ROB Oakeshott’s recently published memoir is an entertaining and insightful recollection of his vital role in giving supply and confidence to the minority Labor Government, and his part in the progress of major legislation between 2010 and 2013.
His push for parliamentary and education reform and a price on carbon during this period will be familiar to many readers, but his book also sheds light on the less well known details of the negotiations behind the agreement with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the workings of the 43rd Parliament while Oakeshott served as Independent Member for the NSW electorate of Lyne.
He finds some answers with the voice and growing influence of the new media.
Integral to this account is the hostility of the media, in particular right-wing radio hosts and News Corp. Oakeshott reflects on how best to respond to the “corruption of our democracy” from these vested interests. He finds some answers with the voice and growing influence of the new media.
This book is skilfully structured in five parts. The first captures the intensity of the 17 days from Saturday, August 12, 2010, when at 10pm during the victory celebrations for his campaign team, Oakeshott sensed, “the significance of the moment” with the national election result being so close.
The second covers his early political career in state and federal politics and reveals his motives for turning away from the National Party to act as an Independent. Being a social progressive and economic liberal, Oakeshott found himself increasingly at odds with the economic protectionism and social agrarianism of the Nationals. He wasn’t therefore naturally aligned to the Coalition as assumed by the then leader of the opposition Tony Abbott.
Oakeshott identifies himself as policy-focused, supporting policies underpinned by principle. Climate change and the National Broadband Network (NBN) were, therefore, non-negotiable when dealing with Gillard and Abbott. Oakeshott also emphasises that “in politics, relationships matter. Often, they are the only things that do”, and he admits in his heart of hearts he would have had a problem with Abbott over these two fundamental policies.
In the third and main section, he reveals the trust and friendly relations that developed between Prime Minister Gillard, the Independent Member for New England Tony Windsor, and himself at their weekly meetings over the three years of the parliament.
The two independent ministers warmed to the Prime Minister’s personable manner and great professionalism, but Oakeshott was sensitive to the strong negative perceptions of her. He recounts the increasing criticism from the media and the undermining by her party even as many of the major pieces of policy, such as the Gonski education reforms, were passed into legislation.
Oakeshott claims that, “ultimately it was perception, not reality, that destroyed her”.
The role of the media in creating perceptions, and the political influence of corporations which undermine Australian democracy, are developments that Oakeshott finds disturbing, having himself experienced gross misrepresentation by the press after his decision to support the Labor Government. In one case, the media wrongly tagged him to the death of an 11-year-old boy at the Urunga Pacific Highway blackspot.
Oakeshott laments the loss of the NBN and the possibility of Murdoch and Telstra making millions with changes of the policy direction under the Coalition. Consumers, he fears, will miss out in favour of a couple of corporate boards.
In the final section of his memoir, Oakeshott identifies the rise of the independent progressive media as a possible answer to corporate influence gaining control of the debate through the funding of universities, think-tanks and political candidates.
According to Oakeshott, news sources such as Independent Australia, New Matilda, Big Smoke and others which publish contributions from individuals like ex-parliamentary journalist, Margo Kingston, and David Donovan “respond to corporate influence with new and fiercely independent media voices, especially online”.
In closing, Oakeshott expresses pride in the achievements of the 43rd Parliament but also disappointment at the lost opportunities, particularly the advancement of the constitutional recognition of Australia’s First People. His commitment to advancing Aboriginal policy was strengthened by his marriage to Sarah Jane of the Yow Yeh people.
It is difficult, nonetheless, to understand Oakeshott’s acceptance of Noel Pearson’s view that Indigenous policy would be best served under Tony Abbott. It will be interesting to see if he still holds this view after almost a year of conservative government.
Oakeshott’s persuasive, eloquent and familiar voice is evident throughout his memoir and lends veracity to his account of a most remarkable period of Australian political history.