To win office, the Government will have to perform a Herculean feat – and now the Thomson affair has given the Opposition an extra set of cudgels writes Ben Eltham.
The Australian Financial Review’s Geoff Kitney had an article this week about Labor’s fortunes. According to the unnamed “seniorALP figures” he interviewed, the anger towards the Labor government is now at levels comparable to the dying days of the Whitlam and Keating governments.
Things may not be quite as bad as they were in 1975 or 1996 yet, but there’s no denying the depths of Labor’s opinion poll woes. Yes, recent polls show Labor’s support is no longer falling — but the problem is the polls have stabilised at figures that will see Labor wiped from office. The scale of the mountain the government must climb in the two years before the next federal election must daunt even the hardiest true believer. As we know, there are precious few of these left on the Labor backbench.
The reasons for the government’s malaise have been raked over many times. The nature of Julia Gillard’s ascension, her non-victory in last year’s election, and her subsequent minority government mean that many voters have never regarded her as a legitimate prime minister. You can add to the list a hostile media and plenty of own goals when it comes to government tactics and communications strategies. Throw in some unpopular policies like the carbon tax and it’s no surprise the government is struggling.
Even so, Labor’s ill fortune has begun to feed on itself. Call it a downward spiral, call it a a self-sustaining loop: the perception that Labor simply can’t win the next election has begun to take hold, not just among political insiders, but increasingly in the minds of ordinary voters. And who can blame them, given the way the government has been performing?
And now, just for good measure, the government is mired in an old fashioned sex scandal, thanks to embattled backbencher Craig Thomson and his wayward credit card.
The whys and wherefores of Thomson’s pre-parliamentary career at the head of the powerful Health Services Union are the subject of increasingly febrile speculation. Briefly, Thomson’s tenure was marked by approximately $100,000 in missing union funds, which current Health Services Union secretary Kathy Jackson claims have not been paid back. Thomson continues to deny any wrong-doing, and the matter has now been referred to New South Wales police. No charges have been laid.
The possibility of white-collar crime at a prominent union is a serious matter, certainly. But it is hardly a matter that we would expect to convulse federal parliament for an entire week if Julia Gillard’s government wasn’t utterly dependent on Thomson’s seat.
But Gillard’s survival does depend on every single ALP member, plus three independents and a Green, so any potential threat to a sitting member is taken very seriously — seriously enough for the NSW branch of the ALP to pay $90,000 of Thomson’s legal debts, lest he be forced into bankruptcy and become disqualified from office.
The knife-edge parliamentary numbers also explain the ruthless pursuit of Thomson by the Opposition, which has again scented blood. Of course, any opposition enjoys a government scandal, particularly one complete with juicy details about mobile phone records and signatures on receipts for services at a bordello. It has been Thomson’s misfortune to attract the interest of Liberal Senator George Brandis, a former barrister and one of the sharpest legal minds in federal politics. Brandis has been diligently trawling through the evidence in a forensic manner, making sure to read everything he has uncovered into the Senate Hansard to ensure that it’s covered by parliamentary privilege.
Whether Thomson is guilty, innocent, or even entitled to the presumption of innocence is of course irrelevant to the bigger picture, as far as the Coalition is concerned. And the bigger picture is quite simple: even if Thomson is not charged, the imbroglio keeps the government on the back foot and scandal on the front page.
There are some bigger questions for Labor to answer here, perhaps most pointedly in regards to the continuing influence of powerful unions in the apparatus of the Labor party machine. As long as trade unions an be used, even in the narrowly legitimate sense, as slush funds and power bases for those with parliamentary ambitions, and as long as union officials can continue to be parachuted into seats to sit at the pleasure of their factional godfathers, the ALP will continue to experience embarrassments such as the Thomson affair. After all, the right-wing factions that run the New South Wales branch of the ALP and that installed Thomson in Dobell are the very same factional warlords that control the numbers for Julia Gillard in federal caucus.
That shouldn’t stop us from asking the obvious question about whether the issue is really as interesting and relevant as the mainstream media has been making out. Much of the speculation about Thomson — even here in New Matilda — has been over the top. For instance, Ben Raue spent several paragraphs wondering about the implications of a by-election in the seat of Dobell. But there is no sign that Thomson is going to resign his seat any time soon.
Yes, a police investigation is under way, aided by a friendly courtesy call from Senator Brandis to New South Wales Police Minister Mike Gallacher. But even if he is charged eventually, Thomson will undoubtedly defend himself vigorously. The whole sorry saga will wind its way through the courts for years. The Gordon Nuttall scandal in Queensland is a good example of how long it can take. By the time Craig Thomson finally has his day in court — assuming he even has a case to answer — we could be well into 2013 and Tony Abbott may be happily ensconced in the Lodge already.
However, the controversy does seem to have had one unexpected effect. Goaded once too often, and perhaps finally desperate enough to throw caution to the winds, federal Labor has apparently decided to go on the attack. This week saw several intemperate outbursts by manager of government business Anthony Albanese (who at one stage memorably called the truckie’s protest the “convoy of no consequence”), followed yesterday by a calculated counter-attack by the Prime Minister herself.
Perhaps deciding that Labor’s current strategy of simply taking punishment was not working, Julia Gillard rose to her feet on Thursday and launched an all-out assault on the Opposition, accusing the Coalition of “stinking hypocrisy” and pointedly referring to the criminal theft and assault charges against Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher.
Gillard pointed out her government has passed 185 pieces of legislation, including 22 in the past fortnight that has been dominated by the Thomson affair. “They pursue their self-interest and hypocrisy day by day and it is truly disgusting,” she shouted, claiming “the Opposition has simply focussed its sights on destroying the government”.
Gillard is right: the Opposition has focused its sights on destroying the government. The problem is, aided by some all-too-typical Labor incompetence, they’re doing a rather good job of it.