02 October 2015

Less than expected

One of the things that keeps this blog going is a desire to use its backlog as the raw material for some in-depth studies into how the Australian media misinformed Australians about the way they were governed 2006-15, and the alternatives we might've had (and might yet have). Recent reading suggests it might be hard to draw a line at the fall of Abbott, and that the effects of crap journalism from the press gallery will yet linger like nuclear waste.

That's your interpretation Leigh

Scott Morrison has not taken to the job of Treasurer with the aplomb some had expected. Being Treasurer is a big, tough job. On what basis did anyone expect a new Treasurer to take to it easily? Hockey had been Shadow Treasurer for years and never made the transition. Swan kept as low a profile as was possible initially, until he started getting across his brief. Costello was the last Treasurer who could do the worse-than-expected-cut-the-promises pantomime, and made an early faux pas by disclosing off-the-record discussions with Alan Greenspan that sent global stock markets into conniptions.

Morrison hasn't had years of preparation for Treasury, he couldn't keep a low profile if his life depended on it, and as with John Dawkins his action-man persona means nobody will cut him any slack. Even so, the press gallery was unanimous that he was the only choice for Treasurer, and are a bit confused that he is less a duck-to-water and more like a duck trying to waddle across a freeway.

His big triumph at Tourism Australia wasn't one. Scott Morrison failing to sell Australia to foreign tourists was a bit like Alan Bond and John Elliott having the Australian beer market locked up between them, and going broke anyway - a failure so inexplicable that merely laughing at them or throwing them into prison wouldn't have been enough. Morrison is to blame for Lara Bingle, and it will come back to bite him: I don't know the issue, nor the day nor the hour, but one day the government will do something that antagonises Bingle and activists will rope her into saying "Hey Morrison, where the bloody hell are ya on [issue]?". They will cover that to the exclusion of all else because you know what the press gallery is like.

As NSW Director of the Liberal Party Morrison sucked up and spat down, including on my old Young Liberals branch. He started his frontbench career dumping on people who aren't citizens, don't speak our language, and who are hidden from us; he moved on to people who are dependent minorities, to be typecast and shunned.

As Treasurer, his modus operandi doesn't really work. Nobody is disconnected from the economy. If you start defining a group and then blaming them for everything wrong with the economy (Jewish bankers? Trade unionists?), you just look like a loon. He's said blaming the global situation is a cop-out. Blaming Labor is a cop-out too, particularly when you consider the Coalition has spent 13 of the last 20 years in government.

The press gallery note his early stumbles but can't quite explain them. To be fair to the gallery, and to Morrison, they haven't written Morrison off. To be equally fair, what is the point where you do so? What is the difference between what the Australian Treasurer needs in times like these, and what Morrison (or, insert your alternative here) offers?

Did the press gallery sell us yet another dog when they presented Morrison as the only real choice for Treasurer? Imagine if he'd become leader, as one or two commentators predicted.

The three-word slogans, three-word slogans

Peter Martin doesn't blame the press gallery for the gap between expectations of and performance by Morrison. He blames Turnbull for talking Morrison up. In reality, Morrison was foisted on Turnbull, and nobody in the press gallery demurred.

Morrison is doing the three-word slogans for two reasons: first, he's nervous. He's resorting to what he knows, what got him into the position in the first place.

Second, he thinks so little of us that he genuinely believes simplistic slogans will do. Morrison is on a fast learning curve in terms of economic and budgetary policy, but at heart he is a conservative. Conservatives believe people are greedy and facile and don't know what's good for them. Conservatives believe they know best, don't need to engage in debate and risk their ideas, and that stunts can chew up media space that might otherwise be given to competing ideas. Conservatives want to do what they want with a minimum of opposition, and don't want to do the heavy lifting of bringing millions with you.

Joe Hockey had made the same mistake. He met with actual economists off the record and impressed them with his grasp of the finer points of economics, some of which were different to his public statements (e.g., poo-poohing the idea that there really was an economic crisis. Just between us, behind closed doors, c'mon). On the record he was a performing gimp, with his simplistic nonsense about budget emergencies and what have you. The actual economists told journalists that Hockey had a depth that wasn't obvious in the media persona, and journalists believed it and reported it long after the facts had betrayed everyone involved.

Morrison is trying the same thing Hockey did, but without a decade's experience as a minister or of matching it with people who know about economics. He can't win. He can patronise people, and be dismissive to journalists, but if he was truly across his brief he wouldn't do either of those things. The Prime Minister, no shrinking violet, knows this. Not everybody can engage in abstruse economic jargon, but everybody cares about their job and their friends' jobs and house prices and the sense of well-being that keeps everything and everyone ticking along. Martin is right when he implores Morrison not to patronise us, to engage with the detail, to engage with us as though we too help shape our own destinies.

Perhaps it's too early, even in a hyped-up age, to expect Morrison to be across the detail. What made Keating so effective were not what would now be called "zingers" in Parliament. Keating went to interview after interview, day after day, showing that he was across the detail. People who hated him knew he was across the detail, and couldn't bump him off it. Nobody has confidence Morrison is across the detail, but all this pleading is to encourage him to get across it, and soon.

A sucker, an even break

When Wayne Swan gave way to Chris Bowen as Treasurer - was it really only two years ago? - Hockey as Shadow Treasurer did not hesitate to monster the new boy. Now as Shadow Treasurer, Bowen has refrained from going after Morrison. Is Bowen being restrained, or merely weak? Will Labor regret not defining Morrison, and tripping him up? If we had a proper press gallery, they would be asking those sorts of questions.

All in good time

Michael Pascoe did much the same thing as Martin, but with a bit less patience and a bit better understanding of the politics. Morrison is trying to get the right back on side, by talking about spending rather than taxing. He thinks that by being a conservative Treasurer he will eventually win back the right-wing zombies who think he betrayed Abbott.

Note that neither Pascoe nor Martin are press gallery, but their analysis of Morrison is better than all the press gallery put together.

Abbott thought he'd be safe by cleaving to the right, and built up a Praetorian guard of Queensland right-wingers around him. Plenty of them voted for Turnbull - the idea that such people should demand loyalty from Morrison is just bullshit. Journalists who understand politics would call them on it rather than do anonymous quotes.

Andrew Bolt (no I won't link to his article) was late in running the same sort of slavering get-a-room profiles on Abbott, how brilliant and warm and witty he really was and is, etc., that press gallery journalists have been running for years. All that "best Opposition Leader ever" stuff was garbage. People hate themselves for having believed it and hate the media for dumbing down public debate to the point where people regard it as beneath them. Like the rest of the Liberal right, Bolt dares not admit that Abbott lost because he did pretty much what Bolt hoped he'd do. They keen and wail over Abbott when they are really lamenting their own irrelevance. They aren't the stoic defenders of timeless truths they wish, they assume, they are.

Morrison's refusal to swear a biblical oath before God and Ray Hadley will also impress all but the most butthurt conservative - eventually. Tony Abbott would say whatever he felt needed to be said to get a momentary advantage; Morrison did to Abbott what he did to the country. In taking on Morrison Abbott still underestimates, in his enfeebled state, his ability to take on anyone and beat them.

When John Howard became Liberal leader in 1995 he took the stick to the factional leaders of the Liberal right. He gave the moderates a whack too, but he wanted to make it clear that he owed the right nothing. They needed to get behind him, not the other way around; it was his last chance to become Prime Minister and nobody was getting in his way. They slunk around like whipped dogs for months, but they respected him and were rewarded in government. Morrison knows that you can do over the right and not lose them forever.

This is why [$] what Peter Brent thinks is a conundrum isn't one. Brent makes the most elegant straw men of anyone in Australian political commentary, you almost feel like a vandal knocking them down. With a Liberal loss the right will grow proportionally in importance because the moderates necessary to hold marginal seats won't be there. They will turn to Morrison because he has, and will have, the most net achievements as a conservative. Andrews is relegated to the backroom obscurity from which he should never have emerged. Dutton is a galoot, everyone knows it; he may lose his seat even if Turnbull wins.

