28 September 2009

The very model of a modern major Liberal

Since the 2007 Federal election it has become clear that there is a whole new set of criteria for those wishing to become Liberal MPs - certainly in terms of Federal (as I nostalgically call it) Parliament.

Time was that you needed a law degree - presentation skills and familiarity with legal complexities being largely sufficient for a political career, with a common touch and an understanding of wider public policy in a few pet areas as nice-to-have.
When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an attorney's firm ...

You also needed a wife, who could lead community activities without taking them over and excluding others (playing political games that could cut across your own), as well as to demonstrate that you weren't female or effeminate.

During the 1980s legal qualifications were only important if you were bound for the frontbench. If you weren't red-hot ministerial talent you'd have speeches written for you and be told how to vote; incisive thinking, appreciation of subtleties and independence of spirit was, if anything, a handicap under such circumstances. From then into the '90s, what you needed was sufficient clout within your community to be able to raise funds (Bill Heffernan used to say that if you couldn't hit the phones and raise ten grand within a day or so, you had no business being in politics) as well as some familiarity in dealing with the dreaded meeja. All sorts of drones would pop up as State Director of the Australian Association of Whatever, plugging talking points during Whatever Week and outlining factors impacting on Blah Blah De Blah, and after eighteen months or so of that you'd see them running for preselection touting their Extensive Meeja Experience.

That's all changed now. What you need now to become a Liberal MP is to have been a staffer in the Howard Government. This is part of a refusal to let go and an inability to conceive of a post-Howard Liberal politics, but part of a new realisation within the Liberal Party that politics is different to the business of law or business or whatever else. Jamie Briggs, Kellie O'Dwyer and now Paul Fletcher have shown that the entry points to a career as a Liberal politician is open only to a group of people whose ranks are finite and closed to new entrants. To get into politics you had to have been in politics. Even Josh Frydenberg, a person of less substance than his resume, has gotten an opportunity that could more productively have gone to others.
Handsome and charismatic, Switzer carried endorsements from leading conservative figures such as John Howard, Tony Abbott and Peter Costello.

Switzer had given everything to the contest, but his opponents had managed to brand him as the candidate of the Right: a disadvantage on the north shore ...

It isn't just his opponents who brand him as a creature of the right, Imre: Switzer has done a bang-up job of it himself. In Imre's own commentary on the vote, he admits that the right were firmly behind Switzer: successful branding that.
Following Switzer was barrister Greg Burton. In the reams of copy churned out about Bradfield in recent weeks, few had mentioned Burton. But he gave a strong performance that played on the local Bradfield background that he and Switzer share and that many of the leading contenders lacked.

Burton sounds like the very sort of chap that would normally have held the seat for twenty years and done bugger-all with it (like B W Graham or Silent Billy Jack after World War II, or like Brad Hazzard and Michael Richardson in the NSW Parliament today); the sort of person who has no chance today, and who the Liberal Party will not be smart enough to steer towards another seat somewhere else. The same can be said for David Coleman. Worth noting that Imre didn't rate Burton before the event either; I'd include myself in that, except blogpost "copy" can't be measured in "reams".
Fletcher, around the middle of the order, surprised the preselectors with the vehemence of his speech. "He was loud, almost banging the podium," said one of them later. Possibly, he was overcompensating for a reputation for being almost soporifically cautious.

Possibly? Definitely. He took his weak point and nailed it, like Tony Abbott taking the microphone from the stand and working the room in '94. He made sure that his speech was memorable, unlike the clearly unremarkable smarm and bluster you'd expect from Switzer.
One of Nelson's loyal staff, Simon Berger, had made a decision to speak openly of his status as a gay man during the campaign to succeed his boss. Berger was considered among the second rank of serious contenders. His speech did not return to the issue of sexuality, but he told the preselectors that he was proud in so many different registers that they got the message.

And the message is: it's all about me, me, me. If I win it'll all be about me, and not us and certainly not you darling, just me. The man was a staffer and he blew it. He talked himself out of a job. He could have been a Senator, and could yet be if he can bear to talk about something else, if only to realise that the best light to shine upon oneself is refracted - especially so since Howard.

