Friday, March 20, 2009

Work Choices Dead - and possibly Turnbull as well

Today Julia Gillard at the last minute did a deal with Senators Xenaphon and Fielding that ensured the Government's IR Bill was passed, and that the Libs and Nats were snookered by their own politics. The deal was to make the definition of small business, businesses with 15 full time equivalent staff rather than a head count of 15. The number 15 was the important point though for the ALP.

When Turnbull took over the leadership he smartly realised that IR was a loser for the Libs. He gave the shadow IR portfolio to a nobody, and promptly declared Work Choices dead, and that the ALP had won a mandate.

The Peter Costello started talking.

Suddenly with a need to protect his numbers, Costello got all hairy chested and declared he would oppose the Government's IR Bill... or not.. or some of it... or he wouldn't not be unsupporting none of the amendments if they weren't proposed. Heck I don't know. He was all over the shop.

What mattered was the Government wasn't. Their line that the Libs were still in love with WorkChoices was repeated again and again and again and again. And again.

In contrast, Turnbull has been reduced to the most galling of politics - namely base pointless populist crap - stuff like criticising the Government because the stimulus package will go to people in jail if they had filed a tax return last year.

It was bottom of the drawer slime that had nothing to do with economics. Malcolm knew it; and I'm sure he felt pretty grubby afterwards. But hey, he's a big boy; he didn't need to take that line.

The problem is, the ALP - and Julia Gillard in particular - was absolutely killing him on the floor by repeating his statement that WorkChoice was dead and that the ALP had a mandate. It was once again Turnbull being brought undone by his need to say something. He still is not much of a politician - he needs to say things - things that can come back to haunt you. The first lesson in politics is never say something that forces you to do something. By saying the Government had a mandate and that Workchoices was dead, Turnbull was forced to either pass the Govt's IR Bill (and alienate a good number of his MPs) or oppose it and look like a complete hypocrite.

Yesterday in the last QT before the Budget is handed down in May, Turnbull launched into a censure motion against Rudd. Problem was he did it at an odd time, when Rudd was answering a question on the ETS:

Mr RUDD—On the question of emissions trading, when the member for Wentworth was seeking to unseat the member for Bradfield as Leader of the Opposition, he did so on the basis of saying he was going to be green on the question of emissions trading.

The SPEAKER—The Leader of the Opposition on the point of order?

Mr Turnbull—Mr Speaker, I seek leave to move a motion of censure against the Prime Minister.

At this point Anthony Albanese got up and said "You're kidding aren't you?" And then waved his hand as if to suggest, oh, go ahead, your funeral.

And so it was. The government showed Turbull complete contempt and let Albanese respond - he enjoys QT almost as much as Julia - and he tore into Turnbull:

Mr ALBANESE: The only person in this chamber watching when the Leader of the Opposition rose to move his censure motion today was the member for Higgins. He was the only one who was smiling. What we have seen today with this weak censure motion is the last refuge of a dying Leader of the Opposition. We saw the same thing from the member for Bradfield as he was going out the door.

And indeed it may be. You possibly recall Nelson's last attempt to hold onto the leadership - his censure motion, his jam sandwiches plea.

There are only two reason to move a censure motion - you've got the Government on the run and want to force the PM to defend himself or else look like he is running away; or because you are floundering and you need some spotlight.

Turnbull's was the second case.

Now admittedly his speech was pretty good - he is generally a good public speaker. But no one was listening. All that mattered was that under his leadership the polls haven't improved and the party has been forced into voting against getting rid of Work Choices.

Now I still don't think Costello will challenge, because I just think he will only ever lead if the party comes to him on bended knee and in complete subjugation, but Turnbull is still in trouble. My pick is actually for Hockey to get the gig. Costello would be ok with that - he could play the power behind the throne. And besides, Hockey does well on TV (though mostly because he says what he knows the viewers of Sunrise want to hear, regardless of whether it is the truth).

Dennis Shanahan, no fan of Kevin Rudd, summed it up this way:

KEVIN Rudd had the opportunity to put Malcolm Turnbull to the sword yesterday in the last question time before the May federal budget.

It was a chance for the Government to engineer and accelerate a crisis for the Liberal leadership.

If the Prime Minister had the form and instincts of his Labor predecessor, he could have delivered a withering parliamentary riposte to the Leader of the Opposition along the lines of "doing" an embattled Liberal leader slowly.

But Kevin Rudd is not Paul Keating, and after a quick discussion on the floor of parliament, the Labor brains trust decided to treat Turnbull with contempt, to largely ignore him and to deny him relevance.

All points that were not lost on the Coalition MPs, who will limp away to the autumn break knowing the Government has left Turnbull swinging in the breeze.

So the Libs have a loser as leader, not fit to even be bothered with.

The ALP on the other hand, aside from Rudd, have a real winner.

Christian Kerr, a writer I rarely agree with, wrote this morning about Julia Gillard:

Gillard has been milking the politics of workplace relations, and exploiting tensions in the Coalition at every point to create a brilliant illusion that Malcolm Turnbull is afraid of former treasurer Peter Costello and therefore scared to kill off Work Choices.

Today she may pull off the almost perfect compromise - she may keep the magic number of 15 workers as her definition.

The number 15 has become symbolic in the debate. It’s what Labor took to the election and Gillard needs to “win” the right to keep the number. The political dilemma will then fall again to the Coalition, which will have to make a decision to either vote against the bill and be painted as Work Choices addicts, or vote for it and look like they have backed down and been hairy chested about nothing.

If she can pull off a compromise that satisfies the crossbenchers while alienating the Coalition, her reputation as the Government’s best political operative will be guaranteed.

She did, and it is.

The cruel irony of it all is this: here's what Malcolm Turnbull said on AM when interview by Lyndal Curtis last Wednesday:

LYNDAL CURTIS: ... Are you prepared to accept the sort of compromise that Senator Xenophon is putting up, which defines a small business as one with 15 full-time employees, rather than have a higher number that someone like Barnaby Joyce wants of around 40?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, what we've said in the - what the shadow cabinet decided and what we agreed to in the party room - is that we would seek a higher definition. The problem with a 15 head count, and this is an important thing to understand: you can have two businesses; you can have one with 14 full-time employees who all work, you know, a full week, 40 hours a week. On the other hand, you can have a business with 15 or 16 employees, each of whom who works one day or four hours and whose full-time equivalent is much less than 15, much, much less. The second business is regarded as not a small business, the first business is. So there is a problem with the definition.

So last week he was prepared to go with 15 full-time equivalent as the magic number. Instead the party room forced him to go higher - to 25 or at lowest 20, and the Government ended up doing what he was considering.

The Government in the end did what Turnbull thought was right, and yet it comes out the winner, and he the loser. That takes some skill (on both sides).

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