The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has many political skills – otherwise she would not be in her position. However, the evidence suggests her abilities as a negotiator have been significantly overestimated. Sure, the Prime Minister has done deals. But were they really necessary, in view of the costs involved?
The Peter Slipper controversy is the latest example. At the 2010 election, Labor and the Coalition won 72 seats each. Gillard formed a minority government after obtaining the support of Greens MP Adam Bandt, the Hobart independent Andrew Wilkie (who had previously been a Greens candidate) and the rural independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor (both of whom had previously split from the National Party). Two other independents – the Western Australian National Tony Crook and Queenslander Bob Katter – supported Tony Abbott to form a government.
In other words, Labor had an effective majority of 76 to 74. Last November, Labor negotiated for the then Liberal MP Slipper to replace Harry Jenkins as Speaker. This effectively increased Labor’s majority to 77 but at a potential cost.
Last year, Slipper was a problem for the Liberals. But then Gillard Labor took over the Liberal Party’s headache, since everyone who follows national politics understood that Slipper’s past was, well, colourful.
Slipper has decided to stand down as Speaker. Yet Gillard still has 76 votes in the House. So why take the downside in reputation to shore up a majority that was never really in doubt?
The prevailing view in the Canberra press gallery was that appointing Slipper as the Speaker was necessary in view of Wilkie’s disagreement with Gillard over her broken promise on poker machines. Certainly Wilkie has dumped the agreement he reached with Gillard after the 2010 election. But he has never indicated he would support a no-confidence motion in the House and bring down the government. In any event, Abbott would need the support of Crook and Katter plus Wilkie plus one other independent plus Slipper to defeat the Gillard government on the floor of the Parliament.
Wilkie’s support for such a move has always seemed most unlikely. Wilkie won Denison with a mere 21 per cent of the primary vote. This is not the kind of support that would encourage an independent to rush to the polls. Moreover, Denison appears to be a fleft-wing seat. The Liberal Party primary vote in Denison is about 25 per cent. This does not appear to be an electorate that is looking for Wilkie to replace Gillard with Abbott.
It seems clear Gillard never needed to do a deal with Wilkie in the first place. On the Q&A program on April 2, the Liberal Party leader in the Senate, Eric Abetz, put it to Wilkie that, in the negotiations concerning the formation of a government, he asked Abbott for $1 billion to revamp the Hobart General Hospital. Abetz added that when Abbott agreed to the proposal, Wilkie rejected his offer. The allegation was not denied. This is further evidence that Wilkie was always going to back Gillard over Abbott.
It was much the same with Oakeshott and Windsor. Oakeshott declared on the day Abbott became Liberal leader that he was concerned that a Catholic like Abbott might become prime minister. And Windsor is on the record as equating the National Party with a cancerous growth. Clearly, Oakeshott and Windsor were always going to back Gillard over Abbott.
Then there is the case of Bandt, who was reported in The Age on August 15, 2010, more than a week before the election, as declaring that he would support Gillard if there was a hung parliament since “an overwhelming majority of people in Melbourne do not want an Abbott government”. Clearly Bandt was always going to back Gillard. Consequently she did not need to negotiate a deal with him after the election.
Yet Gillard not only felt the need to negotiate an agreement with Bandt on September 1, 2010, but she also allowed senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne to sign the document. There were only two Labor names on the agreement – those of Gillard and Wayne Swan. Moreover, two more Greens – senators Rachel Siewert and Sarah Hanson-Young – were added to the group photograph of the occasion. Labor had 72 MPs to the Greens’ solitary member in the House of Representatives. However, the Greens outnumbered Labor five to two in the photo. Not a good, or necessary, look.
Gillard’s political decline began in late February last year when, to honour her agreement with the Greens to implement a price on carbon, she broke her promise to the electorate not to introduce a carbon tax.
Labor has paid a heavy price for negotiating deals that were not necessary in the first place.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute