Finally we have a minority government led by Julia Gillard. The tortured process came to an end when two of the three Country Independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, backed her government, and Bob Katter backed the Coalition. How has it come to this? This is the last analysis in this series that has already evoked three pieces. There will be many analyses in the MSM, but we in the Fifth Estate have our views too. As in all complex adaptive systems, there is a multiplicity of factors. Some, the most important as we see them, are mentioned here. The reform factor
From the outset the three Independents insisted that a hung parliament was a not-to-be-missed opportunity to reform procedures in the federal parliament, particularly in the House of Representatives. The reforms they sought were to Question Time, private members’ bills, no-confidence motions, access to ministers and information and better parliamentary committees, to budgetary processes via a parliamentary budget committee, particularly at election time, a leaders’ debates commission, a review of the rules governing political funding and advertising, and an independent speaker, reforms designed to correct what were seen as abuses of the parliamentary system. Rob Oakeshott led this move.
They were also insistent that instead of falling back on old alliances and political leanings, they should examine in detail all the information that would enable them to make a carefully considered decision on which party was best placed to provide stable, competent, outcomes-focused government in the national interest. This is why it took them over two weeks to reach their decision. There were many aspects to consider, the most important of which were plans for the next term and the costings for those plans.
We should be eternally grateful to these men for their diligence and persistence, and their refusal to be hurried or bullied into making their decision. The competence factor
Because the Country Independents sought to support a government that was likely to be stable and go its full term, and since stability is a function of competence, they looked at aspects of competence in the two major parties.
The Rudd/Gillard Government has been labeled incompetent by the Coalition for many months and all through the campaign. This is not the place to debate all over again this Government’s competence. While the Coalition screams ‘incompetent’, many would see it as having been very competent in many of the matters it has handled, particularly the GFC. Many too would give it a tick for the BER, the computers-in-schools program, the national curriculum and the MySchool website; the health initiatives and reforms; its IR reforms and its NBN. Some would point out the problems in those programs and not acknowledge the successes. But it seems that the Independents saw the Rudd/Gillard Government as generally competent but by no means perfect.
Of all the factors, doubts about the competence of the Coalition must have weighed heavily on the Independents as they compared the two parties. Analysis of the Coalition’s offerings would have revealed that the Coalition had fewer plans, less forward-looking ideas, fewer initiatives. Its campaign was largely negative, berating the Government at every turn – ‘the worst government in Australian political history’. So in seeking evidence for stability in a possible Abbott Government the Independents would have looked at what the Coalition was planning and how it would affect the nation. Its plan to scrap the NBN and substitute a much less expensive but much less powerful alternative must have alarmed the Independents whose advocacy for rural constituents has been up-front from the outset. The NBN promised so much for health, education, business and agriculture in rural areas that its threatened trashing must have been regarded with annoyance. The Coalition’s approach to global warming too must have been seen as an ineffective way of making a real difference to rising temperatures. The costings factor
But the costings problems the Coalition had must have given the Independents the gravest concern about its competence. If a party cannot put together an accurate set of costings for its plans, it cannot be regarded as fiscally competent. In an attempt to upstage Labor, the Coalition bent credulity to laughable levels in preparing its assumptions, which is where the gross errors arose – amounting to something between a $10.6 billion and a $6 billion ‘black hole’, to use the media’s favourite phrase. That was simply incompetent. The Coalition should have known that to compare the budgets of the two parties the Treasury was obliged to use the same assumptions, and that any attempt it made to soup-up the parameters to make its budget look better, that is better than Labor’s, would be uncovered to its discredit. It’s use of the ‘criminal leak’ excuse for not submitting its costings to Treasury was always spurious, but it hoped to get away with it, as indeed it largely did through the election campaign, but was caught when the Independents demanded to see the costings. Tony Abbott’s initial refusal and subsequent back down made him and the Coalition look bad, and put the Independents offside.
And the Coalition’s claim that its work ‘had been carefully modeled’ by the well regarded NATSEM was refuted by NATSEM director Alan Duncan who said: “We never spoke to the Coalition; we did work for the Parliamentary Library that the Coalition may have asked for, but we had no relationship with the Coalition itself." Read more in Peter Martin’s piece: Carefully modelled by NATSEM?
But instead of conceding that the costings were based on wrong assumptions, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb continued to ‘stand by’ their costings, insisting they were right. They looked ridiculous. The always - moderate Laura Tingle said in her 3 September article in the Australian Financial Review
that: “There are two possible explanations for how an opposition presenting itself as an alternative government could end up with an $11 billion hole in the cost of its election commitments. One is that they are liars, the other is that they are clunkheads. Actually there is a third explanation: they are liars and clunkheads. But whatever the combination, they are not fit to govern.”
