27 April 2010

Dr Henderson and the Liberals

Gerard Henderson has long bemoaned the poverty of intellectual discourse within the Liberal Party but his perceptions of the major issues facing the Liberal Party, and the motivations behind those issues, are not as clear as they once were. This piece is the sort of thing Henderson is increasingly putting out, his new norm: mostly wrong, but not (yet) so risible that you can dismiss him out of hand.

The decision not to make Turnbull shadow finance minister cannot be viewed in isolation from the decision as to whom that position was actually awarded. Senator Joyce is not an unintelligent man, but it is not only in retrospect that we can see that he was a poor choice for this key position. He had crossed the floor 29 times and was known for ill-considered outbursts that put Coalition unity at peril to enhance his own profile, yet even with such a record he was preferred over someone who had never done so but who might (have).

The Liberals are not adequately prepared for the Henry tax review or the coming budget; this is because of the Joyce choice and despite the efforts of Hockey, and to a lesser extent Robb.

Consider the fact that Abbott as an Opposition frontbencher would regularly cast doubt over Coalition policy by contradicting the leader and shadow ministers, and writing a book in isolation from the consultative processes of the party room and shadow cabinet.

Henderson is also wrong to make much of the Henson case, an arty storm in a teacup if ever there was one. If you have a problem with David Marr, Gerard, that's your problem. The Henson case was much less significant culturally than the Ern Malley affair - and it is far, far less important as a social issue than the arrogant approaches of churches toward actual sexual abuse of children. If Henderson is going to act as some sort of tribune for people in marginal seats and what they want, try the big and real issues Gerard. Really.

Hockey was right to question the idea that anti-terrorism legislation diminishes our rights under law in the interest of protecting our rights under law more generally. Henderson was wrong to claim that questions about our rights under our laws ought only be investigated by members of a (minor) party.

You can quote a minister in support of your arguments if you like, but there are two issues missed by self-serving Henderson: firstly, Tanner isn't the Attorney General or some other minister concerned with the justice system, and secondly Tanner didn't disagree with Hockey. The question of convictions merely means that some aspects of the laws work while others don't; there is a wider question of whether our legal protections against terror should be such a curate's egg/dog's breakfast/Gerard Henderson column.

Stephen Conroy is not trying to stop child pornography on the internet. He is deliberately avoiding real measures that real pedophiles actually use, and deliberately acting in ways known by those who work in this area to be completely ineffectual. He is doing this because he wants to create an impression that he is taking action when he is not in fact doing so. He is playing on the ignorance of people like Henderson (and Tony Smith) who think they have excuses for failing to inform themselves about this policy area (internet policy is no more complicated than, other areas of economic or national security policy). Hockey didn't go far enough in criticising Conroy: it is not true that any criticism of Conroy is a permissive one that allows for child pornography. It's not true, and it's not fair of Henderson to slur Hockey in this way, but he'll probably do so again.

Where Henderson is right, though, is Turnbull's failure to adopt Menzies' humility in the 1940s. Henderson might also profitably have raised Menzies' traversing the country during that time, making speeches and consulting about what a postwar non-Labor force might and should look like, another comparison that reflects poorly on Turnbull. It appears that Turnbull lacks this drive (however much he might have demonstrated in other fields), and the country (and its non-Labor politics) is poorer for it. Henderson can't imagine a post-Howard Liberal Party, one not fixated on trade unions and culture wars, and doesn't wish to; any attempts at reconsideration, any signs whatsoever of intellectual activity, will attract his increasingly feeble ire.

Henderson started his piece by asking - rhetorically - whether Turnbull should reconsider his decision not to recontest Wentworth for the Liberal Party. Those who want Turnbull to recontest fear that it may be lost to the Liberal Party unless he is its candidate. The Liberal Party, by electing Abbott as its leader, has cemented in place a deliberate strategy to repel people who would have voted Liberal in the past. It must follow through that strategic vision and, if they continue to lose seats like Wentworth, Bennelong and even North Sydney, so be it; there will come a time for the Liberal Party to decide how committed it is to voter-repellent policies, notwithstanding Henderson The People's Tribune.

When Henderson encourages Turnbull to "stick to his guns", it is only because Turnbull has those guns trained on himself. Where Turnbull had those guns trained on issues that Henderson barely understands but adopts positions in The People's Name, Henderson does not pause to examine the issues but lunges for barricades which aren't there, and certainly aren't actually blocking anything.

His pre-emptive attacks on the prospect of Liberals re-examining the Howard legacy shows that he has gone from attacking an unsustainable status quo within the Liberal Party to defending one, with little to show in the way of policy or political achievement in the interim. Much less than, say, Phillip Adams, or even Andrew Peacock. The more time passes and the more the issues of the 1980s recede, the less important Henderson will become - but that won't stop Fairfax retaining him.

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