Oh my god, Gillard and Abbott agree on something
We are about to embark on the final parliamentary sitting week of the year, and it promises to be ugly. Speaker Anna Burke will earn her money.
The complete collapse of the Government’s measures to discourage boats loaded with asylum seekers from reaching our shores has the Coalition even more fired up than usual.
Julia Gillard no longer seems to have any defence against the charge that Labor opened our borders to people smugglers when it dismantled the Howard government’s policies.
Debate on the issue, less than edifying throughout 2012, can be expected to hit a new level of animosity.
Even nastier - and certainly more personal - will be clashes over the union slush fund set up nearly 20 years ago by Ms Gillard’s then boyfriend, AWU official Bruce Wilson.
Ms Gillard, a lawyer with the firm Slater and Gordon at the time, provided legal advice.
Although she denies doing anything wrong, and says she dumped Mr Wilson when evidence of the misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars started to emerge, the affair won’t go away.
The Opposition has signalled a full-scale parliamentary onslaught. The PM says it’s a vicious smear campaign. No quarter will be given.
Add to the mix a frustrated Opposition Leader. Tony Abbott never expected the government to survive this long in the hung Parliament.
Take into account, too, a Prime Minister totally convinced by the impact of her “sexism and misogyny” speech that steely aggression is the way to political success.
The consequence is that we are facing possibly the most poisonous week of a politically poisonous 12 months.
There is, however, a ray of hope for those voters - a big majority, I’d suggest - who are sick to death of the constant aggro and bitterness that characterises politics these days.
In a Parliament notorious for division we’re about to see a rare example of bipartisanship - one which involves both the Government and Opposition making compromises.
On Wednesday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin will introduce an Act of Recognition - a symbolic piece of legislation acknowledging Aboriginal people.
It is intended as an interim step in the process of building support for a referendum recognising the history and culture of indigenous Australians in the Constitution and removing a section that says people of a particular race can be disqualified by state governments from voting.
As part of Ms Gillard’s agreement with the Greens and independents, the referendum was to be held before or with the 2013 federal election, but it has now been postponed.
The Government - with the backing of most indigenous leaders - decided there was not yet sufficient public support to guarantee it would be passed. Research showed only 31 per cent of non-indigenous Australians had heard about it.
When Macklin first proposed a symbolic parliamentary pledge as a way of maintaining momentum, the Opposition gave it the thumbs down - suggesting instead that Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott should each make a parliamentary statement in support of a referendum.
Not good enough, said the PM. She also rejected a proposal from Mr Abbott for a new parliamentary committee to look into constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians.
Business as usual, with the Government and Opposition at loggerheads. Or so it seemed.
What made this issue different is that, while Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott might be at odds over almost everything else, they are in furious agreement on the need for the referendum to get through.
So they compromised. Ms Gillard agreed to a parliamentary committee, Mr Abbott changed his mind on the Act of Recognition, and a small glimmer of bipartisanship is the result.
Speaking in Parliament on the referendum back in February, Mr Abbott said: “I devoutly hope we can bring this about. What we have to try to do is recreate the fervour and the sense of unity that was captured in the 1967 constitutional change.”
That was the referendum that removed from the Constitution a section preventing indigenous Australians from being counted in the census.
The referendum issue unexpectedly followed Ms Gillard on her visit to India in October. When she met a group of young Indian leaders, one - who had spent time in north western Queensland - asked a remarkably detailed question.
He referred to Gough Whitlam pouring sand through the hands of Vincent Lingiari to symbolise the return of land to the Gurindji people, Paul Keating’s Mabo legislation and famous Redfern speech, and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations.
“What legacy will you leave behind in the process of symbolic reconciliation if you fail to get re-elected in 2013?” he asked.
After asserting she did not expect to lose the election, Ms Gillard explained the need for caution because of the reluctance of Australians to change the Constitution.
“Nothing would be worse for the cause of reconciliation than seeing a referendum speaking about our indigenous peoples go to a vote and for that vote to be lost,” she said. That is Mr Abbott’s view, too.
The truth is that, unless there is a big lift in Labor’s vote in the next nine months, the referendum - if it passes - will be Mr Abbott’s legacy. The Act of Recognition, expected to be unanimously endorsed by Parliament early in the new year, will be Ms Gillard’s.
But it’s nice to see that, even in the current spiteful political climate, our leaders can occasionally agree on something worthwhile.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network.
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