15/06/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: A glass house of parliament

15/06/2004 - 22:00


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If ever you walk past a group of politicians and, by chance, overhear them uttering the phrase ‘collateral damage’ you can be fairly confident they’re not discussing military affairs.

A glass house of parliament


If ever you walk past a group of politicians and, by chance, overhear them uttering the phrase ‘collateral damage’ you can be fairly confident they’re not discussing military affairs.

The first time State Scene heard the expression was while watching internationally televised media briefings by an American military officer, outlining ongoing assessments of the impact of allied bombing of Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Australian politicians have now borrowed, directly or otherwise, that officer’s catchy phrase for their purposes.

When using it they’re invariably referring to the media damage inflicted upon their party by political opponents, or vice versa.

A case in point was the imbroglio between Education Minister Alan Carpenter and deputy Liberal leader Dan Sullivan over the latter’s receipt of payment for also being deputy Opposition leader.

Labor MPs are undoubtedly slapping Mr Carpenter on the back, telling him he did considerable collateral damage to the Liberals by demanding Mr Sullivan cease drawing the $47,700 allowance he qualified for as holder of the latter position.

And no doubt Liberal MPs also will have discussed it and told each other, and probably Mr Sullivan, that Mr Carpenter had sustained collateral damage to them.

It’s because of that collateral damage – the seemingly unfavourable publicity and the media grubbing the Coalition sustained – that Mr Sullivan felt compelled to announce he’d forgo that allowance, reducing his income by about $900 a week even though he’s still doing the same work.

And this despite his predecessor in that position – current Liberal leader Colin Barnett – receiving that allowance for which he was never targeted or criticised.

Now let’s be quite clear.

Mr Sullivan wasn’t defrauding taxpayers by receiving the allowance, which was legally awarded to him or anyone else holding the deputy Opposition leadership post.

The reason for the fracas, pure and simple, was that Labor stumbled on an issue it could wreak collateral damage with to the newly formed conservative Coalition, because Nationals leader Max Trenorden had been erroneously described as deputy Opposition leader.

Not surprisingly, Labor went in hard, with Premier Geoff Gallop eventually chiming in with silly claims that Labor had caught the conservatives out trying to trick the public.

The incident was an archetypal example of the unwritten rule of Australian political engagement – when you’ve got your opponent down boot, kick, scratch, and boot once again, all figuratively speaking, of course.

You’re expected to inflict as much collateral damage, via media releases, television appearances and radio comments, as possible.

And that’s precisely what occurred during the Carpenter-initiated allowance affair.

From Labor’s standpoint the most obvious asset was the fact that only the conservatives could find themselves in this particular predicament since Labor doesn’t form coalitions. It’s either in opposition or governs in its own right.

The Gallop Government’s position on the allowance incident is in stark contrast to the Howard Government’s recent Trish Draper-and-travelling-boyfriend affair.

 In this case,  Federal Labor leader Mark Latham remained silent, since he knew some in his ranks had globe trotted with so-called spouses who were in reality only temporary lovers.

However, State Labor should realise it’s far from immune to criticism when it comes to public spending by its members.

One doesn’t have to look far to find cases where they’re vulnerable, and consequently have been conspicuous by their silence in those areas.

Take the question of State Labor candidates using Federal MPs’ offices and facilities during election campaigns, a longstanding but little-discussed practice.

It’s something State Scene first highlighted shortly before the February 2001 election and one may wonder if there’s reason to believe things have changed.

At the time, then former Labor MP, Mark Nevill, spoke out against misuse of Federal electoral offices and facilities, especially by State election candidates.

He even issued a press statement calling for a tightening of the policing of such rorting.

When I quizzed him then he said he knew of such practices by Labor MPs as well as Labor candidates.

State Scene isn’t claiming conservative politicians and/or candidates are immune in this regard. It’s just that no-one has ever alleged to me that it goes on in their quarter in the way Mr Nevill did to me about Labor’s ones.

Moreover, he went on to urge that the electoral commissioner or a political ombudsman should be given the power to investigate the internal ballots, activities and disputes within political parties.

 “Use of all Federal members’ facilities should be illegal in State elections,” Mr Nevill said.

“Facilities in offices of Federal MPs were extensively used in both State and Federal elections.

“Stationery, printing leaflets, folding machines, laser printers, postage and air charter were used.

“This provides a massive advantage to the parties of incumbent members.

“Leaflets for the State election campaign will be produced in Federal members’ offices.

“Politicians were always asking for the activities of others to be transparent – but avoided even rudimentary scrutiny of their own party activities.”

What all this costs taxpayers each election campaign is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly far more than $47,400.

Now that Mr Carpenter has surfaced as being concerned about public monies in such areas, let’s hope he broadens his pronouncements to include adoption of Mr Nevill’s recommendations.

State Scene awaits the publicising of unambiguous warnings over forthcoming months on misuse of Federal and State electorate offices backed by stringent policing to ensure WA’s coming election doesn’t have a recurrence of what Mr Nevill warned against before the last State election.


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