Not even a bad virus can keep Australia best political commentator down.

This week’s piece is also remarkable as it contains none of Hillary’s usual Bash Tash bits ‘n’ pieces. If you’ve read the ramblings of the Lounge Bar Bore of the Gallery, Alan Ramsey, this week you’ll see there’s no need.

Those wacky Queenslanders – Part I

Did you catch De-Anne Kelly on Saturday, suggesting that Tim Fischer’s comments on a republic he should “apologise” for “undermining policy”?

De-Anne, of course, is famous for being one of the most acquiescent backbenchers who never disagrees with anything the Government says or does?

Man of the moment

Last Thursday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on John Seyffer’s appearance during a meeting of the Joint Statutory Committee on Corporations and Securities on 16 August last year. Here’s what it had to say:

“On August 16 last year, Mr Seyffer made the surprise entrance during a parliamentary committee hearing into Commonwealth Bank practices.

“According to Mr Greg Malouf, who was appearing before the committee about his grievances with the bank, Mr Seyffer opened the door and called him into the corridor. Mr Seyffer allegedly told him he had just come from the Prime Minister’s office and the hearing was being ‘shut down’.

“This conversation was corroborated by another aggrieved witness, Mr Bruce Ford, who was introduced to Mr Seyffer, a journalist and ACCC witness, Mr Allan Ducret. The hearing inquired into the CBA’s practice of keeping a secret second set of books on troubled loans – called ‘shadow ledgers’ – tax write-offs and the non issuance of bank statements to some borrowers.

“In an unusual move the committee, headed by Liberal Senator Grant Chapman, issued a press release the same day stating that the keeping of shadow ledgers did not breach any rules?”

Funnily enough, Crikey received an email the day news of Jonathon Shier seeking an separate opinion on the Four Corners’ story naming Seyffer and suggesting we look at his involvement with the Committee.

What gives?

Quick off the mark

OK – there were other things happening in Indonesia this week and Lex Loser was busy travelling Asia singing “I Get Around”, but Hillary would have thought that the revelation that John Seyffer was part of a push by the Keating Government to sell arms to Suharto might have rated more attention.

According to reports this week, Seyffer was involved in a bid by Labor to sell Steyr rifles – and Collins class submarines – to the Indonesian dictator.

Selling rifles to an army that uses them on civilians and dissident groups fits oddly with the rest of Gareth Gareth’s foreign policy ideas – and trying to sell subs looks like an attempt to occupy a niche market in the big league of international arms dealing.

But we didn’t hear anything – not even from the Timor lobby – until Fia Cumming got former defence minister Robert Ray to fess up in the Sun-Herald on Sunday.

Those lads and lasses in the Gallery are really quick off the mark.

No harm done?

And what are relations like between Richo and the New South Wales right like after the Four Corners’ revelations on his role in the piggery affair?

A Crikey agent spotted Richo and John “General Norriega” Della Bosca having lunch at down the back of Don Quixote in Sydney’s Spanish Quarter on Wednesday, just two days after the broadcast.

Our agent says things appeared amicable – but noted that Norriega kept Richo waiting for 15 minutes.

Quote of the week

Every backbench staffer knows that people like Greg Malouf front up at electoral offices with depressing regularity. John Seyffer’s are somewhat different.

Still, that couldn’t stop Mad Monk Tony Abbott from buying into the Heffernan/Baume scandal this week.

He told the ABC: “One of the facts of life of being a politician is that lots of people with lots of different interests and lots of varied backgrounds come into your offices all the time. A politician’s office is a bit of a public resource. That is what the general public expect it to be and that is what happens, within reason.”

Back when he was a mere Parly Sec, the Monk’s willingness to leap into print in any portfolio area used to cause significant angst amongst Ministers. Now that he’s in Cabinet, he may soon learn that sticking to your own brief is a fundamental matter of safety.

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac

Yes, this column will be a Natasha free zone – but Hillary can’t leave the Democrats alone.

Why did they have a stand at Sexpo? Have they come up with a variation on one of Henry Kissinger’s better known quotes and adopted a new slogan “The balance of power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”?

Quite frankly, none of the Dems do much for Hillary. Indeed, there were several sad cases around Parliament who were so horrified by the very thought when the Jeanette Powell and Sid Spindler liaison broke that they remained celibate for years.

PS Is it really true that a former conservative New South Wales State Liberal MP was working on a Sexpo stand? More details, please!

Loyal Deputy

What interesting timing. The Sphere of Influence was banging on about Liberal defeatists in his column in the Bulletin and then the stories from Shaun Carney’s Costello biography appear.

