25 May 2009

Tony Abbott is gutless

In this piece, Phillip Coorey reckons Tony Abbott wants a debate - but he doesn't really. He wants to exert the same degree of control over a supplicant Parliamentary Liberal Party and a mendicant populace that John Howard had. The only debates Tony Abbott wants are those that don't change anything. Phillip Coorey has no right to take Abbott at his word.
Abbott, however, does feel he has a much bigger contribution to make than his current role of being down in the pecking order in the shadow ministry and not in the thick of day-to-day tactical decisions.

Aww, does he? Howard put him in the thick of it and the Coalition lost office. Julia Gillard and Nicola Roxon got where they are today by climbing all over this master tactician, and putting him back will do three things, neither of them favourable to the Liberal Party

  1. It would reward petulance.

  2. The case that the Opposition's parliamentary tacticians have failed has not been made.

  3. Every ambitious Labor politician, particularly the women, know that they can bounce off Abbott to raise their profile. Abbott will think this makes him rock-like and resolute, when all it does is make him look inert and an easy mark.

Tony Abbott cannot take on women. A man who learned his "people skills" on the rugby fields of Riverview and who fled from his first encounter with female fertility by slinking into a seminary has an Achilles heel when it comes to the subtleties of doing battle with women. The one time he was caught playing hardball with a female opponent - "That's bullshit" - reinforced his weakness, his sheer unsuitability, for the subtleties of modern politics.
Abbott's manifesto will recognise that all new Oppositions need to do some soul-searching to rediscover what they believe in and where they want to go before being fit to return to government.

Abbott doesn't want to do any soul-searching. He thinks that the hard line taken by Howard on social issues and the free-for-all on boomtime economic policies was absolutely right. Abbott believes that any opposition can be corralled neatly into a Manichean mindset that to fail to agree with everything Howard did is to be anti-Liberal. There is no evidence that Tony Abbott promotes debate - he issues pronouncements and makes ad-hominem attacks on his opponents, but no debates. Try and find a debate on his website. This is not a debater - if the elbow to the face does not take out an opponent, he is lost, bereft, useless to himself and others.
The success of the Howard government was a product of the directional debates and arguments the party had during its 13 wilderness years, Abbott believes.

Two things come from that paragraph:

  1. ... and its failure because the ideas to which Tony Abbott cleaves were cemented in place until it became impossible for the Liberals to change course without losing government. Howard won within the Liberal Party in 1995, and beyond it in '96, by reaching out to moderates. The longer he spent in office the less moderate he became, until the country just didn't recognise him any more and tossed him out.

  2. Phillip Coorey and his employer should not be plugging a book they haven't read.

Back to Phillip:
The book will be conservative in its thrust and there will be policy ideas, including advocating a more aggressive approach to fix our dysfunctional system of federation than John Howard or Rudd was willing to embrace.

Essentially, the Commonwealth should call the shots and individual states should no longer be able to veto policy.

That's not terribly conservative, Phillip. Reducing the country's original level of responsible government to the world's biggest municipalities sounds pretty radical to me. As Health Minister, Tony Abbott liked to swagger around and lord it over the states without actually accepting responsibility for the expensive, messy and often heartbreaking business of running hospitals and promoting good health. Nothing at all conservative about rights without responsibilities, as Julian Leeser could tell you.
Abbott's book, like most things he does, will no doubt be controversial because its aim is to generate debate.

Its aim is to stifle debate within the Liberal Party, to claim an authority for himself that was always scrounged, delegated from Howard.
The author believes it will become a problem only if debate dissolves into rancour.

The author will ensure, Phillip, that any debate descends into rancour so that he can use people like you to rise above it.
As recently as budget week, there was another "robust" internal debate, this time over a bill Labor introduced in March to abolish the system in which immigration detainees have to pay the costs of their own incarceration.

Coorey then goes on to give the policy background of this debate, as though the Liberals are still in government and that their policy is synonymous with that of government. It is this confusion that helps cement the Liberals in Opposition. Besides, in Budget week they had so little idea what to do that they decided to pick on the reffos?
The Opposition immigration spokeswoman, Sharman Stone, took a submission to shadow cabinet recommending the Coalition support the bill. She was rolled.