Abbott, now older than Rudd, Gillard, Nelson, Costello, or Fraser were when their moment had passed, is hanging on because he has no better options. Nobody is offering him even the table scraps Reith or Costello are getting from the private sector. Turnbull is giving him nothing. Morrison is doing to Abbott what Julia Gillard should have done more - ignoring him, letting him burn himself out.

Liberals in his area are more likely to preselect a more moderate replacement, but only if he goes quietly - nobody is going to chop him down, we've all seen how he behaves when he takes the contest personally.


Direct ministerial responsibility for the Tax Office comes not from Morrison but Kelly O'Dwyer. You would expect O'Dwyer to be announcing this, and a real journalist would have examined why Morrison did.

So Morrison wants to announce a new Tax Office but doesn't want to talk about tax. Morrison would have stood with his back to Fr Rod Bowers' pithy church signs. Instead, he talked unconvincingly about big economic development themes. He owes Canberra nothing and is happy to move public servants away from there. Gosford was the civic centre of the fast-growing Central Coast before big shopping malls shifted the business and the bustle out of town, which goes to some of Turnbull's thinking on cities. The site where Morrison wants to build a Tax Office had been earmarked for open space, reorienting Gosford toward its waterfront as Melbourne and Brisbane and Newcastle have done.

Wicks is a NSW Liberal and a potential voter in future Liberal leadership contests. Oh, and colourful media identity John Singleton has an office in Gosford. Even if O'Dwyer had wanted to make this announcement, Morrison was always going to pull rank.


O'Dwyer worked in Costello's office, she's never hidden her interest in economic policy, and has applied herself to such policy in committees. She's been the loyal soldier in media appearances, to the point where many who observe politics closely can be forgiven for thinking O'Dwyer is dull-witted and unimaginative. She's now in a role where she can dispel that image, and perhaps take a slower but surer road to the Treasurer's office than Morrison has.

Watch for the press gallery to give Morrison credit for O'Dwyer's work, again and again - you know what they're like.

If Andrew Bolt decided that he wanted Kelly O'Dwyer's seat, the Victorian Liberals would give it to him. They are that stupid; they're taking resources that might be profitably used to defend O'Dwyer or Billson and throwing them away in the hills where Sophie Mirabella lurks. Say what you will about whether Labor and the Greens can join forces to outseat O'Dwyer, or how they might go against Bolt, but she has put herself up for public life and actually engaged the public in ways that Mirabella never could. Meanwhile, Bolt, like Victorian Liberal State President Michael Kroger, declined numerous rails-run offers. O'Dwyer is not a sook like Bolt or Abbott, and she runs rings around Mirabella.

Jim Short was a young Treasury official in 1964 when he was sent to work in the Treasurer's office. He saw the great economic and political challenges of the time up close - the transition to decimal currency, the upheavals in Vietnam and Indonesia - and was hooked. It took him 20 years to get into Parliament and another ten to become Assistant Treasurer. Months later Howard dropped him over undisclosed share holdings. O'Dwyer has already come in ahead of Short's long and futile career arc.


Our country is heading into a period of economic turmoil. Our major media outlets misrepresented the competence of the immediate past Prime Minister and Treasurer. They talked up the incumbent Treasurer too - but at this stage his friends will plead to cut him some slack, while his enemies might be persuaded to give him enough rope. This is the time for some cold-eyed assessments of what our country requires, not to go into bat for good old Scottie.

Our country needs information and recognition of where we are at, and our options on where we go from here. Scott Morrison needs to be across those issues and those options - and he needs to take us with him. Some will agree but those who won't need to respect him and see this or that announcement as part of a coherent whole.

The Prime Minister can't build the coherent whole by himself, and there are no straw men for Morrison to build, let alone knock down. The press gallery will never get the bigger picture by working Morrison like a jukebox of three-word slogans, so they should stop trying. Nobody is impressed by that crap. Nobody needs it. Only they and their equally silly editors confuse it with news.

20 September 2015

The right balance

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

- Newton's Third Law of Motion
The Liberal right are convinced they can trash the Turnbull government in the same way that they trashed the Rudd and Gillard governments. They might just be able to do it, but if they do the Liberal Party forfeits its position as a party of government.

Our notoriously obtuse press gallery thinks it detects a "stoush" or a "split", but there's more going on here: a wholesale redefinition of the Liberal Party. The Liberal right like it the way it is - small, ageing, reactionary, and with its liver-spotted hands on the levers of government, jamming the gears and sending things into reverse wherever possible.

I doubt Turnbull's progressive instincts, and his political competence. While it is unlikely he will transform the Liberal Party single-handedly it is possible that he could unleash reforming forces beyond his control, similar to those who made it to the top of eastern European Communist regimes in the late 1980s. No-one else in the Liberal Party is remotely capable of this. This is why Turnbull is the Liberal right's worst nightmare. This is why they're arcing up: they face losing control of the Liberal Party if Turnbull, and people like Mike Baird, succeed.

Working with smart people

What follows here sounds like some sort of paean to the corporate sector of the sort you might see from Ayn Rand or Pamela Williams. That isn't my intention. I'm trying to show how certain people seem to think and follow those thoughtlines to (what seems like) their logical conclusion.

In the late 1990s, when the Chinese mining boom was starting to take off, Malcolm Turnbull was head of Goldman Sachs Australia and Julie Bishop was managing partner of the Perth office of law firm Clayton Utz. These people worked on big deals with tough, clever people, capable of nuanced thought and thinking several steps ahead. These are people who would rather pay a skilled worker $300k to get a mine up and running rather than play silly-buggers with self-defeating nonsense like zero-hours contracts.

Turnbull and Bishop want to work with people of that calibre again. They know those people, they get them to donate and otherwise keep them involved, but capable people like that laugh at the very prospect of going into parliament, playing silly shouty games and having to account to journalists for ever time you breathe in and out. The Liberal Party says that it wants to attract such people, but it has rarely succeeded; it tends to attract those who would never cut it at the top end of town, big-firm droputs, small businesspeople for whom an employee payrise comes from their own pockets, or staffers who can talk fluent corporatese but who don't really get it.

When Turnbull was leader in 2008-09 he wanted to attract clever, capable people into government. Corporate careers became shaky and the importance of effective politics became obvious to all: if ever you were going to get capable people from the corporate sector into politics, that was the time to do it. These are people who understand large-scale, complex thinking and get things done. The Liberal Party foisted Chris Kenny and Peta Credlin into his office to stifle any far-reaching ideas, and they largely succeeded. As Turnbull's star faded in 2009 he was less convincing in attracting capable people from the private sector, at the very time the Liberal Party was starting to open preselections for the 2010 election.

Working with dumb people

When Abbott took over, the Liberal Party responded enthusiastically by preselecting people compatible with Abbott: people who could recite their lines, recite their lines, people who weren't particularly fussed about the big issues or making things happen, but boy could they recite their lines. People like Eric Abetz and Peter Dutton came to campaign for them, and the candidates who won thought people like Abetz, Dutton and Abbott were what the Liberal Party were all about. This was reinforced in 2013, by which time Abbott had set the tempo of national politics. If you couldn't bear all that empty, obnoxious horseshit that lay at the heart of almost everything he did, then you simply didn't join (or stay in) the Liberal Party let alone run for preselection. The Liberal Party was dumbed down to the point where it could be controlled by people like Abbott, Credlin, and Loughnane.

What sort of person looks up to people like Abetz, Dutton and Abbott? The sort of person of such limited capacity they make Jaymes Diaz look like Demosthenes, i.e. many Liberal Party office bearers and candidates.