In other words they are incompetent, at least in this crucial area of administration – fiscal management.
Tingle goes on to say: “Treasury and the Department of Finance, when finally given the chance to scrutinize the Coalition’s policies, have not just found huge discrepancies in the costings of individual policies, but what can only be described as a systematic exercise in creative accounting. The picture emerges from the econocrats’ report that the opposition very purposely created a dodgy set of numbers which were never expected to withstand any scrutiny and would require the intervention of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission if it was a company. The opposition simply hoped it could bluff its way into office by refusing to allow the figures to be scrutinized before polling day. But what is more extraordinary is that now, having been caught out, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb are continuing to try to bluff their way through, suggesting that there is nothing more than a gentlemanly difference of opinion between them and the bureaucracy. The brazenness of the three men only becomes really clear when they claimed the bureaucrats’ document actually proves the budget would be $7 billion better off under the Coalition. There is no other term for any of this except ‘complete bullshit’, to use one of Abbott’s favourite terms.”
She concludes: “This exercise has given us an insight into how happily the Coalition would ignore the advice of Treasury and Finance to produce a rubbery budget which would inevitably blow out further down the track, meaning a whole new round of spending cuts or broken promises. If you had to choose who to believe between bureaucrats having to deliver bad news to people who might be their bosses in a week’s time and politicians desperate to cover up their stuff-ups, it should be an easy choice. After all, Abbott called a $10.6 billion blowout yesterday ‘an arcane argument about costings’ which didn’t really go to economic credibility.”
The sight of Abbott insisting he was right, backed by a blustering Hockey loudly mouthing protestations about the attacks on the costings, and the melancholic Robb tying himself up in knots trying the explain the intricacies of the budget in ways that even the most economically literate could scarcely follow, was pitiable. The Abbott factor
Tony Abbott has not done well in the post-election period. He saw himself and the Coalition as having got so close to an unexpected victory yet without a majority, that he became visibly frustrated, especially when the Country Independents insisted on seeing his costings and the Treasury’s view of them. He knew all along they were a con and that the Coalition’s deception would be exposed. His initial resistance to revealing the costings that began in the election period was swept away in a day or two because he could see he was looking more and more shifty to the Independents and to the public generally. When they turned out to be as dodgy as everyone suspected, he looked even worse, and worse again as he tried vainly to defend the indefensible.
He made another serious error of judgement when he offered Andrew Wilkie $1 billion for a new Hobart Hospital, even although Wilkie had previously emphasized that he wanted to support an ‘ethical’ government. Wilkie’s explanation was that he was dissatisfied with the offer because Abbott gave no indication of where he was intending to conjure up a billion dollars, and what orderly process he was going to follow in funding this venture, in contrast to Labor’s balanced process of allocation. He saw Abbott’s offer as flagrant and irresponsible pork barreling, which it was. Abbott has form in this regard – recall the Mersey Hospital episode. Asked why Abbott didn’t explain to Wilkie where the money was coming from, Joe Hockey lamely explained ‘He didn’t ask!’ Now Joe seems to think the Coalition was set up by Wilkie, a charge Wilkie quietly denies. You may care to read Peter Martin’s piece: Wilkie has said his offer wasn't a trap, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a test
After the Green member Adam Brandt and independent Andrew Wilkie joined Labor, and Abbott could see minority government slipping away from him, he resorted to the line: ‘…it is inconceivable that the three Country Independents would abandon their roots and support the most left leaning government in Australia’s history’, a line faithfully repeated by Robb, Hockey and every Coalition spokesman that could get within reach of a microphone. He then stoked up a fear campaign on a Greens-initiated same-sex marriage bill, an even higher minerals tax, a carbon tax and a softer policy on boat people arrivals. He painted the spectre of a ‘coalition’ between Labor and the Greens, which it never was, and Bob Brown becoming virtually Deputy PM, as if all that horror would scare off the Independents in a panic. He insisted this would be bad for regional and rural Australia, and that the Coalition would be much better for those in the bush, notwithstanding the fact that they had done little for rural people in 11 years in government. Ask the Independents! As a last ditch attempt to convince, persuade, cajole them into supporting the Coalition, he wrote them an ‘open letter’ in the Sunday press at a time when one suspects they were no longer susceptible to such approaches.
