22 April 2008

Stoop to conquer

What the Liberals need to do federally is to ditch aspects of Howard's intellectual and moral inertia while preserving above all else his reputation for economic competence.

The question of leadership is, who can best do this?

The current leader, Brendan Nelson, is not the man to shake up anyone or anything. Once the patient is stabilised and able to sign out of hospital, the services of the doctor should be dispensed with. This is not to say that the guy should be treated like rubbish and that any opinion he may have in future must be ignored, as is the case with John Hewson or Mark Latham.

The Liberal Party has alternative leaders. They just need to do some work first, rather than just thrust themselves forward. Anyone who thrust themselves forward before doing the necessary work can expect - and will deserve - what awaits Nelson.

Costello has the experience and the credentials, as Matthew Franklin points out, it is fair to accuse him of a Beazley-like lack of ticker. The test for him will ultimately be, of all things, a trawl back through his own life.
SENIOR Liberals are bracing for a political storm after learning that former treasurer Peter Costello will publish his memoirs.

"I think he will regret it for the rest of his life," a former member of the Liberal's federal executive said today.

Here Christian Kerr is thinking like a Liberal government staffer, back from the days when there were Liberal governments. He wouldn't have had to hunt far to find an old fart who thinks that it is always better for the Liberal boat to be tied to a wharf and accumulating barnacles than for it to be rocked.

It will be a sign of ticker for Costello to come out with a memoir that, if not a barbaric yawp, doesn't hesistate to tell timid souls like this to get fucked. Coleman can lend intellectual depth to such an enterprise but it is Costello who must take charge of it, have the book reflect both his life and forward thinking in a way that Coleman cannot deliver alone. A good memoir could be a platform for Costello. A poor one will confirm him as gutless and snide, remainder-bin fodder like The Abnegation of a Young Dickhead.

The next Liberal Prime Minister will be someone who will put the party organisation in a position where it supports rather than hinders the political leadership. This is what John Howard was able to do in 1995-96, and it is why he and not Peacock, Hewson or Downer led the Liberals to victory.

If you can't reshape the Liberal Party into a lean, mean fighting machine, at least you can push its most cumbersome features out of the way. Who has the clout to do that?

Costello comes from Victoria and likes that state's dysfunctional division full of nobodies just the way it is. He is not going to rip through the Victorian division, nor any other. If the memoirs really do provide a wake-up call, he'll have to dump some courtiers. Because he can't offer government bounty, his only choice is to push people into the cold. Failing that, Costello could end up like John West toward the end of Power Without Glory, despairing that he's surrounded by numbskulls.

It is NSW where there is greatest potential for reform, and where there are more seats that the Liberals need to win than in Victoria. There are three potential leaders there, and the first one to throw themselves into reforming the state division of the Liberal Party will position themselves as the next Liberal Prime Minister.

Malcolm Turnbull is the lynchpin of the Liberals' economic credibility and must not be moved from the shadow treasury. Swan is weak and, if he puts in a poor performance in the Budget, it is Turnbull who should run him down and claim his scalp (Rudd can't and won't keep his old Nambour mate on if he lets the side down) - as Shadow Treasurer.

One of the good things about a quote within a Malcolm Colless article is that it reveals sharper judgement than Colless:
"Malcolm and his backers should realise that he doesn't have the numbers at present," one senior Liberal said in a not too subtle shot at indigenous affairs spokesman Tony Abbott. "The cold reality for them is that neither the party nor the electorate is ready for Malcolm yet," he added.


Turnbull can't and won't get down with Liberals in branches outside his electorate. He'd be happy to sweep through in a cloud of quips and bombast, but connecting with banal people and their banal lives will be too much of a grind. He can't and won't deign to treat David Clarke as someone worthy of his time and effort, nor will he have the base within the party to do to him what he did to Peter King.

Tony Abbott is not ready to take over from Turnbull as Shadow Treasurer. He's struggling as Shadow Minister for Families, Families, Families, Centrelink, the Northern Territory Intervention and Families. The RU486 debacle signalled that Abbott was not a rival to Costello for the leadership, and that judgement increasingly looks vindicated.

