Labor’s rock and hard place

It’s hard to know which story was more predictable – that the A-League soccer grand final would end in farce, or that Labor’s hand-picked speaker, a man known as “Slippery Pete”, would become a major embarrassment for the Government.


Let’s deal with the soccer first. In recent months I’ve closely followed the woes of Frank Lowy’s Football Federation of Australia, including spats with billionaire club A-League club owners Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler.

Lowy would have been hoping to put all that behind him with last night’s grand final, a sell-out game held in Brisbane between the local club the Roar and Perth Glory. But high fives at the FFA would have turned to head shaking, after a shocking penalty decision decided the match and the wrong player was given the man-of-the-match medal. Frank and the rest of the FFA will be hanging for the offseason.

Unfortunately for Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her team, the political game has no offseason, although after a difficult weekend that is surely what the PM must long for.

The furore surrounding the Speaker Peter Slipper, who was accused of fraud over the use of taxi vouchers (a criminal matter) and sexual harassment of a staffer (a civil legal matter) is another disaster for the Gillard Government.

Back in November 2011, when Gillard seized on the fact that Slipper was about to lose Liberal Party pre-selection and installed him as Speaker, there were plenty of murmurs about the colourful background of the man known as Slippery Pete.

Indeed, at the time of the deal he was under investigation by the Department of Finance over allegations of the misuse of MP expenses. He was cleared of these allegations in January, and said at the time was a supporter of openness and transparency where public money was concerned.

While the fresh allegations – and there have been more this morning, this time involving the alleged use of public monies for a friend’s political campaign in Tasmania – are still to be resolved, Slipper has stood aside as Speaker while investigations continue.

Gillard has said that is appropriate, although it was notable that neither she nor other senior Labor figures (including Treasurer Wayne Swan) were prepared to call for Slipper to stand down before he took the decision himself.

Gillard and her senior team are caught between a rock and a hard place, and they know it. On the one hand, they would no doubt like to run a million miles from Slipper. But if he is forced out, Labor’s hold on the House of Representatives would be put in danger. Playing the “this is a matter for the legal system” card isn’t exactly brilliant, but it’s the best Labor has got right now.

Julia Gillard will be hoping for a few days break from the furore as she files to Singapore and then onto Turkey for Anzac Day. But you can assume she would be spending a fair bit of her flight wondering whether the political expediency of the deal to make Slipper the Speaker was really worth the risk.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s not like Labor wouldn’t have known that a guy with the nickname Slippery Pete came with a certain amount of baggage. By embracing Slipper and giving him such an important position, Labor effectively made the former Liberal part of its extended team. Power by association has now turned into trouble by association.

A leader as far behind in the polls as Gillard is needs clear air to sell good policy. But from Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, she just cannot stay out of political trouble.

Exactly how this ugliness plays out isn’t clear. If Slipper doesn’t ultimately survive, then Gillard may have to re-embrace Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie and his push for clamps on poker machines.

Gillard’s deal with Slipper was partly about getting out of her deal with Wilkie to support so-called mandatory pre-commitment, which didn’t play well with many Labor voters. To be forced to go back to Wilkie cap in hand would be a short-term gain but could mean more long-term pain if the NSW clubs sector start campaigning against Labor again.

In the meantime, Swan and Gillard’s job of selling a tough Budget is about to get a bit harder. The Budget will be handed down on May 8, the next day Parliament is due to sit.

With Tony Abbott threatening to move to force Slipper out on that day, the Budget could well get lost in the noise.


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