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Jan 27 2013

Liberals Part 4: Australia has a legitimate government

This is the fourth part of a series examining the Liberal Party of Australia. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 examine the party’s climate policies. This part debunks their allegations that the incumbent government is illegitimate.

Both sidesIllustration: Stephen Wight

There has been a persistent campaign by the conservative Coalition, led by Tony Abbott and his Liberals, assisted by most of the mainstream media, to create the perception that the incumbent Labor minority government, led by Julia Gillard, is illegitimate. Don’t get me wrong: I have a long list of disagreements with the government. But the implication it is somehow illegitimate is simply unjustified.

Selection of leader

Julia Gillard replaced her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, while her party was in government. Abbott claims this makes Gillard illegitimate and Rudd Australia’s “last democratically elected Prime Minister”. But in the Westminster system of government, political party leaders are elected not directly by the people, but by their party. Whether you agree or disagree with this system is beside the point – within Australia’s existing political system, Gillard’s elevation to the Prime Ministership was perfectly legitimate. By Abbott’s logic, William McMahon was not democratically elected as Prime Minister in 1971.

Abbott also claims Labor’s leaders are selected by “faceless men”. In reality, they are elected by a party room of Labor MPs and Senators, all of whom have public faces, some of whom are women, and all of whom were democratically elected via Australia’s electoral system. Abbott came to lead his own party via the same process as Rudd and Gillard. He wasn’t directly elected by the people: he too was elected by his party’s MPs and Senators. There is no difference between the parties’ processes for selecting leaders.

Labor is criticized for being formally divided into factions. But all political parties have at least informal sub-groupings. The Coalition is, as the name implies, comprised of several (at least ostensibly) different parties: Liberals, Nationals, Liberal Nationals, and Country Liberals.

Formation of government

The Labor Party does not have a majority in Parliament in its own right, instead governing with the confidence of the Greens, Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, and (formerly) Andrew Wilkie. Several Liberal politicians have claimed this makes the government illegitimate. But in the Westminster system, Prime Ministers are not directly elected by the people; they gain office by securing the confidence of a majority in Parliament. By the Liberals’ logic, Robert Menzies was not democratically elected as Prime Minister in 1940. And if the Liberals believe coalition governments are inherently illegitimate, why are they in a formal Coalition themselves?

There is nothing wrong or even unusual about minority governments. Every Australian state plus the Australian Capital Territory has had at least one minority government since 1991 (New South Wales 1991; Australian Capital Territory 1992, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2008; Queensland 1996, 1998; Tasmania 1996, 2010; South Australia 1997, 2002; Victoria 1999; Western Australia 2008). Were all those governments illegitimate? At a federal level, minority governments are commonplace in many other countries. Are they illegitimate too? If the Coalition parties are counted as separate parties, Australia has had Coalition governments for two-thirds of the post-war period.

More specifically, after the 2010 election Abbott claimed the Coalition should have won because it received more first preference votes than Labor, saying “when the Government lost its majority, it also lost its legitimacy”. But in Australia’s single-member electorate system, the distribution of Labor’s vote meant it was still able to win the same number of seats as the Coalition, enough to form a minority government. By Abbott’s logic, which seems to imply support for a proportional voting system, Labor should have won the 1998 election, the Greens should have won 18 seats in 2010, the Nationals should always win far fewer seats than they do, and the Queensland government should be one seat short of a majority.

Abbott has also claimed the agreements Gillard made with crossbenchers to form government were “dishonest deals behind closed doors”. In reality, those agreements are publicly available in full here.

In contrast, there has been very little scrutiny of Abbott’s attempts to win the support of the crossbenchers. He offered Wilkie $1 billion for a local hospital. Windsor claims Abbott said he would do anything but “sell my arse” to become Prime Minister. And Liberal Bronwyn Bishop recently revealed that if Abbott had succeeded in winning over the crossbenchers, he would have called another election.

Honesty

The Liberals and their supporters allege Julia Gillard was lying when she said during the 2010 election campaign that her government would not introduce a carbon tax. When the accusation was first made in February 2011, I was happy to concede the point. Yes, Gillard did change her position as a result of negotiations, and her earlier statements could reasonably be construed as a lie. In any case, Gillard’s honesty or otherwise on the issue says nothing about whether a carbon price is a good or bad idea. However, I could not have imagined then how the point would be harped on as if it were of central importance. Although I agree it is extremely important that politicians are accountable to the truth, I now think Gillard’s alleged “lie” has been overblown.

Firstly, a broken promise is not morally equivalent to a false statement. A promise could be sincere at the time and later broken due to changed circumstances. It is impossible to read a person’s mind to find out whether they are being honest. In Gillard’s case, we have no particular reason to believe she was insincere when she originally made the promise. Gillard broke her promise because she had to negotiate a compromise policy with the Greens and independents. We could argue about whether the broken promise was justified, but that doesn’t make it a “lie”.