Abbott is uncomfortable about being a wholly-owned subsidiary of David Clarke and the Taliban, but that's where he is. Abbott lacks the guts to beard that lion is his den. He could embrace the Selig reforms and present himself as an honest broker - but the Taliban hates apostasy and the moderates hate him even more. He'd be crushed, and there's no point in a broker who's broken - and sometimes, as Nelson shows, you can be so "broke" that you can't be fixed.

Joe Hockey has form with reviewing the Liberal Party's structure, having participated in one such in the early '90s chaired by John Valder. Hockey is a moderate factional warrior and the smarter minds on the right can see him coming. Nonetheless, he could develop clout and gravitas in this process. He knows the structure of the NSW division and where the bodies are buried.

Reforming the NSW branch would be hard and dirty work, the sort of job likely to make or break a politician. Yet, in its current state it is an obstacle to government at state, federal and possibly even local level. Like Hercules emerging from the Augean stables, it is the sort of thing that could establish a leader on the national stage - someone well placed to make the most of opportunities when the Rudd Government loses its sparkle, and when mighty mountains of the contemporary landscape become spent volcanoes.
In the Liberal Party, battle lines are clearly being drawn between the executive and parliamentary wings. In NSW, the hardline right-wing faction, which exercises enormous influence at a state and federal level, is determined to resist the reform model being pushed by the party's president, Geoff Selig, which it brands as undemocratic. And it will be interesting to see whether Selig is still the state president at the end of the year.

The Right rejects claims it is being driven by self-interest that is unrepresentative of the Liberal constituency and is therefore holding back the party's electoral prospects. It argues that instead of demonising the factions, the party should publicly acknowledge their existence and their role in its operating structure.

It's Colless' job to investigate claims like that, not take them on face value. Stackers can't complain about being "undemocratic". He can't just accept a threat to Selig's position (a sign of what'd happen to Abbott if he stood up to them). The Taliban are not a factor to be managed; they are a noxious force bent on killing the host organism. You don't manage that, you stand up to it and kill it off.
Labor, which has a bitter history of the destructive effects of internal factional warfare, has in recent times been able to portray the factions as a benign influence in the party.

This was nowhere more obvious than in the public announcement by Rudd that he, and not the factions - as had traditionally been the case - would determine his ministry, even if his choices effectively reflected factional preferences.

Once again, Colless has undermined the premise of his article. Rudd's ability to choose his own ministry was a defeat for factionalism, not a vindication of it.

David Clarke has to realise that he is landfill for the Liberal Party's road to victory. The sooner he realises it the better, and the better for the one able to confront him with that realisation.

As to Queensland, that's just too hard. There is a case for a unique solution there. It may include Mal Brough, unless the NT intervention is so completely reframed that he looks like a throwback. Please, though, spare the Queensland coalition crocodile tears like this. One can have too many Queenslanders, just as a generation ago there was an unnecessary number of Victorians running things, and an unhealthy (and unproductive) concentration of South Australians in the Howard cabinet.

The least likely of these potential leaders, Hockey, is best placed to take the indirect but surest path to the Lodge. It won't be quick and it won't be easy. Only dills like Minchin think there's some alternative to deep and broad reform (such that might tip his minions out of rotten boroughs in NSW, Tasmania and SA). They need to be isolated and either starved into submission, or else become ridiculous like those bedraggled Japanese soldiers who stayed in the Pacific after ignoring their Emperor's order to surrender.
In the end, a dose of old-fashioned, Labor-style federal intervention may be what is needed. But, alas for the Liberals, their constitution does not permit such roughhouse tactics.

Not while the Federal Liberals are full of clueless goobers like Loughnane and Minchin. The NSW Liberals have to reform themselves from within. So do the Vics, and the Queenslanders, and those from the other states too. The next Liberal Prime Minister will have to stoop to the rubber chicken circuit of Liberal branches before taking on and beating Rudd.

