Spinning the political wheel

How Australia's minority government is pushing obscure politicians and controversial policies centre-stage.



    Bankstown Sports Club is like the tardis. From the outside, it doesn’t look too much. But step inside and its size and scale opens up.

    The multiple-storey car park is the first clue - so huge it has courtesy golf buggies to take you from parking spot to club entrance. As for the club itself? Well, there is no sport – the name is misleading.

    Instead, bars, restaurants, internal waterfalls, and escalators.  It’s all on a scale I have never seen before outside of Las Vegas.  And like the casinos in that neon city, Bankstown Sports Club has gambling machines. Row upon row of them.

    These are Australia’s 'pokies'.

    Without the pokies, the club's managers claim, there would be no club. That's quite easy to believe. As well as making big profits for the 'pokie industry' – and generating important tax revenues for New South Wales’ government – the games machines subsidise all other club activities.

    Threaten them, as, it is claimed, Australia’s government is doing, and you threaten clubs right across Australia.

    You risk ripping the social heart out of communities.

    But this is only Australian government policy because of the nature of Australia’s minority government.

    I was in Bankstown Sports Club for a 'pokie'-reform debate. The audience was overwhelmingly against the proposals. Those on stage were a mixture of anti-reform campaigners and local Labor MPs, two of them also government ministers.

    On stage, the MPs were squirming. It may have been the hostile crowd, but it may also have been an indication that the MPs’ hearts weren’t in their own reforms.

    Here’s why.

    Twelve months ago, Australia was in the middle of a political drama that, from the inconclusive election to the eventual formation of Julia Gillard’s minority government, lasted more than three weeks.

    At the time, those three weeks seemed like a very long time. A year on, and it’s now clear they were merely Act One.

    The consequences of those three weeks play out every single day. By ousting Kevin Rudd, and then making the fateful decision to seek her own mandate, Julia Gillard threw away a solid Labor majority.

    In its place, she now leads a government which is dependent on its every member for survival: if a single MP were to defect, or be defeated - any one of the seventy-two Labor MPs or one of the four crossbenchers who support it - the government could fall.

    It means the most trifling of scandals, the most inconsequential of backbench MPs, and the most obscure of policies are now centre-stage in Canberra.

    Take Craig Thomson: Labor MP for Dobell and, if he’s to be believed, the victim of a serious case of identity theft. 

    Before he was an MP, as boss of a trade union, Mr Thomson's work credit card was used at a Melbourne brothel and his work phone was used to make calls to it. 

    Mr Thomson denies he used the card. Someone forged his signature he says.

    Ordinarily, however embarrassing for Mr Thomson personally, the story would be of one of titillation rather than of consequence. Even if Mr Thomson were shown to have lied, even if he were eventually accused or convicted of something criminal, the consequences – while profound for him personally – wouldn’t matter too much for his party, let alone the government. 

    But with a majority of just one, the government’s fate is intrinsically linked with Mr Thomson’s.  If he were he to resign as an MP, it would trigger a by-election the opposition Liberal candidate would likely win. In other words, if Mr Thomson were to fall, so would – in all likelihood – the government.

    To say that Mr Thomson matters, then, is an understatement. His predicament is proving a major distraction to the Prime Minister and her government.

    But Craig Thomson isn’t the only MP getting more than his ‘fair’ share of attention. The independent MPs who, this time last year, Julia Gillard won over to remain in power, drove hard bargains.

    That a Greens MP backs the government meant the proposed carbon tax will be set at a level that actually has bite. Perhaps too much bite - the carbon tax is deeply divisive and is a major cause of Labor’s poor polling.

    But the independents’ power is most clearly illustrated by the 'pokie' reform. The pet project of independent Andrew Wilkie, this is a divisive policy that simply would not be on the agenda were Australia’s government not a minority one. An unusual spin of the political wheel is what has put it centre stage.



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