CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
PM Gillard buys herself some breathing space
, December 10, 2011
The defection of Peter Slipper from the Coalition to the Labor side of politics in order to take the prized Speaker’s job was greeted with great relief and some triumphalism from the Government benches.
For many in Labor it also rekindled the hope that finally Julia Gillard’s fortunes had turned.
Labor’s leadership team believe they now have the clear path they need until the federal election, which is scheduled for no earlier than August 2013 and no later than November 30, 2013.
The Government can “splice and dice” the independents, sidelining where necessary the troublesome Andrew Wilkie, whose threat to the Government over poker-machine reforms has been weakened, and it can concentrate on destroying Tony Abbott.
Most of all, it buys the Prime Minister some internal Labor kudos and ensures her job is secure for at least a few more months.
The leader of the House, Anthony Albanese, who reportedly spent three months softening up Mr Slipper into considering taking the job should Labor’s Harry Jenkins decide to step aside, could barely contain his pleasure at Mr Abbott’s loss of power.
If we are to believe Mr Jenkins’ resignation statement, he took a $100,000 pay cut and decided to forgo the considerable perks attached to the best job in the Parliament, because he missed the camaraderie of his Labor comrades in the Caucus and wanted to participate in party debates.
This may well be true, but a more plausible explanation is that Mr Jenkins, a loyal Labor son and a son of a Speaker, “took one for the team” because Labor needed some breathing space in the Parliament.
The possibility that Craig Thomson would be charged and face protracted legal proceedings taking him away from the parliament must also have been a factor.
For a government, which has been under sustained pressure for a year, the defection is a big psychological boost because its majority has jumped from one to three members as a result of the Slipper defection because the Speaker cannot vote.
Each day that the Parliament sits will no longer be a knife-edged situation where just one absent or tardy member could be responsible for legislation being voted down or the Government facing a motion of no confidence.
Mr Abbott gave the Government no respite, refusing the custom of “pairs” except in the most exceptional of circumstances.
However, the price for this breathing space in the parliament has been high because it reinforces Prime Minister Gillard’s reputation for ruthless deal-making.
Mr Abbott attacked Mr Slipper’s elevation, arguing that it proved Ms Gillard was willing to “do anything, to break any convention, to flout any principle in order to try to cement her hold on the prime ministership”.
Whether people believe this or not is yet to be seen, but the Slipper deal does smack of the “whatever it takes” attitude of politics.
John Howard was certainly diminished when Labor’s Senator Mal Colston did a similar act of treachery during his term.
Labor, on the other hand, believes it has almost two years to wear down and destroy Tony Abbott’s leadership.
They may be right, but the Slipper defection will bring its own set of problems for the Government.
In the first instance there is the character of Mr Slipper himself.
Officially, Mr Slipper opted to become an independent, having already deserted the Nationals and the Liberals during a colourful two decades in the federal parliament.
But he will be Labor’s man from now on.
Mr Slipper has a reputation for extracting his parliamentary perks to the limit, sometimes going over the limit and having to pay back taxpayer funds for overspending.
Labor will be able to blame past indiscretions on the Liberals, but will have to keep a close eye on him over the coming months.
Second, if Mr Thomson does eventually face court proceedings, it will be a bad look for the Government.
Finally, it reinforces the perception of a government having to patch up one problem after another by whatever means.
The Slipper defection is a reminder to voters that Labor will have to win seats at the next election to retain power.
This is something that appears to be forgotten by most of the commentariat.
Not only will it have to keep all the seats it holds; it will have to win some extra ones to replace the shortfall created by the almost certain defeat of Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Peter Slipper.
The way things look today, and with the winds of a European economic blizzard likely to reach our shores, this seems an unlikely outcome.