Dejected opposition all at sea over border protection
IF you squinted in a particular way, it was just possible to see last Sunday’s extraordinary meeting of the Coalition joint party-room as a triumph for Malcolm Turnbull.
But the bar was set pretty low. He may have emerged from the four and a half hour marathon armed with the authority to negotiate with the Government on emissions trading, but it was a Clayton’s mandate.
Consider for example its qualified nature - remembering at the same time, the Government’s pre-condition that it would only conduct talks with the Opposition if its negotiators had the authority to deliver its numbers in the parliament. On this score, Mr Turnbull’s authority looks shaky. Theoretically at least, he could get 100 per cent of what he asks for from the Government, and still not be able to say yes without a separate party-room meeting to approve it.
And it gets worse. He could achieve gains on key demands, such as the permanent removal of agriculture from the scheme (an article of faith for the Nats), and still be unable to say yes even after that party-room meeting.
In that light, Sunday’s approval to negotiate, while a step in the right direction, may have just postponed a fight.
Of course, the Government knows the most difficult outcome for Mr Turnbull, is if it gives him a win or two - so expect the excision of agriculture to be first to tumble. After all, it wants to push the scheme to a vote before the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, amended or not.
Against this, maybe half of all Coalition MPs remain opposed to any scheme at all or at least to any vote before Copenhagen. They say the fight inside the Coalition is not over. Optimists suggest Mr Turnbull can still prevail even if there’s a backbench revolt because he needs only seven of his colleagues to vote with the Government in the Senate to see the bills pass.
True, but this would be catastrophic for his leadership.
Imagine it. An emissions trading scheme, pilloried as “green witchcraft”, by the Right, yet brought into the world with the Liberal leader as its midwife. Hardly the recipe for long-term stable leadership. Still, because it could have gone worse, last Sunday’s meeting was adjudged favourably. The good vibes didn’t last long though.
Tuesday brought a sobering Newspoll showing the Coalition’s primary vote at a miserable 34 per cent, its lowest level since June last year (under Brendan Nelson). This compared to a 48 per cent primary vote for Labor. If replicated at an election, this would net Labor another 25 seats. Little wonder then that Mr Turnbull wants to avoid an early election.
A clearly dejected Opposition put in a woeful performance in parliament later that day. Julie Bishop trod on her wicket by implying Labor’s asylum seeker policy had been drafted by union heavies. The premise was ridiculous because it came a day after the union heavy in question, Paul Howes of the AWU, had publicly criticised Labor’s stance. Ms Bishop compounded the error with a point of order, complaining to the Speaker that the Acting PM, Julia Gillard should be sat down because she had already comprehensively refuted the claim.
One wag quipped it was akin to declaring “you can stop shooting now, you’ve already hit me right between the eyes!”
Ms Gillard’s straight-forward language showed one thing very clearly: That Labor has an alternative to Kevin Rudd. Her uncluttered performance on asylum seekers while he was abroad, was a breath of fresh air because the real PM has basically made a hash of the issue from the beginning.
So far, this has been an unedifying debate. The Opposition complains that Labor’s “soft’’ policies are attracting boats - ie that the policy itself is the decisive “pull” factor. Yet when asked to commit to its old “Pacific Solution’’ or indeed to outline what its new policy actually is, Opposition MPs flail about doing anything but answering the question. In short, they are too scared to commit to the very same “tough” policies whose passing they so bitterly lament.
Speaking of being scared, Labor changed the policy last year when the issue of asylum seekers was not so problematic. Now, with increasing arrivals, it is spooked by the Opposition’s argument that it has created the problem by appearing as a soft touch.
On background, it produces compelling research demonstrating that strife in other countries is the decisive factor behind the flow of irregular maritime arrivals. Yet Kevin Rudd refuses to speak plainly instead, trying to nuance his message to suit two entirely different constituencies. Hence his oil and water arguments about being tough and hard-line, yet humane. How can the voters make sense of this when even he has become confused about how best to express it? Perhaps Opposition front-bencher, Peter Dutton put it best when he said Kevin Rudd has one message for the 7.30 Report and another for A Current Affair.
But the last word on this should go to Reverend Tim Costello who this week pointed out that the PM’s moral hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a people smuggler.
“Where Bonhoeffer got into trouble, wasn’t attacking the Nazi government it was in defending Jewish refugees, that’s actually the lesson, the real moral lesson of Bonhoeffer.”
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