Canberra Gets Back To Business

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Federal politics is never dull, even if is often unenlightening. So it has proved in recent days, as the Gillard Government has rearranged the cabinet furniture. In the wake of the Prime Minister’s announcement of a 14 September election last week, two prominent ministers decided to cash in their chips.

Chris Evans, a sober and humane senator from Western Australia, has served in a number of key roles in the Rudd and Gillard governments, including as Immigration Minister and in his current portfolio of Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research. Evans is quitting politics altogether, and will leave the Senate before the September election. A replacement will be appointed, as happens in the Senate, where no by-elections take place.

Nicola Roxon is also packing her bags. The Attorney-General and member for the Melbourne seat of Gellibrand has been a high profile Labor minister. Now she will step down from cabinet and let someone else contest her seat in September.

As Health Minister, Roxon established a strong record on public health initiatives, including higher taxes on alcohol and tobacco, as well as fighting and winning a tough battle to introduce some of the world’s toughest plain packaging laws for cigarettes. Not many politicians can claim to have introduced policy reforms that will save lives — perhaps thousands of them. Roxon can. She leaves office with a record at least as distinguished as that of another path-breaking Labor health minister, Neal Blewett.

Of course, neither minister leaves without criticism. On coming to office, Evans was a champion of Kevin Rudd’s milder and more humane asylum seeker policy. He abolished temporary protection visas for asylum seekers, Howard government instruments which were widely seen as punitive and discriminatory. In 2008, Evans launched a new policy on immigration, which stipulated "seven principles" of Labor’s approach. Some of those principles included: that detention would be for "the shortest practicable time" and used only as a last resort; that "people in detention will be treated fairly and reasonably within the law"; and that "detention that is indefinite or otherwise arbitrary is not acceptable".

By mid-2010, most of Evan’s seven principles had been abandoned, and the tenor of asylum seeker policy since then has only degenerated. Under Evans’ successor, Chris Bowen (shifted out of Immigration on the weekend), Labor has re-opened offshore processing centres, continued to incarcerate children, and introduced new measures that mimic temporary protection visas in everything but name. Evans was no doubt relieved to be free of the poisoned chalice of the Immigration portfolio, but the steady disillusionment of Evans’ hopes for reform in the area charts a broader narrative of Labor’s reign.

The new Minister for Immigration, Brendan O’Connor, must not be relishing an appointment which has seriously damaged the political reputation of Bowen, once considered a rising star in the New South Wales wing of Labor.

Roxon’s progress also reflects the steady attrition of principle seemingly guaranteed by the demands of public office. The historic victory against Big Tobacco she won while Health Minister will be celebrated by public health experts for decades to come. But as Attorney-General, she has been the chief legal officer of a government that routinely violates the human rights of legitimate refugees and continues to implement special conditions on government benefits for recipients based on their race.

Roxon’s well-intentioned but ultimately paternalistic Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill has also drawn plenty of flak, and not just from libertarians and supporters of right wing newspaper columnists. Writing in Crikey, for instance, Guy Rundle argued that it enshrined "the idea that the ebb and flow of social behaviour can be micro-regulated".

Roxon’s warm embrace of dubious claims about the supposedly existential threat of hackers and cyber security has also raised the hackles of many in the IT and civil liberties communities. Under the government’s Orwellian-sounding "Protective Security Policy Framework", the Attorney-General’s Department wants to force internet service providers to retain all their user’s data for two years, a vast and expensive intrusion on privacy that appears designed to create exactly the sort of identity theft Nicola Roxon is worried about.

The changes to cabinet necessitated by the departure of Roxon and Evans have allowed Julia Gillard to promote some talent, most notably South Australian Mark Dreyfus to Attorney-General, and marginal seat-holder Mike Kelly to Defence Materiel, where a higher profile is presumably thought helpful in holding his bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro.

But coming as they did in the wake of a tumultuous week for Labor, in which the election was announced and embattled MP Craig Thomson charged with fraud, the cabinet reshuffle allowed Gillard’s enemies in the media to paint it as evidence of a government "in chaos". Matters were not helped by the release of a poor Newspoll, which only buttressed interpretations of a government inevitably doomed to electoral defeat.

All of which underlines the scale of the challenge facing Gillard and Labor in the coming months. It’s a given that the Gillard Government faces some unsympathetic narratives from the mainstream media, and the last few days have been no exception. The so-called election campaign (which is not technically an election campaign at all) is only a few days old, and we’ve already had some pretty silly commentary, from the utter inability of the press gallery to understand the constitutional definition of an election campaign, to the predictable recycling of Rudd-Gilard leadership speculation.

Perhaps silliest of all was this morning’s reporting of the Coalition’s latest stunt: taking legal advice on whether the government, having now announced the date of the election, is now in "caretaker mode". For the uninitiated, caretaker mode is the period after the dissolution of the House of Representatives and before election day in which major policy decisions are not to be taken.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have a clear set of guidelines (pdf) on the convention, which clearly state that "the caretaker period begins at the time the House of Representatives is dissolved."

Given that Parliament is actually sitting today, you’d think that would clear matters up. But such is the "swirling" and "fluid" nature of the political commentary, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a government which has comfortably served out most of its three year term was somehow about to dissolve from its own internal tensions.

In reality, the government retains its majority on the floor of the Parliament, and continues to hold the levers of the machinery of government. It’s going to be a long, long seven months before September.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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