... and ifLabor have had their share of "captain's picks": Julia Gillard nominated Nova Peris to fill a Senate seat that the incumbent hasn't realised was being vacated, and Kevin Rudd picked Jason Li and Peter Beattie ahead of preselected Labor candidates in Bennelong and Forde respectively. His actions against Labor-endorsed candidates in Hotham and Kennedy are works in progress. The wisdom of each and the capacity for a parliamentary leader to do this under party rules is a matter for "W(h)ither Labor?" commentary elsewhere. What's interesting is the contrast with Abbott in working internal party processes in terms of fundamental political competence.
I tread upon your feet you just say so
'cause you're The Captain, I am no-one,
I tend to feel as though I owe one to you
- Kasey Chambers The Captain
Before it was dissolved for the election there were 226 members of federal parliament. Most came up through pre-existing political parties: doing their time at branch functions, working the networks of their parties in order to secure preselection, and then contest election to join the select few in Federal Parliament. Independents have to build their own machinery but the principle is similar. Every MHR and Senator regards having and maintaining a political support network as crucial to securing a seat in parliament, and the absence of same is a personal political failure at the most basic level. Those who lose preselection may incur sympathy for a short while but they are essentially dead politicians walking.
Abbott has made no "captain's picks" for the Coalition. Most of his front bench gets its credibility from having been Howard government ministers. Many of his backbenchers had been staffers to ministers in said government. What's remarkable about Abbott is that having the leader's support in a preselection is nothing like a guarantee of success, and that not having his support is no guarantee of failure:
- Abbott didn't want Jaymes Diaz in Greenway, but he's stuck with that choker because David Clarke imposed him over a candidate who could actually win;
- He didn't want Fiona Scott in Lindsay, either;
- And if he had his way Pat Secker would still be preselected for Barker, apparently; and
- Not to mention Gary Humphries in the ACT.
On the face of it, Mirabella is unassailable. She is, and has been at every election since 2001, the preselected Liberal candidate for Indi. That electorate was held by a former Governor-General (Isaac Isaacs) and a former Prime Minister (John McEwen), both arch-protectionists. This may explain why she has ditched the small-government rhetoric of her student days, and instead sees her job as donating public money to badly-run industries like car manufacturing and food processing (though offering less support than Labor is, and while criticising Labor for not doing enough).
Mirabella and Tony Abbott developed a strong bond as monarchists in the lead-up to the 1999 referendum, and now she is a senior member of shadow cabinet - one of the few who was not a minister under Howard. Note that Abbott has not flatly contradicted her policy positions in the way that he has with those of, say, Joe Hockey or Eric Abetz.
The traditional methods that a party uses to get rid of dud candidates have failed. Nobody within the local Liberal branches has put up their hand as an alternative, nor is anybody stacking them to dilute Mirabella's grasp. She clearly has the numbers in local branches and any frontal assault on her would be heavily resisted by 104 Exhibition Street (the address of and synecdoche for Liberal headquarters in Melbourne). Instead, Cathy McGowan and Jennifer Podesta have decided to contest Indi using their own means rather than those of the Liberal Party (or persuading the Victorian Nationals to take the chance on them). McGowan has been endorsed by Tony Windsor, and seems to be offering a similarly pragmatic approach while being her own person.
What does this mean for Abbott? If he can't defend Mirabella, he can't defend anyone.
Mirabella is one of Abbott's longest and most ardent supporters. No Liberal leader other than Abbott has rated her as front bench material, and no future leader would foreseeably prefer her over others. She feels as though her service to the community, while necessary, is insufficient for her talents. Abbott's outlook on the Liberal Party, Australia and life in general are pretty much hers to a greater extent than is true for other Liberals. Even people who loathe Mirabella, but who can appreciate loyalty and why it's important, would have to agree Mirabella has been loyal to Abbott.
The contrast with Howard, supposedly Abbott's role model, is telling. Through sheer longevity John Howard would've had sufficient contacts in northeastern Victoria to gauge the depth and breadth of the problem confronting Indi conservatives. They clearly don't feel Mirabella is representing them. He would've had quiet words with the right people and either given Mirabella a final warning to lift her game or else thrown her to the wolves, rather than lose a seat the Coalition has held for eight decades - part of its 'furniture', if you will.
Abbott can't return Mirabella's loyalty and help secure her immediate political future because he's just not smart enough or strong enough to do so. Abbott has no connection, let alone suasion, with the sorts of people who are backing McGowan and/or Podesta. They have money and a local presence to match - more than match - the Liberal Party in that area. It's crazy that the Victorian Liberals have to divert resources away from La Trobe or Dunkley in order to sandbag Indi; it's political failure that it has come to this, and Abbott shares the blame for that.
When the Gillard government proposed a referendum to recognise local government in the Constitution, Abbott was initially supportive. It fits with his centralist agenda, particularly in health policy where he proposes individual boards for local hospitals. When a Labor government last proposed this measure, in 1988, Abbott was not only not a member of the Liberal Party but was flirting with the idea of joining Labor - and NSW Labor at that.
Those who were party members back then, and who still are, trot out the same arguments against the proposal as they did back then. Rudd has shelved the referendum for now but this does not mean it is off the agenda. What was interesting is that they did not flatly contradict Abbott; rather, they made their case as though he had not spoken, as though his was just another opinion rather than the decisive one on the Coalition side.
"When it comes to [DisabilityCare]", said Abbott, "I am Dr Yes". Coalition MPs continued to talk about it as though the policy was an optional extra, an act of charity rather than a reliably-funded rights-based system, which is a fundamental failure to understand the basis of that policy. As a result, the Coalition can fairly be regarded as having a weak commitment to DisabilityCare and its future is uncertain should they win this election. Abbott has allowed his party to put him into this weak position, and he can't get out of it.
Abbott was elected as leader of his party on the basis that climate change is crap. His Direct Action policy threatens havoc on economic credentials without doing a damn thing for his environmental credentials. The Liberals who elected Tony Abbott did not elect him to be this namby-pamby centrist, yet insofar as Abbott has any policy stance at all this is where he finds himself.
His last big stand was against same-sex marriage, but that will go ahead regardless of what Tony Abbott says or does.
Leaders make things happen. They have real victories in real fights, not choreographed spats with cream-puffs. Tony Abbott is a weak leader. When he says that he has a commitment to this or that policy, or that he will work for this or that group of people, you have to assess that against who and what he is prepared to die in a ditch for.