When Peter van Onselen runs out of story ideas - a disturbingly frequent occurrence - he gives a big shout-out to his buddies on the Liberal backbench. I was happy to set this aside until Alastair Drysdale weighed in on the same theme.
Alastair Drysdale was a senior member of Malcolm Fraser's staff and acts as a bridge between the Liberal Party and the Melbourne business community. It's true that the Melbourne business community does not have the national pre-eminence it once had, but it's equally true it ought not be dismissed out of hand; brash parvenus of Perth have much to learn from their Collins Street cousins about getting things done behind the scenes. Drysdale is not your stereotypical ex-staffer who loves to see his name in the paper and he would no sooner appear on Q&A than on a float in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. He does not speak until and unless he has something to say, and after he has spoken the conversation changes. There is a strong correlation between him making a statement about public affairs (e.g. that a given Liberal leader is no good) and that statement being manifested (e.g. that leader being rolled).
What both men miss about their call for Abbott to reshuffle his front bench, is his fundamental weakness. Howard taught Abbott that reshuffles earn you the enmity of those who feel demoted, which is not outweighed by gratitude from those who feel promoted. Abbott cannot admit to anyone but himself the essential truth of Drysdale's statement:
At the moment, [Abbott] doesn’t have the team or structures in place. He’s got the sound-bites and 'look at me' TV pictures on track but not any underlying sense of economic competence.There is a brutality and a finality beneath that understated prose: those are words not chosen lightly. Had the media treated Abbott in the same way that they treat the Prime Minister, he would have been peppered at every one of his picfacs over the past week about these comments, with commentary about how weak Abbott is within his party's organisation, LIB SPLIT SHOCK etc.
His front bench economic team is threadbare at best. They frequently offer confusing, contradictory and nonsensical sounding messages. They lack sense of purpose.
Treasurer in an Abbott government would be Joe Hockey, with Andrew Robb as finance minister. Industry minister would be Sophie Mirabella.
Based on experience and past judgement this is not a team to lead the grind of nuts and bolts economic management.
Robb and Mirabella are Victorians. After Drysdale's comments they may as well pack up now. Robb has made a series of statements over recent weeks where he appears to contradict his leader or express frustration with some aspect of Coalition policy, but stops just short of doing so. During the 1980s and '90s the past master of this was John Howard (but only when the Liberal Party was led by someone other than John Howard). Kevin Rudd did this to Gillard until 27 February. Robb last embarked on such a campaign when Malcolm Turnbull was on his last legs, but unlike then it looks increasingly like Robb is off on a jag of his own. Abbott may have a reshuffle forced on him if Robb keeps going the way he has.
Mirabella was operating at full throttle before this came to light; her absolute best was never good enough, but now with her worst following her around like a bad smell she is pretty much finished. The Liberal Party will have to dump her or face defeat. Even in her weakened state Mirabella has strong networks throughout the Victorian Liberals and she'd fight any such move ferociously, but the Libs have to replace her.
Labor will not win Mirabella's seat of Indi in the foreseeable future, but if Victorian Labor were not run by oafs it could do a bit of mischief.
A few years ago the Victorian state government proposed to build a water pipeline from the Murray River to metropolitan Melbourne, which was stoutly resisted by locals. Networks of activists in that campaign may be dormant but not necessarily extinct. Combined with recent developments in Murray-Darling water allocations and methods for organising rural communities against coal-seam gas, and you have the potential for an independent to garner a sizeable vote in Indi. A candidate who could pull this off would have to be the sort of person that rural conservatives could vote for without feeling that their interests were being compromised: Tony Windsor has done this for the past twenty years, and Bob Katter has done it for longer.
If Labor and such an independent as described above could get a combined vote of about 45%, exchanging preferences tightly, it could force Mirabella to a vote of around the same size (if she wins >50% of the primary vote, preferences don't matter and she's back in), and preferences from other candidates decide the result. That's where things could get very, very interesting in Indi, much more interesting than that seat has been in a long time.
The Liberals can forestall the above scenario if they dump Mirabella in favour of the sort of candidate who can tap into the sorts of networks I've described above, and secure >50% of the primary vote for themselves and the Liberal Party. Mirabella will fight like a Kilkenny cat against a single opponent, inside the Liberal Party or out; but against a broad-based multi-front movement that can't be split she is finished.
Joe Hockey isn't a Vic and can thumb his nose at Drysdale to a far greater extent than can the other two. Hockey is sound and knowledgeable on corporate regulation but not on other aspects of the economy. In a match-up with Swan, the incumbent Treasurer holds his own by the fact that he's more measured and across his brief while Hockey tends to overestimate the value of the points he's able to score.
Van Onselen makes a nice point about pay for shadow ministers:
Abbott has been neatly wedged by Special Minister of State Gary Gray. While media attention was on the Kevin Rudd challenge, Gray quietly did a deal with Abbott allowing his oversized shadow ministerial line-up to receive a pay rise without being forced to abide by the legislative rules that it be no bigger than the government's ministerial team.It's tempting to name who you'd turf from Abbott's frontbench and who should go into what portfolios, but ultimately it's unproductive. Here we come to the central problem of both Drysdale and van Onselen in calling for a Coalition reshuffle: it isn't enough.
