Sliding Doors for Abbott, Gillard and Brown

Here we sit under a breathlessly reported and constantly alert political cycle. The frequent Stop. It’s Ruddy Time and No, No, No that makes up our political coverage has made me wonder just what would have happened if the 2010 Election result was slightly different. Therefore, evoking one of the three Gwyneth Paltrow films I actually like, we have Sliding Doors, Political Edition.

Scenario 1. ALP Majority. The ALP pick up Boothby, welcoming Annabel Digance; hold onto Hasluck with Sharryn Jackson; pick up Aston, welcoming Rupert Evans; hold onto Brisbane with Arch Bevis.

This scenario sees the ALP having a clear majority – though, it unfortunately means that Ken Wyatt, one of the Coalition’s better recruits, has another three years to wait.  This narrow, but enthusiastically received victory for the ALP, allows the ALP to pursue its agendas on its own terms – to an extent. It would also cause some angst and anger due to the close nature of the battle and a realisation that removing a PM before an election – even if he is widely disliked – isn’t a good move.  The NSW Right Wing, though, would breathe the biggest sigh of relief and it perhaps realises that it has an image problem that needs to be fixed. Or perhaps not.

The policies the new ALP Government pursues has one hurdle to cross – the soon to arrive Greens in the Senate.  The Greens are delighted, having got their first HOR rep since Michael Organ – but this one seems more of an activist than Organ. The Senate team is also much larger. The Government wish to continue with a modified version of their first term program – there is a belief that it was a bit too ambitious in some areas.  Their core focus, IR Reform, continues, as does the Federalisation of Health and the spending from the stimulus packages. MPs continue to open BER projects, though will still fail to counter the 2GB / Opposition lines about “waste” on public infrastructure.  Education will continue to be Federalised and welfare reform will continue.

Offshore processing would still continue to be an issue, with DIAC suggesting the Malaysia Solution. The ALP rebuff it, knowing the Greens would never pass the legislation. Carbon pricing would become a vexed issue, with the Greens wanting a fixed price and the Government trying to stick to their “No Carbon Tax” line from Gillard. As a result, the ALP continue to defer, consult, go to world conferences and blame the Greens for not passing the CPRS scheme suggested in the first term. As a result, the Greens would be left with a difficult decision. Whether to drop their desire for a fixed price, instead compromising and suggest a few amendments – such as increased money for solar thermal plants – or continue to block, hoping the ALP will change their position. The ALP play the waiting game, knowing that a fixed carbon price would be political poison. As Gillard is more of a political game player than Rudd, she is more than happy to wait for the Greens to relent. Some more politically savvy Greens would be pushing for the compromise position, finding themselves at odds with the hardliners. Due to the less disciplined structure of the Greens, the media report these fissures – many with relish.

Someone within the Greens suggests that there are many ALP policies that some Greens don’t like – especially in relation to funding for independent schools, economic reform and IR reform – but that they need to compromise and instead make palatable amendments can be made in return for Greens core policies. This is especially in relation to environmental issues, such as power generation subsidies for renewables as well as a suggestion for a $1 bet limit on poker machines. Former Green in the HOR, the independent Andrew Wilkie, is also enthusiastic about that and they work on lobbying the Government about that issue. The ALP, sensing a need for reform in that area, suggest instead a trial of pre-commitment technology, knowing that a $1 bet limit would cause a lot of pain in clubs situated in marginal ALP seats.  This reform process begins, to quiet public acclaim.   There isn’t a great amount of optimism, however, that anything will actually come of the trial. But at least the ALP have been seen to have tried.

The Greens also lobby the Government about marriage equality, which finds many welcoming ears amongst the progressives of the party. Those progressives, however, know the barriers that would exist to block it. This is a reform that is fudged and delayed. The Greens decide, however, to introduce a private member’s bill via Adam Bandt. It is defeated along party lines, but not without lively discussion in the ALP, forcing the anti-equality union bosses and faction leaders to come out into the light of scrutiny, before scuttling back away from sight.

The slowly, softly approach from Gillard gains a grudging “meh” from voters, not bringing her the approval ratings that Rudd received in the first year of his government. There is a feeling that her government still isn’t delivering what Rudd promised in 2007, disappointing a lot of its base – many of whom are still migrating to the Greens.  There isn’t however, the level of hate that would have accompanied a fixed price on carbon, forced poker machine reform and other less popular policies. There would be, however, many people putting the Greens under pressure to pass the CPRS – including Gillard, who would make the point frequently that a scheme with environmental benefits – no matter how modest – is better than none.

