option of using ex-Nationals to poke the Liberal Party in the eye, just because it can.

 

Newspoll: A Warning To Turnbull, But Shorten Disintegrates

IN A SIGN of how brittle the teflon veneer on Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership is, today’s Newspoll in The Australian finds that whilst the Coalition retains its solid lead, Turnbull’s numbers have softened markedly; this — and a  collapse in Bill Shorten’s remaining support as ALP “leader” — during a fractious, divisive and scandal-scented week for the Coalition suggests Shorten is more pivotal to the government’s fortunes than Turnbull is.

I’m beginning to think — not that I like the idea one jot — that if someone other than Bill Shorten were leading the ALP, then Australian voters would be serious about restoring Labor to office next year; viewed both through an objective prism of common sense and the more subjective conservative lens through which I am known to look, there is nothing to justify a Labor government and no valid reason for voters to elect one.

Yet that’s the point: electoral behaviour doesn’t have to be rational, or grounded in common sense, or even sane for that matter; there was no case to re-elect Paul Keating in 1993. Or Malcolm Fraser in 1980. Or Gough Whitlam in 1974. I could go on. But on all three occasions, voters gifted a final term to governments that were all but moribund.

There are plenty of instances of oppositions winning office without any merit-based claim as well; Victoria in 1999 and Queensland in January are the obvious ones, although there’s been a list of them in recent decades that features both political parties. My point is that voters do whatever they like, and the platitude that they are “always right” is only ever disproven when they reverse their unfathomable decisions themselves, and throw out the undeserving at the ballot box.

Today’s Newspoll, whilst on the surface excellent for the government, carries a salutary warning for Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal Party, and the Coalition generally, and when Labor’s (and Shorten’s) numbers are unpacked a little, the true story inside the cover might end a little differently — depending on who ultimately pens the final chapter.

It delivers a headline result — at 53-47 after preferences — that comes in, once again, bang on the average of all the major opinion polls taken and published since Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, bookended by last week’s Essential Media survey at 51-49, and recent Morgan and Ipsos polls at 56-44.

Readers have heard me say many times that a single poll isn’t much use, but a basket of them, aggregated and averaged out, is usually very reliable indeed, and whilst I’ll take a 53-47 outcome on polling day, whenever that is — and if that turns out to be the result — the simple fact is that outliers like Ipsos and Morgan should be the centrepoint of the Coalition’s numbers right now rather than the rogue results they are.

The big electoral negative — Abbott — is gone (he only has himself to blame for that, be it through his foolish adherence to the wrong people for far too long, or their inability to deal with the pap being lobbed at them from Labor, the Communist Party Greens, and Clive Palmer) and it is this fact (and probably this alone) that, as forecast in this column whenever the prospect of Turnbull taking over was raised, is responsible for the Coalition vaulting ahead of Labor once more.

But it faces an opposition completely bereft of meaningful policies (I’m not talking about the garbage Bill Shorten carries on with — that doesn’t cut any ice), “led” by a charlatan, a shyster, a populist snake oil salesman, and a pretty iffy character that voters are strongly and now consistently signalling they detest.

And the damage inflicted on the country by the last Labor government, whilst partially remedied by Abbott, remains largely untouched; the reason isn’t any lack of will on the Coalition’s part, of course, but the mindless obstruction and obfuscation in the Senate “led” by — you guessed it — William Richard Shorten himself.

Add in the detonating time bomb that is the Royal Commission into the unions, a vicious ALP branch stacking scandal in Victoria that may yet engulf Shorten in its web, and a few other bits and bobs, and the Coalition should be ten to fifteen points ahead of the ALP, not a mere six.

Part of what is increasingly wrong with the “stellar” numbers the government has recorded over the past couple of months is further illustrated by the abject (and frankly pathetic) ratings scored by Shorten this time; as “preferred Prime Minister,” Turnbull drops four points in this survey, to 60%. Yet Shorten still fell by another point on this measure himself — to just 14% — to turn in the equal worst performance of any Labor opposition leader in the history of Newspoll, repeating an identical shocker by Simon Crean 12 years ago.

The point is illustrated even further by the personal approval numbers of the two; Turnbull, again, has dropped eight points in a fortnight, to 52%; his disapproval figure has climbed by the same amount, to 30%.

But Shorten — far from benefiting from the signs of correction in Turnbull’s bloated results, also fell: by three points to a record low (for him and for any opposition leader since Crean) of just 23%; his disapproval number rose four points to a personal worst of 61%. Shorten is now every bit as unpopular as Tony Abbott ever was, and the difference between the pair is that Abbott at least tried (and failed) to tackle the mess Labor made of things under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, whilst Shorten has paraded around as if he’s King of the country, mouthing empty pronouncements and slogans, and trying to hoodwink people that Australia remains the land of milk and honey where money is endless, can be strewn around like confetti, and debt doesn’t exist.

Yet the government remains just six points ahead of Labor after preferences; there’s no need to go through the primary vote figures (barely changed from a fortnight ago as they are) but those who wish to view them may do so here.

For everything that is wrong with Shorten, the ALP, the sleight of hand masquerading as its policy suite, and the legacy of its sheer incompetence in office, the poor week experienced by Turnbull and the government seems comprised of comparatively trivial problems indeed.

