The Politics    Monday, March 16, 2015

Whipping critics into line

By Russell Marks

The government’s new Whip brooks no dissent – inside or outside the party room

On 1 November 2014, Dr Michael Powell, a lecturer in history and politics at the University of Tasmania and a former Labor candidate for a state seat, lambasted the Abbott government for its underfunding of universities in a letter to the Launceston Examiner. In that letter, Powell challenged Andrew Nikolic, Member for Bass for the Liberal Party, to decide whether to “stand up for the university” or be “merely a mouthpiece” for the government. At that time, Nikolic was a mere backbencher. In February this year, he became a government whip after Tony Abbott sacked Phillip Ruddock following the failed leadership spill.

Nikolic may prove to be a very effective whip. According to a Fairfax report this morning, Nikolic then contacted the University of Tasmania’s vice chancellor, Peter Rathjen, and asked whether Powell might have breached any university protocols in publicly criticising government policy. Nikolic told Fairfax he merely inquired as to whether Powell’s view was also the university’s, but Nikolic has form. In 2012 he wrote to 13 people who “liked” a satirical story about him on Facebook and threatened to speak with their employers.

The revelations fit into larger stories about the progress of Christopher Pyne’s doomed plans for fee deregulation, about academic freedom – Rathjen has declined to publicly support Powell amid negotiations for what could be up to $500 million in additional cash from Canberra as part of Pyne’s reforms – and about the Abbott government’s propensity to place restrictions on freedoms generally. On Friday, Dr Paul Grimes was sacked as secretary of the Department of Agriculture after a falling out with his minister, Banaby Joyce; the capacity for senior public servants to give “frank and fearless advice” to the government is now surely diminished.

The Roundup

Mandatory sentencing

ABC News reports: “The federal government is set to reintroduce legislation to impose a mandatory jail sentence on people found guilty of trafficking illegal guns. The government tried to introduce a five-year minimum prison term earlier this year but it did not pass the parliament. Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said there were already heavy penalties for trafficking guns, and there was ‘no evidence that mandatory minimum sentences work as a deterrent’.”

Education reform

Louise Yaxley at ABC News reports: “The senate is set to reject the federal government’s second bid to deregulate universities. The changes, which were announced in last year’s budget, have failed to win the six votes required on the split crossbench of eight senators.”

Latika Bourke reports in Fairfax: “Christopher Pyne’s threat to sack 1700 researchers unless he gets his way in uncapping university fees has sparked an angry response from crucial crossbench senators and even caused Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi to reassess his own support for the government’s policy.”

Barrie Cassidy interviewed Christopher Pyne on ABC’s Insiders yesterday about the reforms.

Dean Ashenden comments in The Age: “Under pressure, the Victorian government caved in to the Catholic Education Office and now both are killing Gonski's basic principles.”

“Lifestyle choice”

Bridie Jabour reports at Guardian Australia: “Tony Abbott has refused to concede that saying Aboriginal people who live in remote communities have made a ‘lifestyle choice’ was a poor choice of words as the father of reconciliation issued a public plea to rebuild relations with Indigenous people.”

Comments at Piping Shrike (“The idea of shutting down remote communities because they are economically unviable is, of course, rubbish”) and from Anthony Dillon at The Drum (“If people are living in conditions that compromise health and well-being, and their communities cannot be made viable, then a sensible exit strategy is needed”) and Rachelle Irving at Crikey (“Thanks for the shout-out, Bolt, but you’re wrong again”).

Satire at The Shovel: “Taxpayers forced to fund lifestyle choice of small group of Australians.”

Budget 2015

Eliza Borrello reports at ABC News: “The federal government has offered to set up a three yearly independent review of pension rates in a bid to win support for changes to the way the payments are calculated.”

Helen Hodgson comments at Business Spectator: “In the case of a high income earner, the 15% tax rate on superannuation encourages savings into superannuation. However, low income earners who pay income tax rates less than 15% find that most of their savings are locked up in superannuation without any tax concessions.”

Satire at The Shovel: 2014 Budget now just a title page and a few footnotes

NSW election

Bridie Jabour reports at Guardian Australia: “The New South Wales Liberal Party has targeted ice users as part of its pitch to country voters while the Labor Party has pledged to increase police numbers as the parties angle to be seen as tough when it comes to law and order.”

Bridie Jabour reports at Guardian Australia: “The seldom-recognised New South Wales Labor Party leader, Luke Foley, is a serious performer who battled his way through the ranks of the party’s left faction and into the top job.”

Keith Orchison comments at Business Spectator: “Agrarian socialists hold the NSW power keys.”

Seeking refuge

Michael Brull comments at New Matilda: “The ghost of Scott Morrison may live on in the halls of our detention centres. But there's a new boss in town, and he's hit the ground running.”

Hockey defamation trial

Richard Ackland’s analysis at the Saturday Paper: “Hockey has chosen the most expensive, time-consuming and emotionally draining way of salving his pain.”

“Free” trade

John Quiggin’s analysis at Inside Story: “This secretive agreement is less about free trade than about protecting American interests. But there’s a glimmer of a chance it won’t proceed.”

Ian Verrender comments at The Drum: “Most free trade agreements deliver little in the way of benefits, apart from photo opportunities for politicians, but the highly secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership has the potential for real harm in Australia.”

International relations

ABC News reports: “Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has announced a $5 million assistance package to provide aid to Vanuatu, after the South Pacific archipelago took a direct hit from Tropical Cyclone Pam.”

Daniel Flitton comments in Fairfax: “Tony Abbott promised ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’ as his foreign policy slogan, but ironically, last week, the two far distant capitals and diplomatic traditions he meant for them to represent came crashing together.”


Jared Owens reports at The Australian: “The federal Liberal Party’s treasurer pushed for the removal of the prime minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, reportedly describing her as the ‘horsewoman of the Apocalypse’.”

Sophie Morris reports in The Saturday Paper: “The red and green houses of parliament are being tinged with khaki as an increasing number of former defence force personnel enter politics.”

Adam Gartrell reports in Fairfax: “Restive Liberal MPs believe they have missed their chance to bring down Tony Abbott before the budget, conceding he’s unlikely to face another leadership spill until at least the middle of the year.”

Latika Bourke and James Massola report in Fairfax: “A unilateral decision by Clive Palmer on how his party would vote in the Senate sparked a ‘big bust-up’ in the Palmer United Party, angering Glenn Lazarus and his former senate colleague Zhenya ‘Dio’ Wang and clearing the way for the Queensland senator to quit the party.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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