New paradigm not much better than old one
There are now just four sitting days left of the new paradigm for 2010 –exciting isn’t it – and it’s worth running the ruler over this much-hyped new-look Parliament to see how it compares to the old one.
It’s also worth comparing its performance against the promises that were made by Julia Gillard in the giddy afterglow of forming government, after that joyful period when for 17 days Australia had no government at all.
The term “new paradigm” was coined by Julia Gillard at her National Press Club speech shortly after the federal election when the country remained in limbo. Shorn of its management-speak overtones the term basically meant a new way of doing things. To the public it promised greater transparency and accountability and a more inclusive approach to doing politics, whereby instead of the government of the day exercising a vice-like grip on the national policy agenda, it would listen to the voices of independents, and minor parties. This part of the message wasn’t so much aimed at the public, but the three undecided independent MPs who had the nation by the tail as they pondered whether to back Labor or the Coalition.
If anything the past two months have been a stellar demonstration of the fact that in politics people will say and do things purely to win or retain power, and will act quite differently once power is in their hands.
Normally this provokes tired eye-rolling from jaded voters, who know that they will have to bide their time and wait another few years before they get their say. The difference now, with the tenuous partnership the Gillard Government has formed with both conservative country independents and inner-city progressive Greens, is that remaining in control of the national agenda (and possibly even remaining in power) is a high-wire juggling act.
With just one parliamentary sitting week to go, there are signs that this juggling act is starting to come unstuck. The most disturbing sign for Labor was the flood of independent MPs to the Coalition side this week over the release of the business plan for the National Broadband Network. This is no small project – it will cost (us all) $43 billion, and Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister often compared it to a digital version of the Snowy mountain scheme. As such a little bit of transparency in where when and how so much money is being spent would seem like a good thing.
This bland assertion is given extra weight by the comments of Julia Gillard herself, back in new paradigm mode, when she spoke about how we needed to “shine a light” on the workings of government .
There is no light being shone here. The Government already enjoys limited support within Australia’s online community over Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s mishandling of the proposed internet filter, which should have been easily sellable as an attempt to crack down on child porn and the other filth and garbage which lives online, but instead has been hamstrung by fears over innocent websites being caught up in the net. The NBN is a different issue in that it goes simply to the management of seriously large amounts of money, making it an issue of mainstream concern if the government persists with its refusal to reveal the costings.
You get the sense that Julia Gillard, who seems exhausted, is just trying to make it through to Christmas and regroup in the New Year. The Government’s refusal to release the NBN business plan is more of a time-buying exercise from a government that’s being pulled in so many policy directions that it’s trying to shut this one down.
In a similar time-buying vein is Labor’s decision to support the motion by the Greens for all MPs to consult their constituents on the question of gay marriage. This must be one of the silliest motions ever put before the Parliament in that it is simply directing MPs to do their jobs by actually listening to people, a bit like encouraging plumbers to fix taps or bakers to bake bread. Labor supported it regardless, mainly because it gives them a bit of wiggle room as an internal debate emerges about the wisdom of Ms Gillard’s refusal to budge in allowing a conscience vote on same sex unions.
As far as the Parliament itself is concerned, the changes that were made to the length of questions and the length of answers has brought no material change to the quality of debate. There’s been just as much name-calling and abuse, just shorter and more precise name-calling and abuse.
The question of pairs, whereby Opposition MPs will abstain from a vote so that a corresponding minister can be absent to give a speech or attend a function, is also back on the table after the Coalition lost the NBN vote having agreed to such an arrangement. Tony Abbott was accused of using wrecking tactics in initially refusing to grant pairs, last week’s events mean he will be tempted to revert to that approach whatever criticism he faces.
If it’s newness you wanted out of the new paradigm it doesn’t really look that different from the old one, in terms of transparency, representation and the quality of the debate.
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