You can’t accuse the Coalition of not living by its principles. The party of outsourcing and privatisation has enthusiastically embraced the application of those principles in opposition. Institutions such as Treasury, Finance and the Solicitor-General — all fine when the Coalition was in government — are no longer good enough for it.
Election commitments get ‘costed’ by a Perth accounting firm. Treasury and Finance get trashed when they point out errors. And now the Coalition appears to prefer its own advice, from in-house lawyer George Brandis, to that of the Solicitor-General.
Just to be clear, there’s not much common ground between Brandis, who regards his own legal mind very highly, and the second Law Officer of the Commonwealth. Brandis says the deal the Coalition signed up to is a “plain violation” of the Constitution. Stephen Gageler says it isn’t, that as long as pairing is voluntary and the Speaker exercises a casting and not deliberative vote, that in effect what MPs get up to is their own business and has no impact on the constitutionality of legislation.
It’s hard to avoid the impression that the Coalition thought signing up to a package of Parliamentary reforms was a good way to secure the support of the independents, but once it found itself consigned to opposition, it lost interest very quickly in anything that wouldn’t serve its goal of destabilising a minority government.
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It’s not particularly New Paradigmy but it’s sensible politics for the Coalition to be as disruptive as possible, to create a sense of crisis around the Gillard Government and give the impression it’s a government that can’t govern. The more times the Government is defeated on its own legislation, the less legitimate it looks, and there’ll be a variety of scenarios around whether bills pass or fail, particularly if independent MPs take to abstaining on votes. Having Harry Jenkins in the chair brings more of those scenarios into play, even if he can break ties with a casting vote.
The Coalition might be walking away from the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement it signed up to with Oakeshott and Labor, but it’s hard, smart politics for a party that wants to get into government.
That said, the response to the Solicitor-General’s advice provides some context for another, similar debate — the ongoing criticism of the Government about its failure to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the National Broadband Network.
I’ll discuss the attacks on the NBN in detail tomorrow but the calls for an NBN CBA — and I was one of the first to directly ask Stephen Conroy about why the Government hadn’t undertaken one — seem to ignore that public life is now so loaded with contestability that even once magisterial sources of advice such as Treasury, or the Solicitor-General, are routinely ignored (or in Treasury’s case, vilified) when their considered views don’t fit the desired narrative. There’ll always be an accounting firm, or an economic consultancy, or a conservative constitutional lawyer, ready to offer an alternative piece of advice, and the mainstream media treats it all as equivalent to that obtained from public sector sources.
Does anyone seriously think a CBA will change the views of a single person about the NBN? Independent advice is no longer for shaping opinions and guiding policy, it’s for justifying existing positions.