BREAKING: Oakeshott And Windsor To Quit Politics

IN NEWS that will shock nobody, so-called Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have announced they are quitting politics at the imminent election; it comes at the beginning of what is set to be a big day in federal politics, and all but guarantees the National Party will win their seats.

I am going to be otherwise occupied for much of today, and so I will post more comprehensively this evening.

Still, the resignations of Oakeshott and Windsor should come as no surprise.

I maintain that both essentially sold out staunch conservative electorates after the 2010 election to put a Labor-Greens government into office, and — irrespective of any justification served up today — it was always inevitable that both would either be defeated this year or quit in order to evade such an outcome.

To this end, Windsor’s contention that he “would probably have won (New England)” is debatable at best, if not delusional.

But we note he has also said he “has health problems,” and if this is the case then we certainly wish him every prospect of recovery even if his absence from Parliament will be satisfying on purely political grounds.

I will be back later in the day with more detailed comment. However, I would be stunned if this is the only substantial item on the news roll today; we will have much to discuss when I am back on line.

The Motion Of No Confidence Best Left Unmoved

INDICATIONS are that Liberal Party strategists are working with an eye to the election due, barring unforeseens, in 2016; in this context, the motion of no confidence in the government that Tony Abbott threatened to move this week — forcing it to the polls next month — might best be quietly abandoned.

I’ve been flicking through the Monday papers online, and an article by Sid Maher and Joe Kelly in The Australian caught my eye; this can be accessed here, and it gels with one aspect of the opposition’s current parliamentary tactics that I can’t agree with.

And as Peter van Onselen (also in The Australian today) neatly puts it, a Coalition government’s first term will be largely spent funding their own promises, funding Labor’s late-term commitments and finding ways to reduce spending; the real reforms will be presented to the electorate in 2016, and be enacted during Abbott’s second term.

Regular readers know I am very open about my membership of the Liberal Party, and my support for Tony Abbott’s leadership of it in particular; even so, there’s relentless pressure and there’s overkill, especially with twelve weeks until Parliament is dissolved anyway.

The article I have linked to today confirms what must be the greatest non-surprise of the past three years; namely, an assessment — attributed to Coalition frontbencher and key tactician Christopher Pyne — that almost three years after selling their ultra-conservative constituencies out by preserving the Labor Party in office, independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott would likely vote in Labor’s favour in any no-confidence vote.

The rationale for attempting to force the Gillard government from office is obvious: a successful no-confidence vote almost certainly secures an immediate election, and in doing so would send the ALP to the polls with the additional rancour of being thrown out of office by a parliamentary vote — just to cap its abysmal record as a government.

The climate in which Abbott’s threat to pursue this course of action was made entirely justifies it: the aborted leadership coup in March, followed by the steady disintegration of the government’s position on key issues — most notably, its management of the budget — is indicative of a government in disarray that should be removed from office by any legitimate means and at all costs.

But even if Windsor and Oakeshott were inclined to do the right thing by their electorates and by the country for once — which I don’t believe for a moment they would, or will — I see a no-confidence vote as pointless, counter-productive, and a potential Pandora’s box.

Let’s assume — for argument’s sake — that the Liberals move a no-confidence motion in Julia Gillard’s government during the budget session as threatened (now, in other words) and that by some miracle Windsor and Oakeshott are persuaded to vote in favour of it.

Does the government fall immediately? Not necessarily.

The accepted wisdom and convention in such circumstances would be that Gillard must either resign or call an election.

Were she to resign, the Governor-General may invite Tony Abbott — as leader of the opposition — to form a government; if thus commissioned, his first act as Prime Minister would almost certainly be to advise an election.

Here, however, is where the problems start; such an election would have to be for the House of Representatives only, as the earliest date constitutionally allowable for half the Senate to face election is Saturday 3 August.

The Senate poses an additional consideration in that a half-Senate election must take place prior to the end of June 2014.

Abbott would be unlikely to delay the House election until 3 August; to do so would mean a formal campaign of eleven weeks in duration, at a time when most ordinary Australians are already fed up with the machinations of Canberra and the goings-on of its politicians.

The only way to avoid this would be holding separate elections, which isn’t much better.

There seems little doubt that the Coalition would win the House election in a landslide, but what would it do about the Senate?

The best of a raft of messy options would be for Abbott (remembering he would be a caretaker Prime Minister only during the House campaign) to immediately issue writs for a half-Senate election to take place in September when those for the House election are returned.

