06 May 2010

A little bit rich

Tony Abbott was far too slow off the mark in condemning the resources tax. Andrew Robb, a former ABARE economist and the best political strategist the Liberal Party has, spotted this for the opportunity that it was and went after it hard.

When the Liberals slipped behind Labor in the polls in 2006, companies were less inclined to donate money to them. This affected the confidence of the Liberals, in governing and campaigning for re-election, which saw donations dry up in the face of that lack of confidence, and so it went: the Liberals lost office, elected an unsuitable leader who made capital-repelling mistakes, but then they turned it around.

Malcolm Turnbull was wealthy enough to fund an election campaign out of his own pocket: business, however, piled on the money and for a while the Liberals' financial position was looking rosy. In NSW, Labor finally ruled themselves out of contention at the state level and donations began to flow to the Libs. The came Grech, the ETS kerfuffle and the downfall of Turnbull, and any promise in the Liberals' financial position evaporated overnight.

The cautionary tale of Robert Tickner illustrates how Labor has become complacent and given their opponents a leg-up that wiser heads would never have given them.

From 1984 to 1996 the Federal electorate of Hughes (southern Sydney, northern Illawarra NSW) was held by Labor's Robert Tickner. By the mid '90s Tickner had become Aboriginal Affairs Minister, and was exploring a relatively radical agenda in his portfolio. The High Court decisions on Mabo and Wik, the Hindmarsh Island bridge cancellation, and the whims of his Prime Minister, forced a great deal of attention onto this portfolio: more than Tickner could bear, really. He didn't allay the fears of mining companies and others that a bit of recognition of Aboriginal rights was not some first step in a wider agenda.

Mining companies offered the Liberal Party a fortune to get rid of Tickner. In the leadup to the 1996 election, the Liberals targeted Hughes but it wasn't the difference between winning or losing government. Liberal strategists and fundraisers told their prospective donors that they should give the party money and it would spend it where it considered best: even if Tickner survived, he'd be in Opposition and thus redundant, so give us the money and we'll give you a Liberal government.

The miners/pastoralists/other companies relying on free and unfettered use of land sought a more direct return for their money, while the Liberals were reluctant to cede control over political strategy to those who had no knowledge or experience in this area. The Liberals got their money - not as much as they might have liked, but a lot. Tickner lost his seat too.

Those who eschew the centre of politics, on both the left and right, assume that political donations are a simple fee-for-service proposition: companies donate to political parties and they get what they want. The reality is more complex: a politician hustling for votes will make promises and sometimes deliver, sometimes not; so it is with donations. Occasionally a donor will wail publicly that they donated $A to B party in the expectation of C, but instead the policy delivered was D - quite the opposite of what they wanted. That sort of whingeing is of a piece with the sort of flat whine that eminates from this blog, or many others. Suck it up baby, that's politics. The tireless activist who sees their beloved program trashed is the same as the millionaire donor who has given a leg-up to some politician, only to end up with nothing but the after-effects of a rubber-chicken meal.

In 2010, the Liberals' financial worries are over. If they want $10m for a you-beaut targeted marginal seats campaign, that money will be found. The wide boys from Sussex Street who run the ALP federal campaign will not know where to start. Kevin Rudd will be tearing his hair out as marginal seats in Adelaide, NSW and Queensland fall to the Liberals - when he could've had an increase in his number of seats and a compliant Senate.

The minerals tax is an idea that could have been introduced next year - and then safely backed away from, once the heat became too great. There's no backing away from this, not now, not after all those double-turn-and-pikes over "the greatest moral challenge". Any of those ideas that were actually in the Henry report would have been better - it would have reinforced the comforting idea of the policy nerd beetling away at stuff that makes a big splash in Canberra but doesn't stop the rest of us making a dollar. People liked that Rudd, and would have voted for him again and again. Instead, we get Red Tape Man who can't and won't make a decision but still wants everyone to like him. Stuff him and stuff the party that plonks him out in front like a bonnet ornament.

It's still true that the Liberals are policy-lazy and that swinging voters will revert to Labor once this becomes more obvious. It's also true that they have the wrong leader: John Howard would have been all over this in a flash, and so would Turnbull. These things used to be clearer than they are now, though.

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