Looking Back On The Month Of June In The Australian Parliament

Cameron O’Neill

Politics vs. Policy

The June sitting of Australian Parliament was either entertaining or depressing, depending on whether you like politics or policy. The two weeks saw a spectacular collapse in support for the Opposition leader and the announced end to Peter Costello’s political career.  By the end of it everyone realized Kevin Rudd was smarter (and perhaps a little nastier) than they had previously thought.

Both sides of government strayed from concentrating on important matters such as the indigenous health crisis, the economy and climate change, because of a hoax email. Sad news for those with a genuine interest in public policy.

This article is a recap of some of the more intriguing and entertaining events in Australian Parliament in June, events that took place largely at the expense of constructive policy debate.

Off to a good start

Peter Costello, the greatest PM we never had, announced early in the sitting period that he would not contest the safe Liberal seat of Higgins in the next election. He therefore ruled himself out as the next leader of the Liberal Party. While Costello supporters despaired, this was clearly the outcome that the current Liberal Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, was craving. Costello, a clear favourite for party leadership, had languished provocatively on the backbenches ever since Turnbull’s election as Libs leader (uncontested by Costello). With the specter of a leadership challenge from Costello gone, Turnbull faces few credible threats to his leadership.

In other good news for Turnbull the Libs had been scoring some solid points against PM Kevin Rudd on the economy and the efficacy of the Rudd Government’s economic stimulus measures. A month earlier an anonymous tip off to a Senate Estimates hearing about some incriminating meetings and alleged deals for a mate had sealed the fate of the Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon – the first Rudd Minister to resign. The apparently invincible Rudd façade was starting to show cracks and Turnbull and the Libs were clearly re-energised.

OzCar Round 1: Swan in trouble

The Libs were also making Treasurer Wayne Swan look uncomfortable about his role in ‘OzCar’, a Treasury administered scheme that promises a lifeline of Government backed funding for car dealerships crippled by the slowing economy. Swan had allegedly followed up personally on an application for OzCar funding by a second hand car dealership in Queensland. Not in itself a problem, but the bloke who ran the car dealership not only lived in Rudd’s electorate but was also a good mate of Rudd’s and a donor to the Labour Party. The donations included a second hand ute that Rudd drove around his electorate, carrying promotional billboards during his election campaign. Evidence of Swan’s interventions included an email trail and some phone calls.

Rudd was not initially the target of the Libs attack, because he had declared the utes a political donation on the Parliament’s pecuniary interests register. The focus in the first instance was on Swan and related to his abuse of the Treasury Department and his own office to provide preferential treatment to one of Rudd’s mates. The prospects for some political damage, maybe not Swan’s scalp, were looking good and the Libs knew it.

In the early media scrum surrounding Swan and the OzCar affair, unimaginatively dubbed ‘Utegate’ in the press, ironically the most credible voice emerging from the melee was that of the second hand car salesman.

Night fever

It was therefore little surprise to see Malcolm Turnbull with a spring in his step as he bounced into the Mid Winter Ball that Wednesday. The Mid Winter Ball is an annual charity night for pollies and journos held at Parliament House since 2000. By the end of the 2009 installment, however, Turnbull would have made a near career ending decision and a Liberal staffer would lose his job.

The intrigue kicked off with the drunken Liberal Party adviser who heckled speech givers and later tried to grab women’s breasts while "lurching from woman to woman on the dance floor".1 Ironically, said staffer had been working in the Office of the Opposition Spokesman for the Status of Women. Clearly the only status lowered was his own and that of his party (and Effie’s who was unfortunately photographed with the little terror). 2  Needless to say, he was forced to resign.

At some time during the evening Turnbull sidled up next to one of Rudd’s senior economic advisers and began talking. According to a file note on the conversation compiled by the advisor the next day, Turnbull provided a lecture on honesty and a warning on not lying to protect the Prime Minister. Turnbull was alleged to have documentary evidence (an email) that the advisor had been acting improperly on behalf of Rudd in lining up some car finance deals for, you guessed it, the second hand car dealer from Queensland.

The Rudd advisor was appropriately stunned by the random approach by Turnbull, and confessed to have no idea what Turnbull was talking about. At the time Rudd calmly tossed his Blackberry phone to another staffer who photographed the incident.3

OzCar Round 2: the email scandal

As it turned out, apparently an email had been sent by one of Rudd’s advisors to a senior Treasury official tasked with administering the OzCar scheme. The email requested special treatment for Rudd’s mate-the-car-dealer. Yet the existence of such an email was not publicly revealed until Friday when the Treasury official in receipt of the email was placed under the glare of the dreaded (for any public Servant) Senate Estimates Committee. The official had been tenderly directed to the subject of the email by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, one of the chief forensic grillers. The email was allegedly sent to the Treasury official’s home computer, strangely enough.

At first appearances the news of the email seemed like a devastating blow to the Rudd Government. Turnbull seized the opportunity and announced proudly to the Australian public that the PM was corrupt and that both the PM and the Treasurer should explain or resign. The more experienced Liberal campaigners expressed caution to Turnbull and asked if anyone had actually seen the email.