It would keep the period the country remained in “campaign mode” to a minimum, and a single bloc; but it wouldn’t be any better than running a continuous campaign for the August option if the no-confidence motion removed Gillard from office.

Another “pro” would be that Abbott could use the deferred Senate election to strike as quickly as possible after the House win, and before any gloss wore off his newly-minted government; the “con” is that with a second five-week campaign so soon after handing the Liberals a massive majority in the lower house, voters might think twice about replicating the favour in the Senate.

It’s an important point; despite the solid overall 2010 result for the Coalition, in the Senate it went backwards; those Senators elected last time superseded those from 2004, when historic gains for the Right handed the Howard government a slim Senate majority.

Abbott would be loathe to risk diluting a Senate vote that may well neuter the Greens; a separate Senate election could very well do that.

In any case, the current Senate is exceedingly hostile to the Coalition, and the ability to maximise conservative numbers there as Senators elected in 2007 face re-election this year simply cannot be compromised if the Liberals are to lead an operational government.

Messy, isn’t it? But these considerations are precisely what a successful vote of no confidence may lead to.

Even so, there are other scenarios that wouldn’t do the Liberal Party any favours either.

One is that following such a no-confidence vote, a new Labor leader does the same deal with the independents that Gillard originally did, advises the Governor-General that they retain the numbers to form government in the House of Representatives, and the ALP continues on its present trajectory under either Kevin Rudd or Bill Shorten.

As inconceivable as a Labor win at this year’s election may seem now, such a development would provide the ALP with the badly needed circuit breaker it has been looking for, and to that end, federal politics could well prove to be a whole new ball game, so to speak.

The election result certainly couldn’t be guaranteed as it can now, for a start.

And were such an outcome to eventuate, the psychological damage to the Liberal Party would be colossal; it would be seen to have gambled recklessly and impatiently to get the election it needed only wait an additional few months for — only for its punt to have spectacularly backfired.

The third option, of course, is that Abbott is able to move his motion of no confidence in the Gillard government, and having done so, Windsor and Oakeshott remain unmoved and the government’s present numbers ensure the motion is lost.

And that — the best strategic result of all, in my view — doesn’t warrant the grief involved in undertaking the exercise in the first place.

There is an additional problem as well: were the Liberals to get an election before September, they would also have to either own Wayne Swan’s budget or introduce something of their own it is place.

It’s all the more reason, to my mind, to let the Parliament run its course, go to the election in September as scheduled, and ensure Swan and Gillard are held accountable for their actions rather than being seen to let them off the hook in any way whatsoever.

I appreciate this has been a rather convoluted article: it has to be, because a successful no-confidence vote now is more likely to hinder the Liberals’ political interests, not help them.

It’s why, looking ahead to 2016, the best results for Coalition strategists to work with will be secured at an election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate, held concurrently, and most probably on 14 September.

And it’s why, upon seeing the article in The Australian I opened my remarks with, it was impossible not to put my thoughts on the issue to print.

Crossroads: Many Careers On The Line As Craig Thomson Charged With Fraud

NEWS that Dobell MP Craig Thomson has been charged with fraud — over the alleged misuse of credit cards whilst the head of the Health Services Union — brings to a head a saga that has dragged on for years; it raises questions, and imperils the careers of many others beside the disgraced former Labor MP.

As these matters are now before the Court, I am not going to offer any comment on the charges, their merits or veracity, or an opinion on Thomson’s innocence or guilt.

I do, however, propose to look at the potential fallout from a conviction — should one eventuate — and its likely impact and risks on other key figures in this tawdry labyrinth of accusation and alleged immorality.

Thomson is the subject of 150 fraud charges brought against him by Victoria Police, following their investigation into allegations of improper financial transactions during periods Thomson spent in Victoria; these will be heard in Melbourne at a date to be fixed.

Thomson is also faced with a litany of civil charges brought against him by Fair Work Australia, relating to that agency’s investigation into the HSU, and he also remains a “person of interest” in a current NSW Police investigation which mirrors and complements that undertaken by their southern counterparts.

The first thing I considered on learning that Thomson had been arrested this afternoon was whether Prime Minister Julia Gillard knew that the arrest was imminent when she announced a 14 September election yesterday.

(The issue of Gillard’s election announcement will be covered by this column, although due to my other commitments this may not occur until the weekend. We will definitely look at it: that ill-advised event really does need to be picked apart).