But the fracas over Special Minister of State Mal Brough isn’t going to go away; and irrespective of whether Brough survives or not — and irrespective of whether he actually did anything wrong, or not — the incident has registered a direct hit with voters. It would be foolish for Brough and Turnbull to think otherwise.

The uproar over failed Abbott-era minister Ian Macfarlane defecting from the Liberals to the Nationals — covered in this column here and here — has been willing, and tempers (including my own) have exploded over this unforgivable act of treachery. In essence, it’s an internal Coalition matter, and whilst I acknowledge the reader who yesterday expressed dislike of the odd four-lettered word appearing in my articles, I have to report contemporaneously that feedback I’ve heard from inside the LNP is that the two choices Macfarlane will be given by its state executive are to “stand as a Liberal and shut the fuck up, or just fuck off and we’ll get someone else (to stand in Groom).” They are, to be sure, the only appropriate options to give him. But the incident hasn’t helped Turnbull.

And the big swing against the Liberals in Saturday’s by-election in Joe Hockey’s old seat of North Sydney (with no Labor candidate in the field) probably reflects Brough, Macfarlane, the distaste of the electorate for needless by-elections relatively close to a general election, possibly some residual anti-Turnbull, pro-Abbott sentiment, and perhaps a degree of “referred pain” for the Liberals over council amalgamations by the Baird government in NSW. It was a wake-up call in itself to the government that misbehaviour will not be tolerated. Yet as I said earlier, the Coalition’s sins — especially under Turnbull — pale into comparison when judged against Labor’s past and present ones.

All of these factors have likely coloured, to varying degrees, the shifts in Turnbull’s numbers — even if the headline two-party number remains unchanged.

For now.

Which brings me back to the point I made at the outset: a Labor leadership change might be the only obstacle to the electorate dumping the Coalition and heading back into the disastrous embrace of the ALP and the Greens.

I have no problem believing that Turnbull is more popular than Abbott, and certainly no trouble believing him more popular than Shorten: almost every other elected representative in Canberra is.

But by the same token, I have repeatedly warned over the past few years that opinion ratings claiming 70% of voters approve of Turnbull and would vote for him should be leading the Liberal Party should be ignored: and now, those bloated numbers are beginning to head south — as expected.

I remain steadfast in my view that the single biggest strategic error Turnbull has made to date was not calling a December election for this coming weekend when he had the chance; despite protestations to the contrary, Labor was not and is not ready, and it would have been the one chance the Coalition had to milk the stratospheric early numbers Turnbull produced for all they were worth.

That opportunity is now gone.

I’m not saying he will lose next year’s election unconditionally, and even a change of leader across the aisle might not be enough to stop the government being re-elected.

But if the unelectable Shorten is jettisoned (and I believe moves to do exactly that were only halted when the Brough matter exploded back into public view a week or so ago), then all bets are off.

If 53-47 is as good as it gets for the government, we’ve already seen the depths it plumbed under a leader who ended up its greatest liability.

If the ALP removes its own festering albatross from around its neck during the silly season or early next year, then one hell of a contest might ensue.

It’s a subject for another time — although we’ve touched on it here often enough — but I have long thought the Left has outperformed the Right in Australia on raw politics, setting political debate at the local level, and making itself the default choice for voters when any sign of trouble erupts among or around its opponents.

All that is wrong with the Left is exponentially worse than all that is wrong with the Right. Another Labor government could potentially wreck this country. But if the Coalition at its zenith can only manage to be six points in front as it heads into stormier weather, the missed opportunity of a December election might yet prove to have been a fatal mistake.

 

Queensland: Informal Vote Better Than Supporting Macfarlane

IF QUEENSLAND’S LNP makes itself complicit by endorsing the subterranean, treacherous, so-called “coup” that saw failed minister Ian Macfarlane announce a switch from the Liberal Party to the Nationals this week, voters in his seat of Groom would be best advised to vote informal. Macfarlane is a merit-free liability who directly contributed to the woeful record of the Abbott government. He does not deserve to remain in Parliament.

Readers well know my views on loyalty and standards in the political sphere, and my lack of compunction in tearing to shreds unprincipled creatures who bite the hand that feeds them where my own party is concerned and dump on it for personal purposes, as I did here for example.

Whilst there are many of us in the Liberal Party whose tolerance of Malcolm Turnbull as leader will endure only for as long as it takes for his reversion to form (circa 2009) to become complete most of us would never walk out on the party, which we understand will be around long after Turnbull has had his time in the sun and his ego-slaking stint as Prime Minister has concluded.

Some will of course leave, and that is to be expected.

When their ranks, however, include members of Parliament who have benefited from the party’s ability to fund their campaigns, the cohesive brand that carries them to office over poorly-resourced Independents and the forces of the Left, and the sweat and shoe leather of the rank and file (on whose back local and national wins by the Liberal Party are carried), the only direction they have a right to head in is out the door — and away from Parliament, until or unless they are able to stand again under a different banner, and receive the endorsement of their constituents for doing so.

The issue of “brand” may, to some, be a moot point in this case, given the LNP in Queensland is a merged entity of the state’s Liberal and National Parties, but I contend that far from dumbing down the matter of Macfarlane’s treachery, this only makes it worse: and with an eye to the National Party’s future across the country, stands to heighten it if his act of bastardry against the Liberals is permitted to stand. We will come back to that a little later.