Rudd’s advisor denied ever sending such an email. Rudd believed him. So did the Australian Federal Police (AFP) after they searched the Treasury and Prime Minister’s Office email systems. The email did not originate from Rudd or Rudd’s office. Instead, a hoax email had been concocted from within Treasury, purported to be from Rudd’s Office, sent to the OzCar Treasury official’s home email address.  Not insignificantly, AFP Chief Commissioner Mick Keelty issued a press release on the Monday revealing that the email was a hoax, and that Turnbull would be interviewed (as a witness) as part of an investigation into high level leaks from Treasury to the Liberal Party.

Rudd was handed a full week of Parliament in which to ladle out hurt to Turnbull, which he did in generous measures.

A time for haircuts

Rudd let loose on Turnbull with great ferocity and creativity, forming a tag team with Ministers Anthony Albanese and Lindsay Tanner.  The latter pair came into their own as attack dogs complete with new suits, haircuts and witty repartee to match. Albanese’s outrageous verbal portrait of Turnbull as the ghost of Mark Latham, delivered across the floor of Parliament with a crazed-dog facial expression and bloodshot eyes (intently fixed on Turnbull), had both sides of the house in stitches and Turnbull lost for words.

Labour was clearly firing on less than full cylinders, missing their star Parliamentary performer, Julia Gillard. Gillard was in the Middle East, being notably statesmanlike in her discussions with leaders from the troubled region and sporting a new hairstyle herself. Despite Gillard’s absence, the Labour boys managed to serve up a world of hurt for Turnbull. The political clean-skins of the Liberal Party were no match for the seasoned political professionals of the Labour Party.

Within the Libs, devoted public support for Turnbull was sparser than a full head of hair on the backbench. Many had advised Turnbull not to go for Rudd but instead to focus on Swan, where there were serious questions to be asked about OzCar, questions that had been, and remain, largely unanswered by Swan.

A Swan dive in the polls

In the polls released on the Monday after Parliament had broken for the winter break, Turnbull suffered a massive dive in his satisfaction ratings. He lost an enormous 40 net points, surpassing the previous record held by Alexander Downer (a 36 point plummet) in the wake of a disastrous series of gaffs including Downer’s coining of the Libs domestic violence policy as ‘The things that batter’ in the 1990’s. Turnbull was suddenly in the polls territory of former Libs leader Brendan Nelson shortly before he was toppled (by Turnbull).

The Libs limped into the long winter break in damage control. Turnbull whisked himself off to Afghanistan to gee up the Aussie troops with Julie Bishop, the Foreign Affairs spokesman who he (Turnbull) had demoted from Treasury Spokesman in favour of Joe Hockey.

In Afghanistan Turnbull eschewed the usual Prime Ministerial makeover for a flak jacket, and traded the mess he had created at home for a mess hall.

Back home the polls showed Rudd’s popularity soaring. On the same day that the polls were released, The Australian newspaper carried the front page headline ‘Turnbull in turmoil’ above a picture of a beaming Rudd with Rove McManus and Bruno (the latest incarnation of Sacha Baron Cohen) taken after a cheesy TV appearance.

A bittersweet victory?

Rudd’s victory was sweet but it is likely that he has lost respect in the eyes of some members of the Australian public. Although the attack on his integrity needed to be defended, Rudd’s counterattack was disappointingly ‘unstatesmanlike’.  Perhaps he should have borrowed a page from John Howard’s book. When Rudd was opposition Foreign Affairs spokesman he labeled then PM Howard a liar over Howard’s denial of knowledge of the Australian Wheat Board’s (AWB) 4 kickbacks to the Saddam Hussein regime. The Cole inquiry later cleared Howard and other Government ministers of any wrongdoing. Howard demanded no retractions and did not call for Rudd’s resignation.

The real opportunities lost

Meanwhile, some of the most important issues affecting ordinary Australians were swept aside. The Government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS), the renewable energy target (RET), the Alcopops tax, the economy and even the OzCar bill itself, all received perfunctory treatment in the long nights of Senate sittings. The politics of the day was clearly the winner over policy, and those with a genuine interest in the nation’s wellbeing, the cognoscenti, quietly shook their heads.

Looking forward

If the Libs can regroup and reinvigorate over the winter break they will realize they have many opportunities to engage Labour in constructive debate. These are important debates that must proceed unhindered by the type of episode described above. There are also valid questions about Swan and his handling of the OzCar affair, which remain unanswered. However, in June the opportunities for the Libs to challenge Labour in these areas were squandered by Turnbull’s poor political judgement.

It is likely that some time after Parliament reconvenes post Winter break Turnbull, if his leadership survives, will go after Rudd with renewed vigor, but perhaps with more style, construct and sophistication than his recent showings.

Doubtless, Rudd will not be waiting idly.






4  "We have an Australian Prime Minister (Howard) who is a liar ... and I use the term precisely and intentionally."

Cameron O’Neill is an economist and writer in Sydney, Australia.