Certainly, there has been a whisper around the traps today to that effect; Gillard herself has denied knowledge, although Thomson has intimated that he knew in advance that he would be arrested.

Indeed, there is some dispute over whether he was “invited” to surrender himself to Victoria Police prior to Christmas in relation to these matters; Thomson’s lawyer claims it was simply an invitation to an interview, whilst VicPol maintains it was to face charges.

Either way, it’s clear that advance knowledge of something is, at the very least, acknowledged to varying degrees by the parties directly involved.

Did Gillard also know? I would be staggered if she didn’t, despite her denial. If she did, then the election announcement was even more of a cynical stunt than I thought yesterday.

Whether she did or not, the charging of Thomson has the potential to ruin many careers aside from his own — even if he is acquitted on all charges.

For starters, Gillard will be sweating on the timing of the eventual hearing of charges; whilst it’s possible these matters will not reach Court until after the federal election, the greater probability is that they will.

And if they do, there is no “ideal” time — for the ALP politically — for it to occur; but a nightmare scenario for the government would be a steady stream of sensational headlines emanating from Thomson’s criminal trial in the final weeks of what was always going to be an extremely difficult election campaign.

I think it is fair to assert that readers are, by now, well aware that if Thomson is convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of one year or more, he will be automatically disqualified from Parliament, meaning his seat of Dobell will require a by-election to be held.

However, this would also be the case if Thomson were to become bankrupt — either by declaring himself so, or involuntarily — and to my mind this is the greater immediate risk to the government’s numbers.

It is also a risk to the careers of many other people in the present Parliament.

It is common knowledge that the ALP covered expenses for Thomson to the tune of some $350,000 prior to suspending his membership; this was in large part to offset legal expenses and a settlement over a defamation action involving Fairfax Media.

Much was made at the time of the fact that it kept Thomson from going bankrupt in 2011 and disqualifying him from Parliament then; it is unknown whether the Labor Party would bail him out again now, in light of the political risks involved in doing so and with an eye on the fact it has already distanced itself from him by suspending him.

Clearly, Thomson faces massive costs in defending both the civil and criminal charges brought against him.

I want to outline a scenario — hypothetical for now, but deadly serious in its potential to eventuate — to explain my point tonight to readers.

Let us suppose that in, say, three months’ time — in late April — Thomson is forced into bankruptcy under the weight of his legal bills.

At that time, his eligibility to sit in the House of Representatives would automatically be terminated.

There has been some discussion today, in the lightning analysis of the Thomson charges, of what would happen in such a scenario; indeed, the consensus in the mainstream media seems to be that the (Labor) Speaker, Anna Burke, would decline to issue the writs for a by-election in Dobell on the basis a federal election date has already been set.

At the risk of stealing my own thunder from my pending article on the 14 September date, I must emphasise to readers that what Gillard did yesterday has no legal standing, or binding validity, whatsoever: she has simply, literally, named a date.

The actual “calling” of an election is a complex process involving a dissolution of Parliament and the issue of writs — and these things and other necessary legal steps cannot be taken in relation to a 14 September election until much, much closer to the date.

As half the Senate must also be voted upon, they can’t be taken until July at the earliest, owing to constitutional considerations.

So back to our scenario: Thomson, April, bankrupt. What happens?

In the proper performance of her duties, the Speaker would be required to issue a writ for a by-election in Dobell; indeed, I believe that is exactly what should occur.

To refuse to call a by-election so far out from an intended federal election date would be a flagrant abuse of power and an endeavour to rig the House of Representatives to improperly maintain the Gillard government’s numbers in the House.

There is a precedent; in late 1989, a vacant National Party electorate in Queensland was left vacant for a couple of months ahead of that state’s election. Even so — despite the Nationals hurtling toward their first election loss since 1956 — the seat made no difference to the Nationals’ majority in state Parliament, even if it were lost in a by-election.

So I don’t see that either the 14 September consideration, nor a modern precedent in Queensland, could excuse such an outrageous disregard for democratic process.

Were Burke to take that path, her prospects in her own electorate of Chisholm — held by a reasonable but not invulnerable 6.1% margin — would become that little bit more tenuous.

And if such a course were pursued by the Gillard government, the certain outcome would be to render it unelectable at a general election, and seal the fate of dozens of its MPs.

It would also guarantee that Labor would suffer a bloodbath when the general election finally occurred.

