Federal Politics


For a world stager, PM ensures solid numbers

Parliament might still be in recess but there was a lot of politicking going on in Canberra this week, kicking off what looks sure to be a frenetic federal election year.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was popping up all over town and, in addition to naming the Australian of the Year, she made two very significant announcements over the past few days.

One was to do with national security; the other was more concerned with securing the Labor Party's vote.

While seemingly poles apart when it comes to subject matter, the two issues are connected in that they reveal the workings of a Prime Minister who spends one day getting down and dirty with party machinations and the very next day being stateswoman-like and talking global politics.

On Tuesday, Gillard revealed that Olympic gold medallist Nova Peris would be preselected as Labor's No. 1 Senate candidate in the Northern Territory for the next election - whether incumbent Labor senator Trish Crossin likes it or not.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister delivered Australia's first National Security Strategy and outlined her government's priorities to ramp up diplomatic efforts in the region, promote Australia's middle-power status, and vigorously counter cyber espionage attacks.


The PM effortlessly switched from one mode to the other, but there are serious implications to be found in both announcements.

Let's look at them separately.

First to the Olympian.

Peris is a national sporting hero and a campaigner on the plight of indigenous Australians.

She has diverted much of her energy into highlighting health and education issues and she appears to be an independent thinker.

A good choice for a Labor Party that has been embarrassed far too long over its failure to include an indigenous Australian among it federally elected ranks.

But there is something seriously flawed in the way Gillard executed her plan to bring Peris into the Labor fold.

Executed is the right term because, politically speaking, that is exactly what happened to Crossin.

Being a supporter of Kevin Rudd has turned out to be liability for the senator who has served her party in the NT for 15 years.

That can be the only reason Peris has been handed Crossin's seat.

If Gillard wanted to replace a sitting MP in the NT in order to win back some of the Aboriginal vote why not target Warren Snowdon in the lower house seat of Lingiari?

Yes, he is a junior minister, but he certainly hasn't set the world on fire and he would hardly be missed.

Oh wait, he switched camps in the leadership battle and deserted Rudd for Gillard. So there is no way the PM would demand he step aside for Peris - not even in the national interest.

Better still, if Labor thinks preselecting a high-profile indigenous candidate in the NT will improve its vote in the Top End, why not have Peris stand in the seat of Solomon that is currently marginally held by the Coalition.

That would mean Labor would have to actually win a seat from the opposition.

Parachuting Peris into a safe Senate seat instead (and at the expense of a sitting member) suggests Labor doesn't have too much confidence its vote will surge at all.

And there are wider implications in the brutal move.

It is much easier for the PM to remove a sitting MP in a territory than it is to do the same in a big state.

In territories the Labor branches are smaller, there is no huge secretariat wielding all sorts of power, and factions and unions do not come into play nearly as much as they do in places like NSW, Victoria and Western Australia.

In the territories there are only two Senate spots, and only usually one held by Labor.

So the question has to be asked: here in the Australian Capital Territory, is Senator Kate Lundy safe from the PM?

Thanks to the Australian Institute of Sport, numerous high-profile sporting identities have a connection with the ACT.

We are spoilt for choice when it comes to possible celebrity candidates.

Yes, Lundy is also a junior minister but there have already been reports of her leading a dysfunctional office with a revolving staff door.

Could she be a target of Labor's Machiavellian ways, even though she has already been preselected?

Australian National University political lecturer Andrew Hughes believes Lundy should be worried.

"There were a lot of Labor noses put out of joint over Gai Brodtmann's and Andrew Leigh's preselections for the last election. And a lot of them still have ambitions," he said.

"But where I think Lundy should be most worried in the ACT is if Zed Seselja knocks off Gary Humphries for the Liberal Senate preselection.

"It seems obvious that the federal arena is calling Zed and he now has a solid profile. If he does run, someone high up in Labor just might take another look at their candidate."

But hang on - Lundy is a loyal Gillard supporter in the ongoing leadership tensions.

She'll be safe.

Talking about safety, it seems Australia has become an increasing attraction for cyber spies.

Gillard addressed this and other national security issues this week with her speech to the ANU's National Security College on Wednesday and her visit to the Defence Signals Directorate headquarters in Canberra on Thursday.

Cyber threats against Australia are real and are rightly being taken seriously.

Also being treated seriously is Australia's new role on the world stage.

Our region is the priority, but we now have wider responsibilities.

This year marks the beginning of Australia's two-year term as a member of the United Nations Security Council.

The Prime Minister canvassed a number of global issues in her national security speech - terrorism, the nuclear capabilities of Iran and North Korea, Sino-American relations.

As she admitted to this newspaper just before Christmas, Gillard has found her mojo (not her words) in international affairs.

She has become familiar with the issues and she is at ease mixing it up with world leaders (she loves hanging out with Barack Obama).

With Australia's ascension to the Security Council, however, the far corners of the Earth will now be taking more interest in what the Gillard government has to say on a wider range of international affairs.

Take the French-led intervention in Mali for example.

France has taken an admirable role in responding to the emergency of the southward offensive of armed terrorist groups in the West African nation.

The French government was also clear in calling Africa itself to step up and lead this operation.

Australia, as a member of the UN Security Council, will participate in a specially convened conference in Addis Ababa next week, held on the sidelines of the African Union Summit. All parties are hoping for some serious logistical, financial and humanitarian support from Australia.

Mali is not in our backyard, but Australia suddenly has a role to play in the crisis.

And such is the life of a modern-day Australian prime minister.

Domestic party politics and international affairs all wrapped up together.

What this week has shown is that not everything on the PM's diverse agenda is handled as sensitively as it could be.

Chris Johnson is chief political correspondent