It’s hard to deny that lobby groups in Australia have grown increasingly powerful and strident over the past few years. We have only to look back to the success of the recent mining tax and poker machine reform campaigns to see that all it takes to defend the indefensible is a wad of cash and a platform to shout from.
Sadly, these tactics have gradually infected our political arena. Now more than ever before, the politics of denial and obliteration have gained ascendancy, and the implications are dire. “Whatever it takes” is the new catchcry emanating from Canberra and echoing around the country via a media body that has grown fat on sensationalism and conjecture. Facts, it seems, are optional and easily ignored.
Consider poker machine reform, an area I have followed closely since the 2010 Federal election. From the moment this became a possibility, the industry swung into action to protect its bottom line. Australia’s clubs, hotels and casinos formed an alliance behind Clubs Australia (itself no more than a mouthpiece for Clubs NSW) and turned up the blowtorch. Nothing was safe.
There was hysteria and outrage about the possibility of fingerprinting poker machine patrons. There were strong assertions that gambling problems were symptoms of deeper issues and that the machines themselves were blameless. There were predictions of nationwide carnage with hundreds of venues to close and thousands of jobs to be lost. There was the “It’s Un-Australian” campaign and following that, the “Won’t Work Will Hurt” campaign that specifically targeted individual MPs and encouraged their constituents to vote them out of office.
All in all, it was a relentless and coordinated attack where the end was all important, and the means were whatever it took.
Of course, this was only the first phase of the campaign. Once it proved successful, with the proposed reforms being watered down to an industry-friendly shadow of the original concept, the second phase began. Suddenly Clubs Australia began describing themselves as “champions” of reform, working tirelessly to help Australia’s problem gamblers and leading the way for the industry to do what was right. Politicians who insisted on pursuing stronger measures were called posturing bullies with relevance issues, and described on more than one occasion as “roadblocks” to the “real reform” that Clubs Australia was responsible for.
First the attack, then the revision. It’s well known that history is written by the victors.
Now consider the Craig Thomson situation. From the moment the allegations of financial impropriety against Thomson surfaced, he has been in the Coalition’s sights. As more details emerged and talk turned to prostitutes and forgery, the scrutiny intensified until it became an all-out attack on the personal character of the man. Nothing was sacred; and no matter what he did or said, everything became proof of his supposed guilt.
Tony Abbott, as the leader of the Coalition, has been the instigator of many of these attacks and has encouraged others in his party to follow suit. There can be no doubt that the prolonged assault on Thomson’s character in Parliament has been undertaken with Abbott’s blessing; ultimately he is responsible for the actions of his party.
The more salacious things got, the more focused the attack became. Thomson has yet to face a court of law with regards to any of the allegations that have been made against him, but that hasn’t stopped the deluge of outrage and accusation, the calls for him to stand down or be sacked, the progressive assassination of his reputation. The press gallery has hung on every word; more than that, they’ve adopted the hysteria as their own and found him guilty... not as charged, but as implied.
Thomson's banishment to the cross-benches did little to alleviate the onslaught. Even his hour-long address to Parliament earlier this week was turned into supposed proof of his guilt. This torrent of recrimination has been sustained for so long and so vehemently that now fears are being raised about Thomson’s state of mind; his recent public statement, including the question “Is this about trying to push someone to the brink?” strengthened those fears.
End of phase one; time for phase two.
Suddenly Abbott is deeply concerned for Thomson’s well-being. Suddenly he’s blaming Prime Minister Gillard for putting her interests ahead of those of her embattled MP. Suddenly he's calling on Thomson to resign not because because of what he's allegedly done, but to take the spotlight off him.
''The best thing for everyone, to take the pressure off him, to take the pressure off his family, would be for him to leave the Parliament,'' Abbott told the media, blithely ignoring the incontrovertible fact that he himself was the architect of the campaign against Thomson.
First the attack, then the revision.
The Coalition has seamlessly adopted the same tactics that Australia's lobby groups, the “vested interests” have employed to great effect. No tactic is too low, no target off limits, and small considerations like the law and the Constitution are merely guidelines to be ignored at will. What's terrifying is that this battle-plan of bullying and faux concern will more than likely see the Coalition voted into office late next year... again, it’s well known that history is written by the victors.
Australian politics was headed for the basement; somewhere along the way it got stuck in the lobby. Canberra will never be the same.