Replacing Burke with another candidate seems implausible; none of the Independents is likely to touch the Speakership, and it would be unlikely that a rebel Liberal or National would do so to prop up a dying government committing undemocratic acts.

So that would seem to close off the option of adding another Labor vote to the mix of 149 in total on the floor of the House by selecting a new Speaker.

Yet even without losing Dobell outright at a by-election, a disqualified Thomson and a vacated seat would still take the minority Gillard government a step closer to the precipice if the Opposition refused to grant a pair for Dobell; in such circumstances, it seems an unbelievable proposition that Abbott and his colleagues would grant a pair.

This would make the mix on the floor of the House 70 ALP to 72 Coalition, and it would bring the Independents into play for the inevitable vote of no-confidence the Opposition would move in the government in an attempt to force it to an election, with the refusal to conduct a by-election in Dobell the pretext — and a resonant pretext at that.

Communist Greens MP Adam Bandt would side with Labor, and Bob Katter with the Coalition; the numbers become 71 to 73.

Andrew Wilkie and Peter Slipper are the unknowns; having been comprehensively shafted by the Gillard government, it is difficult to see Wilkie supporting it in a no-confidence vote.

Slipper, despite having enjoyed the favour of the government, is a conservative Liberal turncoat who would seem disinclined to preserve a Labor government in office in such circumstances.

And then there’s Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.

Windsor has signalled his intention to stand again in his ultra-conservative seat of New England; Oakeshott has equivocated, but I suspect he, too, will renominate. Like Windsor’s, his electorate of Lyne is one of the most conservative in the country.

Both are likely to struggle to win anyway, given their support of a Labor government, but a failure to act — in this scenario — to terminate that government, when it is refusing to allow a by-election that could result in its downfall anyway, would guarantee their own demise as well.

In such a situation, their votes would get the opposition the 75 votes on the floor of the House required, and a no-confidence vote to succeed.

And that’s before the votes of Wilkie and Slipper — and who carried them — are resolved.

But which way would they all jump?

It may well be that on that question, the careers of dozens of our politicians could rest.

And thus, there is a great deal at stake as a result of Thomson being charged this afternoon; the potential ramifications are vast, but not necessarily due to the scenario most people — the imprisonment of Thomson if convicted — are primarily focused on.

Filthy Slug Peter Slipper Slithers Away From Speaker’s Chair

A distasteful episode in Australian politics ended tonight, as Liberal Party traitor and Speaker Peter Slipper quit his role for a belated return to the backbench. The development removes a blight on the Speakership, but deals Julia Gillard a humiliating and potentially fatal political blow.

It was the risky game that should never have been played, and not least by an unpopular minority government clinging to office by the tiniest of parliamentary margins.

Peter Slipper — at the time of his ascension to the Speakership last November — was already a character over whom many question marks hovered; for years, “Slippery Pete” had come to be known for such things as his frequent taxpayer-funded trips abroad, repeated mistakes with travel expense claims and so forth; as we have noted previously, there has always been plenty of interesting stories floating around about him.

At the time, however, the Gillard government wanted to break a promise: this time to Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, and specifically to avoid honouring a commitment to poker machine reform he had extracted from the ALP as the price for his support on matters of confidence and supply.

Cutting Wilkie adrift meant Labor needed to find an additional vote in the House of Representatives on which it could rely, and Slipper — happy to resign from the LNP to become Speaker — offered an easy if fraught solution.

As we now know, the simple solution quickly proved a curse, with fresh allegations over travel expenses coming to light, along with allegations of sexual harassment from a member of Slipper’s staff, James Ashby.

In the months that Slipper has been stood aside from official duties as Speaker whilst those allegations are investigated, he has retained in full the trappings of his office — including a vast amount of overseas travel funded by the Australian taxpayer.

Things were always destined to come to a head this week with the tabling in Court, as part of Ashby’s sexual harassment case against Slipper, transcripts of hundreds of SMS text messages sent by Slipper to Ashby — and many of these were overtly sexual in nature.

In fact, they weren’t “overtly sexual;” they were — largely — absolutely disgusting, and those not simply lewd and obscene for the apparent sake of it were highly  intrusive in their demands for personal information on Ashby, about his relationships, and of physical aspects of these that are hardly decent conversation subjects at the best of times, let alone between a parliamentary employer and his staffer.

And of course, many contained demeaning and misogynistic statements on women and about the nature of female genitalia.

Significantly, the veracity of the text messages has been conceded by Slipper. And as far as I’m concerned, his subsequent apology should be taken with a grain of salt.

