View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Labor defence spokesman Conroy has been routed by the generals

Stephen Conroy has attracted negative attention because of his bad behaviour in Senate estimates. AAP/Daniel Munoz

Before the election Stephen Conroy inflicted severe damage on his own side with his ill-fated media reforms. Now his badly judged attack on Angus Campbell, the military man in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, has derailed the opposition’s parliamentary week.

There’s no doubt the Abbott government has dragged the military into the political process – and that the military has been unhappy about that, at one stage obtaining a clearer delineation between immigration minister Scott Morrison and Campbell at their joint news conferences.

But for Conroy to accuse the well-respected three-star general of being “engaged in a political cover-up” was to go on a reckless, undisciplined mission that was doomed to end in disaster.

One of the ALP’s hardmen of the Victorian right, Conroy is Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate. After the election the former communications minister became defence spokesman – and stayed a very quiet one until Tuesday.

With Senate estimates hearings underway, Conroy first lashed out at Ziggy Switkowski, chairman of NBN Co, Conroy’s former area of responsibility. He accused Switkowski of lying.

A few hours later he harangued Campbell, saying: “You can’t tell the Australian public the truth because you might upset an international neighbour. That’s called a political cover-up… You are engaged in a political cover-up.” Campbell, only too aware of what an awkward situation he’s been placed in by his job, told the hearing he took “extreme offence” at the remark. Conroy withdrew the comment but the damage was done.

With a more subtle approach and without playing the man, Conroy could have made his point about the government using the military as a political shield.

Instead, his outburst turned into a cluster bomb exploding all over Labor’s backyard.

At Wednesday’s estimates hearing, Australian Defence Force chief David Hurley hit back, saying that while Conroy had withdrawn the accusations, “unfortunately, once said the shadow will linger”.

Conroy, who had been spoken to by an unimpressed Bill Shorten, told the hearing (after the Hurley contribution) that he wanted “to make it absolutely clear that I have no criticism whatsoever of military personnel carrying out government orders”.

He did not apologise to Campbell.

The government had plenty of ammunition for a question time attack. But it was independent Andrew Wilkie, a passionate opponent of the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy, who put Labor on the spot, moving for Conroy to “be admonished for calling into question the integrity [of Campbell]”.

Wilkie had decided on the motion during question time. He had trouble attracting the attention of Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, and approached Leader of the House Christopher Pyne for help getting the call. Wilkie’s plan was for Victorian independent Cathy McGowan (who sits near him) to second the motion but Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rushed to do so.

“I think a line was crossed yesterday,” Wilkie told the House. “General Campbell is a classmate of mine [from Duntroon] and someone I know a little, and I know that he is a good person and I know that he will do a good job following the orders he is given by the government of the day, as unpalatable as those orders are.”

The motion found Shorten having to strongly back the military without deserting Conroy.

Saying the opposition would not support the motion, Shorten went on the front foot, condemning “the sanctimonious, finger-wagging, lecture-giving, sermonising, false patriotism where those opposite would seek to use the military as a stick to beat Labor about the head with”.

As for Campbell, he deserved better than “having you use him as a political football to pursue your grubby culture of secrecy”.

Shorten revealed he had tried to contact Campbell “to indicate, on behalf of Labor, our ongoing respect and support for him” (the two spoke later in the day).

The fiery Shorten speech impressed his followers, many of whom had been dismayed by Conroy.

Conroy had cost Labor the chance of making the most of the forensic work it did in another estimates hearing, where opposition Senate leader Penny Wong relentlessly grilled Assistant Minister for Health Fiona Nash about her former chief of staff Alastair Furnival, who had to resign over an apparent conflict of interest.

The short version of the Furnival affair is that he’d been supposed to divest his interests in a family lobbying business, but hadn’t done so until the matter blew up this month. The firm’s clients included Kraft, Cadbury and the Australian Beverages Council (although it had not lobbied the Coalition government for them on health issues).

Furnival seems to have thrown his weight about; he made the first of several calls from the minister’s office to tell the Health Department to take down a website displaying health ratings of food products. (Nash said it was her decision to have the site removed.)

The hearing exposed differences in the accounts given by Nash and Tony Abbott. Quizzed in question time about the discrepancies, Abbott stonewalled with minimalist answers. He makes the point that the man has gone and he takes the view that the affair will blow over.

It will, but it could have been given a lot more exposure but for Conroy.

A visitor from Mars might wonder how Conroy (who went overseas during the election campaign) regained in opposition Labor’s Senate deputy job (from which he had stepped down when Kevin Rudd returned to the prime ministership). But someone would then explain to that visitor how thickly factional blood runs.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson here.

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