The big winner from the de facto defeat in the Senate of the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 is the Fluke Senator, Steve Fielding from Victoria. (I describe him as the “Fluke Senator” because, as every schoolboy knows, his party group received only 1.9% of the vote in October 2004. He was only elected because of the incredible Labor bungle of giving him their surplus vote, which should have gone to the Greens.)
When I was roaming the corridors of Parliament House last week I was struck by the universality with which the politicians were taking it for granted that Fielding would join Howard on this. “No way” I would assert in my loudest voice. Last Friday afternoon I even wrote an article for Crikey on this – but it was not published because it was overtaken by events.
Why, on earth, did any serious observer get the idea that Fielding would support Howard on this bill? The reason is that Fielding is very clever at faking an open mind when, in fact, his mind was made up all along. The real tell-tale sign was that Fielding should seek to visit the Indonesian ambassador. That was a brilliant move on his part. It enabled him, when announcing his predictable decision on Sunday, to state that his major objection to the bill was that Indonesia wanted it.
Apart from the brilliant way in which Fielding fakes an open mind there are, I suppose, two other pieces of history leading to the general prediction of last week combined with the description “surprise decision of Steve Fielding” in this week’s commentaries.
The first is the case of voluntary student unionism. When one Coalition senator, Barnaby Joyce, crossed the floor Fielding cancelled out his vote by voting with the Coalition.
The second is the case of Gary Humphries and the question of civil unions in the ACT. Again when one Coalition senator (this time a Liberal) crossed the floor Fielding cancelled out his vote by joining the Coalition. These two events, combined with Fielding faking an open mind on refugees, caused the wiseacres last week to say, cynically, that “Fielding always gives his vote to Howard when Howard really needs it”.
Suppose Fielding had joined with Howard again on this refugee bill, what then? The short answer is that Fielding would have voted with the losing side, destroyed his reputation for holding “the crucial vote” in the Senate and discredited himself in every way. His critics would then have said, even more loudly, that “Fielding always gives his vote to Howard when Howard really needs it”.
Permit me, therefore, to quote what I wrote to Crikey last Friday afternoon about Fielding. “He must surely know the reality. He can either be principled and join the winning team or he can discredit himself by casting an ineffective and losing vote from the gutter with the Howard Government. It is a no-brainer when you think of it.”
My final thought is this. If you care to visit the Senate chamber you will notice that Fielding sits in exactly the same seat where Brian Harradine used to sit. In one way the two are the opposite. Brian Harradine was the ultimate Non Fluke Senator. Steve Fielding is the ultimate Fluke Senator. But Fielding is learning the tricks of Brian Harradine very fast.