Gillard’s minority government has been plagued with drama and even its gains have often turned into losses. Just as Labor has been picking up momentum leading into the May 8 budget, scandal has struck again.
The latest scandal centres on the Speaker appointed late last year, Peter Slipper. Slipper left the Coalition in order to fulfil his personal ambition to become Speaker. This had him flagged at the outset as a potential liability for Labor. James Ashby’s criminal and civil allegations against Slipper have made this liability real.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and the Coalition, both damaged by Slipper, are now on the war path. For the Coalition, Slipper is a turncoat, and they are seeking to inflict on him the same punishment that Labor did on defector Mal Colston. Colston left the Labor Party following the 1996 election when Labor would not support him to become Deputy President of the Senate, but won the position with John Howard’s support. Like Slipper, Colston was attacked by his former party for his history of abusing travel entitlements. Political parties have an aptitude for maintaining that type of grudge.
For Wilkie, Slipper represents more than a grudge. Wilkie has defined this term – and probably the remainder of his political career – on poker machine reform. That was his condition in supporting Gillard and Labor to form government in 2010. Without Slipper and Labor’s extra number, Labor would still need Wilkie’s support to hold its majority. This would force the government to comply with Wilkie’s timetable bring in mandatory pre-commitment legislation this month.
Given the circumstances, it is unsurprising that the Coalition and Wilkie have demanded that Slipper stay out of the Speaker’s chair until the allegations against him are cleared, and Gillard has been forced to follow. What is more interesting is that conventions are being ignored in the process.
Section 44 of the Constitution sets out grounds for the disqualification of members of Parliament. This includes criminal convictions for offences punishable by at least one year’s imprisonment. Slipper has voluntarily stood down until the criminal accusations against him are cleared, and publicly released evidence at the heart of the claim. Now he is facing danger from all sides: Wilkie and the Colation have threatened to move a no confidence motion, and Gillard has withdrawn her support.
The Labor Party was at pains to highlight that this goes against the Westminster conventions, the rules of thumb that Australian parliaments inherited from their British predecessor. Never before has a member been forced to stand down because of a civil claim. Labor has pointed to cases such as Malcolm Turnbull’s involvement in HIH to show that setting such a precedent with Slipper would be dangerous for many politicians. Importantly, it would open the floodgates for vexatious claims effectively disqualifying MPs.
The Coalition’s response was that the office of Speaker should be a model of parliamentary behaviour. The claims against Slipper are said to jeopardise that office. That argument is smoke and mirrors: political motivations underlie the Coalition’s and Wilkie’s attacks on Slipper, whether they are matters of pride or of policy.
Labor’s argument supporting the conventions has failed. With a no confidence motion from the Coalition likely to succeed with the support of Wilkie and fellow Independent Tony Windsor, Gillard faced the practical reality and withdrew her support to avoid being defeated on the floor.
Labor backing down proves the most intriguing aspect of such breaches of Westminster conventions in this Parliament – that they have been effective. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Lenore Taylor has pointed out that if Gillard did not act, this tension would have peaked on May 8 with the return of Parliament for the budget. A scandal involving Slipper would overshadow any gains Labor might make from its much-heralded surplus. Gillard saw this and was forced to sideline Slipper to try to regather momentum.
Conventions appear to have been sidelined for the current political conflict. When Labor appointment Slipper as Speaker, it was seen as manipulation and power-grabbing. He was tainted by the way that he took the chair, and the recent allegations have forced him to step down. Deserting the Coalition made Slipper an easy target, and pressure from Wilkie and the Coalition has forced Gillard to change her approach to avoid conflict. Gillard had been winning some points as the budget approached – she has been heralding a surplus, and pressuring the Reserve Bank to lower interest rates as a result. A continuing scandal over Slipper threatened that those gains Gillard would be ignored.
The allegations made against Peter Slipper have created an opportunity for those he damaged. The gloves have come off; Wilkie and Abbott are seeking to land a bare-knuckled punch and knock Slipper out of the chair entirely. Labor has been forced to relinquish its support for conventions in recognition of political realities. Gillard might not have wished to demand that Slipper stand aside, but breaking conventions was required to earn the public’s attention on budget night.
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