An extraordinary last day in parliament has left Julia Gillard’s Government more likely than ever to see out its three year term of office. Never mind the possibility of Labor abandoning its pokies promise to Andrew Wilkie. It won’t, because chances are it will still need his vote on occasions to come. But Labor now has a buffer against the possibility of any Labor MP falling under a by-election bus. It offers the Government more certainty to allow it power ahead with its reform agenda for the first half of 2012 before it starts to work on the difficult but increasingly plausible business of getting re-elected. (Photo: Fairfax)
It was Speaker Harry Jenkins who set today’s drama in motion as he announced his shock resignation as the first item of business today. The word was out quickly that Labor would move to install deputy Speaker and LNP renegade Peter Slipper into the position, giving the Government a net benefit of two in the parliament. “Slippery Pete” has a dubious history as a parliamentarian and has been increasingly on the outer in Coalition circles. He was in trouble recently for hosting Kevin Rudd while John Howard was in the electorate.
Many now wonder whether today’s events were canvassed in the meeting, a charge Rudd denies. It seems unlikely Rudd would have accepted such a kingmaker role, given his own royal ambitions. Slipper also faces a strong preselection challenge for his Queensland seat of Fisher from former Howard Minister Mal Brough. Tony Abbott's warning today that anyone from the party accepting the position of Speaker would be axed, was always a fairly benign threat to Slipper. He saved Abbott the bother by resigning as first act of Speaker. Once in office, Slipper didn’t take long to dispel doubts he might favour the Coalition by firing four of their MPs out of the chamber during an unsuccessful censure motion.
The man Slipper replaced was the ideal Labor Speaker. Harry Jenkins holds the very safe Northern Melbourne seat of Scullin that only he and his father have held since its creation 42 years ago. He is Labor’s longest standing MP and was second deputy Speaker for the entire Howard era. He was the obvious candidate for Speaker after Rudd’s 2007 win but after Gillard’s knife-edge win last year, the Libs turned down a proposal to pair the Speaker and maintain a two-vote buffer.
The problem of how to claw back that vote has always been at the back of Gillard’s mind. When the moment finally arrived, it led to an hour or so of high farce. Labor nominated Slipper while manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne called it a “day in infamy” and counter-nominated Labor's Anna Burke. Burke declined as did another eight Labor MPs Pyne spruiked for the job - Dick Adams, Sid Sidebottom, Sharon Bird, Kirsten Livermore, Steve Georganas, John Murphy, Maria Vamvakinou and Yvette D'Ath. Slipper was then elected unopposed. Labor then proposed Burke for the deputy Speaker while Pyne proposed current second deputy speaker (and my local MP) Bruce Scott. Burke squeaked home 72-71. Scott remains second Deputy Speaker.
The opposition’s “infamy” charges won’t wash - they have form in this game. In August 1996, Labor refused the new Howard government request to make Mal Colston deputy president of the Senate. The Liberals nominated him and he resigned from Labor, with former colleagues calling him a “rat and a snook”. Yet Michelle Grattan has a point when she said the vote may tarnish Gillard. Slipper’s issues are well documented and Tony Abbott had a fair point in being sarcastic about the PM’s declaration she only found out about Jenkins’ decision at 7.30am this morning. Given the enormous consequences of the resignation, it seems difficult to believe this wasn’t orchestrated long in advance.
Nevertheless as Grattan also observes, most people couldn’t care less about the Speaker. Bob Carr noted today Gillard's “coup” sent a message to media and business that they will see out a full term: “we are here, get used to us.” Carr said success fed success and Gillard’s recent wins will reverberate in the community and give her a growing reputation of a tough operator and survivor. “In the New Year the nagging, neuralgic issue of poker machines will be subjected to a compromise and the anxiety of backbench Labor members, especially in NSW, will dissipate,” he said. Carr may be over-optimistic but it is also plausible. Not for the first time since the 2010 election, Gillard has blindsided Abbott. Today’s events will give the Government marginally more certainty in the difficult business of governing the country in 2012 and that is no bad thing.