I lunch I attended yesterday was united in believing that 2012 had found a new low in the quality of our politics. Since many of those present had played an important part in government over the last thirty years their views are not just cocktail party comment. And since quite a few of them have a good sense of Australian history, it’s not as though they have forgotten past lows. Australian politics has its fair share of them.
And one made a point that was articulated a few years ago in New South Wales, when Labor won its last election there. ‘Who is anyone supposed to vote for?’ he asked. ‘You couldn’t vote for Abbott, the Greens have destroyed themselves, and Labor is completely on the nose.’ There was a sort of helpless shrug. Something has to get better, but no one knows what it is, or how it will happen. And there will be a Federal election, in March, or August or November (my thinking is that the Gillard Government will hang on to the end).
The ICAC hearings in New South Wales present a picture of powerful people in the Labor Party manipulating the system to secure very large favourable outcomes for themselves and their families. Has it happened before? Yes. The Rum Corps flavour of corruption has never left the mother state in the last two hundred years. Perhaps it is the size of the current grab that makes one gasp. The hearings continue, and will run well into next year. Heaven knows what the legal outcomes will be, but the political one is that Labor will find it hard to secure much electoral commitment in 2013 from any but the most myopically faithful.
Since James Ashby has declared that he will appeal, I shan’t comment on that case, even though the Attorney-General saw no need for her to refrain, but the whole business was grubby from start to finish — and of course it hasn’t finished. In a deal hugely reminiscent of Gough Whitlam’s trying to secure a favourable Senate for himself in 1974 by appointing DLP Senator Vice Gair as Ambassador to Ireland, Julia Gillard in 2011 persuaded a Liberal MP to act as Speaker, thus giving herself a more favourable House of Representatives. The Liberal MP was not popular inside his own party, and would not have been re-elected.
The new Speaker brought back old traditions, like the gown and the procession, but it was not long before he was accused of sexual harassment by one of his staff. For the remainder of the year the Government and the Opposition traded insults about whose responsibility the Speaker was. The publication of text messages he had sent to his staffer, and allegations that he had misused Cabcharge vouchers, finally caused him to step aside as Speaker.
The case against him by James Ashby has been thrown out. My understanding of the judge’s findings is that he sees the case as designed from the beginning to injure the Speaker politically, and an attempt to use the legal system to achieve a political purpose. Ashby is pursuing an appeal, the Cabcharge voucher stuff is still under consideration by the police prosecutor, and the unedifying text messages remain a matter of public record.
All of this, too, will move on to the New Year and may not have ended before the next elections. The crowing of the Government about the outcome is embarrassing and (to me, anyway) wholly unconvincing. It was not a smart move to secure an unhappy Liberal as Speaker, It was, and it looked, an act of desperation. The Speaker’s conduct towards his staff was not appropriate for a person holding the office of Speaker, which is to some degree the high point of the dignity of Parliament. From the judge’s perspective, the case brought against him was a form of political retaliation, and had no business in the court.
Everyone in this whole grubby business now has egg on their faces, the New Year will bring Craig Thompson, former union official and Labor MP, into the Federal Court, and we will no doubt have a re-run of the ‘working for Slater & Gordon’ sit-com. Meanwhile, we the electorate have to struggle on to the next election, hoping against hope that something good will come out of them. Nor we can we the electorate feel too lofty about the grubbiness of our politics. What we see in politics is a version of what we see in the wider society: the individual in pursuit of what he or she sees as the great prize, ‘whatever it takes’.