4 September 2004

Flashy election map

The ABfrigginC (which still hasn't discovered RSS) has a useful flash map showing key marginal seats and stuff.

Tip via The Poll Vault.

I'm still hunting for a useful explanation of preferential voting. I might have to (shudder) write it myself.

bombshell goes phut

If you hurry (as the great majority of professional journos reporting it have not) to the homepage of the Select Committee on the Scrafton Evidence you can download the entire day's proceedings. It's worth doing because the transcript bears little resemblance to most media reports.

According to the fat and bloated old media, Senator Brandis produced evidence that showed Scrafton's phone call to the prime minister only ran for 51 seconds. No such thing happened. Brandis claimed to have evidence of two calls, one lasting 9 and a half minutes and one lasting 61 seconds.

CHAIR—If it is a point of order, you may intervene; if it is a question, you will need to seek Senator Brandis’s acceptance that you interrupt his questioning.

Senator BARTLETT—I guess it is for a ruling from the chair—and I know you have raised it a bit. I appreciate that Senator Brandis wants to put all this on the record, but can we have an overarching recognition from the chair that saying all these repeated statements that this establishes, this is a fact, this is now acknowledged is simply not the case. We have not seen these records. Even if we did see them, we would have no way of knowing whether or not they are accurate.

Senator FAULKNER—I do not believe anything the Prime Minister’s office says about anything.

Senator BARTLETT—Can we have a suggestion or something rather than this continual assertion that this is fact all the time?

Senator FAULKNER—And I do not believe anything the Prime Minister has ever said about anything. He is a known liar. Senator Brandis knows that—and says it.

CHAIR—Order, Senator Faulkner! It is up to this committee to evaluate, in the long term, all the evidence we hear, and everyone can put their assertions. It is not up to me to make a ruling on Senator Brandis’s credibility here today. I have indicated to Senator Brandis that I think I have given him what I regard as reasonable latitude out of the chair to set up the direction of his questions.

Senator BRANDIS—And I have done that. I have finished doing it.

CHAIR—You have well and truly done it is the point being made. Let us just get on with the questioning. I do point out that I have not had the chance to ask any questions yet. I am waiting patiently. Senator Brandis, you have got the call.

Brandis is a QC. He knows his stuff when it comes to examining a witness. Presumably, he also knows that leading evidence from the bar table carries no probative value at all. All he's done is wave about a document he says shows the phone records. He's refused to table the document. The media should really have picked this up.

2 September 2004

clucking about the speaker

The ALP has promised an independent speaker. This is a customary opposition promise. John Howard promised it in 1996. It was meaningless then, it is meaningless now, and it will be meaningless in three years time when whoever is then opposition leader again promises it. In 1996 John Howard promises

The Coalition will seek to invest the Speaker of the next parliament with greater independence similar to his or her counterpart at Westminster.

In 2004 Labor promises:

An independent Speaker for the House of Representatives and improved Standing Orders.

The constitution provides:

35. The House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a member to be the Speaker of the House, and as often as the office of Speaker becomes vacant the House shall again choose a member to be the Speaker. The Speaker shall cease to hold his office if he ceases to be a member. He may be removed from office by a vote of the House, or he may resign his office or his seat by writing addressed to the Governor-General.

An independent speakership is impossible under those provisions. The Australian speaker is endowed with powers unknown to the House of Commons, including unilateral suspension. No governing majority is going to vest those powers in an independent speaker. No political party is going to (or should) declare one of the 150 house electorates off-limits to election challenges. More to the point, the electors are not going to take kindly to being told they are not allowed to elect their own MHR because he happens to be speaker. Most of all, when a speaker is unwise enough to name a government minister, as Speaker Cope discovered in 1975, the majority will not back the speaker who then has little choice but to resign.

If you asked any speaker since federation if they were independent and impartial they would all insist they were. Short of drastic constitutional change that situation is not going to change in the future.

31 August 2004

weak on rights

I do not often agree with the Man of Steel. But there's always a first time.

John Howard on the 7:30 Report
They will always remember that and they will always remember the Government was strong on border protection and the Labor Party was weak.

Sadly, this is true. Labor's weakness in defending human rights alienated many of its supporters and drove them to vote for minor parties. There is a real issue in border protection, but it can't be exploited unless Labor does something unprecedented - admit a mistake and announce a new policy. Labor's recent performance over rights issues, not just gay marriage but also the treatment of foreign gay marriages and the children of those marriages, suggests it's not going to happen any time soon. The growing minor party vote should perhaps encourage them to change their mind.

Inquiry sliced as ALP abandons ship

Labor has executed an early campaign backflip and will not subpoena ministerial aides to appear before a new inquiry into the children overboard affair.

