It is becoming clear that the three Independents may be suffering from delusions of grandeur. They effectively want to hold the entire nation to ransom, despite the fact that probably 98 per cent of Australians did not even vote for them. Yet here they are, strutting their stuff, enjoying all the attention, and presenting us with their list of demands.
The three Independents were formerly with the Nationals, and all their electorates made it clear that a Labor government was not their preference. Indeed, the Labor percentages were incredibly low: 20 per cent of first-preference votes in Kennedy (Bob Katter’s seat).
Only 13 per cent went for Labor in Lyne (Robert Oakeshott’s seat), and a puny 8 per cent in New England (Tony Windsor’s seat). And a recent poll found 56 per cent of the voters from these three country seats want the Independents to side with the Coalition, not Labor.
So instead of going off half-cocked, thinking they are the real kingmakers here, these three should listen more carefully to their own electorates. And they are also deluded if they think they can work as a single cohesive unit. What we have here are three rather arrogant and power-hungry mavericks who will be jostling with each other as much as with the two major parties.
Peter Smith reminds us of their many divisions: “Tony thinks the MRRT is close to a good solution, Bob doesn’t like it. Rob likes a carbon tax, Bob doesn’t. Bob wants to undo GATT; Tony and Rob maintain a stoic silence. Rob has touching faith in the Henry Tax Review and the Garnaut Report because they were put together by experts. It is not clear, but it seems doubtful, that Bob would be as impressed.
“Rob wants everyone to get on with each other and form le grande coalition. Tony and Bob maintain an indulgent silence. The rest of us rational folk are transported to the théâtre de l’absurde. Mind you, Kumbaya aside, they all think that the parliament has to be more consensual, even while themselves having different views on major issues. Why not; it seems to work for China.”
Are there areas where Parliament can be reformed? Absolutely. Things like having an independent Speaker of the House would not be amiss for starters. But some of their demands really do seem dubious, including that of election promises and costings.
Says Smith, “Exactly how will any of that take them forward to any material extent? Costings are always contentious. Department heads can’t comment on the merits of the government’s versus the opposition’s policies. Ministers and shadow ministers are going to talk their book. Will all parliamentarians be given this level of information and access to allow them to make up their mind?”
Indeed, RMIT economics professor Sinclair Davidson also queries the soundness of this proposal in today’s Australian. Says Davidson, “In the first instance, as the Coalition has made clear, Treasury has already leaked Coalition policy costings. This is an act of extraordinary bad faith and reflects poorly on what should be the premier policy department in the commonwealth public service.
“But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Treasury has become partisan. We’ve known this since Ken Henry was highly critical of Coalition policy in a leaked speech before the 2007 election. Matters were made worse during the Kevin Rudd prime ministership when cabinet was bypassed and Treasury seemingly elevated to decision-making status.
“Lenore Taylor and David Uren’s excellent account of the Rudd era, Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s Darkest Days, tells how Treasury was involved in managing Australia’s response to the global financial crisis; in particular, how Treasury had abandoned longstanding economic principles and decided it would be the first to recommend fiscal intervention in the event of an economic slowdown. Then there was its strong endorsement of pink batts and the ‘Rudd bank’, and the not-so-small matter of the mining tax.
“That last ill-fated proposal was dreamed up in Treasury and foisted on an unsuspecting public. To make matters worse, Treasury made several factual mistakes during the process, arguing, for example, that Australian mining companies paid about 17 per cent in tax and quoting an academic US working paper to that effect when, in fact, the effective rate of tax mining companies pay when you add in all taxes and royalties is about 41 per cent.
“Not to mention the kerfuffle over the amount of revenue the Resource Super-Profits Tax would raise relative to the minerals resource rent tax. Would the RSPT have raised $12 billion or $24bn? Was the revenue cost of the change to the MRRT $1.5bn or $6bn? These are large numbers to be throwing around and the differences suggest the government and Treasury were just making it up as they went along.”
It seems that Tony Abbott is quite right to balk at this demand. However, time will tell as to whether he softens his stance in the interests of forming a minority government. As things now stand, it seems that the Coalition has 73 seats, Labor 72, with one Green, 3 Independents, and one last seat still in doubt (but likely to go to the Libs).
So Abbott will have to be making a number of deals with these new power-brokers. How far he can go is a good question. What is worse: making all sorts of rash compromises of principle in order to form government, or staying true to some core values, and lose out on the chance of forming government?
Bear in mind, Victorian opposition leader Ted Baillieu is already talking about doing a dirty deal with the Greens to knock off Labor in the November state election. In politics nowadays it seems that even cutting a deal with the devil is not off limits.
And if you think all this is bad right now, just wait till next July when nine Green Senators hold the Australian people to ransom. Things will get really ugly then.