25 February 2010

Studies in political failure

It appears likely that Peter Garrett has survived the pathetic attack from the Opposition. Abbott needed to demonstrate forensic detail in cataloguing the failures of the home insulation scheme: to do so would have shown that he was as hungry and determined as his fans say he is. It would also have demonstrated that the public service is sick of Rudd. The fact that the Coalition haven't maintained any relationships with any public servants since Godwin Grech, and that the public service aren't reaching out to the Opposition, are two dogs that aren't barking: both these factors need to change if there is to be a change of government.

Abbott could have landed a real blow on the government, particularly given Rudd's weak roots in the ALP organisation, by pointing out the unwitting bankruptcy of the unions in not proving their worth to inexperienced workers by being in their workplaces. He coulda/shoulda made more of Troy Buswell's gift that the Feds leant on state regulators to go easy on installers. Yes, it has come to this: here lies Tony Abbott, a man with less political acumen than Troy Buswell (and a similarly creepy sex obsession).

Abbott demonstrates the failure of opposing for the sake of opposing: you can see him coming and if you can withstand the initial flurry, you know he will tire eventually. He is like a dog chasing a car: there might be a bit of sound and fury and the driver may be disconcerted at first, but you can't really believe that the dog will somehow displace the driver from the car and operate it better than the incumbent.

For all Abbott's feebleness, Garrett looks like a beaten man. Beyond the election he's likely to pack in parliament and go back to doing the odd Oils gig for Good Causes. Garrett's federal electorate of Kingsford Smith includes most/all of Keneally's state electorate: given that her career in State politics will be over in April 2011, and given that both Lionel Bowen and Laurie Brereton crawled from the wreckage of State Labor governments to take that seat, you'd have to bet on Keneally being the next MHR for Kingsford Smith. Labor have dropped her in it so deep that it's the least they could do.

Not that she'd go far - NSW Labor will be so on the nose and is well represented in the ministry already, thanks all the same. She'll arrive just as a Victorian leftwinger takes more and more power over the government, and will be in competition with long-suffering members of the Class of '07 for ministerial vacancies that Keneally has clearly come to see as her right. Watch for a "Don't you know who I am?" moment from someone who sees herself as an overachiever but who is already out of her depth, at forty.

Speaking of being out of one's depth, Gordon Brown looks like Britain's Nixon. Those shits who clung to his coat-tails have no right to complain, they stuck by Brown and covered up for him and the inevitable happened. Thankfully Britain does not have the clout that the US had under Nixon otherwise there'd be real trouble.

24 February 2010

How we are governed

Two articles today cast light on the way we are governed, and the way that government is reported by mainstream media.

This one showed the utter bankruptcy of parliamentary press gallery reporting. Question Time in NSW's State Parliament focused on a rehashed plan which was actually due to be delivered this year. It hasn't been, and so nothing this government says is worth listening to. All Damien Murphy will have achieved here is a rocket from Keneally's chief of staff for all Labor backbenchers to sit up like meerkats when the cameras are on, while Murphy and others can slump and yawn and play with their mobile phones. Who said the fourth estate don't have an impact on the big issues, what with Damo on the job.

Disinterest is the correct response to a government that has lost credibility. There is one thing worse than having Joe Tripodi apparently bored by government, and that is having him take an active interest in it. What if Tripodi wasn't fiddling but engaged in some sort of nefarious activity on behalf of some shadowy figure? Geez Damo, that might require some journalism. Where would you get some of that?

It is no longer necessary to cover the NSW State Parliament as no news will come out of it (and any news that does will be available by avenues far from Macquarie Street). The fascination with Keneally's media presence is a phenomenon interesting only to people who work in media. She can't get anything done, she won't get anything done; anything else is just the politico-media complex having itself on. If there's one person less worth listening to than Keneally, it's David Campbell; the man who didn't realise that Wollongong Council was corrupt achieved nothing by filling up Question Time with non-information about a bullshit plan, even though people like Damo regard him as some sort of tactical genius by substituting his own non-answers for those of his Premier.

Mind you, the White Lady Funerals line is a mighty good one.

This article is one of the most thoughtful articles on Australian politics in some time, a successful attempt to cast new light on an issue that has been done to death by less imaginative collagues in the journosphere.

It was possible for the insulation rollout to have been more tightly executed, to refuse to give public money to unqualified and uninsured businesses, and to mandate OH&S and other safeguars (everyone else who gets government money has to jump through hoops and fill out forms).

Carney's point about bushfire policy is well made, practical and sensitive. It shows up not just the amateurism but also the shallow thinking of Catallaxy in shying away from this issue, except for the odd snark.

The calculus is: a social problem has emerged, it is up to the government to produce a solution, through policing and diplomacy and education.

