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Auditing The Backbones

The Victorian Liberal Party’s Parliamentary wing wimped it again today. The bloated backbench failed yet again to stand up to the Kennett government’s moves to butcher the office of the Auditor-General. Once more, the brave boys and girls bowed down in a terrible conflict of fear and ambition. Reports of a party-room revolt have clearly been greatly exaggerated.

Of course, the brave Roger Pescott resigned from Parliament last week, citing the changes to the Auditor-General’s office and the leadership style of the Premier as reasons. Roger had been a very public and vocal critic of the moves, hadn’t he? Roger had spent months working within the party to change the legislation, hadn’t he? Roger is a man of great political principle, isn’t he?

Roger Pescott was first elected to Parliament in 1985, having defeated Labor’s Doug Newton in the Mount Waverley-based seat of Bennettswood. Within two years, he came within one vote of defeating Kennett for the Liberal leadership, losing by 24 votes to 23. In the internecine and byzantine world of Liberal Party politics, a world where political debate and philosophical discussion is secondary to settling old scores, Roger went on to trounce Kennett and become Deputy Leader to the hapless Alan Brown in 1989. He returned to the fold in a deft bit of political footwork in 1991 that helped return Kennett to the leadership. He served without distinction in a minor portfolio between 1992 and 1996. According to newspaper reports, he wrote to Kennett indicating he no longer wished to serve in the ministry. It was a classic case of jumping before he was pushed.

Since then, Roger hasn’t been heard of until he resigned in a blaze of inglory last week. Principle? Don’t make me laugh. Whilst some wilder reports in the popular media suggested other Libs might follow him, this has not happened. And Peter McLellan, the Liberal member for Frankston, failed to get a seconder for a motion he proposed in the party room. You can just see the other 70 or so members of the party room sitting on their hands as one of their number made a feeble attempt to preserve the essential checks and balances built into our political system.

Why are they like this?

Like any State Parliamentary backbench, this one contains more than its fair share of lightweights and losers, all the more so because so many of them were elected in the anti-Kirner landslide of 1992 and then re-elected in 1996. The smell of a parliamentary pension must be wafting persuasively across the nostrils of these political nothings. “Just one more term”, they’re thinking to themselves. So why stand up to Kennett?

And then there’s the fear. You can almost see it in their eyes when the television camera pans around the Legislative Assembly during Question Time. They sit there, a mixture of Liberal born-to-rule arrogance and fearful trepidation as their leader swaggers around the chamber. This is the Jeff Kennett who reportedly bawled out a backbencher who was late to a party-room meeting.

No, they won’t stand up to him. Worse, many of them even agree with the man. Afterall, these are the backbenchers who sat by while their government decimated the state’s schools, ran down the hospitals, sold off the public’s utility assets, turned the Central Business District into a giant advertisement for the Crown Casino, disposed of thousands of public servants, presided over a dangerously degraded ambulance system and systematically set about undermining the democratic safeguards built up over many decades.

Whether it’s the Accident Compensation court, Equal Opportunity Commissioner Moira Rayner, the Auditor-General, or the gagging of government school teachers, this has been a government unlike any Liberal government in our history. It’s a government not in the liberal tradition of a Dick Hamer, or even the development tradition of a Henry Bolte. Rather, this is a government that elevates the bottom line to the status of holy writ and which cheerfully disregards the social responsibility of government.

With control of both houses of parliament, Kennett proceeds almost unchecked. The Mitcham by-election notwithstanding, don’t expect it to change in the near future, not if the spinelessness exhibited today is anything to go by.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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