A core principle of the Westminster system of parliament is a separation of powers between the parliament and the executive. But Westminster also has what John Howard might call a ‘non core’ principle – a ‘coalition of powers’, where the major political players cosy up to one another around areas of mutual interest.
I’m talking about the ‘unwritten agreements’ between the major political players when they both have something to gain by turning a blind eye to certain things. Like rushing off to war in Iraq. Or calls for a ‘federal independent commission against corruption’ (which the Coalition opposes, and which Labor says it doesn’t oppose, but won’t support).
Chief among the deals between the big players – and another core principle of the Westminster system – is an unwritten agreement that parliaments will not investigate other parliaments.
The reasoning is obvious: if you look into ours, we’ll look into yours… and who knows what sort of sh*t we’ll find on each other!
Well, overnight, Clive Palmer – the ringmaster of the circus that has become our federal parliament – changed all that.
Late yesterday, the Palmer United Party struck a deal with the Greens to establish a federal Senate Inquiry into the Queensland Parliament… specifically, the Queensland Parliament since incumbent Premier Campbell Newman took office in 2012.
The Senate voted 30 votes to 27 in favour of the inquiry. PUP and the Greens, along with Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir and, of course, Labor supported the PUP motion.
The Libs and Nats, Bob Day (Family First), David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats) and John Madigan (former Democratic Labor Party turned independent) voted against it.
The motion was moved by PUP Senator Glenn Lazarus, and supported by the Greens. In exchange for their support, the Greens pinned PUP down to supporting a suite of environmental protections.
Chief among them is an agreement to block the Abbott Government’s plans to hand key environmental approval processes over to the states and territories.
The irony of mining giant Clive Palmer doing a deal on environmental protections shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
But as with so many things Palmer turns his hand to, this latest development is bitter sweet.
Without question, it is an abuse of parliamentary power by a man with a personal axe to grind. Palmer was, at one time, one of the biggest donors to the Queensland LNP. He fell out with them – and Campbell Newman in particular – after they refused to grant him permission for a train line to move his coal.
Make no mistake about it: this is Clive Palmer exacting revenge.
Yet at the same time, it has the potential to be a stunning expose of major party corruption. At the very least, it will see the airing of some very dirty laundry.
If you’re a fan of ‘wrecking the system’, then Palmer’s actions have undeniable appeal. But you also have to swallow the bitter pill that as a wealthy coal miner, he’s also one of the nation’s most privileged polluters, and he’s been one of the chief beneficiaries of ‘the system’ for a very long time.
Still, watching him pull the whole house down on everyone is pretty exciting, although more than a few will be hoping he’s still inside when it starts to collapse.
Labor, of course, have also been the great beneficiaries of this system. Which makes their historic support for a parliamentary inquiry into another parliament quite stunning.
The reasoning behind the ALPs involvement is obviously multi-faceted. No doubt, the Royal Commissions into unions and pink batts – launched by the Liberals the millisecond they took office – clearly underpins the ALP’s support. Like Palmer, they are also engaged in political payback.
But there’s also a political imperative for the ALP.
To suggest Queensland Parliament is dominated by the LNP doesn’t quite do the reality justice. At the last state election, Labor was routed from office, reduced to just a handful of seats.
A state election is due in early 2015. Just in time for a federal Senate inquiry to probe the dirty deals of a political party that has, perhaps like none before it, trashed a substantial mandate at a clipping pace.
Of course, Labor will pay for this in the long run – one of the great unwritten rules of parliament has been shredded. Expect the Liberals to respond with like mind and motion in the not-too-distant future.
But this is only a dangerous political precedent if you’re ‘in the tent’, as one of the two major parties, or one of their mates.
For everyone else, including Palmer, it’s beautiful political theatre, where we all get to watch Labor and the LNP genuinely turn on each other, and catch and kill their own.
Ah, Queensland politics: beautiful one day, perfect the next.
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