The Politics    Monday, August 31, 2015

Heydon and Hockey

By Sean Kelly

Two political races kicked off today

Two races began today in Australian politics, neither of which has much to do with substantive policy.

The first was the race to define the meaning of Dyson Heydon’s decision, announced this afternoon, to stay on at the helm of the Trade Unions Royal Commission. Unions have raced out already to declare his decision means the Commission will be forever tainted. Now watch the pro-government cadre race out to argue the Labor lynch mob has been discredited through ignominious defeat.

The winners and losers from the Heydon decision are complicated. While this is clearly not the result Bill Shorten, the ALP and various unions have been publicly arguing for, by this stage they may not have cared much which way it went. They now have a large weapon with which to whack the Commission, and thanks to Heydon’s drawn-out response it’s no obscure technicality known only to a few political insiders: the entire country has at least heard of the saga by now. If Heydon had gone, the gong of scandal would have been thunderous. It would have been the last thing many members of the public heard about the Commission. Technically the government may have had room to argue that it was a neutral body, but the Commission’s credibility has sustained enormous injury. The damage that might have been done to Shorten by the Commission will now be significantly lessened.

Perhaps surprisingly, this decision is that rare thing in politics, a win-win for the political parties. It was probably the result Shorten wanted, or should have wanted; it was clearly the result Abbott wanted. Heydon’s departure would have been messier for the prime minister, leaving him with the tricky task of appointing a new Commissioner. This way is not good for him, but it is simpler.

For Heydon himself, I think matters are clearer, and worse. Standing down would have allowed his defenders to say “Look, here is a man of impeccable integrity.” He would have been putting the Commission above himself. While the unions would have attacked him anyway, many others would have recognised the wisdom of his decision. But the decision to stay on looks blinkered. Does he really believe that “it is not the case that a fair-minded lay observer might apprehend that I might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the questions which the work of the commission requires to be decided”?

Not would and would not, but might and might not.

Nevertheless, these things are always tricky. A resignation brings shame, however noble its motivation.

Finally there is the Commission itself. The length of this debacle means the Commission would have struggled to recover, regardless of Heydon’s decision. But Heydon standing down would have allowed the Commission clean air and a fresh start. The appointment of a clearly objective Commissioner might have given the body a greater chance of having its final recommendations taken seriously. As things stand, it is hard to see much lasting change coming from the process. (Prosecutions would and should have happened in either scenario. They are significant but not to the question of the meaning of Heydon’s decision.)

The other political race that began today was to figure out, and make the case, for the meaning of this morning’s leaked story to the Sydney Morning Herald about Joe Hockey. Two cabinet ministers told the paper that if the Canning by-election went badly then Hockey might be dumped to quieten dissent, as a first step towards the PM going to an early election in March next year.

Other than the two cabinet ministers involved, nobody knows for sure why the story was leaked.

The paper put forward one theory in the same article: “The leaking of confidential talks about the future of Mr Hockey and a possible early election could also stay the Prime Minister’s hand and ensure the Treasurer remains.”

That’s true. By allowing those opposed to the dumping of Hockey time to mobilize, the article could well guarantee his safety. If the PM were convinced that sacking Hockey would do more to harm his own leadership stability than to help it, then Hockey would be safe.

Another theory goes that the PM’s supporters have most to gain from such a leak, making it clear to backbenchers that they have a plan to rebuild support in the community and win the next election. In this scenario, Abbott has realised the damage Hockey is doing him, and taken a decision that he will not be sunk by his ongoing loyalty to his failed treasurer.  

It’s also possible that the exact opposite is the case: that Abbott’s enemies want to throw the cat among the pigeons. There are several potential effects of the leak that lead to that conclusion. First, the leak might upset Hockey, leading him to shift clearly behind other candidates, knowing he is likely lost in either scenario. It could achieve the general fomenting of distrust among the cabinet. In a kind of meta-argument, it might convince MPs that, regardless of whether actual distrust exists, they can no longer stand the appearance of distrust created by such leaks. Most worryingly for Abbott, I think, it might convince any MPs who have been considering moving against him, but who have so far been prepared to give him time, that they must move sooner rather than later, so that he does not have a chance to put his ditch-Hockey-plus-early-election plan into play.

There’s also the ventriloquist theory, in which supporters of the PM leak a story like this in the hope that it leads others to blame one of the PM’s potential challengers – say Malcolm Turnbull – thus perversely shoring up the PM as backbenchers react with anger at the apparently deliberate stoking of division.

And there’s a theory that it has nothing to do with Abbott’s leadership, and is to do with those who would take Hockey’s job (most likely Scott Morrison) building the case for change.

I’m sure there are others I’ve missed.

That is all most people in politics – myself included, and I proffer this column as evidence – would have talked about today: will Hockey survive, will Abbott survive, what does Heydon surviving mean?

Meanwhile our education rankings go backwards, our productivity flags, our economy falters, the cost of our health system balloons … But that, sadly, is a discussion for another day. 


Note: Due to long-ago-arranged plans I’ll be away for the next two weeks – then I’ll be back on board for a few weeks – before vanishing for not-quite-a-couple of months. We’ll have some guest writers to fill in during those periods, before I return full time. They’ll be great, so please stick around. And thanks, as ever, for reading. SK


Today’s links

  • After talking about party reform and making political mileage out of its plans to promote women, Labor has allowed a factional deal involving unions to dump Labor senator Lisa Singh from the party’s senate ticket for a male union official – even though she won the popular vote. A Tasmanian electoral analyst says this could hurt Labor.
  • Julie Bishop has called on European nations to join the bombing of ISIS.
  • Refugees will not be moved from Nauru to Cambodia after all.
  • On the weekend Tony Abbott said the Australian Border Force press release had been a mistake, that his office did not know about the planned Melbourne operation, and that people will never be stopped in the streets of this country by immigration officials checking people’s visa details. The Guardian reports the press release was twice sent to Minister Peter Dutton’s office.
  • US President Obama will call for aggressive action on climate change during a trip to Alaska.
  • The US Huffington Post reports: “The Constitution doesn’t apply in the area just outside the main court that interprets the Constitution.”
  • Neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks has died. This is something he wrote on waking up to find the newspapers written in a foreign language.

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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