For Gillard and her ministers — running a fabricated campaign accusing Liberal leader Tony Abbott of sexism and misogyny, and of all manner of ills in his dealings and relationships with women — it’s an especially poor look when such an overtly  misogynistic, sexist and downright inappropriate specimen as Slipper sits welcome and protected within the government’s own circle of influence.

It’s worse again for Gillard to have gone into Parliament this afternoon, all guns blazing, in an aggressive speech seeking to rip Tony Abbott to shreds over sexism and misogyny whilst seeking to protect Slipper, even after his disgusting text messages had been published across the country.

(If you missed this — here is a sample of the material in question).

But what really makes Gillard look ridiculous is that after she and her government effectively deployed their entire arsenal in Parliament to defend Slipper — who survived a vote to remove him from office in the process by one vote — Slipper was back, mere hours later, to publicly resign the Speakership.

Peter Slipper has achieved little in 25 years in Parliament, and contrary to his claims to have improved parliamentary standards as Speaker, the truth is that history will remember his time in the role for little more than the Speaker’s Procession.

If for anything other, that is, than for the self-inflicted scandals he generated.

He was a headache to the Liberal Party for much of this period, which was as relieved to be rid of him the day he accepted the Speakership as it was angered that the deal done effectively saw yet another conservative traitor propping a Labor government up in office.

But he became Labor’s problem to own from that day onwards, and even an outfit as inept and as politically incompetent as the ALP must surely have wondered what in hell it had saddled itself with.

Slipper — by virtue of his own questionable track record, the investigations and allegations currently on foot against him, and now with the revelation through his SMS communications of his idea of what constitutes appropriate standards of decency — is clearly unfit to hold the office of Speaker, and I would suggest unfit to hold elected office at all.

It was suggested to me earlier today that vetting SMS text messaging would be the latest new standard by which to judge politicians; this sarcastic comment was meant to indicate that Slipper had been crucified for essentially private communication that ordinarily should to have been off-limits.

I would counter that by saying that a) the substance of the messages were utterly, utterly inappropriate, and noxious in the extreme; b) such “private” communication is clearly inappropriate from an employer to an employee; and c) this is especially the case when the employer is an elected representative holding senior executive office, under the Crown, and in the service of the Commonwealth on behalf of the people of Australia.

It is unclear how Slipper reconciles the content of these messages with his senior role in the ultra-conservative branch of the Anglican Church to which he belongs.

I would also note that the communications are evidence in a lawsuit against him.

So much for Peter Slipper and all the bullshit in his resignation speech about his improvement and upholding of “standards.”

The text messages could be dismissed as the sex-obsessed ravings of an adolescent and puerile psyche in any other context.

But in this case, they emanate from a 62-year-old man who parades himself as a beacon of inscrutable adherence to rigorous standards of proper parliamentary conduct.

At best, they might be viewed as personal communications made in extremely poor taste by a man who should have known better.

At worst, they point to someone with…well, we’ll call them “problems,” and especially so where women are concerned.

Just what Gillard and her acolytes are attempting to crucify Abbott for.

And Gillard now wears the opprobrium of having fought tooth and nail to protect Slipper — an unbridled political liability in every sense — only to have that effort flung in her face in the form of his resignation, and her government and her Prime Ministership plunged back into crisis as a result.

Not that Gillard had any choice: defend Slipper, and you’re an amoral vacuum. Throw him overboard and the whole house of cards could come down.

She was wedged. And whilst she chose to pursue the first option, the outcome of the second was realised anyway. It was the worst of both worlds, politically, for Gillard and her government.

A no-confidence motion in the Gillard administration must now ensue; for as sure as night follows day, the Coalition — with the prospect of Labor down another vote, and with the scent of an election win in its nostrils — will inevitably test the numbers on the floor of the House of Representatives in a move that could well bring down the government.

And if such a vote does not occur — or if it does, and the government survives — Slipper’s resignation reopens the door to the revival of Kevin Rudd as Labor leader.

The end result today of the appalling political misjudgement in appointing Slipper, combined with the fact Rudd and Slipper have always been friendly, means that Gillard is yet again vulnerable to any deterioration of the government’s standing in published opinion polls.

Either way, Slipper still controls the fate of the government to a large degree: he can vote with it, he can frustrate it by selectively voting with his former conservative colleagues, or he can torpedo it by resigning from Parliament and forcing a by-election and with it, a likely general election that the ALP would almost certainly lose.