The decision for only an abbreviated, one-day inquiry into the saga before polling day came after the Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, had said days earlier that he favoured forcing aides to be scrutinised. The inquiry will also report after ballots are cast, and further witnesses may be called after the election.

The former Defence adviser Mike Scrafton is likely to appear as early as tomorrow and expand on his allegation that the Prime Minister, John Howard, lied and knew that there was no evidence to back his claims during the last election campaign that asylum seekers threw their children into the sea.

The senior military officers who supported Mr Scrafton's claim, Major-General Roger Powell and Commander Mike Noonan, may also be called, but the intention was for the newly convened inquiry to run for just one day.

While there were plenty of brickbats slung at the Government benches in a rowdy question time yesterday, the decision by Opposition senators means that the public may be denied the full facts on the children overboard affair before they vote.

Labor also declined to subpoena witnesses during the first children overboard inquiry, including Mr Scrafton.

The Government and other critics said it had shied away from taking this step so it could hide its own "dirty laundry" should it form government.

Key figures in the saga yet to be questioned include Miles Jordana, the Prime Minister's then adviser, Ross Hampton, the press secretary for the former defence minister Peter Reith, and Peter Hendy, Mr Reith's chief-of-staff.

Mr Scrafton also worked as an adviser to Mr Reith.

Sacrificing scrutiny for the need to get out on the campaign trail, senators have handed Mr Howard his first big tactical coup of the campaign.

Really, really bad call. Without any examination of the ministerial advisers involved in the truth overboard matter the credibility of the Senate committee will be about zero. This probably throws away Labor's chance of seizing the initiative at the campaign's outset. A cynic might think one motive is Labor's anxiety about the calling of ministerial advisers in a prospective Labor government.

30 August 2004

starting gun

The ADF will fire a 19-gun salute on Federation Mall immediately after the dissolution is proclaimed in Parliament House at 5pm tomorrow. Why parliament gets 19 guns and the governor-general gets 21 is not immediately obvious.

Media coverage seems to be all about the Senate debate on Faulkner's motion for a select committee on the Scranton evidence. Inexplicably, the opposition has decided not to subpoena ministerial advisers during the election campaign. Unless and until advisers become part of the regular machinery of government and account to parliament for their actions the executive will be able to get away with the abuse of power the select committee is to investigate.

A few sites worth looking at:

Howard was fairly obscure on the question of whether a 65-year old prime minister will serve a full term at yesterday's press conference. That forced Costello to promise not to challenge for the leadership. It's only a small thing but it doesn't speak for a lot of message discipline in the Coalition. It's also frankly ridiculous for Costello to promise not to challenge for the term of the next parliament.

The Senate debate is still running. After weeks of phoney war it still feels like the campaign has not started. That may change tomorrow once the House is formally dissolved.

Scrafton ready for new Senate inquiry

A new Senate inquiry into the children overboard affair will be set up tomorrow and immediately move to call Defence Department whistleblower Mike Scrafton.

The inquiry will continue for at least the early days of the election campaign, focusing on what Prime Minister John Howard was told about the episode before the last election and the truthfulness of his public comments.

Several senior defence personnel who can corroborate that Mr Scrafton told them he had informed the Prime Minister that the allegations that asylum seekers threw their children overboard were false will also be asked to appear.

Mr Scrafton told The Age that he was ready and willing to testify before the new hearing, indicating he may have further revelations to make.

The inquiry will ensure a continued focus on the episode and on Mr Howard's credibility during the initial days of the campaign. Labor will also use the Senate sitting to grill Defence Minister Robert Hill on the overboard affair and a United States report slating an Australian officer for allegedly helping to gloss over claims of abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Although the House of Representatives will not sit, the Senate will meet today and tomorrow and its committees can continue hearings throughout the election campaign.

Greens leader Bob Brown even raised the prospect of recalling the Senate during the campaign if matters of "national importance" emerged from the overboard inquiry.

Labor leader Mark Latham said Mr Howard was trying to avoid further parliamentary scrutiny of the children overboard affair by calling the election.

Mr Howard said the issue had been "done to death" and he had no further comment on it. He said the public would deliver its verdict on election day.

The Opposition leader in the Senate, John Faulkner, last night released the draft terms of reference for the new inquiry, saying that "the Senate must get to the bottom of this sorry chapter in Australian politics". They say the inquiry will examine Mr Scrafton's statements about his conversations with the Prime Minister.

Mr Scrafton said he would provide further details on the affair if asked by the inquiry. He conceded there were other areas he could "cast light on", including his conversations with then defence minister Peter Reith and Mr Howard's international adviser, Miles Jordana. The inquiry is likely to invite Mr Jordana and other Howard staff to appear, testing the Government's gag on them.

The two military investigators who backed Mr Scrafton's stance, Major-General Roger Powell and Commander Michael Noonan, are also likely to be called.

The Governor-General has the power to prorogue Parliament - ending a parliamentary session in order to hold an election - on the Prime Minister's instructions. The Senate may still be able to sit, according to its clerk, Harry Evans.

This constitutional debate may explain why Mr Howard's announcement allowed the Senate to sit until tomorrow afternoon.

I think Howard has given away the first week. The Senate will sit tomorrow and Tuesday. The Senate inquiry on the Truth Overboard incident will be reconvened. Last time, it failed to get to the bottom of anything because Labor voted with the government against the issue of subpoenas to ministerial advisers.

Paragraph 9 of Senator John Faulkner's draft terms of reference reads:

9. That the committee and any subcommittee have power to send for and examine persons and documents, to move from place to place, to sit in public or in private, notwithstanding any prorogation of the Parliament or dissolution of the House of Representatives, and have leave to report from time to time its proceedings and the evidence taken and such interim recommendations as it may deem fit.

The first two days of this week will be dominated by the Senate sittings. The last three days will be dominated by the Senate committee. Without parliament sitting and with the campaigns still gearing up the media is going to have a feeding frenzy at the committee. The constitutionality of a Senate committee during a prorogation has never been tested, but there is not really any venue in which it can be tested. The government staffers could refuse to obey the subpoenas, but that's not going to be a good look at all for Honest John.

From Australian Senate Practice
On many occasions, Senate committees have continued their activities after the dissolution of the House of Representatives or prorogation of Parliament, including by taking evidence and presenting reports. The absolute privilege of these activities has not been called into question and the practice is now firmly entrenched in standing orders as well as being confirmed by declaratory resolution (22/10/1984, J.1276). The power of the Senate to authorise its committees to meet derives from the Senate's character as a continuing House and from the Constitution. (For the major discussion of the effects of prorogation, see Chapter19, Relations with the Executive Government, under Effect of prorogation.)

The 1984 resolutiuon (passed without division) says:

That the Senate declares that where the Senate, or a committee of the Senate which is empowered to do so, meets following a dissolution of the House of Representatives and prior to the next meeting of that House, the powers, privileges and immunities of the Senate, of its members and of its committees, as provided by section 49 of the Constitution, are in force in respect of such meeting and all proceedings thereof. (22/10/1984, J.1276)

This will be a really interesting week.

29 August 2004

To get on the electoral roll

Pick up an enrolment form from any Post Office, AEC office, State/Territory Electoral Office or from the internet.

Fill it in, remember to have your signature witnessed, and post it back (reply paid envelopes are provided at our Post Office stands).

If you use the form from the internet, the form must be printed out, completed, signed and mailed to the AEC. The enrolment form cannot be e-mailed back as the AEC requires a hard copy of your signature.

If you wish to send the enrolment form electronically, you may send it via fax to the relevant Divisional Returning Officer. No other kind of electronic communication will be accepted. By faxing this form you agree that the time of receipt is the time when the message has completed printing from the relevant AEC fax machine, and that you will not hold the AEC responsible for any deadlines missed or losses incurred. For further information, please refer to www.aec.gov.au or call 13 23 26.

You can call into an Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) office and enrol on the spot. Click here for Divisional Office addresses


Ring 13 23 26 for further information.

So go and do it. Now. You've got until 7 September.

Syndicated Morning Herald

The Sydney Morning Herald has discovered RSS feeds. Ditto The Age. At last. Now for the ABfrigginC...

9 October

The governor-general has agreed to the prime minister's advice for an election as follows:

  • parliament prorogued and dissolved 31 Aug
  • rolls close 7 September
  • general election 9 october

All 150 representatives, 6 of the 12 senators in each state, and both senators in each territory will face election.

I blogged 23 or 30 October. I got it wrong, but then I did not expect the last 3 weeks where the Man of Steel has shown he's getting a little rusty with a tin ear for for the truth.

More when the transcript is available. You can check your enrollment here.

Journalistic error

From The Australian
A serving Indonesian president once told me Indonesia's biggest problem was its judiciary. The extent of that problem can be gleaned from the latest issue of the American journal Foreign Affairs.

Lex Rieffel, from the Brookings Institution, has written a determinedly up-beat, almost Panglossian assessment of Indonesia's democratic reform. Yet he comments: "Lacking a tradition of impartiality, commercial court decisions are still often delivered to the highest bidder."

The decision on Tuesday that the Indonesian terrorist Idris, who has confessed to an integral role in the Bali bombings -- which killed 202 people, 88 of them Australians -- could not be tried over Bali because the Constitutional Court had ruled retrospective anti-terrorist laws unconstitutional, was sickening for Australians.

