The Politics    Thursday, August 13, 2015

A disaster a day

By Sean Kelly

Tony Abbott is lurching from crisis to crisis

Today it emerged that Justice Dyson Heydon, the man in charge of the Trade Union Royal Commission, and formerly a High Court judge, had accepted an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

A few observations:

  1. I have, in recent days, been counting disasters. On Friday I said the PM was perhaps two disasters from a media frenzy. On Monday he copped a bad poll. On Tuesday we got the ill-advised same-sex marriage debacle. Today we got Heydon. Are we there yet?
  2. Obviously the PM himself did not arrange this fundraiser, or, it seems, even know about it. So how much is this his fault – another terrible “captain’s call?” It’s certainly not entirely Tony Abbott’s responsibility, but we have to bear in mind that he had a say over the appointment to the Royal Commission. The PM would have made his selection partly for Heydon’s conservative tendencies, while pretending it was solely due to Heydon’s judicial prowess. Abbott judged that would bring benefits, and some would say it has, most notably Heydon’s rebuke to Bill Shorten during Commission hearings. But of course the danger of trying to gain advantage from appointing somebody you believe is like-minded, while pretending they’re not, is that they reveal themselves, too obviously, at some point, as like-minded. That is Abbott’s risk, and Abbott’s responsibility.
  3. Faced with a political crisis, the rule must be to respond with speed, not haste. Almost as soon as today’s news broke, the Attorney-General, George Brandis, was sent out to respond. Brandis is the ministry’s worst media performer. If anything, his response, and those of others, made matters worse. Which reminds me:
  4. This government has never fixed its day-to-day media coordination. Hockey and Abbott regularly contradict each other in public, and have done so since they came to government. You can argue the Rudd government took things to the other extreme, but ensuring your senior personnel are on the same page is a necessity of modern politics. Any discrepancies will be magnified many times over. So today we had Brandis saying that the dinner was not a political event, while Abbott conceded to parliament that it was a Liberal fundraiser.
  5. But it wasn’t just coordination that was the problem. The responses themselves were terrible. Brandis’ argument that it was not a political event was absurd, as the invitation itself carried the words: “All proceeds from this event will be applied to state election campaigning.” Tony Nutt, State Director of the NSW Liberal Party, issued a press release arguing the event was not a “significant fundraising event”, which in effect concedes that it was a fundraising event of some sort.
  6. The prime minister has hurt himself in the past – most recently over choppergate – by digging in for too long. It is true that leaders cannot afford to wince at the first distant sound of gunfire. But this PM has a bad habit of refusing to cede anything to his opponents, no matter the cost to him and his government. He is like a soldier who refuses to take action to stem the bleeding lest his enemies see that he is wounded. It is day one, and early to say what sort of an emergency this is, but he needs to be aware of this tendency in himself.
  7. The government launched a brutal political assault on Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs for alleged partisanship on the basis of fairly circumstantial evidence. Defending Heydon for a sin far more overt is hardly plausible.
  8. Heydon’s own response today did him no favours: “As early as 9.23am this morning (and prior to any media enquiry being received) he advised the organisers that ‘if there was any possibility that the event could be described as a Liberal Party event he will be unable to give the address, at least whilst he is in the position of royal commissioner’.” Firstly, it doesn’t pass the government’s own precious sniff test to imply he simply, of his own accord, decided to deal with this matter, oblivious to the pending media storm. Second, the suggestion that he might at some point in the future be happy to address a Liberal Party fundraiser does nothing to assuage concerns.
  9. Heydon has too often in the past said that judges must not only be impartial but appear impartial – too often to withstand the attacks coming his way, that is. While he is perhaps not technically a judge at this moment, his role calls for similar impartiality.  
  10. Heydon must now resign. If he believes in the importance of the Commission’s work – and one must hope that he does – then it is the only path. Proudly remaining in the position will stain any conclusions or recommendations that emerge from the Commission. It is true that the Commission is a political witch-hunt, but it is true too that some worthwhile things may have come of it – there are plenty of genuine problems in unions. The Commission’s chance of having them taken seriously with Heydon at the helm is small, and diminishing.

It is Thursday of a parliamentary week. There is normally now a three-day lull before the resumption of battle. The prime minister will be fervently hoping that is the case.


Today’s links

  • Mark Kenny is scathing on the question of Heydon.
  • Some interesting columns in the Australian today. Niki Savva says government MPs are filled with “anger and despair”. Dennis Shanahan says Abbott will struggle to see the rewards from his victories this week on climate and marriage policy. Stefanie Balogh says new Speaker Tony Smith failed to show authority yesterday.
  • Malcolm Turnbull has said he will maintain cabinet solidarity and vote against same-sex marriage, despite personally supporting it. He also proposed that a plebiscite on the issue should be preceded by legislation to recognise same-sex marriage, which would not take effect until a majority of Australians had voted for it. Penny Wong says a plebiscite could give a “green light to hate speech”. Scott Morrison says a referendum is a good idea, George Brandis says no it’s not.
  • Michelle Grattan and Phil Coorey both remind their readers that the last referendum proposed by a Liberal prime minister was used to kill off the idea underneath it, namely the republic.
  • Peter Brent says Abbott’s desperation to hold on to the leadership is destroying his chances of actually holding on to it.
  • A Liberal MP says Australia should bomb Syria. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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