But whilst I have in fact canvassed the prospect of conservative Liberal supporters voting for the National Party in the Senate in protest over the ascension of the Left-leaning Turnbull as a Liberal Prime Minister, we’re talking about ordinary voters, not Liberal Party members or its elected representatives; and in any case, if there is to be any kind of desertion of the Liberal Party as a backlash against Turnbull, I’d much prefer it if that protest went to the National Party rather than some band of fruit cake right-wing wackos, Labor, or — God forbid — the Communist Party Greens.

At least in the states the Nationals run Senate candidates — Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales — those votes might be kept in the Coalition fold. At least, where Queensland’s LNP is concerned, voters could ascertain which Senate candidates propose to sit as Liberals if elected and which as Nationals, and decide their votes accordingly.

But where a Liberal member of Parliament is concerned, I contend no such latitude exists.

Regular readers will recall that I opened fire on Macfarlane on Thursday when news of his apparently self-obsessed, revenge-driven, pompously grandiose party switch became public; I do not intend to back off, and as far as I am concerned there is no value to be realised from even retaining him in Parliament, let alone bicker over whether he should sit as a Liberal or a National.

But as I omitted to mention during the week in that hurried, lunchtime post (but which has been noted in the press today) it was only a matter of weeks ago that Macfarlane’s endorsement for next year’s election — as a Liberal Party candidate — was finalised, and at the very minimum I think Thursday’s revelations render that preselection null and void.

In my view, it doesn’t matter (as some have reported) whether the local branches in Groom would “accept” Macfarlane’s switch of party or not: to be preselected as a Liberal, and subsequently seek to use that endorsement as cover to switch allegiance to the Nationals, is one of a number of abuses of Coalition process that seem implicit in what Macfarlane is up to.

Yes, he comes from an agricultural background that ostensibly sees him fit well with the National Party, as a farmer and former president of the Queensland Grain Growers’ Association; no, this does not legitimise his decision to skulk out of the Liberal Party to join the Nationals in the aftermath of his (deserved) dumping from the ministry, after 17 years as a Liberal MHR elected six times by the resources and recognition provided by the Liberal Party as an entity.

And it is safe to assert that he actually owes the Liberal Party for the fact he has had a parliamentary career at all; at his first election — in 1998 — the National Party candidate was outpolled by One Nation in a three-cornered contest, and was eliminated from the count earlier than One Nation during the distribution of preferences.

There is no reason to believe that a different Liberal candidate, boasting a comparable agricultural/farming pedigree to  Macfarlane’s, would have failed to be elected in 1998: and if Macfarlane had stood for the Nationals in Groom in 1998 rather than for the Liberals, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about him, so any suggestion he is absolved from the kind of debt of loyalty to the Liberal Party I am alluding to is a nonsense.

Then again, perhaps he only stood for the Liberals rather than the Nationals in 1998 in the first place because winning was more important than principle. If so, then it merely bolsters the arguments against him now.

And as we have already discussed, this failed “Minister for Industry Assistance” who was content to first continue to shovel out billions to a car industry that was not viable, in cahoots with unions who saw the money only as a tool by which to extort more from business and ultimately government, and secondly to shovel out money to a division of a company that made half a billion dollars in profit last year, has no case now, based on merit or performance, to be manipulating the Coalition agreement to return to a frontbench role by switching parties.

Such an exercise in gaming the Coalition to get his own arse back into a ministerial chair is another of the abuses of Coalition process I am talking about.

But the very notion that this could set Macfarlane up as a potential National Party leader (and the leverage such a move would provide the so-called “anyone but Barnaby” rump within the National Party) not only constitutes a third potential abuse of Coalition process, but raises the prospect of the Nationals self-immolating because some of their ilk cannot see the wood for the trees.

The party of Page and Fadden and McEwen and Anthony — with the possible exception of Tim Fischer — has lacked strong, popular leadership with broad appeal beyond the bush for decades; after the slow drift of rural populations to the coastal cities, it is probably the single greatest factor in the continued decline of the National Party politically from its peak in 1975.

Barnaby Joyce might not be particularly liked by all of his colleagues, but out in the wider electorate — even, perhaps especially, in larger towns and capital cities — Joyce is a well-regarded, if polarising, figure: his ascension to the National Party leadership would provide the party with a profile and a voice it really hasn’t had since Doug Anthony retired in 1984. It is no overstatement to suggest that a Joyce leadership would be the best thing to happen to the Nationals in at least 30 years.

Macfarlane as leader, by contrast, would make a semi-coherent self-obsessed promotion chaser — with no tangible grounding in principle or loyalty — merely the latest pushover for the Liberal Party to kick around from arsehole to breakfast.

Make no mistake: if Turnbull can sack his “friend” from the ministry (which, I reiterate from Thursday, actually shows a modicum of sound judgement by the Prime Minister), he can walk all over him as a Coalition partner if and when he has to.

In any leadership calculation, Macfarlane is a lightweight to whom any serious consideration given is an utter joke.

But it shouldn’t come to that.

