25 July 2007

Birnam Wood starts moving

John Howard has been the most centralist Prime Minister since Whitlam. While Whitlam's centralism reinforced federalism within the Liberal Party, Howard's centralism has wrecked it.

The practice of moving apparatchiks around the country and the decline of the Melbourne Raj at the top of that party have made the Liberal Party more responsive to federal needs and less responsive to those of a particular state.

Fundraising goes to federal campaigns, not state ones. At state elections, a bunch of long-serving apparatchiks who are not valued enough to be kept in Canberra are sent around to discourage any boisterousness on the part of State Liberal upstarts who actually want to win government - these guys floated to the top of Liberal campaigns in time to see the Fraser government into oblivion, and John Howard only became Prime Minister once he stopped listening to them. Their suggestions are always lame and they speak through clenched teeth at out-of-their-depth State Directors and putative Premiers, who immediately buckle and offer insipid, half-baked performances that repel voters. Dopey shadow ministers who do what they're told receive nods and winks (but bugger-all else) of support, while thinkers and doers are discouraged.

Howard puts in token appearances with Liberal leaders but doesn't include them in, or give them advance warning of, big-ticket policy announcements. These are reserved for the Labor Premiers, who look statesmanlike on telly and who then go into Parliament and monster their ill-advised, ill-funded and demoralised opponents.

This follows the model of John Carrick, General Secretary of the Liberal Party in NSW 1948-71, who was intensely focused on keeping the Menzies Government in office federally and didn't give a rat's about winning state government. The Coalition almost won State Government in 1959 against a succession of Labor Premiers who look as though they were carved out of mashed potato. Only when Robin Askin became State leader of the Liberal Party did he realise that Carrick was not going to capitalise on this, and effectively set up a parallel campaign team that eventually got him over the line six years later. This carelessness has built a born-to-rule mentality among NSW Labor, manifest in Keating's projection of this onto the Libs as well as the political inbreed currently occupying the NSW Premier's office. Carrick was John Howard's mentor.

None of this should be read as claiming that John Howard is to blame for the Liberals' lack of success at State level over the past dozen years or so. He isn't even largely to blame, as state Libs should have stood up for themselves. Standing up to a proven winner without a similar record of electoral achievement is, admittedly, fraught. However, the assumption that John Howard supports Liberals at the state level - which even seeps its way into first-year political science courses at our universities - is flatly wrong.

Now, all the state Labor leaders are starting to close ranks against Howard - about water, Dr Haneef and who knows what else in coming weeks. It creates the impression that Howard's lost the ability to govern the country. State Premiers don't normally need to reinforce their own political positions by shirt-fronting a Prime Minister of the opposing party (Greiner got on well with Hawke, as did Keating with Kennett, etc.), but there's more political capital to be had from the prospect of a Rudd Labor government than the stumbling, bleeding reality Howard presents us with.

Howard could really use some help from a state Premier who stands with him on the issues that Liberals care about. Wonder where he'll get one of those? The state Libs with the best chance of victory, Barry O'Farrell and Ted Baillieu, will be up against it in trying to crack the Labor bloc - but their chances will be better, not worse, once they are no longer encumbered by "help" from team Howard.

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