Happily Ever After

Can’t you almost hear it – the faint whir of laptops being fired up across the country and Outlook calendars searched for any mention of the word ‘wedding’? You can bet that MPs of all political colours and persuasions will be busily searching back through their records and expenses claims in order to prevent being included in the most recent news story out of Canberra.

So far, five Coalition MPs have been implicated in the ‘dodgy expense claims’ relating to three weddings. The first and most controversial centred on the 2011 wedding of former 2UE presenter Mike Smith which was attended by Coalition frontbenchers George Brandis and Barnaby Joyce. Brandis has since repaid $1,700, while Joyce has denied making any claims beyond perhaps using a Commonwealth car on the day.

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Since then, it has been reported that new Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Queensland MP Teresa Gambaro and Joyce attended the 2011 wedding of the daughter of one of Gina Rinehart’s close business associates in India. All three claimed study allowances for the trip home as they went on to various other meetings and so on.

And this morning, it has been revealed that Tony Abbott himself has paid back more than $1,000 that he claimed to attend the wedding of newly former Coalition MP Sophie Mirabella in 2006.

Controversies surrounding politicians’ expense claims have been around for almost as long as politics itself and there is always an element of ‘let those who are without sin cast the first stone’ – as Brandis has unfortunately discovered these past couple of weeks. He was the closest pursuant of Peter Slipper in the last parliament for claiming trips to wineries, amongst other things.

As Malcolm Turnbull said this morning, it is not uncommon for travel expense claims to be repaid. This type of behaviour is not limited to politics and gives an interesting insight into what the diffusion of a media storm is worth. Obviously it is worth more than $1,000 to Tony Abbott and $1,700 to George Brandis.

The recent scandal involving former Leighton CEO Wal King* repaying over $40,000 in expenses would tend to indicate that it can be worth a lot, LOT more.

This behaviour of repaying claims to take the sting out of the story is made possible by the dual defence of ‘guidelines about expense claims are ambiguous’ (as used by Malcolm Turnbull today) and, my favourite – albeit less openly cited directly by those in question, ‘everybody else is doing it too’.

Interim Labor leader Chris Bowen’s comments regarding the claims would tend to indicate that the ALP are going to repay the favour and pursue the Coalition mercilessly, saying that there are still questions to be answered. However, it is interesting to note that even Bowen has put a disclaimer in place in the event of any own goals from the opposition, by admitting that ‘mistakes happen’.

“This simply isn’t good enough. The Australian people deserve full transparency and disclosure here. I call on Mr Abbott and Mr Brandis, instead of saying that these claims were legitimate and they’re paying them back in order to avoid any doubt, to actually admit they got it wrong.”

“Mistakes happen… but I think the Australian people are entitled to expect their politicians to be honest about when mistakes happen and give them an honest explanation.”

Expect more nuptial and non-nuptial related expense claims being examined, pursued and probably repaid in coming days.

*In a completely unrelated side note, that’s a name with such potential. I would end every conversation with a Craig David-inspired “I’m Wal King away”.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

I referred in one of my earlier posts to Julia Gillard’s popularity appearing to be in direct inverse proportion to her power in Australian politics. The Anne Summers interview broadcast on ABC News24’s Big Ideas program on Monday night could not have been a more perfect demonstration of this. The crowd that filled the Sydney Opera House barely stayed quiet enough to hear any of the questions or answers in between thunderous cheering and applause.

Granted, Gillard was amongst friends. Friends who had chosen to part with their hard earned money and line up for hours to go and see her first interview post-beheading (or post ‘June 26’ as the events were continually referred to during the program). Admittedly, I did find myself getting swept up in the moment on more than one occasion – her entrance to a rousing rendition of RESPECT by Aretha Franklin was borderline embarrassing (indeed, even she seemed to be laughing in a very self-conscious manner) but it made the point.

I find it very interesting that it has taken losing power for respect to finally be ‘earned’ or, perhaps, acknowledged.

It would seem that there is an element of guilt attached to how the public now views Gillard. It is only very recently that she has spoken openly about the mental and psychological anguish that she suffered at the hands (or more specifically, pens and keyboards) of some of the country’s more cretinous trolls. While all politicians should expect a certain level of personal criticism and taunting during their time in office (especially as Prime Minister), the nature of that directed towards Gillard really did seem to go to a new level – even in the mainstream media.

