Clive Palmer from Palmer United Party speaks, right, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
'I want to give a clear commitment no matter what result is delivered - there will be no minority government under the Coalition. We will not do any deals with independents and the Greens.'' Sample stock campaign promise by Tony Abbott, September 6.
At what stage will Abbott's probably necessary and reasonable concession to demands from the new Palmer United Party team - which now involves a Victorian senator for the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party - amount to a ''lie?'' Not a lie in strict term, but in the sense defined by Abbott over Julia Gillard's promise that under her there would be no carbon tax.
When Gillard made that promise before the 2010 election, she probably meant what she said. She was proposing an emissions trading scheme, something for which Labor had claim to have a mandate from 2007. The Coalition had made a similar promise, until Abbott decided against it in late 2009. The Greens had wanted action on climate change, but, thinking the Rudd ETS proposal too infused with compromise, voted against it.
But in 2010 Gillard did not receive a majority, or mandate on an ETS, from voters. Nor did the Coalition on its alternative, whatever that was. Power in the House of Representatives from 2010 turned on securing the support of at least four of six members who were either independent or Greens, and the price of that support was support for action on climate change through a carbon tax.
From Gillard's point of view such a deal was reasonable, the more so given that it was arguable that the carbon tax or levy thus in prospect was implied under the measures she had always been proposing. And it did what she had always promised: take action on climate change.
Abbott's failure to get the support of independents was not because he refused to have anything to do with carbon taxes. It didn't get to that. Talks, such as they were, foundered on trust and the unwillingness of the independents to believe that Abbott would, or could, deliver on anything in prospect.
When Gillard made the deal she was immediately denounced for her ''lie''. She had promised she wouldn't do it, and now she was doing it. Abbott and the opposition hammered the point, repeatedly, over three years. So, too, did the shockjocks and a hysterical populist brigade who came to believe, in effect, that ''Ju-liar'' was in power only because of a fundamental breach of faith with electors. Abbott fed the notion that Gillard's breach of faith deprived her of legitimacy and authority - even the right to the dignity of her job.
Gillard and an enormous Labor propaganda machine decided, for reasons of their own never properly explained, not to address the criticism. Perhaps they thought that, ignored, it would eventually go away. If so, it was with a pattern of so much of their ''communications'' strategy and tactics, and Gillard deserves little sympathy, let alone efforts to find excuses or explanations she herself could not be bothered to make.
But the years of attrition on the ''liar'' gibe have at least the advantage for modern Labor of having Abbott fixed on the record about the impossibility and illegitimacy of ever abandoning a campaign promise, particularly one that he repeated over and over during the campaign. If Abbott makes deals with independents or minor parties, he will be a liar. His vow goes well beyond an undertaking not to form a minority government. It includes making working arrangements with any grouping designed to secure practical ongoing support.
Abbott is entitled to argue that the public statements, or backgrounds, of people like Clive Palmer, or some of the micro-party senators, allow him to expect that he will have their practical support on critical ''mandate'' questions such as over carbon taxes. And merely listening to, perhaps even occasionally being persuaded by, representations and suggested amendments from Palmer, the AMEP or the libertarian party would not be considered a breach of the promise.
But it seems clear that Abbott was foreclosing any idea of working ''arrangements'' or ''deals'' with independents and minor parties. Arrangements that involved trading extra electoral staff or entitlements for support. Arrangements that the Coalition would support some pet legislation in exchange for votes on separate legislation. Bending down to blackmail of the Brian Harradine sort, whereby a state or pet cause was lavished with funds in exchange for a vote on a particular issue. Trading and dealing in favours. By Abbott's own stretched definition - as used with fervour and passion during the demolition of Gillard - he will be a liar if he does anything like that.
But he will be a fool if he doesn't. It is by no means unusual for small groupings of independents or others with a knee across the throat of a government to demand extra staff or perks, some quid pro quo for their electorates, or particular constituencies or hobby horses. It is of the very essence of politics and of political effectiveness that one compromises, weighs and measures costs and benefits and, at least occasionally, does deals.
There usually is the world of difference between making such arrangements and engaging in bribery and corruption, although the difference is not always completely clear-cut. Or as Abbott might put it, there's a certain amount of ''grey area''. What is one, for example, to think of Harradine using his power, whenever his vote was critical, to extract from John Howard a promise that no foreign aid grants would directly or indirectly subsidise the promotion of family planning?
