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Yesterday I noted the mishandling of the Ashby case by Attorney General Roxon and the apparent misleading of Parliament ( a serious matter) in her responses there. Today’s media has pursued this (and associated) issues and Gillard has been forced to express (in India) “absolute confidence” in her minister, just as she did with Craig Thomson before forcing him to move to the cross benches. Importantly, however, the AFR article below indicates that there is considerable dissatisfaction in Labor Caucus with the handling of not only the Ashby case but the failure to meet apparent promises made to Slipper to “look after” him.

Developments on this matter have adverse implications for the continuation of Gillard’s leadership and those are reinforced by other developments. The report in The Australian that Victorian police are assessing new information relevant to Gillard’s behaviour in the 1990s will add to pressure for her to make a public statement. Thomson’s continued denials of any wrongdoing, and the rejection of this by the FWA, cannot be helpful even though they are coming from the back-bench.

Additionally, Gillard has continued to publicly decry Abbott’s meeting with Yudhoyono even though she apparently has no knowledge of the content of the meeting. Abbott has responded in two ways – directly and through an article on Gillard’s negative campaigning by his parliamentary secretary, Arthur Sinodinos.

Finally, I draw your attention to the article by Nike Savva on Treasurer Swan. This is the first public attempt at looking behind the man that I have seen. It is revealing.

Des Moore

Roxon’s Ashby call stokes Labor ire

AFR: 18 Oct 2012, Marcus Priest and Hannah Low

Julia Gillard and Nicola Roxon

Deep divisions have emerged in the federal government over the handling of the sexual harassment case against former speaker Peter Slipper, and there has been strong internal criticism of the role of Attorney-General Nicola Roxon.

It is understood senior government figures were heavily involved in the strategy of running the defence to the case brought by James Ashby, and when the decision was taken in June to try to have the case thrown out as an abuse of process, there were strongly opposing views within government.

But following the settlement of the Ashby claim, criticism is being levelled at Ms Roxon for settling the case on behalf of the government and leaving Mr Slipper to defend sexual harassment allegations on his own. It is understood senior cabinet ministers are concerned Mr Slipper was “hung out to dry” after commitments were made to look after him.

After Mr Ashby settled, it is understood the cabinet secretary, Victorian MP Mark Dreyfus, QC, was a key player in trying to secure new legal representation for Mr Slipper, who was unable to pay his existing lawyers. At the mediation that followed the settlement, Mr Slipper was represented by Trish Kavanagh, the wife of former Labor power broker Laurie Brereton.

Then, at a Federal Court hearing two weeks ago, Melbourne silk and counsel for the Commonwealth Julian Burnside sought – at the request of Ms Roxon – to appear as “amicus curiae’’.

“This is one of the 10 greatest stuff-ups I have ever seen,” one senior Labor powerbroker said.

Another Labor source said: “I can’t tell you how most of the [party] caucus feel about it, it’s insane.”

On Tuesday night in Senate estimates, it emerged Ms Roxon had been involved in instructing government solicitors at key points in the litigation, including two meetings before the Commonwealth made an “abuse of process” application in June and on September 27 when Mr Ashby accepted the $50,000 Commonwealth offer.

The revelation was seized on by Coalition legal spokesman George Brandis to claim Commonwealth applications to have the sexual harassment claim thrown out and use text messages and emails for the “purposes of the employment relationship” were brought for an improper purpose to pressure Mr Ashby to drop his case and threaten him with dismissal.

“Your claim against Ashby was that he was being vexatious but . . . both of the Commonwealth’s applications were themselves bordering on the vexatious. The first of them had absolutely no prospect of success,” he said.

“If there is deep political involvement in this case, the deep political involvement was to use every device at the Commonwealth’s disposal, with its almost bottomless resources and in callous disregard of the model litigant rules, and protect the Attorney-General’s position.”

This claim was rejected by the secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Roger Wilkins, and by the chief executive of the Australian Government Solicitor, Ian Govey, who said he was confident the case had been conducted with the “utmost professional diligence”.

Mr Wilkins said: “I don’t think that is a fair thing to say to a range of officials who have been involved in this, who have been working as professional public servants. You are basically implying we are all part of some political conspiracy. I don’t think it is true at all. It was based on advice from AGS and advice from senior counsel.”

Senator Brandis also said the Commonwealth’s application to have the case thrown out in June was inconsistent with its decision in September to settle.

