I’m surprised that Australia doesn’t figure more on the Corner. Its politics are among the most entertaining in the world; its slanging matches beat anything at Westminster; and its scandals are not only scandalous but the recent ones may have real political fallout. Here’s a little background from the soap opera:
Australia’s Labour government headed by left-wing firebrand Prime Minister Julia Gillard holds power by a tiny majority over the Liberal-Country coalition headed by macho fitness fanatic Tony Abbott. Its parliamentary life hangs by a few threads of support from three Independent MPs. Only a few months ago it looked as if Ms. Gillard might lose one crucial vote when a Labour MP and former labor-union leader, Craig Thomson, was accused of having paid a brothel on two occasions with his union credit card and then, as head of the union, of having approved the payments. Mr. Thomson denies that he ever visited the approval and confesses himself deeply puzzled at how his credit card fell briefly into the wrong hands. He is now taking civil action to prove that the signature on the card documents is forged. If he fails, then he might be charged with various offenses and he would have to resign from parliament, depriving the Gillard government of one more vital vote at a time when opinion polls show that Labour would lose any election by a landslide. As Julia peers gloomily into the crystal ball to discern where the fickle finger of Fate is pointing, she now learns of a new and even more dangerous problem.
Last week Peter Slipper, the speaker of the House of Commons (who is the most senior parliamentary official), was accused of sexual harassment by a young male aide. He is also accused of padding his expenses. Slipper was a controversial figure even before this story broke. He had originally been elected as an MP for the coalition, but was under something of a cloud in his own party with few chances of preferment (apparently some hints of his current troubles were abroad.) To shore up her shaky parliamentary majority, Julia Gillard therefore tempted him to leave his party in return for Labour giving him the plum parliamentary job of speaker. He was very happy to accept and has apparently enjoyed the privileges of the speakership, thus making him even more grateful to the government.
But that gift has proved to be a boomerang, and it is now curving back to hit the government. Slipper may have to step down until he clears his name in court — thus weakening the government still further. As the government wobbles riskily along on the meandering boneshaker of office, it now runs into a third obstacle — this time an obstacle that it has placed there quite consciously for reasons of ideology.
Labour’s attorney general has attacked the opposition for not observing the convention that someone — she means Slipper — is innocent until proven guilty. One reason for her concern, of course, is that this convention might be used to allow Slipper to continue serving in office until a court judgment has been reached on the harassment charges. Labour would then get back an extra vote and a compliant speaker. There’s only one flaw in this. As columnist Andrew Bolt points out here, people charged with sexual harassment are actually presumed guilty until proven innocent under recent legislation introduced by feminist Julia Gillard. (Something similar happened to Bill Clinton as I recall.) And, as a result, as Bolt also explains here, the Independents, anxious to avoid contamination with Labour’s sleaze, are hinting that they might not back the government, at least on this issue. Once that happens, Tony Abbott can start counting his majority.
Watching all this is rather like watching a comedy tightrope act in which the tightrope walker stumbles over his feet, falls off the tightrope, catches the rope with his chin at the last moment, clambers back on the rope, tangles one foot in the rope doing so, tries to walk along the rope all the same, and as result falls on his face every third step. At some point the audience stops feeling afraid for the performer and starts laughing uncontrollably at him.
I’m afraid that for Julia Gillard that point has now been reached.