04 July 2008

Or turn into a mishmash

Michelle Grattan should know better than to publish stuff like this. After almost four decades in Canberra you have no excuse for getting caught up in the flaky hype and bullshit from people with no sense of history nor any principle to carry them forward.
DAY-TO-DAY perceptions of politics can change with great speed, indeed sometimes faster than the reality, perhaps because media scrutiny is so intense.

Presumably (hopefully) the "reality" referred to here is the perceptions among the voting public, and alignment with (and shaping of) that reality should be the goal of both politicians and journalists. This might take the "intensity" away from things that don't matter very much. If you've been there long enough to see real crises (like 1975 the foreign exchange crisis of 1984; or the political responses to September 11, the Bali bombing and the Iraq war) you should have no truck with non-events like Gippsland or Iguana. The whole value-add of a seasoned political reporter is maintaining that focus on issues that do matter.
South Australian Premier Mike Rann is defining Mayo as the safest of safe Liberal seats. Admittedly it is on 7.1%, but you'd normally expect Labor to offer voters a choice. That the ALP is even contemplating not running suggests it is feeling risk-averse.

What Labor is doing here is what Labor has done consistently over the past decade, at state level if not federal: avoid head-on confrontations they can't win, dominate the ones they can. A bit of basic research would have illustrated this.

Labor behaving like political professionals might be a shock at the federal level but an exprienced journalist should get over it - and should get readers over it too.
The Rudd Government is looking potentially a little more vulnerable. This isn't just because of Gippsland, but especially as a result of the difficult issues and huge agenda Rudd faces. The looming emissions trading system is regarded as bigger than the GST, on which John Howard nearly lost the 1998 election. Unlike Rudd, Howard had a fat majority to take the hit. You'd still back Rudd for a second term but he doesn't appear the deadset certainty he might have before.

What does this mean for the Liberals, as they contemplate organisational reform and leadership?

On the first, they should avoid getting diverted.

Of course Labor remain likely to be re-elected. How is Gippsland 2008 different to the byelections in Wannon or Corangamite in 1983-84, Michelle? It isn't, really. When people look back on the Hawke government (particularly those who were there and remember it, Michelle) those jitters of the first few years barely get a mention. That sort of experience should have determined whether this piece was worth writing.

During that equivalent time the Hawke government was developing and rolling out Medicare - for which models already existed. Medicare had and has massive effects on the economy. It effects the structure of the federal government and federal-state relations. Politically, the Liberal Party failed to cope with Medicare in all of the elections until 1996, when it fudged and neutralised the issue rather than address it.

Just as Medicare was designed to contain the costs of healthcare, and its differential impact on people with less economic power, so today the emissions trading/taxing system is seeking to defray the costs of carbon emissions on the environment. There is, as you've acknowledged Michelle, significant goodwill towards the government and a preparedness to let them have their head for a while.

The idea that Nelson might even get a look-in during this time is nonsense. Governments always take a bit of a dip a year or so out from their first election. You know that, Michelle. Does anyone seriously believe Nelson is going to win the coal-mining vote for the Liberals?

You also know how much wishful thinking there is in the blithe statement that the Coalition "should avoid getting diverted".
Nelson could be forgiven for despairing. Even when things go reasonably for him, he can't break through as a credible leader.

How is this different from any of the other 13 Federal Opposition Leaders you've seen go around to varying degrees of success, Michelle? Is it even worth repeating that Nelson is on 15% popularity, let alone the hype and bullshit involved in presenting this as some kind of skyocketing ascendancy?
It's like the latter days of Kim Beazley, only worse.

It's like the early days of Kim Beazley, where he was getting his face on telly a lot but generally being ignored by everyone outside the press gallery, and the party had years of opposition ahead of them. It's like the early days of Billy Snedden, where Labor were too busy governing to take the stick to the demoralised and clueless fatheads to the Speaker's left. That's what it's like, Michelle.
With a huge policy agenda coming up from the Government, the Liberals will repeatedly face a choice: do they opt for expediency or judge according to the soundness of the policy? The emissions trading scheme, due to start 2010, election year, will tempt them to be opportunistic - like Labor was with the GST.

This can be double-edged politics. When a policy is embryonic or in its chaotic early stages, expediency can yield political dividends for an opposition; once it is bedded down, this short-termism can turn against those who persist with it.

It's hard to believe that the Liberals actually want to follow in the footsteps of Beazley Labor, rather than run screaming in the opposite direction. The question here is simple: does the Coalition think that it can bump Labor off its game to the point where it gives up on this whole emissions thing altogether - especially now that the Coalition has lost control of the Senate to the Greens? You'd have to be crazy. Beazley had a lot of credibility with the electorate and frittered it away. Nelson had none to begin with and can't build any.
If the Rudd Government comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - policy can be made more realistic and acceptable, or turn into a mishmash.

