Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Sir John Harrington was clearly familiar with the code of the Australian Labor Party. The mob who brought down their leader on June 24 have indeed prospered, and anyone who now accuses them of and act of treachery runs a severe risk of kneecapping.
In some cases inviting the hangmen to the feast was probably justified. Bill Shorten has long been regarded as one of Labor’s brighter young Turks — even as a potential prime minister himself — so his ascent into the ministry was inevitable. Mark Arbib is more of a borderline case. He wasn’t responsible for any serious screw-ups in Employment Participation and so deserved to retain his place as a junior minister. Whether he had earned a promotion involving extra and rather more serious responsibilities is, of course, another question.
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And then we come to his fellow sinister senators, Don Farrell and David Feeney. They have become parliamentary secretaries, hardly the height of power. But, hey, it’s the first step up the greasy totem pole, and given that neither has ever shown the slightest interest or aptitude for anything other than self-aggrandisement, other more talented aspirants may well feel aggrieved.
Given that any hint of grievance in a minority government can easily escalate into terminal conflict, Julia Gillard is going to have to display quite extraordinary tact and diplomacy in dealing with it. And that applies in spades when it comes to the independents who gave her the numbers to form government in the first place.
It should not be forgotten that three of the four are themselves turncoats. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott deserted the National Party and have never been forgiven for it, and never will be; as a result they are sensitive to the point of paranoia. There are hardheads in the ALP who are deeply apprehensive about their political stability. There is a Labor adage that a man who will rat once will rat again. For the moment they have prospered beyond their wildest dreams, but this does not mean they will remain satisfied for three years.
And then there is Andrew Wilkie, an even looser cannon. Wilkie was once a member of the Liberal Party, then became a fervent Green; he is now in the Labor camp. At least he, like the archetypal serial rat, Billy Hughes, has so far drawn the line at joining the Country Party, now the Nationals; but he can hardly be said to have settled down. And while the fourth evangelist, Adam Bandt, seems at least to be firmly committed to his role as a Green collaborator with the government, his party is full of fanatics who will be urging him to push Labor to its limits and far beyond.
The party room will be a constantly seething stew of competing interests and egos with the potential to boil over at the slightest miscalculation on the part of the chef. And Gillard is notoriously lacking in the skills of the kitchen.
This is not to say that the exercise is an impossible one. Minority governments are, after all, the natural state of democracy. Many countries have never known anything else and their diverse coalitions have not only survived but have proved remarkably effective. It should not be forgotten that even Australia is government by coalitions more often than not; we have only recently emerged from 11 years of one. Few people noticed because the senior partner, the Liberals, sat so firmly on the junior Nationals that they seldom emerged as a separate voice. But John Howard, in fact, led a minority party.
In one sense Gillard is in a better position. Labor, as is almost always the case, is the largest single party in parliament and the most disciplined. If it can get through the next three years as a stable and effective administration, it will have indeed proved itself as the natural party of government. The biggest worry is that it will be too concerned about stability and not enough about effectiveness. And in this context it should summarily dismiss and ignore the querulous bleating from the opposition losers and their media cheer squad that Labor’s hold on office is somehow illegitimate.
There is only one test of legitimacy: the ability to command a majority of votes in the House of Representatives. Everything else is irrelevant. But even on the pseudo tests put forward by Abbott and his fellow innumerates, Labor wins. In its own right it holds as many seats as the Liberals and National combined; they cannot claim Tony Crook, who sits on the cross benches. Labor won more primary votes than any other single party — nearly 8% more than the Liberals. The progressive parties, Labor and the Greens, easily out-polled the conservatives — the Liberals and Nationals.
And when the two-party preferred vote is finalised, Labor will be comfortably ahead on that too. By Abbott’s own reckoning, this gives Gillard more legitimacy than Howard had in1998 or for that matter Bob Hawke had in 1990 or even the sainted Sir Robert Menzies in 1954. But in any case, Abbott’s own reckoning is of no public interest. Gillard is Prime Minister and will remain so until she loses the numbers in the lower house.
The silliest single verdict on the subject came, predictably, from Barnaby Joyce. Summing it up for his electors, he informed them gravely: “To be honest we won but the independents just didn’t agree.” Well actually, senator, the voters didn’t either. Talk about déjà vu: in 1974 the hapless Liberal leader Bill Snedden took a few seats from Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, but not enough. For months he went around the country assuring the punters: “We didn’t win, but we didn’t lose.”
Well, mate, just look at the scoreboard, read about it in the newspapers. And we don’t mean last Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph, whose front page consisted of a truly vicious cartoon of Julia Gillard and the headline: The Big Steal. Not only rancid but wrong. You lost. Get over it.