On the other hand, there were some real issues with Gillard’s Prime Ministership that appear to have been conveniently forgotten. It was Gillard who decided to implement a carbon tax merely weeks after stating that she would categorically never introduce one under a government that she led. She was also responsible for the decision to move single parents onto the Newstart Allowance, a decision since criticised by both Albanese and Shorten as a bad one. And most importantly, from a polling perspective (and that was her undoing in the end), Gillard failed at all points to communicate the excellent job that her government had done in navigating a vast array of legislation through the hung parliament.

The other, less tangible, factor in Gillard’s poor public perception was that she herself wasn’t able to be easily understood. Her motivations in life to do the things that she did were not typical and therefore quite foreign to a public that is used to politicians presenting a caricature of “Australian life”. It’s been analysed to death already, so I won’t dwell on it. But the Tim thing, the house in Altona, the lack of religion but opposition to gay marriage, the knitting and the unrelenting stoicism all conspired to present a very complex picture that did not welcome empathy.

I will read Gillard’s book with interest when it is published, however I suspect already that it will be a hard-headed and straightforward account of the facts with humour used to deflect from the more emotional and troubling moments – much like her appearance on Monday night.

I hope it contains an explanation for ‘Women for Gillard’ though. That was a little bit bizarre.

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Green with Envy

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Christine Milne and Adam Bandt, the leader and deputy leader of the ‘third force’ in Australian politics, are learning that Kermit was right – it really isn’t easy being green. Especially when your primary vote has dropped by a third in the most recent federal election and six of your key staff have just quit.

Following a week of rumours and rumblings about the leadership of the party, Milne and Bandt held a joint press conference today to laugh off suggestions that the latter has challenged for the top job.

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Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young wasn’t laughing at the end of last week though when she announced to journalists that the party had just re-elected the leader who would march them to a slow death.

While Bandt’s recent success in the seat of Melbourne was truly stunning, the party’s performance as a whole was disappointing. There are many theories for this, one of the most obvious being that the party has suffered since the inimitable Bob Brown stepped down. There have also been plenty of suggestions that Milne’s leadership style has not been as inclusive or effective either. The Leadbeater’s possums think she’s pretty great though.

I believe that the most significant factor in the party’s demise has been the reality of the sort-of-pseudo-coalition with Labor following the election of a hung parliament in 2010.

One of the great strengths of minor political parties actually comes from their weakness. What I mean by this is that their policies can be incredibly grand and ideological, precisely because they will never be required to implement them. Protest parties use these policies as a platform from which to push for changes to legislation proposed by the two major parties.

Upsetting this delicate balance has led to all sorts of problems for the Greens. Expectations of what they could deliver were understandably high following the 2010 election. The clean energy scheme was the first indication that they were perhaps going to struggle to meet these expectations.

Milne herself has admitted that entering the deal with Labor hurt the party’s support, although she denies that it was a “fundamental strategic error”.

The Greens certainly have their work cut out for them to reshape the party in the post-Bob Brown and post-hung parliament era. Reshape they must though, because they will not be able to increase their primary vote as a protest party and that, at least according to Milne, is the goal. If the Greens do want to replace Labor as the major player on the left of the political spectrum, they will need to develop a series of policies that are both realistic (in terms of budget and implementation) while still being in line with the core values of the party and their supporters.

If Milne, Bandt and the green gang can pull this off – then perhaps Labor really will have something to worry about. Until then, it seems that they will have to compete for air time with the new Palmer United Party. And Clive’s certainly not someone who you would ever want to fight for space.

Magic acts and Latham spats

Tomorrow marks one week since Tony Abbott and his posse of chromosome Y-toting ministers were sworn in by our ever-so-stylish Governor General. In that week, it would appear that the Coalition government has spent its six years in opposition practicing various acts of magic to a level of proficiency that would make Hermione Granger proud.

So far, Scott Morrison has succeeded in making boats disappear and reappear at the drop of a hat. Malcolm Turnbull has managed to disappear his NBN board, but is yet to make it reappear (back to magic school with you, Malcolm). Tony Abbott himself has banished an entire commission and successfully released a number of senior Canberra bureaucrats back into the wild. Impressive.

