One Nation’s gyrations
Pauline Hanson’s backflips underline the point of having major parties
As bitter divisions inside the Coalition and Labor [$] have played out in public this week, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that partisan politics is a blight on democracy. But yesterday’s failure of a Senate motion to force the government to release the report by public service head Philip Gaetjens into the sports rorts affair highlights the danger in abandoning the major parties and instead embracing micro-parties, or personality politics. In her finest backflipping tradition, Pauline Hanson put her name to the motion yesterday and then voted against it. Even after almost a quarter of a century in and out of politics, Hanson remains unpredictable. Set aside her latest racist outburst, what kind of crossbencher declines an opportunity to hold the government to account?
The Senate motion was unprecedented, and the debate was fascinating because it went to the limits of the parliament’s power to hold the government to account. The government has consistently refused to release the report on the grounds it is cabinet in confidence. The motion sought to sanction Leader of the Government in the Senate Mathias Cormann, requiring that if the Gaetjens report were not tabled, he be prevented from taking questions on behalf of the prime minister, representing the PM in committees including Senate estimates, and occupying the leader’s seat at the table in the Senate chamber.
An impassioned Cormann argued that the motion exceeded the Senate’s powers, that there was no precedent for its sanctions, and that it was an assault on the Westminster system. He cited the findings of the NSW Court of Appeal in the case of Egan v. Chadwick – when the legislative council held the state treasurer in contempt for refusing to table a cabinet document, and ejected him: “The cabinet is the cornerstone of responsible government … and its documents are essential for its operation. That means their immunity from production is complete.” Cormann went on to warn younger Labor senators to “be very, very wary of letting those who came before you box you into precedents that you, not they, will have to live with in the future”.
Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong agreed with Cormann that cabinet is the cornerstone of our democracy. But she went on to say that that is precisely why it ought not be used to perpetrate and cover up a political rort. The unprecedented motion was made necessary by the unprecedented behaviour of the government. The clincher, said Wong, was that Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice makes clear that for cabinet confidentiality to apply, “It has to be established that disclosure of the document would reveal cabinet deliberations.” Gaetjens’ report didn’t, said Wong.
Greens Senate leader Larissa Waters argued the government should simply have voluntarily released the Gaetjens report, and “the issue of why the governance committee of the cabinet was even discussing this, frankly, is also very fishy … The other point is Odgers makes it perfectly clear that in fact you can assert a claim for either public interest immunity or cabinet in confidence, but that the Senate can insist that the document nonetheless be produced.”
Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick, whose name was also on the motion, also cited Odgers as well as philosopher John Stuart Mill, quoted with approval in the Egan case, on the task of the parliament: “To watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts.” He went on: “The government has been pulling down the steel shutters on transparency and accountability. In this case, there’s been a sports rorts affair and the government has gone running to a bunker, and on the front door of that bunker is a label that says ‘cabinet’. It is hiding behind cabinet for a matter which most Australians really do want exposed.” Too true.
But Patrick could not speak for the vote of his party colleague Stirling Griff, who toldGuardian Australia that the party had a conscience vote on motions, and “I absolutely support the Senate being given at least summary details of the Gaetjens report, but not actions to humiliate any member of parliament, as this motion did. Sending someone to naughty chair is a personal attack. I supported the premise, but not the penalty of humiliating a member of parliament.” He abstained.
But what to make of Pauline Hanson’s backflip? In explanation she said she’d agreed to the motion, although it disturbed her, but that discussions with Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie, from the lower house, had convinced her to switch sides on the issue. “What I’m concerned about is setting a precedent here in this chamber where a senator can be thrown out of the chamber by the majority,” said Hanson. Which is not what the motion sought to do. “Senator Cormann is an elected member of this chamber,” she went on. “He has a right to his place in this chamber. It is not up to us to take away that right that was given to him by the Australian people when they voted for him.” Which is nonsense. One Nation’s two votes sunk the Senate motion, and the government escapes accountability for sports rorts, hiding behind the questionable findings of a report the public cannot see.
Hanson is completely unpredictable. She has no policy platform to speak of and no apparent reason for being in parliament, apart from personal advancement. Each political party, for all its faults, has a shared purpose. If parties fight internally over what that purpose is – in the Coalition party room, in the Otis restaurant – at least they are thrashing out something bigger than themselves. The alternative, at its worst, is just disparate individual MPs making it up as they go along.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
As bitter divisions inside the Coalition and Labor [$] have played out in public this week, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that partisan politics is a blight on democracy. But yesterday’s failure of a Senate motion to force the government to release the report by public service head Philip Gaetjens into the sports rorts affair highlights the danger in abandoning the major parties and instead embracing micro-parties, or personality politics. In her finest backflipping tradition, Pauline Hanson put her name to the motion yesterday and then voted against it. Even after almost a quarter of a century in and out of politics, Hanson remains unpredictable. Set aside her latest racist...