All very well for some

There is a case to be made for Peter Costello to write his memoirs in his own time on his own equipment, and he will have to answer to the voters of Higgins for how well he does that. His leader failed to make that case, and also made it harder to present a case for government:
"I mean, for goodness sake, Peter Costello has served Australia in public life for 18 years.

"His family has made enormous sacrifices.

"Has he earned his right to write his memoirs?

"You're damn right he has," Dr Nelson said.

None of the above represent any sort of justification. They are the sort of things you say to placate a party room which has slowly built a sense of entitlement which has been quickly ripped away. He is not the only long-serving public servant in the country, nor is his the only family which has made enormous sacrifices.

If he gets this, he might make it to Prime Minister - but he only seems able to truckle to a party room of wounded souls (I'm referring to Nelson, but this could also apply to Costello). A Liberal vision for government and those who work in it is sorely needed.

21 April 2008

2020 Summit

Bit early to tell, eh? It was interesting that the creatives finally succumbed to the language of economics in talking about "creative output". Disappointing absence of preparation beforehand, top-of-the-head banalities have won out.

18 April 2008

Bloody battle

Dennis Shanahan made himself a laughing stock last year when, in the face of consistent polling showing that the Howard government could not win, insisted that they could and would do so. Now, as the contrarian of the press gallery, the man who zigs while others zag, Shanahan has taken on Brendan Nelson as his pet project. This is all very well, until you see that this "political editor" has no actual idea about politics.
Colleagues and commentators refer to him as incompetent, contradictory, too emotional, failing to make any impact, lacking leadership and someone whose time is up. In the circumstances, he's all of those things and appears to have won only another stay of execution until July.

At this point, a real political journalist would round on those who put this 21st Century Snedden into the role, and ask them what the hell they were thinking.
... Nelson is not the Liberals' chief leadership problem. The biggest leadership problem the Coalition faces is Kevin Rudd ... Rudd's ascendancy is not going to be overturned overnight because the Liberals change leaders, no matter where they turn.

Well put. The Liberals can, however, choose a leader with credibility.
The Coalition's primary vote has also recovered to 35 per cent after it slumped to a record low 31 per cent following Rudd's parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations.

In other words, a slight uptick (dead cat bounce?) only just outside the margin for error.
Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan rub their hands in warm anticipation of a Peter Costello leadership as they discuss the Liberals' future while nestled in the Lodge.

That's all very well, but it assumes that Rudd and Swan have more credibility than they actually do. They are not yet in a position to knock Costello out of the running, and they must surely know it. Swan should be able to eclipse Costello's economic record in a single term, but his shaky start raises doubts about this.
Labor MPs finger a file on Turnbull's involvement in HIH before it collapsed. Mark Latham went there once before and was threatened with legal action, but a political campaign aimed at an Opposition leader can be all smear and innuendo without actually proving anything or risking defamation.

Would that be similar to the Coalition file on Gillard before the last election? Turnbull can cut his way through a smear campaign.
It's also worth noting that despite the general dismissal of Nelson as a loser, the ALP has not assumed he won't be around and does not let an opportunity pass to slice and dice the Opposition Leader's position. The scrupulous attention to Nelson's homespun performance does not sound like a Government happy to keep him in the leader's chair.

It sounds like a government not willing to take any chances, not complacent - in other words, a government led by Kevin Rudd. For Labor, dispatching Nelson quickly is part of overall momentum and knocking the Liberals off their game.
The manner of the removal is also likely to send Liberal fortunes south once more (at least further south), because dreams of a bloodless coup are just dreams.

Alexander Downer was a lot more pugnacious and stubborn than Nelson, and he knew what it meant when Birnam Wood started moving.
Why should Nelson suddenly decide one night to turn up his toes and hand the leadership to someone else? Nelson has been given a thankless and almost impossible task ... He's copped heaps, a lot of it justified, but he's also been operating to an overall strategy so that the Liberals can shift policy direction towards the end of the year with some credibility when they say they have been listening.