With successive governments representing themselves as having all the answers to all social problems, and with major political parties actively dissuading volunteerism in public life, it's hardly surprising that we've come to this. Libertarians bristling about "the nanny state" is as pointless as Marxists denouncing the profit motive: it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how societies work, and if you don't understand that it's probably best if you're excluded from running things.

Carney is wrong about increasing passivity toward government. There are two areas where an increasingly educated populace is closely scrutinising professionals who were once trusted to get on with the job, demanding answers and second-guessing their every move. Health and education professionals report increasingly querulous and rebarbative patients/parents asserting their rights, while at the same time being micromanaged by bureaucrats who don't understand their profession and the latitude it needs to function. I wish there were more of it and I think technology will make this kind of scrutiny easier in some ways, harder in others.

The point about big government is to work out what you want to do and then put in place the resources you need to do that. Where you have a major social issue that swallows lots of resources with little to show for it - war, Aboriginal disadvantage, alcohol as both social and anti-social, skills shortages - governments need to call on people for help, and be big enough to withstand criticism from media and opposition in the process. Media is often unhelpful in framing those larger issues and yet wonders why it is increasingly ignored.

20 February 2010


As soon as David Clarke threw a tantrum at the prospect of not getting preselected again, the NSW Liberals should have called his bluff and dumped the ungrateful little bastard straight away. He has contributed much less to the State and the Liberal Party than acknowledged wasters like Jeremy Kinross or Terry Griffiths.

The moderates, led by Michael Photios for old time's sake, have shown their strategic and intellectual poverty by cutting a deal with that toothless old devil. This was their chance to render him roadkill on the path to victory, and to ensure that no trace of his appalling ideas - special breaks for weird and oppressive religious cults, and culture wars all the time instead of sound policy - ever made it into government. Their candidates are strong enough to beat off the creatures Clarke would have sooled upon them, and to contend otherwise is sheer bluff.

The Liberals cringed before Clarke, and they will pay a high price. No mad lefties remain in the ALP's parliamentary ranks to make a case for moral equivalence. Any agreement Clarke made to secure this preselection will be broken whenever he feels like it, whatever the consequences: Clarke repels ten votes for every one he attracts. He doesn't understand government, or the society which is being governed, which is why he throws the switch to culture war whenever he feels neglected. It was stupid politics for those controlling blocks of votes to chain themselves to his carcass. Clarke is 66 and will be 73 by the time this upper house term is up. David Elliott, by contrast, is not yet 40, and by the time this term is up he could have been a minister.

By voting for the status quo against the hope for change - and even the most committed Clarke fans have trouble painting Elliott as some sort of radical - the moderates have underlined the stupidity and poverty of conserving their party's status quo against the hope for change. The generation that tried to purge the NSW Liberals of the Ustasha feared that they would come to be seen as part of the Liberal furniture: thus the reason why a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get rid of them has again gone begging.

If the loss of Clarke had meant a setback for the current generation of moderates, this need not have been a bad thing. The moderates have never had so little clue about what to do, nor so little support, in the face of such poor opposition, as they have now (how did Howard become any sort of rival to Menzies? Why is Abbott the titular federal leader, and Minchin the actual one? Clarke's survival underlines moderate failure rather than negating it). They could at least have gotten back on Clarke for what he did to Brogden, Forsythe and Ryan (a couldabeen Premier and two future frontbenchers): but Photios has always been about "looking forward", which in this case means maintaining the status quo. The position they are now in, where any attack on David Clarke is an attack on moderate liberals, is truly absurd. Their fate is to be used as Clarke's human shields because they have neither the sense nor the skill to do anything else.

16 February 2010

Raising doubts

In recent days we've seen the self-defeating vacancy at the heart of the modern right: the desire to create doubt rather than certainty.

Edmund Burke expressed this sentiment best when he said: "We fear God, we look up with awe to kings: with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility". That sense of assurance that the country is in good hands and that the common weal managed prudently, is the very essence of conservatism. It takes a lot of hard work to make that manifest - but not so much that you look like a try-hard, as Rudd and Swan do.

Cory Bernardi, in Friday's AFR, hooting about fobbing off both the ETS and Turnbull: "people like me were out there raising doubts [about the ETS]. The leader usually shapes policy in our party, but in this case Malcolm was unable to carry the party". It's not the role of a conservative to raise doubts, you fool: the role of the conservative is to allay doubts.

Then we have this shambles of a piece of journalism. Barnaby Joyce has gone from being The Scourge Of Labor, Bill McKell in reverse (but without the organised crime links), Cincinattus leaving his accounting practice - to being such a pitiable figure that Malcolm Colless is calling for the city folks to subsidise him.

Colless points out that Joyce raised a lot of doubt about the ETS, and also (however unwittingly) points out that he has failed to do much else since, particularly anything of a constructive nature.

