They were the odd mob – a group of crossbenchers who gathered on Tuesday night in the office of Bob Katter, the Queensland maverick with a party bearing his own name.
The meeting had been organised by country independent Tony Windsor, in an attempt to broker a deal that would muster the five out of the seven crossbench votes needed to salvage key parts of the government’s media package.
Windsor had seen some hope in a suggestion from Katter that would make more independent the highly contentious Public Interest Media Advocate - who the government wants to oversee self regulation in the print and online media as well as to administer the public interest test aimed at preventing greater concentration.
The Katter plan would have the “Advocate” be a panel rather than one person, and that panel would be chosen by another panel.
Those at the meeting also included the Greens Adam Bandt, former Speaker Peter Slipper and suspended Labor MP Craig Thomson.
Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie had been invited, but did not attend.
A hitch came when Katter argued against his own proposal – according to one account Katter was “in his full glory” - and a frustrated Windsor, who had given it some public support, lost his temper.
Still, sufficient progress towards a potential deal was made for Windsor to declare on radio this morning that there was “probably a 70% chance of success”. At lunchtime Greens leader Christine Milne said “I give it more than 70% chance”.
For Julia Gillard, the stakes were high. With her leadership swinging in the breeze, to salvage nothing of significance out of this botched exercise would further fuel the criticism that was helping the Rudd forces as they frantically tried to garner numbers to force her out.
But a few hours after Windsor gave his optimistic estimate, the package appeared to be in its death throes. Wilkie declared he opposed the measures. Country independent Rob Oakeshott had already said earlier in the week that he would not support it.
Both Oakeshott and Slipper are critical of the media measures for not going far enough. But Oakeshott is using that as a reason for opposing it, while Slipper told his local paper the package was “a step in the right direction, but a small step”. He supports it.
Thomson last week declared his opposition, although he attended the talks in Katter’s office. At one point the government thought he might abstain.
Katter gave a 1:40 pm news conference in which he detailed his proposal: a 12 person panel to elect three commissioners to create “a people’s watchdog” to “represent and protect members of the public and journalists – particularly those showing courage under difficult circumstances.
"Australians should have the opportunity to put forth names to be selected by the Council for the Order of Australia. This is the same democratic process used by the Council when outstanding Australian citizens are recognised for their community work through an Order of Australia”.
He said the panel members should include three from the journalists association, three from the Australian Press Council, and the remaining six representing retirees, eminent journalists, academia, jurists, employees and business owner-operators.
Despite the apparent hopelessness of the numbers, the government pushed on with trying to see if there was any way of finding some variation of the panel on panel option. Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan visited the Katter office. At one point the office locked the door because so many people were coming through.
The government adjourned the House of Representatives with the media legislation still in mid-debate. Most saw the prognosis as bleak. But Windsor revised his optimism only marginally down – to “60%” - while another source in the crossbench camp claimed a compromise were “very much still in play”.
“We are still seeking to find a resolution to the impasse”, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said tonight. “I’m not predicting an outcome.”