Peter Costello: The New Liberal is an unauthorised biography, so naturally it is full of the most terrible calumnies and slanders. Everyone who has heard the Rodent and his loyal deputy shower each other with praise over the last few days knows that.

The sheer fact that the Government has a five seat majority, that half (39 out of 79) of the Coalition’s seats are considered to be marginal, requiring a two-party swing of less than six per cent to fall and that 10 of these are held by a margin of less than one per cent has not featured in MPs minds at all.

There is no leadership positioning, no speculation on challenges or change. Indeed, as the loyal deputy commented on Friday, he and the PM enjoy one of the great relationships of Australian politics, just like Menzies and Harold Holt. And there’s no truth in the rumour that the Rodent has been urging him to take up swimming.

Vote now, pay later

Sunday’s stories on a “super senior’s card” show just how desperate the Howard Government is.

Despite our ageing population, oldies gained a whole pile of lurks and perks back in the May Budget and are now getting this benefit, too.

As the population grows older, these bribes will cost more and more and become harder to support – and even more politically difficult to claw back.

That’s great economic management for you.

Those wacky Queenslanders – Part II

Labor’s hold on Ryan is looking even better after events in Queensland this week.

Former Liberal candidate Bob Tucker is trying to get an injunction against virtually every significant Liberal Party figure in the state after the Exec reneged on preselection promises and decided to throw the candidacy open.

Six candidates have come forward for preselection, including Tucker and usual suspects Michael Johnson and Matt Boland.

Chutney maker Astrid Valati has also thrown his hat into the ring again. He scored a massive two votes out of the several hundred cast in a general plebiscite at the last preselection. Wonder how many he’ll score with only 85 people voting this time round.

Frontier spirit

NT Chief Minister Dennis Burke gets done for contempt of court – and five days later there’s talk of an early election on August 18. Ah, the frontier spirit. Nothing holds back the brave pioneer.

Den has already given a great display of his understanding of the separation of powers. The Territory’s electoral laws only reinforce this spirit of accountability. A Chief Minister only needs to give 15 days notice of a poll.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

And now, let’s look at Hillary’s analysis of the Aston by-election.

Aston winners and spinners

There were plenty of spinners, but no real winners in the Aston by-election.

Labor should have won. Aston is a textbook outer-metro swinging seat. It was created in 1983 and, unsurprisingly, won by the ALP in the election the follow year. It stayed Labor in 1987 then fell to Peter Nugent as Victorians revolted against the Cain Government in 1990.

Instead, Labor couldn’t even get the usual by-election swing.

Kieran Boland was an uninspiring candidate – but the people who put him there, not Boland, should be the ones who wear the blame. After the fall of the Kennett Government and the Coalition’s disastrous state by-election performances, seats such as Aston deserved better candidates than junior apparatchiks who still lived at home with mummy.

Labor went into the poll with the momentum – but Fart Boy Slim and Co couldn’t convince the punters.

Fart Boy couldn’t even get his spin right. On the weekend he told the meeja that he didn’t accept claims that postal and pre-poll votes in the Aston by-election would automatically favour the coalition. His people clearly hadn’t looked at the past postal and pre-poll voting record in Aston. Then, when it became clear the seat would go to the Libs, he said that if the primary swing against the Government of 3.67 per cent was repeated nation-wide at the next election Labor would win 32 seats. Try 22, Kim.

That figure, though, is all you need to know to dismiss the Rodent’s claim that the Aston result gave “heart and hope” to Liberals around Australia.

However, he was a little more accurate when he said “the result gives the lie to those who claim that there is an unstoppable momentum for a Labor victory in the general election”.

The week before Newspoll published some interesting findings that suggested Labor would win the election, but only with a majority of 12 seats or so. A Labor win is virtually inevitable. The Coalition has some 15 seats with margins of two per cent or less. With Mad Bob gone off to the You Owe Us a Living Party, only five of these need to fall for Fart Boy to make it over the line.

Aston suggests that Knowledge Nation hasn’t exactly galvanised the community but that Labor will win the next election – yet not as a result of any great enthusiasm .

It’s even more interesting examining the Democrat spin. They are deluded – but the media seems to keep swallowing the pap they dish up. Hillary was stunned by Monday’s Australian – the article by Matt “Puff-Piece” Price and the editorial cartoon. You’d think that there had been some almighty triumph.

Ah Satan made the amazing remark on Sunday “to experience a swing is truly extraordinary for a party that only four months ago was three per cent in the polls, and now we’re over eight per cent, it’s fantastic”.