This is all very well but now, as a member of the opposition front bench, Joyce must exercise a discipline in his approach to policy issues that does not come naturally or easily to him. Against this background it is difficult to understand why, so early in his new role, Joyce chose to make his recent televised address to the National Press Club in Canberra.

And once aware that he was fronting this media bearpit, why didn't Abbott suggest that Joyce run through his proposed speech with him and his staff, along with suggested responses to the sort of questions his address would likely prompt?

More to the point, why did Joyce wing it? Why did he think he'd take to an unfamiliar and daunting environment with ease?

Why did he not seek to exude an air of calm that the finances of the Commonwealth would be in good hands if those hands were his? This is what Peter Costello did, to the point of complacency: a few stats here, a bit of cross-referencing to observable phenomena in our society, and before you know it he'd lulled you into a torpor and you couldn't imagine the nation's finances in any hands but his. Credible future finance ministers are not dismissed in three minutes on light-entertainment programs. Their role is too important to be dismissed entirely, as Roskam did in the AFR on Friday.

Colless could have explored that, but he trots out the usual Nats whinges verbatim and unexamined. The Nationals' vote in Richmond declined from 70% under Doug Anthony to 30% under Larry; the Nats are irate not because they have "no chance of winning Richmond", but because their chances of are better than the Nats'.

... despondent Nationals are discussing retaliating by standing candidates in federal Liberal seats in NSW, including Macarthur, Hume and possibly Farrer on the NSW-Victorian border.

All of those seats were once Country Party seats - none has been held by the Nats for a decade, if not several. The moment the Nats' bluff is called is the moment it is all over.

The threatened hissy fit over the dumping of David Clarke from the NSW Parliament is another example of this. As a man in his late sixties Clarke should be sanguine enough to hand over to a youngster, secure in the knowledge that church and family and all good things will prevail and prosper once he is gone. Instead, he has no achievements and no pride, and is thus threatening the Liberal Party with what it fears most: fear, uncertainty and doubt. Clarke isn't concerned that his absence will mean the defeat of all that he holds dear: he knows that everything will be fine - no, much much better - without him.

The reason why the far right has abandoned conservatism is because it is too hard. In a shifting world all that is solid melts into air, which is why the metaphysical has become more important, not less, for many. What the far right have embraced, however, are intellectual boat-people from the far left, who have treated moderate territories of the political terrain as flyover country. These people have brought with them their Leninist assumptions: assertions that the people are with you, a perverse comfort that your position is unpopular but inherently right for that, and the assumption that your enemies will wither in the face of sarcasm and ad-hominem abuse.

Old time Liberals like Peter Coleman treated these intellectual refugees like prodigal sons, setting aside suspicion and slaughtering fatted calves. These days the fatted calves are gone and the hills are bare, yet the far-right Leninists hold the high ground and are leading the Liberals not to certainty and comfort, but to the kind of indolence and irresponsibility we have seen from the California Republicans since Reagan left the Governor's mansion.

It takes a good man to build a barn, said Lincoln, but any old mule can kick it down. Like mules, modern Liberals can take no pride in their recent heritage nor have much hope for their future. Conservatives need to start creating certainty, not doubt, and if that means that mules like Joyce and Bernardi must be replaced then we can take comfort that it is for the best.

Postscript: I've quoted from and referred to the AFR here, which is behind a paywall. That's the risk you take I suppose, I hope the AFR is happy for me to interpret its precious content as I wish.

15 February 2010

The things that don't matter

There will almost certainly be an election within twelve months, and Tony Abbott is focussed squarely on the Things That Don't Matter.

This is a contrast to Abbott's rival for the Worst Liberal Opposition Leader in Living Memory, Alexander Downer, who put together an earnest document called The Things That Matter and promptly undermined it with witless banter. Abbott is cobbling together the things that don't matter, cementing his reputation as a pissant and confirming that he'll never be ready for prime time.

In environmental issues, we saw Abbott claim that pulling weeds along the Wakehurst Parkway was more important than reducing carbon emissions. Recently we saw that, of all the healthcare issues affecting Australians today, hospital boards are what we need. You have got to be kidding: people lacking the administrative and political skill to be local councillors will be shunted onto a hospital board, where they will insist on banning abortions or pushing some other pet issue and otherwise distorting health outcomes for the poor institution and community beset with their services.

Yeah, he's getting media attention: but so what? So did the Glenbrook train crash, and increasingly for similar reasons. There is no correlation between media attention for an Opposition and the chances for that Opposition to become the Government. Put it this way: Mark Latham got a mighty good go from the meeja, and Colin Barnett didn't.

By focusing on penny-ante issues, Abbott is failing to excite the sort of interest that Opposition Leader Rudd got against the incumbents of three years ago. He is underlining his own limitations, running a Paralympic campaign in an Olympic tournament (hoping that modest goals, determination and media focus on one's own disabilities might produce some transcendent tale of achievement to compensate for the inevitable loss).

