06 February 2008

Sunlight is the best disinfectant

The "tough guys" of the Liberal Party's right wing have operated in the shadows before the rise of the Howard Government and during it. Now that they are in the public eye their power is bound to diminish.

The so-called National Right is built upon three individuals: Nick Minchin from Adelaide, Eric Abetz from Tasmania and David Clarke from Sydney. Before he imploded you'd include Santo Santoro in that, but these days nobody wants to include Santoro in that or anything else. All of them built their powerbases within the Liberal Party by shunning contact with the media, and dissolving the standing of well-meaning but insecure Liberals with abuse, branch-stacking and nonco-operation with people whom party loyalty would normally oblige them to co-operate. All have a record of replacing diverse and interesting individuals within the Liberal Party who are capable, but who are disdainful or neutral toward them, with people who are totally loyal to them but who are capable of little beyond such blind loyalty.

The Liberal Party is weaker for the influence of the National Right. The process of replacing diverse but capable people with drones has buggered that Party in WA and Queensland - the nation's two fastest-growing states - and Victoria is on the same track. They will smooth the dying pillow across the faces of the Liberal Party in their states too, if they have their way.

Minchin was State Director of the South Australian Division of the Liberal Party for a decade, a period largely coinciding with a longterm Labor government. Labor gradually sent SA to the dogs throughout the 1980s but the Liberals Minchin put up were so unimpressive that Croweaters kept voting Labor, and so Labor kept stuffing the state. Having the Liberals put SA onto a secure footing would have required the cultivation of diverse and sensible Liberal candidates for state parliament, more responsibility than Minchin was prepared to bear.

South Australians only voted Liberal when the credibility of Labor had completely collapsed. Dean Brown stood up to Minchin to win in 1992, much as NSW's two Liberal Premiers realised the party officials were more hindrance than help in winning state government. Minchin got his revenge by rolling Brown and replacing him with a mannequin from the window of John Martin's, a proven loser whose only talent was loyalty to Minchin and whose only achievement was to turn an enormous Liberal majority in the state of Playford into a deficit.

Minchin was a prime mover behind WorkChoices. Howard and Costello bear some blame, but it was Minchin who pushed it with the Coalition Senate majority from 2005. Whatever your feelings about that legislation, it would have brought together ideological purity and smart politics if business had trumpeted this legislation and rushed to support the Liberal Party. Instead, business shunned it and donations dried up: Howard was reduced to begging publicly for the business community to put its money where his mouth was. This was appalling political strategy, and should have destroyed Minchin's reputation.

Today the Liberal Party in SA is a shambles, exactly as Nick Minchin wants it. The state parliamentary party has no capable people to choose from and no people capable of recognising such a person should they slip past Minchin. It has no capacity to appeal to marginal seats in order to win state government from the PR dolly currently running that state, however much this frustrates committed Liberals, or South Australians wanting an improvement in public policy that doesn't happen in a political monopoly. Federally, as long as Minchin is at the top of the ticket he doesn't care who else gets elected: the known limits off Downer, the textbook-case hack Southcott, and the minor irritant of Chris Pyne (you can't win 'em all, and a useful foil against accusations of Stalinist control).

Now that he's the guy who threw Brendan Nelson in the deep end, Minchin should receive more scrutiny from journalists, beyond just an anonymous source for bitchy quotes about his colleagues. His tin ear for politics has even seen Abbott and Heffernan support the Stolen Generation apology, but Minchin remains convinced it's bad for business and no actual evidence will convince him otherwise. Evidence is for those who can't bluff, and Minchin's self-image is of a master bluffer. Nelson should call Minchin, and would be a stronger leader for doing so, but instead he's dancing with who brung him and looks like going home early.

Eric Abetz helped undermine the last most recent Liberal government in Tasmania. Like a Tassie Devil he screeches and scratches in the dark, but is timid and vulnerable whenever the spotlight is turned on him. His Santamaria/Reverend Lovejoy intonationnnns are ridiculous and he's slow on his feet in interviews and in Senate repartee. It is hard to believe that he's effective as a backroom operator, and repeated public exposure will only make him less so.

