CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Gillard Government in terminal meltdown
, October 29, 2011
The recent extraordinary leaking of detailed Cabinet discussions is proof that the rising stench of decay about the Gillard Government is not based on outward perceptions of an accident-prone government or of subjective media opinion.
It is hard to remember the last time an entire federal Cabinet meeting, recriminations and all, was laid bare to the press in the manner reported by the Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher and Phil Coorey on October 15.
The Gillard Labor Government is self-evidently terminal; it is only a matter of how softly or roughly the eventual disposal is going to be.
The newspaper story included detailed quotes, a description of which ministers supported the Prime Minister and which ministers opposed her, and blow-to-blow accounts of the debate and of the factions within the Cabinet.
No minister has come out since to refute the reports, although the Prime Minister has pleaded for Cabinet confidentiality to be maintained.
The revelations of bickering left an impression of a Cabinet, which is confused, rudderless and riven by unlikely divisions and alliances (Kevin Rudd backing Julia Gillard, to cite one example).
The purpose of the Cabinet meetings of October 13 (two meetings taking up three hours of deliberations in total) was to decide how the Government was to respond to the likelihood that Ms Gillard’s cherished “Malaysian Solution” would be defeated on the floor of the Parliament.
The combination of Coalition Opposition, the Greens and key independents lining up to vote against the proposed changes to the Migration Act had forced Cabinet into considering alternative plans.
According to Hartcher’s report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the meeting began as follows: “The Prime Minister opened the meeting by telling her ministers that their debate would inevitably deal with the politics, but she urged them to ‘focus on the end point’. What was this ‘end point’? She didn’t say.”
The reports then revealed that ministers from the Labor right-wing faction supported a proposal put forward by one of their own, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, which would have included Nauru as an option to process people offshore.
“We’ve reached an impasse over whether it should be one or the other — let’s do both,” Mr Bowen is reported to have told Cabinet.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy urged his Cabinet colleagues to accept there was no alternative but to eat some humble pie and accept Nauru at least as an option.
Basically, Mr Bowen had sought to corner Mr Abbott by putting forward the Malaysian Solution, but also including Manus Island and Nauru. He argued that if Mr Abbott still rejected this, he would be condemned for doing so simply to spite the government.
But the Cabinet split with Conroy, Tony Burke and Bill Shorten (who was temporarily in Cabinet) supporting Bowen, while the Left’s Greg Combet, Jenny Macklin and Kim Carr opposed his plan.
Another left-wing power-broker Anthony Albanese took Bowen’s side.
However, the rejection of the Bowen plan by the Left, with the support of the Prime Minister and the prime-minister-in-waiting Mr Rudd, was yet another humiliation for Mr Bowen following the earlier rejection of the Government’s Malaysian Solution by the High Court on August 31.
The most difficult thing to comprehend is how long it has taken the Gillard Government to get its head around this problem.
Ms Gillard herself was an experienced shadow immigration minister during the Howard era. She should know this policy domain backwards.
Yet we now have a policy in no-man’s land — a de facto onshore processing policy, which, in the Prime Minister’s own words, will ensure there are more boat arrivals.
“I do want to say this: we are at a real risk of seeing more boats, and I understand this will cause community anxiety,” she conceded after the policy backdown.
As The Australian newspaper’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly observed: “Gillard has now reached a stage of permanent humiliation. She stands for a policy she cannot implement, and she warns that the policy she has been forced to adopt is doomed to fail. This is a recipe for political and policy disaster. The Prime Minister wears her humiliation like a badge. Labor’s asylum-seeker policy is untenable.”
Given that Tony Abbott came within a whisker of winning the last election by promising to “stop the boats” — a pledge which resonated with millions of Australians with unequivocal views on maintaining a strong border policy — it is inexplicable why the Government is still at sea on the issue.
The only consistent policy has been to oppose the policy put forward by Mr Abbott, and all the Cabinet deliberations appeared to centre on how Mr Abbott would react, rather than making decisions based on the national interest.
Of course, Ms Gillard will blame any further boat arrivals on Mr Abbott, but few will believe her.