Big businesses dealt with Abbott and his team before 2013 to discuss what they wanted from government, and what they weren't getting from Gillard-Rudd and their team(s). The deal big business does with politicians is that they provide money to political campaigns and align their messaging, so that the politicians in question appear 'economically responsible' to journalists employed by big businesses. In return, politicians don't explicitly promise to deliver on specific reforms, but they do offer the public relations skills to present pro-business reforms as in the public interest.

Before the 2013 election the Abbott-led Coalition linked the abolition of carbon and mining taxes to voters' household incomes; this was dishonest but nobody in the corporate sector or the media called them out. Insofar as the Abbott government had a reform agenda, it was either not raised or denied before the 2013 election and again business and the media played along. When Labor and some NGOs did call them out they were mostly ignored. By the time they came to light in 2014, they were unattached from any wider reform agenda and from the prevailing economic conditions at the time. No thought had been given to selling policies that disproportionately affected low-income earners, and whose impact on measures like debt, deficits, and business confidence was negligible. The government's political leverage was trashed.

Pro-business reform has no hope when it is presented as benefitting big business only, and having zero to no benefit for employees and the community as a whole. Chifley's bank nationalisation proposals failed in the High Court. This failure was compounded when the banks successfully presented the proposals as detrimental to the community as a whole and synchronised their messaging with the Liberal Party: Chifley's government was replaced, the banks remained as free enterprises, the Liberals won government and held it. Despite decades of 'professionalism' in communications strategy, this remains the gold standard of Liberal-business co-operation to win public support.

Abbott promised to introduce a raft of fairly limited reforms, tax cuts and reduced environmental restrictions and the like. He failed because his politics skills sucked. The media kept saying he had great media skills, but he couldn't really explain why he did things, and they couldn't articulate why he was so great at media. He expected his edicts to have authority in themselves; contemporary CEOs know that they need extensive change management programs to make internal changes, and they assumed the Liberal Party knew what it was doing. The media were wrong about Abbott's media skills, and if Tony Abbott wasn't good at media then what was he good at/for?

Business came through with their side of the bargain (campaign donations, synchronisation of communications between corporate umbrella groups and Liberals), but the Liberals did not (public acceptance of pro-business reforms, enactment of those reforms into law). This is the reverse of the situation with WorkChoices, where business expressed support for the reforms but deserted the Liberals once they enacted them.

The Liberal-business relationship is pretty unproductive in policy terms. It succeeds only as a measure of donations to the Coalition parties. Business hasn't really considered whether it is asking too much of the Coalition (e.g. are penalty rates really inhibiting productivity? Do lax environmental regulations stifle efficiency?). Coalition MPs today lack Menzies' smooth touch in knowing when and how to push back on reforms that cannot succeed.

Representing corporate manoeuvres as being in the public interest is hard. It requires an understanding of intended and unintended consequences of reforms, a deep understanding of government, and being in touch with communities to an extent that polling and focus groups can only hint at. I am starting to believe Abbott did his best to deliver for business; I have always believed that his level best was never good enough. I remain amazed that professional journalists who are paid to observe politics up close for decades couldn't tell political shit from chocolate, but don't get me started ...

Might as well jump

Cory Bernardi has courted money and tactics from the Tea Party in the US for many years, threatening to leave the Liberal Party. The Tea Party's evangelical wing is fading and nothing but racism seems to keep it going in 2015-16. Economic resentments seem to be fading with a recovering economy, less readily translated into racism than in previous eras. US rightwing politicians who had been notorious Kochsuckers (funded by the disclosure-resistant Koch brothers) find their supply of funding drying up.

Bernardi is a former SA State President of the Liberal Party and was preselected at the top of the Liberal Senate ticket at the last election. He knows that a Liberal Senator who leaves the party robs the party of significant funding and other entitlements, earning the enmity of hardworking Liberals who underwrote the privilege he now enjoys. In 2013 he wrote a fatuous book (no I won't link to it) from which he was supposed to launch his political independence, but you have to sell books for that to work. Now he's taken the phrase "Liberal Party" off his social media profile - *yawn*.

If he's going to leave the Liberal Party, like Bob Day did, he may as well join Day's Family First - but it won't be big enough for the two of them. He couldn't join forces with Pauline Hanson or Clive Palmer for the same reason. If he wants to run his own show, why doesn't he just wear the slings and arrows and step off the mothership? People start small businesses every day, and Bernardi likes to think he champions such people - but it is almost painful watching someone talk so tough and yet pussyfoot around when time comes to take a meaningful stand.

Cory, buddy, I left the Liberal Party before there was social media in any meaningful form. I didn't just change my social media profile or hide behind Andrew Bolt, whimpering "this time for sure". I wrote to the State Director and told everyone I knew that I was taking the step. Some tried to get me to stay, which was nice, but nobody can or does claim I was dithering like you are. There was much, much less at stake with my departure from the Liberal Party - where's the leadership you found lacking in Abbott, and now Turnbull? Stop being so gutless and just take the leap. Join the 'ferals' who are more your kind of people anyway - or else, get in behind the Turnbull government. You could have a meaningful role in building bridges between the government and the crossbenches - but to do that you'd have to get over yourself.

Bernardi discredits Seselja and other conservatives so long as he neither fully commits to the Liberal Party nor strikes out on his own. He is the sort of dilettante the rightwing accuse moderates of being. If the Liberal Party is really and truly this conservative redoubt, why is Bernardi heading toward the exits? Can he really do better, and at what? When will be the perfect time for him to take the bold step around which he has minced for so long?

If Malcolm Turnbull can take on a sitting PM after Question Time on Monday, and be the PM at Question Time on Tuesday, you can do it! If that milquetoast Nick Xenophon can start his own party, why can't you? Silent majority got your tongue? You're tougher and smarter than Turnbull or Day or Xenophon. You can take Seselja with you, and John Ruddick (see below). Jump, Cory, jump! You didn't want respect and influence within a major party anyway, did you?

A new people

Turnbull is likely to appoint more women in his ministry today and otherwise represent the government as making a fresh start. This might attract people who had held off joining the Liberal Party at all, let alone run for preselection, had Abbott remained as leader. Turnbull won't be able to shift the party much, but one or two high-profile recruits could change the way Liberal Party sees itself.

John Ruddick is one of those conservatives who likes the Liberal Party just fine the way it is. His piece this week, and again back in February shows another conservative desperate to head off reform, even to the point of appearing as a moderniser clearing out 'archaic' practices - whatever it takes, anything but fresh blood that might reinvigorate the Liberal Party and take it from the hands of high achievers like John Ruddick.

A political party is always different after it has held government. When a party returns to opposition it's wounded and good people give up on it. Those who harbour and foster resentments, like Ruddick and his mentor, former plaintiff lawyer David Clarke, hold the whip hand. Barry O'Farrell had to fight people like that to get the Liberals ready for NSW government in 2011, and Mike Baird fights them still.

In Victoria and Queensland, defeated Liberals have brought back old hands like Michael Kroger and Laurence Springborg rather than take any more risks that might not pay off. These people will turn narrow losses into routs at the next election because risk-aversion and resentment are the very qualities that killed the former Coalition governments in those states. A backbiting, infighting party keeps the incumbents at the top and that's just how they like it. In South Australia, Steven Marshall wants to be a winner but just can't take on the dead weight of a party that doesn't really want to win and wouldn't know what to do with state government if Labor dropped it into their laps. In WA the party has a vicious reputation for infighting despite near unanimity on policy - staunchly conservative, low taxes.

Preselections for the 2016 election are opening soon. Those who control an ageing, stagnant party use preselections as prizes where they can, making "captain's picks" that flatter a candidate without necessarily offering voters a good choice for election. Turnbull has pledged to avoid captain's picks but nor is he someone who suffers fools, despite their abundance atop the party he now leads. He's not as skilled in party fights like O'Farrell, and he doesn't have the time and lack of media scrutiny O'Farrell had in state opposition.

