Federal Labor's Year Just Got Better


Anthony Albanese ended a chirpy interview with Tony Jones on Lateline last night in good spirits. He was off to the Prime Minister’s drinks to celebrate the end of the parliamentary year.

But he couldn’t resist reminding his viewers where the drinks were being held. "At the Lodge," he told Jones triumphantly, "even though Tony Abbott predicted that he’d be there this year, he of course isn’t and today means he’s further away than he was yesterday."

What was Albanese referring to, when he spoke about "today"? It was a significant change in the make up of the House of Representatives, actually. In a busy day in the nation’s capital, the Speaker of the House, Labor’s Harry Jenkins, resigned his post early on Thursday morning. By mid-afternoon, he’d been replaced by Peter Slipper — the Deputy Speaker, but also a Liberal-National Party member from Queensland. Because the Speaker does not vote, the change in speakership means that Jenkins, who returns to the backbenches, can now vote for the Government, while Slipper can no longer vote for the Opposition.

The Government has gained a crucial vote on the floor of Parliament, increasing its buffer on critical legislation and extending its leverage with recalcitrant independents like Andrew Wilkie. Oh, and should any one Labor representative fall under the proverbial bus, the Government is now protected from immediate doom. All in all, a pretty good day at the office for Albanese, the government’s Leader in the House.

The Opposition is predictably furious.

Peter Slipper has effectively betrayed his party, leaving his colleagues to take up a better-paid and more prestigious position. It looks as though he was motivated by revenge. The internal politics of Queensland’s merged Liberal-National Party have ever been poisonous, and Slipper was being actively undermined. His preselection was reportedly being threatened by former Howard government minister Mal Brough, who retains a popular profile on the Sunshine Coast and northern outskirts of Brisbane.

Slipper now faces the full wrath of his former colleagues, who have plenty of dubious material to dredge up. Slipper has a record of expense account irregularities. He’s been prevented from boarding a plane due to eccentric behaviour, and trapped in a Parliamentary disabled toilet. And now he’s the Speaker of the House of Representatives, nominally the most important position in the Parliament.

By and large, the media has covered this move as a "dirty deal", stitched up by Albanese and Jenkins to the benefit of Labor’s majority. The Daily Telegraph went further, unleashing the editorial crayon to draw on Slipper some whiskers and a tail.

Labor’s exploit is certainly politically expedient. But there is some important background to the situation too. Originally, Jenkins and Slipper, the Speaker and his Deputy, were meant to be a permanent "pair". This means that neither were to vote on key legislation or censure motions. Lured by the prospect of defeating the government on the floor of the Parliament, Abbott went back on that arrangement, effectively giving the Coalition an extra vote in the House. The new configuration, with Jenkins a normal backbencher and Slipper a newly independent Speaker, simply returns the House to that former calculus.

It’s not the first time that Tony Abbott’s overpowering desire to gain the keys to the Lodge has backfired. Yesterday was actually the fourth anniversary of the Rudd-Gillard government, and as Abbott himself has pointed out, the Government has been shy in pointing out the significance of the date. The truth is that this is still a remarkably unpopular government, particularly when compared to the stratospheric approval it enjoyed in 2008. The heady days of the 2020 Summit and the Indigenous apology now seem an eon ago. Labor has not headed the Coalition in an opinion poll for more than a year. It’s been a long, dark autumn, winter and spring.

But now that summer is nearly here and that the parliamentary year is over, Labor can look back on its achievements with considerable satisfaction. Whatever else you can say about Julia Gillard, all must bow to her unquestionable record of passing important legislation. More than 250 bills have been passed, including of course the carbon tax, and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax this week. On coming to office as Prime Minister, Gillard nominated carbon, the mining tax and asylum seekers as her three top priorities. Asylum seeker policy has been a catastrophic debacle, but on the mining tax and the carbon price, she has indeed delivered.

Not that the Minerals Resource Rent Tax is quite the wonder tax it’s cracked up to be. The final legislation is a shadow of the comprehensive tax on the super-profits of non-renewable resources first proposed by Ken Henry all the way back in early 2010. Many hugely profitable commodities are absent altogether, including — amazingly — gold, which is currently enjoying sky-high prices on international exchanges. Worse, because of the spending promises tied to the tax, and the various concessions Labor has been forced to give up in order to get the package through the House, the final MRRT equation is actually negative for the federal budget. Despite being expected to raise at least $11 billion over four years, the MRRT is tied to spending pledges worth perhaps $1.2 billion more than that, for things such as raising the superannuation guarantee to 12 per cent and cutting the company tax rate by one point to 29 per cent.

All this means that to make his 2012 budget balance, Wayne Swan is going to have to find some serious savings, and soon. An announcement is expected soon on some early cuts, perhaps around the time of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook by Treasury. Candidates for savings include perennial spendthrifts like defence and industry assistance, as well as tougher restrictions on government benefits. Such announcements are bound to be unpopular. Everyone likes a balanced budget, but no-one likes to see their favourite programs cut.

While it may yet pose any number of possible perils, like a European meltdown, 2012 still looks more favourable for Labor than 2011. That’s not to say it’ll be plain sailing. The Government must bed down the carbon tax. It must return a budget surplus. It must keep the economy on steady ground, despite a deteriorating global situation. Labor will also likely lose Queensland to the LNP, leaving only South Australia and Tasmania in state Labor hands. And holidays also allow MPs to get up to mischief. There’s plenty of scope for another disaster like the Craig Thomson affair to occur.

But there is undoubtedly a sense of a momentum shift in federal politics just now.

The Obama visit gave the Government a precious week of clean air in which Julia Gillard got to look like a stateswoman and Tony Abbott was nowhere to be seen. With the polls trending upward for the Government — albeit from catastrophic to merely dire — and some genuine legislative achievements enacted, Labor’s backbench looks notably cheerier. The parliamentary year ended with a stirring speech from Anthony Albanese attacking Tony Abbott and the "Noalition", and of course the palace coup to install Slipper in the Speaker’s chair.

The Coalition is meanwhile reminded, yet again, that it is not in Government. How bitter the 2011 defeat must now seem. But for a few votes in a few seats, Tony Abbott would have been in office for a year by now, and most likely riding as high in the polls as Julia Gillard currently swings low.

And yet, time and again, Abbott’s tactical brilliance in attack has concealed genuine weaknesses in his broader strategy. Witness Abbott’s manifest failure to win over the country independents after the election, in contrast to Gillard’s sure-footed handling of the interregnum. Witness too the Coalition’s continued inability to come up with positive policy proposals, costed properly, that it could take to an electorate clearly desperate for an agenda that is more than simple negativity. And witness Abbott’s numerous all-in bets on his own political judgment, on issues like gambling reform, the NBN and climate change, in which a more nuance position might be of long-term benefit.

It was always questionable just how long Abbott could maintain the rage against the Gillard Government out in the community, particularly once the carbon tax receded from public notoriety. Now that seems to be happening, the Opposition looks sorely in need of a Plan B.

In the meantime, and probably for the next couple of months, the Gillard Government can settle back and get on with the business of governing, enjoying something of a respite from the white heat of political battle. After all, the year is winding down. Much of the media is about to go on holidays for the summer, a time which traditionally favours governments by starving oppositions of oxygen. Time will tell whether this blossoms into a fully-fledged sense of comfort with Julia Gillard’s rule. But very quietly, almost without anyone noticing, the Government seems to have regained a little legitimacy.


Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.