The not so bad, not so good figures still keeps talk of a Rudd Return around, but not uppermost in the media’s mind. There is a feeling within the ALP that once things like tax cuts to accompany the CPRS, the completion of projects and the return to surplus in the economy will help to establish the reputation of Gillard as a “fixer” and a person who competes tasks, unlike her predecessor, who promised much but delivered little except stress and panic.  The election in 2013 would be hard fought – probably against Tony Abbott, whose relentless No would still play well in the media. The ALP would probably lose, however, but not as much as they would if there was a minority government.

Scenario 2. A Liberal Minority Government. The Liberals pick up Corangamite and welcome former ABC presenter Sarah Henderson. 

This scenario would give the LNP 74 seats, requiring them to do a deal with Bob Katter and at least one between Wilkie, Oakeshott and Windsor.  The point is made that the LNP do have more MPs than the ALP and assurances are made that projects can be delivered to the various seats. Oakeshott and Windsor agree that it would be the more appropriate pathway, considering the larger number held by the LNP.

The Abbott Minority Government has an ambitious agenda of rolling back a lot of what the ALP have done in the previous 3 years. It finds it difficult to achieve, however. A number of the projects in the BER and other stimulus related activities are still be paid for and completed – the legal costs involved in stopping projects half way through would be prohibitive. The same goes for work already signed up for in the NBN project – the signing of private contractors for completion of public works has created this hurdle for the new government. The irony isn’t lost on more cluey journalists.  There is a demand, however, that rural customers are supplied with superior cabling by the independents, still costing the government many billions.

The new government is very busy trying to push through legislation before the new Greens controlled senate arrives in July. Abbott faces the issue at this time of having to do deals with the still unpredictable Fielding and Xenophon, as well as having to listen to long dissertations and demands from Katter and Oakeshott about all sorts of rural issues.   Oakeshott and Windsor are also very wary of the Direct Action plan in relation to the environment. There are a lot of infrastructure plans and policy reviews that need to be commissioned in order to keep these partners happy.  After such deals in the early days, Offshore processing occurs again in the political basket case of Nauru, which welcomes the injection of funds. The Indonesian Government, however, demonstrate a strong objection to having asylum seeker boats returned to their shores. They refuse to accept them, creating a diplomatic impasse. The Australian Navy, too, experience very risky situations with boat captains deliberately sinking their boats when asked to turn them around. Abbott’s Boat Phone doesn’t look as good an option as he was hoping. The Nauru solution also leads to overflowing in that centre as the still understaffed DIAC and ASIO struggle with the number of claims. Asylum is granted, however, as it was in the Howard era, leading to people being resettled in NZ and Australia. Therefore, it doesn’t act as a deterrent to people smugglers. The boats don’t stop due to continuing push factors in the Middle East and Sri Lanka. This causes problems for Abbott and Scott Morrison, who can no longer Blame Kevin.

Meanwhile, the new Treasurer and Finance Minister are left wondering how they can produce tax cuts, get back to surplus, a new very generous parental leave scheme, the expensive direct action plan as well as promised rural infrastructure whilst doing away with the mining tax. There is also the issue of the gap between their promises and actual revenue, which was fairly invisible during the election, but is very real and looming. Plus, the issue of Europe hasn’t gone away, leading to questions of where to make cuts in expenditure. The APS seems a logical start, but they find there aren’t a lot of cuts to be made, because the staff numbers haven’t increased enormously since the Howard years. They do make cuts, however, leading to a degrading of services in some areas.  They do need, though, to increase spending on public infrastructure, with demands for the Pacific Highway upgrade  to happen after more accidents. They are more than happy, though, to grant Barry O’Farrell’s request to direct Federal money to the North West rail link. The residents of that area breathe a sigh of relief that all of the train line will be underground, not be an eyesore.

Abbott finds it hard after July, 2011 to get his agenda through the now Green controlled Senate.  They do offer compromises, though, as long as he makes major modifications to his Direct Action plan, which has been declared both very expensive and next to useless by pretty much every scientific body that is asked to scrutinise it by savvy journalists. There is even a brief conversation amongst Greens to allow for some more aggressively conservative policies in return for a CPRS. This is rejected, however, on both sides. In the end, Direct Action is quietly cut back and cut back, until it is barely there.