A candidate who was courted by Turnbull and fast-tracked into preselection would edge out some long-serving hack who had built up credit with people like John Ruddick. When they lose, they'll grizzle to people like Ruddick, who will write another piece for The Guardian on how unfair it is that interlopers are taking our jobs, fuelling the very resentment he would claim to relieve.

Once you understand Ruddick's Liberal nativism, you can see how the asylum-seeker debate is both a simple case of projection, and an existential threat to the perpetually resentful. Ruddick was a good mate of Michael Towke; people who think Scott Morrison is from the far right of our politics should take a closer look at this man and those behind him.

A quick response to Anika Gauja

This piece by Anika Gauja on why Australian political parties turn over leaders so often is well considered and worth reading.

Her contention that leadership ballots involving party members slows down leadership churn is negated by the experience of the Australian Democrats in its final decade. It is also negated by the experiences of the Liberal Party under Malcolm Fraser (six years without being challenged for the leadership) and John Howard (twelve), where rules on leadership challenges were scarecely different to those under which Abbott both rose and fell.

Before social media, Australia had a rich history of political activism outside political parties. Political parties followed rather than led campaigns on major social and political issues such as women's suffrage, alcohol licensing, conscription in World War I, counting Indigenous people in the census, euthanasia, and a republic. What social media has done is make organising faster. It is paradoxical that a party-room ballot can be organised in a few hours while a membership-wide ballot takes months, and yet neither relies on social media.

Political leaders today are feeling the strain of outsourcing their needs to engage the community to the broadcast media, which is increasingly inadequate for the purpose, while social media in its current form cannot support the political class (and leaders thereof) in the manner to which they have become accustomed. We see this not in the speed in which leadership contests take place, but in the parties' ability to rationalise leadership changes after the event:
  • Labor failed to adequately explain why Kevin Rudd had to be replaced as Prime Minister in June 2010.
  • The press gallery claimed that Labor would have more credibility with Rudd as leader than Gillard. When Rudd replaced Gillard in June 2013 his forebodings about an Abbott government were ignored.
  • In February 2015 Abbott promised there'd be no more captain's picks, and "good government". The press gallery, again, took him at his word.
  • The downfall of Abbott last week was different to Rudd's downfall because the policy dysfunction in Abbott's office was examined more clearly than that of Rudd, where commentary was reduced to a he-said-she-said interpersonal spat (reinforced in The Killing Season).
  • There is an element of sexism about the roles played by Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop in recent leadership ballots that was not present in examinations of their no-less-implicated male colleagues, which affects the way women engage with traditional political processes.

The zombies that ate Canberra

One or two high-profile candidates could give a defensive, unimaginative party a glimpse of what relevance to an attractive, tangible future for this country might look like. Turnbull might not be capable of that. The rightwing might hem him in to the point where he can present Abbott's policies in a slightly more oily way, in which case he's finished.

There is no civil war in the Liberal Party. Turnbull won fair and square, and decisively. Abbott is no more able to return to the leadership than Harold Holt. What you have is a bunch of political zombies roaming around offering nothing, with that nothing being breathlessly quoted by the press gallery. Nihilistic sooks do not deserve equal time. If we've learned one thing from Abbott's period as leader, we've learned that you can't quote the incoherent howls of the pointlessly outraged and then wonder why public debate has become so debased (well, everybody outside the press gallery seems to have learned that).

Turnbull is the Prime Minister of Australia and should be able to prevail over backroom heroes like Ruddick. The Liberal Party would be stupidly self-indulgent to choose Ruddick or Seselja over Turnbull. Evatt and Calwell failed to tackle the backroom boys, hence failed to become Prime Minister; Whitlam succeeded at both and underlined the importance of both. Howard dealt with the backroomers in 1995-96, which Ruddick witnessed up close (and Turnbull didn't). If Turnbull can't take on the backroom operators he has no business being Prime Minister, and the Liberal Party's key value proposition as one of two major parties providing responsible and representative government is pretty much forfeit.

17 September 2015

Playing Canberra games

I just am not going to get caught up in Canberra gossip, I'm not going to play Canberra games.

- Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (!), Monday
Tony Abbott had spent the better part of the last quarter-century doing little else but Canberra gossip and Canberra games. Even to the end, no press gallery stenographer called him on it, or had the humanity to laugh. He had his second-last photo op as Prime Minister in a traffic management centre in Adelaide, one of those strange places to which hidden-camera video goes to facilitate transactions the "controllers" can't possibly know - how emblematic of his Prime Ministership, a yen for control without any interest in understanding.

Thy rod and thy staff

Here was a man who had ascended to high office by ingratiating himself with the powerful. The powerful had to cover for him or look as though their judgment was off. When they departed the scene, when Abbott ascended to a ne plus ultra role he couldn't cope. There was always someone to keep Abbott in check - the Jesuits at Riverview, Kerry Packer, John Howard - until there was only Peta Credlin.

You can't tell the Abbott story without talking about Credlin. He was right to outsource the administration and the discipline for which he had no patience, wrong to rely on her so completely. She didn't have any special insights into the Australian people that real Prime Ministers only begin to glimpse toward the end of their careers, careers in which they have put themselves on the line and in people's faces more than any backroom operator ever dares. She wasn't a scapegoat or a martyr. Those who romanticise the Abbott government and her role in it have to admit she wasn't up to propping up and covering for such an inadequate man. Margie Abbott wasn't, and even John Howard couldn't keep up the fiction - once again, preserving his record of dumping on every Liberal leader but himself.

Credlin's successes were separable from his, while her failures were inseparably theirs. Mind you, she is the most substantial answer to the questions: what's the difference between Abbott and Mark Latham? Why was the latter so repulsive while the former was inevitable?

Abbott retreats to Forestville with Margie-and-the-girls. Credlin goes back to her husband, who is probably not up to the job of managing the re-election of the Turnbull Government.

Off the record

Those who thought Abbott was a capable fellow, or might become one, were mistaken. Same with those who thought he was a good guy, pleasant and amiable and intelligent when in safe, off-the-record company - they wanted to believe, and they were mistaken too. Samantha Maiden actually said Monday night on Lateline that "Tony Abbott isn't a wrecker" - one of those astonishing falsehoods that is so diametrically opposed to the truth it mocks the sheer futility of accurate reporting.

Tony Abbott is a wrecker, he's always been a wrecker; to deny that he's a wrecker is to fail even the most basic understanding of the man and his place in our politics. His assurance that he won't wreck or snipe or undermine has zero value. Abbott was and is a wrecker in the same way that the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are palpably located in Sydney, and that to assert that they are somehow located in Geraldton would not be just a difference of opinion but flatly wrong. You can't even talk about this government without talking about basic truths and denials thereof.

Those who reported on that government thought we were being 'partisan' when we objected to the blatant falsehoods, not only for their falsity but their blatantness. Take, for example, this blog's official bunny: he was sent to report on something that actually happened (that Abbott sulked for almost a full day, and was ungracious when he did speak), and which has happened repeatedly. He then pretends that this reality is somehow out of character:
Even at its most benign, it was a parting non-decision, characteristic of his government's mostly hollow presentation as little more than a non-Labor government.

Regardless of intent, it conveyed an absence of grace which not only reflected poorly on Team-Abbott, but seemed at odds with Abbott's own more honourable style.

Abbott's departure should have been marked by the dignity of a swift exit, not a sullen vacuum.
He went out the way he went on. To the very end, press gallery journalists made Abbott out to be a better politician, a better man, than he ever was or could have been. When historians start to fossick through the wreckage of this government, Mark Kenny will still be trying to recover the sunk costs of his credibility by insisting his insider notions really are worth something, something more than what is obviously true.

It's amazing how those savvy insiders only found out after it was all over: if not this, etc. Paul Sheehan reckoned he knew two weeks ago and declined to let us in on it, which goes to his credentials as a journalist.

