Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Faulkner Departs

A week ago John Faulkner suddenly decided he needed to announce that he would not be a candidate for a berth in the ministry if Labor is returned at the next election. Although making this statement was honourable, it was also extremely unusual. Exactly why did he feel the need to clear the air about this issue?

I reckon he's committed to achieving the objectives that he entered politics for, and he's decided he can't do this in the ministry, although it's important to note that Faulkner - an honourable person who doesn't apparently lie - denies this is why he's announced his intention to leave.

On the Saturday before he announced his intention I wrote, perhaps harshly . . .

Money is being pissed-up building walls in Afghanistan while every four hours an Australian decides to kill themselves.
And presiding over this disgrace is Senator John Faulkner. The first time he spoke in parliament Faulkner promised to pursue the needs of those with disabilities. You see, before becoming an ALP apparatchik he’d worked for years teaching and helping disabled children to live happily, and as best they could. He promised, back then, to bring these issues to the attention of the Senate. How his priorities must have changed.

The next Wednesday Faulkner announced his intention to retire from the ministry after the election.


Canberra Times, Tuesday 13 June 2010

The new Prime Minister appears to be doing all she can to minimise the differences between Labour and the coalition. Perhaps surprisingly, Julia Gillard seems to have adopted this as a deliberate strategy before she calls the election, possibly as soon as Thursday. This is quite different, tactically, to Kevin Rudd, who preferred to emphasise that he was poles apart from the Liberals -- even when the two sides both had relatively similar policies.

The New South Wales right’s Jason Claire (habitually described as an "up-and-coming" MP from this dominant faction) was even quoted in The Australian as noting approvingly that the policies of both parties were now "95 percent the same". Presumably the idea is that because they are so comparable, Australians will prefer to trust the politicians who are already in power rather than an untested bunch that may prove themselves even more amateur than the incumbents. It's a political tactic that has worked since 1995 for the New South Wales branch of the party. Today this is the longest-serving government anywhere in Australia . . . a position it will retain, at least until the state election is held in March next year.

The strategy makes a great deal of sense given the current compulsory preferential voting system. This mechanism ensures that both parties are striving desperately to command the middle-ground; because the politician that appeals to these electors is the one who’s guaranteed victory. To understand why let's just imagine for a moment that you're not a typical Australian. Let's just pretend, for example, that you don't necessarily believe that all queue-jumping illegal-immigrants should be towed back to where they came from and dumped on the beach. (Ops, sorry, first slip, I meant to write "let's pretend you believe asylum seekers should be given refuge”, but it's hard trying to imagine that we're not ‘typical Australian's’, isn't it.). If you're concerned about these sort of issues, how do you make your vote count?

The answer is, you can't. If you are worried about the way asylum seekers are being treated, then you might be tempted to vote Green. But, with the possible exception of Lindsay Tanner's former seat of Melbourne (and even here victory is highly unlikely), there’s not much chance they’ll win any lower house seats. This means that (if you want to cast a valid vote) you will eventually have to choose between preferencing one of the major parties. Labor's happily betting its house on the gamble that, in the final analysis, the majority of these voters will prefer the ALP’s policies to those of the Liberals. That's why Gillard feels entitled to race after the electoral ‘centre’, because she’s working on the comfortable assumption that anyone on the ‘left’ will eventually support her rather than the coalition. After it is re-elected the government will then gratefully acknowledge that support by locking-up anyone claiming to be a refugee in a huge processing centre in East Timor, rather than Nauru.

Some recent analysis by Parliamentary Fellow Peter Brent crunched the numbers on the last election, when Greens got 7.8 percent of the first preference vote. The vast majority of these votes -- nearly 80 percent -- flowed back in a torrent to Labor. Brent points out that if the Green vote had split evenly, 50/50 (because of the demographics of marginal electorates), the Liberals would probably have won. But, given that the coalition has shown no inclination to do a deal with the Greens -- having not even made the simple move of beginning to talk about a preference deal -- it looks as if the green vote will, once again, guarantee Labor an unrequited victory.

In 2007, Green voters delivered Labor government. Kevin Rudd didn't respect them the next morning. He didn't even bother seeing Bob Brown for the last 18 months of his prime ministership; refused to deal on climate change; and that was pretty much it. Doing the maths provides some hard-nosed background. Despite all the idealistic rhetoric and all the visionary pictures of some romantic future that the party advertising pushes, politics is really just about a few fiddles at the edges. The ‘middle’ is dominant. Labor is not about to do anything that might risk power, particularly not risking a move to the left.

