David Pocock’s a nice bloke, but …

Jul 24, 2022
Senator David Pocock Portrait taken at Parliament House
Image: AAP /Mick Tsikas

Independent Senator David Pocock fronted his first “quarterly town hall” meeting at the grand old Albert Hall in Canberra with a welter of kindness and concern – but there’s a bit more to his new job than being nice.

Billed as a chance to “talk to us about the issues that are important to you”, one might have expected an old-fashioned town hall confrontation, where hecklers and difficult questioners were to the fore.

Pocock’s event got there in the end with the floor opening up, but it took the best part of three-quarters of an hour of platitudes, motherhood statements and an unnecessary presentation from an expert on climate change before we did. Questioners were politely invited to put their questions in an “app” and then “vote up” the ones they thought best.

As the hall was largely comprised of Pocock fans, he got bowled up what might be considered medium-paced long hops that even this inexperienced political batsman could turn to advantage. No to new coal or gas extraction. Yes to an Integrity Commission, but how to ensure its independence? “I don’t have a good answer to that at the moment.”

But wasn’t it one of the major planks of your campaign? And where were the details, especially about the mechanisms by which he might effect change? Does he, and his rapidly assembling team, understand the workings of parliament and the nature of government?

Details really were at a premium on the night. If this was a press-gallery pack instead of an ever-so-polite group of supporters in what equated to a party branch meeting, he would have been eaten alive, in my view, on just about every subject, except climate.

On tax, yes, he would repeal the legislated Stage 3 cuts but where was the question that doing so would be enacting retrospective legislation and how did that stand with his platform of integrity, integrity, integrity? Wouldn’t he be trashing a long-held Westminster tradition in his first weeks in the job? He didn’t touch on this, not even by deploying the common Keynesian line that minds can reasonably change when circumstances do.

In other areas, he seemed quite at sea. His concern about housing affordability was palpable but the words were thin. “More effort” was required. He did point to an ACT trial with the HomeGround not-for-profit real-estate agency to make private rentals 25 per cent less expensive via an ACT Government land-tax exemption. Great, but you’re a federal parliamentarian. Did you not know of the National Rental Affordability Scheme, started under Kevin Rudd and axed under Tony Abbott, that had a 20 per cent discount operating nationwide? Would you bring it back in some form? At what cost?

Of course, in Canberra, he was always going to get some tighter questioning, even in the honeymoon environment of this first show-and-tell among friends. Two of the best came about the National Capital Authority (would it, finally, be brought to heel?) and territory rights (did he know that ACT bushfire fighters were deployed interstate but did not receive the same reward as their state counterparts?)

On the first, again he had the right instincts, though he seemed not to know a lot of the history and at one point seemed to equate the NCA’s powers to those of its long-gone predecessor the National Capital Development Commission. Yes, he agreed, the NCA’s power had to be pulled back, he thought, but he hadn’t really turned his mind to the issue (as perennial, and divisive, a Canberra issue has there has ever been): “we’re scrambling just to get through the current legislation”.

This is where Pocock has to choose. Important as it is to have a formed view on everything before the Parliament, there are many Bills that won’t be controversial. There are many others where other parliamentarians, particularly the teal wave, might give him a useful lead. This allows time for our ACT Senator to concentrate on our ACT issues and on those select major national issues he seeks to influence, chiefly climate, housing and an integrity commission, it seems. At the end of the day, even Caesar, Washington and Churchill are remembered by the masses for only one or two things each. You can’t be everything to everyone, Senator.

The bushfire question was exceedingly detailed, and appeared to catch the Senator unawares of the discrepancy between jurisdictions and the severe disadvantage to ACT firefighters. Fair enough. He can’t be across everything. But the question came with an out: Yes, of course he would be meeting with them to learn of the issue.

And that will be Pocock’s strength. His pledge to be “accessible, accountable and transparent” is hardly unique. He will find it grinding. Already, he told us of the 60 groups lined up seeking a meeting. But that’s the job. He should be meeting and listening and learning.

But at some point he will have to decide what precise action he supports. He will then have to find out how to make change, remembering he is but one Senator out of 76 and there are 151 others all pledged to represent their own patches in the House of Representatives.

When Paul Keating, 25, entered Parliament in 1969, he sought out Sir John Bunting, head of the Prime Minister’s Department, to learn how the levers of government power worked. Sir John was surprised as no other backbencher, nor many ministers nor opposition spokesmen, had done anything similar. He gave his time generously.

As an independent with an open mind, Pocock, 34, would do well to knock on a few doors at PM and C, and Treasury, and beyond. He might be surprised at the welcome, and we might all benefit from the knowledge gained by a bloke who seems a real chance to make something of a difference.

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