News National Paula Matthewson scores the two biggest political backflips of the year
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Paula Matthewson scores the two biggest political backflips of the year

Backflips are all about the landing. And some politicians have performed better than others, Paula Matthewson writes. Photo: Getty
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In politics, as in sport, the success or failure of a backflip depends on how well you stick the landing. Which is why these last few weeks of the political year are proving to be so interesting.

The vast majority of voters has already switched off, preferring to think of barbecues and the beach, rather than the dumpster fire that was politics in 2018.

But our politicians still have a lot to do before they can pop a coldie and sing Auld Lang Syne. They’re all too aware that a federal election will kick off (officially or not) as soon as we’ve packed away our Australia Day flags.

In preparation for that election, both the Coalition government and the Labor opposition have recently attempted breathtakingly ambitious backflips, with varying degrees of success.

The government’s change of heart came in the form of this week’s announcement to create a federal ICAC, or in this case, a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC).

However, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, managed to raise the degree of difficulty for this feat to a much higher level than it needed to be. And so he landed with an undignified splat.

Until the beginning of this year, the Coalition and Labor were united in their opposition to a federal ICAC. Both parties knew from bitter experience that anti-corruption bodies can be unpredictable and lethal.

But due to an adept campaign by the progressive Australia Institute, and a groundswell of support on social media, Labor blinked first. Opposition leader Bill Shorten announced in January this year that, if elected, his government would establish a National Integrity Commission.

In pure political terms, the PM couldn’t afford not to match his opponent’s promise – he had no choice but to neutralise that line of attack. But the most effective way to rob Labor of any capital from the issue would have been to copy the opposition’s model and worry about its problematic elements after the election.

Instead, Mr Morrison offered voters a Clayton’s ICAC which, unlike Labor’s, would conduct any investigations into politicians, their staff and the public service in private and not involve public hearings.

While it’s probably a wise precaution to avoid public hearings degenerating into a trial by media, this proposed approach runs counter to the main reason why voters want a federal ICAC – to see corruption weeded out at the highest levels and help re-establish the public’s trust in the people who run the country.

As a result, the PM’s offering looked to be little more than an expensive protection racket, leaving Labor to occupy the high moral ground. Overall, his backflip scored 2/10.

Attorney General Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the federal government’s corruption watchdog this week. Photo: AAP

In contrast, the left wing of the Labor Party appears to have pulled off a much more complex manoeuvre with its backflip on asylum seeker boat turnbacks.

Over recent weeks, leading luminaries of the left such as deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and opposition frontbencher Anthony Albanese have essentially renounced their previously steadfast opposition to turnbacks, to ensure the party will not be split asunder by the issue during its national conference, which starts on Sunday.

This is a huge reversal by Labor’s left, similar in significance to, say, members of the Liberals’ reactionary right deciding to embrace renewable energy for the sake of party unity before the election. So far, it appears they’ve managed a pretty firm landing, thanks to the Government’s CIC and other announcements dominating the media.

If there aren’t any last minute wobbles, the manoeuvre could score as high as 8/10. But we won’t know for sure until any other motions about asylum seekers and offshore detention, including the removal of detainees from Nauru and Manus, opens up the issue for debate at the conference.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how audacious a political backflip is if the voting public doesn’t perceive the change of heart as both authentic and warranted. Fumbling the landing, like Mr Morrison did with his Clayton’s ICAC, doesn’t help to create that perception.

But neither does abandoning an iconic issue that sits at the core of one’s credibility, as the Labor left has done with boat turnbacks.

Even if it is the politically sensible thing to do.

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