But Mr Wilkins said the Commonwealth had argued that Mr Ashby’s case was an abuse of process because it had been brought for an improper purpose, not that it was hopeless. It is a different legal test for the latter. “The contention was that the proceedings were brought for an improper or collateral purpose. It was never alleged by the Commonwealth that the claim was hopeless,” Mr Wilkins said.

About 17 AGS lawyers worked on the case in the past six months, although Mr Govey said only three primarily had conduct of the matter. The case cost the Commonwealth about $750,000 in legal fees.

In September, Mr Slipper’s solicitors, Maurice Blackburn, stopped acting after the former speaker incurred more than $300,000 in legal fees and was unable to pay the bills. Mr Slipper did not fit its strict criteria to provide pro bono legal services. But a hastily negotiated and unusual fee arrangement was negotiated with counsel ahead of the first hearing in an attempt to keep costs down. Solicitors involved were not fired by Mr Slipper, nor did they stop acting because they considered his case hopeless.

Discussions around funding options ultimately failed and, with the law firm likely to be hundreds of thousands out of pocket, a decision was made that it could no longer act. Mr Slipper has paid only a small portion of his legal costs.

Despite having been an MP for many years, Mr Slipper, it is understood, had little liquidity and was contemplating the prospect of selling property to fund the case brought against him by Mr Ashby.

By early October the government and Mr Slipper had spent more than $1 million in costs between them, and the case was not even close to trial. Mr Slipper would be likely to incur at least another $500,000 to run the matter to trial, if he still had lawyers briefed.It is estimated Mr Ashby’s legal team has spent about $1 million since the case was brought in April, funded by Michael Harmer of Harmers Workplace Lawyers, who has said he believes there is a public interest in the case.

The Australian Financial Review

Roxon should be above the fray

Editorial: The Australian, October 18, 012

AS a Labor minister, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon obviously wanted to protect the federal government from further embarrassment when she moved to "strike out" or permanently stay James Ashby's claims of sexual harassment against former Speaker Peter Slipper without a hearing. As Australia's first legal officer, however, Ms Roxon would have done better to remain aloof and allow the legal process to take its course.

The revelation before a Senate estimates committee on Tuesday night that Ms Roxon sought to permanently stay Mr Ashby's claim four days after she was briefed on lurid text messages between Mr Slipper and Mr Ashby suggested that her action was highly political. That impression was compounded by the fact that Ms Roxon also sought to use the sexually explicit texts to sack Mr Ashby. And her credibility has been further damaged because she has been caught out badly over her claim at a press conference on June 15 that: "We aren't bringing a strikeout application; Mr Slipper is."

Nor is it clear why Ms Roxon's department needed 17 lawyers, at a cost of nearly $750,000, as well as Julian Burnside QC, who was paid $4800 a day, to work on a relatively straightforward case that ended with Mr Ashby being paid $50,000 in damages by the commonwealth to settle his claim of sexual harassment against Mr Slipper. The opposition claims the aim was to ensure the case, with its embarrassing text messages that were later leaked, never saw the light of day. If Ms Roxon has a better explanation she should make it.

With such a bevy of lawyers, it was extraordinary, as opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis noted, that the commonwealth sought to strike out the case when it had not analysed all the text messages at its heart. The government ended up with the worst of both worlds. Having viewed the "bulk" of the texts it decided to seek no hearing for Mr Ashby. But it took such a momentous decision without seeing "all" the texts - hardly a shining example of procedural fairness.

And Mr Ashby still has his civil case against Mr Slipper.

Ms Roxon has done her high office and her reputation no favours by becoming mired in the messy legal fallout of Mr Slipper's ghastly text messages that fit the definition of "misogyny" in any dictionary.

PM 'absolutely' backs Roxon in Ashby case

Milanda Rout, The Australian, October 18, 2012

JULIA Gillard has expressed full confidence in the way Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has handled the James Ashby sexual harassment case against former Speaker Peter Slipper after the opposition raised questions about the extent of her involvement.

Senate estimates hearings this week have heard

Ms Roxon may have been briefed on the contents of lurid text messages days before the commonwealth lodged an "abuse of process" claim to have Mr Ashby's case struck out and to use the texts to sack him.

The committee also heard the Attorney-General's Department read only the "vast bulk" of the 15,400 text messages received from Mr Ashby before the strike-out application was filed on June 13. Seventeen lawyers were involved in the case, with three completing the "core" legal work.

Opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis told the Senate committee it was unbelievable the government solicitor and the Attorney-General's Department had sought the "extremely radical step" of striking out Mr Ashby's claim while not in possession of the full facts of the case.

Mr Ashby has since been paid $50,000 in damages from the commonwealth to settle his claim of sexual harassment and still has a civil case against Mr Slipper.

Mr Slipper stood aside as Speaker in April when Mr Ashby's claim was made in court and resigned last week when the texts, including sexually degrading comments, were made public.

The Prime Minister, when asked at a press conference in India whether she still had confidence in the way Ms Roxon handled the case, said yesterday: "Absolutely."

Senator Brandis said yesterday that if Mr Ashby did not have a case, the commonwealth did not need to hire 17 lawyers.

"This is not a large piece of legislation. It is a serious sexual harassment case but it has a relatively small factual compass," he told Sky News. "I think the Attorney-General is speaking out of both sides of her mouth. On the one hand she got 17 involved . . . in defending the case but at the same time, she is saying Mr Ashby doesn't have a case."

Police weigh new evidence on AWU slush fund claims

Hedley Thomas, national chief correspondent, The Australian, October 18, 2012

POLICE in Victoria are assessing new information about a union fraud scandal that led to Julia Gillard and her then boyfriend, disgraced Australian Workers Union boss Bruce Wilson, leaving their jobs amid criminal investigations in two states 17 years ago.

Chief Commissioner Ken Lay's office has directed that the new material, including a statement from former union bagman Ralph Blewitt, be reviewed by detectives pending any decision on whether to reopen an investigation that ended in 1996.

Mr Blewitt broke a long silence two months ago when he admitted to The Australian that he was involved in fraud over hundreds of thousands of dollars with a secret "slush fund", called the AWU Workplace Reform Association. He offered to give evidence in exchange for an immunity from prosecution.

Following the August admissions, Michael Smith, a journalist who lost his job as a Fairfax Radio broadcaster a year ago over his investigation of the scandal, recorded interviews with Mr Blewitt in which he made further claims.

These interviews and other documents were provided to Victoria Police. Despite his admissions in August, neither Mr Blewitt, who has been living in Malaysia, nor his solicitors had been contacted by any authorities.

However, Mr Lay's chief of staff, Superintendent Cindy Millen, said yesterday the Chief Commissioner had referred the new material for "actioning", and it would now be assessed by the crime department.

Liberal senator George Brandis called for a police investigation after Ms Gillard's former employer, Slater & Gordon, said the "slush fund" legal file could not be found in the firm's archives.

Ms Gillard, who left her job as a salaried partner at the firm after fallout from fraud claims in late 1995, has repeatedly and strenuously denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Wilson and Mr Blewitt used the AWU Workplace Reform Association to allegedly illegally raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, about $100,000 of which went to buy a $230,000 Melbourne terrace house in early 1993, in Mr Blewitt's name, and for Mr Wilson's use. Ms Gillard went to the auction, witnessed a power of attorney to give Mr Wilson control, and helped in the transaction.

Heavily edited documents from the initial Victoria Police investigation, newly released after a Freedom of Information request, show that the officer in charge at the time decided in 1996 that there was no criminality.

The officer did not have the co-operation of Mr Blewitt, and the investigation did not identify the "slush fund" in receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars or the purchase of the $230,000 terrace with roughly $100,000 in cash from that fund.

The officer wrote in a May 1996 internal report: "Inquiries with the companies alleged to have contributed secret payments have been made and the allegations of the corrupt payments not only cannot be substantiated but are in my view totally incorrect, and made from supposition and no real evidence."

There was "no evidence that the money was used for personal benefit. I recommend that there be no further police action and this matter be filed."

SBY across asylum plans: Tony Abbott

Sid Maher and Ben Packham, The Australian, October 18, 2012

JULIA Gillard has accused Tony Abbott of "spinning like a top" on asylum-seeker policy, declaring the Opposition Leader had twice failed to publicly specify he had raised towing back the boats with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

But the Prime Minister said Mr Abbott had done two press conferences where he had had the opportunity to say "the simple words that he raised tow-back with the President of Indonesia".

"Despite being questioned, he had declined to do so," Ms Gillard said in New Delhi, where she is on a state visit.

"It seems to me that Mr Abbott is now spinning like a top because he's embarrassed by his failure to raise with the President of Indonesia something that he beats his chest about when he's home in Australia," she said.

