‘POLITICAL PARTY IN POLITICAL DEAL HORROR!’ That pretty much should have been the headline on all media this week as the mining tax went — as we always knew it would — and some, but not all, provisions that Labor had attached to it went too.
A small party/bloc of four and two crossbench senators made a deal with the party that has government in the lower house to pass a measure that the now-governing party had campaigned on (one of the few), but to save $6.5 billion of measures for the life of the Parliament, which said government was trying to abolish immediately.
And this was treated by much of the commentariat as some measure of political dysfunction in Australia, epic skullduggery by the Palmer United Party, etc, etc.
At this point, one has to pinch oneself to see if one is dreaming. Have we passed into some sort of Lalaland, where the actual doing of politics — the negotiation between elected groups, representing interests and ideas — is a sign of political dysfunction? Is this the final result of the obsessive focus on policypolicypolicy, which dominates the imagination of the political-media elite?
More of that in a bit, but first let’s acknowledge that there are several arguments being mounted against what happened around the mining tax. The first and substantial one is that the tax shouldn’t have been abolished. Well, I agree, but the Coalition campaigned on it (with the aid of stunningly false propaganda from Anti-News Corp), so objecting is mere oppositionality — legitimate but hardly compelling. The second objection is that it’s being helped through by the personal party of a coal baron, to his immediate benefit.
True also, but that is a structural flaw of our whole political system. We have a Treasurer worth north of $10 million and a Communications Minister with an eight-figure fortune, so Palmer is hardly alone, and there’s only so much we can do about such interests except make them visible. Palmer’s pivot position has occurred because he’s the first tycoon to take advantage of possibilities within the Senate voting system. That was going to happen sooner or later, and now we have to change the system accordingly.
The third objection is that Tony Abbott made a promise that there would be no change to super arrangements under an Abbott government. Yeah, but that’s really within range of standard broken promises — Abbott can reasonably argue that the proposed super rate hike wasn’t part of current super arrangements. He’s also within his rights to look for extra revenue — which increased present taxes arising from a super rate freeze may generate — given that measures designed to reduce the deficit (another campaign promise) have been stymied. Compared to the black lying the Abbott government has done on everything else, it’s minor stuff.
No, what the real shrieking arguments seem to be about was that any deal was done at all — that the Palmer United Party and crossbench senators might pursue a strategy that allowed the government to get its legislation through in exchange for current or later deals on other matters. As an extra measure, there has been a charge of hypocrisy turned towards Palmer, suggesting that this deal somehow queers his pitch as a “friend of the poor”.
“The shriek of the commentariat at this deal has nothing to do with the interests on display — it is about control of the political process slipping from the two-party-media nexus…”
Let’s deal with the second first. As far as I can see Palmer and the PUP have a perfectly consistent position, which is to oppose cuts to the basic social welfare safety net — especially those the government sprung on us after the election — but to otherwise be a moderately centrist, mildly centre-right party. Nothing in this deal contradicts this or contradicts anything Palmer has claimed about his beliefs or course of action. Should he negotiate on the co-pay or the wacky youf dole arrangements, his credibility will be badly shot, but the deal done seems to me the sort of thing the Senate was designed to do. Had the Democrats still been around, this is the sort of deal the Andrew Murray-centrist faction of the party would have brokered. They would have then been praised for their sober political maturity. Which goes to the deep despite that large sections of the commentariat have for the current arrangements — that it is politics, not policy, that dominates.
The maddest thing was the idea that this was “a deal done behind closed doors” and therefore suspect. But where else would constituted political parties negotiate? Since most of Australian government is done behind closed doors — i.e. within a single party and then presented as a fait accompli — the fact that something was actually negotiated would seem to be more democratic, not less. The acme of this tosh was something by Lenore Taylor about the “Palmer process”, wherein Clive says something and then does a modified form of it — or dealmaking and negotiation as the rest of us call it. Or politics, even.
The real objection to a deal on super, is that politics replaces policy. Compulsory super has been ordained by the political-media-bureaucrat elite as so self-evidently good that it does not need to be sold, argued for or justified. It is good “policy”, by which is meant the management of behaviour of the masses — in this case their saving patterns — by the elite. Compulsory super is, in a way, a continuation of the depoliticised process of Australian politics vested in the Harvester judgement — it’s canny way of fixing the wages/profit split of the social surplus in favour of the former, relative to what it would otherwise be (since higher wages can then be campaigned for on top of the sequestered 9% super). But it also obscures the wages/profit split as the core political question and division between capital and labour. Thus left depoliticised, it is harder to defend when it is abolished at the stroke of a pen. And there is a good argument against the Left against compulsory super — that workers should be given the chance to collectively maximise present income, and then individually decide how they will dispose of it.
The shriek of the commentariat at this deal has nothing to do with the interests on display — it is about control of the political process slipping from the two-party-media nexus, which generate a shared political result, and a received notion of “political possibility”. We saw the same tantrum when the Greens gained the balance of power, and we will see it for a while to come. For the rest, people better get used to politics. If Labor wants a super hike they better, ohhhh I dunno, make it a genuine popular cause. Wouldn’t that be a shock-horror!
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.