When slim pickings make for slim margins
As Labor MPs gloomily ponder the implosion of the minority government, they are probably correct to speculate that the timing of the scandal surrounding Peter Slipper was instigated by the Liberals with the specific objective of burying the budget.
There's no evidence for this assumption but many of them know - but don't like to acknowledge - that the decision to draft Slippery Pete into the speaker's position was a sleazy affair.
At the time of Slipper's defection, Labor MPs heard scuttlebutt that angry Liberals were intent on dredging dirt to use against him, and in turn, against Labor. It wasn't a matter of finding the dirt - there have been plenty of rumours swirling around the eccentric Queensland MP - but whether it could be fashioned for use against Julia Gillard.
The end result is spectacular - a rolling series of ''leaks'' against Slipper and, by association, the government. Whether it was orchestrated by Liberal operatives or not, the political fall-out cannot be underestimated, despite Labor's belief that Slipper might have been set up on the alleged sexual harassment.
Labor MPs claim the male staffer bringing the charge was not seen to reject Slipper in the text messages made public in court documents. On the alleged fraud of cab dockets, they are less forthcoming.
What they do know is that after the body blow of the Queensland election rout, the Slipper scandal is just too much for voters to tolerate. For now, Labor's margin in the House is safe when Parliament returns in less than two weeks. But Slipper's installation was designed to double the margin - from one to two - in case Craig Thomson has to resign.
Slipper denies all allegations. While stood aside, however, he cannot vote and Labor's deputy speaker, Anna Burke, takes the chair. That returns Labor to the precarious situation of a one-vote majority and continuing worry about Thomson's future. Reverting from a majority of two to one might not seem such a big deal, but it has powerful symbolism. It is a return to a precarious and uncertain situation for Labor, with Thomson's future remaining under a cloud.
The uncertainty surrounding the union-official-turned-Labor MP deepened with the revelation on Thursday that his lawyers are now anxious about the release of the report from Fair Work Australia into alleged misuse of funds by officials and former officials of the Health Services Union. Thomson had earlier indicated he welcomed the release of the report.
The Director of Public Prosecutions says it can't use the report but a Senate committee asked for a copy, with the objective of tabling it in Parliament and thereby making the contents public.
Thomson denies all allegations but Labor MPs are deeply worried, not just about the implications of charges being laid, but about the sleaziness of the allegations involving use of a union credit card for prostitutes.
The government's rare intervention to have an administrator appointed to the HSU is a clue as to how much the government really believes it is suffering by association from the infighting infecting that union. The Opposition's predictable take is that this court action to sort out the union stands in stark contrast to Labor's inability to sort out the mess at the heart of the ''dysfunctional government''.
The new developments on Thomson and Slipper are double blows for Julia Gillard, returning to Australia after delivering a beautifully crafted speech at Gallipoli.
What really concerns many Labor MPs is how Gillard will fare out of the grubby scandal surrounding Slipper. This is the bottom line of all their anxious deliberations.
Tony Abbott was - and remains - incendiary that Slipper, a Liberal ''rat'', made Gillard look good, as a masterful tactician who hatched an audacious plan to increase her parliamentary majority. Who knows what is said between Slipper and Abbott as they attend (almost) daily morning Mass when Parliament is sitting?
Now Abbott's principal focus is ensuring the entire Slipper episode is seen through the prism of Gillard's judgment. He would love to move a motion of no confidence in the government. It is in the Independents' interests to prop up the government, however, and if they did that, the motion would revert to one of confidence in the government.
Some Labor strategists think Abbott would not risk this turnaround, on the first day of Parliament for the budget sitting. But every other day Abbott moves motions criticising the government, knowing they will be defeated.
What's important to him is firing off his rhetoric and hoping the power of his outrage is captured on the all-important television news bulletins and sways (even) more voters to his side.
The irony of the Slipper saga is that he is a good Speaker. At the time of his promotion, he was facing the loss of Liberal Party pre-selection for his Queensland seat. He had nothing to lose and a lot to gain by ditching his ''friends'' in the Liberal Party and giving the government the extra parliamentary margin. His Liberal colleagues were angry at - and astonished by - Gillard's spunk.
As the first truly independent speaker, he has taken no prisoners in his quest to maintain order. Never mind that the nation laughed at his ever more outlandish styles of neckwear and giggled as he re-introduced a procession that looks funereal. The government was happy for him to do whatever he wanted, so long as he delivered the security blanket of the wider margin.
The stark reality for Gillard is that she cannot control Slipper's private life. But a more thorough due diligence exercise could have excluded him from being promoted by Labor in the first place to the prestigious position.
The stand-off continued yesterday, despite the release by Slipper of cabcharge vouchers. He says they were completed in his handwriting and therefore disprove the criminal allegations against him. Government frontbencher Anthony Albanese agrees the dockets show the criminal allegation is a fabrication.
Previously Slipper said he would return to the chair after the fraud charges were dispensed with. If that occurs next week, he would take the chair when Parliament resumes on Tuesday week for the budget - and throw Parliament into chaos. The government is happy for him to be back in the chair if only the sexual harassment allegations are hanging over him. It would create a precedent for him to stand aside for a civil matter, Gillard says.
But Slipper resuming the chair early will be a disaster for the government (which is supposed to be in control) because of the likelihood of a motion of no confidence in Slipper, moved by Abbott or Tony Windsor.
This would be an untenable situation for Gillard, and the Opposition would loudly demand an early election.
The Slipper row is already badly hurting Labor and will become more damaging if, as appears likely, it takes the gloss off the budget.
Ross Peake is Political Editor