the year lurches to a close. At times like this it's traditional to consider what the new year might bring for the government.
We should feel like celebrating. Christmas is nearly here and with it comes the long, languid summer holiday. The gardens are blooming thanks to the recent rain and the economy is stable. The champagne is sparkling and we've finally limped through another long parliamentary year where the government finally managed to opportunistically cash-in on personal ambition – always the best horse to back in any race.
So why isn't a mood of optimism flooding through the country?
We've become accustomed to a barrage of advertising and electronic media messages that rely on simplicity and brevity for their power. Events are quickly labeled as “good" or “bad". This dichotomy pervades every aspect of our lives; conditioning our expectations and making it difficult to establish what's really happening in the world.
Take Labor’s triumph last week in encouraging Peter Slipper to occupy the Speaker's chair. Exploiting the opportunities of incumbency is nothing new. Governments of both persuasions have long taken the opportunity to encourage individuals to act in a manner that may initially appear to be inimical to their former party’s interests.
And what condemnation; what disgust; what outrage and anger immediately accompanies the supposedly sordid transaction! Suddenly the party that has harboured the traitor in its midst realises what a scoundrel they have been suckling. This fury results in new revelations. They are shocked, distressed and dismayed to find out how unfit that person is to occupy a position of public trust.
How unfortunate that it took so long, and such treachery, before the party realises what a viper they've been nurturing all along.
Slipper first entered Parliament as a National in 1984, before being re-elected seven times as a Liberal. Mal Colston, Labor's rat, was first elected in 1975 before eventually defecting in return for the Deputy Presidency of the Senate in 1996. One year later he was facing 28 charges of fraud with his former party energetically and ruthlessly pursuing him. And yet he was the very man who precipitated Australia's worst constitutional crisis. Queensland Premier Joh Bjelkie-Petersen labeled Colston a “dangerous socialist” and refused to send him to the Senate, instead attempting to send a confused simpleton, Albert Field. And why was this Senate seat so vital? Because of a political disaster accompanying Gough Whitlam's attempt to appoint a conservative, Democratic Labor Party senator Vince Gair as ambassador to Ireland.
Notice the common thread. All were Queenslanders. Makes you think, really, doesn’t it? The point is that neither party has clean hands when it comes to opportunistically seizing political advantage.
Perhaps this is responsible for the numb mood that’s overhanging the season. Julia Gillard has been remarkably successful in pushing ahead with her supposed agenda. She has resolved – for the moment – two of the intractable issues that so bedeviled Kevin Rudd's period at the helm. There is to be, finally, action on global warming in addition to a resources tax, no matter how many compromises have been made along the way to guarantee their passage through parliament. And if her government’s failed to do anything to stop the boats laden with desperate people arriving at our shores, well, at least she can say Tony Abbott has rejected a bill that would have sent a small number of asylum seekers back to a country that hasn’t signed up to the UN Refugee Convention. And I suspect it’s that particular formulation that resides at the disquiet that underlies Gillard’s occupancy of the Lodge.
At drinks last Thursday I admitted to the PM that I’d wondered, on the day of her coup against Rudd, if she’d even manage to celebrate one Christmas there. She laughed, because she knew just how tough to dislodge she’d prove to be. But the sudden opening that the humour seems to offer quickly closes. Any vulnerability is hidden. It’s difficult to empathise with someone who refuses to offer anything back in turn.
Nevertheless, Rudd is now the only one who believes he has any chance of being recalled as the party’s saviour. There are still light years between Gillard and the possibility of victory at the next election, but the polls suggest that she’s now clawed back from outright devastation to mere destruction.
This was always supposed to be the year of “decision and delivery". In a way, that’s been achieved. Simply holding onto power was vital. Every day that went past has made Gillard stronger. During this period the requirement was proving that the government could accomplish things. This required an inevitable focus on the tactical. That's why this year was the time for the inescapable compromises that make up the muck of government to come to the fore. Any attempt to concentrate on achievement tarnishes the ideal as the political fixers beaver ahead, bartering away once cherished desires for hard-nosed accomplishment.
This is the time for sordid deals in which the workings of the machine are inevitably exposed. Unfortunately, watching the application of all the oil that’s necessary to smooth the working parts isn't an edifying spectacle for anyone. Attend too closely and you'll rapidly become disgusted at the grease-stains and quick-fixes necessary to keep the engine working.
This is why Gillard desperately requires another message for the coming year. Two words that, this time, might inspire and infuse a tired government with hope. She needs to conjure up the possibility that something positive is finally in the offing. The PM urgently needs to find a way of demonstrating a strategic focus that will allow her to abandon the long, grinding tactical trudge through the trenches to others.
Obtaining one extra vote in the House is far from solving the government’s continuing problem in maintaining its working majority, but it’s a start. Yesterday’s release of the Murray-Darling plan demonstrates the sorts of problems inherent in continuing to patch over underlying issues. By attempting to please everyone the compromise has walked away from science. The political origins of the “solution” become evident. This encourages all the parties involved to continue making as big a stink as possible in the hope of gaining amendments that will benefit their interests. The fight quickly returns to the trenches.
Gillard will have to demonstrate she can escape these quickly. Another year like the last is not desirable for anyone.