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July 04th 2010 print

John Izzard

Being Julia

With the end of the first week of the new Julia Gillard epoch in sight how was the fresh approach to government by cabinet looking. Full involvement by cabinet in major decisions like the “most important tax reform in generations”? Ah! Well no. We haven’t quite got there yet.

Keep right on till the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end,
Though the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend. 

Well, going “round the bend” was certainly was an option this week as we saw the remarkable and elegant and articulate new Australian Prime Minister announcing a big new “deal” with the giant Australian mining companies as to how they would agree as to how they should be taxed. 

Oh, if only the rest of the nation could negotiate with the government on how much tax they were prepared to pay. Curious! Size does matter … particularly if you are “The Big Australian” as BHP was once called. 

The key words during Julia Gillard’s announcement were “moving forward”, or clever variations thereof, which as many commentators noticed, sounded like the new election slogan for the ALP in the coming campaign. Julia managed to use the slogan eight times in one paragraph, and then bombarded radio stations with “moving forward” interviews. 

Reading about the “peace in our time” document she was waving about — yes, the government and the three mining giants are actually drawing up a Heads of Agreement document on the tax — and listening to the PM on radio, the old Harry Lauder song, Keep Right on till the End of the Road kept popping up.

The human brain does this sort of thing. Film-makers call it the music track. Music to match the mood of what is going on. 

And of course that is what the Rudd/Gillard government is doing, “keeping right on till the end”. This flawed government has abused the Westminster system of government and the Australian Constitution in a way never seen before, and it seems to have got away with it. And with hardly a bleat of protest.  

The abuse of the cabinet system and the way the elected ALP members of the House of Representatives and the Senate allowed Kevin Rudd to treat ALP members of both Houses and the Labor Caucus with utter contempt, is without precedent. 

As Christopher Pearson pointed out in the Weekend Australian this week, quoting from an article in the Australian Financial Review by Laura Tingle: 

When ministers arrive for federal cabinet meetings they find a folder waiting in their spots which they can look at but not take outside the room. Inside are decisions already taken by the cabinet’s expenditure review committee and the ultimate power in the Rudd government, the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee [the Gang of Four; Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Tanner]. 

Prior to the Rudd/Gillard sidelining of federal cabinet, traditionally Ministers of the Crown in the federal government were given cabinet documents including agendas, proposals and reports 10 days before cabinet meetings. Only in rare and unusual circumstances would major decisions be made without full cabinet discussion and approval. 

It seems incredible that Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Tanner thought that they could get away with this arrogant and contemptuous side-lining of Ministers of the Crown. Well not only did they think they could get away with it, they did so — for two and a half years. 

Indeed they were prepared carry on until a few hours before Kevin Rudd threw in the towel. Julia Gillard’s epiphany, regarding the need to restore fully the functions and rules of cabinet conduct, seems to have occurred because of falling support as reflected in opinion polls rather than a sudden burst of conscience regarding the appalling treatment of her cabinet and caucus colleagues. It was like watching Clark Kent entering a telephone box and coming out as Superwoman. Where’s the Kryptonite when you need it? 

Christopher Pearson went on to say of the less than gallant Labor members in his Weekend Australian article: 

The fact that they allowed themselves to be sidelined in this way is greatly to the discredit of them all. The principled response would have been to insist on being informed in a timely fashion and if that demand had been ignored, to have resigned. 

The question needs to be asked, and continually repeated until the election; “What were the bright-young-things like Maxine McKew, Craig Emerson, Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, to name just a few, doing and thinking while the Gang of Four seized control? What was the Attorney General, Robert McClelland thinking and doing? And long time Labor stalwarts and presumably honourable party “elder statesmen” John Faulkner and Simon Crean. Where were they? In some sort of political coma? 

So, with the end of the first week of the new Julia Gillard epoch in sight how was the fresh approach to government by cabinet looking. Full involvement by cabinet in major decisions like the “most important tax reform in generations”? Ah! Well no. We haven’t quite got there yet. 

What we now have is a new “Gang of Three”; Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Martin Ferguson. Was the deal struck with the mining companies referred to cabinet? NO! 

Was the deal referred to Caucus? Well… ah…NO! 

Was it it business as usual… well…ah…YES! 

As Harry Lauder sings: 

Keep right on till the end of the road,
Keep right on till the end,
Though the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend. 

Being Julia. It really does make you want to sing.