20 September 2010

Tony Abbott has a point

I usually take with a grain of salt any commentary by Tony Abbott to the effect that he is concerned to see the next Parliament operate effectively.

Effective operation of the next Parliament is in fact Tony Abbott’s worst nightmare, because he knows that if the Parliament operates effectively there is a good chance that we will see a repeat of the experience of the Steve Bracks Labor Government in Victoria: after a term of minority rule, Bracks was re-elected in a landslide, and Labor has been governing in its own right ever since. In the present case, Julia Gillard will be the beneficiary of the quality control that results from a return to Parliamentary governance, rather than the presidential rule that has afflicted us for fifteen years or so.

If it all works out, this will mean that Tony Abbott’s political career peaked last month, on election night.

This is a serious risk for Tony Abbott.  Managing the minority government’s business through the Parliament will require, apart from good will and good faith, patience and negotiating skill, the former being a key ingredient of the latter.  During the seventeen days from the election to the outcome in which it became clear that it is Julia Gillard and not Tony Abbott who commands a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives on the key issues of confidence and supply, Julia Gillard, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott demonstrated that they have negotiating skill and patience in the required quantities, and I think we can safely say the same about Greens leader Bob Brown, the other key personality in making this situation work.

Tony Abbott does not have the required negotiating skills – he is too anxious for a quick result. That is why he is today the Leader of the Opposition.

As for wanting the Parliament to work effectively, I think we can see what he has in mind when he says that he is going to hold the Government “ferociously to account”.  This is Tony Abbott’s way of indicating that his approach to politics will continue to be to invent a Shrill New Slogan about Everything. People will tire of that long before three years is out.

All that said, I nevertheless share with Tony Abbott a concern about how workable it would be in the current environment to have one of the two country independents upon whom Julia Gillard’s Government depends, Rob Oakeshott, occupy the Speaker’s chair.

In principle the idea of an independent in the Speaker’s chair is a good one, but I have two concerns, aside from any legal or constitutional questions that might arise:

- The fact that, in order for Oakeshott to be able to vote for or against each Bill as he sees it, it will be necessary to make pairing arrangements for each individual piece of legislation. This will drive everyone nuts before much time has elapsed. Also, I am sure that when it comes to the point Tony Abbott will get up to all sorts of tricks with pairing, for which he will always be able to confect a reason and portray it as “holding the Government to account".

- The arrangement strikes me as being at odds with the notion that we want the Speaker to be a more commanding authority figure in the Parliament. Having a Speaker who has to negotiate pairing arrangements all the time, and is thereby exposed to the risk of getting caught up in Opposition antics regarding pairs, would not be a good look.

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