18 August 2012

Diary of a madman

FOOL: Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp'd out, when
Lady the brach may stand by th' fire and stink.

- Shakespeare King Lear Act I Sc IV
When George Bush II was running for President of the United States, and his reputation for being erratic and not much of a thinker became widely known, Republicans insinuated that he would have the wise counsel of his father to guide him through the tough times in Washington. It was rubbish, of course, but people wanted to believe it and voted accordingly.

The same thing is happening in Australia with Tony Abbott, harking back to John Howard as the steadying influence he can never be. There is a clear implication - never stated openly by anyone with any sort of standing in the Coalition parties, but still there - that John Howard will be part of the next Coalition government without having to go through the tawdry business of preselection and fundraising and campaigning with no-mark candidates, a bit like the role Lee Kuan Yew plays in modern Singapore.

Now the idea is floated by Godwin Grech that Howard will sit atop the Abbott government as Governor-General. If this is an unpopular idea it has easy deniability. If not, you can expect to see it floated more often by fringe players in the Coalition and denied unconvincingly by Abbott.

In order to explore this idea I have to take the prospect of an Abbott government more seriously than it deserves; bear with me, it will not take long.

You can see why Liberals keen for this scenario. They never accepted that their defeat in 2007 meant a repudiation of Howard. Abbott's questionable tactic of calling election after election until he gets the Parliament that he wants would be easier with a compliant Governor-General, impossible without. What would be harder is life for naval personnel deciding against towbacks; the Governor-General is the commander-in-chief of Australia's armed forces, and we would see almost certainly a more politicised military than this country has ever seen.

For Howard, ascending to a role higher than Prime Minister would be a vindication that all ex-PMs strove toward but never attained: remember the hysteria during the Republic campaign over the prospect of President Keating?

Remember also during that campaign, how monarchists such as Howard and Abbott insisted that the Crown was an office above politics: a unifying factor for the nation. A Howard Governor-Generalcy would trash that.

The British monarchy is in transition. The once high-profile role of Prince Phillip is being de-emphasised because of his frailty (and limiting the exposure of the Queen because of hers), while focus is increasing on the generation of William, Kate, Harry and Zara Phillips. These are not fads but structural changes. At such a time, John Howard is the wrong person to represent the Crown to Australians.

The precedents all urge Abbott not to entertain the idea of Howard as ur-leader. Precedents matter to conservatives.

In 1977, pugnacious New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon appointed his mentor and predecessor, Sir Keith Holyoake, as that country's Governor-General. The perception of Muldoon as his own man evaporated, and Holyoake did not get the multipartisan deference that the office traditionally enjoyed. Neither man could play the leader-as-healer role the country required following the Muldoon government's refusal to condemn racism in sport throughout 1978 (with a subsequent boycott of that year's Commonwealth Games, aimed at NZ)* and the Mount Erebus disaster the following year. Governors-General are traditionally appointed for five years but Holyoake quit after three. The arrangement had diminished both men.

Labor weakened their then leader, Bill Hayden, in the 1980 election by overshadowing him with then-NSW Premier Neville Wran an then-ACTU President Bob Hawke. When Hayden became Governor-General eight years later nobody pretended that he was strengthening the Hawke government by assuming that office (apart from unkind souls keen to see the back of him).

At that time, Federal Opposition Leader John Howard had lost the 1987 election and tried to boost his stocks by associating himself with the popular new Premier of NSW, Nick Greiner.

Howard knows co-leadership doesn't work. He should distance himself from efforts to prop up Abbott in this manner. If Abbott isn't good enough to be Prime Minister, the Liberals have no choice but to replace him with someone who is. Abbott's had a fair go at the job. If the Liberals really want John Howard back, they should say so and get him back in harness.

No Liberal branch member in Bennelong would choose the current member, John Alexander, over Howard if they had the choice. Alexander is nice enough but a human placebo. He adopts a largely passive, old-school approach as local member, acting both as a local relay station to pass messages onto Canberra and localising policy announcements from Tony Abbott's office. He smooths the dying pillow over policy ideas with a wan smile and the phrase "That's a very interesting suggestion".