Given Macfarlane’s preselection for Groom was only decided a short time ago — and given popular consensus in National Party ranks is that their “Scottish” coup was being planned months ago — I think it is fair to say Macfarlane sought and received re-endorsement as a Liberal on a false premise.

The only proper course for the LNP to follow is to declare Macfarlane’s endorsement null and void, reopen nominations for Groom, and conduct a further preselection process that may or may not seem him chosen as a National to contest the seat.

Anything else, I’m afraid, is tantamount to giving the green light for disaffected losers like Macfarlane to act as laws unto themselves, denying better people opportunities to serve won through legitimate and proper processes, and permitting self-important failures like Macfarlane to risk the integrity and cohesion of the conservative political firmament just because they were (correctly) dismissed — having proven themselves political liabilities through their own performance.

In truth, Macfarlane doesn’t even merit a seat in Parliament at all, and if the events of the past few days truly reflect his idea of acceptable standards of personal conduct, then quite frankly, fuck him.

There are plenty of better people than Macfarlane floating around the LNP branches on the Darling Downs who would potentially make excellent members of Parliament; it is now incumbent on the LNP hierarchy to reopen the Groom preselection and allow them to stand. Its constitution gives it the power to do so, and it set a precedent for the use of that power a year ago as it (rightly) manoeuvred to get rid of Bruce Flegg from the state seat of Moggill.

Should fresh preselections see Macfarlane emerge unscathed, opponents would have to abide by the result.

But if the LNP refuses to act at all — and Macfarlane is permitted to get away with the outrageous, self-interested act of treachery and bastardry he has committed — then Groom voters, who have elected Liberal MPs (usually in three-cornered contests against the Nationals) for almost 30 years would be within their right to simply vote informal, and this column is prepared to do everything possible to help ensure Macfarlane’s defeat if allowed to run as a National without another vote of the local party membership.

 

FU, PM: Macfarlane Defection May Not Be The Last

THE NEWS former “Industry Assistance” minister Ian Macfarlane will shift to the National Party should surprise nobody; Macfarlane — a poor performer under Tony Abbott, and representing a Darling Downs electorate — faced limited prospects under Malcolm Turnbull: Macfarlane’s usefulness in government is an oxymoron. It gifts the Nationals another MP and another electorate, but he may not be the last conservative to desert the Liberals.

Let’s not mince words: The defection of Liberal backbencher Ian Macfarlane to the National Party could hardly send a clearer message to the Prime Minister than if he had simply fronted Malcolm Turnbull and said “fuck you” to his face.

And the fact the move is happening at all illustrates just how deeply antagonism towards Turnbull is still running among Liberal Party conservatives, with Tony Abbott being pilloried for articulating a different position in the ISIS threat to Turnbull’s line in recent days, and murmurs over Turnbull’s historic shortcomings as a leader beginning to seep from the proverbial “walls with ears.”

Another brutal example of conservatives’ anger with the way Turnbull’s ascension occurred yesterday, with the leaking of a story to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph that one of the government’s Boeing business jets had made the round trip from Canberra to Perth to collect the partner of Foreign minister Julie Bishop at a cost of some $30,000 to taxpayers: not the handiwork of happy inmates.

Macfarlane represents the Darling Downs-based seat of Groom, for decades a National Party stronghold until the Liberals won it in a by-election in 1988; as was pointed out to me this morning by “a friend,” his action in defecting to the Nationals also obliges whoever eventually follows him in Groom to sit with the National Party in Canberra under the Queensland LNP’s rules on such things, so this act of vengeance against the Liberal leadership change gifts both an MP to the Nationals now and another seat to them on an ongoing basis.

At first blush — and we will, of course, learn more as the story unfolds — Macfarlane’s actions appear to have been meticulously thought through and planned with pinpoint precision, for the Fairfax press is reporting that the Nationals will probably be entitled to an additional frontbencher at the Liberals’ expense; it not only puts Macfarlane in line for a thoroughly undeserved return to the ministry (and I will come back to that) but also to potentially serve as deputy leader to Barnaby Joyce if he replaces Warren Truss as leader, as expected, after the looming federal election.

Fairfax reports Macfarlane as “a long-time supporter of Malcolm Turnbull” who voted for the new Prime Minister at the leadership ballot in September; I have to say his subsequent dumping from the ministry showed some astute judgement on Turnbull’s part, but it doesn’t seem that Macfarlane shared that view.

At time of writing (2pm, AEST) there are whispers fellow Queensland Liberal Scott Buchholz is also set to defect to the Nationals: we’ll see how that plays out before remarking on it any further.

Broadly, there are two comments I would make.

First, that for a party seemingly presented with an opportunity to widen and broaden its appeal and base following the dumping of Tony Abbott and the swing left that seems inevitable to occur under Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberals, recruiting Macfarlane is an odd development: this column has pilloried him as “Industry Assistance” minister under Abbott, with his desire to work with unions to save jobs by shovelling more government subsidy money at the car industry, and by then agitating to throw even more largesse at other businesses (read: the Coca Cola-owned SPC) despite the loss-making SPC sitting in an ownership structure that netted half a billion dollars’ profit last year.