Secondly, Gillard’s promise was actually to introduce an emissions trading scheme instead of a carbon tax, and the carbon tax that is being introduced will indeed become an emissions trading scheme in 2015. Whether this constitutes a “lie” is, I think, open to interpretation.

Thirdly, I could be wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine many Labor voters were thinking at the ballot box: “I’ll vote for Gillard because she said she wouldn’t introduce a carbon tax.” As John Howard might put it, it was a “non-core promise” – it was mentioned only twice during a five-week election campaign.

Finally, even if Gillard is a blatant liar, she didn’t exactly invent lying. If I were looking for an Australian politician to accuse of being a liar, a much more obvious choice would be Tony Abbott. He has even advocated a form of carbon tax and later denied it.

Who has power and influence

As noted above, Labor governs with the support of the Greens. It is a relationship in which Labor has most of the power, but the Liberals allege it is the other way around. For example, Malcolm Turnbull has claimed “the Greens [are] running the show”; Eric Abetz has said “what we are witnessing is the Greens tail wagging the Labor dog”; and Tony Abbott has stated “the real Prime Minister of this country is in fact Senator Bob Brown”. This is ridiculous nonsense. The executive is still totally controlled by Labor. The Greens guaranteed supply and confidence to Gillard in return for concessions. Those concessions included parliamentary reforms, access to the Prime Minister, and consideration of dental care funding, but they were mostly to set up reviews and committees, most importantly the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee (MPCCC) to negotiate climate policy. The Liberals were offered a seat on the MPCCC, and they refused.

As evidence the Greens are secretly pulling the strings, the Liberals point to the fixed carbon price agreed by the MPCCC. In reality, both Labor and the Greens wanted an emissions trading scheme (albeit Labor had shelved theirs), but that would have required locking in emissions targets, and because Labor and the Greens could not agree on targets they chose the compromise policy of an interim fixed price to break the deadlock. In 2014 targets will be recommended by an independent Climate Change Authority, taking the decision out of the hands of either political party, then in 2015 the carbon price will become an emissions trading scheme in which the market sets the price, as in the original policy of both Labor and the Greens. The supposed killer piece of evidence that the Greens control Labor only exists because the Greens have very little influence on Labor!

The Greens compromised far more than Labor did in the MPCCC negotiations, agreeing to almost unlimited international offsets, 94.5% free permits for the highest-polluting trade-exposed industries, free permits for coal power plants, and the exclusion of transport. Labor absolutely refused to budge on almost anything, and have since gone back on several of their few concessions, including a floor price in the emissions trading phase for investor certainty and contracts for closure of coal-fired electricity generation. Meanwhile, Labor is using the carbon price as an excuse to cut climate policies and otherwise ignore climate change; promoting exponential growth of the fossil fuel industry, including coal and coal seam gas mining and exports; subsidizing fossil fuels to the tune of $13 billion annually; planning to delegate its environmental protection powers to the states; allowing industry lobbyists on a key climate policy advisory board; sabotaging international climate negotiations; and passionately defending the fossil fuel industry against any attack.

One could make a stronger case for Labor controlling the Greens than the other way around.

Who is in power if not the Greens? Almost all the evidence points to big business, particularly the fossil fuel lobby. Electing a Liberal government would do nothing to rectify this imbalance of power; indeed it would do the opposite, as I will elaborate in Part 5.

Scandals

Over the course of the hung parliament, several individual Labor and independent MPs have been involved in scandals. I tend to think scandals concerning individual politicians don’t say much about their political party. But to other voters who may be swayed by such considerations, I make the following points.

Those who stand accused include Gillard herself, ex-Labor Craig Thomson, and ex-Speaker ex-Liberal Peter Slipper. All should be considered innocent until proven guilty. The widely publicized sexual harassment case against Slipper was thrown out of court, with the judge ruling the case was an abuse of process brought to damage Slipper’s political career and advance the interests of the LNP. There is evidence that Abbott was complicit in this.

Furthermore, it is not only Labor or independent MPs who have been involved in scandals – many current and recent Liberal politicians have come under similar scrutiny. In 2011, Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher was accused of shoplifting (though later cleared) and found guilty of assaulting a security guard (she resigned last August). In 2012, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan was accused of assaulting and making homophobic remarks to a Liberal staffer. Tony Abbott himself has been sued for defamation, which according to his own logic should make him unfit to sit and vote in Parliament until the charges are resolved. And in 1998, Abbott created the Australians for Honest Politics Trust, which has been described as a “slush fund”, to secretly funnel money from anonymous donors to an injunction against One Nation (and lied about not having done so).

