Thursday, March 15, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

SA Best’s biggest test
The SA election might be a big wake-up call

Image of Nick Xenophon


Nothing against former senator Nick Xenophon – the most enduring of the personality politicians – but there will be a silver lining if his SA Best party flames out in Saturday’s state election. If “Mr X”, with a huge profile and a 20-year track record in state and federal politics, can’t make a go of launching his own political party, who can? This South Australian election might serve as a great big wake-up call: it’s not easy to start a successful political party, it doesn’t happen often, and it generally doesn’t happen at the whim of an individual, no matter how charismatic they may be.

Which is not to try and make a prediction. As Katharine Murphy wrote in The Guardian last weekend, this “genuine three-horse race in a two-horse electoral system” is impossible to pick. But the observed volatility of electoral support for SA Best is itself a suggestion that there may be more hype than substance here. It was not so long ago that Xenophon was touted as a potential premier. This week, a Galaxy poll suggested he may not even win the Liberal-held seat he is contesting, Hartley. Xenophon’s hand-picked candidates are a grab bag: one, we heard on ABC’s AM yesterday, is a recovering ice addict. Laudable, no question, but can she win?

The excruciating live-cross to the Jacqui Lambie Network election-night party – an almost empty room it seemed, with Lambie in tears at her team’s performance – is only the latest flame-out for an overnight political party. Weeks earlier, her replacement candidate in the Senate, Steve Martin, had gone AWOL, turning independent and taking “her” seat.

We should not have much sympathy for Lambie. She, of course, did exactly the same thing to businessman Clive Palmer, who had a Trump-like knack for cut-through, and splashed out millions of (it turns out) other people’s dollars to field Palmer United Party candidates in every federal seat in the 2013 election. Palmer turned up some gem candidates, like former NRL and Origin footballer Glenn Lazarus, who as a senator helped save the Gonski school funding program and tried to run under his own steam when he fell out with the capricious bankrupt. But PUP barely survived a single term of parliament and Palmer’s rumoured return is surely a joke.

Despite wall-to-wall media coverage in the lead-up, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has flubbed two elections now – in Western Australia and Queensland – and lost more senators than I can keep track of, since her stunning return to the federal parliament in 2016. Her latest senator, Fraser Anning, lasted an hour before quitting. Like Xenophon, Hanson is a substantial figure – Australians know exactly what she stands for because she’s been saying pretty much the same thing for 20 years, only switching the target of her hate-filled rhetoric from Asians to Muslims. Yet, while Hanson appeals to a white nationalist section of the electorate, she did not emerge onto the political stage from this movement. She stood originally in Oxley as the endorsed Liberal Party candidate, remember, and was disendorsed by John Howard, after some dithering, for making racist comments. She was then latched on to by svengalis like John Pasquarelli (now advising George Christensen), David Oldfield (Tony Abbott’s onetime adviser), and now James Ashby (former adviser to Peter Slipper), and has leaned on these dictatorial henchmen rather than engage in any pretence of member-led democracy, structured her party as a company, and tried to run the whole thing from the top down. One Nation has never run properly: in 1998, when 11 One Nation MPs were elected in Queensland, it collapsed within 18 months.

Since World War Two, only three successful minor parties have been established: the DLP split from the Labor Party in 1955, formed out of the catholic, anti-communist-wing industrial groups spearheaded by B. A. Santamaria; the Democrats, which grew out of the Australia Party and the New Liberal Movement in South Australia, but never had a genuine social movement behind it; and the Greens, which grew out of the environmental, peace, feminist and socialist movements that constantly put tens or hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. The DLP petered out as the communist threat receded, the Labor Party steadily abandoned socialism and drifted right. The Democrats traded for years off the motto of founder Don Chipp, to “keep the bastards honest” (and it is interesting that Xenophon now is parroting that line, pledging to “hold the bastards to account”), but ultimately that was not enough to sustain them.

The Greens are constantly expected to suffer a Democrats moment, and maybe they will, but even their harshest critics would concede that after 25 years-plus of representation in parliament, they are a bona fide political party. They might have bitter, messy preselections, but their candidates generally have done years of thankless volunteering and campaigning before they get a real shot at parliament. Just like the major parties, nowadays you don’t just walk in to a Greens preselection in a winnable seat, and that’s a good thing. The Greens have stood for a remarkably consistent set of policies for a very long time: on the rights of asylum seekers, for example, it is possible to draw a straight policy line from “Tampa Green” Alex Bhathal in this weekend’s Batman by-election, to Nick McKim, Sarah Hanson-Young, Bob Brown and all the way back to Christabel Chamarette’s opposition to Labor’s introduction of mandatory detention in 1992. On climate, on guns, on same-sex marriage, the Greens have been saying much the same sort of thing for a generation. Labor’s green-haters cannot plausibly continue to mock the party as a rabble, while continually pinching their policies – the abolition of cash refunds for unused franking credits this week is only the latest example. A national integrity commission, negative gearing and capital gains tax reform, bans on pokies in pubs and clubs, these ideas all were Greens policies well before Labor adopted them. This is the hard yards stuff. Love or hate the Greens (or both, at times), they are no fly-by-nighters.

Perhaps, if Xenophon, Lambie, Hanson and Palmer crash and burn, the voting public might reconsider what it is they mean by rejecting the major parties. Do they mean to reap the whirlwind of opportunist, disloyal, inexperienced candidates working in a policy-free zone? A triumph of vanity politics? Let’s hope not.

since this morning

The AFR reports [$] that the ACCC has labelled price competition in the mortgage market “less-than-vigorous”, and has found that the big four banks are charging higher interest rates to existing customers as they try to entice new ones with big discounts that lack transparency.

The doors at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court have been opened to the public in the preliminary court hearing over historical sexual offence allegations against Cardinal George Pell, the Herald Sun reports. Previously the hearing had been held behind closed doors. The Cardinal’s barrister, Robert Richter QC, branded Broken Rites researcher Dr Dernard Barrett “a disgrace”.

in case you missed it

The Australian reports [$] that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is considering a supplement payment package for up to 250,000 pensioners on low incomes to compensate for losses under Labor’s proposed abolition of cash refunds for unused imputation credits. However, shadow finance minister Jim Chalmers told ABC RN Breakfast this morning the reports were “not accurate”. Chalmers said that if some pensioners lost money it would be “factored into the various tests people are subjected to when they apply for the pension”.

The South African government has hit back at the home affairs minister Peter Dutton’s claim that Afrikaans farmers needed help from a “civilised country” like Australia, declaring white farmers were not facing state-sanctioned persecution in the African nation, The Australian reports [$].

The ABC details how immigrant Indigenous rangers and migrant families could be among the Australians caught up in the federal government’s laws aimed at foreign agents.

Allegations of pork barrelling have been levelled at the Turnbull government over a decision to award a German company the $5.2 billion contract to build hundreds of new military vehicles in Queensland, reports The Australian [$].

Fairfax’s Michaela Whitbourn profiles Rowena Orr QC, counsel assisting the banking royal commission.

The Guardian reports that the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, is considering establishing a firearms advisory council to allow gun importers to review proposed changes to firearm regulations for “appropriateness and intent”.

by Robert Manne
On borrowed time
Reflections on a life lived in the shadow of mortality

by Luke Goodsell
‘The Square’: comfort food for the self-loathing
Ruben Östlund’s hilarious film is an uneasy mix of silliness and brow-furrowing

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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