Satan might like look at some figures, old and new. Hillary knows that any honest observer would find them fascinating.

First, the Dems were coming off a good result. In the 1998 election, the Dems scored 7.53 per cent of the primary vote in Aston – good, but a swing against them of 1.38 per cent when compared to their 1996 showing.

At the close of counting on Friday, they had scored 8.07 per cent of the primaries – a swing of only 0.55 per cent. They haven’t even made up half the ground they lost in 98, long before the GST deal.

The figures showed a swing against both major parties of 9.32 per cent – but the Dems had only won less than 17 per cent of these votes. This is a triumph? By-elections are a time for protest votes – and the Democrats have failed miserably in capturing them.

The Dems spent big in Aston, by their standards. Campaigners have told Crikey that at some booths the “Change Politics” signs almost outnumbered the posters for the major parties and a Democrat campaign truck was doing the rounds. A departed Democrat has told Crikey that they put $20,000 into the campaign. By comparison, they have spent sums in the past of $80,000 to cover all of New South Wales, the state with the most Federal electorates.

At the same time, with Aston being a by-election, they were able to pour all their human resources into just the one seat.

And what has the result been? A swing of just 0.55 per cent? Not good at all.

What should be even more worrying for the Dems has been the way their result evaporated since the initial count. On Saturday night, they had picked up a swing of 0.89 per cent. This started to shrink as soon as the postal and pre-poll ballots came in. A party that can’t organise a postal vote strategy – even in a by-election – is not a serious contender.

Finally, we really should give a special mention to Greens. After all, Bob Brown can never shut up about his preferences.

The Greens got a lousy 2.4 per cent of the vote in the Aston by-election, so he suddenly lumped that and the Independent and Liberals for Forests results together and started talking about how if the Labor Party had done a deal on preferences with this combined green vote they would have won the election by several hundred votes.

Oh yeah? And if Labor had done the deal on what the Greens wanted, the Liberal Party wouldn’t have campaigned on how Labor had sold out to Green extremists? Does Bob really think, in the electorate with the country’s third highest proportion of households owning two or more cars, policies like endorsing the Kyoto agreement or stopping the Scoresby freeway were popular? If Labor had done a deal, then the Liberals would have hammered Labor over the detail, costing Labor more primary votes than would have been received as preferences from the Greens.

If the Greens, as they keep insisting, are highlighting the issues of real concern to the electorate, then why did they only get 2.4 per cent? They can’t blame the media. All those stunts in the koala suits got plenty of media coverage in the campaign – certainly more than the Australian Democrats achieved.

The problem is, the Greens are so convinced of the moral rightness of their cause, that they pay precious little attention to convincing others of their position. They are an old fashioned Leninist “vanguard”” party. They are not interested in abandoning their fundamentalist core values, instead always trying to force the major parties who bother to try and get a majority of the vote to introduce Green policies supported by only the minority.

If the Greens think their issues are crucial in a by-election like Aston, why don’t they campaign for votes rather than keep bleating that their issues are important so the major parties must do a preference deal.

While Hillary has well known problems with the Democrats, they have been successful in claiming they still hover near the centre of politics. The Greens moral right to claim balance of power status is dubious because they are not in the middle of politics. The Liberal and Labor Parties are clustered somewhere on either side of the centre of the political spectrum, but the Greens are generally out somewhere on the left, though on some issues they are at a right-angle tangent to the rest of politics.

Just look at Tasmania. In a decade, the Greens were responsible for the smashing defeat of two minority governments, one Labor and one Liberal. In 1992 Michael Field’s Labor government was smashed for attempting to govern with the Greens on the cross-benches. In 1998 Tony Rundle’s Liberal government met the same fate after struggling to govern for two years with the Greens holding a blue pencil to all their actions.

In both cases, the middle ground of politics that decides elections in Australia would not countenance the Greens imposing their minority positions on a government. There were normally Labor voters prepared to vote Liberal rather than give the Greens a say in government, and Liberal voters prepared to vote Labor for the same reason.

For a mob that keeps criticising the “old” parties, you can’t help thinking there is nothing the Greens like doing better than backroom wheeling and dealing over preferences. It’s how they wield their power. And whatever their cant about being a grass roots movement, they would rather put pressure on the major parties to do deals than the real work of democracy, which is building their own vote. But then, getting a higher vote might actually involve understanding the needs of people rather than trees or previously unheard of small furry animals.

It also might force the odd compromise on policy – and a lot of old Trots would rather get an ice pick through the skull than compromise on principle.

Peter Fray

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