22 April 2008

Stoop to conquer

What the Liberals need to do federally is to ditch aspects of Howard's intellectual and moral inertia while preserving above all else his reputation for economic competence.

The question of leadership is, who can best do this?

The current leader, Brendan Nelson, is not the man to shake up anyone or anything. Once the patient is stabilised and able to sign out of hospital, the services of the doctor should be dispensed with. This is not to say that the guy should be treated like rubbish and that any opinion he may have in future must be ignored, as is the case with John Hewson or Mark Latham.

The Liberal Party has alternative leaders. They just need to do some work first, rather than just thrust themselves forward. Anyone who thrust themselves forward before doing the necessary work can expect - and will deserve - what awaits Nelson.

Costello has the experience and the credentials, as Matthew Franklin points out, it is fair to accuse him of a Beazley-like lack of ticker. The test for him will ultimately be, of all things, a trawl back through his own life.
SENIOR Liberals are bracing for a political storm after learning that former treasurer Peter Costello will publish his memoirs.

"I think he will regret it for the rest of his life," a former member of the Liberal's federal executive said today.

Here Christian Kerr is thinking like a Liberal government staffer, back from the days when there were Liberal governments. He wouldn't have had to hunt far to find an old fart who thinks that it is always better for the Liberal boat to be tied to a wharf and accumulating barnacles than for it to be rocked.

It will be a sign of ticker for Costello to come out with a memoir that, if not a barbaric yawp, doesn't hesistate to tell timid souls like this to get fucked. Coleman can lend intellectual depth to such an enterprise but it is Costello who must take charge of it, have the book reflect both his life and forward thinking in a way that Coleman cannot deliver alone. A good memoir could be a platform for Costello. A poor one will confirm him as gutless and snide, remainder-bin fodder like The Abnegation of a Young Dickhead.

The next Liberal Prime Minister will be someone who will put the party organisation in a position where it supports rather than hinders the political leadership. This is what John Howard was able to do in 1995-96, and it is why he and not Peacock, Hewson or Downer led the Liberals to victory.

If you can't reshape the Liberal Party into a lean, mean fighting machine, at least you can push its most cumbersome features out of the way. Who has the clout to do that?

Costello comes from Victoria and likes that state's dysfunctional division full of nobodies just the way it is. He is not going to rip through the Victorian division, nor any other. If the memoirs really do provide a wake-up call, he'll have to dump some courtiers. Because he can't offer government bounty, his only choice is to push people into the cold. Failing that, Costello could end up like John West toward the end of Power Without Glory, despairing that he's surrounded by numbskulls.

It is NSW where there is greatest potential for reform, and where there are more seats that the Liberals need to win than in Victoria. There are three potential leaders there, and the first one to throw themselves into reforming the state division of the Liberal Party will position themselves as the next Liberal Prime Minister.

Malcolm Turnbull is the lynchpin of the Liberals' economic credibility and must not be moved from the shadow treasury. Swan is weak and, if he puts in a poor performance in the Budget, it is Turnbull who should run him down and claim his scalp (Rudd can't and won't keep his old Nambour mate on if he lets the side down) - as Shadow Treasurer.

One of the good things about a quote within a Malcolm Colless article is that it reveals sharper judgement than Colless:
"Malcolm and his backers should realise that he doesn't have the numbers at present," one senior Liberal said in a not too subtle shot at indigenous affairs spokesman Tony Abbott. "The cold reality for them is that neither the party nor the electorate is ready for Malcolm yet," he added.


Turnbull can't and won't get down with Liberals in branches outside his electorate. He'd be happy to sweep through in a cloud of quips and bombast, but connecting with banal people and their banal lives will be too much of a grind. He can't and won't deign to treat David Clarke as someone worthy of his time and effort, nor will he have the base within the party to do to him what he did to Peter King.

Tony Abbott is not ready to take over from Turnbull as Shadow Treasurer. He's struggling as Shadow Minister for Families, Families, Families, Centrelink, the Northern Territory Intervention and Families. The RU486 debacle signalled that Abbott was not a rival to Costello for the leadership, and that judgement increasingly looks vindicated.