Accusations of conservatism are not taunts Macfarlane is going to be burdened with at any time soon, and for the conservative modern-day Nationals, he seems a poor fit. Then again, the real prize was probably Groom anyway, so they can afford to indulge him: and in any case, every Liberal MP who defects to the Nationals reduces the numerical imbalance between the parties by two, so they probably reckon they can accommodate a passenger or two along the way.

And this leads to the second comment: that really, really pissed-off Liberal party conservatives have a straightforward way of protesting against Turnbull — with their feet — open to them.

I know we raised the prospect yesterday of conservative Liberals tactically voting National in the Senate as a kind of passive protest against Turnbull, but Macfarlane has shone a spotlight on a more potent — and, where Turnbull’s interests are concerned, more politically dangerous — way of saying “FU, PM” on the way out the door.

I don’t expect, at this stage, to see a wholesale defection of Liberal MPs to the National Party.

By the same token, I don’t expect Macfarlane (and Buchholz if he follows suit) to simultaneously be the start and end of the exodus, either.

The unrest among conservatives over Turnbull’s judgement, his verbosity, and his approach to Foreign matters is growing — and in addition to their residual dislike of Turnbull’s social and environmental policy objectives, the potential for some kind of boilover to occur is rising swiftly.

Yet perversely, Macfarlane’s defection may take some of the sting out of the storm that has broken again this week over Special Minister of State Mal Brough and, on balance, provide a little smoother sailing for Turnbull as the parliamentary year draws to a close.

Even so — and without speculating about any names, for now at least — other conservative Liberals could well follow Macfarlane’s lead in jumping the fence to join the junior Coalition partner.

What might make it interesting is whether any of them are metropolitan-based lower house MPs, ceding as they would chunks of Liberal turf to the Nationals.

Either way, Turnbull and the government will easily weather one or two defections, but any more than that would be a bad look, and half a dozen or more, whilst nowhere near enough to hand control of the Coalition to the Nationals, would put an unquantifiable but nonetheless sizeable dent in Turnbull’s authority — and the government’s standing in the electorate.

I have in the past advocated Macfarlane being a target for disendorsement ahead of next year’s election; now he is gone from the Liberal Party altogether, and as a law unto himself unrestrained by any meaningful consideration of the Liberal Party’s welfare, he may well have triggered a process that could destroy its legitimacy as a party of government.

Not bad for a spiteful one-fingered salute, but Macfarlane’s usefulness as a member of any government — as I indicated at the outset — is an oxymoronic concept at best.

 

Possible Abbott Reshuffle, And A Not-At-All Idle Threat

WHISPERS OF A RESHUFFLE in the Abbott government raise several tantalising scenarios, but whichever way you cut it — especially after the botch made of a similar exercise late last year — a reshuffle ahead of a scheduled 2016 election would cap a stunning return to form. Even so, one rumoured change would prompt your columnist’s immediate resignation from the Liberal Party on principle, and issue a nationwide call to arms for support.

I want to talk this morning about a bit of chatter I have been hearing around the place for a little while, and which has now found its way into the mainstream press through an article in today’s edition of the Herald Sun in Melbourne; it centres on a possible reshuffle of the Abbott ministry — the second since it came to office — and provided such an undertaking avoided (or, to be sure, corrected) the glaring mistakes and misjudgements of the one that was badly botched late last year, a reshuffle should be regarded as good news indeed.

The very fact another reshuffle is being contemplated, with the Coalition’s position in reputable polling continuing a slow but steady recovery this year, is a triumph over the opposition “led” by Bill Shorten; twelve months ago a sizeable number of the sound political minds I regularly pick — the ones prepared to offer honest off-the-record opinions, that is, rather than regurgitating party-line crap — agreed with my own view that thanks primarily to Joe Hockey’s woeful 2014 budget (with a few peripheral contributions from elsewhere to round out the self-inflicted hit on the government), the Abbott government was terminal.

Perhaps it will yet prove to be so; but if it doesn’t, nobody should be under any illusion that Shorten, Labor, and their ghastly masters at Traders Hall are driving much of the government’s recovery: it would be dangerous to believe, for now at least, that Abbott’s outfit is held in fonder regard on its merits by voters.

And less than six months ago, with the state election debacle in Queensland the precursor to an ill-fated move against Abbott as Liberal leader and Prime Minister, the government’s fate seemed all but sealed: Malcolm Turnbull was (and is) a red herring in the leadership stakes, but under his or anyone else’s prospective leadership the Coalition appeared doomed.

So here we are: the government trails Labor after preferences by just a few points, when it had lagged by 15 points; a reshuffle would enable Abbott to finally clear out some deadwood from his frontbench once and for all, and to promote some of the embarrassment of new talent that has until now languished on the backbench.

The cynic in me does allot more than a passing thought to the prospect that talk of a reshuffle could be used as cover to bring on a snap election; after all, Shorten has pretty much passed his useful lifespan as Labor “leader” (if there was ever anything useful about him at all, that is) and with his date to answer questions arising from damning testimony at the Royal Commission into the unions — and his role in alleged events in his past life as head of the AWU — drawing closer, it seems Labor is boxed in by Shorten and the rank embarrassment the unions are now proving on the one hand, and the odious, messy and protracted process that getting rid of him before an election would entail on the other.