How this plays out from here remains to be seen, but by falling on his sword, Slipper has ensured that politics in Australia is back on a knife-edge, and that quite literally anything — anything — can happen.

I would very simply like to say I am delighted to see Slipper resign; despite my outrage at his appointment as Speaker in the first place, I was ecstatic to see him walk out of the Liberal Party, which will not miss him.

His resignation from the Speakership is the second leg in a three-part journey to get rid of this leech from Australian politics once and for all; and I hope — I just hope — he stands as an Independent in Fisher, so his humiliation at being trounced electorally by Mal Brough, a man he described as a c—, is complete.

This is a filthy individual of absolutely no worth or use to the political process in this country.

It is utterly indefensible for Gillard to have attempted to protect him, but then again, when faced with a choice between real principle and amoral nihilism, the modern Labor Party only ever chooses the latter.

Peter Slipper warrants the contempt of the electorate, not its sympathy. It’s inarguable that he would be upset by the course of action he has felt compelled to take, but it is an entirely self-inflicted situation. And whilst Slipper might somehow believe he has added to standards of parliamentary procedure, the average voter couldn’t care less, and won’t care less — irrespective of anything further he has to say.

Good riddance.

Stalemate: Thomson Saga Rolls On…But To Where?

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.

Slipper refused.

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.

 

Sham “Standards”: Panicked Gillard Dumps On Thomson And Slipper

In a frenzied fit of panic, Julia Gillard today forced Craig Thomson’s departure from the ALP, and decreed Peter Slipper to be sidelined indefinitely. She possesses neither authority nor credibility, and her role as PM — and perhaps that of Labor in government — is now untenable.

Let’s speak bluntly and candidly about a few things.

The Australian public is fed up with Julia Gillard and her government; fed up with the lies, the deception, the intrigue, the manipulation, the double standards, the incompetence, the condescension, the holier-than-thou outlook, the scandals, the crises, and the sheer chaos that goes hand in glove with this Prime Minister and this government continuing in office.

Australians, overwhelmingly, want an election; but this Prime Minister would as soon sell the country to the devil than she would listen — really listen — to anything other than a gratuitous and self-serving recipe for survival, self-preservation and clinging to the trappings of green ministerial leather.

And as symbols go, Australians are fed to the teeth with the ongoing saga of Craig Thomson and his credit cards, and latterly with the new-ish but equally despicable storm that has engulfed the government’s hand-picked but utterly unsuitable Speaker in Peter Slipper.

And on this last point, Gillard has today kicked perhaps one own goal too many.

Gillard this morning said that she “(felt) keenly that Australians are looking at this Parliament and at the moment they see a dark cloud over it,” going on to add that  “the views of the Australian public matter. I have made a judgment call that I believe is right because I want Australians to look at the Parliament and respect the Parliament.”

Claiming to be acting in the interests of “standards,” Gillard today announced that she had informed Craig Thomson that he should “no longer participate in (the Labor) Caucus;” Thomson, accordingly, will sit on the cross-bench.

Similarly, Gillard announced that she had informed Peter Slipper that she had decided it would be best if he stayed out of the Speaker’s chair “for a further period of time.”

Gillard claimed that “a line had been crossed” which made today’s developments necessary; pressed by journalists, she proved unable to say where the line was, or what constituted it being crossed.

I would argue that any “dark cloud” hanging over the Parliament is one entirely of Gillard’s own making; likewise, the indisputable and growing lack of respect many Australians feel toward Parliament and its occupants can be directly referenced back to the matters I outlined in the third paragraph of this article.

Stripping away the legalese and gobbledygook so favoured by Gillard, let’s look at what she really announced this morning as her solution to the issues she claimed to be addressing.

Firstly — Craig Thomson. Far from being kicked out of the ALP as Gillard’s message was designed to imply, Thomson has simply entered into a voluntary suspension of his membership of the Labor Party.

He hasn’t been expelled; he hasn’t even (yet) been disendorsed as the Labor candidate for Dobell; and if no charges are forthcoming from the various investigations being undertaken into Thomson and his time at the Health Services Union, he will be free to resume membership of the ALP — and to again sit in the Labor Party Caucus.

Secondly — Peter Slipper. Gillard’s announcement amounts to no more than an agreement with Slipper for him to spend an unspecified additional period of time on the cross-bench; in the meantime he remains on the salary package that goes with the job of Speaker, and he retains the benefits and perquisites that go with the role to boot.

