Bowen arrow shoots, but misses the bullseye
Poor old Chris Bowen, better known lately as the embattled Federal Immigration Minster.
What did Bowen do to deserve what some might call the political kiss of death portfolio? Sadly, immigration is one of those portfolios where you can easily divide a nation and end up being typecast in a way that sticks with you forever. Inevitably some people will love you and others will hate you. If you let too many people into the country you may be considered soft on border security. If you let in too few, then you’re considered mean-spirited.
Of course, on occasion you get a flamboyant immigration minister like Al Grassby. Whatever words could be used to describe Chris Bowen, flamboyant is certainly not one of them.
Rather, Chris Bowen is one of those Labor politicians who grew up under the influence of the NSW Labor Right and worked his way through its ranks to emerge as a rising Labor star.
Out in the western Sydney suburb of Fairfield, Bowen practised his political craft. In many ways Bowen epitomises the career path of your typical NSW Labor Right political operative. First, a stint in local government with time as the Mayor of Fairfield and then followed by a period of intense political training in the Office of a Senior Labor Minister. In Bowen’s case it was as Chief of Staff to Carl Scully.
It was only a matter of time before Bowen found a safe Labor seat and he was duly elected in what was then called the Federal seat of Prospect. It wasn’t long before Bowen was identified by the Parliamentary Labor Party as a rising star and soon became friends with the up and coming Kevin Rudd.
That friendship remains to this day with Rudd having rewarded Bowen with a Ministerial appointment after the 2007 Federal Labor victory. There was little doubt in the minds of those who knew Bowen that he was very ambitious.
In Opposition, Bowen had served in the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Competition Policy Portfolios. During that time he consulted some of the best competition law minds and developed a number of very sensible competition and consumer policy reforms, some of which were not liked by the big end of town. A good thing some would say.
But opinion was divided as to what would happen in Government. To some, Bowen’s Opposition days and the commitments given during those days offered encouragement that he would translate good competition and consumer policy proposals into law when Labor was elected in 2007.
To others, there was always a suspicion that good policy reforms developed in Opposition could conveniently fall by the wayside in Government on the way to being Treasurer which was the obvious next step for a successful Assistant Treasurer.
Having been swept to Government in 2007 Bowen was no doubt pleased to be given the Assistant Treasurer and Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs Portfolios. After all, he had some great competition and consumer proposals up his sleeve which he had developed with considerable help from those leading competition and consumer law minds.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Government benches. We started to hear that Bowen had become the promoter of a new Federal scheme to be called Fuelwatch. He had also became the promoter of a new `petrol cop on the beat’ to be called the Petrol Commissioner.
We now know that Bowen couldn’t get Fuelwatch through the Senate and the Petrol Commissioner now doesn’t want to be called the Petrol Commissioner anymore.
Politics can be very strange like that and can be a very lonely place, especially if you fail to get the numbers. While success has many parents, failure is a lonely child. It gets worse when the policy you are trying to get through is universally criticised.
Bowen couldn’t get the numbers to get the Fuelwatch scheme through the Senate because the scheme was universally attacked. Even the Petrol Commissioner idea had few, if any friends. Then what are we to think when the person that Bowen appointed as Petrol Commissioner doesn’t want to be called that anymore?
As many Minsters and MPs would know, a losing streak is hard to break. Indeed, we all know that Bowen has been struggling to get the numbers in the Senate for the so-called Malaysia solution. Just remember how failure can be very lonely in politics.
Getting the numbers is the key. Any well trained NSW Labor Right political operative knows that. So what does an operative of the NSW Labor Right do when the numbers are not there? Having a review by an expert panel sometimes comes to mind.
If Fuelwatch was a disaster for Bowen, then the GroceryChoice website debacle is something that many of us, including probably Bowen, would rather forget. Strangely enough these two policy reforms were backed by the ACCC during Graeme Samuel’s time.
You have to wonder if things would have turned out differently for Bowen if there had been a different leadership team at the ACCC at the time. There’s no doubt that leading competition experts would have been advising Bowen against both the failed Fuelwatch and GroceryChoice proposals. If only Bowen had listened to those particular experts.
Of course, Bowen would have had his own team of political staffers and one would have expected that they would have been astute enough to spot the dangers of some of Bowen’s policy decisions, especially if they had been working cooperatively with those competition experts who would have been pointing out the dangers.
Or perhaps the staffers and Bowen had stopped listening or forgotten those experts that had helped them so much in Opposition. You have to wonder what happened to those staffers once the policies out of Bowen’s Office started to fail.
Before Bowen moved on from the competition policy and consumer affairs portfolio, there was one last throw of the dice and that was Bowen’s attempt to safeguard small businesses from unfair contract terms. That was one of those very sensible policy reforms he had been advised about in Opposition. That simple reform would no doubt have been a real vote winner amongst small businesses.
But that reform was not to be. A cabinet reshuffle following Joel Fitzgibbon’s departure from the Defence portfolio gave us that forgettable singer Craig Emerson as the new Minister who then promptly denied small businesses what Bowen was about to give them. And there you have it. Another blown opportunity.
Then Bowen was off to immigration. Here we can all see that Bowen has been facing the kind of heat that the Space Shuttle was subjected to on re-entry. Time will tell if Bowen will survive the re-entry and keep his political career in one piece.
Maybe it’s time for a cabinet reshuffle? In the meantime, Bowen looks like he will be re-contesting his old seat now renamed McMahon after Liberal PM Sir Billy McMahon. You have to wonder what a member of the NSW Labor Right thinks about the new name for the electorate.
Or perhaps we should be asking what the Liberal party thinks about a Labor man representing a Federal seat named after a Liberal PM. Strangely enough there are already media reports that the Liberals are targeting the Federal seat of McMahon and Bowen himself. What a surprise.
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