The Federal Opposition has spent the last three weeks calling for the wrong political scalp. Forget Environment Minister Peter Garrett — the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, would have been a better target.
The failed insulation scheme (combined with the poorly run Green Loans scheme) has been a disaster for the Rudd Government. Four people are dead, at least 63 house fires are being linked to the scheme and Rudd’s usually nimble policy-on-the-run approach has failed to staunch the bleeding. But while the low murmur of discontent around Garrett has risen to a noisy din, Senator Conroy has managed to avoid scrutiny for some very questionable decisions of his own.
When Conroy blithely admitted in Senate Estimates that it was he who had recommended Mike Kaiser — a former chief of staff to two Labor premiers and former Queensland State MP who left in disgrace — for a $400,000-a-year job with the National Broadband Network, jaws dropped. It was Conroy, after all, who said when former Liberal staffer John Short was hired by Telstra on a $400,000 contract in 2005: "What we’ve established here is that the chairman [of Telstra]has insisted [on]the appointment of a Liberal Party hack, for an extremely well remunerated position after the company itself made the position redundant." The National Broadband Network’s chief executive, Mike Quigley, then revealed that Kaiser had been appointed without anyone else being interviewed.
A few days later, tabloid revelations that Conroy had gone skiing with Channel 7 mogul Kerry Stokes in Colorado and then handed the commercial free-to-air TV networks a $250 million discount on their licence fees left the minister deeper in the mire.
To those scandalous decisions add $30 million wasted on the tender process for Labor’s $4.7 billion national broadband network; rising discontent both in the Labor Party and in the broader community over Conroy’s mandatory internet filter; a register of members’ interests that showed Conroy accepted gifts and invitations from all and sundry (signed Chelsea shirt, anyone? Grand Final tickets?); and a $43 billion national broadband network that has not been subject to so much as a cost-benefit analysis (and, as the draft NBN legislation released this week shows, is designed to cripple Telstra).
The minister should be skating on thin ice.
The Victorian senator is the embodiment of that Labor caricature — the factional warlord. He is not close to Rudd but he brings votes to any caucus leadership shootout. This perhaps explains his ability to dodge a bullet inside the party but the Opposition has been largely muted on these issues, too. Tony Abbott, Greg Hunt and the rest of the parliamentary Liberal Party have concentrated their attack on Garrett in the lower house, while Conroy, ensconced in what is a hostile Senate (remember that the Coalition has the numbers), has sustained little permanent damage.
And unfortunately for the Opposition, their preferred target has emerged from these recent attacks largely unscathed.
The rule of thumb is that if a scandal lasts more than 10 days, the embattled minister will go. For three weeks Garrett has borne the brunt of the Opposition’s attacks, stepping up to the dispatch box again and again to explain what he knew, when he knew it and what he was doing to fix it but, despite this, Garrett’s position is looking safer by the day.
So why has he survived? A combination of Kevin Rudd’s stubbornness — he does not want to lose another minister — and broad acknowledgement within the Labor ranks that this was not a mess of Garrett’s making have saved the Environment Minister’s skin. The idea that the minister could not be held responsible for the poor practices of rogue individual installers has currency — especially when it is understood that the insulation scheme had been kicking around the Department of Environment for a number of years, and that it was a desire to fast-track it as a stimulus measure that led to the four tragedies. Garrett may well lose the environment portfolio after the election, but his career is not over and he will remain a minister (and can surely, finally, shed the novice tag).
Should Garrett have gone? Perhaps. Ministerial accountability is a slippery concept. John Howard’s "Ministerial Code of Conduct" cost him seven ministers in his first term and was quietly shelved. Kevin Rudd has not set a similarly high bar, and as such, has so far lost only Joel Fitzgibbon — and then only when the calls for his resignation became too loud to ignore.
The Environment Minister makes an inviting and obvious target but there are stronger grounds to claim Conroy should go. If Nick Minchin had retained the shadow communications portfolio after Tony Abbott assumed the leadership, ensuring Conroy had a direct opponent in the Senate (it is now held by lower house MP Tony Smith), then perhaps the Liberals’ attack would have been sharper and more lethal. As it is, the public now has insulation fatigue and the communications kerfuffles have been treated as second-order issues.
It has been a good first three weeks of parliament for the Opposition, with their poll numbers rising and Rudd forced onto the back foot. But by targeting Garrett, they have missed a golden opportunity with Conroy, and when parliament resumes in mid-March the debate will have moved on.
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