Why are we even speaking of Liberal limitations? Isn't this the frontbench that is going to put the wind up the ALP? Isn't this the bunch that will make Rudd & Co lose what little sleep they get? Wasn't this political basket case a fearsome communicator, a dagger at the heart of Labor hopes? That's what we were promised, but from Garrett to Mike Kaiser to the smoking ruin of Australia's foreign policy it is clear that the Coalition can't hold the government to account. Never mind victory, maintaining the current relatively modest Labor margin is too hard for Abbott's Rabbits: any contention to the contrary overlooks the fact that Abbott's polling is not on the upward trajectory that Turnbull's was.

As time goes on the real limitations of the pissants leading the Liberal Party will become sharper, and as with recent state elections the coming Federal election will be between an inadequate Labor Party and a hopeless Coalition. This breeds resentment over time, particularly when the government is less able to splash cash around. The Liberals won't be able to lift, whereas Labor aren't using the lift available to them. The difference between Rudd and Abbott is that Rudd could lift his game if he wanted to.

As for the meeja, they can't lift their game and their very business model is under question as a result. It's one thing for the press gallery to have a line and stick to it - it's quite another for them to insist on using the blatantly contradictory line that they are, namely: (a) that the Liberals are putting out small-bore policies (hospital boards, weeding parties) that are easy for journalists to understand, (b) that the Libs are incapable of addressing big issues (e.g. the economy), (c) many Liberal policies are just warmed-over Howardism, incase we missed them the first time (we didn't, and they were among the main reasons we voted against the Libs - WorkChoices, refugees); and even after all that (d) Abbott is on an unstoppable upward trajectory that will apparently cause Labor to lose office.

05 February 2010

Carbon Fightback!

Kevin Rudd failed to lead public momentum on climate change that brought him to power in 2007, he watched agreement at Copenhagen die before his very eyes, and he faces the hollow feeling of having nothing to show for what he once called the greatest moral challenge of our time. Yep, he was really vulnerable there ... until Tony Abbott insisted on making himself the issue here with a policy I'll call Carbon Fightback!

Carbon Fightback! is fuzzy on costs, fuzzy on economic benefits, and is as unrelentingly statist as any Whitlam-era scheme. It is a non-core promise if ever there was one. The Green Army is a clumsy to address environmental issues and clear proof Anyone who gives this policy any consideration at all, even to be polite, is a fool.

It contains nothing to mollify those bludging farmers who insist on a God-given right to bulldoze every bit of vegetation that can't be sold - this is great policy, but it fractures the base that Abbott and his rabbits have identified as their platform for power. Mollifying such people will also slow progress toward carbon abatement targets, and send mixed messages about risk management for carbon emitters.

It is risk management that is the key public policy issue - not quibbling over graphs or playing gotcha with poorly understood scientific papers. Proof of the sheer bankruptcy came with that old chancer Chris Monckton, who spent years advising Margaret Thatcher and she still came out in favour of anthropogenic global warming. You can write off Monckton's exaggerations over his attainments as "white lies", but you can't then condemn your perceived opponents for blatant falsehoods. The Poms always send us their second-raters, some of us are used to that caper while others want to believe (thus the quasi-religious language from the right, which they project onto others).

The policies of the incumbent government and the Coalition should be judged against the key public issue of risk management. The Coalition has issued a flippant, piecemeal and inadequate policy, which will now become the focus of attention in the way that Fightback! became the focus of the 1993 election. Rudd has an opportunity to put his position (whatever it might end up being) as being the most comprehensive framework for carbon emitters to manage and limit their risk. He might well blow that opportunity, but at least he has an opportunity to blow.

Abbott has made himself the issue on carbon emissions, breaking rule number one for Opposition Leaders who seriously want to win government: put the heat on the government, not yourselves. Just as Howard was momentarily discomfited by Mark Latham, so now Rudd has looked unsure against Abbott - but now that Abbott's weaknesses are the issue for 2010, watch the right whinge distance themselves from him long before the inevitable election debacle.

Considering that Abbott saw the original Fightback! at close quarters as a member of Hewson's staff, he has no excuse for putting the Liberal Party in a position where it just gets thrashed by the incumbents for the rest of the year. He really is a clown. When and if the costings are produced it will have no credibility at all.

Greg Hunt will either end the year as the foremost Australian politician on environmental policy - better than Wong and Garrett combined - or he'll be broken.

Speaking of broken, why is David Marr the new Annabel Crabb? Why is the fine thinker behind the biographies of Garfield Barwick and Patrick White, of the National Times and the exposes of the Howard government's treatment of refugees amongst other pieces, slumping into cliches about Abbott-as-boxer or Rudd-as-bureaucrat? Replacing a Generation Xer with a clearly stale baby boomer is typical of the failure of imagination we've seen from Brian McCarthy and John B Fairfax.