The Abbott government was a fake government, and the press gallery covered up for it until the loss of credibility began to bite them too. They never had any basis for their blithe assumption that Abbott would or could make a transition from wrecker to statesman, and it did them no good to re-state that he never made the transition. A dog might chase a car and even displace the driver, but it is never going to become a capable driver; everyone of the contrary opinion was kidding themselves. Decades of political judgment, before Abbott became Prime Minister and now since, count for nothing.

Not since Alfred Deakin have we had a Prime Minister so steeped in media training from early adulthood that he could only imagine politics through headlines and bylines. Abbott was Murdoch's Manchurian Candidate, which is why the old bastard had to come from New York to reverse-midwife him out of office. Abbott had entered politics as Hewson's press secretary, running his own agenda ahead of his boss and party even then. He replaced Reith as Howard's favoured leaker. Through this the press gallery grew to love him, and why their grief at his departure is genuine if not well-founded.

The real reason why his swipes at the media in his sooky, churlish farewell address are so unfair are not because any and all criticism of the media is unfair, but because he lived by the media cycle and assumed he was too clever to perish by it. Abbott's claim that he could calm the media was always Canute-like in its hubris. No conservative, nobody with any media experience, has any excuse for believing that or even playing along.

The press gallery couldn't believe their man would turn on them as he did - but by then his only alternative was to turn on himself, and nobody expected him to do that. If Tony Abbott was no good at media, what was he good at? What was he good for?

Permanent interests

The loyalties which centre upon [the leader] are enormous. If he trips, he must be sustained. If he make mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good, he must be pole-axed.

- Winston Churchill
Liberals stagger and stumble under the demands of office, and look to a leader to make their lives easier. When Abbott didn't, and couldn't make their lives easier, when they spent more time covering for his missteps and misstatements, they got rid of him. They leaked to ensure they weren't entombed with him, like the entourage of a Pharaoh. They spent six hours meeting over same-sex marriage - not war, nor economic reform, nor Indigenous recognition - but because they were sure Abbott was wrong while lacking the ability to come up with and enact the right answer.

Howard, Fraser, and Menzies made their lives easier - they chafed and grumbled, but they accepted imperfect leadership over the hyper-engagement required in its absence. The Liberal Party got rid of Gorton, Snedden, Peacock (twice), Downer, Nelson, and 2009-model Turnbull for the same reason they got rid of Abbott; the leader supports the led, not the other way around. The Liberal Party is not a commune. They want leadership and they will pay for it in blood if that is its price.

The Liberal Party has failed as an organisation for electing and maintaining such an inadequate leader. It is one of only two political parties that leads governments, and its leaders must be Prime Ministerial timbre. The Liberal Party's three longest-serving leaders are three of the four longest-serving Prime Ministers. Abbott is their fourth-longest serving leader but has one of the shorter Prime Ministerial tenures. Claiming that Abbott was brilliant at media is like Labor claims that Evatt was a brilliant at law - all very well, but never sufficient for leading a government.

Having come to office with so little public goodwill, it was incumbent on Abbott to reach out, to flesh out the bare bones of the campaign offering, to take people into his confidence. Just because the sheep in the press gallery accepted "on-water matters" and other obfuscations, it didn't mean we all did. Abbott's "slowing down the media cycle" ensured we always remained suspicious about him, and denied the Liberals the honeymoon they had expected.

Washed up on the northern beaches

The 1960s TV series Skippy was filmed in Kuring-gai National Park, on Sydney's northern beaches. The area is notoriously parochial. Communities there have actually campaigned against better roads and public transport because they do not want to make it easier for interlopers. Yet, their two representatives in the House of Representatives, Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop, are from the upper North Shore - Killara may as well be Timbuktu for those on the insular peninsula.

Bishop has her branches sewn up. Insofar as she can conceive of her political extinguishment at all, she will probably be succeeded by her chief of staff Damien Jones, Kerry's husband. Abbott is likely to be succeeded by someone more like Mike Baird (Baird's state electorate lies within Abbott's) rather than a rock-ribbed conservative like himself.

To quote from Abbott's farewell speech:
In my maiden speech here in this Parliament, I quoted from the first Christian service ever preached here in Australia. The reverend Richard Johnson took as his text: "What shall I render unto the Lord for all his blessings to me?"

At this, my final statement as Prime Minister, I say: I have rendered all and I am proud of my service.
This is all very well if you see God as your personal service-provider. In his columns for The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter FitzSimons mocks award recipients in sports or showbusiness for thanking God for looking out for them while apparently neglecting so many and so much else. Here too Abbott's limited idea of his own piety must not be seen as compensating for, but instead compounding, his other shortcomings.

Conservatives demand that their opponents make a dignified exit but feel under no compunction to do so themselves. Peacock and Hewson departed after crashing while Howard and Downer did not. On Monday night, after all was lost, Kevin Andrews made a bid for the deputy leadership against Bishop that might have seemed laughably futile. Andrews' pluck/ doggedness, and that of Bishop, stands in stark contrast to the moderates-in-name-only who've made their peace with bad, right-wing policy for the tinkling bells and clattering cymbals of office.

Those who went along with Abbott in order to get along, like Joe Hockey, now look foolish for having done so. They should have known better, which goes to questions of judgment that apologias like this tend to avoid. As Treasurer Hockey meant well and was diligent, just as John Kerin or Les Bury were.

A coup?

What a lot of silly reporting has invoked this loaded word.

If Roman Quadvlieg or Angus Campbell were seizing the keys and passwords of government and suspending the Constitution, if leading figures in Abbott's government were dead or in prison, that would be a coup. What happened on Monday night was not a coup.

I still remember when John Howard conceded defeat at the Wentworth Hotel in 2007. He'd conceded defeat before; he plodded through his speech, in his way, with more good grace for Rudd than Abbott could muster for Turnbull - while the eyes of Jeanette Howard darted around the room, as though she feared they were going to rise up and strangle the Howard family, as though she felt they deserved no less.

I have been, and I remain, a Turnbull sceptic.

When all is said and done

There were a number of people who contacted me via social media to tell me that I should be posting - I'd just prioritised other things over the past few weeks. It's really touching, thank you all.

Because the press gallery coverage of the Abbott government from beginning to end has been such terrible shit, even the summaries by one of the better members of the gallery is barely competent.

Abbott had been looking ragged and I felt reluctant to fully cheer his defeat and subsequent silence. But no - he's just a sook and a churl, others will have to look out for him, and man the medicine cabinet in a way he never would or could.

For all the long-winded blather of this blog:
  • this is the best summary of Tony Abbott. It was written before just after he became PM and stands as a better obituary than all those catalogues of flags, onion-eating etc.
  • this is the best summary of Abbott's final speech, and what Abbott was about as a reactionary.
  • this is worth reading on what comes next.

23 August 2015

Handy Andy

The selection of Andrew Hastie as the Liberal candidate for Canning is a nice summary of all that was wrong with the Abbott government (and yes, the choice of past tense is deliberate).

Due process

There was a time when no self-respecting political party would touch a candidate who was still under investigation for serious matters on the field of battle. The report of this investigation may well exonerate Hastie, or it may not; in an era with greater respect for the armed forces and its due processes, Hastie would have been forced to wait until all such investigations were concluded.

It was inappropriate for Hastie to refer to these matters as having been concluded; had he done so before his resignation from the Army, such comments would have been insubordinate.

Under the Abbott government, there has been scant regard for due process. Where the government has been apprehensive about its chances of success in legal proceedings, such as in its treatment of asylum-seekers or granting of mining leases, the government has framed its opponents in alarmist terms ("vigilantes", "terrorists") and changed the law to exclude their right to even bring an action against the government. While one arm of the government (the investigative processes within the ADF) regards Hastie and those under his command as a subject of investigation, another (Abbott's office, and potentially the legislature) ignores the very possibility that he might yet have a case to answer.

