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2012 Crikeys: the best and worst of the year in politics

It’s that time of year again: we hand out the Crikeys for the best and worst of 2012 in federal politics. Who was the biggest media tart? Who engineered the worst gaffe? And who is Crikey’s pollie of the year?

In a bruising year of federal politics, who emerges with the least bark taken off? We kick off the 2012 Crikeys by crowning Australia’s politician of the year — and name the frontbenchers who got the most done, and the ones who really dropped the ball …

Most effective minister: Bill Shorten

Bill Shorten gets the gong for the passage of the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms in the face of mindless obstructionism from the Coalition and a deeply, cynically misleading campaign by the deadenders of the financial planning industry to prevent any reform that benefits consumers. Even in its compromise form, struck after Shorten negotiated with key industry stakeholders and the crossbenchers, FOFA will be a key legacy of this government, generating growing benefits for Australian superannuants in the decades to come.

Honourable mentions: It’s been a good year for Wayne Swan. His fiscal policy has permitted the RBA to slash interest rates even as unemployment remains low. The Australian economy has survived a slowdown in China and has so far stood up to the Aussie dollar becoming a reserve currency. Australia’s tax:GDP ratio has remained admirably low and far below the level bequeathed by the Howard government. And Kim Carr copped demotion on the chin and has taken to Human Services with enthusiasm and reformist vigour, rather than sooking. Others, like Joel Fitzgibbon, might heed his example.

Least effective minister: Nicola Roxon

Nicola Roxon isn’t actually that poor a minister. But after Robert McClelland, we needed an Attorney-General prepared to stand up to the obsessive instincts of her department to relentlessly extend state surveillance and intelligence-gathering powers. To her credit, Roxon established a parliamentary committee process to examine a huge wishlist of new powers being demanded by intelligence and law enforcement agencies that had significant implications for privacy, freedom of speech and a free press. But her department’s contribution to that process was dreadful, a discussion paper that actually needed both Roxon herself and the department to issue clarifications and explanations while the committee publicly complained about the lack of detail around proposals.

Roxon also oversaw the passage into law of the draconian cybercrime legislation that establishes a mechanism for foreign governments to demand the storage of data on Australian users. The impression left is of a department that hates having to justify its relentless assaults on basic rights and regards its minister as a cipher for those efforts — and of another Labor minister unwilling to disabuse them of the notion.

Honourable mention: Joe Ludwig’s handling of the vexing live exports issue has, impressively, yielded unrelenting criticism both from opponents of the trade and from the industry, with no one regarding that as a sign that he’s got the balance right. The matter will continue to plague Labor.

Most effective shadow minister: Scott Morrison

Like him or loathe him, Scott Morrison has delivered in spades for the Coalition this year. As the man charged with exploiting to the maximum extent possible Labor’s political difficulties on asylum seekers, he has performed his role ruthlessly. Whether it’s been warning of asylum seekers bringing typhoid to our shores, or justifying blocking the Malaysian solution on the basis that the Coalition is concerned about the rights of asylum seekers, or complaining about the cost of implementing the very policy the Coalition has long insisted Labor introduce, Morrison has demonstrated a willingness not to let consistency, facts or common sense interfere with prosecuting the case against the government.

And, whether you like it or not, it has worked. The great majority of Australians don’t think the treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru is cruel; far more are likely to regard Labor as “too soft” on refugees despite an embrace of the Howard government’s most controversial policy. Morrison’s exploitation of asylum seekers is a big part of why the Coalition retains a handy polling lead at the end of the year. And by that time, he was trailing his coat outside his portfolio and being mentioned as possible leader in the event Tony Abbott falls under a bus.

Honourable mention: Simon Birmingham (although, technically a ringer because he’s a parl sec). Alarmingly, Birmingham brings evidence, reason and quiet authority to his role as understudy on water to Barnaby Joyce, his polar opposite. Birmingham’s was a quiet, measured but well-informed South Australian voice on the Murray Darling Basin Plan. He continues to repeatedly show up more aggro Coalition senators at estimates.

Least effective shadow minister: George Brandis

Step up George Brandis, an average Brisbane lawyer who rates himself as one of Australia’s finest legal minds. The alternative Attorney-General tries to impress with his barristers’ bag of tricks, but there’s a reason John Howard kept him on the backbench until the dying days of his government and then gave him the most junior portfolio in the shop, and it wasn’t because of “lying rodent”. On three issues this year, Craig Thomson, the AWU smear campaign and James Ashby, Brandis has tried to imperiously weigh in, offering his own judgment on the issues. Each time he has been shown to be wrong, sometimes humiliatingly so, raising questions not merely about his political judgment but about his supposed legal acumen.

