Putting the Slipper (and Thomson) in to the parties
It’s a sign of the strange political times when two of the most reviled characters in federal Parliament - Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson - try to mount a claim as the moral conscience of the parties they left.
Thomson let rip at Labor for adopting John Howard’s controversial plan to remove the Australian mainland from the migration zone - a policy it once blasted as shameful and xenophobic. Slipper accuses Liberals of dumping the sacred belief of deregulation and free enterprise over wheat export marketing for what he calls “naked politics”.
Of course, Slipper and Thomson can be “pure” only because they are outcasts caught in controversies that have ruined their political careers. They will not be MPs after the next election and remain relevant only because they each have a vital vote in the hung Parliament.
Yet they have highlighted the crazy state of politics and the inability of most MPs to express their own view about legislation and act on behalf of the people who voted for them rather than the political party that pulls their strings.
Thomson, a union boss before winning a NSW Labor seat, claims to be the only defender of ALP values on migration and says the shift by his former colleagues is like saying “John Howard was right”.
It shows just how damaged Labor is when it comes to asylum seeker policy that it now embraces this once unthinkable decision with barely any dissent in the Caucus. Left MPs such as Melissa Parke and Doug Cameron are uncomfortable but (so far) falling into line.
Government MPs are seething about being given a lecture by Thomson. They blame him for a great deal of the bad image Labor has with voters after allegations - which he denies - that he used the union fees of low-paid hospital workers to pay for prostitutes.
In 2006 Chris Bowen as a backbencher thundered in Parliament against Howard’s attempt to excise the mainland from the migration zone, saying it was “a bad bill with no redeeming features” and if passed “it will be a stain on our national character”.
Six years later, with asylum seeker boats seeming to arrive every day and Labor reopening the Howard-era detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island, Bowen as Immigration Minister can live with the stain, saying he changed his mind after the tragic deaths at sea of desperate people seeking a better life in Australia.
Bowen insists it will save lives because there is a “perverse incentive” for people to stay in boats for another three dangerous days at sea to sail beyond Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef and try to touch the mainland.
He adds that unlike Howard’s policy, Labor is increasing the humanitarian intake to 20,000 and it was recommended by the expert panel led by former Defence chief Angus Houston.
The Coalition is tipped to back Labor but the two Liberals who held out against Howard - Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan - will vote against it again.
Broadbent says Labor was right in 2006 and Bowen’s claims now are rubbish because it is a policy that won’t stop any boats. “All the things they (Labor) said at the time were correct,” he says.
He expects to find himself looking across the chamber at his Coalition colleagues sitting with Labor MPs. “I will vote against the Labor Party and my own party.”
Liberals are fuming at the chutzpah of Slipper, who has given them a lecture on upholding “conservative principles”. Slipper was originally a “Joh for Canberra” National who defected to the Liberals and then quit to take the Speaker’s chair. The former Speaker now sits as an independent after resigning over sexist and offensive text messages.
Slipper claims the Tony Abbott-led Coalition has surrendered the first principle of the Liberal Party on free enterprise by its decision to oppose Labor’s wheat deregulation bill and was no longer a party of minimising government interference. He claims it has put politics dictated by eastern-states Nationals ahead of core Liberal beliefs.
He was not alone in speaking out, as WA National Tony Crook voted with Labor and WA Liberals Dennis Jensen and Mal Washer abstained.
Broadbent says he thinks Coalition MPs should have been given a conscience vote on wheat.
Slipper and Thomson can rightly be dismissed as self-serving, having no credibility and never having the guts to speak out when they were in the embrace of the party machine.
But when MPs seek your vote at the next election, it is worth asking all of them how often they just fall into line in Parliament or whether they put their own beliefs and the interests of their electorates and their states first.
Phillip Hudson is Herald Sun national political editor.
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