Depending on where one stands on such matters, this is an outrageous imposition on public policy and a veritable prostitution of good government. By another's viewpoint, it is a perfect example of how an individual in the right place can achieve righteous outcomes.
Even moral absolutists sometimes have difficulties avoiding relativism in discussing the question. What is pure and what is impure seems to change over time. Thus the British government in the 18th century would reward its followers with appointments, honours and sinecures. This is now thought corrupt. Abraham Lincoln's agents, as the excellent movie Lincoln recently showed, offered threats, bribes and jobs in exchange for votes in Congress: it was, put simply, a part of the price of ''doing business'' there. Indeed, the greater part of the action in US politics consisted of putting one's friends, relatives and supporters in patronage jobs whenever one got power.
Gillard's deals with independents and the Greens were no more or less pragmatic than deals by Howard with non-government senators. Indeed, Howard's deal with Mal Colston - making him deputy president of the Senate in exchange for treachery to Labor - was much riper than most, trading directly in personal favours and emoluments.
Clive Palmer wants to have Abbott over a barrel. And he wants to have it said that Abbott ''surrendered'' to him - whether over extra staff and resources, promising support for some pet Palmer, or AMEP, idea, or, perhaps by doing something that a cynic might think would be helpful to Palmer's business interests.
Palmer knows his politics, knows all about the exercise of power, and knows the value of appearances as much as realities. When he threatens blanket opposition to Abbott's policies and programs - even measures he supports, such as blocking the carbon price - he is as much focused on having Abbott kowtow as on actually getting some help in dealing with his group's legislative responsibilities. And if he wins in some arm-twisting competition, lobbyists and others will flock to his standard.
At this stage no one even knows for sure just how much power Palmer actually has. It is not even certain that Palmer himself has a seat in the House of Representatives, though it appears so. There is a Senate recount in Western Australia which could easily see him losing a senator. We do not yet know what arrangements he has made with the AMEP, or whether or for how long it will stick. Nor do we know whether he can, in practice, bind the PUP senators (whether two or three) to his will. That is more a matter of their personality, backbone and attitude to Palmer (which could, of course, vary over time) than it is a matter of strict law or contract.
He certainly has no legal hold on their votes or position. They do not lose their seats if they defy him; they can simply sit as independents, voting as they like. If they resign, Palmer (or in the case of Ricky Muir of the AMEP, the party, such as it is) may decide the replacement, but even then the power of a party to bind or direct a member is limited. Indeed, making threats of revenge for how a member votes is a serious breach of parliamentary privilege. Obviously both Labor and Coalition parties reward and punish members for obedience, absolute or general, but there are ways of doing it that do not cross into open breach of privilege. Consider, for example, the way that Labor treats someone it regards as a ''rat'' - such as Mal Colston.
Palmer also has an interest in having Abbott cave, and being seen to cave, as soon as possible. But, even assuming Palmer enters the House of Representatives immediately, Abbott has no current need for his vote. New senators take up their seats only from August and Abbott himself has no idea of where his government will be then. It is assumed that Labor and the Greens will use their short-term combined Senate majority (until June 30) to block abolition of the carbon tax, although it is said that the Greens will allow passage of paid parental leave legislation.
Palmer, in short, is negotiating about future favours from his side - in exchange for things to be delivered by Abbott now. But in exchange for loyalty over what?
Abbott thus might think he has the time and space to temporise, prevaricate, dissemble and do nothing - certainly nothing that will lead to accusation of his being a liar. But Palmer's own arrogance, bluster, dissembling and prevarication - and his own keen understanding of where his interests lie - make a showdown likely to be more sooner or later. Especially, if at the end Abbott needs some room to manoeuvre, given the way that Palmer has some reputation for conflict, negotiation with a gun in hand and refusing to cede ground.
The deals - if they are made - will, of course, be clear lies, at least by Abbott's old definition. They will thus be different from his recent lies by implication - about transparency (over boat people), higher political standards (over expenses) and relations with other countries (where Abbott now seems to candidly admit massively exaggeration and misstatement for domestic political purposes last year). The public notices those, too, but may not be so judgmental.
Labor should not, of course, get its hopes up just because Abbott will be seen, again, as a person of little personal credit. Its own stocks of credit are deplorably low. It did not lose office because anyone believed Abbott and now feels betrayed. It lost office because the public could no longer bear to listen to Labor any more. Whether it was peddling truth, lies or, meaningless gabble and spin.
Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large.