The independent tribunal awarded shadow ministers a $45,000 annual increase in their take-home pay, with a proviso that the size of the line-up should be no larger than that of the ministry. Julia Gillard leads a team of 30 ministers, Abbott's shadow ministry numbers 32.
That could have left Abbott with the awkward duty of informing two of his frontbenchers they were the least deserving of the pay rise and would not be getting one.
It sounds like the kind of situation Labor might like to force on Abbott, but Gray was thinking longer term. By granting Abbott a one-off exemption so his full shadow ministry could collect the pay increase, Gray has made it difficult for Abbott to reshuffle his line-up at any point between now and the next election. If Abbott promotes so much as one MP, he not only needs to find someone to demote, [but] he will also have to dock two others a slice of their salary.
So instead of presenting the Australian public with the best alternative team at the next election, a $90,000 annual payday for two undeserving, under-performing shadows is contributing to Abbott's decision not to improve his team.
What the Coalition needs are shadow ministers who can rethink the issues within their portfolios from first principles, work out why policy responses from not only Rudd and Gillard but also Howard haven't met the mark (accepting the reality that the 2007 election meant a public rejection of Howard), and work out what government can do as part of the solution. Coalition fans simply assume that their side has the talent to be able to do that, and they are mistaken.
When the Gillard government reshuffled twice in the last three months, I expected shadow ministers to step up and force their agenda onto newbie ministers. In particular, previously high-profile shadow minister for health Peter Dutton should have taken on Tanya Plibersek as soon as she was appointed. He should know that portfolio well enough by now to set off one land mine of neglect, waste and maladministration every day, making Plibersek look reactive and hunted and adding to the Labor-incompetence theme. Instead, Plibersek has taken to her new portfolio looking calm and in control and making a few big announcements to stamp her authority as Minister for Health. Plibersek has already taken a few shots at Abbott and it is only a mater of time before Dutton wanders blithely into a confrontation with her and gets eviscerated. Shuffling Dutton away from Plibersek won't be enough; that policy area requires a rethink.
When the Gonski Report was released into school education - the most far-reaching investigation of its type in forty years - shadow education minister Chris Pyne should have a better response than a few dot points about bringing back the cane or teacher unions, or chasing the silly Kevin Donnelly equality-of-outcomes phantom around. A reshuffle won't be sufficient; a rethink is required.
I could go into plenty of other areas where the relevant Coalition spokesman has failed to lay a glove on their opposite minister. When Alastair Drysdale says Turnbull should be forgiven for not abolishing the NBN, he is basically showing that the business community isn't as opposed to it as the parliamentary Libs are making out. The Coalition threw away more than a decade in opposition by opposing Medicare, and they could end up doing the same with not only the NBN but the economic and social possibilities it facilitates if they aren't careful.
What the Coalition has done instead of rethinking is to unite around the idea that the Howard government represented the best government this country could have, which is why their policies tend to simply call for a reversion to the status quo of 2006 and be done with it.
Van Onselen is wrong to simply assume that Kelly O'Dwyer and Jamie Briggs are qualified to be senior shadow ministers just because they did a bit of work experience in the offices of Costello and Downer. They (and other ambitious backbenchers) should use the experience they have gained, contrast it against recent developments since 2007, consult more widely than they have so far, and come up with some new but measured ideas in some key policy areas that demonstrate their fitness for a shadow ministry. To rely too heavily on Howard government experience is to fall into the trap Abbott has fallen into, that the last two election results were clerical errors that can be rectified rather than sea-changes to which the Coalition must adjust.
They should, but to be fair to O'Dwyer and Briggs, the reason why they haven't is because any attempt to do so would be a direct attack on the shadow minister in that portfolio who is busy aligning him- or herself to the polestar of Howard government policy. To imagine what that must be like, look at the generosity and equanimity that Peter Costello showed in 2005 toward the ideas on taxation put forward by newly-elected Malcolm Turnbull, and multiply it by orders of magnitude generated by fear, insecurity and spite. The Coalition is in an intellectual lockdown from which only electoral defeat can free it.
Look, I love Drysdale's idea of Turnbull and Sinodinos in an economic policy duumvirate. They would fizz with ideas and put Swan and Wong on the back foot. What Labor would do eventually is learn to work around them, and that's where the trouble starts.
Imagine the reshuffle that Drysdale envisages had already happened. Imagine that you were putting together a business delegation to discuss a few issues with the Coalition as they prepare policy for the coming election, and you don't have a lot of time. Who do you go and see - Turnbull and Sinodinos, with whom business can be done - or that ex-seminarian who never really grew up and who can't really come to grips with issues except in a look-at-me publicity sense, with his chief of staff shrieking away like Mrs Rochester? You wouldn't be fobbed off with a cup of tea hosted by Kelly and Jamie.