If I were a standard Canberra pundit, I might wryly opine that Hastie's candidacy is "brave". I think it's typical of this government to ride roughshod over respect for procedure and legal niceties whenever they feel like it.

Government information-gathering above all other considerations

The ADF investigation, as David Wroe points out, centres on whether or not Australian soldiers breached the rules of war by removing the hands of Taliban fighters for the purposes of identification after the battle.

On the battlefield, mutilating bodies would surely decrease the prospect of civilian co-operation at best, at worst fuel anti-Western hatred and spur more and worse attacks upon Australian troops. Again, though, this is a matter for military and/or scholarly inquiries.

I will not get squeamish or moralistic about what soldiers do in battle. It is fair to say, however, that it is typical of this government to prioritise its information-gathering requirements over any and all other considerations.

The finest minds in the government couldn't define metadata, but they still want to monitor it. It spies on its political opponents, whether you want to talk about Senator Faulkner allegedly receiving leaks or Senator Hanson-Young allegedly being spied upon. This government (and successive major-party governments in recent years - only in the supposedly chaotic parliament of 2010-13 did it abate) has decreased privacy considerations in its information-gathering to the point where any remaining privacy provisions stand like burnt-out, gutted buildings, relics of a past that has not quite gone but which might impede 'progress' from time to time.

Hastie may have acted under orders in gathering such information as he and his troops gathered. Information gathered by such grisly means may well have some value. The idea that such information-gathering drowns out all other considerations is not quite an epitaph for this government, but it's definitely part of its legacy.


... I ask myself: why isn’t our party selecting more women members of parliament?

Why isn’t our party, as relatively advanced on this today as we were 70 years ago?

Why haven’t we remained ahead of our time in promoting women; and is that one of the reasons why we no longer attract the majority of women voters?

... there is consistently low female representation across our party.

There are relatively few women in leadership positions in the lay party
[sic]; there are relatively few women in the parliament; and because there are relatively few women in the parliament it’s harder to get more women into the cabinet.

- Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Address to [Liberal Party] Federal Women's Committee Luncheon, Adelaide, 15 August 2015

I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man [Abbott] ... If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.

- Prime Minister Julia Gillard, address to the House of Representatives, Canberra, 9 October 2012

Abbott could have insisted that the vacancy in Canning be filled by a woman. He could have prevailed upon women of substance like Diane Smith-Gander or Deirdre Willmott, or even Tess Randall, to stand - and prevailed on WA Liberal powerbrokers like Julie Bishop and Matthias Cormann to make it happen. This wouldn't have meant there was a quota - perish the thought! - but a successful political operation would have made it happen under the circumstances, some work of noble note may yet be done, etc etc.

Georgina Dent found Abbott's speech "astonishing":
Not, sadly, due to its astute revelations or bold leadership, rather it is its complete and curious absence of substance, critical analysis and deductive reasoning that makes it shocking.
Pretty much all of Tony Abbott's speeches are like that. A dull-witted survey of the landscape, followed by some cliched remarks that might have passed for considered thought in some bygone century, all summed up in a way that must be what it's like to suffer from incontinence: an awareness that you're in an unpleasant position made worse by the shame at having brought it upon yourself, and the inadequacy of all other options (including blame) to get you out of the predicament.

Dent has probably been lucky in not subjecting herself to regular doses of Abbott's speeches. Press gallery journalists also express surprise at how bad his speeches are; unlike Dent they've endured those speeches for decades, so one can only conclude such people are the worst thing any journalist can be - obtuse.

Hastie cannot be blamed for not being a woman, a shortcoming all too common. I hope it is not grossly sexist of me to observe that Hastie will prove more indicative (if not quite representative) of this government than many women who have been active members of it.

Conservatives and the military

Modern politics calls for major-party candidates who do as they're told, don't speak out of turn, and don't hog the limelight. Members of the ADF have those qualities in spades.
I never felt Labor had our backs when I was serving [in the Army].

- Andrew Hastie, yesterday
Members of the ADF vote for the conservative parties more than any other occupational group - more than lawyers, or farmers, or corporate executives. It comes as no surprise that such people would also join those parties, run for preselection and secure public office.

The defence force serves the nation, regardless of who may be governing it at any given moment. Yet, conservative politics in this country has always claimed to be more supportive of the military than Labor:
  • Billy Hughes split the ALP over conscription in World War I;
  • Labor had pacifist and anti-Imperialist elements among its membership since the party's inception, which increased after the slaughter of World War I;
  • Labor criticised what little the Lyons government did to upgrade Australia's military in the 1930s;
  • John Curtin had been a pacifist in World War I, and conservatives used this against him becoming Prime Minister during World War II. The disastrous decision to send Australian troops to Singapore was considered by many historians to be a reaction to conservative criticism, not only from within Australia but from Churchill in the besieged UK;
  • Following rhetoric from the Nixon Administration in the US, conservatives conflated protests against the Vietnam war with pacifism and antipathy to troops, and criticised the Whitlam government for withdrawing Australian troops from South Vietnam;
  • In 2003, then-Labor leader Simon Crean opposed sending Australian troops to Iraq, but declared his support for the troops nonetheless to the derision of the gung-ho Howard government.
All of the above points (and others like them) have been painstakingly rebutted by historians. I do not aim to lend them credibility they don't have, but rather to show Hastie's remark is not some unprecedented departure from the ADF's non-partisan service to the nation. Hastie draws upon a consistent rhetorical tradition in Australia's conservative politics.

Poor pay and conditions for ADF personnel, and inadequate support for wounded veterans, are yet more of those bipartisan traditions that our press gallery and defence/foreign policy intelligentsia insist upon but which fail us over and over again. You can expect that Andrew Hastie, whether as an MP or an advisor, will achieve no more for serving personnel and veterans than anyone else has in the past fifty years.

The kiss of death

He'll wrap you in his arms,
tell you that you've been a good boy
He'll rekindle all the dreams
it took you a lifetime to destroy
He'll reach deep into the hole,
heal your shrinking soul,
but there won't be a single thing that you can do
He's a god, he's a man,
he's a ghost, he's a guru
They're whispering his name
through this disappearing land ...

- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Red right hand
At their press conference in Canning Abbott praised Hastie - but he would, wouldn't he, blunting the news value in witnessing and recording such a statement. Pretty much everyone Abbott has praised effusively has come a-gutser in recent times, and the people of Canning are entitled to take his endorsement with a grain of salt. The Liberal Party can't go on with a leader whose very presence is a kiss of death; we saw in that Abbott-Napthine picture a serpentine Abbott seeming to drain Napthine's very marrow, negating their words or what the prospect of federal and state governments acting within the same party might hope to achieve.

Tony Abbott is a loser. It is entirely likely that Andrew Hastie will not become the next Member for Canning, and that the Liberals will use this as the excuse they need to dump Tony Abbott - but I've said that already. What about Hastie? He can't go back to the ADF, he's shirtfronted his superiors with his dopey comments pre-empting a long-running investigation, and if there's a Labor government he will end up with all the difficult, boring, no-credit jobs until he retires. The Liberals won't look after him - he has no deep roots in the WA Liberals, and being associated with Abbott isn't the golden ticket it might once have been. Who will look out for him?

Even if Hastie wins the byelection, he won't have enough time to cement himself in place before the next election. At the press conference we saw his umbrage at being questioned by journalists. Some random on the street will lead him a merry dance.

If Abbott goes plenty of staff will go with him too, as the Pharaohs were entombed with their most loyal retainers. There may be a vacancy for Hastie, particularly if the next Prime Minister fails to stem perceptions that this government is on the way out. He would be foolish to count too much on their good graces.

Hastie is flying without a net all right, and unemployment in WA is going up enough as it is without him (potentially) adding to it: think about the skills he has, in a market where demand for them won't be what it was.


