It could never bring people with them. Peter Hartcher is wrong to represent, yet again, this incapacity as something that has only happened in recent days or weeks, or that it could not have been foreseen before the polls handed this story to him. This country has been sold a dog of a government, and Peter Hartcher bears more responsibility than he will bear for that. Hartcher is attempting to scuttle back to a pose of even-handedness that he regards as his turf, but having spent too long in The Hockey Camp and previously The Rudd Camp, what might be called The Middle Ground is turf which Hartcher has never occupied.
It is time to write Abbott off as a persuasive leader. He has failed all the 'tests' and has learned nothing. It is time to write him off as a sustainable leader. Liberals might declare that they have learned the lesson from dumping Rudd before the end of his first term, but they forget how much credibility Rudd had lost by then, how frightened his party was (and is?) of actual voters. Rudd had lost a lot of faith with the public by mid-2010 but he had lost even more with a party that had closed ranks behind him until that point. The Coalition has closed ranks behind Abbott to a similar extent, and the loss of public face is also apparent at this point: after he goes you can expect an orgy of I Never Liked Peta Anyway pieces, many of them to be written by Peter Hartcher.
I was in the NSW Young Liberals with Joe Hockey in the early 1990s, and I understand why people who work with him in politics and media regard him as a nice bloke (I'll have more to say about that in a future blogpost after I've finished Madonna King's book). The idea that Hockey might yet build a public persona based on that niceness and carry the Liberal Party to victory on that basis is a Canberra fantasy, with neither Liberal hard-heads nor journos any wiser on this. Hockey will not be able to contrast himself as a kinder, gentler Abbott. Hockey is finished after that budget, and all the journos and other Canberra denizens who doubt this are fools.
At the very least it will take him years to rebuild his image as a leader in his own right rather than as a supplicant who does the dirty jobs others won't do, in the same way John Howard took years to shake off the punchline of having been Malcolm Fraser's Treasurer. When Hockey delivered the budget in May he looked rattled, while Abbott looked smug; Abbott was nobbling a political rival on that night and he knew it. The Liberals thought they had built their future on the rock by choosing Abbott now with Hockey in reserve, but both captain and reserve have the same flaw exposed.
When Howard lost in 2007 and Peter Costello refused the leadership, Julie Bishop was considered an outside chance for the leadership. When Brendan Nelson stumbled the following year, Bishop was again floated as a compromise to Turnbull, and when he in turn stumbled Bishop was floated again (under the perfectly fair assumption that Abbott was unelectable). Now she's being floated again. The press gallery simply note this without looking at the pattern:
I am not saying there is likely to be any leadership change in Tony Abbott's first term ... it's not unreasonable to suggest ... anything could happen.If your idea of political commentary consists of as many weasel words as possible, it's hard to go past Peter Reith.
Reith was himself floated as a potential leader in the late 1990s, believe it or not. This was leadership speculation as its most idle. He neither posed much of a contrast to the then incumbent (Howard) nor did he trouble the then heir-apparent (Costello), but this sort of fluff has kept Peter Hartcher employed. Reith imploded in a piss-blizzard of dishonesty in 2001. Virginia Trioli won a Walkley for asking Reith the sorts of questions that should be standard fare in political interviews. Trioli's employer, the ABC, and the Fairfax press have resuscitated Reith without any contrition or discernible improvement in credibility on his part, which has the effect of diminishing those outlets as reliable sources of information.
The Coalition has not yet elected a female parliamentary leader but the day will come and it would not surprise me if it were Julie Bishop. But it would not be because she is female, nor because someone has written a book of her life story, but because she is a class act.Peter Reith used to give those sort of tepid, lame endorsements to former Liberal leaders like Andrew Peacock or Alexander Downer. That he would damn future leaders in a similar way is boring, and the whole idea of being a senior political commentator is to call this out. Simply reporting this development as though it were significant is an act of professional failure by the press gallery and the editors who keep them there.
Needless to say, Tony Abbott has set the right tone and provided the leadership that was so needed given the reluctance in Europe and elsewhere.That kind of crap might play well in the Murdoch rags but it is nonsense. Later in his article Reith praises Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans. Can you imagine Reith finding out that the Netherlands is, in fact, part of Europe?
What is now evident is that Bishop is a totally professional and assured foreign minister. She is already on par internationally with Gareth Evans and, more recently, Alexander Downer.Not really. Evans dealt with the end of the Cold War. Downer dealt with the tricky diplomacy surrounding the downfall of Suharto in Indonesia and the rise of Timor Leste. Bishop has not dealt with anything on that scale.
The first thing to say is that she has not put a foot wrong from day one.Garbage. The Chinese have said that she's an idiot. Our relationship with China is terribly important and has been damaged to an extent that she can't fix. It took a lot of work from professional diplomats at the UN to stop them vetoing Bishop's motion. As it happens, the Ukrainians seem to be using the anti-Russian thrust of that motion to push their advantage; it does not quite mean that Bishop's much-vaunted efforts have been in vain, but let's stop going overboard (as it were) by lauding mere competence.
Much of the purple prose about Bishop, Abbott and MH17 has arisen from embarrassment that commentators overestimated how capable this government would be. There was about 48 hours where the government did the job they are paid to do, and that time has passed without any momentum, for the nation or its current government.
She started with more than her fair share of tricky problems but she did a good job managing Australian relations with IndonesiaThe second clause in that sentence is flatly untrue.