Once you understand that, you understand Abbott's problem. The business community will tell him that he needs to get serious about economic policy, and that Hockey-Robb-Mirabella is nobody's idea of serious (Hockey to Industry, maybe). For Abbott to comply would mean unleashing forces he can't control, forces that would belittle and marginalise him - and I haven't even started on how (or whether) Abbott could deal effectively with the wounded feelings of those three.
Turnbull and Sinodinos would monster Swan and Wong a few times in their respective Houses of Parliament. The press gallery would love it and confuse it with the main game.
A Turnbull-Sinodinos duumvirate would attempt to dictate policy to all shadow ministers. Big-spending ideas would be shredded by those two. They would attempt to go over their heads to the leader, who would shrug and say there was nothing he could do. Occasionally the leader would assert his authority by countermanding them, but it would soon pass and the duumvirate would reassert control over proceedings. Abbott would find himself less indispensible than Turnbull-Sinodinos.
Neither man would be able to deal effectively with local warlords like Bernardi or Cormann, or the hold they have over pollies focused on their preselections. The first elected office Arthur Sinodinos ever held was NSW State President of the Liberal Party, and to that end Briggs and O'Dwyer are well ahead of him in a personal understanding of politics (Sinodinos refers to voters as "punters", bless him). We saw what Turnbull was like as leader, impatient with pettiness; but while patience is a prerequisite for all other learnings, it isn't a substitute. Once Swan and Wong figure this out and direct their attack onto those who resent Turnbull and Sinodinos, the frailty of the seemingly formidable Drysdale proposal becomes clear.
Mind you, Turnbull would be much better at dealing with billionaires than Abbott has so far.
The mining billionaires Palmer, Rinehart and Forrest have been generous to the Coalition. It's facile to claim that they are buying compliance from the Coalition, but it is true that the Coalition has volunteered to promote their interests in public policy terms by promising to wind back the carbon price and the MRRT. In politics, if someone's going to stand up for you then you are obliged not to make them look stupid for doing so.
First, Palmer, with this mad nonsense about the CIA and the Greens or whatever. The Coalition look like absolute turkeys for throwing their lot in with someone like that. If there's still anyone who thinks that Abbott's lead is so impregnable that he can shrug this off, look at how Gold Coast United were lauded early in their career, then look at what happened to them.
The only thing that could possibly be explained by a Greens-CIA link is something that has long puzzled me: how all those old Marxists proceed straight to the board of Quadrant without pausing in the broad and fertile grounds of moderation.
Then there's Rinehart, whose family travails fit the Museum of Broadcast Communications' definition of a soap opera: the patriarch (Lang Hancock, though dead a vivid larger-than-life presence), the matriarch (Gina), the good child (Ginia), the bad child (Ginia's siblings), and in-laws (Barnaby Joyce and Alby Schultz). Yer Rudd-Gillard kerfuffle cannot and does not compare to that. If Abbott had either sense or guts he would have carpeted Joyce and Schultz and whoever else, and told them to stay well clear of that business.
Then there's Forrest, a man who doesn't pay tax and complains about the prospect of doing so. The mining tax is so popular that even Michelle Grattan has to admit it.
Abbott must be stupid to stand up for these people. He couldn't help himself.
Swan snookered Abbott into this position. Swan was accused of playing at "class war" in his article for The Monthly but he was actually playing at another game entirely, one guaranteed to be far more effective in the contemporary context. Where he attacked someone, Abbott had to defend them. Because Abbott defended them, he took responsibility for all their wacky antics.
Swan didn't attack the big mining corporates that aren't embodied in individuals because that would have been old-school class war. Labor has learnt that lesson: losers like Calwell might shake their fists at BHP but winners like Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard don't need to. Any wacky personal traits by senior people at those companies are not so obvious, or compensated for by other more normal qualities.
The billionaires don't have a support base that they can swing behind the Liberals; the Liberals already have the support of those who make the billionaires possible. Politicians need billionaires more than billionaires need politicians. The fact that the Labor base might rally to a ALP Treasurer who sticks it to rich people is a bonus for Labor, but Tony Abbott is stuck with a political Tar Baby.
What Abbott should have done was tap his forefinger against his temple and say "if Wayne Swan thinks Clive or Gina or Andrew are the biggest threats to this country, they're mistaken". Cut to an image of one or more of those people handing over a big cheque to a worthy cause, saying "Mr Swan would rather I wasn't here supporting you. He thinks it's better if I was funding his pink batts habit". The article would have rebounded on Swan, and Abbott would be more flexible than he is. Oh well.
Again, this is a judgment call by the Liberal Party. They do not have the strategic infrastructure either to compensate for Abbott's shortcomings, nor to enhance his positive qualities (such as they are). They want to bring back 2006 rather than bring on 2016. Gary Gray and Wayne Swan - two supposed bit-players, not a patch on Labor luminaries of old apparently - run rings around him. They want this guy to be Prime Minister even though he just can't flick that switch. The worst thing a politician can do is run out of options, while Abbott's whole life has been about nailing himself to a particular spot and hoping his determination will compensate for his lack of sense.