25 March 2010

A vote of no confidence

Nick Minchin has quit the Coalition front bench because he despairs of becoming a minister again any time soon. He got the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party he wanted, but has come to the realisation that it cannot and will not win government in the foreseeable future.

Minchin saw Howard decay before his very eyes in 2007, and like most Liberals did too little to avert defeat - like most Liberals, any admission of frailty in Howard was also an admission of frailty in himself, and to admit such frailty is to hole your ego below the waterline. In Abbott, he sees a Liberal leader rail against the dying of the light, yet he also sees that the light is dying anyway.

It may be true that the injury to his son has been weighing on Minchin's mind, but it is true that he has, like Abbott, deliberately chosen a role which involves as much time as possible away from the duties of hearth and home. The image of Nick Minchin playing a caring role beggars belief, and can only prompt a seismic shift in the way he looks at people who do this sort of thing for a living - and families who do so with far less means than Minchin has at his disposal.

It isn't as though Minchin is going off to play golf. His interests include politics, politics and politics. He doesn't have marketable skills and business connections like Costello, nor does he have a commitment to service beyond the nation's shores like Downer, nor does he have a sense of social justice and the courage of self-discovery that Malcolm Fraser has. He is going to try and do what Howard is doing, brooding and making phone calls. He is going to watch Cory Bernardi fail, overtaken by Pyne and Birmingham and the state parliamentarians, while jabbering away about watermelons and that human achievement means conflict with the world rather than harmony.

Minchin's comments about greenies de-industrialising the West shows at the very least that he hasn't been paying attention, at worst that he's a nutter. His supposed mastery of policy founders on this rare glimpse into his very core. Look, I've got a copy of The Anti-Industrial Revolution by Ayn Rand too, but I recognise that it has been overtaken by events. Minchin should have seen market-based solutions such as Shi Zhengrong's solar initiatives and disdained science-by-press-release crap like CCS. He should have realised that the game has overtaken him, and that he lacks the ability to position the Liberal Party out in front. Bernardi has no such excuse, he is just a gibberer and the post-Minchin SA Libs should banish him to Monarto.

It will be interesting to watch those few federal Coalition parliamentary staffers who clung to staffer jobs, albeit in reduced numbers at reduced pay with reduced scope of action. With Minchin gone, watch those staffers cosying up to the next bunch of Liberals with a realistic chance of winning government - the NSW state Libs, maybe the Vics, maybe even swallow your pride and schlep to Hobart. For Abbott, this will be particularly galling - this is someone who has dumped all over the very idea of state politics, who defines himself by his contempt for people like state Liberals like John Brogden and Barry O'Farrell. Abbott watched Howard treat state Liberals with contempt too, but the difference was that the feds were winners and the state Libs were obvious losers. Abbott is not ready for the boot to be on the other foot.

Barnaby Joyce is finished. You can shunt him to the regions to get him out of the way, far from big-city media and major business donors/potential clients of a Coalition government. But he is tainted by his failure, the bushies know that he can't come through for them and that he is not the successor to the powerful National/Country Party figures in Coalition governments past. He's not cunning, not details-focused and outcomes-driven like Fischer. He's not the PM's peer like Anthony and Sinclair were under Fraser, and he's not the formidable presence that McEwen was. He's a sideshow, and while rural people appreciate people who take the time to visit they can smell a second-rater. He ain't gonna build Everald Compton's railway from nowhere to nowhere else. Where gas or mineral exploration threatens to corrupt farmland, Joyce can't and won't ensure that farmers and farming communities prevail over the fly-in-fly-outers.

One man who has his pannikin out for an extra helping of hubris is Eric Abetz. For the putative Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and the power behind the would-be Hodgman government in Tasmania, his moment is at hand. Watch him stuff it up. Watch him come out with the sort of wacky nonsense that makes Joyce or Bernardi look as dull calm and measured as Andrew Robb. Watch him do so at a time least convenient to Tony Abbott, and which renders the Liberals as the third wheel in Tasmanian politics for a generation. Watch him urge Abbott to be as wacky as he is, at the very time when Abbott is starting dimly to understand (on issues like gays and parental leave) that the centre really is where government is at, and how far his journey is to that place.

Turnbull is right to stand well clear of this rabble, while appearing to make himself available for the sake of the team. I wonder what he's learned about the country, his party, himself since losing the leadership.