The acting Speaker — Labor’s Anna Burke — performs the role in the interim on her salary as a backbencher.

Gillard’s announcements, therefore, are effectively nothing; a ruse, a smokescreen, smart answers designed to hoodwink people into the mistaken belief that she has acted decisively to resolve two festering and rancorous problems that have bedevilled her government.

She has done nothing of the kind.

And those announcements, delivered in Gillard’s usual patronising tone of moralising condescension, stink of the smug, righteous, too-clever-by-half approach that went a large way toward landing Gillard in the mess in which she finds herself in the first place.

In the case of Thomson, when did he cease to enjoy Gillard’s full and unqualified support? That support is something that Gillard has gone well out of her way to express for many months, and — innocent or guilty as he may be — there have been no new developments in the Thomson saga in the past few days, so why the change?

In the case of Slipper, Gillard and a coterie of her ministers have been adamant that he should return to the Speakership as soon as the latest questions surrounding his use of travel entitlements are resolved, possibly even as soon as the commencement of the budget session on 8 May. Again, there have been no new developments overnight, so why the change?

The answer to these, and all other relevant questions, is simple: Gillard’s standing with the electorate is toxic; her poll ratings continue to deteriorate; and her government is now confronting the prospect of a successful vote of no-confidence for the first time since the inconclusive election of 2010.

The other motive for today’s developments centres on the ALP leadership, and on Gillard’s weakening grip on it; as we discussed a couple of days ago, the mutterers are muttering, and having crucified Kevin Rudd as planned eight weeks ago, their gaze is now turning in the direction of their leader.

Readers will note that none of this — none — is motivated by quaint ideals like running a functional government, or delivering on election commitments, or advancing living standards for ordinary Australian people.

No, it is motivated solely by a desire to keep Labor in office, and to keep Gillard’s backside in the chair behind the Prime Minister’s desk.

An election at this time — favoured by a majority of voters — comes with all sorts of problems and drawbacks attached to it, mainly arising from problems of timing and the fact any election before next August would throw the electoral cycles for the Senate and the House of Representatives out of kilter; these are serious and complicated issues which could be resolved, but with difficulty.

Compare these considerations with Gillard’s reason as stated today for not calling an election: “We (Labor) have a superior economic plan, so I won’t be calling an election.”

Superior economic plan?” That’s another one of those stupid slogans regurgitated over and over on rote during the ALP’s 2010 election campaign (moving forward, anyone?)

But alas, glib slogans and smart answers is all Labor has to offer.

Today’s developments will be analysed and picked apart in the next few days by journalists and commentators across the country, but they point — again — to a simple and inexorable truth.

Julia Gillard is finished. She is completely unsuited to the office of Prime Minister. And the time is nigh at which either she goes, or the whole government will have to go.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Australian federal politics.

 

The Final Coming Of Peter Slipper

For many years now, it’s been the same; fast moves and even faster talking have allowed Peter Slipper to stay one step ahead of trouble. This time the game appears to be up, and Slippery Pete returns to Australia from his latest overseas jaunt a hunted man.

Of course, we must be careful not to say anything that might prejudice investigations into the latest round of alleged expenses fraud by Slipper, nor into the explosive and sensational allegations of sexual harassment levelled at him this weekend by an employee.

Nonetheless, that caveat still leaves plenty of scope to comment on the latest episode in the life of a scoundrel, a treacherous dog, and a pretty poor specimen to boot.

I’ve known Peter Slipper for 20 years, and he always put a shudder down my spine; I’ve never known what it was, but the guy used to give me the creeps. Fortunately it has been a long time since I have seen him, and I hope I don’t see him again.

A parliamentarian once told me in the mid-1990s that “Peter’s a good guy” — an observation that made me more, not less, wary of Slipper whenever I saw him thenceforth.

There have always been a lot of interesting stories floating around about Peter Slipper; some of these have become common knowledge — the loose interpretations of travel entitlements, the flights via Sydney to maximise frequent flyer points, questions over ComCar usage and frequent late-night visits to Kings Cross, Fortitude Valley and St Kilda are a mere few.

And other of those stories have never — publicly — seen the light of day for various reasons, but interesting stories they remain.

And so it is a curious development this weekend that an employee of Slipper in his role of Speaker of the House of Representatives has made public an official sexual harassment complaint against him.