Is being a gay man a "status"? For implications and accusations, however, it is hard to go past this:
Leeser, who bears the manner of a rabbinical scholar ...

This is Imre's sneaky way of saying that Leeser is a Jew, dear reader - yes, with a nod and a wink to Imre's sources in the far right, and to his old comrades on the far left - a Jew.
Leeser's supporters began to speculate on how soon Turnbull would be elevating their man to the shadow ministry: with Switzer eliminated, they assumed the Right would lock in behind Leeser. They were wrong. Switzer's vote split straight down the middle.

It is great that Julian Leeser has cross-factional support. Without wishing to jinx him, he is genuinec political talent, bright and personable and diligent, with all the makings of a very good minister. People are right to assume that he's solid frontbench material. He will not take long to eclipse Ruddock, a man of whom fairly little was expected but not even that was delivered. If Leeser had beaten Fletcher it would have been no loss. Having seen the RMs-clad far right and they would never have voted for a Jew in eine tausende Jahre.

It is a pity that Paul Ritchie did not do better, a bigger shame if he doesn't going forward. No women either, apparently: in my day Words Would Have Been Said about that.
So what, apart from factional support, carried [Fletcher] across the line? One of the preselectors tells The Australian it was his demonstration of policy smarts.

"He talked a little bit about his background in terms of telecommunications policy and demonstrated, through questions, a knowledge that gave people some comfort," the preselector says.

"He was also the only one who made the point that there were some real issues that should matter to the people of Bradfield and that he would be able to articulate a case about, in language that the people of Bradfield would understand.

"The two examples he gave were the reduction in tax deductibility around superannuation and private health insurance. Instead of just talking about platitudes like Liberal values, or the economic stimulus package, he gave a new ground upon which the Coalition would have a case to take some real issues to the Rudd government."

Every carpetbagger under the sun can bang on about Liberal values, and many preselectors would have watched in despair as the party tore itself apart in the 1980s and '90s over definitions. The Liberal Party is still suspicious of those who love government a little too much, like Kevin Rudd, or who love the hootin' and hollerin' of "parliamentary theatre" - it is up to staffers who have to keep their heads while all the members are losing theirs in Question Time. They don't get swayed by celebrity, unlike the seven plonkers who voted for John Alexander. They go off to that funny town near the snowfields and balance competing interests in a way that keeps everything ticking over, and what happens in The Holy Grail stays there, and [for Liberals] hopefully chip away at that Labor government that focuses a little too much about foreign goings-on.

There will be Liberal MPs who weren't staffers, but they'll want a significant local presence in their marginal seat, and they are unlikely to become Cabinet ministers (they may get junior portfolios if the next Liberal PM feels so disposed, like the ones Jim Lloyd and Fran Bailey got). At the same time be perfectly willing to go to Canberra and park their not insignificant egos in order to be told, and do, exactly what the legion of current and former Howard government staffers tell them to do. That's the real reason why it's so hard to get talented people into Parliament - it isn't pay or the fishbowl lifestyle. The cliche about politics as a "greasy pole" is partly because the learning curve is pretty much vertical and what one learns may not be that useful. Besides, it's so much easier if you've had the rough edges knocked off you already, and you know that blame and credit come your way rarely and at random. The Liberals want to get back into office as soon as possible and can't afford lead-in time for newbies.

Part of representative democracy is the idea - the dream, perhaps - that the representatives are just like us. If you're a truck driver, if you're a surgeon, if you're gay or Muslim or a Tigers supporter, you should be able to go to Canberra and look into the pit and see someone just like you. The Liberal Party is doing what it can to distance itself from that dream, just as Labor has spent a generation taking into Parliament those middle-ranking union officials not good enough to make it to senior office.

Paul Fletcher is not just the man of the hour, he is a man for his time - a policy wonk and a bit of a cold fish, with a temper that shows itself when he thinks nobody much is looking. If that reminds you of anyone - remember that Rudd himself proved that it can take one to know one, and to catch one, which only reinforces John Howard as the defining politician of modern Australia.

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