Brown study, n, a mood of deep absorption or thoughtfulness; reverie
A well-known political figure asked me the other day, as I had lived through the McMahon government and been defeated at the end of it, if it was worse than Gillard’s. It is a close run thing, but I think the present administration has it by a length. For instance, McMahon would not have engaged in the ham-fisted exercise we have recently witnessed of Ms Gillard trying to organise a cabinet purge. McMahon would never have got into that position with his cabinet colleagues because he could never remember their names. But Ms Gillard had no trouble in turning a comparatively small exercise into a major political disaster.
Now that the dust has settled, some of its more bizarre aspects have come into focus. Most of the media commentary has been on the demotion of Kim Carr from the cabinet to the outer darkness of the ministry, the argument against his sacking being that he had done a good job and that it was unfair to demote him and particularly silly to do so if, as a consolation prize, he was given largely the same portfolio he had before he was pushed. Ms Gillard did all of this and has been roundly criticised for it, more in sorrow than anger, I suspect, as it shows that despite her reputation as a skilled negotiator, she has almost no political nouse. I agree with this criticism. But there was another demotion that was even more foolish and will have far more lasting consequences. That was the removal of Robert McClelland from the office of Attorney-General and his appointment as …well, as minister for some other things we will look at shortly. But his sacking was a particularly bad move.
First, he was a good Attorney-General who seemed to be doing his job. He stayed out of trouble, did his bit in hunting terrorists, took the first tentative steps towards making Australia a centre of commercial arbitration, made some good appointments of judges and wisely abandoned the notion of having a bill of rights, thus saving the government from criticism that its only interest is in legislating for Australian Greens ratbaggery (which of course it is). He did not waste billions on the NBN hobby like Conroy, burn down any houses or electrocute any workers like Garrett or destroy an export industry like the obscenely incompetent Ludwig. And he chalked up a commendable first on the ministerial honours board, admitting at an arbitration conference I attended that he did not know much about the subject and we would have to make do with answers prepared by his department; would that other ministers were so refreshingly honest. So, the case for sacking him was always decidedly weak and there was nothing for Gillard to gain by doing it.
Yet, inexplicably, she did.
Second, when McClelland stood his ground, refused to go to the outer ministry and threatened to resign from the Parliament and cause a by-election, Gillard gave in, kept him in the cabinet and gave him a new job. Churchill was right when he said that a Prime Minister has to be a good butcher, and Ms Gillard has shown by this vacillating and backtracking that she certainly is not that.
Third, the way she treated McClelland has at a stroke lost Gillard the support of a senior minister who will now vote for Rudd in the inevitable leadership showdown. He had already been humiliated by Rudd when opposition spokesman for foreign affairs, and Rudd would not appoint him as the minister after the 2007 election. That drove him into the anti-Rudd camp in the first place. So it took a particular kind of skill to force him to switch sides and add to Rudd’s apparently growing numbers. But that is one particular skill that Ms Gillard has shown she has in spades.
Now we are up to six disenchanted ministers, all smarting because they were asked to resign, forced to resign or relegated to jobs not in keeping with their hitherto exalted status. To lose one cabinet supporter may be regarded as bad luck or bad judgment; to lose two looks like carelessness; but to lose six is bordering on the kamikaze.
In McClelland’s case, the final humiliation was his appointment to the bizarre conglomeration of minister for housing, homelessness and emergency management. This trio is now a talisman for an obviously failing government and the wits have already noted, or at least I have noted, that it was a matter of urgent emergency management in itself that McClelland had to be housed somewhere and was definitely homeless.
Finally, the reverberations from the McClelland sacking will be felt throughout 2012. His replacement is Nicola Roxon. Let me make a long-term prediction. The great trap for Attorneys-General is to try to reform the law and as Ms Roxon is a proven zealot she will fall straight into it. She has already announced that we are to have another tranche of human rights legislation foisted upon us. She also promises to ‘reignite’ the debate on the republic and ‘freshen up’ the promotion of human rights. These projects always sound good, but invariably lead to community concern that all they produce is a victim mentality, severe restrictions on the rights of others and another bill for taxpayers who are expected to pay every time there is some freshening up required for the causes of progressive elites. These so-called reforms frighten the horses in an era when people have had enough radical change and just want stability. Expect big trouble here, and it will all have flowed from the demotion of Robert McClelland. In politics, 2012 will be the year of living turbulently.