Mr Abbott said yesterday the Indonesian government now fully understood the Coalition's border-protection policies, ensuring a Coalition government under his leadership would enjoy a similar relationship with Jakarta as the former Howard government had.

He rejected Labor criticism of his meeting with Dr Yudhoyono, where he outlined the Coalition's border-protection policy in broad terms.

"I'm not going to go into specific details of discussions -- suffice to say that the Indonesian government now has the clearest possible understanding of exactly where the Coalition stands, and I'm confident that the next Coalition government can work constructively and co-operatively with the Indonesians in the same way that the last Coalition government has," he said.

Mr Abbott said the meeting between Coalition spokespeople Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa looked at the opposition's policies in "considerable detail".

Ms Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen yesterday accused Mr Abbott of lacking "the guts" to talk to Dr Yudhoyono in person about his signature policy of turning back asylum-seeker boats in Indonesian waters.

The Australian understands that during the meeting between Mr Abbott and Dr Yudhoyono in the Indonesian presidential palace on Monday, it was agreed that the full range of options for dealing with people-smuggler boats would be discussed in depth at a ministerial level.

Meanwhile, the Governor of Papua New Guinea's Manus Island says Australia is showing arrogance in failing to consult properly with residents about the reopening of an asylum-seeker processing centre.

Governor Charlie Benjamin said he had been left in the dark about construction contracts and a proposed aid package for reopening the Howard-era facility, despite being told to expect the first boatload of arrivals by the end of next week.

The Australian Defence Force has been preparing the site, on Lombrum naval base, which was run down following its abandonment in 2004.

"There was an aid package that was going to come with the asylum-seekers coming to Manus . . . but no one seems to be discussing that package," Mr Benjamin said.

"There was never any understanding that has been reached with this package, so we are still in the dark about Australia assisting us."

The politics of sticks and stones

Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, October 18, 012

ONE person is the no-buts winner from Julia Gillard's furious speech last week vilifying Tony Abbott as a woman-hater.

It's not the Prime Minister, of course, whose rant offended so many men and demeaned many women.

But it's also not Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, whose gain in votes still comes with the pain of a bum rap.

No, the biggest winner is Kevin Rudd, who has had his re-election pitch - both to Labor and the voters - handed to him by Gillard on a broken plate.

The pitch: end this division. End this abuse. I can heal Labor. Heal Australia.

I think Australians are now desperate to hear a message like that, even from a man knifed by his colleagues two years ago for being so rude, self-centred and bloody-minded.

Think what we've gone through. It's not just that the tight numbers in Parliament encouraged the Opposition to make every day a fight.

It's not just that some of the worst brawling has been over some of the most unattractive characters to shame Parliament - Peter Slipper of the expenses and filthy texts, and Craig Thomson of the alleged prostitutes and rip-offs.

Think also how Labor, under Gillard, resorted to the politics of division.

There was its inquiry to punish the "hate media", its inciting of a race riot on Australia Day, its class war against "greedy" billionaires, its lynch mob to silence broadcaster Alan Jones and now the screaming denunciation of the "sexist" and "misogynist" Abbott.

This culture of abuse is astonishing. Even Paul Keating never managed such sustained invective as Labor MPs heap on Abbott, calling him a "sexist", "hack", "thug", "douchebag", "Neanderthal", "mouse", and "poster child for the vile, bully-boy values", as well as "cowardly", "nuts", "aggressive", "untruthful", "carping", "negative", "bitter", "deceptive", "dodgy" and "rancid".

When Gillard last week savaged Abbott as a "misogynist" - a hater of women - she was simply ramping up this campaign of personal destruction, to make voters who hate Labor at least hate Abbott more.

She'd had some success. Polls show Abbott with very high disapproval ratings, even if the Coalition's vote is still stubbornly strong.

But I suspect Gillard's latest blast will backfire, and not just because she played the victim, diminishing herself.

By so stridently and unfairly attacking one man as the symbol of many, she attacked those many.

A lot of men would have identified with Abbott as the hectored - berated by a Greer-type gender warrior who does not merely take offence, but searches hungrily for it. Invents it.

Worse, Gillard is telling her many critics they dislike her not because she's bungled, cheated and broken her promises, but because they're sexists.

She has insulted their judgment and smeared their character. They are more casualties of Labor's campaign of divide and conquer, of which the only bit that's worked is the dividing.

