For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.The Liberal right are convinced they can trash the Turnbull government in the same way that they trashed the Rudd and Gillard governments. They might just be able to do it, but if they do the Liberal Party forfeits its position as a party of government.
- Newton's Third Law of Motion
Our notoriously obtuse press gallery thinks it detects a "stoush" or a "split", but there's more going on here: a wholesale redefinition of the Liberal Party. The Liberal right like it the way it is - small, ageing, reactionary, and with its liver-spotted hands on the levers of government, jamming the gears and sending things into reverse wherever possible.
I doubt Turnbull's progressive instincts, and his political competence. While it is unlikely he will transform the Liberal Party single-handedly it is possible that he could unleash reforming forces beyond his control, similar to those who made it to the top of eastern European Communist regimes in the late 1980s. No-one else in the Liberal Party is remotely capable of this. This is why Turnbull is the Liberal right's worst nightmare. This is why they're arcing up: they face losing control of the Liberal Party if Turnbull, and people like Mike Baird, succeed.
Working with smart peopleWhat follows here sounds like some sort of paean to the corporate sector of the sort you might see from Ayn Rand or Pamela Williams. That isn't my intention. I'm trying to show how certain people seem to think and follow those thoughtlines to (what seems like) their logical conclusion.
In the late 1990s, when the Chinese mining boom was starting to take off, Malcolm Turnbull was head of Goldman Sachs Australia and Julie Bishop was managing partner of the Perth office of law firm Clayton Utz. These people worked on big deals with tough, clever people, capable of nuanced thought and thinking several steps ahead. These are people who would rather pay a skilled worker $300k to get a mine up and running rather than play silly-buggers with self-defeating nonsense like zero-hours contracts.
Turnbull and Bishop want to work with people of that calibre again. They know those people, they get them to donate and otherwise keep them involved, but capable people like that laugh at the very prospect of going into parliament, playing silly shouty games and having to account to journalists for ever time you breathe in and out. The Liberal Party says that it wants to attract such people, but it has rarely succeeded; it tends to attract those who would never cut it at the top end of town, big-firm droputs, small businesspeople for whom an employee payrise comes from their own pockets, or staffers who can talk fluent corporatese but who don't really get it.
When Turnbull was leader in 2008-09 he wanted to attract clever, capable people into government. Corporate careers became shaky and the importance of effective politics became obvious to all: if ever you were going to get capable people from the corporate sector into politics, that was the time to do it. These are people who understand large-scale, complex thinking and get things done. The Liberal Party foisted Chris Kenny and Peta Credlin into his office to stifle any far-reaching ideas, and they largely succeeded. As Turnbull's star faded in 2009 he was less convincing in attracting capable people from the private sector, at the very time the Liberal Party was starting to open preselections for the 2010 election.
Working with dumb peopleWhen Abbott took over, the Liberal Party responded enthusiastically by preselecting people compatible with Abbott: people who could recite their lines, recite their lines, people who weren't particularly fussed about the big issues or making things happen, but boy could they recite their lines. People like Eric Abetz and Peter Dutton came to campaign for them, and the candidates who won thought people like Abetz, Dutton and Abbott were what the Liberal Party were all about. This was reinforced in 2013, by which time Abbott had set the tempo of national politics. If you couldn't bear all that empty, obnoxious horseshit that lay at the heart of almost everything he did, then you simply didn't join (or stay in) the Liberal Party let alone run for preselection. The Liberal Party was dumbed down to the point where it could be controlled by people like Abbott, Credlin, and Loughnane.
What sort of person looks up to people like Abetz, Dutton and Abbott? The sort of person of such limited capacity they make Jaymes Diaz look like Demosthenes, i.e. many Liberal Party office bearers and candidates.