But never mind an actual candidate being actually representative of the actual government. Some guy who hogged the obscurity he should have rightfully shared with Tony Abbott, and who has been politically inert for a decade (yet highly regarded by a dying broadcast medium) was rude to literate Melburnians. The incumbents fall to a resurgent opposition. Life goes on.

12 August 2015

Five points from last night's meeting

Five points from last night's meeting worth remembering:
  • Abbott's authority was diminished;
  • Morrison voted with the winning side;
  • However much they grumble about it, Liberals prefer to be told what the policy is and just go out there and sell it. Thinking is hard. Taking personal responsibility is hard. That's what the leadership is for, and they miss the absence of leadership keenly;
  • The press gallery narrative that this government has suddenly become a policy shambles is bullshit. This government was always a policy shambles and they were always wrong to confuse it with a strong and decisive operation; and
  • Nothing. There is no fifth point. I can so write a short blogpost. Go about your business and look normal.

11 August 2015

Friends on the other side

Tony Smith became Speaker with the backing of Scott Morrison, according to Abbott cipher Chris Uhlmann. Smith's main opponent in the party room was Russell Broadbent, the last of the small group of backbenchers who spoke out against the Howard government's mandatory detention policies - policies since reinstituted by Scott Morrison as immigration minister, and endorsed by the ALP. Had Broadbent been elected as Speaker it would have been a massive fuck-you to Morrison, and to the Labor leadership that embraced the policy. It would have encouraged people who don't toe the line, people with ideas and the courage of their convictions - people who have all but been stamped out of public life by party machines and a compliant press gallery, relegated to the fringes and called "ferals".

The press gallery were happy to raise Broadbent's donations issues, but not smart enough to tease out the full story like this local-paper journalist, nor even wonder why they were set up to look like tools.

The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are not the moderates. The idea that moderate centrists stab the Liberal Party in the back is a common right-wing trope, pushed heavily by people like Bronwyn Bishop, but there is no proof of it. The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are the right-wingers who are watching the reality, the possibility, and the very precepts of their low-tax, high-religion, authoritarian program slip away. Support is slipping away from this government without any of the compensating respect that Howard used to attract, and which Abbott promised people like this gullible, whiny reactionary that he too could command respect when they didn't like him.

The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are conservatives, who have for years looked up to and been organised and sustained by, Bronwyn Bishop. She kept the faith, both for conservatism and for Abbott, and he and they indulged her expensive foibles. When backbenchers started complaining that she was embarrassing them, she expected Abbott to support her. He was embarrassing them too, and he tended to stick by her. Over the last month or so, he equivocated.

The polls for this government are every bit as dire as they were for the last government, and every bit as stuck, for those who worry about such things. Tony Abbott was never good enough to become Prime Minister in the first place, and never had what it took to turn a difficult position around. All of the savvy journalists, the in-house urgers and party grandees who believed otherwise, have been cruelly exposed. They complain to one another that it's a recent, unexpected development, but it isn't really. It never was. Those people were, and still are, killing themselves.

Scott Morrison has not relied on Bronwyn Bishop to get where he is. She knows he's an opportunist but had been prepared to tolerate him. By standing up to Bishop when Abbott wouldn't, Morrison has displayed leadership credentials that Abbott has clearly lacked. Morrison has knocked off an Abbott loyalist and knocked down someone who made his life difficult in courting the right. Morrison isn't the right's least-worst alternative any more, some sort of speed hump to Turnbull. The prospect that Abbott might stumble is no longer a distant, theoretical prospect, it's the inescapable reality. Morrison is the right's standard-bearer now. He, not Abbott, is the man.

Bishop is furious, but so what? Her fury doesn't count any more. She isn't biding her time, she's out of time. When she refused to applaud Smith she showed that, despite what conservatives claim, she cannot acknowledge anything beyond herself. The contrast with the magnanimous departure of Gillard is striking. Bishop expected to go out on her own terms, not with a thud; the firebrand reduced to just another frail old woman in the departure lounge.

When Abbott and Pyne talked of Bishop in the past tense, they were also talking about themselves in the same way. Abbott will be gone after the Canning byelection. Pyne has passed none of his much-touted reforms and will be gone at the next election. Adelaide will take on the same political complexion as Newcastle or Canberra, while Nick Xenophon will become the moderate liberal champion that Pyne had promised but failed to be.

We're in a political interregnum where the dead lie unburied and where those who now call the shots are under no obligation to stick their heads up. This is a massive change in the power dynamic of the government, and Australian politics generally; to call it "modest" is to have no understanding of politics at all.

Abbott had promised all opposition frontbenchers that they would become ministers after the 2013 election. Tony Smith was one of the few opposition frontbenchers who didn't make it. Peter Costello has said plenty about Abbott being an economic ignoramus, and Abbott has taken this out on Costello's acolytes like Smith and Kelly O'Dwyer. Smith has a similar - eerily similar - physical appearance to Costello, and even copied the former Treasurer's physical and verbal mannerisms. In practical political terms, Victoria is no longer the jewel in the Liberal crown and so the Coalition is not obliged to over-represent that state on its front bench; Robb has the experience, Billson and Ronaldson have put in the hard yards, Fifield got work experience with Costello without drinking too much of his "Prime Ministerial" Kool-Aid, and Hunt has been neutered. With Smith there was nothing to neuter; he and O'Dwyer were out in the cold, with Frydenberg and Tudge on initial probation.

Abbott paid tribute to Smith copping his disappointment in silence without admitting his role in that disappointment. Abbott can claim no credit in helping Smith up after having knocked him down. He was gracious at overlooking Smith's utter absence of policy conviction, as I noted here and there at the time: Smith was responsible for the Coalition going to the 2010 election with no communications policy, and was deputy chair of the committee that came up with no policies for the one after that. He had practiced his non-policy skills on people who keep asking about policy but wouldn't know it if it bit them: the press gallery.

Smith might have been promoted if Robb and Ronaldson pull out before the next election, but in politics you take your chances when they arise. Now he's ascended to a role that's kind of high profile, like a minister but without all that policy stuff. By giving Smith a prize that Abbott had denied him, Morrison creates the sense that the Liberals are moving on from Abbott, freeing themselves from his errors of judgment.

The press gallery wanted to believe Smith's rhetoric about even-handedness and decorum, forgetting that all former Speakers - Bishop, Anna Burke, Slipper, and Jenkins - all said the same thing at this point in their tenures. Slipper and Burke were even-handed in a tightly balanced parliament, but that even-handedness made a boorish, policy-free opposition look more in control of the agenda than a wonkish, rattled government. An even-handed Speaker will expose a government that is not across what little policy brief it has. It's one thing for Abbott to be a dead man walking, but he has enough pride to prefer anything other than the perception that he is a dead man walking - or sitting, waiting for Shorten to rope-a-dope him again and again.

Labor will exploit Smith's desire for even-handedness, making him look like a mug and protesting too much when Smith calls them on it. Smith can be stiff and awkward in the face of raucousness and this will work against him, and the government. The government will also use Smith's basic, non-focus-grouped decency against him, not hesitating to make him and his office look foolish rather than bear any more of the responsibility which they never deserved, nor could even bear with any dignity. The anonymous Liberal sources who help the press gallery pad out their thin offerings will call for Bishop to return. The living will envy the dead in the end times.

If Smith's "friends on the other side" get the opportunity to bounce off him and score a direct hit on Abbott, they will take it. Abbott has ridden Labor for six years (!) and he is wounded now. Smith might not be happy about it but he'll understand: that's politics, baby.

Smith will have moments of decency that will shine all the more brightly for being contrasted against this government. This should not be surprising to supposedly experienced political journalists. At the next election he might lose his seat of Casey, a sprawling outer-urban electorate that resembles a slab of western Sydney, where the profile and folderol of his new office will count for exactly nothing. Then again, he might win, and pootle on in the same middling way he's spent the last decade.

Speaking of crap forecasts, I owe an apology to Independent Australia for setting them up with this - fancy predicting a woman! What was I thinking?