Talking about a reshuffle might tempt Labor hardheads to calculate replacing Shorten is a worthwhile exercise. In those circumstances, it would be a dreadful surprise for the Liberal Party to spring by calling an election whilst the ALP was amidships in its silly leadership ballot process and effectively devoid of a leader to fight an election with.

Wouldn’t it? 🙂

Assuming, however, we are talking about a reshuffle ahead of an election no earlier than, say, May, here’s the good news.

As the Herald Sun article notes, the first cab off the rank to get it in the neck would be Industry minister Ian Macfarlane — or the “Minister for Industry Assistance” as this column has known him ever since he saw fit to plead for more government money to prop up the car industry — despite billions of taxpayer dollars having disappeared into the endless black hole of union-negotiated enterprise agreements that delivered ridiculous and unjustifiable largesse to those workers covered by them, but which meant that every time the grants were increased manufacturers still couldn’t turn a profit because more and more money disappeared into “renegotiated” wage agreements that just happened to mirror the size of those increases.

The sooner Macfarlane is put out to pasture, the better.

Defence minister Kevin Andrews can’t be too far behind him, having botched Workplace Relations under the Howard government, botched Social Services under Abbott, and underwhelmed in his present portfolio.

Treasurer Joe Hockey — someone I like enormously, but who is clearly out of his depth as Treasurer (a sentiment known to be shared by several of his Cabinet colleagues privately) — should not be sacked, but moved to another portfolio, perhaps Defence, whilst Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison are promoted to take his place.

But I would go further than the obvious names being bandied around; Senate leader Eric Abetz has been a solid servant for the Coalition, but has barely landed a glove on either the ALP or the unions — nor advanced anything constructive by way of industrial relations policy on the government’s behalf — in his role as Employment minister.

His deputy, George Brandis QC — an intelligent operator who ranked among the Liberals’ best performers in opposition, only to become one of the party’s greatest political liabilities in office — should perhaps be redeployed to a post less directly responsible for prosecuting the case to spread freedom and liberal rights: his “freedom to be a bigot” remarks were surely among the worst publicity the government has attracted, and his attempts to explain the government’s metadata laws were confusing at best. Unfortunately these have not been Senator Brandis’ only unhelpful contributions as a minister.

And Howard era figures who have scarcely set the world on fire, like Small Business minister Bruce Billson and Health-turned-Immigration minister Peter Dutton, would scarcely be missed by the electorate if they were moved on to open opportunities for fresh talent.

Of course, the inevitable potential retirements are spoken of, for nothing lasts forever; chief among them is veteran National Party leader and deputy PM Warren Truss, who — at 66 — is being implored by some to stay for another term in Parliament to ward off the “threat” Barnaby Joyce could take his place.

Joyce comes with problems and limitations — like Truss — but unbelievably for someone who was a magnet for public ridicule when he first entered the Senate a decade ago, cut-through and positive sentiment in the electorate are not among them.

But the Coalition’s next generation of stars, drawn from the backbench and the ranks of existing parliamentary secretaries and “Ministers Assisting” — Angus Taylor, Christian Porter, Kelly O’Dwyer, Bridget McKenzie, Dan Tehan, Steve Ciobo, Sarah Henderson and Michaelia Cash, among others — should stand to compete for numerous vacancies as ministers in their own right in any reshuffle, and the short- and long-term political health and policy vigour of the Coalition would benefit immeasurably from a substantial injection of this impressive new talent at senior levels.

Of course, and discounting any surprise election announcement altogether, such a reshuffle — properly executed — could take the Coalition to the polls next year with a team that would set it up for a decade of competent, effective, and electorally popular government.

The one other change I want to touch on is the situation of Trade minister Andrew Robb; undoubtedly one of the top-tier standouts of the Abbott government, Robb, like other long-serving Liberal MPs, faces the ceaseless pressure of the passage of time: soon to turn 64, it is hard to fathom he would serve any more than a single additional parliamentary term: if, that is, he stands at the next election at all.

Robb is also my local MP, as member for Goldstein: the electorate I have lived either in or adjacent to (in the neighbouring seat of Melbourne Ports) ever since I moved to Melbourne 17 years ago.

The article I’ve shared from the Herald Sun today suggests Robb could replace former Labor leader Kim Beazley as Australia’s ambassador to the United States, and were this to occur he would go with my very best wishes on a deserved appointment indeed, and his tenure in that role would ensure Australia’s interests in the US are well represented — just as they have been by Beazley, to be clear.

But under this scenario — which would see Robb head across the Pacific late this year — a by-election would need to be held in Goldstein and, despite repeated denials of interest in a seat in Parliament that the Herald Sun has dutifully noted and reiterated on her behalf, the name of Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, has been raised as a prospective Liberal candidate to replace Robb in the usually safe Liberal seat in Melbourne’s Bayside.

At the risk of introducing a sour and provocative note to the discussion, I should reiterate that my criticisms of Peta Credlin in this column in the past remain very much in force; too many stories of her idea of management have spilt from too many appropriately placed sources — and the political consequences of those deficiencies writ large for the country to see in the form of poor governance, bad strategy, incompetent communications and woeful opinion polling — for me to reasonably take any other view.

And of course, her “star chamber” vetted me out of consideration for any formal involvement in the Abbott government in 2013 for reasons best known to itself — or, indeed, to her — well before so much as a syllable of criticism was ever published in this column.