I make no judgment on the truth or falsity of these allegations, nor am I arguing the alleged behavior of Liberal politicians somehow excuses the alleged behavior of Labor ones or condemns the entire Liberal Party. My point is scandals about individual politicians generally have little bearing on the merits of the party. I also make the point that if Abbott, Fisher, and Heffernan had been Labor or crossbench politicians, we probably would have heard about the alleged incidents every day, yet they have been forgotten.

I suspect the apparent proliferation of scandals amounts to little more than the Liberals desperately throwing mud to try and bring down the government. The vicious attacks they have made on Gillard, Thompson, and Slipper are blatantly opportunistic and betray a disregard for the principle that a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Is a party who plays judge and jury in this way fit to run a government?

Personalities

As citizens in a democracy, we all have a responsibility to cast our votes thoughtfully. Politics is about alternative visions of the future of the world and ways to get there. Such weighty matters should not be decided on the basis of trivialities like who seems more likeable, looks better on television, sounds better on radio, or supposedly possesses “leadership qualities”. In short, this is serious. Nevertheless, Gillard’s detractors raise various personal issues, and in the interests of completeness I will attempt to address them.

Anecdotally, Gillard’s perceived personal defects include her accent, speaking patterns, and body language. I urge my fellow voters to discard such considerations as irrelevant. Nobody speaks perfectly; for example, Tony Abbott constantly pauses in his speech. Everybody has some sort of accent or mannerism; they are of little significance.

Many voters seem to regard these minor (and subjective) details of appearance as being indicators of trustworthiness. Think again: we cannot rely on our gut instincts to discern which politicians are honest and which are not. It’s a politician’s job to appear as if their speech and body language is natural and sincere, and to manipulate our gut instincts to create such an impression. A politician who intuitively seems more natural may in reality be more fake. Similarly, trusting someone because they belong to your demographic can be misleading, as is known by all those email scammers who emphasize their Christian beliefs.

On a related note, it is pretty obvious there is an element of sexism in the widespread personal dislike of Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister. This was particularly evident during the 2010 election campaign, when she was repeatedly asked about her personal life. The Australian has published an extensive analysis of her clothing and hairstyles, which began: “Julia Gillard’s looks have taken a back seat to leadership…” The ABC made a sitcom about her domestic life. Two predecessors have criticized her for being “childless”. She has often been called a “schoolmarm”, which is recognized as a sexist slur. Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman recently described a mistake made by Centrelink as “a whore of a government” having “chosen the harlot’s prerogative”. Some more blatantly offensive examples are catalogued here. As to whether Abbott and the Liberals have participated in this sexism… well, Gillard has comprehensively addressed that herself.

Even if you believe Gillard is Australia’s worst Prime Minister ever, at least she is one you can take seriously because you know what policies she advocates. You can say you approximately agree on ABC but vehemently disagree on XYZ, or you can be justified in hating her with a vengeance. In contrast, Abbott’s constant self-contradictions and evasions make him an unknown quantity.

Conclusion

If the Gillard government is illegitimate, one wonders what a legitimate government would look like. In my opinion, the arguments I have debunked above say more about the Liberals.

Instead of presenting an alternative policy vision, the Liberals have chosen to spend their time inventing reasons why the incumbent government is illegitimate. Procedure and democratic principle are of course important, but the Liberals’ procedural arguments are largely baseless, suggesting their real aim is to bring down the government whatever it takes. Next perhaps they will demand to see Gillard’s birth certificate. Australian Financial Review columnist Geoff Kitney argues this is a deliberate strategy: the Liberals’ negative response to everything is intended as a message that a Liberal government would restore order and stability. I will argue in Part 5 that this is an illusion; the Liberals actually have a radical agenda. In any case, the underlying desire for political stability is misguided. Far from being unstable, contemporary politics is too stable; that’s why politicians are failing to achieve very much. If politics is too stable it is useless.

It is also informative to compare the Liberals with the US Republican Party. Such a comparison is not flattering to the Liberals because the Republicans are off the planet, but there are unmistakable similarities. In 2011, former Republican insider Mike Lofgren revealed the method behind his party’s apparent madness:

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

I suspect the Liberal Party of Australia has adopted a similar strategy. The Liberals have tried to create an atmosphere of chaos and associate it in voters’ minds with the government, the hung parliament, and possibly politics generally. Abbott may call for a “kinder, gentler polity”, criticize the government for “relentless negativity”, and express sympathy for Craig Thomson; but it isn’t Labor, the Greens, or any independent trashing the reputation of Australian politics – it is the Liberals. We voters should not reward the party which has caused so much trouble for no reason other than to gain power.

Why should we vote in the next election for a party who still refuse to accept the result of the last election?

In Part 5, I will argue the Liberals are hiding a radical deregulation agenda.

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