Abbott is uncomfortable about being a wholly-owned subsidiary of David Clarke and the Taliban, but that's where he is. Abbott lacks the guts to beard that lion is his den. He could embrace the Selig reforms and present himself as an honest broker - but the Taliban hates apostasy and the moderates hate him even more. He'd be crushed, and there's no point in a broker who's broken - and sometimes, as Nelson shows, you can be so "broke" that you can't be fixed.

Joe Hockey has form with reviewing the Liberal Party's structure, having participated in one such in the early '90s chaired by John Valder. Hockey is a moderate factional warrior and the smarter minds on the right can see him coming. Nonetheless, he could develop clout and gravitas in this process. He knows the structure of the NSW division and where the bodies are buried.

Reforming the NSW branch would be hard and dirty work, the sort of job likely to make or break a politician. Yet, in its current state it is an obstacle to government at state, federal and possibly even local level. Like Hercules emerging from the Augean stables, it is the sort of thing that could establish a leader on the national stage - someone well placed to make the most of opportunities when the Rudd Government loses its sparkle, and when mighty mountains of the contemporary landscape become spent volcanoes.
In the Liberal Party, battle lines are clearly being drawn between the executive and parliamentary wings. In NSW, the hardline right-wing faction, which exercises enormous influence at a state and federal level, is determined to resist the reform model being pushed by the party's president, Geoff Selig, which it brands as undemocratic. And it will be interesting to see whether Selig is still the state president at the end of the year.

The Right rejects claims it is being driven by self-interest that is unrepresentative of the Liberal constituency and is therefore holding back the party's electoral prospects. It argues that instead of demonising the factions, the party should publicly acknowledge their existence and their role in its operating structure.

It's Colless' job to investigate claims like that, not take them on face value. Stackers can't complain about being "undemocratic". He can't just accept a threat to Selig's position (a sign of what'd happen to Abbott if he stood up to them). The Taliban are not a factor to be managed; they are a noxious force bent on killing the host organism. You don't manage that, you stand up to it and kill it off.
Labor, which has a bitter history of the destructive effects of internal factional warfare, has in recent times been able to portray the factions as a benign influence in the party.

This was nowhere more obvious than in the public announcement by Rudd that he, and not the factions - as had traditionally been the case - would determine his ministry, even if his choices effectively reflected factional preferences.

Once again, Colless has undermined the premise of his article. Rudd's ability to choose his own ministry was a defeat for factionalism, not a vindication of it.

David Clarke has to realise that he is landfill for the Liberal Party's road to victory. The sooner he realises it the better, and the better for the one able to confront him with that realisation.

As to Queensland, that's just too hard. There is a case for a unique solution there. It may include Mal Brough, unless the NT intervention is so completely reframed that he looks like a throwback. Please, though, spare the Queensland coalition crocodile tears like this. One can have too many Queenslanders, just as a generation ago there was an unnecessary number of Victorians running things, and an unhealthy (and unproductive) concentration of South Australians in the Howard cabinet.

The least likely of these potential leaders, Hockey, is best placed to take the indirect but surest path to the Lodge. It won't be quick and it won't be easy. Only dills like Minchin think there's some alternative to deep and broad reform (such that might tip his minions out of rotten boroughs in NSW, Tasmania and SA). They need to be isolated and either starved into submission, or else become ridiculous like those bedraggled Japanese soldiers who stayed in the Pacific after ignoring their Emperor's order to surrender.
In the end, a dose of old-fashioned, Labor-style federal intervention may be what is needed. But, alas for the Liberals, their constitution does not permit such roughhouse tactics.

Not while the Federal Liberals are full of clueless goobers like Loughnane and Minchin. The NSW Liberals have to reform themselves from within. So do the Vics, and the Queenslanders, and those from the other states too. The next Liberal Prime Minister will have to stoop to the rubber chicken circuit of Liberal branches before taking on and beating Rudd.

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