The most important political office is that of the private citizen.
-Louis Brandeis, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court
So, what do a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and one of the great tyrants (Stalin, attributed with the title quote), have to do with the events, spin, speculation and general swirl and hurl of the last week in Australian politics? Hopefully, I’ll be able to demonstrate that the bow isn’t that long.
Wednesday, 30 January 2013: The Prime Minister addresses the National Press Club. The speech released to attendees didn’t contain one crucial piece of news: the announcement of the election date – Saturday, 14 September 2013. Generally well received, I found the speech discordant in parts. In ‘taking stock’, the Prime Minister outlines some ABS data, and emphasises our fears as a people We’re middle-aged. We live too far away from where we work. We parent and care for our parents. We’re saving instead of spending, a nation of consumers who yearn for the days when we could whip out the credit card with abandon. We don’t shoot each other very often (unless you live in ‘some communities’ [read Western Sydney], and then – you’re rightly concerned about crime and ‘cohesion’). We’ve lived through a few wars, where our Gallipoli obsession looms large in our veneration of heroes and the rarely-explored existence of the ghosts among the returned. We’re early and loving adopters of technology. We have mobiles, Facebook pages and iThings in abundance. Then, in the next stanza, we’re ‘strong, fair by instinct, smart’. Which Australia are we, the people? From the rest of the PM’s speech, it’s enough that we know there’s an election. The governing will continue and we can all plan our year. Weddings can be planned, observant Jews can declare they won’t campaign on the day and the religion of footy finals may be attended sans the onerous duty of lining up to tick a box or two.
Firstly, the great reveal. The jaws in the room, and without, dropped at the omission from the pre-disseminated speech; most memorably that of the Minister for Workplace Relations, the Hon. Bill Shorten MP, who was caught out live blogging at the Herald Sun. Here strikes the discordance: a PM offering certainty to a fearful people while catching many in her own Cabinet unaware. For the trumpeting of getting on with governing, spin shot its load. The people who knew the election date announcement work in the PM’s office, Swanny DPM, The Greens leader Senator Christine Milne, and Independent MPs, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. Actions speak louder than words? What a splendidly cohesive team the Gillard Government is, that not even a mass text message was sent 30 seconds before the drop. People wonder why there is an abundance of nameless ‘government sources’ with a cracking dose of the shits. That covers the fearful Australia.
The strong Australia? The announcement itself. We’ve been stuck in a fairly rubbish election mode since Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor backed the ALP. Remember when the Member for Lindsay (suddenly via the Arafura Sea) set sail with the PM on the SS Nervous Nelly, looking for the People of the Boats? Now we can at least say it’s only going to last for another 220-odd days. Please don’t attribute the early call to anyone other than the PM and her advisers. They knew it would rob everyone from speculating on the date for the rest of the year. Is it crazy/brave? Not so much. John Key, New Zealand PM, did the same thing – again, in the name of the worship of sport – and he is one of the last people you’d call crazy/brave. It’s a little interesting if you look at NSW. We, the people of the Scum Corp state, are used to fixed election dates. What the early announcement allows is a gradual build-up of appearances in a State considered so toxic in 2010, I think the PM visited once (maybe twice, if you count Rooty Hill RSL as the People’s Debate). NSW must hold; not only for the government to be reelected, but for the next generation of talent to stick around. Losing the Likes of Chris Bowen, Jason Clare, Ed Husic, Michelle Rowland, Anthony Albanese and Tony Burke would be disastrous. David Bradbury, if his seat wasn’t so bloody indispensable, could pack up and go home. NSW is very much at the heart of the ALP’s problems, but it is also at the heart of its success and longevity. The state of McKell, Wran, Chifley, Whitlam, Carr and Keating, reeling at state level, must offer some pathway at the federal level for the real ‘next generation’. Already, Team JG showed the smarts to pencil the Tet Festival celebrations at Fairfield into her diary last weekend. Smart thinking by some former colleagues of mine now working in the PM’s office.
Thursday, 31 January 2013: I think it’s a crock that anyone’s hand was caught in some nefarious plot to ameliorate the shamefully public arrest of Craig Thomson MP. The NSW wallopers are not averse to dropping a high profile bit of work to the media. While the act was cretinous, it’s hardly surprising. UPDATE: NSW Police have been forced today into an embarrassing back down today. Thomson’s arrest, they said, was triggered by his failure to surrender himself to Victoria Police for arrest. Fer shame. The strip search and the damage done, it turns out their southern cousins wanted to have a chat with Mr Thomson, not arrest him. Bravo, dickheads.
The Thomson matter is going to be an open sore for the government regardless of whether the election was held in six weeks or seven months. The same goes for the disgraceful allegations being heard at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. I am proud of many of the achievements of the Ministers and Premier I worked for; but the scale of the allegations, the hubris and disregard for everything that is good and right about governing puts the allegations against Craig Thomson, and the infernal Ashby/Brough/Slipper business in the shade. A sequoia-sized darkness. None of it is going away, so saddle up and deal with it – a big tick for a strong Australia.
Friday, 1 February 2013: It was a dark and stormy night. It was great subscription bait from the Australian Financial Review’s Phillip Coorey, who tweeted at 8.38pm: ‘Gillard govt cabinet minister has resigned. details online soon’. After I finally navigated my way through the AFR’s subscription maze, and learned that Senate Leader and Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs, Science and Research, the Hon. Chris Evans, was quitting Cabinet immediately, and the Senate at the election, I was shocked. Evans is one of those reasonably unassuming, non-fuck ups of a Minister. My initial thought was, ‘Christ, I hope he’s not ill’. When I saw Channel 7’s Mark Riley retweet of Nicola Roxon’s resignation several hours’ later, I was stunned. What the actual eff? Two Ministers going within hours of each other. Every part of my former political self said, ‘bad juju’.
