It was a fitting climax to Labor’s tumultuous parliamentary year. Julia Gillard finally brought off a big win with the passage of the Telstra legislation, but hostile commentators were still able to spin it as a defeat.
Sure, she secured the necessary votes — just; but only by grovelling to the Greens and capitulating to the independents, most notably by agreeing to release an edited summary of the National Broadband Network business plan to pacify Senator Nick Xenophon. She has shown weakness and damaged her government — or so we read in The Australian.
Well, just hang on a minute. Certainly Gillard had to negotiate her way out of the corner into which her uncompromising communications minister Stephen Conroy had backed her; Conroy’s pig-headed insistence that everything about the NBN was immaculate, perfect, untouchable and beyond criticism would have been silly politics at any time, but in the context of minority government it was clearly suicidal.
Obviously the government could not give in to the endless opposition demands for one inquiry after another, but it had to be prepared to provide a certain amount of information in return for support. This is precisely what Gillard did and by doing so she showed the kind of leadership Labor has desperately been seeking for months. It may have involved a small technical backdown, but so what? The bill was important, and, as Gough Whitlam used to say quoting the protestant French king Henri IV, Paris is worth a mass.
In fact the idea of splitting Telstra into its wholesale and retail arms as a means of stimulating genuine competition in the telecommunications industry has been around for more than a decade; it was first proposed by Paul Keating but successive ministers, while acknowledging that it was a good idea, let it lapse because the opposition from Telstra was just too great. It may have been thought that Gillard, after her celebrated surrender to the mining industry, would have shown similar timidity. But the move was a necessary step in pushing ahead with the NBN, and the NBN has belatedly become her government’s standard of reform.
And this was where the opposition’s spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, was wedged. The splitting of Telstra is an important reform in its own right and the Liberals, as the party of free enterprise, should have been unequivocally in favour. And in fact Turnbull said he was; he backed the bill. But … it was inextricably entangled in the NBN process, and his brief, as articulated by his leader Tony Abbott, was to destroy Labor’s NBN. Not analyse it, scrutinise it, amend it or seek to improve it, but destroy it.
And so the Telstra bill had to go as collateral damage. The same logic would suggest that any measures that could be seen to contribute to the progress of the NBN should be similarly opposed, including industrial harmony, national prosperity and fine weather; it will be interesting to see how far Abbott and Turnbull are prepared to take the process.
Any qualms of conscience they might retain will be alleviated by the knowledge that they have backing form a source even less scrupulous: The Australian’s campaign against the NBN seems to be becoming even more obsessive than its vendetta against the Building Education Revolution. Is there a reason for this? We know, of course, that Rupert Murdoch allows his editors and commentators total independence but does the Sun King perhaps have business ambitions of his own that the NBN might impinge on? Is he after a piece of it or would he prefer a network of his own?
Perhaps The Australian’s editor in chief Chris Mitchell, who has been so fearlessly independent in his paper’s coverage of the TV anti-siphoning debate, might care to comment.
So the Victorian domino has fallen. Labor’s hegemony is cracking, and with the prospect of certain defeat in New South Wales and probable defeat in Queensland it appears that the glory days are just about finished.
And even though the alternatives in each case appear to have nothing of substance to offer, it is hard to deny them the opportunity to have a go. Ten years is about long enough for any democratic government to remain in office. After that, even with the refreshment provided by changes of leadership, administrations become tired.
They run out of ideas and become more interested in the trappings of power and how to retain them than in putting that power to any productive use. They become beset by cronyism that frequently borders on outright corruption. In the end their sole justification for re-election becomes “Keeping the other bastards out”, and this negativity invariably manifests itself in their campaign advertising.
It would be unwise to expect too much from the incoming governments of Ted Baillieu, Barry O’Farrell or Jean-Paul Langbroek; they are, after all conservatives whose interest in any kind of real change, let alone contentious reform, is minimal. But a period in opposition will give Labor a chance to regroup and plan a new agenda, one that it will inevitably get its own opportunity to implement when the political cycle comes around once more.
This is what opposition is all about — or should be; Tony Abbot has clearly not yet realised it. The pointless filibustering over the Telstra bill is just the latest example of his failure to understand that obstructionism for its own sake is wasting his own side’s time as much as that of the government. Julia Gillard, who has regained some of her old debating panache in the past week, was quite right when she said that Abbott might have been able to get away with a campaign of negative slogans during an election, but they wouldn’t get him through a few more parliamentary sessions as Opposition Leader.
As his book Battlelines showed, Abbott is not totally bereft of ideas; it is just that he has trouble forming them into a coherent platform. It is time to start trying. Otherwise the voters and his colleagues might start thinking his best is already behind him.