The Politics    Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Defeat! Victory!

By Sean Kelly

Political losses are not always what they seem (though sometimes they are)

On a Thursday in November of 1992, the then prime minister, Paul Keating, deployed a bold manoeuvre. With just months left until an election, Keating’s Labor was engaged in a brutal campaign against John Hewson’s proposed goods and services tax.

You might have expected a “we’ll fight them on the beaches” speech, a commitment to expend every last ounce of blood, sweat and tears to defeat the GST, whatever the result of the coming election. Win or lose, you’d think, in government or in Opposition, Labor would vote against the GST and all the inequity and injustice it was supposed to usher in.

On that day, a question was put to the then treasurer, John Dawkins, about allowing Treasury officials to appear before a Senate inquiry. In other words, nothing to do with the GST. Keating decided he wanted to add to the treasurer’s answer. Somehow, the prime minister managed to sidle around the topic under discussion, finally arriving at his preferred topic, at which point he said:

“In the event that the GST remains the centrepiece of the Opposition’s policy, I say to the Opposition that, in the unlikely event of its becoming a government, the Labor Party would not obstruct the passage of the GST legislation in the Senate.”

Surrender! Hansard records Liberal MPs interjecting. “Bye, bye, Paul! Thanks Paul!” and “Hooray!” But of course, they were wrong and Keating was right. In a few surprising minutes he had made clear to voters that a Hewson election victory would mean a Liberal win in the Senate on the GST – there would be no “hiding behind the Democrats”.

The brilliance of Keating’s move lay in his understanding that a victory is not always a victory. When it comes to politics, there are different types of victory, and it’s not always clear at the time whether winning is what you want. John Howard getting a Senate majority that allowed him to pass WorkChoices is the most oft-cited example. Kevin Rudd’s spectacular demolition of Malcolm Turnbull over an emissions trading scheme – resulting in Turnbull’s fall and emissions trading being defeated – is another.

In Canberra today the prime minister had to confront three different types of defeat. Luckily for him, some defeats are more equal than others.

The first was on the government’s attempt to ratify an extradition deal with China (though it’s not clear how much of the actual government wanted the deal to go through – a dozen MPs attended a meeting to discuss concerns on Monday, and outside the meeting the possibility of crossing the floor was canvassed).

Labor decided to vote against the ratification. While such decisions are complex, this seems very much the sensible thing. Julie Bishop had argued that extraditions could be blocked at our end if execution, inhumane treatment or unfair trial was a possibility. But how would the Australian government know in advance if the latter two were on the cards? And if the answer is that China can’t be trusted with such matters, then why have the agreement at all? Fairfax notes that “she also observed that Australia has extradition deals with countries such as Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam that have justice systems ‘no more developed than China’s’”. When you find yourself making such arguments it’s a pretty good sign you’re on the wrong side of the case.  

Labor thus handed the prime minister certain defeat on the matter and he duly backed away from introducing it to parliament. This was bad for the prime minister: embarrassing, avoidable, and badly handled. But, on our topic of the differing varieties of defeat, Labor’s support could have ended up being even worse for the prime minister, if the backdown had ultimately been forced by his own MPs. Better an obstructionist Opposition than a divided government.

Later in the day the Senate debate over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act began. It seems certain the government will lose the Senate vote on this, which, as has been widely noted, is about the best result the prime minister can hope for at this stage. Sure, Labor will campaign against the government on the basis it tried to make the change, but the argument will lose much of its potency the moment the legislation dies in the Senate.

Finally, by late yesterday the government’s company tax measures had moved even closer to the edge of defeat, where they’d been teetering for a while now. Pauline Hanson limited her support to companies with turnover under $50 million and Nick Xenophon made his support conditional on the adoption of an emissions intensity scheme, which almost caused government implosion last time it was raised.

It’s true this will leave Turnbull with little of the “economic plan” he brought to last year’s election, but given it was never much of a plan I don’t rate this as much of a loss. What it will do is remove the tax-cuts-for-big-businesses albatross from Turnbull’s neck. Significantly, it will also ensure that the hit to the budget caused by walking away from zombie budget measures (left over from budgets past and never legislated) is balanced by the money saved from not handing back cash to multinationals, as Ross Gittins has pointed out.

Keating, of course, went on to win the 1993 election, declaring: “This is the sweetest victory of all.” But sometimes losses can be pretty sweet too.

In other news


‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

Moving the art of the novel into new territory will always divide readers, but Saunders’ experiment feels necessary

Kevin Rabalais

“In his long-awaited debut novel, George Saunders – author of four highly praised short-story collections, among them CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Tenth of December – takes the biggest risk of his singular career to offer readers a deep and moving fever vision of love, accountability and grief. Lincoln in the Bardo takes as its central image the 16th president of the United States, newly embroiled in the Civil War and facing the sudden death of his 11-year-old son, Willie.”   READ ON


Your handy guide to political newspeak

Quarterly Essay extract: How to combat unwelcome ideas about sex, women, human rights and especially race

David Marr

“A new political language began to be fashioned in America in the 1980s to combat unwelcome fresh ideas about sex, women, guns, human rights and especially race. The work was wonderfully done. A key purpose of the exercise was to find ways in a disapproving world of continuing to fight for white privilege. Talk of culture warselites and political correctness offered cover to politicians as they went about an old familiar task. Australia lapped it up.”   READ ON

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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