Saturday 2 & Sunday 3 February, 2013:
Over the past few days, I’ve had a few, shall we say, some teeth-grinding moments on the Twatters, chiefly because I refuse to fall in line with the pinheaded orthodoxy of ‘MSM fail’; ‘media fail’; ‘stupid gallery speculation’. This is where Brandeis comes in – ‘the most important political office is that of private citizen’. It’s a two-pronged thought: firstly, if you’re reporting the straight Five Ws, why is still one of them. Given that Evans’, Roxon’s and the PM’s offices were refusing to answer questions (yep, no message control going on here), what are we, the people, supposed to think? Nothing to see here, move along? Two senior Ministers had just pulled the pin – yet the Press Gallery is supposed to just write, ‘who, what, when and where’, and ignore the damning why? If the why is not forthcoming, if information is withheld so the message can be massaged to within an inch of its life, the Australia of fearful people is going to, and is entitled to speculate. We are the most important political office bearers. Forget the 24-hour news cycle. What about the blink-and-you-miss-it Twitter free-for-all? If people think the ‘abysmal MSM’ were the only ones speculating, have a long, hard look at your Twitter feeds and DMs. I had some information and theories. So did others. We exchanged views, a bit of healthy scepticism, and a fair bit of plain old, ‘what the actual eff is going on?’ When you cannot accumulate fact, you speculate. If you’re whiter than white and didn’t muse on why both of these Ministers were resigning, then you forfeit the Brandeis test.
Secondly, both Ministers Roxon and Evans are leaving for personal reasons. I don’t doubt that Ms Roxon misses her husband and daughter, and that after 20 years, Chris Evans has had a gutful of flying from Perth to Canberra. Having seen Ministers’ workloads in State politics, I understand the demands of the job. Here’s the thing I didn’t get: the Prime Minister’s claim that both indicated up to a year ago that they wanted out. Evans’ senate spot, not up for election this time, could have been filled by a casual vacancy, He could have sailed off into the sunset. Instead, he’s hanging around and collecting his pay until this September. A small part of me wants to say, ‘fuck off, Chris, bad call PM’. Nicola Roxon’s resignation stumped me. I know the time commitments. I know the demands of serving an electorate. OK, I don’t know what it’s like to have a husband or young daughter. Again, it’s the, ‘I’ve wanted to go for ages’ line. Maybe. Or is it just that having got the plain-packaging tobacco laws through, the drive and pride you had in being the first female Australian Attorney-General faltered? The difficulty is not Roxon’s resignation from Cabinet. Mark Dreyfus QC is a central-casting Attorney. The potential issue is the pre-selection for the plum seat of Gellibrand. No sooner had the name David Feeney, he of the faceless face and an unwinnable number three Senate ticket spot, done the rounds, a far more palatable name appeared: former Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks. He’s still young, lives in the electorate, and as someone I’ve met fleetingly, a smart operator with name and reputation recognition to die for. Mark Dreyfus practically went the Captain’s Pick himself, so effusive was his praise of Bracks. The sticking point is whether Bracks wants back in. After all, the most political office one can hold is that of private citizen. The real stick in the mud is the resignation of the Member for Barton and former Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland. It’s not clear whether McClelland will serve out his term; another former Premier, Morris Iemma, is one of the names being discussed to replace him. If McClelland quits Parliament in the next two-three months, it’s going to be very difficult (although not without precedent) for a by-election to be held off until September 14. Would any of us like to go six months (or longer) unrepresented in the Federal Parliament? Not so much. If he goes early, the Speaker should be encouraged, not laughingly discouraged from issuing the writs. Be strong, not fearful, lest the baseball bats come out in the months to come.
Monday, 4 February 2013: A new Ministry was sworn in. A new Senate Leader was elected. If the PM and Swanny DPM are both out of the country or unable to fulfil their duties, your Acting Prime Minister will be one Senator Stephen Conroy. Caucus met, and as sure as the sun sets in the west, Caucus leaked. Caucus leaked that the PM had cracked it with them for leaking against the Government, a fact relayed to her by a journalist. Meta or what? Caucus took place sans the former PM. Kevin, he of Queensland and here to help (and help all over the place – he’s said he’ll campaign wherever he’s asked), cited ill-health for missing the 2pm meeting. Maybe he was leaking. The fearful people of the marginals win this round, none of them warming to Brandeis’ treatise.
The Possum Comitatus with the Polling Mostest has produced this, the PollyTrend Two-Party Preferred graph, which looks like a few wobbly beer snakes. This morning it’s, ‘oh, fuck Newspoll, bunch of know nothings. Polls come and go. Outliers’. Not so fast. Yes, individual polls go up and down – but the trend isn’t a happy snap. If anything, it shows how long it’s taking for the numbers to move. Almost a year between the bulges, either side. I’m no pollster, but this doesn’t look like a volatile electorate to me. The polls taken over the weekend (with Essential to come tomorrow) reflect the thinking of the electorate at this point in time, and at this point in time, the ALP has freaked the people out. Going from a four-point gap to trailing by 10-12 percentage points is an indicator that the fear, fanned from within, translated to the people who hold the most important political office. And all for knowing that an election was being held.