Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Senate Watch: Opportunist U-Turn for Fielding

So Steve Fielding is no longer holding the government to ransom. His cave-in over blocking changes to the Medicare surcharge and the alcopops tax is both welcome and instructive. As Brendan Nelson and more recently Malcolm Turnbull discovered, populist politics are a two-edged cliché.

In his own word, Fielding is going to deliver "stability" to help fight the financial crisis. One part of this is right. His obstructionism has been destabilising, crises aside. His search for votes and publicity has been at the expense of good government. His arguments against these measures were hardly compelling reasons for blocking major budgetary items. Plus he has received considerable criticism.

There is no doubt that his compromise with the government over the luxury car tax is little understood. Any real analysis passed me by, as more pressing economic events overwhelmed it. The murky backroom dealing is easy to imagine and may even extend to this latest reversal by Fielding. Who knows what his going rate is at the moment.

I am reminded of another time but a similar issue. I was driving taxis in May 1974. This was an honourable profession for Arts graduates. Recently retired ALP Senator Robert Ray and one time Defence Minister also started this way, as well as spending a short stint as a teacher.

One afternoon I picked up a fare at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in Spring Street, Melbourne and took them to Liberal Party headquarters in South Melbourne. There were three politicians including Tony Staley, the Member for Chisholm. They had just had a meeting with representatives of the private health insurance industry about how to oppose the Medibank double dissolution bill that was one of the triggers for the 1974 election. Receiving their riding instructions so to speak.

Now every cabbie knows that people in suits think that you can’t speak the lingo. Even if you could you’d never understand a conversation about the politics of health insurance. How wrong can they be! Staley and Co. spoke openly for twenty minutes about their likely strategy in the coming weeks.

After my shift finished, I went to my unpaid work at the time, as a campaign volunteer in the ALP office. No doubt there were ethical issues about a cabbie’s confidentiality. It still brings a smile.

Medibank was established after a joint sitting following Gough Whitlam’s re-election. Malcolm Fraser’s government effectively destroyed it as a public, universal health insurance system until it was reinstated as Medicare by the Hawke government.

There are a few morals to this tale. Senator Fielding chose to align himself with not only Coalition obstructionism but also with th big end of town: big booze and the private health insurance industry. They are dangerous bed-fellows. No wonder he has decided to take this opportunity for a somewhat graceful backdown. Need to look up a thesaurus: backdown, flip-flop, reversal, cave-in, retreat, u-turn, back-flip.

For those who know little about double dissolutions and joint sitting of parliament, now may be the right time to fill that gap. The irony for Fielding is that he would only need half the normal proportion to be re-elected in a double dissolution.

Original post at GetUp's Project Democracy

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