11 August 2015

Friends on the other side

Tony Smith became Speaker with the backing of Scott Morrison, according to Abbott cipher Chris Uhlmann. Smith's main opponent in the party room was Russell Broadbent, the last of the small group of backbenchers who spoke out against the Howard government's mandatory detention policies - policies since reinstituted by Scott Morrison as immigration minister, and endorsed by the ALP. Had Broadbent been elected as Speaker it would have been a massive fuck-you to Morrison, and to the Labor leadership that embraced the policy. It would have encouraged people who don't toe the line, people with ideas and the courage of their convictions - people who have all but been stamped out of public life by party machines and a compliant press gallery, relegated to the fringes and called "ferals".

The press gallery were happy to raise Broadbent's donations issues, but not smart enough to tease out the full story like this local-paper journalist, nor even wonder why they were set up to look like tools.

The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are not the moderates. The idea that moderate centrists stab the Liberal Party in the back is a common right-wing trope, pushed heavily by people like Bronwyn Bishop, but there is no proof of it. The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are the right-wingers who are watching the reality, the possibility, and the very precepts of their low-tax, high-religion, authoritarian program slip away. Support is slipping away from this government without any of the compensating respect that Howard used to attract, and which Abbott promised people like this gullible, whiny reactionary that he too could command respect when they didn't like him.

The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are conservatives, who have for years looked up to and been organised and sustained by, Bronwyn Bishop. She kept the faith, both for conservatism and for Abbott, and he and they indulged her expensive foibles. When backbenchers started complaining that she was embarrassing them, she expected Abbott to support her. He was embarrassing them too, and he tended to stick by her. Over the last month or so, he equivocated.

The polls for this government are every bit as dire as they were for the last government, and every bit as stuck, for those who worry about such things. Tony Abbott was never good enough to become Prime Minister in the first place, and never had what it took to turn a difficult position around. All of the savvy journalists, the in-house urgers and party grandees who believed otherwise, have been cruelly exposed. They complain to one another that it's a recent, unexpected development, but it isn't really. It never was. Those people were, and still are, killing themselves.

Scott Morrison has not relied on Bronwyn Bishop to get where he is. She knows he's an opportunist but had been prepared to tolerate him. By standing up to Bishop when Abbott wouldn't, Morrison has displayed leadership credentials that Abbott has clearly lacked. Morrison has knocked off an Abbott loyalist and knocked down someone who made his life difficult in courting the right. Morrison isn't the right's least-worst alternative any more, some sort of speed hump to Turnbull. The prospect that Abbott might stumble is no longer a distant, theoretical prospect, it's the inescapable reality. Morrison is the right's standard-bearer now. He, not Abbott, is the man.

Bishop is furious, but so what? Her fury doesn't count any more. She isn't biding her time, she's out of time. When she refused to applaud Smith she showed that, despite what conservatives claim, she cannot acknowledge anything beyond herself. The contrast with the magnanimous departure of Gillard is striking. Bishop expected to go out on her own terms, not with a thud; the firebrand reduced to just another frail old woman in the departure lounge.

When Abbott and Pyne talked of Bishop in the past tense, they were also talking about themselves in the same way. Abbott will be gone after the Canning byelection. Pyne has passed none of his much-touted reforms and will be gone at the next election. Adelaide will take on the same political complexion as Newcastle or Canberra, while Nick Xenophon will become the moderate liberal champion that Pyne had promised but failed to be.

We're in a political interregnum where the dead lie unburied and where those who now call the shots are under no obligation to stick their heads up. This is a massive change in the power dynamic of the government, and Australian politics generally; to call it "modest" is to have no understanding of politics at all.

Abbott had promised all opposition frontbenchers that they would become ministers after the 2013 election. Tony Smith was one of the few opposition frontbenchers who didn't make it. Peter Costello has said plenty about Abbott being an economic ignoramus, and Abbott has taken this out on Costello's acolytes like Smith and Kelly O'Dwyer. Smith has a similar - eerily similar - physical appearance to Costello, and even copied the former Treasurer's physical and verbal mannerisms. In practical political terms, Victoria is no longer the jewel in the Liberal crown and so the Coalition is not obliged to over-represent that state on its front bench; Robb has the experience, Billson and Ronaldson have put in the hard yards, Fifield got work experience with Costello without drinking too much of his "Prime Ministerial" Kool-Aid, and Hunt has been neutered. With Smith there was nothing to neuter; he and O'Dwyer were out in the cold, with Frydenberg and Tudge on initial probation.

