30 June 2006

Tony Abbott's straw men

The challenge for the conservative is to preserve that which endures regardless of changing fads, and to amend that which will not withstand the winds of change. Tony Abbott has failed to demonstrate that he is a leader among conservatives, and in doing so points to weakness in Australian conservatism going forward.

The "new paternalism" has several weaknesses, well documented elsewhere, about its unsuitability for Aboriginal people. At a time when the emerging generation of Aborigines are stepping up to take and to show leadership in greater numbers than any post-frontier generation, Abbott has decided that self-determination is all too hard. Denying self-determination to any non-criminals is tantamount to denying your ability to call yourself a Liberal in my book. But even if you count out the ideological argument and stick to the practical, Abbott has clearly learnt nothing after a decade in government.

The main constraint on the growth of Australia's economy is a dearth of skilled employees. Where are you going to get these willing administrators from? There are precious few doctors and teachers going to remote communities, but they are the sort of noble souls who defy trends and do the work that their hearts tell them needs to be done. Stick to your knitting and find out how hard it is to get decent doctors or nurses in western Sydney and leave this idea alone, Abbott. I'm not going to become Abbott's quaestor in the never-never and neither are you.

What will happen is that the government will become so desperate that the stringency by which they screen their potential paternalists will slip, so that the drunks, the molestors and the careless will be thrust upon Aboriginal communities as their guardians. Such incompetence will be a non-issue just like it was in previous decades, until it's too late. The new generation of Aborigines will have to fight these clowns for their future, and of course said clowns will enjoy no help from cost-cutters in Canberra. There are no criteria for success, merely competence, and the scope for failure is wide. What a bastard of a job!

If you read his speech, you realise it is a typical of Abbott when he slips the leash of his portfolio. The ideas are vague but he carefully frames his opposition: the only permissible opposition is sentimental lefties, because he can see them coming. Er, no, Tony, because you haven't thought it through your biggest problem is both ideological and practical; but go ahead and fight all those AUS battles all over again, it will only enhance your irrelevance.

Tony Abbott is the next Liberal Opposition Leader. He is not the next Prime Minister because he polls badly among women (including those in the Parliamentary Liberal Party - except perhaps Jackie Kelly, and even she can sniff the breeze), and he is now the last politician holding office in Australia who can stir up Christian sectarianism. Indeed, those fully imbued with the love of Christ cannot but despise his cant, which presents a veneer of learning to those who don't have any. He's not deep because there is no linkage between his 'high-minded' rhetoric and his actual performance.

The far right of the Liberal Party hate Abbott for how he scuppered One Nation. The remnants of what used to be called the liberals bear the imprints of his boots upon their faces. The Liberal women currently in Parliament overwhelmingly hold marginal seats which, with the coming of a Labor government, they will lose and hence will have no vote in the post-government Liberal Parliamentary leadership.

Abbott's only victories are over straw men, phantoms that don't exist: nuclear plants in his electorate, powerful Marxists, and others who seem easy prey for his mighty powers. Those who stand up to Abbott, like Julia Gillard, have a huge advantage because he goes down like a sack of shit once you challenge him to turn away from his straw men beyond the highly mannered form of Parliament. If Gillard can shrug off the 2004 campaign Abbott won't lay a glove on her. You get credibility as a leader by taking votes away from your opponent and Abbott won't be able to convince the uncommitted to keep voting Liberal.

Like all bullies, he's not tough really, just contemptible. The Liberals are too stupid to head him off but they will find that out once his crumbling leaves them naked to the elements of a Gillard government.

15 June 2006

Standing up for the powerless can make you powerful

About time too - one of the sloppy, knee-jerk laws Howard rushes into place as caffeine-for-the-polls has been caned by a Senate Committee exercising an actual proper review function.

The decision to oppose the bill that would detain maritime sea-arrivals offshore was a strong and principled move for politicians bullied into lockstep with a dumb reactionary leadership. Senators Payne, Mason, Trood and Scullion have done far more important work than any loyal line toe-er in the Howard Government in putting a clear, researched case for changing the direction of government policy. So too, those who stood up to Howard over immigration last year and are stepping up again in their different ways to halt the backsliding: Georgiou, Moylan, Baird, Broadbent and Troeth, God bless you all. But for a critical mass of such politicians we would actually have a Liberal government that honoured the name.

Maybe all this fuss will subside. Maybe they will cave or be done over later. A few bright sparks in the darkness doesn't necessarily mean dawn is imminent.

The latter group tend to be thought of as feather-dusters, but this is unfair and not necessarily accurate. The Little Australian will reward people who stand up to him. He rewarded Malcolm Turnbull after his republicanism, his knock-down-drag-out turf war in Sydney's eastern suburbs and his idle imitation of an ideas politician - true, Turnbull had to eat a lot of crow, but he got there ahead of a conga-line of, ah, loyal Howard choristers. Julie Bishop knocked off Howard's best mate and she made it to Cabinet. They should stand as examples of how Liberals can stand up to Howard, and do well by doing good (well, haven't heard much from Turnbull lately - especially over the Snowy - but it's about time this blog gave someone a break). Hopefully Senator Marise Payne won't lose preselection over this, but I bet she does.