So, the smearing will fail. Enter Rudd.

Rudd faces two challenges: first, to make colleagues vote for him again, and then make voters do the same.

The first is hardest. Many ministers loathe him, and during Rudd's challenge in February went public to destroy him - so characteristic of this lot.

Wayne Swan, Nicola Roxon, Tony Bourke, Craig Emerson, Steve Conroy, Simon Crean and Gillard savaged not just Rudd's record but his character, calling him selfish, disloyal, dysfunctional, abusive and chaotic.

Rudd knows he must persuade his colleagues he's changed, and has repeatedly suggested he'd be more consultative and less frantic.

He's also refused to publicly attack his colleagues as they've attacked him, and he'll want to reassure them there will be a great healing if he's returned.

This is now exactly the message Labor must send the rest of the country, and bringing back Rudd could demonstrate it in deeds, not slogans.

For Rudd, such healing could include dropping Labor's threats of tougher media controls, which alone should win him a honeymoon in the press. He could also drop the class war talk, which will suit a man who owes the pro-Gillard union movement nothing. No more gender war, either.

FWA hits back at Thomson

Milanda Rout, The Australian, October 18, 2012

THE union watchdog has dismissed claims by federal MP Craig Thomson that civil charges were laid against him because of political pressure and the case will fall over once it reaches court.

Fair Work Australia general manager Bernadette O'Neill told a Senate estimates hearing yesterday the organisation was not pressured to take civil action. Ms O'Neill said the decision was made after seeking legal advice and forming the view the case was in the public interest and had a "reasonable prospect of success".

The FWA filed its statement of claim with the Federal Court on Monday, alleging Mr Thomson spent Health Services Union funds on prostitutes, travel and his 2007 election campaign.

In response, Mr Thomson has repeatedly stated the case would fall over and the agency took the court action only to save face.

"Clearly FWA has felt pressured into responding this way given the political process which it is part of," he said. "After spending several years and more than $1 million on a report that was then totally discredited by KPMG, this clearly shows that FWA is simply trying to save face."

Mr Thomson's legal team also argues that parts of the FWA case exceed a two-year time limit under statutes of limitation.

Ms O'Neill told the estimates hearing she was aware of the statute of limitations issue and had considered it. "I've formed the view that we have reasonable prospects of success," she said.

Mr Thomson also claimed yesterday there was no new information in the civil charges. But Ms O'Neill contested this, saying there were additional charges relating to $770 spent at an escort agency in Sydney as well as other cash withdrawals.

Ms O'Neill hit back at suggestions by Mr Thomson that the KPMG review into the FWA's HSU investigations cast doubt on the findings and meant the case would not succeed in court.

She told the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee that KPMG had never been asked to look at the conclusions of investigations in the HSU national office and the HSU Victorian No 1 branch and did not make any judgments on it.

Ms O'Neill said most of the respondents in civil proceedings against the Victorian No 1 branch -- which was also subject to KPMG review -- have "conceded all the allegations".

Liberal senator Eric Abetz, who led the questioning of Ms O’Neill, said Mr Thomson’s claims about the FWA investigation had been “debunked” by here evidence.

“I don’t know how often he thinks he can assert that which is completely unture”, he said.

McTernan is the PM's high priest of negative campaigning

Arthur Sinodinos, The Australian, October 18, 2012

A GOVERNMENT that is prepared to pitch Australians against each other on grounds of class and income is capable of anything. But even by that standard the events of the past two weeks have been extraordinary.

Labor's effort to mobilise female voters against Tony Abbott has more in common with American politics than our own.

In the US, much time and money is spent mobilising various demographics and constituencies. Because voting is voluntary, you have to get the vote out and that means pushing voters' buttons.

This is fertile ground for activists, grassroots movements and single-issue advocates. Moral issues and personal conduct and values are front and centre as parties cobble together disparate coalitions. Former senator Rick Santorum, who ran in the recent Republican primaries, has carved a strong profile as a socially conservative anti-abortion crusader.

In Australia we are less comfortable with such confronting politics, preferring where possible to let socially incendiary issues lie. Once such matters are broadly settled there is little appetite for continually paring away at the scab. In Australia, compulsory voting tends to drive parties to straddle a broad centre.

The need to get out the vote also drives the American tradition of high octane and personality-focused negative campaigning. It is often easier to galvanise people against something than for it.

