Date: April 30 2012
The ''decisive'' interventions yesterday by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, about Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, might serve as a perfect example of why she is the despair of most of those inclined to support Labor and a positive asset for those who cannot wait to see a Labor government replaced. It is, as it so often is with Ms Gillard, a matter of suspect judgment, a tin ear for public opinion and poor reflexes and timing. This is evident not so much over the important or most central issue of the Thomson and Slipper scandals, but about almost every subsidiary aspect of them. Yet again she will be seen to have failed to provide leadership of any sort, until it was too late.
She was responding to a deepening feeling among voters that some of our parliamentarians have been engaged in grubby and possibly illegal behaviour, made worse by arrogance and abuse of privileges. This ''dark cloud'' - as Ms Gillard called it - does not hang only over the two politicians currently under attack. There are ample others. Indeed, because of the inaction by political leaders and Parliament as an institution, the cloud shadows everyone in Parliament, perhaps in politics. Popular dismay is, of course, much aggravated by obvious arrogance, complacency, corruption, patronage and greed in state politics and in extra-parliamentary political organisations, including the industrial Labor movement. Public cynicism is by no means focused only at Labor - though it is, at the moment, the stronger with Labor precisely because Labor is in government at federal level, and thus in a better position to abuse power. But Labor has also invited it by complacency, inaction, inertia or paralysis of will by party leaders, and by a strengthening feel that for some of its leaders expediency and pragmatism are always more important than principle, or appearance. Ms Gillard is, of course, perfectly right to argue that Mr Thomson and Mr Slipper have strongly denied allegations - criminal and civil - made against them, and are entitled to be regarded as innocent until the contrary is proven. She is also right to say that there is no clear line showing which allegations virtually demand that a person stand aside pending resolution of adverse allegations, and when they should not. As we commented last week there would be a serious problem and real risk of mischief were the rule to be that a person should stand aside simply because an allegation had been made. It has been convenient for Labor to insist on the complete primacy of this principle whenever they have been asked. Now, however, she recognises that this principle, important as it is, must be balanced against other considerations, such as public opinion and perceptions, and the nature and weight of allegations. The public tends to dismiss her tender concern for rights because it has been so convenient - as with unconscionable delay with a proper investigation of Thomson and his union, and with the seduction of Mr Slipper into the Speakership. Many voters will judge that Ms Gillard's survival instincts overwhelmed her moral judgment.
She's not the first prime minister to mess up in this regard - there have been any number of similar leadership lapses, including relatively recent ones, on the other side of politics. But she has seemed especially maladroit, perhaps particularly compared with John Howard, in recognising how quick the public is to judge and the need for fast footwork so as to be seen to be leading, or recognising public opinion. With Ms Gillard instead there have been stout denials of a problem, claims of a line in the sand, then mini-retreats and new lines leading to a number of surrenders, and the suspicion that yesterday's will not be the last. Each retreat, forced as it is, occurs long after the public will forgive, or gives credit at least for frank admission of error. The abandonment of the powerful eastern branch of the Health Services Union, which took place last week, should have occurred long ago. The union has long been a cancer in Labor, and it is not the only one. Cynics suspect that slowness to act reflected indulgence to mates (ones far more important to Mr Thomson) and the political powerbase of Bill Shorten and many NSW Right figures. Mr Thomson himself should have been sent to the cross-benches long ago. He would presumably have remained a reliable vote (as he now says he will be),but been deniable if necessary, not condemned if not.
Mr Slipper has now seen the wisdom of standing aside until all matters are resolved: perhaps he is as much a prisoner of a Faustian bargain as Ms Gillard is. Either way, she has seemed slow and weak, out of touch with the public and conventional morality, responding rather than leading, and less than the national leader the nation wants and expects. It is by no means clear that Tony Abbott's instincts are better; it is hard to imagine their being worse.
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