Big businesses dealt with Abbott and his team before 2013 to discuss what they wanted from government, and what they weren't getting from Gillard-Rudd and their team(s). The deal big business does with politicians is that they provide money to political campaigns and align their messaging, so that the politicians in question appear 'economically responsible' to journalists employed by big businesses. In return, politicians don't explicitly promise to deliver on specific reforms, but they do offer the public relations skills to present pro-business reforms as in the public interest.
Before the 2013 election the Abbott-led Coalition linked the abolition of carbon and mining taxes to voters' household incomes; this was dishonest but nobody in the corporate sector or the media called them out. Insofar as the Abbott government had a reform agenda, it was either not raised or denied before the 2013 election and again business and the media played along. When Labor and some NGOs did call them out they were mostly ignored. By the time they came to light in 2014, they were unattached from any wider reform agenda and from the prevailing economic conditions at the time. No thought had been given to selling policies that disproportionately affected low-income earners, and whose impact on measures like debt, deficits, and business confidence was negligible. The government's political leverage was trashed.
Pro-business reform has no hope when it is presented as benefitting big business only, and having zero to no benefit for employees and the community as a whole. Chifley's bank nationalisation proposals failed in the High Court. This failure was compounded when the banks successfully presented the proposals as detrimental to the community as a whole and synchronised their messaging with the Liberal Party: Chifley's government was replaced, the banks remained as free enterprises, the Liberals won government and held it. Despite decades of 'professionalism' in communications strategy, this remains the gold standard of Liberal-business co-operation to win public support.
Abbott promised to introduce a raft of fairly limited reforms, tax cuts and reduced environmental restrictions and the like. He failed because his politics skills sucked. The media kept saying he had great media skills, but he couldn't really explain why he did things, and they couldn't articulate why he was so great at media. He expected his edicts to have authority in themselves; contemporary CEOs know that they need extensive change management programs to make internal changes, and they assumed the Liberal Party knew what it was doing. The media were wrong about Abbott's media skills, and if Tony Abbott wasn't good at media then what was he good at/for?
Business came through with their side of the bargain (campaign donations, synchronisation of communications between corporate umbrella groups and Liberals), but the Liberals did not (public acceptance of pro-business reforms, enactment of those reforms into law). This is the reverse of the situation with WorkChoices, where business expressed support for the reforms but deserted the Liberals once they enacted them.
The Liberal-business relationship is pretty unproductive in policy terms. It succeeds only as a measure of donations to the Coalition parties. Business hasn't really considered whether it is asking too much of the Coalition (e.g. are penalty rates really inhibiting productivity? Do lax environmental regulations stifle efficiency?). Coalition MPs today lack Menzies' smooth touch in knowing when and how to push back on reforms that cannot succeed.
Representing corporate manoeuvres as being in the public interest is hard. It requires an understanding of intended and unintended consequences of reforms, a deep understanding of government, and being in touch with communities to an extent that polling and focus groups can only hint at. I am starting to believe Abbott did his best to deliver for business; I have always believed that his level best was never good enough. I remain amazed that professional journalists who are paid to observe politics up close for decades couldn't tell political shit from chocolate, but don't get me started ...
Might as well jumpCory Bernardi has courted money and tactics from the Tea Party in the US for many years, threatening to leave the Liberal Party. The Tea Party's evangelical wing is fading and nothing but racism seems to keep it going in 2015-16. Economic resentments seem to be fading with a recovering economy, less readily translated into racism than in previous eras. US rightwing politicians who had been notorious Kochsuckers (funded by the disclosure-resistant Koch brothers) find their supply of funding drying up.
Bernardi is a former SA State President of the Liberal Party and was preselected at the top of the Liberal Senate ticket at the last election. He knows that a Liberal Senator who leaves the party robs the party of significant funding and other entitlements, earning the enmity of hardworking Liberals who underwrote the privilege he now enjoys. In 2013 he wrote a fatuous book (no I won't link to it) from which he was supposed to launch his political independence, but you have to sell books for that to work. Now he's taken the phrase "Liberal Party" off his social media profile - *yawn*.
