There’s been plenty of bad news for Julia Gillard over the last few weeks but not even the noise of the anti-carbon movement can disguise the fact that the biggest threat to Gillard’s hold on power comes from a scandal affecting a Labor MP from the NSW Central Coast.
Craig Thomson won the seat of Dobell, covering the Wyong area on the NSW Central Coast, from the Liberal Party at the 2007 election. A former National Secretary of the Health Services Union, Thomson was re-elected with an increased margin at the 2010 election.
In 2009, accusations emerged that Thomson had used his union credit card on election campaign spending and to pay for prostitutes. He sued the HSU executive and Fairfax Media over the allegations, but recently withdrew the case. Earlier this week, Thomson amended his register of interests to acknowledge that the NSW branch of the Labor Party had paid a sum of money — believed to be about $90,000 — to cover his legal costs. Without this payment, it is believed that Thomson would have been forced into bankruptcy, which in turnwould have forced him from Parliament.
Last night, it emerged that Fair Work Australia had launched an investigation into whether Thomson misled the body when it first investigated the scandal.
Normally such a scandal wouldn’t be so critical to a government’s future. Politicians regularly get caught up in scandals and usually backbenchers caught in such circumstances either lay low or are jettisoned by their party.
This time around, however, Thomson’s future is critical to the future of the Labor government. If Thomson was convicted of an offence punishable by more than a year in prison, or became bankrupt, he would be forced to vacate his seat, triggering a by-election.
Such a by-election is the most serious threat to the immediate future of Julia Gillard’s minority government. Despite being far behind in the polls, Gillard has another two years before the next election is scheduled, and she has a real chance of regaining an election-winning lead in that time. There is a strong argument that opposition to the carbon price package is at its peak now, and will fade if the legislation is implemented and the scare campaigns do not pan out. This isn’t to say that Gillard is definitely going to achieve this recovery, but it is certainly a possible outcome.
In addition, the Coalition’s tactics with regard to those independents supporting Gillard in the House of Representatives make it difficult to envisage any of them abandoning the Gillard government before the end of its term. The Coalition has made it clear that it is targeting Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott’s seats at the next election, and there is no love lost between the Coalition and Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt.
So as long as the numbers do not change in the House of Representatives, Gillard’s hold on power for the next two years is solid, if fragile.
A by-election, on the other hand, would be very dangerous. Dobell is a very marginal seat, having been held by the Liberal Party as recently as 2007. Polls suggest that support for the Labor Party has dropped well below levels necessary for the party to hold onto Dobell. Such a by-election would become a referendum on the carbon tax and Julia Gillard’s leadership, which is not what this government needs.
So it is understandable that Labor is fighting hard to save Thomson’s political career, even if he never advances beyond the backbenches. It is also true that the Coalition’s short-term political strategy relies on triggering a by-election in a marginal Labor seat, and Dobell seems ripe for the picking.
So what would happen if Labor were to lose a by-election, either in Dobell or in any other Labor seat?
Immediately, it would change the numbers in the House of Representatives. Labor would have the support of 75 Members of the House of Representatives, with 73 Coalition seats and two other crossbenchers who have not pledged to support Labor. While Bob Katter and WA National Tony Crook have previously demonstrated an independence from the Coalition, it seems unlikely that either of them would prove a stable ally for the Government.
Alternatively, it is possible that one of the four crossbenchers supporting Labor could cross over and give the Coalition the 76 seats it needs to form a government, assuming the support of Katter and Crook. It seems impossible that either Andrew Wilkie or the Greens’ Adam Bandt would do so. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, despite being former Nationals holding conservative seats, have such a poisonous relationship with the Coalition now that neither would be likely to support Tony Abbott in power. They would almost certainly lose their seats to Nationals in any early election that a newly-appointed Prime Minister Abbott could call.
If it is impossible for either side to form a stable majority with 76 seats, the end result would almost certainly be an election, although a government could limp along for a few months before eventually being forced to the polls. A motion of no confidence in the Gillard government, or the blocking of key legislation, would force Gillard to either call an election or resign as Prime Minister.
If Tony Abbott were to become Prime Minister, he would be wise to quickly go to the polls. Current polling suggests a new election would produce a healthy majority for the Coalition, which would be far superior to any fragile minority government that he could form in the current parliament.
Seeing these choices, you would have to conclude that Julia Gillard would prefer to call an election herself. As Peter Brent has written, "Labor would still probably lose an election in 2011 from government. But they might not. They would certainly lose one from opposition."
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