Consider Loughnane's audience: Young Liberals, full of energy and ideas amongst other things. Bri-Bri thinks he's helping them by showing them how modern politics works, and it works in the way that people like Bri-Bri like it to work. He and Peta Credlin*, Abbott's chief of staff, started out as junior staffers who weren't responsible for making policy decisions, but who took decisions that had been made and foisted them onto journalists and minor-party Senators. Along the way they picked up no experience whatsoever in analysing the strengths and weaknesses of policy options from the point of view of those affected by the policy (as opposed to "how it plays" in the media, or with particular interest groups), or projected into the future beyond the following election. Now they are in positions where they can and do stymie the process by which policy is developed, insisting that any and all such activity be suborned to a) media and interest groups and b) their predilections above all. They must be seen to "win", and if a good idea must die for the sake of that then it's a sacrifice the Liberal Party must - and does - make.
Over the past week we have seen a much-needed debate on donations to the vehicle industry (and because there is no link to performance by the industry, and no penalties for sixty years of underperformance, let us call them for what they are: donations). Joe Hockey is against further donations; Sophie Mirabella, Eric Abetz and Barnaby Joyce are for more donations, as is the Gillard government.
This is a bizarre situation: usually Abetz and Mirabella bristle at any attempt at bipartisanship. These are people who have spent their political careers emphasising that the Liberals should be a choice and not an echo of Labor. Whenever there is bipartisanship they shake their heads and claim they don't know what the Liberal Party stands for. If you think that pink batts or school halls are salient examples of government waste, wait until you see the sheer epic scale of nation-building opportunities this country has pissed away after years and years of donations to the shareholders of Detroit and Tokyo.
As I've said earlier there might be two seats up for grabs if you don't think about it too much, and I can understand Mirabella et al focusing on that; but everybody in either Corangamite or Wakefield who is really concerned for Australian vehicle manufacturing is going to vote Labor, because they believe in vehicle industry donations wholeheartedly. The right pride themselves on being hard-hearted realists when it comes to winning votes, but on this issue they are kidding themselves.
Peta and Bri-Bri don't care what the policy is, as long as there is one - not several, one - and that all the Coalition gets 100% behind it, whatever it might be. They don't understand the process of policy development and they certainly don't want any of your broad-based input that theoretically comes with democracy, thank you very much. Bri-Bri thinks he's tough and clever by screwing down the lid on a simmering pot.
Geoff Kitney in The Australian Financial Review gave important historical context to the debate over public support for the Australian car industry in this article (you'll need to be a subscriber). He points out how the Fraser government in 1981 proposed a round of donations and the lone voice in Cabinet against them was the then Treasurer, John Howard. The then-nascent economic rationalist MPs in the Liberal Party hailed Howard and would form the core of his support during the 1980s, until they all gave up in about 1990 and were not replaced.
Kitney says that Abbott might follow in Howard's footsteps, but he has the analogy wrong. Abbott is leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, a position held in 1981 not by Howard but Malcolm Fraser. Howard was Treasurer then; today the Liberal equivalent is Shadow Treasurer is Joe Hockey. Hockey is arguing against car industry donations in 2012, just as Howard did in 1981 (and as he never did when Prime Minister).
Economists like to mock Hockey for his apparent lack of knowledge of their profession, but he's no worse than any other Shadow Treasurer (Swan included, and yes Keating for the month or so he held that job) in that regard. Where Hockey is good value is in the old-fashioned political skill of building a consensus, and sticking it to old-timers who think they can fudge away reforms whose time has come. In the late 1990s Hockey's work on corporate law reform got up the nose of the then Chairman of AMP, Ian Burgess, who went over Hockey's head direct to Howard. When Howard stood by his minister Burgess got the shock of his life and shuffled into retirement, leaving AMP far better off for his absence.
Hockey is right on vehicle industry donations, and chances are when it comes to Liberal decision-making forums he'll have done his homework and be armed with a strong case against an industry that's only holding this country back. He'd be an iconoclastic economic reformer if he got the chance; he has already achieved more in politics than Mirabella and Abetz have or will. I would have expected the IPA to come out as strongly for Hockey as they did for race-baiter Andrew Bolt; nothing so far, nor has the CIS (whose offices are in Hockey's electorate) rallied to his side.
There is absolutely no chance at all that the Coalition will come out against donations to the car industry. Abbott always dances with those who brung him, and the right want vehicle industry donations to continue. If you read Battlelines, and if you see Abbott's performance before he became leader, you'll see him sighing and eye-rolling at every instance of bipartisanship that supposedly played into Rudd's hands. He brought down Turnbull over the bipartisanship over the ETS; the passage on the carbon price in the very teeth of his most determined opposition shows the limits of his "choice not echo" position.
Now that he has to appear less confrontational to round out his image, it will be hilarious watching him try to justify falling into line behind Labor while at the same time burning his Shadow Treasurer's attempts to "cut the waste". You can expect those half-hearted statements by Judith Sloan, Hugh Morgan et al in favour of increasing unemployment benefits to vanish overnight if the right keep on insisting Hockey cut the budget while going into bat for their pet programs.
Kitney further disgraced himself in his second article in the weekend's AFR with this idle and defenceless throwaway:
... [in 2012] Abbott can be expected to prosper.He'll get away with murder if the more obtuse members of the press gallery continue to give him a free pass, and that's most of them. Kitney runs the risk of becoming a nostalgia act like Tony Wright if he doesn't improve in relating the landscape before him to the way things were.
After the latter part of last year's parliamentary sittings, with vast amounts of legislation passed and Abbott reduced to a frothing mess (negating Bri-Bri's insistence that the Gillard Government doesn't have a record to run on). It could go either way: either they will take Abbott seriously and call him to account for inconsistencies and evasions, or they will indulge him as he hangs his elbow out of a Holden ute and rhapsodises about how he loved to watch Brocko beat Dick Moffatt on The Mountain.
If the MSM do the latter Peta and Bri-Bri will consider their job done, and take no more interest in all that palaver about budget expenditure than most of us do - just so long as it doesn't blow up, so long as there is no public controversy over the expenditure of billions of dollars of public money. You hear that, Young Liberals? As long as everyone just shuts up, everything will be fine.
* The fact that Credlin and Loughnane are married is neither here nor there. A lot of people obsess over it but I'm not going there. The fact that they act as a team to stamp out what they don't understand and can't control, regardless of its merits, is what gets me. It can't last and within two years I expect both to be deposed.