Outwit, Outplay, Outlast

Karin Sowada

The year’s final parliamentary sitting week in Canberra always yields surprises. Last week’s shock resignation of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Jenkins, was up there with the best and left everyone in shock and awe.

Shock, because it came completely out of the blue. There was nothing Machiavellian in this decision. Anyone watching Harry Jenkins’ resignation speech could see that he was deeply committed to public service and good government. He has been an excellent Speaker and is well-thought of by all sides of politics. That Jenkins found the Speaker’s Chair constraining is understandable: by and large, people enter elected politics to make a difference and engage in policy debates and decisions to achieve a public good. Despite its prestige and prominence, the  role of Speaker severely limits these opportunities.

Awe, because it was a brilliant political play. That night, Tony Abbott battled unconvincingly through an interview on the ABC’s 7.30 Report. But when reminded of the Howard Government’s deal with Labor Senator Mal Colston, which delivered Colston the position of Senate Deputy President in 1996, Abbott could not keep a straight face. Whatever he might think of Liberal turncoat Peter Slipper, from the perspective of pure politics it was a master stroke.

More serious for the Opposition, however, is the unraveling of their political strategy. New Speaker Peter Slipper’s defection to the role of an Independent delivers the Gillard Government an extra vote on the floor of the House, as Jenkins now re-joins the Labor backbench. The Government is less reliant on the vote of all Independents for the successful passage of its legislation.

More broadly, provided that Peter Slipper can come through any inquiries into his parliamentary spending, the Government looks to have shored up its numbers until the next election. With the Opposition’s strategy predicated on trying to force an early poll through destabilizing the parliamentary arena, an early election is now more remote than ever.

However, the Government has dangerously tied itself to the behaviour and political opportunism of Peter Slipper. His actions in defecting from the Liberal Party have only served to re-enforce the public's poor perception of a struggling Government and of politicians more generally.

One unfortunate consequence is that Andrew Wilkie’s bargaining position on poker machines has been diluted. For community activists and churches pursuing gambling reform, this has suddenly become harder. With these new numbers, it is likely that the Government will ‘go slow’ on the issue or try for a watered-down version of Wilkie’s original proposals.

Time to get writing to your local MP over the summer.

PS We heard a timely sermon on Romans 13:1-7 in our church last Sunday. Politics elicits strong reactions and robust debate is healthy, but please remember Paul’s words when posting a comment ‘This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.’