Monday 29 August 2011

No one does it better than Peter

Julia, take a leaf out of the Peter Beattie manual
Could  Julia Gillard actually turn back Tony Abbott's advance using the Craig Thomson debacle? Unlikely as it sounds, it is possible.

In 2001 Peter Beattie achieved something similar when he used corruption within the Queensland Labor Party as a successful argument for voters to re-elect his Labor government.

Beattie had also only barely won his first election, forming a minority government with the support of independent Peter Wellington (although a win in a by-election late in 1998 improved his position).

Then in 2000 Labor candidate Karen Ehrmann was jailed for electoral fraud amid evidence that it was widespread in Labor. That led to the establishment of the Shepherdson Inquiry which found three MPs -- deputy premier Jim Elder, former state secretary Mike Kaiser and backbencher Grant Musgrove -- guilty of various offences.

Within weeks, all three had been forced to resign from the party and sit as independents and Labor's first preference vote dropped by six points to 43 per cent.

Nevertheless in January the next year Beattie called an early election which he won with 48.9 per cent of the primary vote and a record 66 out of 89 seats.

I'm not suggesting that Gillard could achieve the same result. Beattie started from a much stronger position and he got a lot of help from the opposition, who were divided and distracted by One Nation.

But if Gillard continues as she is, her next election result will probably be the worst in Labor's modern federal history, on a par with the recent NSW state result, or Queensland Labor in 1974.

For Labor the next election is about salvaging a respectable loss.

The first lesson Gillard can learn from Beattie is to be open to the possibility that wrongdoing has occurred and not to condone it in any way, irrespective of whether the culprit is one of the tribe or not.

As Beattie said at the time: "the Labor Party that I joined and I love does not support crooks" -- and one of the victims of his purge was his own deputy, Jim Elder. In other words, you define yourself out of the tribe if you act contrary to its mores.

While the evidence against Craig Thomson may never lead to a successful criminal conviction, politically it is compelling to the stage where he obviously has very serious questions to answer.

Denying this damages the legitimacy of the government, and this government already has huge legitimacy problems courtesy of the broken carbon tax pledge.

In politics there is no principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty; that is a legal standard, which sounds a little twee and self-serving in any other context. The political standard was correctly set by Julius Caesar when he said that Caesar's wife must be above reproach.

Similarly the right to remain silent might apply to police questioning or the courts, but it doesn't apply to the court of public opinion, where adverse inferences are drawn all the time from failures to make public statements.

In using these sorts of defences, the government sounds legalistic, dishonest and out of touch, not to mention tricky.

Still, they are better arguments than the two wrongs don't make a right fallacy, as in, "Well, Mr Abbott did what we are doing when in government." Or the even less mature one of "they do it too", referring to a medically depressed opposition member who is facing court for $93 worth of shoplifting, when your own man is accused in the hundreds of thousands.

The second lesson is that, once having identified the problem, ensure it comes to a speedy and transparent resolution. Rather than hoping the Health Servies Union doesn't press charges, the police don't investigate and Fair Work Australia never comes to a conclusion this side of the next election, bring it on as quickly as possible.

You need to cauterise the haemorrhage, or apply a tourniquet as soon as possible. That means actively urging on the responsible investigators, and employing one of your own if needs be.

Apparently the Thomson issues were known before he was preselected, so why wasn't he vetted out? You don't need proof of criminality to decide that someone's history represents too great a risk. There's room for an internal inquiry into party structures here at the very least.

Possibly the government would behave differently if the loss of one seat didn't mean the potential loss of government. That is the third lesson from Beattie. You don't govern as though you have a majority of minus one or two; you govern as though you have just won in a landslide.

Governing any other way almost ensures you will lose. Beattie didn't worry about being a minority government, and he wasn't afraid of an election. In fact, he brought the election on seven months early.

This government lacks fortitude and that is one of its fundamental problems. It came to power with a limited agenda, has picked fights on too many fronts, and then modified policies in the face of opposition to the point where its victories are only Pyrrhic.

So we have measures such as a carbon tax where more revenue is spent compensating taxpayers than is raised in the first place, or a resource rental tax that effectively exempts the large miners from paying for years.

Trying to avoid a resolution of the Thomson issue just underscores to the public that the government lacks conviction and resolve. So it moves beyond being an issue of legality to one of the central essence of the government, which is even more damaging.

Gillard has opportunities to peg Abbott back, and this may well be the nadir of her prime ministership. Abbott is making slips and polling shows that his popularity is high only relative to Gillard.

Instead of making Beattie envoy for manufacturing, she could have employed him as personal adviser on damage control; it's an area where he's written the definitive manual. Labor certainly needs to change course, because business as usual will lead only to bankruptcy.

Graham Young is chief editor and founder of On Line Opinion


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