Parliament resumes this week, although only the House of Representatives is sitting. The Senate is not sitting, but a range of Senate Committees are engaging in additional Estimates hearings. I expect the focus on economic management and the current pressures on the economy will continue. No doubt Brian Burke’s extraordinary capacity to keep making life difficult for politicians will also come into focus as well.
Also catching attention is the latest offering from the ABC’s 4 Corners, which features a range of senior Liberal MPs all seeking to retrospectively put on the record what they think should have been done to avoid last year’s election defeat. Such internal ‘history wars’ are not uncommon in political parties that suffer electoral setbacks, and are probably mainly of interest to the protagonists themselves and to the minority of people who follow party politics.
However, there is one facet of the Liberal Party’s blame game which should be of interest to everyone, and that is the report that Joe Hockey, the Minister formerly responsible for workplace relations, suggests “most Cabinet ministers in the former Howard government did not realise that workers could be worse off under Work Choices.”
This is a prime example of how the Coalition winning control of the Senate at the 2004 election turned out to be a curse for them, rather than a blessing. It is precisely those sorts of badly thought through, ideologically or politically driven decisions which ignored reality that previously used to be detected by properly functioning and diligent Senate Committees. The Coalition’s refusal to allow proper examination of Work Choices by a Senate Committee meant the Cabinet’s ignorance about what they were doing ended up being shared by many of their backbench.
I appreciate that Mr Hockey has some self-interest in making such a claim, as he could be seen as having to bear some responsibility for the widespread public dissatisfaction with Work Choices. Personally, I find it hard to believe that all but a very small number of Cabinet Ministers would not have been aware of this fundamental fact. The inability to credibly claim that ‘no worker would be worse off’ was a key part of how Work Choices differed from the workplace laws that had been in place for the preceding decade.
However, even taking some poetic licence from Joe Hockey into account, it is an example of just how blasé politicians can become about the real world impact of the decisions the take, particularly after a long time in government. I don’t know how many Cabinet Ministers had fallen into a mindset where they basically just accepted the word of the Prime Minister and a few other senior ministers, without getting across even the basic detail of what they were agreeing to. But I have no doubt that quite a number (although by no means all) of the Coalition backbenchers had adopted that approach of just accepting the propaganda and spin coming out of the relevant Minster’s office and parroting it back to the Parliament, the media and the community.
I saw this occur not only on Work Choices, but also on many other major issues such as the so-called Welfare to Work measures, the propaganda driven defence of the Northern Territory intervention and the flagrantly misleading justifications for the brutalisation of refugees.
It is always a dispiriting feeling to be engaging in debate on an important piece of legislation in the Senate when the realisation hits you that the person you are debating doesn’t really have the first idea what they are talking about, and even worse doesn’t care. It’s not a matter of who is right and who is wrong – it is when things degrade to such an extent that there is no longer any interest in the facts, only the spin and the talking points. It doesn’t happen everyday, but when it does, it is a less than uplifting experience.
Those who are worse off as result of Work Choices (or other measures like Welfare to Work) will not feel any better to know that so many of the people who made the decision to adopt the measures which caused them hardship didn’t even bother to understand what they were doing.