Brandis topped off a spectacular year by calling Julia Gillard a “crook” behind the protection of parliamentary privilege and then, when invited to repeat the claim outside Parliament, blathering on (inaccurately) about the Glorious Revolution. To be mediocre is one thing, and Brandis can’t be blamed for that. But to be a coward — that’s something rather different.

Best parliamentary and/or media performer: Julia Gillard

For years we’ve endured the reduction of Parliament to a rather shabby Punch and Judy show, while question time has been transformed into a particularly painful form of kabuki. Rare has been the parliamentary speech that has cut through to the public. Many MPs have given fine speeches — Malcolm Turnbull’s speech three years ago on why he was crossing the floor to vote for the government’s revised CPRS package was outstanding; his speech on the death of Robert Hughes in August was a wonderful, rich tribute to the man. But none penetrate the walls of Parliament to resonate with voters.

But Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech cut through. From seemingly nowhere, she produced one of the great parliamentary speeches of recent years when Tony Abbott made the mistake of trying to exploit Peter Slipper’s obscene text messages as the basis for sacking him. That the press gallery almost completely missed the impact of the speech oddly served only to demonstrate its effectiveness — this was the speech of a Prime Minister communicating directly with voters, of a leader speaking most particularly to women about all the shit they have to endure as a routine part of their working lives.

That the Prime Minister also twice invited the press gallery to stand and deliver over the AWU smear campaign, and twice bested them, also stood in dire contrast to her opponent, who continues to prefer to avoid extended, rigorous media scrutiny.

Honourable mentions: Apart from the perennial Turnbull, Tony Windsor deserves a nod for conveying the sense that, no matter what absurdities are taking place in the House of Representatives, there’s at least one wise and thoughtful adult around.

Biggest media tart: Barnaby Joyce

Look, let’s just give this one to Barnaby Joyce in perpetuity. It’s not merely Barnaby’s availability to the media that makes him so prized, it’s the sheer weirdness of the content of Joyce’s media statements and appearances. Last week, Joyce issued a press release complaining about … well, it’s not entirely clear, but it was something about water irrigation and the carbon price. It contained the left-field phrase: “You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to work out the dilemma.”

Who knows what he meant. But as Freud himself observed, sometimes an irrigation pipe is just an irrigation pipe.

Worst political gaffe: Kevin Rudd

There were many moments of poor judgment, dud tactics and shocking errors during the year. The Coalition’s wildly-overhyped campaign against the carbon price was left exposed after July 1. Labor managed to take a seemingly unexceptionable economic issue — its new process for enabling mining projects that were struggling to attract sufficient labour — and transform it into an unseemly internal brawl. Julia Gillard’s “line has been crossed, but I can’t tell you what the line is” handling of the Slipper and Thomson sagas in April was her worst moment. Bill Shorten’s pre-emptive agreement with the Prime Minister will remain a staple of political satire for years to come. And then there was Tony Abbott’s 7.30 appearance.

But none will have longer-lasting consequences than Kevin Rudd’s error in allowing himself to be goaded into an early leadership challenge. By losing patience and going in February, Rudd ensured he would fail and, having fired the one shot in his locker, be forced to the backbench. If he’d waited two or three more months, as Gillard’s standing with voters fell even further, he’d have likely been returned to the Prime Ministership, despite the immense dislike of many senior figures within the party. And if he had, most likely we’d have had an election by now.

Rudd may yet return to the leadership if things go pear-shaped for Labor next year, but that would require Gillard giving up. Good luck there.

Politician of the year: Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard began the year as she ended 2011, prone to poor judgment and mistakes, loathed by voters and looking increasingly like roadkill before the gathering onslaught of Rudd. She ends it with Rudd confined to the backbench; she is substantially higher in voters’ esteem than Tony Abbott and has found her voice as Prime Minister.

Ever since she ascended to the leadership, Gillard has struggled to offer a clear, effective political persona, only really coming to life in deepest adversity. During 2012, she finally stopped needing someone throwing grenades at her to make her communicate with the sort of cut-through effectiveness that Labor MPs so hoped for when they gave her the top job.

Some of the recovery by Gillard can be put down to better management by her communications director John McTernan, who has ruthlessly imposed discipline on the government to not merely cut out the constant mistakes but to establish a coherent big-picture agenda that the government can take to the next election. But the key change has been within Gillard herself, who is less and less performing like what she thinks a Prime Minister should be, and more and more being herself. And she has done so in the face of a ferocious campaign by her opponents in the media, in her own party and in the opposition.

The Prime Minister won’t lie down and die, Abbott told his colleagues in May. He was right on the money.

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  • 1
    john willoughby
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    The highlight of the year was the “Outlier” that appeared in the form of Rares J. and his reasons for the dismissal of Mr Ashbys sexual harassment claim.
    The conservative side of politics in this country seem to be dwelling in the same structure as there brethren in the USA , a political form of “second life” where a parallel universe has been created.. Here in australia we used to call it swallowing your own bullshit..
    The spectacle of Fox “News” refusing to believe that Obama had won the Presidency after
    even their own analysts had called it is a case in point.
    The opposition here had better start examining more than the Tea leaves dispensed by the excruciatingly named News limited..