A lot of the allegations contained in this are pretty tawdry stuff; suggestions Slipper asked about such things as homosexual partner preferences and…er…bodily ejaculation locations…are, if true, completely unbecoming of a member of Parliament, and especially in terms of one acting as the boss of an employee.

The problem Slippery Pete has is that according to the court documents extensively leaked and published in the Murdoch press over the weekend, the allegations are backed by SMS text messages and emails purportedly from Slipper to the employee in question.

If those communications do exist, and if they are able to be conclusively linked to Peter Slipper as the author and sender, then the erstwhile member for Fisher might be staring down the barrel of a gun.

On the other side of the ledger, it comes as little surprise that the allegations of sexual misconduct are accompanied by a fresh round of allegations concerning travel expenditure, this time involving fraudulent use of Cabcharge vouchers; after all, if there is one thing Peter Slipper has repeatedly found himself embroiled in over the years, it is arguments over his misuse of travel entitlements.

I note for the record that in years past, Slipper has repaid tens of thousands of dollars worth of incorrectly claimed entitlement monies; his excuses generally boil down to each incident being “a misunderstanding.”

Like anyone, Slipper is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, but I just wonder what his “misunderstanding” might be in terms of the sex charges he now faces. That it was all a joke? That he, Slipper is the real victim? Or that the whole thing is an elaborate set-up? We will see; time will tell.

Having said all of that, the response from the Labor Party (and from Prime Minister Gillard especially) has been shockingly inept.

All weekend, out trundled the trusty ALP figures; they couldn’t pre-empt the coming legal cases, but Slipper had done a very good job as speaker; they weren’t buying in to the discussion but they wouldn’t be taking any action to remove him from the Speakership, either.

Gillard, for her part, said nothing.

Nothing, that is, until Slipper voluntarily stood aside from his post; after that, she welcomed him taking that course of action…but couldn’t say any more until the legal matters on foot had been resolved.

In other words, a greater volume of nothing.

Not that Slipper had any alternative to standing aside, mind you; at the minimum, he faced a vote when Parliament resumes to strip him of the Speakership that was almost guaranteed to be carried; beyond that, he risked a no-confidence motion being moved against the government on the basis of his continued presence, the outcome of which would have been impossible to predict.

I would make the point that having recruited Slipper for reasons of pure political expediency — in the full knowledge of what he is like, his past conduct, and of the probability of skeletons lurking in his closet — Gillard and her colleagues do themselves no end of residual damage in refusing to cut adrift such a liability.

It tarnishes them, it tarnishes the Labor Party, and it sends the unmistakable signal that political survival at any cost is preferable to the ALP than is decency, the upholding of standards, and the accountability of politicians in the eyes of the law.

Don’t forget, Gillard’s government is a shelter to not one, but two iffy characters facing criminal investigations and possible charges: just as Peter Slipper enjoys its patronage, so too does Craig Thomson.

At some point Gillard’s sycophantic refusal to distance herself and her party from these gentlemen (and I use the term loosely) is going to permanently stain the Labor Party as an organisation that turns a blind eye to official misconduct and criminal behaviour; or to put it bluntly, she is turning a once-proud and principled party into a degenerate cesspool of amoral nihilism.

It should ring alarm bells to Gillard and Labor that Tony Windsor is now canvassing the possibility of supporting a no-confidence vote moved by Tony Abbott in certain circumstances; Wilkie’s support for such a measure would seem a no-brainer.

Add Bob Katter Jr and Tony Crook to the 71 Coalition votes in the House as well, and there are the 75 votes to 74 on the floor of the House to remove Gillard from office and force an election.

Support from Rob Oakeshott would merely seal the deal.

It’s now as close as that; indeed, a fresh election would increasingly seem the only way out of this mess once and for all.

And with Slipper now back on the cross-bench and Labor’s Anna Bourke assuming duties as Speaker, Gillard is once again wholly wedded to the support of Independents for her survival.

This story obviously has some way to run and we will follow it as it develops.

But I return to where I started: for many years, through a combination of fast moves and quick talking, Slippery Pete has managed to stay the half-step in front of trouble he’s needed to in order to survive.

Today he came back to Australia, after yet another overseas junket; flying headlong into controversy as usual, and flying straight into the most serious allegations officially levelled at him thus far.

I think Houdini Pete has come to the end of the line; only a miracle will save him now.

This time, the clouds of fire into which he has leapt would seem that bit too hot for comfort.

What do you think?