Sometimes, principle has to come before any other consideration in politics, and readers will have heard me say often enough over the years that I’m a conservative first and a member of the Liberal Party second.

Indeed, had legendary powerbroker and political strategist Michael Kroger not resumed the presidency of the party’s Victorian branch earlier this year, with an explicit brief to knock the division into more professional and competitive shape, I would have left the party.

Happy as I am to remain a member, I cannot and I will not be a party to Credlin being imposed on Goldstein (even via a sham preselection process and/or administrative committee rubber-stamp to make it look legitimate) and I cannot and I will not campaign for her election in Goldstein, another seat that falls vacant (perhaps Andrews’ seat of Menzies) or, indeed, anywhere else in Victoria at all.

I’m sure this threat will have people around Credlin shaking in their boots with fear — do, of course, note the self-deprecating sarcasm — and acknowledge that I might end up polling a single vote on the day, but in the event Credlin is endorsed as the Liberal candidate for Goldstein, I will resign my membership of the party the same day and contest the seat against her as an independent conservative.

I have no particular ambition to be a member of Parliament, but on principle — faced with a backroom operative foisted on my community, whose record to date seems more concerned with the exercise of power than with the advancement of any cogent set of principles — were Credlin to contest Goldstein, I would feel bound to stand against her.

It won’t be the hottest news in town, and I’m sure it will generate amusement among those who think they know better than everyone else, but if push comes to shove, I’m prepared to get out and fight for conservative ideals against a candidate who has more or less overseen a government that could hardly be characterised as conservative, or even liberal — in the orthodox sense.

Stay tuned. And should the contest eventuate, I’ll be sounding a clarion call to readers — and anyone else more concerned with the advancement of conservative objectives than with the expedient use of power — for all the support they can offer.

I’ll be back this evening to talk about some of the other events going on in the world of Australian politics.

 

SPC Ardmona: Abbott Government Right To Refuse $25m Handout Request

THE DECISION by the Abbott government to refuse a request from SPC Ardmona for a $25 million government assistance handout — the latest in a continuing series of demands for taxpayer assistance made on the government by business — is the correct call; whilst there is no doubt SPC Ardmona faces cost pressures in its business, the role of government is not to prop up failing enterprises. The government’s decision is indeed a precedent.

With industrial relations issues (and related considerations) looking daily more likely to define a big part of the politics of 2014, it is heartening to see the new Liberal government appears to have its wits about it.

It has to: the looming onslaught of propaganda, strikes and other disruptive behaviour set to be unleashed by the union movement will require the government to play its hand with skill, and to avoid the temptation to shirk decisions that are difficult — even unpalatable — but nonetheless right.

In this vein, the decision not to shovel $25 million out to floundering fruit processing company SPC Ardmona is absolutely correct.

First things first: if SPC Ardmona closes down its operations (or, more likely, downsizes its payroll), jobs will be lost, and I accept that; unemployment is not a pleasant contemplation at the best of times, and less so when the company might come crashing down as well.

And the voices from union quarters and — of course — an “outraged” opposition will try to nail Abbott on “jobs,” stuck as they are in the conveniently self-serving 1950s view that a job is for life and should not be permitted by government to be lost under any circumstances whatsoever including, it seems, commercial closure.

But Labor and the unions are the last people with any right to criticise Abbott; courtesy of the ALP’s efforts in government the country is hocked to the tune of $350 billion, with no money for bailouts even if the government wanted to pay them, and in any case the unions’ efforts over long years to strike extortionate enterprise agreements that push the companies paying them, literally, to breaking point is the primary reason SPC Ardmona is in the mess that it is.

I don’t believe governments should be interfering in markets, picking winners, shovelling out cash to stave off inevitable closures or subsidising uncompetitive businesses or industries at public expense: that kind of thing is the preserve of the Labor Party and its loopy bedfellows over at the Communist Party Greens.

I have said in this column — quite some time ago — that I’m not interested in discussing the merits or otherwise of bailouts engaged in by the Howard government; those activities were the decision of that government, and there is no causal reason to view them as a precedent for the Abbott government to follow. In fact, to date, the conduct of industry policy has been undertaken by the Abbott government on a much sounder basis than was the case under its conservative forebear.

And I said, just yesterday, that the “high dollar” excuse rolled out by Labor and the unions as an excuse for businesses with bloated workforces labouring under the weight of ridiculous, union-inflicted wage costs doesn’t cut ice any more; the value of the Australian dollar has declined 20% against its US counterpart in the past year, and is expected to fall further, and I pointed out yesterday that were it not for the presence of a shiny new conservative government to take its anger out on, the union movement would have nowhere to hide when it comes to the punitively high real wages its EBAs have inflicted on major businesses.

And this is the case at SPC Ardmona.

Regrettably, the fruit processing and canning firm that has for decades been a trusted Australian brand is one of an increasing number of companies which struck a series of bargaining agreements with the unions, only to see their wages bill spiral out of control to the point the viability of the company itself is at stake.

The unions may well have been able to get away with blue murder when its own political wing — Labor — was controlling the Treasury purse strings; in fact, it’s a breathtakingly efficient rort to push business into virtual bankruptcy merely to see taxpayers prop those businesses up to ensure union demands continue to be met indefinitely.