  • 2
    paddy
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Bernard, I think Stephen Conroy probably also deserves an honourable mention on the “effective” side of the ledger.
    I know he’s an insufferable pain in the proverbial.
    But he *has* managed to keep the NBN on track. (Despite the best efforts of Turnbull to emulate a horde of Visigoths.)
    Plus, he’s even been fairly politically adept, at letting the millstone of the net filter quietly sink without trace.

    The financial planning reforms are important and worthy. But in terms of what will be this Govt’s greatest legacy, they don’t even come close to the NBN.

  • 3
    Gavin Mooney
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Those of us interested in health were so pleased when Nicola Roxon moved on. Her ‘love’ of public health was perhaps best exhibited in her comment to the Australian Food and Grocery Council Dinner when she argued in the context of prevention that she saw ‘no reason for people to fear industry engagement - quite the opposite’. Out of the mouths of … ministers who just don’t get it.

    But Roxon’s move left space for Tanya Plibersek who really does seem to get it.

  • 4
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Agree with your choices, Bernard, apart from Most Effective Minister.

    Stephen Conroy is across his portfolio and makes a persuasive argument for the NBN - even the likeable Turnbull can’t win that debate when they go head to head. Nor do I find him a pain, there are other ministers way ahead of him in that regard.

  • 5
    Chris Graham
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    On the money, and as incisive and entertaining as ever Bernard. And while I don’t disagree with you’re ‘most ineffective minister’, I’m disappointed Jenny Macklin didn’t get some sort of kicking, deserved or otherwise.

  • 6
    Kevin Tyerman
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I do appreciate that “most effective” is different to “best”, but as a country, if we start rewarding our politicians for “demonstrat[ing] a willingness not to let consistency, facts or common sense interfere with prosecuting the case against the government” (or the opposition), instead of honesty and integrity shown while in their repsective offices, we will indeed have the politicians we deserve.

  • 7
    Simon Mansfield
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    >> The Aussie dollar becoming a reserve currency.

    It’s not a reserve currency - it’s just a sure bet against a bunch of overpaid fools obsessed with economic ideology rather than national self interest.

    Seriously, BK have you ever actually worked a day as an employer - let alone fired someone.

    If Labor was not in office the dollar bubble would be the number issue of concern. Instead it’s an easy way to keep supermarket inflation low without doing squat about the structural problems Australian retail has to contend with each day. Meanwhile, tax receipts continue to fall as export earnings contract.

    The difference between 1.05 and .95 is close enough to 10% to call it that. What would happen if average PAYG workers had their earnings cut by 10%. Try managing an SME export business with that type of revenue fluctuations. And please no more garbage about hedging - it’s expensive and eventually expires.

    Most large corporations with international earning are able to hedge via internal cash flow means. SMEs simply don’t have the resources and expertise to manage long range currency hedges. But BK being a business expert of the first order always knows better.

  • 8
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I agree with others re Stepehn Conroy. Selling the NBN, or at least navigating it inexorably forward without further disaster, is an achievement in its own right. There are a squillion ill-informed people ready to jump all over that one, and largely they have been given no ammunition.

    Also letting the internet filter die a thankful death was well handled. He may not be PM material, seemingly uninterested in looking human, but he is effective.

    You’re right about JG, the second half of this year saw her emerge from her self/PR spun coccoon.

    Mr Mansfield, your comments are strange at best. Perhaps I should just point out that the money market is factors larger than the Australian economy. Short of running the economy into the ground, there isn’t much that the govt can do. Are you suggesting they should be running the economy into the ground?

  • 9
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Simon Mansfield: ” What would happen if average PAYG workers had their earnings cut by 10%.”

    In that case they should celebrate they’re not relying on the cash term deposit market for their livelihood as the cut would be closer to 50%.

  • 10
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Stuck in modn, will re-word the post:

    Simon Mansfield: ” What would happen if average PAYG workers had their earnings cut by 10%.”

    In that case they should celebrate they’re not dependant on the cash term deposit market for their livelihood as the cut would be closer to 50%.

  • 11
    Simon Mansfield
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    There is a lot the RBA could do. Starting with leaning into the market with swaps of new dollars for the excessive euros pouring into the market. Match them Dollar for Euro at around 5pm each day and keep doing it until they go elsewhere.

    There was talk the RBA did that a few weeks ago with some 2 billion in purchases by taking the foreign purchases directly onto the RBA balance sheet. But when you look at the RBA foreign reserves they actually appear to going down the last 5 months. So who knows what the RBA is doing.