10 August 2015

Mutually assured destruction

Once upon a time, when one major-party politician would abuse their entitlements so badly that even the press gallery noticed, a politician from the other major party would be found to have done something similar, and the checkmate would somehow neuter the story as far as the broadcast media were concerned. Today, things are different. First, the broadcast media don't set or control the agenda any more. Second, the major parties aren't the only options.

Policies on politicians' entitlements have been agreed by the major parties over many years. The press gallery avoid criticising them because they applaud bipartisanship as a good in itself, regardless of its impact on policy quality. If a politician has to fly somewhere to make an announcement that could just as easily have been made in Canberra, the broadcast media go along too and all regard it as a normal part of their jobs. They benefit from publicly-funded junkets despite the fact that the quality of reporting rarely improves.

Samantha Maiden is on Joe Hockey's case, as though he were the only MP with entitlements issues. This story adds heat but no light to the issue of politicians' entitlements, with not even the most timid implication that Hockey has breached 'the rules', and it even defends the indefensible Bishop.

Maiden's story includes an ethically questionable decision by her employer to run photographs of Hockey's children. Hockey is a public figure; his wife, Melissa, is an adult who chooses to join him in the public eye; but their children are not public figures. Nor are they adults as Margie-and-the-girls are. A decent news organisation would have pixellated pictures of the children or not run them at all.

With the focus on Bronwyn Bishop's travel entitlements, it was inevitable that there would be a Labor MP exposed doing something similar - and so there was, in Tony Burke, who apparently took his children of his former marriage on holiday with his current partner. Bishop's extravagance was not only a blow against the Coalition, but Burke inadvertently lent the story the sexual tut-tutting for which Murdoch papers exist (and which have helped fund their proprietor through not one but three divorces).

The Chris Pyne I knew from late 1980s student politics in Adelaide would have gone after Burke, calling him a hypocrite and worse, but the latter-day Pyne seems more conciliatory. Ease up on Burke, he says, making an unconvincing technical point about 'the rules'. Later we discover Pyne embroiled in a travel scandal of his own, and his office has the political tin ear to assert that Pyne's children had never seen the Sydney fireworks.

Whatever Pyne gained from the Adelaide frigates announcement, he lost on the Sydney fireworks. It was a let-them-eat-cake moment that you usually get from governments that have been in office way too long. Before you go on about first-term governments getting re-elected, consider that the Coalition has been in government for 13 of the last 19 years, with a frontbench pretty similar to the one behind Howard in 2007; now look at recent elections in Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia, and shut up about first-term governments.

Perhaps instead of flying his kids from Adelaide to Sydney at public expense during a time when airlines gouge passengers, it might have been cheaper for Pyne to write them a letter.

The tin ear for politics isn't confined to Pyne's office. Tess Randall is as entitled to run for Liberal preselection for her late father's seat as any member of the WA Liberals. Michaelia Cash and Christian Porter are two other second-generation Liberal politicians who have done exactly that. Leaving aside unkind remarks about the difficulty of being worse than Don Randall, Tess Randall may well be the Liberals' best candidate on preselection day; she may even become quite good as an MP. Her candidacy just feeds into the whole family entitlement thing that is killing this government.

I hold no brief for the alternative candidates. WA Liberal factional politics is incomprehensible even to other Liberals. Journalists covering WA politics avoid getting into it, and I don't blame them. It would be like taking a bucket of spiders and up-ending it over your head - you're in the dark, getting bitten from all sides, and if you open your mouth it will only get worse. I'm trying to think of a wimpy, equivocating WA Liberal politician, and frankly none come to mind.

It seems that apart from MPs' staffers and MPs' children, the only people winning Liberal preselections these days are members of the Australian Defence Force - particularly the Army. If turning back asylum-seekers was such a good and popular policy, one would expect a) Navy recruitment to have increased significantly, and b) the Liberal Party to be beset by preselection applications from naval officers with proud tales of boats turned back, bearing witness to the efficacy and rightness of the policy. One would expect RAAF officers to turn to politics for something to do; the last one to do so was Jackie Kelly. ADF personnel vote Coalition more than any other occupational group, but the long-running and badly-managed controversy over pay is yet another captain's call that has cost this government. The last non-commissioned ADF member to enter politics was Jacqui Lambie - expect more to follow.

ADF personnel don't get members of their family flown to meet them at public expense. They have to pay for any such trips themselves, on lower salaries than politicians get. MP's families should visit Canberra or wherever, but such trips should be paid for by the MPs themselves. The contrary case, the case for the status quo, cannot be made even by Canberra insiders. It should not have survived successive rounds of cuts by various governments.

Some countries, such as Indonesia, have quotas for serving armed forces personnel in parliament. In others, such as the US Congress, there has been a strong correlation between military and political service. Given the resonance of the Anzac legend and the relative decline of other institutions in our society, is Australian politics headed down this road?

Regardless who wins Liberal preselection, the Canning byelection will pretty much seal Tony Abbott's fate. It is interesting that Bishop did not issue the writs before she quit, and the party organisation has taken so long to get into campaign mode. There will not be a Liberal leadership spill before then, despite worthless commentary declaring the government's vacuity to be somehow recent and sudden. There will not be one afterwards in the highly unlikely event that there is a swing toward the Liberals; a swing against, especially if the Liberal candidate loses the seat, will make the empty chair that ran against Abbott in February look pretty good.

The inquiry into entitlements is made up of the same sort of ex-politicians who are petitioning the High Court for more lurks - those from the major parties. In a two-party-preferred political environment, an agreement by major parties can contain the political fallout. We don't have such an environment - entitlements scandals depress the vote of both the Coalition and the ALP, to the profit of independents and minor parties. Those who've never been part of the you-scratch-my-back bipartisan arrangements will get the benefit of the doubt, not incumbents who swear to do better or protest some non-existent right to bill the taxpayer for a family jaunt.

There used to be two types of MP who stood against politicians' entitlements - only one is still in public life.

The first were those abstemious, self-educated ALP types who'd take homemade lunches to work in a paper bag, who were so grateful for an indoors job with no heavy lifting that they would spend their own money on raffle tickets, community events and other incidentals. Labor don't make this type of politician any more, replaced with fixers who cut the sorts of deals that led to this plethora of 'entitlements'. Noely Neate is very good on the issue of public entitlements and party fundraisers.

The second are conservatives with a bit of money behind them. Clive Palmer and Malcolm Turnbull have made disparaging comments about entitlements - and the related issue of political donations. All are well-travelled and don't need to have all their receipts picked over in public; those they don't wish to appear in public are paid from their own pockets. They will not be so vulgar about hotel sites or helicopters as Bishop was - I mean, fancy having to rent a helicopter. Neither have much trouble in raising funds, and both benefit from the implicit perception that their wealth insulates them from being unduly influenced.

They have done little to spoil the fun of their less fortunate colleagues, who are using public resources to do the mind-broadening travel many of us did in private capacities. I'll tell you what I want to tell you about my travels. Have a look at the reports that politicians do from "study tours", and question how much could have been done from within Canberra using the internet.

The idea behind giving politicians a salary and entitlements, and moving the capital to Canberra, was to get them to focus on our interests over their own. Private interests upped the ante with lobbyists and fundraising, so - as in the 19th century - political-class members deal with our interests when they're not too distracted with their own perks and lurks. A kick-the-bums-out parliament might not be the sort of timocracy that we saw in colonial parliaments before Federation, and that we see in developing countries today. Raising your perspective beyond today's major parties opens options they cannot face, they dare not face, and will not present as options to a Parliament that will still largely vote the way party bosses bloody well tell them to vote, never you mind why and don't even ask.

The press gallery will not be able to deal with an entitlements system that isn't bipartisan, but the emergence of a political system that goes beyond today's major parties assumes the press gallery has even less influence than it does today - and as regular readers can imagine, I'm OK with that.