Labor's decision to go negative on steroids is no accident. This philosophy permeates the Prime Minister's Office and its high priest is the director of communications, the ex-Blair spinmeister John McTernan. He is quoted as saying: "If you get to senior positions, you have to be able to kill your opponents. It is not pretty, it's not pleasant, but if those at the top can't kill, then those at the bottom certainly cannot. High politics demands very low political skills, too." When in doubt, go the low road.

In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama ran a seemingly positive campaign. In fact he was running on what he was against, rather than for. He beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primaries because she had some very high negatives. Her performance as Secretary of State has since removed many of these voter reservations. Obama won against Republican John McCain, who was carrying the weight of negatives accumulated from the era of George W. Bush. Obama was a breath of fresh air but his incantation of "yes we can" raised unrealistic expectations about what was possible in a financially strapped America. As a result he is struggling to put together a positive case for re-election and is heavily focused on Romney's perceived negatives as a rich businessman.

In his 2008 acceptance speech, Obama famously said: "If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things."

In 2004, the Bush campaign relied in part on a ferocious attack on the war record of the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was formed to cast doubt on Kerry's heroism in the Vietnam War when he served on the Swift (patrol) Boats.

This further undermined Kerry's lacklustre candidacy.

While it is no surprise that Labor has gone the biff on Abbott, it has failed to link its attack to matters salient to voters. The danger is that this exercise deprives Labor's policy agenda of much needed oxygen. Labor must reconnect with voters on issues that matter to them. Abbott has done well by tapping into community sentiment on the cost of living and broken promises such as the carbon tax. He seems more in touch than Labor. Perhaps Labor strategists think that their positives do not have sufficient cut-through in the electorate.

If managing the budget, border security and the cost of living are beyond your competence, shift the agenda to other fronts.

Labor should be careful not to lecture Australians on what to think. Paul Keating became the arch exponent of a vociferous Labor-oriented political correctness. Keating's capacity to slap down opponents is legendary. His airy dismissal of other points of view was not designed to bring people with him, and he paid the price. Entrenching division is the opposite of effective leadership.

Ultimately opponents must be engaged, not hectored and forced into a corner. People put on the defensive are less amenable to changing their behaviour. We should call out bad behaviour and it is very therapeutic to let off steam about an aggressor. But leaders must reach beyond the politics of the warm inner glow to create effective strategies for dealing with issues. Leaders must always think about the endgame. They are supposed to see further than the rest of us.

Torrid, winner-take-all debates can become totems of a new political correctness and do not encourage shared commitment to solving complex problems.

Most Australians are easygoing and tolerant; they are the best judges of whether a politician has gone too far.

Labor's defence of Peter Slipper did not pass the pub test. The true test of leadership is to uphold a standard even if it is at a cost to your own side. Anything else is rank hypocrisy.

An overtly partisan war over gender runs the risk of setting back the cause of dealing with sexism, prejudice and bullying. Bullying can be physical or mental, and it goes beyond gender. There is plenty for feminists and anti-bullying advocates to do. The issues are too important to be left to a government that is overwhelmingly interested in advancing its political advantage.

Arthur Sinodinos is shadow parliamentary secretary to the Leader of the Opposition.

Swan comes out swinging in gender and class wars

Niki Savva, The Australian , October 18, 2012

YOU have to hand it to Wayne Swan. He is all class, isn't he? Class warfare, that is.

In a government characterised by its sharp edges, its paucity of humour and grace, the Treasurer is in a class of his own. Nowhere was it more obvious than when he took to the stage immediately after an alleged comedian made an offensive joke at the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union dinner last week about Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and acted as if nothing had happened.

Surely Swan was having a bit of a lend when he said later the reason he didn't give the comedian a flick was because he didn't want to give the story oxygen. The jokester's stage name is Allan Billison and his specialty is a satirical political campaign called Fair Go for Billionaires, which sounds right up the Treasurer's alley.

When it was obvious the next morning the proverbial would hit the fan, Swan, Health Minister Tanya Plibersek and all the others who had stayed rang and complained to the union. All of them could have protested that night. Instead we are asked to believe they all woke and decided spontaneously and simultaneously they didn't respect the union any more. They had spent the week frothing about sexism and misogyny, then somehow missed it when it smacked them in the face like a cream pie.

