22 October 2011

Broken-down machines

This was my piece in The Drum, published by the ABC. I've had a couple of pieces posted there before but they have been copies of posts on this blog.

Basically, I said that the party machines are too busy working on perpetuating their own power to help anyone else get into or stay in government. This point is echoed by Bushfire Bill, who refers to the conventional wisdom thus:
... no matter how ridiculous, bizarre, uncosted, contradictory or outright unhinged an Abbott utterance may seem, wiser minds will take him quietly to one side after he is elected, and impress upon him the responsibilities of government by rational exercise of executive power
There are no "wiser heads". There used to be, but Abbott got rid of them. No "wiser heads" in Labor either, just factional chuckleheads. That's why egotistical leaders careen around unchecked (except by a bullet in the back of the neck from those close enough to deliver such a blow) and parties are reduced to uncritical fan clubs of said leader. That's basically the point of the article.

There were 103 comments. Most of them came from the horse-race calling perspective, whether/when Rudd was going to challenge Gillard or Turnbull Abbott. Such people missed the point entirely. I remonstrated gently with one such commenter and gave up thereafter.

Anyone want to comment on the issues I actually did raise?


  1. Reading the comment threads on news websites is never a good idea. Here, LP and a few other blogs are the only places I find the threads worthwhile. If I'm ever tempted to read comments anywhere else I start indulging Unabomber fantasies.

    Great piece Andrew, I found the historical context quite edifying. I was curious about two things. What happened to Duncan Fairweather post-Hewson? And secondly, I know NSW Labor was already on the nose before 2007, but do you think the move of ALP functionaries and office staff to the Federal arena in the lead-up to that year's election worsened the NSW Government's decline over its last term?

  2. Sean, I felt duty-bound to do so as I wrote the piece.

    1) Duncan Fairweather is Executive Director of the Australian Financial Markets Association, and 2) definitely. See my earlier piece on Mark Arbib for example.

  3. Rudd has already said his previous assistants were too young. Which insulted them naturally. Both would need someone they would respect who could win battles with them, without being subservient, or a political rival. Such people must exist, although I suspect none are currently in the major parties at the moment, having been driven out by the time servers in Labor and the politically extreme right in the Libs.

  4. DeltabajangoAlpha22/10/11 8:56 pm

    Andrew, another good post with which I largely agree. One aspect of contemporary policy development, which seems weaker than even relatively recent historical trends, is that there are now fewer conduits into the party apparatus for those with policy ideas. I have in the past associated with inner urban types who had close links to Labor in the 70s and 80s. There was a continuum of local branch activity combined with local policy advocacy (often involving serious reform minded academics) which connected via the local member into actual policy, most prominently under Hawke/Keating. Nearly two decades later this conduit is much weaker in part because those who should be offering policy input have become distanced from Labor with their support often split or going wholly to the Greens. The party itself tends to be focused on what will play well in the media rather than what will produce good outcomes. Likewise, many of the apparatchik advisers are focused on short term career development and the corporate job after politics rather than a deep or longstanding commitment to reform. Looking back at Rudd's period this problem becomes quite clear. He lived of ideas but lacked the conduits to deep quality thinking or means of prioritisation. Hence the bonkers 20/20 summit or at a smaller scale the wierd policy dinners he held in the Lodge with small groups of 'thinkers'. Spending Xmases with Glyn Davis can only get you so far on the ideas front.
    What one does as a professional with good ideas in your area of expertise that could feed into policy reform, beats me.

  5. 'Anyone want to comment on the issues I actually did raise?'
    This is one of your best pieces. The dynamic of personalities and politics, within a two party system, and how that effects substantive governance in our political process is such an important subject - but where else than here is there any anyone discussing this?
    I read the article but did not read the comments.
    I did note, after reading your article, that a Catholic Labor member of parliament recommended that anyone one who supports same sex marriage should go to the Greens. Like a mirror parody of the DLP split in the 50's. Broad church - bullshit.

  6. Good article.

    A leader can also get by with a good deputy. Hawke had Keating, but that sort of fell apart. They both should be held responsible.

    Rudd had Gillard. If was fascinating to watch debates from the period, Rudd would be in full flight, Gillard would be surveying and analyzing the room. But that sort of fell apart. They both should be held responsible.

  7. Hi Andrew,
    your 'Drum Roll' was a good one - right on the beat!! not very punny but I had to type it. :)

    Wading through the comments was beyond me after the first few - red vs blue is a tough game to beat.

    I am a bit hazy on the full details of this but I have gleaned a little. Howard (at the instigation of Turnbull I gather but can't confirm) set up a 'secret secretariat' in Canberra of smart young guns from all over the country who were troubleshooters, policy pushers and general all hands on deck people tasked with keeping the game on track. I gather a many were 'attached' to the PM's department and some the party.

    There were fairly regular 'intakes' of fresh talent as the smarter ones were strategically placed in positions that would benefit the cause. Turnbull groomed and sponsored some of the better ones.

    As it became obvious that Labor would win in '07 the smarter ones were sent north, south and west into state organisations and elsewhere. The ones that went east may have ended up in the deep blue sea (in a princess jones chaff bag maybe?)

    There are some that have learnt quite a bit about winning at the state level and are now well regarded in the 'machine' and will be more than ready to get back to Capital Circle when the time comes.