Abbott paid tribute to Smith copping his disappointment in silence without admitting his role in that disappointment. Abbott can claim no credit in helping Smith up after having knocked him down. He was gracious at overlooking Smith's utter absence of policy conviction, as I noted here and there at the time: Smith was responsible for the Coalition going to the 2010 election with no communications policy, and was deputy chair of the committee that came up with no policies for the one after that. He had practiced his non-policy skills on people who keep asking about policy but wouldn't know it if it bit them: the press gallery.

Smith might have been promoted if Robb and Ronaldson pull out before the next election, but in politics you take your chances when they arise. Now he's ascended to a role that's kind of high profile, like a minister but without all that policy stuff. By giving Smith a prize that Abbott had denied him, Morrison creates the sense that the Liberals are moving on from Abbott, freeing themselves from his errors of judgment.

The press gallery wanted to believe Smith's rhetoric about even-handedness and decorum, forgetting that all former Speakers - Bishop, Anna Burke, Slipper, and Jenkins - all said the same thing at this point in their tenures. Slipper and Burke were even-handed in a tightly balanced parliament, but that even-handedness made a boorish, policy-free opposition look more in control of the agenda than a wonkish, rattled government. An even-handed Speaker will expose a government that is not across what little policy brief it has. It's one thing for Abbott to be a dead man walking, but he has enough pride to prefer anything other than the perception that he is a dead man walking - or sitting, waiting for Shorten to rope-a-dope him again and again.

Labor will exploit Smith's desire for even-handedness, making him look like a mug and protesting too much when Smith calls them on it. Smith can be stiff and awkward in the face of raucousness and this will work against him, and the government. The government will also use Smith's basic, non-focus-grouped decency against him, not hesitating to make him and his office look foolish rather than bear any more of the responsibility which they never deserved, nor could even bear with any dignity. The anonymous Liberal sources who help the press gallery pad out their thin offerings will call for Bishop to return. The living will envy the dead in the end times.

If Smith's "friends on the other side" get the opportunity to bounce off him and score a direct hit on Abbott, they will take it. Abbott has ridden Labor for six years (!) and he is wounded now. Smith might not be happy about it but he'll understand: that's politics, baby.

Smith will have moments of decency that will shine all the more brightly for being contrasted against this government. This should not be surprising to supposedly experienced political journalists. At the next election he might lose his seat of Casey, a sprawling outer-urban electorate that resembles a slab of western Sydney, where the profile and folderol of his new office will count for exactly nothing. Then again, he might win, and pootle on in the same middling way he's spent the last decade.

Speaking of crap forecasts, I owe an apology to Independent Australia for setting them up with this - fancy predicting a woman! What was I thinking?


  1. I reckon Bishop will be as disruptive as she can from the back bench. She'll probably leak (anonymously) like a sieve.

    1. Well, she's of an age.

    2. But who to leak against? Who does Bronny blame? It'd be pretty harsh on poor old Tony Abbigot to blame him. Tony Smith, on the other hand, had better hope he has no bodies buried in places that Bronny knows about.

  2. Swollendanube11/8/15 2:32 pm

    It's hard to shake the feeling that the electorate (and press gallery) have finally decided that Abbott isn't up to it. Do you think he is gone now, Andrew? My guess would be that he will be rolled, and the only question is when. Canning by-election is September 19th at the earliest.

  3. Yes, it's not the Moderates.. bang on. It's the mob who are (were?) riding the same RightLines Coach who are squealing about the driver, 'Doofs' Abbott. He's run it up a side road, which, alas, has become an unsealed one; this big diesel's wheels are spinning in the dirt.

    And Gray Connolly; still calling out the resplendent nature of the Emperor's attire. Geez, I thought they'd all have stopped drinking it by now. Seems not.

  4. Scott Morrison is evil, the notion of this happy clapping moronic lunatic being PM is too much to bear.

    He should be in prison.