A responsible government can have no truck with this, however, and Abbott was right — not least given the state of the budget — to simply point out that it is not appropriate for taxpayers to borrow money just to hand it over to Coca-Cola Amatil, SPC’s parent company.

In an irony that I expect will not be lost on most readers, the Chairman of CCA is one David Gonski — a favourite of the Gillard government.

The Prime Minister’s point that CCA is a highly profitable, multi-billion dollar business (and one I would point out is ultimately foreign-owned) is a salient one, and tends to dampen any moral or economic case for the taxpayer to bail out one of its divisions — even if the government were inclined to do so which, in any case, it isn’t.

Like the foreign-owned car companies before it who have chosen to cease manufacturing in Australia, it is understood SPC Ardmona employees are covered by EBAs that confer high wages on its unionised workforce that are unrealistic on any reasonable measure, as well as other ridiculous perks such as bountiful provisions for paid leave, inflated redundancy “entitlements” that look obscene compared to those prevalent in the rest of the community, and the small point that the agreement makes the unionised workers virtually impossible to sack.

The Abbott government had to draw the line in the sand; at the very least, it should send the signal to the union movement that more due care and diligence is required of them in their bargaining negotiations: the assumption the taxpayer would fit the bill for the most flagrant union excesses should be dispelled once and for all.

It is to be hoped this message sinks into the heads of Trades Hall types, and quickly; one of the problems with the union movement is that it really doesn’t represent the struggling worker at all, but aims to create an upper class of privileged industrial warriors for political purposes, and if anyone doubts that, they should ask where the thousands of demonstrators who will soon parade through Australia’s cities demonstrating against Abbott are being rounded up from — and whether they’re being paid for work they should be doing, but aren’t.

My guess is that the unionised workers won’t lose any money in protesting, but the same can’t be said of the firms they claim to be acting in the interests of.

It brings me to two points in closing.

One, the Industry minister, Ian Macfarlane, must at some point start to wear out his welcome in Abbott’s cabinet; it is understood that he argued behind closed doors for the bailout money to be paid to SPC Ardmona. Paying the money might have been the easy way, and the populist way, but neither of those considerations make it right.

This is the second time in less than three weeks we have had to single out Macfarlane for doing things that would not sit out of place at the ALP or, in fact, the Greens; earlier this month, his was a lonely voice in Cabinet arguing for the retention of the mandatory Renewable Energy Target, a policy largely responsible for usurious hikes in essential utility prices that occurred during the term of the previous government.

We’ll keep an eye on Macfarlane, but his performance in Cabinet to date has been less than impressive, especially given the pivotal economic portfolio he is charged with.

And two, the Abbott government’s decision on SPC Ardmona almost obliges the Abbott government to attempt, at the very minimum, to pass legislation abolishing the foreign ownership restrictions of the Qantas Sale Act.

To date, the record of the government on these questions has been to allow the market to determine the outcome, as it should be; unions have thus far refused to budge on the terms of their EBAs in any meaningful sense whatsoever,* with the result Holden is gone, just as Ford and Mitsubishi have already gone.

The SPC Ardmona decision once again puts the onus on the unions to modify the unbelievable provisions of the workplace deal it made with SPC: nobody has any problem with them extracting an agreement that sees their members reasonably and well paid for the work they do. The present agreement takes that to a level of labour expense that puts the company  itself in jeopardy, and if the unions refuse to co-operate now (as they did on the Holden EBA) then any loss of jobs must be on their heads — not the government’s.

Having said that, the same determination to allow free markets to determine industrial outcomes must be applied uniformly; in the case of Qantas — faced with identical labour cost problems for identical, union-created reasons — the airline must be permitted to attempt to resolve those problems in a fair environment.

Its foreign-owned competitor, Virgin, faces none of the barriers to sourcing money offshore that Qantas does; in fact, it could be argued that notwithstanding the punitive labour costs Qantas faces, Virgin’s foreign owners are free — and quite capable — of driving Qantas out of business at a time and in a manner of their own choosing.

The Holden issue showed Abbott unwilling to throw taxpayer money at big businesses struggling under the cost of union labour. Now, SPC Ardmona has proven it. Qantas has said it doesn’t want money but that it does need help, and the abolition of the Qantas Sale Act is at the top of its wish list.

It’s time — having done the right thing now — for the government to show some consistency. Qantas may not be making a request for money as others in the field are, but the Qantas Sale Act is every bit as much a market distortion as the assistance packages Abbott is now correctly refusing to dole out.

If industry assistance is a no-no, then so must be the Qantas Sale Act. The government should move to abolish it immediately.

 

*The offer by unions, widely reported immediately prior to the announcement of the Holden closure, that its members were prepared to work an additional 16 minutes per shift does not constitute a reasonable or meaningful attempt to contribute to cutting costs or improving productivity in the business: all such an offer does is to make union labour even more determined to watch the clock than it usually is, and an additional hour or so per week is laughable — especially when most of us in the real world routinely work 50, 60, 70 hours per week (without truckloads of overtime cash an EBA delivers) and don’t even flinch. It just shows how out of touch with reality unions and their adherents in this country really are.