Meanwhile, back in the House

Sydney Morning Herald
November 12, 2005

Sometimes it's hard to hear above the noise when searching for substance, writes Mike Seccombe.

YOU didn't even have to see Tony Abbott blow his provocative kiss across the chamber on Thursday. You could hear it on the radio. The smacking noise made by those big, flapping Abbott lips was clearly audible even above the general chaos in the House of Representatives chamber.

But you had to see Abbott and Peter Costello camping it up on the front bench, though, to get a full grasp of the level of glee and triumphalism about the Government benches.

"You'd be welcome in my electorate, boys," bellowed Labor's Anthony Albanese, whose electorate includes most of Newtown.

It was the last question time of two exceedingly unedifying weeks of Federal Parliament. Two of the noisiest, most chaotic weeks in decades. Twenty-three Labor MPs, and one Coalition member, had been chucked out by the Speaker, which gives some idea of his impartiality.

The Government's new workplace relations legislation, the most radical reapportionment of power between employers and employees in 100 years, had gone through the House a little earlier.

All while most of the nation's attention was directed elsewhere. Despite the fact that this was legislation which will affect the working conditions of everyone in the country, most of the media was talking about the threat of terrorist attack.

The Government had always planned a distraction. The new package of anti-terrorism laws, and the inevitable debate about their more draconian provisions, was drafted to be one. But the fortuitous timing of Tuesday's arrests in Sydney and Melbourne of 17 men for alleged terrorist links made the issue huge.

In the Parliament, terrorism was not huge. Industrial relations was. That's the issue the Opposition asked most of its questions about, that's the issue which brought the House into chaos every day.

It says something about how seriously the Government was taking the terrorism issue that the first person rostered to speak to the bill was Wilson Tuckey, who approached the task with all the subtlety you would expect from a man whose nickname is Ironbar.

The big guns were saved for industrial relations, and it was the passage of this bill which led to the Government benches really celebrating.

John Howard and the Workplace Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews - neither of them tightly wrapped men - allowed themselves no more than a bit of vigorous handshaking and backslapping. But the more lairy elements of the front bench disported themselves a bit like a football team celebrating a win - demonstrative bonding with more than a hint of arrogant aggro.

You could hardly blame them for being happy with their own good luck. But you could definitely accuse them of doing exactly what Howard promised the Government would not do, after he won that surprise majority in both houses a year ago: succumbing to hubris.

An example from Wednesday makes the point. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, was sitting in his ministerial seat, well away from the despatch box microphone, so no one other than those actually on the floor of the House could hear what it was he shouted across the chamber.

But you could tell from the reaction that it must have been bad. The Opposition benches erupted in snarls and angry shouts and Labor's House leader, Julia Gillard, shot to the despatch box to demand he withdraw whatever it was he said, which she described as a "grossly offensive, unparliamentary remark".

Downer was called to the despatch box, but pretended injured innocence. "I do not know what I said, Mr Speaker, but I withdraw," he said, while wearing his naughtiest Billy Bunter smirk.

But no sooner had he sat down, than he said whatever it was again. More pandemonium, more demands that he withdraw.

What could it have been? On Downer's past form, almost anything. He is a constant, snide provocateur in question time.

The Government's leader in the House, Tony "I have never claimed to be the world's most sensitive person" Abbott, took it upon himself to ensure the remark was broadcast. Under the guise of a point of order he volunteered: "My understanding is that the Minister for Foreign Affairs said, 'You are on Saddam's side'. What's so offensive about that? It's an accurate description of the effect of the Opposition."

During the pandemonium that followed, a Labor MP, Warren Snowdon, got booted out for angrily shouting something about dogs and rodents. But the Speaker took no action against either minister for defying him.

Downer's interjection came at the end of a long, evasive answer from the Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, about $300 million in secret kickbacks paid by the wheat exporter AWB to Saddam Hussein. Vaile and Downer have answered every revelation about this scandal with the standard Government defence that they had been kept in the dark about the whole thing.

But the evidence is that there were plenty of warnings, at senior levels, over several years from, among others, the Americans, the Canadians and the United Nations, that huge corrupt payments were being made, and there is a paper trail which leads right through both men's departments.

Three hundred million paid to a dictator in defiance of international sanctions, no doubt used to arm the insurgency we are now fighting, and the Government says it knew nothing. The facts bespeak either massive corruption or massive incompetence, but Downer felt confident enough to make digs at his accusers.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, did later get one zinger back at Downer, calling him "Saddam's bag man".

Downer's confidence was well-founded, of course. His ministerial colleague Philip Ruddock was in charge of formulating the terms of reference for an inquiry. He came up with something which looked a little like a royal commission. Its head is the Government's favourite commissioner, Terence Cole, who also did the building industry inquiry, and who can presumably be relied upon to stay within the tightly drawn boundaries of investigation set by Ruddock.

Asked at his press conference announcing the inquiry whether Cole would look at whether Government departments sanctioned or knew about the kickbacks, he said: "I don't know that there is a role to look at departmental matters. We were asked to establish an inquiry into the corporations."

He was completely deadpan, of course. Ruddock is not one to smirk or wink, like an Abbott or Costello might. Nonetheless it was another example of hubris, as classically defined: excessive pride towards or defiance of the gods, or in this case the democratic deities of proper process.

In Greek tragedy, hubris brought Nemesis. And maybe we are seeing the first signs of Nemesis. Not big ones, but worth noting.

Consider the $55 million media campaign mounted in support of the industrial relations changes. It put huge sums into the pockets of Liberal Party-connected advertising and marketing companies, and into newspapers and TV stations, but it has not persuaded anybody. Polling shows that from the start of the campaign until its end, public opposition to the changes remained equally strong.

Consider the fact that Howard's popularity rating is sliding; consider the scepticism with which many people greeted Howard's terrorist threat announcement; consider the fact that industrial relations is a policy area where the public tends not to trust conservative parties and one policy where Kim Beazley is strong and Labor is unwedgeable.

Then again, consider Howard's extraordinary capacity for channelling public insecurity into Liberal votes.


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