She and the others cited three pars above, those who stand up and cop the shivs from the skulking thugs who made the Howard Government as tired and as stale as their own imaginations, they're more than just exemplars - they're inspirational to a jaded liberal who dared not imagine such spirit animating the nation's government.

14 June 2006

Headless state

Australia does not need a head of state, and neither do its states or territories. Not some hand-me-down arrangement from the Poms, not a President either (elected, appointed or whatever). Australia and the states are bigger than any individual and government should be structured accordingly. The Governor-General of Australia and the State Governors are irrelevant, and their ceremonial function becomes all the more hollow the less relevant they become. It's time to amend the Constitutions of the Commonwealth and the states in order to remove gubernatorial positions.

The current batch of viceroys - like Her Maj - aren't doing a bad job, but they are doing a non-job. Australia's current Governor-General is often represented as a rorty old figure from Gilbert & Sullivan, all epaulettes and campaign medals, while his defenders say he's an eminent person you can be proud of. They're both right, but if you read The Major General's song he is telling you directly how eminent he is, while at the same time being completely irrelevant.

Former Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen said that the viceroy should 'represent ... the Australian nation to the people of Australia', but a good writer holding no office whatsoever will beat any public official at that. There are basically two roles performed by the Governor-General and the State Governors (and I include here the Administrators of the Northern Territory, Norfolk Island and whatever other equivalents exist in other territories), administrative and ceremonial.

First, the administrative role: they rubber-stamp parliamentary bills and regulations on advice from ministers. Cabinet decide the form of regulations and when bills will commence as legislation, so the next step of "vice-regal approval" is irrelevant. If an unconstitutional law or regulation is passed, the High Court strikes it down and "vice-regal approval" counts for nothing. Any other governmental process that added so little value would be cut out of the budget.

Second, the ceremonial: they open fetes and give out prizes. In the case of the incumbent, the Prime Minister has basically elbowed out the G-G and does this stuff himself. It is, as Menzies said, what politicians excel at: giving away things that do not belong to them. The theory goes that you might not want to accept a gong from a particular head of government, so a harmless old governor takes the political edge off. The fact is that there is no way of taking the political edge off a gong, if the government wants to give one to someone they'll do it to make themselves look good - and if you don't want to be made a political tool of, say that you'll refuse to accept it and call a press conference during the award ceremony. The next Prime Minister and the one after are extremely unlikely to revert to convention. If you must, the Australian of the Year is eminently qualified to do the ceremonial stuff, and no threat to the elected government.

The State Governors (including the territories etc.) can be done away with by legislative change. In NSW this is a little more difficult thanks to Lang's Game, but a well-informed referendum should yield the right result. One little piece of legislation amending the state constitution or the statutes governing the territories, and one last letter to London saying: we won't be asking you to rubber-stamp any more heads of state, but thanks anyway for all those duffer rear-admirals and useless nobles.

The Governor-General has two other roles that the others don't have: commander-in-chief of the armed forces and constitutional umpire. These are not merely niceties or relics and must be dealt with properly.

The Chief of the Defence Force is actually the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He acts under direction from government and in the name of the Governor-General, but it is this position which is at the head of the command structure and the Constitution should reflect it.

As for the constitutional umpire role, e.g. 1975: that could be done by the full bench of the High Court. Whitlam sympathisers fulminate over Barwick's behind-the-scenes role in 1975 but the full bench would be more learned, relatively pluralist and open than the case at the moment. The model - even though they got the result wrong - is the US Supreme Court in Bush v Gore, and I agree with this eminently Australian solution to an impasse like that.

1975 and all that

You have to take a stand on this issue and here's mine.

I believe that Whitlam was trying to play with the Constitution by circumventing Parliament in order to raise money. Rex Connor was a dill and that we'd still be paying for his infrastructure dreams today without necessarily being better off - so much for "temporary purposes". Not worth losing government over.

Whitlam's own behaviour during the budget blockage is, as Clive James write in The Monthly a few months ago, a subject that deserves as much scrutiny as that given to Fraser or Kerr - today's baby-boomer journalists and academics tend to take Whitlam uncritically as given. Basically, Whitlam tossed the extra-constitutional boomerang out and it swung back and hit him in the face on 11/11/75. No sympathy is due to the man or his shallow government: for every "recognising China" there's an "East Timor".

The fact that the people so roundly rejected him at the post-Dismissal election cannot be brushed aside. Attempts by Labor apologists to do so reveal flaws in the Labor psyche over their genuine desire to win government and to govern, as opposed to the cop-out that is secular martyrdom.