If he's going to leave the Liberal Party, like Bob Day did, he may as well join Day's Family First - but it won't be big enough for the two of them. He couldn't join forces with Pauline Hanson or Clive Palmer for the same reason. If he wants to run his own show, why doesn't he just wear the slings and arrows and step off the mothership? People start small businesses every day, and Bernardi likes to think he champions such people - but it is almost painful watching someone talk so tough and yet pussyfoot around when time comes to take a meaningful stand.
Cory, buddy, I left the Liberal Party before there was social media in any meaningful form. I didn't just change my social media profile or hide behind Andrew Bolt, whimpering "this time for sure". I wrote to the State Director and told everyone I knew that I was taking the step. Some tried to get me to stay, which was nice, but nobody can or does claim I was dithering like you are. There was much, much less at stake with my departure from the Liberal Party - where's the leadership you found lacking in Abbott, and now Turnbull? Stop being so gutless and just take the leap. Join the 'ferals' who are more your kind of people anyway - or else, get in behind the Turnbull government. You could have a meaningful role in building bridges between the government and the crossbenches - but to do that you'd have to get over yourself.
Bernardi discredits Seselja and other conservatives so long as he neither fully commits to the Liberal Party nor strikes out on his own. He is the sort of dilettante the rightwing accuse moderates of being. If the Liberal Party is really and truly this conservative redoubt, why is Bernardi heading toward the exits? Can he really do better, and at what? When will be the perfect time for him to take the bold step around which he has minced for so long?
If Malcolm Turnbull can take on a sitting PM after Question Time on Monday, and be the PM at Question Time on Tuesday, you can do it! If that milquetoast Nick Xenophon can start his own party, why can't you? Silent majority got your tongue? You're tougher and smarter than Turnbull or Day or Xenophon. You can take Seselja with you, and John Ruddick (see below). Jump, Cory, jump! You didn't want respect and influence within a major party anyway, did you?
A new peopleTurnbull is likely to appoint more women in his ministry today and otherwise represent the government as making a fresh start. This might attract people who had held off joining the Liberal Party at all, let alone run for preselection, had Abbott remained as leader. Turnbull won't be able to shift the party much, but one or two high-profile recruits could change the way Liberal Party sees itself.
John Ruddick is one of those conservatives who likes the Liberal Party just fine the way it is. His piece this week, and again back in February shows another conservative desperate to head off reform, even to the point of appearing as a moderniser clearing out 'archaic' practices - whatever it takes, anything but fresh blood that might reinvigorate the Liberal Party and take it from the hands of high achievers like John Ruddick.
A political party is always different after it has held government. When a party returns to opposition it's wounded and good people give up on it. Those who harbour and foster resentments, like Ruddick and his mentor, former plaintiff lawyer David Clarke, hold the whip hand. Barry O'Farrell had to fight people like that to get the Liberals ready for NSW government in 2011, and Mike Baird fights them still.
In Victoria and Queensland, defeated Liberals have brought back old hands like Michael Kroger and Laurence Springborg rather than take any more risks that might not pay off. These people will turn narrow losses into routs at the next election because risk-aversion and resentment are the very qualities that killed the former Coalition governments in those states. A backbiting, infighting party keeps the incumbents at the top and that's just how they like it. In South Australia, Steven Marshall wants to be a winner but just can't take on the dead weight of a party that doesn't really want to win and wouldn't know what to do with state government if Labor dropped it into their laps. In WA the party has a vicious reputation for infighting despite near unanimity on policy - staunchly conservative, low taxes.
Preselections for the 2016 election are opening soon. Those who control an ageing, stagnant party use preselections as prizes where they can, making "captain's picks" that flatter a candidate without necessarily offering voters a good choice for election. Turnbull has pledged to avoid captain's picks but nor is he someone who suffers fools, despite their abundance atop the party he now leads. He's not as skilled in party fights like O'Farrell, and he doesn't have the time and lack of media scrutiny O'Farrell had in state opposition.