It was argued that the Opposition could not blame Labor's "softening" of policy for the latest surge in boat arrivals, and then support such a bill. Furthermore, the Coalition believed philosophically that taxpayers should not bear the full cost of illegal arrivals. The party room ratified the decision on budget day and only a few moderates, including Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan, complained.

Even when the moderate view prevails in shadow cabinet, the conservatives keep fighting. One source has described a tactic becoming more commonplace during sitting weeks in which shadow ministers meet in small groups to discuss having the party room overturn or influence a shadow cabinet decision.

In other words, the conservatives undermine the leader. Remember if you dare the sheer outrage, the effrontery that resulted from backbenches daring to hint at questioning outcomes of Cabinet. Every instance is a slap in the face of the leader. Turnbull thinks he can sail over petty needling like this, but Howard knew better and used procedural measures like this to undermine every leader he ever served, from Snedden to Downer. Turnbull should jump on the next instance of this with both feet and sack Abbott and Minchin - and replace them with moderates - should they dare to hint at doing the like again.

This nebulous term "softening" is also designed as a prophylactic on debate. At the end of the day, you can have all the debate you like, you can raise factoids like this:
Australia is the only country that charges detainees - even those found to be lawfully in the country - for their board and transport costs. The charge is currently $125.40 a day. Some accrue debts of more than $100,000, which severely hampers their attempts to settle in the country once released.

The system is costly to administer. Of the $54 million in debts accrued to June 30, 2008, only 3.3 per cent was recovered.

Before the advent of the Howard government, and Tony Abbott's political career, laughable impracticalities like that put paid to stupid policies, never to be spoken of again. It's not cost recovery, it's extortion. In the Liberal Party of Abbott and pals, you can not just defend but aggressively promote any policy on the basis of it being "hard" or "tough", and oppose anything by labelling it "soft". That's not a debate, it's a slanging match, and that's exactly how Tony Abbott likes it. It's how he's always operated Phillip, and if you're going to play the old Canberra hand you should know that, and say that.
"A shadow cabinet submission gets put under some backbencher's door. It gives the outcome of the shadow cabinet and then they caucus to get that decision overturned.

"They make sure the backbenchers do it in tandem. When they go into the party room they're quite organised. One will jump up, and then the next will jump up and it's co-ordinated."

He believes the tactic was used to ensure the Coalition opposed outright the $42 billion stimulus package.

The next Liberal Prime Minister will never put up with being played like that. Turnbull might, but even Alexander Downer could pick that for the slow-acting poison that it was when he saw it.

You can't debate with a closed book, and no one knows that better than the author. After The Costello Memoirs it should not be surprising in itself that Liberals write books. Writing a book is impressive for anyone who doesn't read much other than newspapers, and gives Abbott an authority he hasn't otherwise earned. Abbott whinged about his income going down after 2007 (if Sol Trujillo and Andrew Maiden can be rewarded for failure, why not Abbott?), the Liberal version of "relevance deprivation syndrome" that Labor accepted with better grace in '96. Tony Abbott wants to turn the Liberal Party into his ideological plaything. In the absence of any countervailing opinion, any representative of the broader public interest that tossed out the Coalition, any guts at all - it may be best that the Liberal Party go exactly where this lot would have it go, and if they get lonely in their cupboard under a set of stairs somewhere they can dare to dream that Liberalism might mean a vision for Australia that John Howard could never imagine.
Tony Abbott is not crazy enough to believe that he will ever lead the Liberal Party

Yes he is, Phillip. Costello is too gutless and all the other happy little Minchinites are too young. Let Tony Abbott's publishers do their own PR and stop accepting his assumptions as your own, and your readers'. Read the book and relate it to reality as best you can, and show us how this government is secure so long as Abbott's petulance gushes forth - whether sneaking around the backrooms or making a fool of himself in plain sight. Keep it up Phillip and you could be the next Glenn Milne.

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