This might throw some light on Defence Minister John Faulkner’s announcement that he isn't prepared to remain in the Ministry after the election. He insists this has nothing to do with Gillard's jump to the right and we must, perforce, believe him. It's worth recording, however, what an absolute star he has been and what a significant loss he will prove. The impartial and knowledgeable Australian Defence Association ranks Faulkner a "rare man (with) widely acknowledged integrity and sense of propriety". In an accurate assessment the ADA also insisted he’d been on track to become the best minister to hold a defence portfolio since the late 50s. Five days before he renounced his position this columnist had casually suggested Faulkner had ‘failed to live up to his own principles . . . ones he'd articulated in his maiden speech’. I was wrong. Faulkner has publically denied he’s departing the government because of any sense of disillusionment. But who knows what the private man really believes.

Years ago, when he sat as the left’s sole representative in the Sussex Street headquarters of the NSW Branch (before being joined by Anthony Albanese) Faulkner was engaged in bitter struggles with the dominant right-wing of the party. Yet he never breathed, publically, a word about these vicious, internecine battles; instead maintaining the illusion that the party was united.

When Faulkner first became politically active the ALP was a very different creature to the one he’s a part of today. So too is Australian politics. Nowadays many of those who were formerly prepared to keep quiet and accept the right’s dominance of Labor gravitate to the Greens. Those who work within the two-party system insist that doing this will simply further marginalise the cause of the broad ‘left’. The Greens point out that, after the coming election, they are likely to hold the balance of power in the Senate – which will, finally, allow them to significantly affect government policies.


  1. The Australia Defence Association (ADA) thanks Nic for acknowledging our longstanding reputation for political and institutional impartiality. And for acknowledging the efforts we make as a public-interest watchdog group to help public debate on defence and wider national security issues be informed rather than the opposite.
    It may, however, be somewhat disconcerting for some to have Nic describe our commentary on the departure of Senator John Faulkner as Minister for Defence as "an accurate assessment".

    This will no doubt intensely worry certain cranks and polemiscists among the "Canberra Times" readership who react with humourless letters-to-the-editor alleging bizarre conspiracy theories and plain abuse every time the ADA criticises one of Nic's columns in the paper.

    Has Nic paused sufficiently to think about the risks his praise of the ADA might cause to the psychological health of this small, but seemingly determined, band who so often suffer ideological apoplexy when the ADA is forced to confront one of their pet prejudices or subjective beliefs?

    Neil James
    Executive Director
    Australia Defence Association

  2. what secret mission is kevin rudd on in washington?

  3. You ask: Where will the progressive left park its vote? My answer is that this vote may turn informal, as it did in 2001. (See your article, “People have switched off and are voting informal”, Canberra Times, 27 November 2001.)

    Commentators talk about the “two party preferred” vote, and Labor politicians make the cynical assumption that in the end Green votes must come to them. In fact, Green votes may not be Labor votes temporarily parked somewhere else. Many voters who give their first preference to the Greens may leave the other squares blank.

    Peter Brent’s analysis of recent voting trends is interesting (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/too-risky-for-labor-to-go-to-the-vote-just-yet/story-e6frg6zo-1225890961973 ). Something like 5% of the vote went from Labor to the Greens when Rudd postponed the ETS, went back to Labor when Gillard replaced Rudd, then went back to the Greens when the public realised that Gillard and Abib were responsible even more than Rudd for postponing action on climate change and Gillard’s refugee policy started to look like the “Pacific solution”. If Gillard succeeds in “neutralising” the refugee and climate change issues by moving close to Abbott and Howard, then voters who were alienated when Rudd abandoned the ETS may see no reason to give their preferences in the end either to Labor or to the Coaltion.

    There is something Gillard could do to win back those voters, without alienating voters who are sceptical about the ETS. She could follow Bob Hawke’s advice (http://currentaffairs.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=927141) and call a Climate Change summit, promising to take the options that emerge from the summit to a plebiscite.

  4. John,
    Thanks. I intuitively agree that many ailienated voters may make the deliberate decision to vote informal, but I remember the astonished look Peter Brent gave me when I suggested this the other day. I think he still believes that the votes will end up back with Gillard rather than left as a protest that may allow Abbott to win.
    Perhaps this doesn't consider how angry many people are over Gillard's slide towards the 'right'.