The Politics    Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Backdown

By Sean Kelly

Labor has given the government some breathing room

Labor backed down today.

Over the past few days of not answering questions about whether the government had paid people smugglers to turn their boats around, the Coalition were not exactly cowering – they were, at least, talking about one of their favourite subjects. But they were certainly on the defensive. The national media had been clamouring for the PM either to answer the question, or to explain whether his ministers, who had previously denied the payments, were liars, incompetents, or had been kept out of the loop by their own PM.

This morning it emerged that payments may have been made to people smugglers under Labor, too. The reports were not entirely clear, and neither were Labor’s denials. What seemed to emerge was that payments may well have been made, but if so they had likely been made by ASIS and therefore fell under “national security” matters and thus would not be commented on, which is pretty much the position the government has taken.

Pretty much, but not entirely. Labor did have one distinction to make, saying definitively that Labor had never paid people smugglers to turn back boats.

It’s an important distinction. Some of the criticisms levelled in recent days stick to Labor’s actions too, mainly the charge of hypocrisy that arises when you give cash to people you claim are evil. But paying informers is a relatively common practice. Its possible illegalities are less clear, and it in no way provides an incentive to people smugglers to keep on coming. It also doesn’t come close to actually engaging in people smuggling, which some have argued that paying for turnbacks does.

But having pointed out that difference, Labor seems to have decided the issue has yielded up its potential political gains. In Question Time today Bill Shorten and his ministers moved on to other subjects.

Politically, that might be the right thing to do. But it’s a pity for the rest of us, because without Opposition pressure, in the daily forge of Question Time, it is less likely we’ll ever get answers to some fairly important questions: did the government pay for turnbacks and, if so, how did senior ministers get their wires so tangled?

Earlier in the day, Shorten told his party room “We have every right to ask questions about this and to expect answers. I will not cede this issue to the Liberals.” But by the end of the day it seemed that that was exactly what he had done.

 

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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.

@mrseankelly

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