A candidate who was courted by Turnbull and fast-tracked into preselection would edge out some long-serving hack who had built up credit with people like John Ruddick. When they lose, they'll grizzle to people like Ruddick, who will write another piece for The Guardian on how unfair it is that interlopers are taking our jobs, fuelling the very resentment he would claim to relieve.
Once you understand Ruddick's Liberal nativism, you can see how the asylum-seeker debate is both a simple case of projection, and an existential threat to the perpetually resentful. Ruddick was a good mate of Michael Towke; people who think Scott Morrison is from the far right of our politics should take a closer look at this man and those behind him.
A quick response to Anika GaujaThis piece by Anika Gauja on why Australian political parties turn over leaders so often is well considered and worth reading.
Her contention that leadership ballots involving party members slows down leadership churn is negated by the experience of the Australian Democrats in its final decade. It is also negated by the experiences of the Liberal Party under Malcolm Fraser (six years without being challenged for the leadership) and John Howard (twelve), where rules on leadership challenges were scarecely different to those under which Abbott both rose and fell.
Before social media, Australia had a rich history of political activism outside political parties. Political parties followed rather than led campaigns on major social and political issues such as women's suffrage, alcohol licensing, conscription in World War I, counting Indigenous people in the census, euthanasia, and a republic. What social media has done is make organising faster. It is paradoxical that a party-room ballot can be organised in a few hours while a membership-wide ballot takes months, and yet neither relies on social media.
Political leaders today are feeling the strain of outsourcing their needs to engage the community to the broadcast media, which is increasingly inadequate for the purpose, while social media in its current form cannot support the political class (and leaders thereof) in the manner to which they have become accustomed. We see this not in the speed in which leadership contests take place, but in the parties' ability to rationalise leadership changes after the event:
- Labor failed to adequately explain why Kevin Rudd had to be replaced as Prime Minister in June 2010.
- The press gallery claimed that Labor would have more credibility with Rudd as leader than Gillard. When Rudd replaced Gillard in June 2013 his forebodings about an Abbott government were ignored.
- In February 2015 Abbott promised there'd be no more captain's picks, and "good government". The press gallery, again, took him at his word.
- The downfall of Abbott last week was different to Rudd's downfall because the policy dysfunction in Abbott's office was examined more clearly than that of Rudd, where commentary was reduced to a he-said-she-said interpersonal spat (reinforced in The Killing Season).
- There is an element of sexism about the roles played by Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop in recent leadership ballots that was not present in examinations of their no-less-implicated male colleagues, which affects the way women engage with traditional political processes.
The zombies that ate CanberraOne or two high-profile candidates could give a defensive, unimaginative party a glimpse of what relevance to an attractive, tangible future for this country might look like. Turnbull might not be capable of that. The rightwing might hem him in to the point where he can present Abbott's policies in a slightly more oily way, in which case he's finished.
There is no civil war in the Liberal Party. Turnbull won fair and square, and decisively. Abbott is no more able to return to the leadership than Harold Holt. What you have is a bunch of political zombies roaming around offering nothing, with that nothing being breathlessly quoted by the press gallery. Nihilistic sooks do not deserve equal time. If we've learned one thing from Abbott's period as leader, we've learned that you can't quote the incoherent howls of the pointlessly outraged and then wonder why public debate has become so debased (well, everybody outside the press gallery seems to have learned that).
Turnbull is the Prime Minister of Australia and should be able to prevail over backroom heroes like Ruddick. The Liberal Party would be stupidly self-indulgent to choose Ruddick or Seselja over Turnbull. Evatt and Calwell failed to tackle the backroom boys, hence failed to become Prime Minister; Whitlam succeeded at both and underlined the importance of both. Howard dealt with the backroomers in 1995-96, which Ruddick witnessed up close (and Turnbull didn't). If Turnbull can't take on the backroom operators he has no business being Prime Minister, and the Liberal Party's key value proposition as one of two major parties providing responsible and representative government is pretty much forfeit.