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November 04th 2011 print

Peter Smith

Another fine mess

I doubt whether this combination of circumstances is ever likely to arise again. We are suffering a rare event: a perfect storm of incompetence, impotence, extremism, and delusions of grandeur.


Remember Norman Gunston? A friend of mine couldn’t stand watching him because he was so cringingly embarrassing.


I sometimes feel the same way about Bubbles and Desiree DeVere in Little Britain, especially when they are in the buff, as is so often the case. David Brent in The Office too had his moments when it became hard to keep looking. Of course, this effect is intended by the producers. It is part of the show. I wonder whether Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and throw in for good measure if you like Andrew Wilkie, Bob Katter and Tony Crook, are in fact part of a reality TV show designed to make some of us cringe. Anyway I try to avoid them if I can.

Unfortunately Tony Windsor caught me unawares on TV a few days ago. Before I had the presence of mind to swop channels, he was commenting on his demand that the government allocate up to (a mere) $400 million per year of MRRT revenue to assess the impact of mining on water catchments. He was challenged that his new demand was part of a long list of demands by the Greens and independents, which was making government difficult. He responded (in that irritatingly sanctimonious way the independents have) by saying that it was called democracy.

The gall and hypocrisy of it takes your breath away. Mr Windsor’s electorate is New England. It is a conservative electorate. Only 8.1% of those voting in 2010 gave their first preferences to Labor; and only 3.6 % to the Greens. The choice Windsor made to support the Labor party (in effective alliance with the Greens) was inherently undemocratic. True; representatives are not delegates. To a significant extent we elect political representatives and take our chances on which way they might vote on particular issues. However, we are entitled to understand whether they are fish or fowl. You would be entitled to question the legitimacy of his NSW parliamentary representation, if the Reverend Fred Nile started appearing semi-nude in gay pride marches. So, to my mind, Windsor has zero credibility, but he does have power over a weakened Prime Minister. And, without any apparent self-doubt, he appears to have absolute confidence in his own ability to wield it more wisely and morally than ordinary mortals.

When you think about it, the only person without power in the current political hotchpotch is Ms Gillard. She is beset on all sides. Tony Abbott is the least of her worries. Top of the list is presumably Kevin 11. It is not so long ago that only Mr Rudd thought he could make a comeback. When you are the only one who thinks something like that you are usually either a genius or, overwhelmingly more likely, seriously deluded. Well it seems clear now that (I’ll be back) Rudd is one of those rare geniuses. Behind the scenes he is bound to be unnerving the Prime Minister. It would unnerve anyone to have Kevin popping up everywhere. “Hello my name is Kevin, I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help.”

The Qantas business shows just how beholden the Gillard faction is now to the union bosses. Sitting idle and silent while the national carrier was picked off by union guerrilla tactics, and then blaming Qantas, has little to do with the power of unions per se. It has everything to do with the parlous position of Gillard. Can you imagine Hawke or Keating being cowed in similar fashion?

In a twist of irony, a blackmailing government – agree to the NBN or we’ll cripple your business; agree to the MRRT or we’ll impose something worse – has become a puppet. Whether the Greens with the carbon tax or Wilkie with the pokies, the government is dancing to the tune of others. Its own current incompetence (never mind the past)– for example, the un-tested NBN extravagance and failed asylum seeker policies – are complemented by the mad schemes foisted on it by the Greens and independents. It has become shell-shocked and easy prey. Even an ABC program caused it to shut down a major industry overnight without the least consideration of the consequences. It is an extraordinary way to run a country; a fine political mess. What has gone so badly wrong?

As is so often the case when things go badly wrong, a number of untoward circumstances have coalesced. First, we had an economic crisis just after an election which resulted in a competent treasurer being replaced by an incompetent one advised by left-leaning economists. Second, a new prime minister with at least a bare modicum of competence was overthrown by someone totally out of their depth. Third, and as it has turned out most importantly, the government is being held hostage by a radical extremist party and by a number of maverick independents who, by an accident of the electoral process, have been thrust onto centre stage.

 Now the situation was still salvageable if the extras, plucked from obscurity and asked to play lead roles, had been appropriately modest about their abilities and sensitive to the wishes of those who had put them there. Not so, unfortunately. They all seem to believe they are as good as Sir Laurence Olivier and, accordingly, can make outrageous demands.

The current political malaise is not an argument against hung parliaments; however difficult they are to manage. I doubt whether this combination of circumstances is ever likely to arise again. We are suffering a rare event: a perfect storm of incompetence, impotence, extremism, and delusions of grandeur. Hopefully we are one election away from renewed sanity.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics