The imbroglio over SAS overpayments limps on, but might struggle to make it into the weekend papers, especially as the issue has now boiled down to who is interpreting a payslip correctly. I never really worked out everything on my public service pay slips and I imagine Defence’s aren’t any different, so good luck there.

It did, however, rather shine a light on Joel Fitzgibbon’s poor Parliamentary performance. Fitzgibbon has attracted plenty of good publicity since his unexpected elevation to Defence, primarily via his enthusiasm for meeting ADF personnel. He hasn’t been under any pressure in Parliament until this week, when he didn’t give too flash an account of himself.

Oddly enough, he had a reasonable position to defend, although it seemed to take him most of the week to establish it, suggesting his Department retains all the flexibility of an elephant when it comes to accountability and responsiveness. His worst day was on Wednesday, when the Opposition finally realised something that Anthony Albanese patiently explained to them last year — censure motions are supposed to come after you’ve successfully built up pressure via questioning of a minister. Last year, under both Nelson and Turnbull, the Opposition seemed to randomly turn to censure motions with often minimal build-up. On Wednesday, they had Fitzgibbon at sixes and sevens and then sprung the censure motion. That’s the way to do it.

Yesterday, however, Fitzgibbon belatedly got his act together, and while his performance still had the air of a rabbit caught in headlights, he produced the now-famous payslip and showed that the SAS soldier in question had been paid a couple of thousand dollars more than the $0.00 claimed by the Opposition. He also tabled the paper trail of his October request that recovery action for overpayments be halted.

Vexed, the Opposition stopped its constant heckling and then much of the frontbench began going through Fitzgibbon’s documents. Turnbull then launched into another censure motion, with plenty of confected outrage. Fitzgibbon’s response had more authority to it this time, especially when he invited Turnbull to sit down with him and compare his payslip with their payslip, which they had refused to table. If Fitzgibbon had managed the same trick on Wednesday, life would have been a lot easier for him and a lot less comfortable for the Opposition. The Australian today was still running claims from an unidentified woman claiming the soldier had not been paid, but Fitzgibbon this morning said she had subsequently admitted that he’d been paid.

Rudd walked out of both censure motions, having better things to do than listen to the Opposition and his own Defence Minister.

None of this appeared to be of interest outside Canberra. There was little interest on talkback radio and limited coverage on commercial TV news, most people’s source of political coverage. It might have been because of the complicated nature of the yarn — after all, it centres on overpayment and payslips — but it had all the ingredients for a wildly successful beat-up: brave SAS soldiers on the frontline, families doing it tough (“from the frontline to the breadline” as Turnbull rapped) and heartless bureaucracies. But it failed to get any traction.

Rudd’s judgement in disappearing from the debate appeared to reflect this. Rudd — like John Howard before him — is adept at sensing what’s important within the charmed circle of the Parliamentary precincts, and what registers with voters. Fitzgibbon’s performance would have registered with his colleagues, the Opposition and the Press Gallery, no doubt, but it will leave no trace on voters.

For that, you have to turn to Kim Carr, whose witless remark yesterday that “no-one’s job is safe” would have pierced any fog of voter ignorance. No wonder he hastily backtracked. “There’s a real fine line between being frank and open with people and scaremongering,” he told Michelle Grattan. If there is indeed a “real fine line”, Carr leapt over it and kept on going. At least he was following in the footsteps of another Victorian Labor Industry Minister, John Button, who made any number of cock-eyed claims about the recession in the early 1990s.

In response to Carr, Turnbull again hammered the point about the Government talking down the economy. That’s a line that might bear fruit with voters as things worsen, because Ministers insist on emphasising how bad things are even on days like yesterday when the news is mixed. At any rate, it will mean more to voters focussed on the possibility of unemployment than who said what to whom about who was overpaid when.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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