His performance post-election has been poor. His aggressiveness, his blatant attempts to persuade, his threats, his appeal to old loyalties now long extinct, and his overt pork-barreling has shown us all his modus operandi
, and left many wondering how such a person would govern this nation, manage the economy and cope with international affairs where diplomacy is so important. He came up seriously short, and the Country Independents saw it. The Gillard factor
Although some assert that Tony Abbott won the election campaign, these same people concede that Julia Gillard won the post-election period. She has been conciliatory throughout without being obsequious, willing to collaborate with the Greens and the four independents, and the first to agree to Rob Oakeshott’s plan for reforming parliamentary procedures. She has been measured, not strident, not threatening, but prepared to highlight Tony Abbott’s fiscal irresponsibility.
Her Labor colleagues have followed along her well-modulated line, not bullying, not shrilly insisting that the Country Independents support Labor, but giving them plenty of space to consider their position.
She has forged an alliance with the Greens that many Labor supporters would have preferred to have occurred pre-election, she has agreed to more frequent and more thorough discussion with the Greens, the independents, and the backbenchers.
She showed herself to be trustworthy; Tony Abbott did not. The Australian newspaper factor
News Limited media and specifically The Australian
has been attacking Labor and promoting the Coalition relentlessly for years, particularly this year and during the campaign. It is still at it. After the election it ran a Newspoll
in the electorates of the Country Independents that showed the majority of those polled wanted their elected member to support the Coalition. Had that poll asked the additional question: “Would you trust your elected member to make the right decision on who to support?", the outcome might have been different, as is evidenced by the extensive interviewing of mayors in these electorates by the ABC’s PM
which showed that the independents were indeed trusted by their constituency – that is why they were elected.
More recently Newspoll
conducted a poll from August 27 to 29 among 1134 voters across Australia. Asked: “…which of the following parties would you most prefer the independents and minor parties to help form a government?” 47% said Labor, 39% the Coalition, and 14% were uncommitted. The curious thing about this poll was that it was not published until six days after the poll concluded. Was this because the result did not match what The Australian
had hoped-for? If so, why was it published at all? Was that because not publishing a poll would damage the reputation of what The Australian
regards as the nation’s premier poll?
At the weekend, The Daily Telegraph
published Tony Abbott’s desperate open letter that has been well critiqued by Grog at Grog’s Gamut: Election 2010: Extra Time (or, Who is he talking to? Who is listening?)
Whatever may be argued to the contrary, it is hard to escape the conclusion that News Limited media and especially The Australian
have been a major factor in the election outcome and its sequelae, and a pernicious one at that. The incumbency factor
This must have been an important factor. After all, the Gillard Government is still in power, in caretaker mode, and has a comprehensive program to complete or undertake, fully and legitimately costed, which will bring the budget back to surplus in just three years. Why change to the Coalition that has fewer plans, and what it has include destructive ones such as scrapping the NBN and replacing it with an inferior scheme that will leave us in the backwaters, and knocking back the mining tax?
It would have been a big ask of the Independents to vote out a functioning Labor government for a Coalition one with such a paper-thin front bench, ageing remnants of the Howard Government, and so many ill-developed and backward looking plans. The Nationals factor
Tony Abbott has appealed to the Independents to come back to their roots, with the Nationals. The fact that they are independent indicates that they have chose to abandon their roots for serious reasons of disagreement. The animosity that persists surfaced on election night with testy exchanges between some of the Independents and Nationals members, and the Nationals have been virtually excluded from negotiations with the Independents. The Nationals factor seemed to be a negative rather than a positive for the Coalition. The Greens factor
The fact that there is now a Green in the House and that they will have the balance of power in the Senate next July, has weighed on the Independents. They acknowledge it as a fact of life to be factored into their deliberations. Exactly how it has influenced them remains unknown. The Independents factor
This factor is one that history may underestimate. The extraordinary diligence and decency with which the Country Independents, Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Rob Oakeshott have set about their task, their thoroughness, their insistence on gathering and analyzing the vast amount of information they considered they needed, their unwillingness to be intimidated or hurried, has filled many observers with profound admiration.
They could have chosen to take a more casual attitude towards selection based on old allegiances and on a superficial assessment of the facts. It is greatly to their credit they took the long road, the steep climb to the high road of better parliamentary procedure and a stable government that would serve its full term.
Their assiduousness in examining all the facts thoroughly has been an important reason that they have been able to reach a majority decision to put their trust in a Gillard Labor Government for the next term. We salute them.
Of course there are many other factors in this complex situation, some of which others may consider more telling than those mentioned here. No doubt we will see them in the many MSM commentaries that will follow.
But what do you think?