They HAVE had some help though, in the form of constant leadership debate on the opposite side of the chamber. It has been this more than anything else that has allowed Abbott to get away with minimal media engagement.

Today has seen another handy diversion in the form of one of my favourite rogue loudmouths.

If there was one man within Labor’s own camp that was going to break the unspoken post-election rule of UNITY AT ALL COSTS (said with gritted teeth and clenched fists) it was going to be Mark Latham.

At the very least, he was the only man capable of beating Kevin Rudd to the punch.

Latham has penned a florid smack down published in today’s Australian Financial Review that has essentially labelled Anthony Albanese as a backward-thinking political Neanderthal who has got every major call over the last decade wrong. Ouch.

“In effect, Albanese’s political instincts are terrible. If he wins next month’s leadership ballot, he will be a case study in inner-city, left-wing bunkum … The caucus and party membership have no choice but to vote ABA: Anyone But Albo.”

For the full rant, read the article here: http://www.afr.com/p/opinion/albanese_threatens_labor_reform_JkHeipvxG2cRwCwzDD1GDJ

In fact, Labor’s hopes of a newly united party may be falling apart before they have even been fully realised.

Julia Gillard, whose popularity seems to be in direct inverse proportion to her power, has announced that she is writing her political memoirs. They will be published in October 2014; however I’d be very surprised if large portions were not released ahead of this time in weekend newspaper lift outs and so on. The publishers will not want us to forget about the last six years of tumult before then, that’s for sure.

This does not bode well for any those people who were involved in either of Labor’s most recent Prime Ministerial beheadings. And if the last three years are any indication, Kevin Rudd will probably remain stubbornly in Parliament until that time just to make matters even more interesting.

It may be that current caretaker Chris Bowen will find himself as the leader who presided over the most stable period the Labor Party has had and will have for years to come.

Labor of Love

The battle for the leadership of the Labor Party between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese could not be more different from that which raged between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard only weeks ago. If Rudd versus Gillard was pistols at dawn, Albanese and Shorten is akin to a polite argument over who should eat the last Tim Tam at afternoon tea.

Granted, there are a few key differences. Rudd and Gillard were fighting bitterly over the Prime Ministership of Australia, whilst ‘Albo’ and Shorten are vying for the poisoned chalice that is the leadership of a first-term opposition.

The other major difference is that, in the current round, the party faithful get their say. Those 40,000 bedraggled Labor members who have continued to stump up their annual fee, despite the fact that their political representatives occasionally appeared to be trying to drive them away, are now holding 50% of the vote in their hot little hands.

It’s fair to say that, while the caucus may continue to vote along factional lines and in accordance with certain backroom deals, the rank and file members feel no such pressure. Therefore, one could argue that 50% of the vote will be made up of people who are actually going to vote for the person that they want to lead their party. This is a crucial point – they aren’t going to vote for the person who they think will save them the most furniture based on polling (Kevin Rudd) and they aren’t going to vote for someone, anyone who isn’t Kevin Rudd (Julia Gillard, obviously). They are going to choose the person whom they believe will best lead the Australian Labor Party in from the cold and away from the land of faceless men, grandiose narcissists, forgotten moral challenges and remembered taxes.

Hence the reason for civility.

Albanese and Shorten are also very much aware that a bitter scrap over the remnants of the leadership would only prolong Labor’s voter-imposed stint in the naughty corner for demonstrating that the party hasn’t yet learnt its lesson. This is particularly important for Shorten, whose involvement in the previous two leadership changes is still fresh in the mind of the public.

The other reason that neither candidate is openly criticising the other in their attempt to get ahead is that I suspect neither of them will be terribly disappointed to not be chosen. The role is a very important one, as the leader will be responsible for some serious renovation work on the structure and integrity of the party – however, the very nature of the work will earn this person enemies within the party (reform is never easy and political apparatchiks have long memories).

With the first of two public debates scheduled for Sydney tonight, it will be interesting to see just how reluctant each of the candidates is to make definitive statements regarding their opinion of the other. I suspect that it will be something of a love-in, with the only distinctions being drawn along the lines of exactly how they intend to rebuild.

It’s a pity, really. I do love an Albanese rant. He’s rather good at them.

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Clive for Canberra

Well, it’s happened.

