The Australian body politic is clearly afflicted by the minority obsession – which has been around since Julia Gillard’s formation of a minority government in September 2010. It seems likely to remain extant until the 2013 federal election, which is due around August.
For more than two years, a number of poor political decisions and misjudged statements can be directly attributed to the minority obsession’s prevalence. Most recently, some of the assessments of the Federal Court in Ashby v Commonwealth of Australia.
Contrary to some politics-inspired commentary, Justice Steven Rares did not make any findings against the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, or indeed the aspiring Liberal Mal Brough, who is attempting to win the seat of Fisher, held by the independent MP and former speaker Peter Slipper. Rares’s main criticisms were directed at the former aide James Ashby, who took a sexual harassment case against Slipper, and especially Ashby’s solicitor, Michael Harmer.
Rares’s finding that ”Ashby’s predominant purpose for bringing these proceedings was to pursue a political attack against Mr Slipper and not to vindicate any legal claim he may have for which the right to bring proceedings exists” is certainly compelling. Even so, the judge got himself into some trouble in providing reasons for his decision.
For example, Rares commented that Ashby’s moves against Slipper had consequences that ”could affect the balance of power in the House of Representatives, depending on whether Mr Slipper could remain as Speaker”. This is not the case. Here, the judge seems to have been disoriented by the minority obsession. He is not the only one.
The Prime Minister formed government after she obtained the support of two rural and regional independent MPs – Rob Oakeshott (Lyne) and Tony Windsor (New England). Both were one-time Nationals members who represent seats in the House of Representatives and whose electorates clearly preferred the Coalition to Labor when they had a choice between the two parties in the 2010 Senate election.
In other words, Oakeshott and Windsor are responsible
for the fact Gillard is Prime Minister. Gillard did not need to enter into the Labor-Greens alliance since the one Greens MP, Adam Bandt in Melbourne, said before the election he would support Labor. It was much the same with Andrew Wilkie, the independent MP for the Hobart seat of Denison. Wilkie comes from a left-of-centre seat and was likely to support Gillard over Abbott. Gillard’s doubt about Bandt and Wilkie was part of the minority obsession.
Abbott also got caught up in the minority obsession. That’s why he spent more than two weeks pursuing Oakeshott and Windsor after the August 2010 election in the vain hope they would support the Coalition. It was a waste of time. The two former Nationals detest the Nationals. In 2010, on Sky News, Windsor equated the Nationals with cancer.
Then there is the matter of personal animosity. When Abbott became Liberal leader in December 2009, Oakeshott told his local paper he was concerned ”for Australian politics, where no separation of church and state exists in principle”. This was code for saying that Abbott could not be trusted because he was a Catholic; a 21st century manifestation of anti-Catholic sectarianism. Last May, Windsor described Abbott as a ”rabid dog”.
Clearly, Oakeshott and Windsor were never going to cross the floor to bring down Labor and make Abbott prime minister. Nor, for different reasons, were Bandt or Wilkie. In other words, only those subsumed by the minority obsession believed the Gillard government might fall.
In view of this, Slipper was of marginal importance. He was elected as a member of the Queensland Liberal National Party. Labor did not really need Slipper to take over as speaker, since it already had a secure majority. And the Coalition did not need to pursue Slipper over his many indiscretions since, having quit the Coalition for a job with considerably greater remuneration, he was never likely to return.
Brough is also a victim of the minority obsession. Slipper was never likely to retain LNP preselection and there was not a remote possibility of him winning his seat as an independent. Brough did not need to involve himself in any way in Ashby’s campaign against Slipper, which Justice Rares found was essentially motivated by Ashby’s own desire for a job as an LNP aide.
It is not even clear why Ashby would qualify as a political aide. After all, he spells ”awe” as ”ore” and once believed the speaker did not need to be a parliamentarian. Ashby, too, was overcome by the minority obsession. Slipper was never as politically important as Ashby believed him to be.
The fact is, the narrow majority put together in September 2010 was always likely to remain in situ until the end of the three-year term. The actual numbers stand against the minority obsession.
Gerard Henderson is the executive director of the Sydney Institute.