Federal Politics

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Shades of Whitlam era in all this babble

JULIA Gillard was blunt. When Peter Slipper's alleged behaviour has the community's hair standing on end, the PM cut to the core. ''Having Mr Slipper be Speaker has enabled the government to do some important things on behalf of Australian families,'' she declared. In other words, Slipper has strengthened the government's numbers. Never mind the means. Think of the end.

But the public judges on wider criteria, especially when things go wrong, as they have - in most spectacular fashion.

The government has entered a sort of no man's land. The atmosphere is reminiscent of those weeks in 1975, under the Whitlam government, when no one was sure of what would happen. The circumstances are different but the air of uncertainty is similar because, with the hung Parliament, nothing can be taken for granted.

The government can't be sure of the outcome of the probe into allegations of criminal conduct by Slipper (indeed it has been confused even about the process for examining them). If he's cleared, will the crossbenchers accept his return to the chair before the sexual harassment issue is finalised?

What might the opposition try on budget day? How can the government get its budget messages out against this babble, if things can't be calmed beforehand? Will any crossbench nerves eventually crack, specifically those of Andrew Wilkie, who is meanwhile using the situation to twist the government's arm on gambling?

If Labor reached the point that it had to rely on a casting vote of an acting Speaker to survive, the community calls for an election would become deafening.

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