18/03/2009 - 22:00

Some strange government business

18/03/2009 - 22:00


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Politicians seem well-placed to take up lucrative careers as lobbyists after they leave parliament.

ONE of the strangest moves by Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull has been the replacement in his shadow cabinet of a South Australian with a Victorian senator.

The incident took place while Mr Turnbull's deputy, Julie Bishop, was vacating her treasury duties, so the switch-over may have gone unnoticed by many west of the Nullarbor.

Despite that, it warrants closer consideration.

In a nutshell, conservative-minded South Australian senator, Cory Bernardi, without actually naming anyone, wrote on his blog that a Liberal politician - it was Turnbull loyalist and frontbencher Christopher Pyne - had told him (Bernardi) some time ago that if he (Pyne) had lived in a Labor electorate he'd have joined the Labor Party.

The blog reads: "In response to my question of why he joined the Liberal Party, the MP blithely responded: 'I live in a Liberal seat so I had to be a member of the Liberal Party to get into parliament.

"'If I lived in a Labor seat, I would have joined the Labor Party'."

Senator Bernardi criticised the unnamed Liberal politician, saying: "Frankly I was aghast at this response.

"Where was the conviction, the beliefs, the values that I believe should motivate our political leaders?"

Mr Pyne denies uttering these words and Mr Turnbull demanded Senator Bernardi apologise, which he refused to do, so he was sacked.

Talk about overreacting.

Mr Turnbull's elevation of that blog comment into a storm in a teacup meant it gained media attention.

If it had been ignored, not even those east of the Nullarbor would know of Senator Bernard's blogging.

But there are other reasons that make this imbroglio even more bizarre.

Firstly, at least two federal Labor MPs - former Labor leader Kim Beazley, and Hawke government immigration minister and one-time South Australian senator, Nick Bolkus - have claimed Mr Turnbull once raised with them the possibility of entering parliament on Labor's side.

And Mr Turnbull's pre-parliamentary record shows solid links to Labor-oriented individuals plus Labor-cherished causes.

In 1987, he established an investment bank, Whitlam Turnbull & Co.

One partner was former NSW premier, Neville Wran. Another was former State Bank of NSW boss Nicholas Whitlam, son of Gough.

Mr Turnbull not only headed the Australian Republican Movement but also chaired Paul Keating's Republic Advisory Committee, which drew-up the blueprint for Australia to be transformed into a politician-dominated republic.

It's certainly quite difficult to consider Mr Turnbull as someone with only a passing interest in Labor programs.

Former Liberal leader Alexander Downer says of Mr Turnbull - "Never, but never, underestimate this guy.

"He is bright, he is educated, he's amusing, he works relentlessly (like Kevin Rudd) and he hasn't been successful in life by always doing the conventional thing.

"On the contrary, he's succeeded because he has the ability to think outside the box." (The Adelaide Advertiser, February 8 2009).

It's difficult to know what to make of this assessment by a fellow party member who, among other things, promptly cut and ran from parliament seven months after being re-elected.

Great play is made of the fact that Mr Downer is Australia's longest serving foreign minister.

More pertinent is the fact that his time as Liberal leader was the shortest of any leader in party history.

And yes, what precisely does "think outside the box" mean?

Since leaving politics, Mr Downer has emerged as director of lobbying firm, Bespoke Approach, in partnership with long-time Labor adversary Nick Bolkus, and former Liberal adviser Ian Smith, husband of Natasha Stott-Despoja.

That's a pattern Mr Turnbull pioneered.

Mr Smith has also mixed his party advisory roles, firstly as adviser to onetime Victorian Liberal premier, Jeff Kennett, then for the aforementioned senator Bolkus, Mr Downer's new business partner.

Bespoke Approach is, of course, a registered Canberra lobbying company.

Is it surprising that a Bespoke Approach partner is out there praising Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull?

There are so many political wheels within deals surrounding not only Mr Turnbull but also his admirer, Mr Downer, that Senator Bernardi is surely forgiven for wondering precisely where Liberalism and Laborism meet and where they perhaps part.

The feature common to all these individuals seems to be, to use Mr Downer's term that they can "think outside the box".

Does that box, perhaps, allude to formal party affiliation?

Clearly that's not the way Senator Bernardi contends things should be.

And for being so indiscrete as to take issue with one party colleague - even though not naming him - he's suffered a brief hiccup to his career.

Now, it's true business is business and politics is politics, or that's at least the way things may have once been.

Today, however, there are so many business cogs within so many political wheels - because of ever bigger and more intrusive government - business feels increasingly compelled to hire lobbyists.

When considering pre-parliamentary Mr Turnbull and post-parliamentary Mr Downer, one is forgiven for wondering where party machine loyalties end and precisely where business consideration may begin.

Which brings us to the so-far overlooked aspect of Senator Bernardi's political stances.

He's one of a handful of politicians - Tangney MHR Denis Jensen is another - to have bothered researching and contemplating the emotionally super-charged panic over the climate issue that's bringing us to the brink of further taxation.

Anyone curious about this can log on to his parliamentary website and find his nine-page article - 'Cool Heads Needed on Global Warming'.

State Scene realises this issue sparks shouting matches, so, if for no other reason, let's leave any consideration of the science of this question well alone for now.

However, what hasn't been highlighted to date is the about-to-emerge cohort of climate change and Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) consultants that businesses will be compelled to hire (for quite substantial fees, no doubt) to negotiate with Canberra bureaucrats, who will possess draconian powers.

No prize for guessing what types will end up dominating the boards of the new climate change consultancies.

During the past year we've seen how so-called investment bankers, who clearly knew nothing about banking, reaped huge up-front commissions and shamelessly contributed to bringing on the current economic downturn.

The point is that an ETS (or any other form of CO2 taxing scheme) is just another command and control mechanism whereby Canberra's new breed of fast-talking bureaucrats will further direct business.

Nor is it surprising that the Rudd government's forthcoming ETS legislation will be very much like that being prepared by Mr Turnbull while he was the Howard government's environment minister.

Both are simply pitching to rock star and Environment Minister Peter Garrett's goggle-eyed fans and Greens backers.

Parliaments are increasingly becoming latter-day chambers of commerce where those who can "think outside the box" encounter prospective business partners while they become adept at handling complex legislative processes for which they can later charge bamboozled clients whopping fees.

Fasten your seat belt, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Senator Bernardi's best days lie ahead of him.


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