  5. Great read. The thing about the LNP cabinet is the sheer load of dead wood laying around. Randall's recent passing (RIP) and Bishops' career wreckage, have highlighted simultaneously, the LNP senior ranks as padded out with pointless careerists, given a last gasp by Abbott, most of whom have lingered around Canberra for decades with nay a piece of policy attached to their name. It is rare that I find myself in agreement with Howard, having spent my youth underwhelmed by his years, but at least Howard was cluey enough to recognise Pyne as an overly smug accident waiting to happen and likewise Bishop as pure dead weight on his cabinet. Abbott's judgement, as ever, failed to note those most obvious assessments.

  6. Are we on the cusp of a 'wither goest' the Liberal party moment?

    It will be hard to pull off a leadership change with all those trumpeting egos and ideological die-hards becoming mightily aggrieved.

  7. "Abbott will be gone after the Canning byelection. Pyne has passed none of his much-touted reforms and will be gone at the next election."

    A double prediction! You beauty! Stopped clocks and all that ...

    It is amazing that the people Abbott has surrounded himself with as his support base, people who like him yearn for a return to supposedly simpler times in the past, are so out of touch with modern Australia that they guarantee his political death.

    Equally incredible is the way Abbott's words are the polar opposite of reality. The latest example came this morning when asked why anyone would support this dreadful government. He replied: 'stability, competence and political integrity'. The mind boggles.

    Again, this is nothing new, Abbott has always done this ie identify a weakness and simply state that the opposite is true. 'We mean what we say and we say what we mean' is another example. He's been doing it his whole life, he's the Humpty Dumpty of Australian politics, yet journalists continue to let him get away with it.

  8. Jeez this blog is always the smartest writing on Australian politics...anywhere. There is nobody else with either the political intelligence or the guts to come close to this stuff. All power to you Andrew, always a great read.

    1. Dorothy Parker Loon Pond comes close, but from a more comedic angle.

  9. underestimate Abbott's penchant for a fight & also the gullibility of your average punter at your peril. voters bought the three word slogans and scare campaign last time and may well do so again. and Abbott (the PM of the Opposition) is a very skilled politician, strong on politics but no idea on policy..I wouldn't pop the bubbly just yet I'm afraid.

  10. The dilemma for Morrison and his supporters is that IMHO Tony Abbott will never concede the leadership and the Prime Ministership mid-term. The LNP will not remove a sitting PM, not after Rudd/Gillard/Rudd, and Abbott reminds them of it regularly.
    They cannot afford to wait another 12 months as the government is already terminal in voters minds. Even an extreme bad result in the Canning by-election, ie a loss to Labor, would not be enough to remove Abbott, and any moves against him will continually come up against the obstacle of the fear and loathing caused by the removal of a sitting PM.
    An irresistible force is being applied to an immovable object.
    I think the LNP will cling to Abbott in the hope he will lift them in the election campaign, and in the desperate hope some Labor scandal, some national security emergency will pull the public behind them.
    Does Morrison think he could successfully remove Tony Abbott and replace him, hold the party together afterwards and then go on to beat Shorten in 12 months? I doubt it, but he is delusional.

    1. That is the dilemma, ain't it? They all know that the ALP and even the press gallery will have an absolute field day, an entire field WEEK, with a first-term PM getting it in the neck. All the old quotes about leadership chaos will already be queued up on stand-by.

      The question for the party caucus is at what point "getting rid of Abbott" a big enough plus to outweigh the "we just did what we spent 5 years lambasting Labor for doing" minus.

      They also need a contender to decide that moving is an advantage for them personally, and not just for the party. That is easier than it sounds. All of them will take being PM now, for 12 months, with an electoral loss they can blame on Abbott, over an uncertain future. That is actually an argument for the contenders moving sooner rather than later. The earlier you move, the longer you get to be PM and the more chance you have to bury his mistakes and try to present a clean slate to the voters. ESPECIALLY if you're Malcolm Turnbull and the hell you're going to sit through 3 years of opposition to a first term government in the hope of winning back the Lodge- it's now or never for Malcolm.

  11. You mentioned "Abbott cipher" Chris Uhlmann. I have been sputtering and fuming about this second-rater for some time. If this chump is the ABC's senior political correspondent, what does it say about ABC's journalistic depth? Those who are served up to us as political commentators - inexperienced non entities like Jane Norman, and Eliza Birello, or never has-beens like the all-froth-no-substance and immensely smug Annabel Crabb - reveal the total inadequacy of the once reliable ABC. We are being sold short by the ABC - just how did this state of affairs come about?