    I don't know where the loyalties of these people lay but from tiny snippets I have gleaned they are more inclined toward Turnbull than The Situation.

  8. Hi Andrew another interesting informative piece. Some thoughts.

    "There is some talk that the Liberals might bring back Malcolm Turnbull and Labor may do the same with Kevin Rudd, because these former leaders are more popular than the incumbents. The key to true success lies in their return. The main obstacle to this is that the powerful people within the respective parties who trashed those former leaders would have to get over themselves."

    This is certainly true. Will it happen? On the Labor side a leader swap would only happen late, as an act of sheer desperation, if the polls stay catastrophic. On the other side it will only happen if the voting intentions reflected by the polls decline to something like Abbott's personal approval rating in the polls. Sorry to mention polls Andrew, but the change leader idea is entirely poll-driven.

    As far as I know there are two views of the likelihood of Abbott being replaced. One view, which you support, suggests that this will happen when the electorate wakes up to Abbott's inadequacies as a leader as opposed to his effectiveness as a wrecker. It is argued that this hasn’t occurred yet because of inadequacies in the media coverage of Circus Canberra.

    The other which I tend to believe, suggests that Abbott's consistently low approval ratings coupled with the LNPs solid lead over Labor in the polls indicates that voters are well aware that Abbott is flawed but that they have decided they would rather tolerate him than Gillard who is currently similarly unpopular.

    So, much as I would like to see Abbott removed from the leader position, I don't think there is much chance that the powerful people in the LNP responsible for ditching Turnbull will need ‘to get over themselves’ and Abbott will take them for better or worse to the next election.

    I think that, despite the potential negative consequences of another leadership change, there is more chance that the Labor idiots will decide to try another shift at the top. Should the pressure build Howes, Shorten, Arbib, Conroy et al may try to get Smith to sacrifice himself on the bonfire of their stupidity, but he has no resonance with the public, so I think it will be Rudd or nobody. Would Rudd take it if asked? As I’ve previously commented I think there are plenty of reasons for him to decline. But who knows?

    “If Labor is to bring back Rudd, if the Liberals are to bring back Turnbull, they need a leader's office that will compensate for the weaknesses of these men without also hampering their strengths.”

    Your statement makes sense but, given that of either or both of them are returned to leadership, one of the conditions would (I presume) be power to run their own offices as they see fit. If that is so what chance is there of imposing some sort of curatorial oversight over their staffing appointments? None I would have thought.

    As you say:

    “Labor cannot afford to take Rudd on his own terms, and nor can the Libs let Turnbull do as he pleases. Yet, leaders traditionally can appoint whoever the hell they want to their own offices.”

    And this won’t change. Rudd and/or Turnbull would be in the ‘take it or leave it’ position and they would get what they want.

    “Major parties used to have people who had those abilities and let the leader have the limelight. Part of the decline in political parties means those people have gone and have not been replaced.”

    This looks like another reason why the leaders will not get the sort of back-up you suggest is necessary if they were to bring back either Rudd or Turnbull.

  9. An interesting article. It seems that one of the strong threads seems to be that the leader has to have the humility both internally and externally to staff to their own weaknesses.

    I have heard a number of times a compelling comparison between Gillard and Rudd indicating that Gillard was (and is) highly respected and supported by those who work with her but can't win over the electorate, while Rudd could win the electorate but tended to alienate his party members.

    Lately as a politically interested person, I have found the "dance" to be totally infuriating. I think that the evidence of the last election is that plenty of voters are feeling "politically homeless" and willing to vote for whichever party convinces us that they are genuinely interested in governing and genuinely grappling with what might be required to do that.

    However, I just can't see that Abbott is interested in convincing anyone that he is actually capable of governing or willing to form a vision of what that might look like. I never particularly liked Jeff Kennett but I believed that he had a vision for governing the state when Joan Kirner didn't seem to know what she wanted to do.

    As much as I personally dislike Abbott, if he convinced me he actually thought seriously about issues, I would consider voting for him. But I can't help but think that he fundamentally misconceives his job as opposition leader. It is as if he considers he will be judged by how well he opposes, disrupts and filibusters the government, rather than by how well he articulates an alternative model which would be more attractive.

  10. Oliver, they didn't hire themselves, Rudd hired them. You are right about the need for intellectual peers and people with the standing to call bullshit on their lesser ideas.

    Delta, the major parties have closed the party organisation as a route for policy ideas to filter up and through to decision-makers, with the possible exception for talent-spotting in the youth wing.

    Persse, thank you. Not sure if the ritual pleases the object of worship any more.

    Anon, a deputy is a good start. Hawke had more than just Keating.

    Mick, developing a cadre of bright young things isn't the same as developing wise heads. The process of developing that cadre was well advanced in my time and I'm not sure that every little pebble necessarily became a polished jewel.

    Doug, of course a leadership spill would be poll-driven. For either side, such a change would need structural change in order to succeed, any fool can panic. I doubt that Smith would set himself up for the sake of those guys.

    I guess that's the conundrum: the former leaders will demand what undid them last time.

    Dan, he's not convincing anyone because he's not capable. The Australia's Oldest eenager routine is not an act, it's the real him.