Idris was instead jailed for his part in the Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta, but the prosecutor indicated, bizarrely, that he would not now be charged under normal criminal laws for his role in Bali.

This is a shocking development that throws into doubt the commitment of the Indonesian judicial and political systems to confronting Jemaah Islamiah terrorists.

Indonesia has had 5 presidents - Sukarno, Suharto, Habibie, Wahid and Megawati. The first two were outright dictators. Habibie was Suharto's vice-president and successor. It would be fun to know who Greg Sheridan's 'serving Indonesian president' is and it would be even better if we got some argument for this judicial threat to Indonesia apart from its presidential source.

The Sheridan piece moves on to denounce the Indonesian commercial court as corrupt and then mentions the constitutional court as though the second followed automatically from the first.

We then get an implied demand for the constitutional court to rule on what does or does not sicken Australians rather than the content of Indonesian law. It's a clever piece the first time you read it. The second time round you realise that most of his conclusions actually do not follow from his premises.

If you then turn to the allegedly Panglossian article Sheridan denounces, you find it a rather better analysis.

An independent judiciary (despite the concern of serving Indonesian presidents and Greg Sheridan, is a good thing. A smart pun calling the decision on retrospective laws 'Constitutional terror' is not. The Indonesian transition undoubtedly has major problems. There are continuing low-intensity conflicts in Aceh and West Papua. Corruption is rife. Human rights are not universally respected. Those problems will not be solved by corrupting the constitutional court.

Howard acts to settle unease over poll date

Prime Minister John Howard will end speculation about the election date within the next 24 hours when he announces a firm timetable for seeking a historic fourth term.

Alarmed at growing community agitation over the phoney campaign, Mr Howard was locked in talks with key ministers and advisers yesterday.

In a first for Australian politics, Mr Howard is expected to "calm the waters" by announcing what day he intends to go to the Governor-General to seek the dissolution of Parliament.

A strongly-tipped scenario was that he would announce Friday or Saturday as the day he would seek permission from Governor-General Michael Jeffery to hold an October 9 election.

Mr Howard spent yesterday afternoon and evening on the phone from the Lodge refining the dates with his leadership group - Treasurer Peter Costello, Senate leader Robert Hill, deputy Senate leader Nick Minchin and National Party leader John Anderson.

At 3pm yesterday a cavalcade of cars carrying his most trusted confidants arrived at the Lodge. They were his chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, political adviser Tony Nutt and federal Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane. At 5pm, the Liberals' official pollster, Mark Textor, joined them.

The unusual step of announcing an election timetable allows Parliament to sit this week, where Mr Howard will face his accusers over the three-year-old "children overboard" affair.

I'm confused. The government has been pushing hard to get the electoral rolls closed on the day the election is called. That was nasty, in that it's thought Labor does better with last minute enrollers than the Coalition, and the bill was deservedly thrown out in the senate. By giving a week's notice the Man of Steel effectively doubles the time for last minute enrolments. Facing parliament with the most recent revelations of the Children Not Overboard affair does not seem like a tactical plus either. The Senate Commitee will certainly take evidence from Mike Scrafton and that could be devastating for Honest John.

And John Howard is not the man to give the opposition any chances if he can avoid it.

Michelle Grattan's take is fairly persuasive:

But just firing the starter's gun, whether today or in a week's time, won't blow away the curse of "children overboard". "The Australian public is saying to me that they are fed up with this issue," Howard says. But the "link" is to "truth in politics" and that's harder to shrug off. "If he's lied about this, then what else is he lying about? And what else will he lie about in the forthcoming election campaign?" asked Labor's Julia Gillard in a Friday Lateline debate.

Howard says people are "bored" with children overboard, which is "ancient history". While true, this is also bluff, a variation on the tactic that the PM used in 2001 to divert the media. It would be the ultimate irony if we in the media first failed to get to the truth of "children overboard" in the last election campaign and then, having now had it thrust in our collective faces by Scrafton, swallowed the PM's line that the issue was old news.

The notion of a "statute of limitation" on the truth in politics is a dangerous and slippery slope.

The letters from the military that Howard released on Friday carry another salutary message. Details of what was allegedly said to the PM were spelled out to an official inquiry, but haven't seen the light of day until now, and would never have done so if it hadn't been for Scrafton outing himself and the PM's subsequent action.

It's not new to have important but embarrassing "truths" hidden at election time. In 1983, Howard was briefed by Treasury about a looming $9 billion deficit. He told Fraser, and wanted him to get this uncomfortable "truth" out. Fraser declined.

After the election loss, Howard, as the one still in politics, wore the pain of that concealment for years.

Truth, mistreated, often extracts its toll.

This week promises to be a long time in politics.