Andrew Robb is the strategist that Lindsay Tanner thinks he is. Tanner will underestimate him and will look foolish for having done so. Won't make a damn bit of difference in electoral terms, but in the next term Tanner will be less than the towering figure he appears now.

The whole rise-of-Gillard thing I commented on a few days ago appears to be a determination by the ALP not to put all their eggs in one basket the way that the Liberals did with Howard. The transition will be fascinating, but it is a sign that Abbott and his supporters are not ready for prime time when they urge their boy to ignore the reality of the Rudd Government and shadow-box an opponent that isn't there.

Even a once-formidable Coalition strategist appears to have lost it. Arthur Sinodinos wanders all over the place and ends with this:

This is a hard time to be an economic reformer.

Maybe so, but this begs the question: who says Abbott wants to be one? Sinodinos sets up a whole bunch of straw men and stumbles over them himself, well before Abbott has the chance to make himself look silly by accepting such 'advice':

The Opposition Leader does not have to agree with every detail of Labor's new health policy. His choices are to smother it in agreement, trump it or punch a big enough hole in the plan that it is not viable, a difficult ask from opposition. While agreement may seem to give Rudd a big win, opposition works only if Abbott is confident he can produce something better. He is best going with his convictions and experience. That is what gives him passion and excites the public. He can do passion better than Rudd.

Compare this with Turnbull's performance on environmental policy. Turnbull agreed with Rudd, and was passionate - but so what? Did he establish that the Liberals would do a better job than the slow-and-steady Rudd? Tony Abbott didn't get where he is by agreeing with Kevin Rudd.

He also should study carefully what the premiers are saying. Health is literally a life and death issue and the states are at the coalface of what can and does go wrong. He can call his own health summit with the states.

If you were advising Barry O'Farrell, Isobel Redmond or John-Paul Langbroek, wouldn't you be counselling your boss that they are doing just fine running their own race and to leave Abbott to his (especially as people are at least open to Rudd, if not convinced that he's winning the debate)?

If Rudd is genuine about co-operation, he should invite Abbott to the Council of Australian Governments meeting in April. As a goodwill gesture, Rudd and Health Minister Nicola Roxon can stop the shadow boxing over Abbott's record as health minister.

Two questions, Arthur: did you have advised Howard to invite Rudd to the 2007 COAG meetings? Would you trust Abbott to maintain the air of kum-by-yah bipartisanship essential to getting an agreement in such forums? What do you mean, no on both counts?

This brings us to the once premier state of NSW. Abbott can make the federal election in NSW a referendum on state Labor. In 1990, Bob Hawke lost seats in Victoria partly off the back of the woeful performance of Victorian Labor.

... and partly off the back of a moderate Liberal leader, Arthur, but let's not go there. Kristina Keneally would love to run against Tony Abbott, as would John Brumby. The Liberal leaders in NSW and Victoria might be happy to use Abbott as a practice run for their state campaigns, once again inverting Abbott's view of things and allowing ambitious staffers to ingratiate themselves with some actual winners.

... the future of the federation [is] also [a] relevant topic ... Nothing is too parochial for high-flying federal politicians these days. Rudd and Abbott have demonstrated centralising tendencies, so everything is fair game. The health network proposal is the harbinger of the federation inexorably dissolving into a quasi regional model along British lines.

Gough Whitlam's original vision was to create strong regional authorities funded directly by Canberra.

And how would you suggest Abbott credibly distinguish his position on federation from Rudd and Whitlam? You couldn't get any differentiation there, and if you could it would hardly matter in electoral terms anyway.

State independence requires fiscal freedom, and what state is willing to argue for a return of income or consumption taxation powers? ... Fraser ... Keating ...

What about if the feds take over 100% of health, Arthur, game over and problems solved for the states? You don't need to hark back to the past when Rudd is setting the agenda today. If you get a strong set of state Coalition governments and a federal leader on the back foot, as Gorton was to Askin, Bolte and Bjelke-Petersen, you never know what might happen. Pity Abbott won't go all out to hand power to the states.

Right now, the Coalition are doing what they do best: keeping up appearances. The idea that Abbott might have a chance is now gone for all but his most shrill fans. The hard men have gone, are treading water, or are lost and befuddled. Soon will come the time to define what a post-Howard Liberal Party will look like, what it will do and how it will work: but finally the Liberals realise that will have to come after the election and not before.

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