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Howard wins when bills go nowhere

THE concept of ‘gridlock’ was made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.

We’ll never know which Clinton spin-doctor coined it, but it had a ring of truth, and so helped dislodge George Bush Snr from the White House.

As then used it was meant to signify that America’s two main arms of government – executive (White House) and legislature (Congress) – were hardly speaking to each other.

It definitely forced Bush Republicans onto the back foot.

Democrats used it effectively to lay the basis for change and Clinton followed-up, stressing he stood for consensus; somewhat along the lines Australian Labor leader Bob Hawke did in the 1980s.

And, as with Hawke, most voters bought the Clinton consensus line and voted Democrat.

The third Howard Government has been in power just more than six months and Canberra certainly seems headed for legislative gridlock, akin to 1973-75, when the then conservative Opposition was in blocking mode against both Whitlam Governments.

In stark contrast during the 1980s Hawke Governments, conservatives rejected obstructionism outright, resulting in what were perhaps Australia’s most reformist and politically productive years.

But 27 or so years on, gridlock is returning with Labor, Democrat and Green senators now set to become the culprits.

The big losers, of course, will be heavily taxed Australians, who pay for the lifestyles of the privileged few who are federal MPs, and their well-paid and well-travelled large staffs.

All this is grist for Prime Minister Howard’s mill because gridlocking will give him good reason to eventually visit the Governor-General to call for an election ahead of time, when he wants it.

John Howard is an adept tactician.

It’s likely he will keep piling up legislation he believes middle Australians favour – with border protection extras, unfair dismissal, and secret workplace ballots just opening gambits.

Recounting this isn’t disclosing any tactical secrets. Labor knows it.

What’s puzzling is why they’ve not responded in a more enlightened manner, as the conservatives did during those productive Hawke years.

Some say it’s because Labor is factionally disunited, others that it’s bitterness at moves to loosen the longstanding 60-40 rule favoring unions in party councils to 50-50.

But it may well be another.

Last week I received a four-page document titled; Simon Crean’s Shadow Ministry – Union Connections and Previous Occupations.

Like so many items that fall of the back of a truck, it’s unsigned. I can only guess it’s a high-level Liberal research paper.

That aside, it makes interesting reading and I’ve no reason to doubt its veracity.

The Crean shadow ministry has 30 members, as does the Howard ministry – far too many in both cases.

Nearly all are former union officers, MPs’ staffers, public servants, academics or lawyers, so there’s quite a narrow range of backgrounds.

Craig Emerson, for instance, is linked to the Australian Workers’ Union, has worked for three Labor MPs and was an academic.

Julia Gillard was with the Australian Services Union, the Community and Public Sector Union, and was a Labor lawyer and political staffer.

Three others have AWU links. Senator Stephen Conroy is a former Transport Workers’ Union industrial officer and was linked to the Australian Services Union.

Only two are shown without union links – Dr Carmen Lawrence, a former State MP, public servant, and academic; and Senator Robert McClelland, a long-time union lawyer.

Federal Labor’s elite hails from top union, public services and academic jobs or political staffer backgrounds, which is somewhat removed from mainstream Australia.

Labor certainly needs to broaden its MP base. Hopefully the coming Wran-Hawke Report, to be de-bated at a forthcoming special conference, succeeds in going some way to doing so.

Although I’ve never seen a similar occupational breakdown of Canberra’s Liberal contingent, I suspect it’s more representative of mainstream Australia.

WA’s Federal Liberal contingent, for instances, has two doctors, two realtors, four lawyers (probably three too many), former State MP and pastoralist/prospect-or, teacher, saleswoman, business-man, naval cook, and a publican.

True, missing is a former union official, but Liberal Canning MHR, Don Randall, a former teacher, was his school’s Teachers’ Union representative.

It’s also true there’s a danger in placing too much reliance on MPs’ occupational backgrounds.

Mr Crean held the same job as Mr Hawke (ACTU president) and that never stopped the Hawke Government being innovative and truly reformist.

However, the other crucial fact-or in understanding why the Hawke years were so productive was the clear-cut and outright refusal by Liberal leaders Andrew Peacock and John Howard to be obstructionist as were their predecessors, Malcolm Fraser and Billie Sneddon.

They’d rejected gridlock, something the Crean team is coming perilously close to not doing.

And another crucial aspect of Hawke-led Labor was that it went straight into government, whereas as Crean Labor is in Opposition.

But if that’s Labor’s best excuse for dabbling with gridlock, we’d all be better off if they all left parliament and found something else to do.

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