What mealy-mouthed bullshit that is. You could substitute the name of the current Prime Minister for any of his predecessors at any point and the sheer vacuity of that statement would be unabated. You could substitute the name of any of the state premiers or any foreign leader:
If the Mugabe Government comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - policy can be made more realistic and acceptable, or turn into a mishmash.

If the Iemma Government comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - policy can be made more realistic and acceptable, or turn into a mishmash.

If the Bush Administration comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - policy can be made more realistic and acceptable, or turn into a mishmash.

If whatever Government comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - etc.

An editor with his/her salt should have flung that back in Grattan's face with an instruction to lift her game or piss off to the Murdoch papers.
The Senate will be an unpredictable player in the emissions trading scheme, with the crossbenchers (Greens, Family First and independent Nick Xenophon) likely to have diverse positions and the Opposition's final Senate line problematic.

Based on my years of experience in observing politics, here's what'll happen:

  • Green Senators Milne and Siewert will examine the scheme line by line. They will probe the government for their preparedness to move on certain issues, and when Labor push back these will be the flaws they will rail against. The other Green Senators, including the increasingly moribund Brown, will fall into line behind whatever Milne and Siewert decide.

  • The Coalition will shriek publicly that the scheme is appalling, that the sky will fall in, doom and gloom all round. In the Senate, Minchin and Abetz will be slightly more sophisticated in not opposing it outright at first but proposing to scuttle the operational bits of the scheme.

  • Fielding will say "look, I haven't made up my mind", while in fact his base will have green aspirations and he simply won't believe the jeremiads coming out of the Coalition. He'll take his chances with Labor rather than rely on Coalition preferences next time.

  • Xenophon will be interesting, but the Coalition will go in too hard and that will tip him toward Labor's scheme. He will be impressed by its congruence with Kyoto and the fact that Labor won (and got a post-election poll-spike) on a pro-Kyoto mandate.

  • The Senate will vote for the scheme, with amendments. The Coalition will try to claim that it will be a disaster while at the same time trying to establish green credentials - a bit like the mealy-mouthed nothing that was their response to the Stolen Generations apology.

The Democrats underestimated the GST - to their peril. The emissions trading scheme is core business for the Greens. Minchin and Abetz really are that stupid, and anyone in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party who is less so lacks the guts to take them on. That's what you should be getting from a political commentator. It's what you get from Peter Hartcher, Shaun Carney and Laura Tingle on their best days, even though all of them together have less experience in Canberra than Michelle Grattan.
Meanwhile, in Mayo, nominations open today for a late July preselection. The fight among the candidates is about both the past and the future. Jamie Briggs, 31, who is expected to announce his candidature today and will promote himself as part of a Liberal Party needing to rebuild, is under attack within the ranks because he was Howard's adviser on WorkChoices. Briggs' situation is a metaphor for the Liberals generally, still caught between past and future, as it dawns on them that the future might be just a little brighter than it has seemed.

Great, just what the Liberal Party needs: another Josh Frydenberg. Briggs' situation and that of the Liberal Party was illustrated beautifully by Peter Hartcher's column today: just tell us if Briggs is the sort of person who would have giggled with Downer after his "loser" comment.

Do you not think that the Liberals should have picked up a few crumbs politically after the demise of the Democrats, Michelle, rather than the bugger-all that has accrued to them? Never mind Mayo, Michelle, how would you think Nelson's Liberals would go in a byelection for Robertson? What about if they were led by Turnbull or Costello? Those are the sort of questions you'd expect an experienced political journalist to be asking.

Shane Maloney was right: in four decades Michelle Grattan has written nothing memorable. She is so focused on activity she has no idea about stasis and progress, wood or trees.


  1. Hi Andrew,

    I looked up the Peter Hartcher Wiki article after reading this:


    Someone edited some rather unflattering things into it yesterday, after the Alexander Downer piece was published. The only other edits listed for the IP address ( were to put aggrandising things in the Alexander Downer article.

    From the things the IP address added to the Downer articles (a comment: "Downer's father was known as Alick, not Alec. Purile (sic) rubbish), it looks like Downer himself did the edits on Hartcher's page. Hilarious! Peter Hartcher was certainly right about the lack of gravitas, not that we needed any more proof.

  2. Thanks Sean, I wish I could be surprised. Shame there's no countervailing achievements that might mitigate this. I still have a letter from him that looks like he wrote it while drunk.

  3. Excellent post as usual , Andrew , but you have to decrease your paranoia about internet riff raff and decrease the effort required to post to this blog. Also get a bit of technical expertise on the presentation of this blog , at the moment it looks like a robber's dog.

  4. Paranoia, Bill? It's my blog and any crazy ramblings or beef-witted abuse will come from me. Others can post if they can raise the tone, like the estimable sean above.

    I always knew you were an aesthete, but as for professional web design I am hastening slowly on that front. Time posting is time stolen from other things as it is, forgive me my clutter as I forgive those who clutter against me.