The Australian Electoral Commission has confirmed that Clive Frederick Palmer has won the Queensland seat of Fairfax by 36 votes.

Palmer, the mining millionaire (not billionaire – according to Forbes magazine), is perhaps most famous in the minds of the Australian public for his penchant for dinosaurs and an ambitious (albeit well underway) plan to build a replica of the Titanic.

I have watched Clive’s increasingly bizarre foray into Australian politics with fascination. The Palmer United Party’s campaign did not disappoint, with countless double thumbs ups, yellow ties, hilariously unintelligible press conferences and threats of legal action against anyone who flitted across Clive’s mind (including Rupert Murdoch and the AEC). Not to mention songs about pies:

The question I continue to wonder is why?

Why would a man with countless millions of dollars and an already hefty amount of clout in Australian politics (remember that anti-mining tax campaign?) deign to run for a single seat in the House of Representatives?

Despite all appearances, Clive is not an idiot. He studied Law at the University of Queensland (before dropping out) and served as the National Party’s campaign director during the 1983 state election and as media spokesman during its 1986 election campaign. Both were successful. He was also involved in the ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign to get former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson elected as Prime Minister.

With this intimate knowledge of both politics and the media, surely Clive knows that he can have far more impact on the political debate in this country from outside Parliament.

For a similar example, let’s take a look at another colourful, divisive and occasionally incoherent conservative in the Australian media and political landscape – Andrew Bolt. Bolt originally sought a career within politics, but was unsuccessful in his application to work for Jeff Kennett in the 1980s. Nobody could now dispute the fact that Bolt is incredibly powerful, with a column in the Herald Sun (Australia’s highest selling newspaper), a television show on Channel Ten and multiple fake Twitter accounts (the surest sign that you’re a big deal). I would argue that this makes him far more influential than any state or federal backbencher. It’s unlikely that he would trade places, that’s for sure.

There’s no doubt that Palmer could have his pick of media commentary jobs if he wanted one. He certainly would not be required to make the same pesky declarations regarding conflicts of interest as he will have to as an MP. Also, the prospect of him battling it out on Insiders as a belated replacement for Bolt is strangely appealing.

I suppose that it is not entirely out of the question that Clive may harbour real desires to better Australian society. Or, far more likely, he may believe that the best position from which to lobby his own personal and business interests is from within Parliament.

Whether or not Clive will actually show up and take his place with the cross-benchers remains to be seen. I can’t wait to see what he says with the benefit of Parliamentary Privilege.

But first, an AEC recount. Bring it on.

Gender Equality

And Tony Abbott’s new Cabinet, which apparently has less women in it than Zoo Weekly’s staff meeting (and a million other variations on that general theme).

With the official swearing in of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister – debate has since swirled about the fact that Julie Bishop is the only female to be appointed as a Minister. Julie may be a formidable politician with a death stare that could stop Voldemort in his tracks, but even she should probably not be so noticeable in the standard post-swearing in photo op.

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I have watched the discussion with the curiosity of a person who has never experienced gender-based discrimination first hand (due to the amazing work of my bra-burning 1960s forebears – this is by no means an anti-feminist rant). I’ve never felt limited in any aspect of my life by the fact that I am a female. I have grown up surrounded by exceptional women who have made it abundantly clear that the most effective way of preventing this type of discrimination is to leave no one in any doubt that you are the best person for the role / job / whatever.

For these reasons, my first reaction to the suggestion of affirmative action is always to feel decidedly uncomfortable. I can’t help but feel that discrimination against an individual, in any direction and for whatever reason, is wrong.

A very interesting piece on the topic by Waleed Aly made me think more about this (and also had the side effect of concerning me that I appear to agree with Bronwyn Bishop):

http://www.theage.com.au/comment/learning-the-limits-of-small-lliberalism-20130919-2u2ec.html

Well played, Waleed. Well played.

But back to the topic at hand. Abbott’s decision to appoint himself as the Minister for Women is a tactically smart one – he is assuming responsibility for the decision to only include one woman in his Cabinet by taking on the responsibility for all women in Australia. He will certainly cop criticism for doing so, but probably only from the people who would have dished it out anyway.

The alternative, which would have been to hand the portfolio to Bishop, represented a token gesture so monumentally naff that it bears no further discussion. I can only hope that she would have responded to such a suggestion with this:

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