The new paradigm, as some people insist on calling, minority government, is still very much unknown territory; whether it will last, how it will work and what if anything it will accomplish are still unanswerable questions, and speculation is largely futile — a trivial problem that has not prevented the felling of many forests in its pursuit.
But one consequence is now clear: all bets are off. Everything is up for grabs once more, and as far as Julia Gillard is concerned, she is starting pretty much with a blank sheet. Most of the promises of a few weeks ago are not just non-core, they are inoperable.
It is no longer a question of the government making a decision and submitting it to what used to be the standard parliamentary process — passage by the House of Representatives followed by a rather more serious debate in the senate resulting in its acceptance, amendment or rejection. Even to get its wish list past point A, Gillard’s cabinet will have to go through a lengthy consultation with the four crossbenchers on its own side. Circumstances have changed, and like a good Keynesian Gillard is prepared to change her mind and her approach as a result.
Tony Abbott, of course is not: his paradigm remains one of ferocious opposition. But by locking himself so firmly into the past, he risks dealing himself out of the game altogether. And the first and most obvious example of this is his approach to (or rather his dismissal of) climate change.
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BHP-Billiton’s Marius Kloppers has been given much of the credit for reviving the debate with his call for Australia to press ahead with setting a price on carbon. Kloppers is, however, no altruistic idealist; he wants the price to be set, but he does not want his company to have to pay it. BHP-Billiton is already well into the process of extricating itself from the messier mining operations diversifying away from coal and into uranium; his intervention in the debate should be judged accordingly.
And in any case he expects to be compensated for any tax his company might still have to pay — isn’t that the Australian way? But the mere fact that he has been prepared to say publicly what many of his business colleagues have been hinting at for some time — that business needs certainty, and that given a price on carbon is inevitably going to happen, Australia should take the plunge sooner rather than later — has helped to get the idea back on the front pages.
But it still would have had little effect without the numbers in the new parliament. There has always been a clear majority in House of Representatives in favour of a carbon price: the whole of the Labor Party and nearly half the Liberal Party are on board. The blockage has come from the other Liberals and particularly the National Party, who also have the numbers in the senate.
These will disappear in July, giving Labor and the Greens a clear majority; and in the lower house the four pro-Labor cross benchers will support the idea in some form — exactly what form is to be determined by what was envisaged as an all party committee. But Abbott has said his side will not take part; his party has a policy opposing a carbon price in any form, and that’s that. It is not clear whether backbench dissidents will be threatened with expulsion from the party if they disobey, but clearly shadow ministers such as Malcolm Turnbull, who is the most prominent but not the only believer on Abbott’s front bench, would have to resign rather than challenge their leader.
Opposition is opposition. But Abbott’s stance defies common sense. Not only is he rejecting the will of a clear majority of the parliament; he is thumbing his nose at his supporters and backers in business upon whom he will rely to replenish his part’s much-depleted coffers if he is successful in forcing another election. And beyond that, it is clear that the voters, while less enthusiastic than they were three years ago, still favour effective action (as opposed to Abbott’s direct action) in the area.
Some of the cooler heads should tell their leader the election campaign is over; it is time to stop thinking in slogans and to start looking at a practical strategy. Now that would be a new paradigm.
And someone else who should think again is Rob Oakeshott, who seems to think he can have all the power and perks of the speakership and sacrifice noting in return.
The whole point of reforming the job is to make it more independent; Oakeshott’s self serving proposal would in fact make it less so. He wants to sit in the chair and retain the right to cast a deliberative vote, something that the present occupant cannot do. The speaker’s role is limited to breaking the deadlock when there is a tie; this is the only time it is cast and traditional it is cast in the negative — to maintain the status quo.
The speaker is supposed to be above partisan conflict and not to take part in considerations of policy except where they effect the running or integrity of the parliament itself. In the British House of Commons the speaker actually resigns from his or her party and even from his or her electorate; the speaker is held to represent the virtual consistency of Westminster and is not opposed at election time. This may be a step too far for the smaller Australian parliament., but at least the speaker is held to be, in theory at least, above party politics.
The reform proposals Oakeshott himself proposed would clarify this by granting an automatic pair: the speaker, drawn from the government side, and a deputy, drawn from the opposition, would both forfeit their deliberative votes. Oakeshott, as an independent, cannot be effectively paired; so he now wants to take a step backwards and, as speaker, to reclaim the right to a vote. This may or may not be unconstitutional, but it is plainly regressive and against the whole spirit of Oakeshott’s own reform package.
Hey Rob, remember the new paradigm.