Politics became somewhat more traditional this week. The government worked out that the way to get stalled legislation through a Senate it doesn’t control is to negotiate with crossbenchers. Regional development produced seriously stupid ideas. A minor party imploded. It all felt much more, well, normal, than we’re used to under this government, which has been characterised by blunders, bungles, ineptitude and ideology.
It’s quite possible that, given the Howard government didn’t have to bother about the Senate crossbench from 2005 until its demise, any capacity within the Coalition to actually negotiate with anyone other than Barnaby Joyce (the early, funny Barnaby Joyce, that is) had so atrophied that, faced with balance-of-power wielders in the form of Clive Palmer et al, the government was genuinely at a loss as to what to do other than bluster — as the Prime Minister repeatedly did — that its measures would pass regardless. Its discovery this week that Palmer can be bought off, and bought off reasonably cheaply, gave it a precious win in the ongoing battle to demonstrate it is capable of governing. That, in turn, put a spring in the government’s step — although if it takes working out that you need to negotiate with the Senate to restore your mojo, you might be in slightly worse trouble than it appears.
Part of the deal with Palmer — who, as Lenore Taylor has repeatedly pointed out, appears to be a cheap date despite all the colour, movement and “stick it up your arse” phraseology — was an inquiry into an “Australia Fund” that would, in short, provide handouts to business. The Coalition, which has declared an end to the “age of entitlement” (barring, of course, a long list of key allies who will continue to get special treatment), quickly distanced itself from the idea and seemed to suggest they’d put one over Clive of China, whose fanciful ideas about industry policy would never get tuppence from them.
Problem is, while Clive’s “Australia Fund” might have been a throwback to the age of entitlement (barring his proposal on bankruptcy, which we’ll deal with elsewhere), the “Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia” produced a report that was like a time machine to the early 1970s. Its report into the development of northern Australia has to be read to be believed, and makes even the One Nation-inspired silliness of the Howard years on regional development look rational. The committee, chaired by Warren Entsch, has made a series of bizarre recommendations too numerous to list, but including restarting the Chrismas Island casino (an unkillable idea from the Howard years; his government eventually tried to put a stake through its heart by outright banning it), building an abbatoir, building rail lines to connect other rail lines that themselves are barely used, reducing the cost of insurance in northern Australia despite the threat of cyclones, waiving higher education loans for graduates who move to remote areas, relocating the public service to the Top End and building “a national institute for tropical sports”.
“Here’s a lesson in that for people who dismiss the major parties as undemocratic and unrepresentative: holding together a disparate collection of politically minded individuals is harder than it looks …”
Nor is this stuff confined to backbenchers — the government set up an “Office of Northern Australia”, which is currently working on a “Northern Australia White Paper”; Entsch’s committee was established because “carefully developing our long-term plan for Northern Australia will be a priority of the new Coalition government”, the Prime Minister said last year. At least Entsch’s committee acknowledges the existence of climate change, with a recommendation that “impacts of the ongoing change in climate are included in all planning processes” and two (count ’em) paragraphs of supporting discussion.
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The committee’s work, and the government white paper in due course, will primarily serve to demonstrate than even if you don’t wing it on regional development, as Kevin Rudd did to peculiar effect during last year’s election campaign, it’s almost impossible to come up with a regional development policy that isn’t either absurd, grossly inefficient, or unconstitutional, even with an extended period to think about it.
Victorian Senator John Madigan also made news — more news than he’s made since he arrived in the Senate, other than his occasional forays into trying to regulate women’s bodies — by announcing his departure from the Democratic Labor Party, doubtless astonishing and infuriating its three remaining members. But micro- and minor parties are prone to combusting thus; even the Australian Democrats succumbed to internal ructions (“ructions” being one of those words only political journalists ever use), but Madigan goes the way of not just the Democrats but also One Nation and, for those with longer memories, the Nuclear Disarmament Party. And Ricky Muir had barely taken his spot in the Senate before his party branch tried to expel him and collapsed. Only the Greens have steadily built up from micro-party status to being a substantial national political grouping without succumbing to the splits that have consumed others.
There’s a lesson in that for people who dismiss the major parties as undemocratic and unrepresentative: holding together a disparate collection of politically minded individuals is harder than it looks, and internal party processes that handle disputes — usually some mechanism of formal or informal factions — are important in terms of resilience. Minor parties have it tougher — internal conflicts are more vicious because, as per Kissinger, the stakes are so small and minor party members are often the flotsam and jetsam of other parties, malcontents who drift from party to party and cause to cause, falling out with people as they go. But electoral success for minor parties is, almost invariably, the point at which they begin imploding.
The other familiar feeling, of course, came from the government’s decision to reflexively obey an American request to intervene in Iraq. There won’t (yet) be boots on the ground in that benighted country that the West has so comprehensively buggered up, but Abbott was able to top that by offering “non-lethal military assistance” to the Ukraine, presumably with the intention of only wounding Russian soldiers and their separatist irregulars. Both moves are almost ludicrously beyond Australia’s core interests — especially from a government that promised “more Jakarta, less Geneva” in its foreign policy. Indeed, that policy appears to be more along the lines of looking for fights to join rather than focusing on what is actually in the interests of Australia. Abbott should perhaps watch more Downton Abbey, less Dirty Harry.
All in all, the week felt a bit, well, mid-period Howard. For this government, that’s something to aim for, because it wasn’t a bad template for political success.