Abetz's performance over the closure of the perpetually unprofitable vehicle factory at Tonsley Park was indescribably silly. He wanted to imply that the Liberals would not have allowed it to close and that their hearts bled for soon-to-be-displaced workers. This is the sort of policy that the Fraser government practised as core business, the sort of policy that rightwingers have decried bitterly for a generation: and now here's one of their own doing his best impersonation of Ian Macphee or Tony Street.

Industry Minister Senator Kim Carr is a weak link in the Rudd Government. John Button he ain't: Carr is a shrill leftwinger whose antipathy for capitalism often slips out, the sort of person rarely found more than three blocks from Lygon Street. With Abetz shadowing him, however, Carr is safe. So much for the idea that rightwingers are more formidable opponents to Labor than moderates.

It suits Labor to have such dolts running the Liberal Party, puppetmasters who are themselves muppets. This is particularly important in the Senate, where the changed composition after 1 July will require the building of cross-party agreements in order to get legislation through. Minchin and Abetz sneered at the sort of compromises Robert Hill had to make to get legislation through, but in a similar position themselves they will have less success.

The evils of David Clarke have been covered in this blog and elsewhere, and while Clarke remains in the shadows his influence is no less malign in both state and federal politics. Barry O'Farrell has to take on an ineffective state administration and a membership stuffed with too many Clarke placemen for it to rally to the appeal of victory that Askin fostered in the '60s and Greiner in the '80s. When the Coalition lost NSW state government in 1995, the apathy at the meeting of State Council immediately afterwards was palpable.

Federally, we are more likely to see voter-repellent candidates like Alex Hawke and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells than the sorts of people who might craft an appealing post-Howard Liberal Party as a vehicle for governing state and nation. Clarke runs the Sydney branch office of National Right, vital to little-staters like Minchin and Abetz in order to magnify their importance, and hence all the more important for the Liberal Party to eradicate as a prophylactic to future success.

The responsibility for stuffing the state divisions ultimately comes down to John Howard. Howard saw that powerful Premiers with secure powerbases in the states, like Bolte, Askin, Bjelke-Petersen and Brand, could stand up to a weak Prime Minister and bully the occupant out of the power of his office. It is a weakness of both biographies of John Howard (that dull fiasco by Barnett/Goward and the somewhat better Errington/van Onselen effort) that they don't explore this.

When the Liberal Party gets tired of losing, it will get tired of these jokers. Their power, and hopefully their commitment, will fade once their silly utterances receive both close and wide scrutiny. For a generation they have worked toward the sort of model of rightwing government that has already failed under George W. Bush. The idea that they are working toward the realisation of such a government in Australia - like Howard, but more so - is ridiculous. It'll never happen, but it keeps them going. It may have helped Brendan Nelson become leader of the Liberal Party, but it's an even greater hindrance (insurmountable in Nelson's case) to him becoming Prime Minister. Several Liberal MPs are going to lose their seats as a result of the muppet show that is the National Right.

Given that the National Right is doomed, the question is: what terrible beauty will follow? Those who were protégés of the hapless moderates that gave us Howard will be the beneficiaries of any collapse of the National Right in terms of controlling and driving the Liberal Party vehicle where they will, but like so many dogs chasing a car you have to despair for what would happen if they caught it.

Update 8 Feb: Minchin loses it. As a former Finance Minister, the best Minchin could have hoped for was the sort of job Turnbull had 15 years ago. In Adelaide. Now, if there was only one such job going it would go to Alexander Downer before him. A dinosaur waiting for extinction.


  1. It's such a shame that Nelson is abandoning all that good real liberalism he came into parliament with. I always admired Nelson for openly acknowledging aboriginal people as the traditional owners. Now though, his performance over the apology was classic flip flop and just makes Turnbull look all that more credible. You think there's any chance Nelson will get his groove back?

  2. I did too, and no. They say you should start as you intend to go on. Nelson's 'open, consultative' thing is on the wrong side between having an open mind and an empty one.