My spies tell me that it was not the only time she has been forthright in her views. She also has clear views on key topics.That's nice.
Look, never mind Reith - what Bishop has and what Abbott and Hockey don't is that she can negotiate. This government lacks negotiation skills and it needs them if it is to survive. Bishop demonstrated these as a corporate lawyer. She might not be [$] the wheeler-dealer that Guy Rundle's paywalled article makes Clive Palmer out to be, but she could play that game if Abbott had the wit to put her where she's needed. Palmer takes credit for the government's achievements while avoiding blame and responsibility. Bishop would have dealt with plenty of people like Palmer in Perth. Abbott and Hockey don't know where to start with Palmer, and drastically overestimate their abilities (in one another, and themselves) to cut a deal.
According to Rundle:
Yet somehow, by the end of this sitting fortnight, the only two major multipart pieces of legislation – the carbon tax repeal omnibus and the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) regulation bill – had gone through in the form [Palmer] wanted.That isn't quite true. The minister who has handled Palmer best, and granted him fewest concessions, was the minister in charge of FOFA: Matthias Cormann. Like Bishop, Cormann is a Perthling who achieved national prominence by wheeling and dealing with the best of them. The Senate is where this government lives or dies, yet Cormann must defer to two clowns (Senate Leader Eric Abetz and Deputy Senate Leader George Brandis) who are rubbish at negotiating and clear failures at their portfolios.
Cormann's in the wrong house, he has the wrong accent, and he is up to his neck in WA Liberal intra-party shenanigans in ways that Bishop isn't. When the Barnett government implodes Cormann will be trapped in the wreckage, while long-time observers of WA politics will remember how that state's Liberals proposed to draft Julie Bishop from Canberra instead of the exhausted Barnett and flawed Buswell.
Despite the ringing endorsement of the commentators, Bishop, too, is in the wrong place:
- No Australian minister seems to have met with newly-elected Indonesian President Widodo nor any senior member of his team. Same goes for the newly-elected government of India.
- It is unclear why the hell the Australian Education Minister, with a major review of his portfolio due last month, is in Israel - and what this means for our foreign policy.
- Thailand is in political meltdown, a country with tens of thousands of Australians at any one time and the location of one of this country's largest embassies; Australia's position, and its interests, have not been articulated.
- Speaking of political meltdown: Egypt, Peter Greste - and other Australians beside him, no doubt.
- The Treasurer has gone to Fiji, a dictatorship which is due to have elections this year - again, Australia's foreign policy is unclear.
- Why our entire foreign policy can only be administered from some dingy hotel in Donetsk or a morgue in Eindhoven is unclear.
Having stumbled into foreign policy, humour me as I blunder into feminism: Bishop is every bit as "deliberately barren" as Julia Gillard was. Much has been made of the heartlessness of Bishop when acting as a lawyer for asbestos companies, playing hardball with plaintiffs dying of asbestos-related illness who were seeking compensation from her client; Turnbull has done that sort of thing all of his life, and people love him for it in ways that don't accrue to Bishop. Qualities of hers will be overlooked and flaws will be emphasised in comparison to Abbott and other men who seek to lead the Liberals, by those (men) who make those decisions. Liberals are still setting up and knocking down the straw figure of quotas - the day when a woman will lead the Liberals is farther off than Reith's glib prediction might indicate.
One of Bishop's flaws/qualities is that she is not now on a plane home vowing to sort out the government, and frightening Hockey, Pyne and others into doing likewise. If she can sort out the UN Security Council then can't she knock some heads together in Cabinet? Can't she tell Abbott to fix things (like the budget, the education and health systems, the upward creep of unemployment and fact that relations with big business are starting to sour despite their success in getting what they wanted, among others) - and that if he doesn't, then she bloody well will? She was there when Turnbull did that to Nelson, and Abbott in turn to Turnbull. Reith gave examples of where she can deliver a kick in the pants, but to be leadership material she needs to kick a few people in the teeth. Reith could only do that to asylum seekers, and couldn't even pull that off.
The coming of the 2016 election will focus a lot of dull Coalition minds who disdained policy content and consistency before the election. Those people don't, and can't, understand that the government's problems now result directly from that disdain, that lack of preparation - as though Textor and the PR dollies knew anything, as though they are any help now. If Bishop walks down the street of a marginal seat with a nervous candidate and people warm to her in ways they don't to Abbott, Hockey, Pyne or the rest of them, perhaps their minds may change ...
... but still, the pattern is clear. Liberals turn to Bishop only when male leaders (Barnett, Howard, Costello, Nelson, Turnbull, and now Abbott) fail. She is the stalking horse, not the thoroughbred; the bridesmaid and never the bride. Reith, Hartcher, and the rest of the press gallery are wrong to tell us to keep our eyes on a dead but shiny lure - the government spends millions on PR dollies but somehow washed-up space-fillers like them distract attention most successfully. The Coalition need Bishop's negotiation skills, desperately, but they are also desperate to hide just how great that need is. The Coalition do not do far-reaching re-thinking while in office, and in any case Bishop is a transactional politician rather than a far-reaching re-thinker. Like Jim Cairns after Cyclone Tracy, she has her moment but then has nowhere to go but down.
Julie Bishop represents a lost opportunity for this government, and that will remain the case after the government loses office. The Liberals, and Bishop, will never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The first woman to lead the Liberals and become Prime Minister must learn which qualities of Julie Bishop's she is to emulate, which to leave behind.