After a year in politics like 2016, handing out awards is a bit like doling out “Good Effort!” ribbons at a school carnival. Nonetheless, in the hope that the limited pool of actual talent in our parliamentary ranks might be encouraged to better things, and the rest given a guide as to how to avoid screwing up, we offer the following Best and Worsts of the Australian Political Year.
Most Effective Minister
At one point during the year, the excellent Katharine Murphy wondered on Twitter if Mathias Cormann ever went into a room by himself and screamed to vent his frustration. It’s a wholly reasonable question: Cormann isn’t just compared to the Terminator because of his Schwarzeneggerian accent, but because he has the same robotic efficiency and predictability. In particular, he is capable of staying on message no matter what the circumstances, except when he suffered an exhaustion-related breakdown during the election campaign, for which he served as Liberal spokesman — and accidentally lavished praise on Bill Shorten. But he was rebooted, the glitch disappeared, and he resumed his duties without any ill effects. In a government marked by chaos and incompetence, Cormann is testament to how discipline, just doing your job and getting the basics right can make you stand out. Julie Bishop can say the same, but she continues to enjoy a portfolio where there’s little domestic political interest and no pressure.
Honourable mention: South Australia’s Simon Birmingham had the difficult challenge of trying to hose down a major fire created by his own Prime Minister when Malcolm Turnbull declared an ambition to stop funding public schools in favour of private schools, and won extra funding to slightly narrow the deficit between Labor’s original Gonski funding and Tony Abbott’s broken funding promise. And his VET reforms are a big step forward for deeply troubled sector.
Least Effective Minister
In order to provide some genuine competition in a category dominated by George Brandis, we’re renaming this category the Brandis Award for Enduring Incompetence. Because you can’t win an award named after yourself, that finally gives the Attorney-General’s colleagues a shot at winning this valued trophy.
We were tempted by the claims of Treasurer Scott Morrison, who presided over two budget deficit blowouts, the first quarter of negative economic growth since 2011, being put in the deep freeze by the Prime Minister and messing up tax reform. Kelly O’Dwyer put in a late bid after been openly laughed at at a major industry conference.
Nonetheless, neither managed the extraordinary performance of Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, who lamented that the Northern Territory government’s horrific mismanagement of juvenile justice had failed to “pique his interest” despite it being repeatedly brought to his attention. When you know Four Corners is doing a program on your home territory and your own portfolio, and you don’t watch it but wait for an agitated Prime Minister to call you after it airs to ask “WTF?”, you’re a worthy winner of the inaugural Brandis.
Most Effective Shadow Minister
Penny Wong wears two political hats — shadow foreign minister (she held trade until the election) and leader of the opposition in the Senate. It’s in the latter capacity that Wong has made parliamentary life extraordinarily difficult for the government, coupled with her ever-more forensic interrogations of ministers and bureaucrats via Senate committees. As the backpacker tax vote debacle showed, Labor under Wong never stops thinking of ways to embarrass and defeat the government in the Senate. And let’s not forget her cracking insult after Brandis said he didn’t think of Nick Xenophon as a lawyer. “No one thinks of you as a lawyer either, George.”
Honourable mentions: Chris Bowen. A key reason for Labor’s stronger-than-expected election performance was Bowen’s determination since 2013 to lead the economic policy debate rather than play negative and reactive — a stance commendably backed by his leader. Bowen entered politics, one suspects, hoping to be the next Keating, but he looks more and more like UK Labour’s John Smith, the doughty, widely respected Scot who was shadow chancellor and then party leader in the 1990s. Of course, we hope Bowen won’t drop dead of heart attack…
Least Effective Shadow Minister
Last year we crowned up and coming senator Sam Dastyari as the best Labor performer. But Dastyari has gone from hero to zero via Beijing — a quite circuitous journey — after his fall from grace over some seriously dumb decisions to letting Chinese interests pay for his travel expenses and asking them to do so. It wasn’t merely dumb from a personal point of view; Dastyari represents a party that continues to urge the banning of foreign donations, and at a time when the malign influence of Chinese nationalists, backed by serious money, is being felt across the region. Labor already has enough cash connections to the Hong Kong elite. It doesn’t need financial ties to mainland China as well. Go start again, Dasher, and this time do it properly.
Best of the Crossbenchers
Nick Xenophon was important before the election; now he and his two Senate colleagues are vital to anyone wanting to pass legislation, and he’s ready to use that power. Take the ABCC bill: Xenophon saw not merely a government bill to go after the CFMEU, but as a potential vehicle for his own agenda of local content. With a handful of amendments and the government’s desperation to conjure a legislative win, he has significantly increased the pressure on major construction companies to use local content like steel or explain why they haven’t. He’s also been a consistent advocate for privacy and civil rights: he led the charge against the transformation of the census into a permanent surveillance process and gutted the most draconian ABCC interrogation powers in co-operation with Derryn Hinch (borrowing an amendment originally proposed by former senator Ricky Muir). Xenophon knows what he wants and, with his Senate bloc, how to get it. And you get the impression that puts him well ahead of the government that has to deal with him.
Cory Bernardi. Silly bloke doesn’t even know where to sit.
Best Parliamentary Performer
It’s par for this particular course to nominate Turnbull and Albo as the best parliamentary performers. But this year let’s salute Julian Leeser‘s maiden speech on suicide and Pat Dodson‘s devastating critique of the 18C amendment bill. Dodson’s contibution to that debate was dignified and on-point. “Words do matter, and how we use words is critical in the way we go about our business and in the way we go about our communication. Have no doubt that racism is something that is not growing wild out there in the fields; it is actually tended in a flower box sitting on the window sills of flats and houses.”
Leeser’s speech was a remarkable statement of raw emotion and regret, one that will haunt anyone who has lost a father in similar circumstances. “I reflect on my own conduct the night before my father died, when he asked if I could help him polish his shoes before he left for a dinner at my brother’s school. I remember as a self-absorbed 20-year-old the petulance and rudeness with which I waived away the opportunity to help my father, a man who so often helped me, and not a day goes by that I don’t regret it. Suicide, they used to say, is a victimless crime, but they never count the loved ones left behind.”
Politician of the Year
Some Crikey readers appear to believe this category is an endorsement, and have arced up in previous years when we’ve handed the gong to figures they object to. Such complaints miss the point that politics is above all about obtaining power to influence public life — whether for better or for ill. Pauline Hanson is a malignant influence in Australia, a suppurating tumour on our polity who offers nothing but hate and bigotry, but she’s returned to federal politics with, initially, three senators in tow, and nearly four. Now she’s lost one, reflecting the inevitability of micro-parties flying apart (reinforced, in the case of One Nation, by the fact they’re all conspiracy theorists and thus incapable of seeing anything other than plots against themselves). But Hanson is extraordinarily effective. She shamelessly appeals to the worst in Australians, promoting demonisation of minorities and economic illiteracy as solutions to a lingering resentment that it’s no longer 1968 or, really, 1868. And she does so adeptly, exploiting the mainstream media and the outrage reflex of social media to full effect. No wonder the Nationals are terrified of her. She’s going to eat the lunch they’ve grazed contentedly on for so long, and much more besides before — it can only be hoped — she flames out and falls apart again. Even if that happens, tragically, it’s now clear that we shall look upon her like again … and again, and again.