It wouldn't matter so much if Swan were regarded (Euromoney magazine aside) as a model practitioner of his craft whose performance had materially lifted Labor's stocks and inspired confidence in the developed world's greatest economy. His pitch might have succeeded in winning back a small percentage of Labor's base, but it has alienated the aspirational voters who decide elections.

Everything is calculated. He tries to project cool by professing his adoration of Bruce Springsteen, only to then use it to prosecute the case for us against them. Like charm and common sense, cool is something you have or you don't. His response to the Abbott family fightback came with his usual trademark subtlety. "No amount of fuzzy photo ops can airbrush away Mr Abbott's record of aggressive negativity or the huge risk he poses to the economy and jobs."

No stranger to fuzzy family photo ops himself, Swan reminded everyone what he's made of.

In private conversation Swan drops the F-bomb liberally. "Like salt and pepper," according to one listener. People he doesn't like are dismissed as "f . . kwits".

When he really wants to hurt a guy he aims even lower. At one function he buttonholed a young executive and told him his two mates were "c . . ts". Another business leader emerged from a meeting with Swan in his office shocked at his language, telling colleagues Swan had said to them, among other things: "You c . . ts have to understand . . ." They do now. Completely.

As a matter of interest, if a man uses that word to describe other men, is it misogyny or is it misandry? Or is it plain old misanthropy? Perhaps Macquarie Dictionary editors, keen to redefine words to suit political circumstances, can help out here.

Swan also has a penchant for ringing bosses to rant about staff.

Politicians regularly ring editors to whinge about their writers. Swan casts a much wider net. He called the chief executive of Woolworths, Grant O'Brien, on the Sunday the Alan Jones story broke to question him about the involvement of the supermarket's government relations manager, Simon Berger, in the Sydney University Liberal Club function. Berger was the MC.

According to a spokeswoman for Woolies the Treasurer rings O'Brien regularly to discuss the fortunes of the retail sector. This time Swan wasn't checking on Weet-Bix sales. The spokeswoman said Swan was merely ringing to "ascertain the facts" about the now notorious function.

He wanted to know, among other things, if Berger had acted in his official capacity as an employee of the supermarket giant or was simply representing himself. The spokeswoman maintains, and based on her brief from O'Brien, that there was no pressure and no official complaint from the Treasurer. Of course not. In the adult world, even if the Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister rings a chief executive to ask politely about the questionable behaviour of an employee, everybody gets the hint. Berger resigned a few days later.

The Treasurer's other penchant for doorstops with a large Woolies supermarket sign behind him is irrelevant to this story.

Swan's attack on Republicans also sent ripples through Australian companies operating in the US. They are negotiating with all those "crazies" who still run the US congress on post-GFC legislation to regulate the activities of international corporations. Banks likewise were unimpressed when summoned by Swan to a round table in Brisbane called at the behest of independent MP Bob Katter to discuss rural finance.

Oliver Browne, senior adviser to Swan, is reportedly the go-to person in the Treasurer's office for all Katter matters. The fact Katter's preferences could be critical in the next federal election, especially if Swan does decide to run again, is also coincidental.

One insider who has dealt with him closely during his years as Treasurer, and who was trying to be as tactful as possible, delivered this faint praise of him: "He is a bloke who understands his limitations. He doesn't have a complex view that he is going out to change the world. He has got a subdued view of his own capabilities. Basically he has decided that the thing he can do, and do well, is budgets."

We will see about that last bit. Swan faces another test with the upcoming release of the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook. His mission there is not to change the world but to provide a surplus, whatever it takes.

Treasury is not hung up on the surplus like the Treasurer is. It believes, quite rightly, that the economic impact of a small surplus versus a small deficit is irrelevant.

Treasury is aware of the rod Swan and Julia Gillard have created for their own backs, and the problems this poses. In political terms the forecast surplus is everything and largely because the government, with considerable pressure from the opposition, has made it so.

Treasury understands treasurers use the deficit bogey to keep the spending ambitions of their colleagues in check, but a bit of perspective is required and, if conditions warrant, then deficits, within reason, are no bad thing.

What is also clear now is the increasing concern felt by Treasury and the Reserve Bank about the economic outlook, and the number of massive commitments butting up against shrinking revenue. Treasury head Martin Parkinson laid it out in a recent speech.

Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens could not have been more downbeat than he was in his statement announcing the last cut in interest rates. If Stevens keeps talking like that, he will be accused in no uncertain terms, as are other critics, of talking down the economy and or acting against the national interest.

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