Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Political Ethics

Before the 2011 election, O'Farrell seemed untouchable.

Everyone knew he was going to be elected, and this meant he could run a "safe campaign". As I have said on multiple occasions since, all O'Farrell needs to do to win at least 8 years is to not piss too many people off - and he started making sure he followed this edict well before the election.

The campaign was overwhelmingly a "safe" one, with policies calculated to keep people either happy or indifferent.

Of course it was obvious to anyone paying attention that this was what he was doing, but it was the Coalition's compensation for 16 years in the wilderness - people were so sick of Labor that they were willing to vote for just about anyone else.

This all made the kerfuffle about ethics classes so surprising - it was entirely of the Coalition's making.

In some ways, it was not dissimilar to the solar feed-in tariff drama - it could have been easily avoided had the Coalition managed it better.

Ethics classes are a touchy issue.  It lies at the point where religion, politics and children intersect.

Church groups have long been permitted access to school by way of religious education.  At present, children have a choice whether they wish to attend religious education.

However, if they choose not to attend, then they are not offered any alternative instruction or (often) even supervision.

The St James Ethics Centre has for years been agitating for these children to be given instruction in Ethics.  The classes have been offered on a trial basis for some time now.

Predictably, churches have vigorously opposed the mooted changes, presumably thinking that these classes will reduce interest in the religious education.

For me, this position has never really made sense. I'm young enough that I remember school, and I know that given the chance to be in a class or goof around in a library, we would have chosen the library every day of the week.

I would have thought if the kids not attending religious education were rather forced to attend ethics classes, then there might be a newfound interest in the religious education.  

But maybe that's just me.

In September 2010, as opposition leader, O'Farrell said "I don't favour ethics classes being an alternative to special religious education classes."  In November, the Coalition announced that their policy was that the classes would not be retained.

In February, after a sustained campaign in support of the classes, the Coalition announced that the classes would stay after all. The excuse given for the backdown was that the Coalition did not believe that it would have the numbers in the upper house to make the changes.

Unsurprisingly Fred Nile was "disappointed" by the backdown, but said that he agreed that the "left" was likely to hold the balance of power in the upper house.

Of course, as it happens, the CDP and the Shooters and Fishers hold the balance of power, and since the election the trial of the ethics classes has continued unabated. 

A rumour began to spread on twitter yesterday that Fred Nile, leader of the Christian Democrats, was only going to back O'Farrell's IR changes if ethics classes were dumped.

The rumour was confirmed today when Nile released this statement.

This part is the most telling:

This is a dangerous game for Nile to be playing.

On one hand, he is entirely right about the make-up of the upper house.  There is no doubt the Coalition has the numbers to end the classes.

Having said that, no one seriously believes that the reason that the Coalition did not persist with the changes was that they lacked the numbers,  The policy had become politically inconvenient, and was dumped.

To now revive it, and to change their position again, is going to make the Coalition look indecisive.

This is particularly a danger when Labor and the Greens are turning on the heat re the Coalition's relationship with the minor parties.  A change in position at the direct, public command of one of those minor parties is going to be thrown back in the Coalition's face for years to come.

Fred Nile is, however, nothing if not a canny politician, and he may well suspect that whilst threatening to vote down the IR changes would make him look bad, it would get the IR changes back on the front pages for a few days, which would no doubt cause O'Farrell all sorts of trouble.

However, my view is that by making the threat so publicly, he is backing O'Farrell into a corner.  

With this threat being made in the open, my view is that O'Farrell cannot relent, or else he risks this government being permanently labelled as being at the beck and call of the minor parties, much as Gillard is currently regarded by many as being controlled by Bob Brown.

On the other hand, O'Farrell is clearly committed to the IR changes, and has already spent a large amount of political capital getting them this far down the path to enactment.

It seems to me that the Coalition has to call Nile's bluff.  Ideologically, there is no reason for the CDP to vote against the changes.  Further, on 2 June, Nile gave a speech in the Upper House supporting the IR changes.

If he now votes against the changes, he will be described by the Coalition (and, in all likelihood, by certain sections of the media) as being a shameless opportunist, voting based on spite rather than policy.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that there must be a third solution that Nile is pushing behind the scenes. Perhaps he has now communicated privately that he will agree to vote for the IR changes if some change is made to the Ethics classes, such as allowing the classes but saying that they should be run at a separate time to Religious Education.

The IR bill is to be voted on on 2 August, but every day this threat stays out there is another day of IR being in the papers, and another day of unions building outrage and campaigning against the changes.

No doubt the Coalition will be hoping that Nile can be placated over the ethics classes without making the Coalition look weak, or else the image of the CDP running the state will be difficult to shake.

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