Bennelong is increasingly made up of knowledge workers, people who apply their brains to big challenges every day. Over time Alexander's model will be less and less representative of the electorate. There's little he can do about it.

But all of this is to build castles in the air. Let us look instead to Grech.

Grech's piece first appeared in the Murdoch publication Australian Spectator, which aims to bring the wit and erudition of the British publication to Australian conservatism. A political movement that eschewed and was suspicious of culture or style, it is bogged down in the dour Quadrant or the wacky fringe publications that are only entertaining when they aim to be most serious. One does not simply appear in Australian Spectator; one is inducted after having passed tests of conservative soundness such as being a Liberal staffer and Murdoch journalist (e.g. Tom Switzer, Christian Kerr) or having been a Liberal MP of many years' standing (e.g. Peters Coleman and Costello), or - no, that's pretty much it.

The last we saw of Grech was as a mental health patient, crushed by throwing away his career in a folly over a fake email and setting up an Opposition Leader to fail while pretending to serve the government. He avoided punishment because of his frail mental-health state: please let this not be some sort of ruse. Grech was close to Eric Abetz, and the Coalition appeared to drop Grech once he became a national punchline and brought down a leader of the party of which Abetz was supposedly a leading member. At the time I thought it was gutless of them to desert Grech like they appeared to, but it appears they have cruelly kept him dangling with a promise of Lord-knows-what and the piece rates at the OzSpeccie.

You could be justified in saying that I'm playing the man here, but I am not going to pick apart a piece of creative writing from someone whose path back to wellness is not yet complete. I am much more angry at those who have ruined this man's career and life and who lack the decency not to drag him further beyond his competence simply for their sport. Instead, I shall fish out some corkers of begged-questions that clearly aren't his alone, and which have no business appearing under his name, leaving them flapping and gasping on the riverbank as follows:
  • "If the Coalition is to improve the way we are governed, it must provide solid leadership, a healthy respect for due process and a much more accountable public service."
  • "Tony Abbott will quickly become an effective prime minister in the John Howard mould."
  • "Turnbull's days as leader of the Liberal Party are over."
  • "Joyce or Warren Truss will only need to invoke the memory of Black Jack McEwen to deliver the stable leadership vital for good governance."
  • "By any objective measure, Howard would make a first-class head of state"
  • "creating a more transparent and accountable public sector"
Poprishchin couldn't have done better.

*Amended, thanks to @argumentalist and Barry Gustafson for setting me right


  1. My thoughts when I saw the article from Godwin Grech was 'hey I am still here & you (meaning the Libs) owe me'

    What is happening in Australian politics is truly frightening, potential conspiracies everywhere, who can you trust? who do you believe? this is Howard/Abbotts legacy so far!

  2. Meanwhile Queensland has shown them how to do it. No need to get elected, Campbell Newman was opposition leader without the tedious business of an election.
    Just appoint a de facto leader Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer or Mal Brough perhaps.
    Tony could still do the comedy relief performance in the Parliament.

  3. A Liberals dream an Australian nightmare. Abbott and Howard neighbours at Kirrabilli.

  4. HM would gag at the thought of JH as her rep. He is her greatest enemy having nobbled the Republican debate he simply gave the inevitable coming of an Oz Rep an almighty push. The Brit are masters at these things and by recently giving John & Janette a bauble and some ermine it's their way of keeping the enemy close before they put the knife in.
    Not that the Brits care about Oz but to lose it hastens their own royal decline.
    They say the groans could be heard along the Mall when they heard news that the Howards would be in town but imagine them and the Abbotts-truly more than any koala can bare.
    As for Grech, perhaps things were being run up the flagpole to see who saluted but the volley of missives in the comments section soon taught Fairfax they had made a major blunder.

  5. Fantastic article as always Andrew. On a point of grammar though, I'd have thought the correct noun for the Governor-General's tenure was a Governorship-General

  6. Tony and John duo...No offence to the terminally ill, but it would be like a old-time sufferer of leprosy being informed he now had a brain tumor....: Could the news get any worse?