    Just look at the figures - we don’t even come close to having the foreign reserves an economy our size should have today. So yes there is plenty the RBA and Treasury could do starting with hiring a senior banker from Zurich and get the inside running on how to play hardball in the currency wars. The mere act of doing such would send a message to the market.

    As to cash depositors - well the difference between the workers and the self funded retirees is the former actually work for a living and pay taxes whereas the latter pay little if no tax nowadays and want to earn 6% and more for little or zero risk. All while going on yet another trip to Europe.

    Vast slabs of the self funded retiree set made their money from the housing and stock market boom with a nice kicker from the early days of super. Now they don’t want to take any risk outside term deposits and instead want 6-8% all while paying no effective tax. What’s the current tax free threshold for retirees - 70K or thereabouts for couples. All along with discounted phone bills, discounted rates, free car rego, 2 dollar public transport, free medical services. Howard certainly knew how to pay off the Children of Menzies. And Abbott cannot wait to count their votes. Meanwhile, Gillard thinks the Bogans are going to vote for her because baked beans have never been cheaper and trips to Bali are so much cheaper than going to the Gold Coast.

    Yer the Lucky Country is seriously drunk on the koolaid and BK is a major supplier in keeping the glass half full.

  • 12
    Sean Doyle
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Have to take issue with the call if Scott Morrison as “most effective shadow minister”. He might be a very effective politician in the Abbott mode, but surely if someone has managed to reach the ministerial benches, the public deserves better than bigoted dog whistles and lies like the typhoid claims. I realise it might be slim pickings on the opposition side for people who have genuinely held the government to account as opposed to feeding spin to News Ltd, but that doesn’t mean that one should endorse base politics in place of scrutiny.

    Also, as an aside, I don’t think that Shorten’s preemptive endorsement of the PM’s words is actually that embarrassing. Given the way party discipline works and the way the media pounces on politicians who deviate even a nanometre from the party line, particularly since, like teenage boys with sex, they can see a leadership challenge in absolutely anything, Shorten was pretty much saying the only words realistically available to him. It’s the main reason why I don’t bother watching interviews with major party politicians. Why bother when you know what they’ll say word for word before the interview has even started? Q&A also suffers from the same disease. The only episodes that are watchable are the ones where the politicians are absent.

    Shorten’s crime wasn’t saying something stupid, it was showing what is behind the facade.

  • 13
    Bernard Keane
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Zut, Paddy, Dog’s Breakfast, Conroy got the gong last year. I’ve instituted a no-doubles rule.

  • 14
    Bernard Keane
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Simon - many (genuine!) thanks. That line about the koolaid glass being half-full is the best and most originalt insult I’ve received in 5 years at Crikey. Cheers and best wishes for the break.

  • 15
    Bernard Keane
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Chris, maybe she can CLAW BACK a gong for her ongoing handling of indigenous issues?

  • 16
    Bernard Keane
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    BK is a major supplier in keeping the glass half full”.

    God I love that.

  • 17
    jenauthor
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    You left out one award, Bernard.

    The hard hat/fluoro vest encouragement award” (sub award for media tart division) goes to Tony Abbott. How to keep junior Canberra journos in regular daily work … and ensure many businesses are boycotted by right-thinking voters. A big achievement for a small mind.

  • 18
    paddy
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Fair enough Bernard. But in that case, I’d like to nominate Stephen Smith for an honourable mention. He’s taken on the military mandarins and is still standing! That’s got to be worth a few points. Plus he’s shown a fair amount of real class when it comes to cleaning up the pigsty of past military malpractice.

  • 19
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    In what sort of state are our politics when the likes of “Reith-Morrison” can take out an award for “Best in Show” albeit from “lurking in the shadows”?

  • 20
    sean
    Posted Wednesday, 19 December 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Dissapointing Bernard that in terms of Scott Morrison you define ‘effective’ in a purely politics as sport sense - not in relation to the kind of substantive qualities that you often bemoan are absent in the modern day political circus. No mention of the ethical dimension to Morrison - ie your view earlier in the year that the Coalition’s decision to block the Malaysian plan was ‘evil’. I’m sure Scott will be stoked by your assessment of him.

  • 21
    Nhoj
    Posted Wednesday, 19 December 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Bernard, how about an honourable mention to Greg ‘Bill Collins’ Combet? He negotiated the carbon tax introduction with aplomb, and even had time for a bit of racecalling: Malcolm Turnbull as a classy thoroughbred, Hockey hungry for a win but not up to Group One racing (after being booted from the chamber), Julie Bishop a real chance after being runner-up three times, Scott Morrison a promising weight-for-ager (but spooked by foreigners) and Bronwyn Bishop (a 1994 favourite).

    Also, best Speaker’s award (well, there was more than one) to the wonderful Anna Burke who was acting in the role for most of the year without the benefits that Slipper was still being paid. Great control with genuinely good humour.

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