There is frequent talk of a double dissolution election, which doesn’t happen because the Greens rise in polls, on the back of their position of being a principled opposition – especially in terms of the environment and asylum seekers. There is a great amount of tension between Abbott and the Greens, due to Abbott’s abrasive and blunt manner.

There are grumblings, however. First of all, there isn’t a clear idea of what the new government is actually wanting to do, other than continue the legacy of Howard and strip away some of Labor’s reforms and projects. This question dogs the new government after the first year – especially as voters begin to realise that the NBN isn’t being built, leading to customers being mostly at the mercy of companies that only increase internet speeds in affluent areas, just as they did before. The second issue that dogs it is from within, with the neoliberals, already unhappy with the large amount of money provided in the parental leave scheme and rural infrastructure, wanting a Liberal Government to get back into IR reforms, bringing back AWAs and being in the business of reducing union power.  Abbott remains firm on this point, preserving Fair Work Australia and the Fair Work Act – which has many elements that business likes. There are more ructions, however, each time FWA issue an independent wage rise decision. Abbott is forced to weigh up the calls from within his party with his populist instinct, which would be scream to not bring back WorkChoices in any form. There isn’t a large amount of leadership talk, however, until 2012, when it is clear Abbott isn’t coming up with a great number of new ideas.  There is also talk of Malcolm Turnbull being better at being to negotiate with the Greens in order to get the agenda through.  As a result of all this, the LNP go into the 2013 election with some big questions over their ability to govern and have new vision.

In media news, there is a quieter attitude at The Australian and Daily Telegraph, with much of the problems with the Government blamed on Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor as well as the Greens. With the cutting back of Direct Action, the clime sceptics don’t see a need to talk down climate change as much. There is constant talk of a double dissolution, which would wash the Greens away from the Senate.  The IPA has also changed in style, with many former members now consulting various government departments. Chris Berg is still there, however, writing articles criticising Abbott for his spend, spend, spend policies and refusal to bring more flexibility into the workplace.  Fairfax Papers are often found talking up the activities of the Communications Minister, who still likes to make a comment about non portfolio policies from time to time.  These articles occur more often as the question of who to negotiate with the Greens comes up. Meanwhile, the new editor of The Drum, Gerard Henderson, has ensured that right wing voices are finally heard on the ABC. In response, prominent independent writers like Chas Licciardello, Marieke Hardy and John Birmingham, set up a new website, The Village Square, which features news and views from a range of interesting and engaging voices. It is edited by a team headed up by Jane Shaw.

On the opposition side, the leader, Bill Shorten, makes his points frequently and often about the new Government having nothing to advertise itself but the word “no”. His Education Spokesperson, Julia Gillard, runs rings around Christopher Pyne, who is frozen on the National Curriculum – wanting on one hand to push through a “Liberal” education agenda but not knowing how to get the states onside with each other and him.

In all this, Bob Katter is a big winner. There are new subsidies for cane farmers to continue their activities and he’s the Chairman of a Supermarket Review Commission. The hearings of said commission are packed out by journalists – they are so popular that a ballot is taken for seats. Laitka Bourke and Annabel Crabb, however, always get a seat, because of their peerless tweet broadcasting skills.

Scenario 3. A Liberal Majority Government. In addition to Corangamite, holds Greenway and welcomes Jaymes Diaz, picks up Lindsay (thanks partially to a split in Greens preferences) and welcomes Fiona Scott.

This is a bit like Scenario 3, but without Bob Katter and Rob Oakeshott. The LNP doesn’t have to spend as much money on rural infrastructure and the rural NBN.  It still has large issues with the Greens, but Katter disappears, along with the accompanying #bobkatterfacts hashtag. I therefore don’t have the awesome present prepared by my partner – a poster in my office adorned with the best examples of the contributions to the hashtag. That would be sad. However, there is much discussion held amongst the Greens nationally and in the media about the decision made by the Nepean Greens not to direct preferences to David Bradbury in Lindsay.  That helps somewhat to communicate the idea that perhaps the Greens aren’t in total lockstep with the ALP but also to force the question in the ALP of why the Greens didn’t preference in Lindsay. They just might learn something in the process.

There’s the sliding doors. In 2010, my partner and I thought that it would be a better long term outcome for Labor if they lost in 2010 – especially if there was a Liberal National Minority Government. I still think that’s the case.

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