If there is a massive Nelson constituency on the back bench, it isn't large and it will evaporate under the relentless barrage of poor polling. Rudd beat Beazley for the Labor leadership by a whisker in December 2006: try and find a Labor person today who still pines for Beazley. Beazley, like Howard, spent his whole life in the party he came to lead: Nelson is still a Johnny-come-lately who's had all his organisational problems fixed for him.

People like Minchin will stand by Nelson so long as he preserves the Howard agenda in aspic. Once Nelson starts to walk away from the shibboleths in search of new votes, he'll be taking risks and wandering into a political no-man's-land; once that happens, he's a goner.
It may not be the common wisdom but it's certainly possible Nelson will still be Liberal leader after July, because more Liberals may come to realise they have to stop fighting over an empty prize, just as they did for the last year of government, and face Rudd, the real problem, with new policies.

Whether it is or isn't common wisdom is beside the point. It isn't sensible that Nelson would continue in the Liberal leadership completely denuded of credibility. I reckon our Den wants to be the journalist of choice for the current Liberal leader, the only one who doesn't snigger when he rings Nelson's office.

The Liberals could develop all the policies they liked, and complain about the performance of Rudd every time he slips - but if they have no credibility they are tinkling bells and clattering cymbals. That's what they are, that's all they are, and they underestimate how long and how much it will take to change.

17 April 2008

The worst job

The worst jobs involve saving people from themselves, an insistence that their interests differ from their thoughts, words and deeds. These are jobs where all the resources in the world would be too little, and too little resources understates both the nature of the problem and what's needed to fix it.

In Victoria, football Aussie Rules coaches and politicians complain that they have the hardest jobs, but this is a form of contempt for their fans/voters. It implies that their activities are more important than others', when in fact as entertainers/politicians their job is one of service to others.

In this article, Austin shows that David Kemp has failed to learn this central lesson after so many years in and around Australian politics.
'BRENDAN, you've got the worst job in Australia," Victorian Liberal president David Kemp unhelpfully remarked to Brendan Nelson after the Federal Opposition Leader addressed the party's state council meeting at the cavernous Melbourne Convention Centre at the weekend. Nelson was having none of it. "Tony Nutt's about to get that job," he replied, beaming.

So, Tony Nutt's going to work with abused children or other gruesomely injured innocents, is he? Running the Choir of Hard Knocks? Is he going to make [insert poorly-performing sporting team here] win the premiership? No? He's going to do what he's done all his life: put a pillow over the face of vigorous political activity with the aim not of victory, but of getting people to keep stumm.
Here was the besieged Nelson, who hails from the dysfunctional NSW division of the party, suggesting to his Victorian hosts that the bloke trying to run their show had the worst job going.

Given that the Victorian division of the Liberal Party has had less success since 1996 than their NSW counterparts in getting Liberal candidates elected to Parliament, this is a bit rich. Even more so is the knowledge that, having floated into Parliament after a few months as a member of the party, Nelson has been entitled to think that organisational problems solve themselves. Nelson does not even understand organisational politics, let alone have the authority to fix them.
Sheezel went first. "The Liberal Party in Victoria is at the crossroads.

Groan! This is a rightwing cliche. They always say the Liberal Party is at the bloody crossroads. Whenever they find themselves at that crossroads they insist on their right to lead the way despite their consistently poor choice of route.
The 2007 federal election defeat had prompted "honest and brutal" reflection, said the man who has run the Victorian division for five years. The poor Liberal vote could not be dismissed as an aberration, he warned. "It in fact continues the 30 years of poor performances of the Coalition in Victoria."

Sheezel, you tried all the cliches and it didn't work. You tried keeping the ship steady, and it stayed on the route to perdition. You were a waste of space, all the more so for failing to do anything but save your own skin. You'd be a disaster at anything else you turned your clammy hand to.
"It's up to us to set the community standard of quality debate and how people of different views can work together in a democracy," Kemp said. "We need to show that we give priority to this as Liberals, all committed to an Australia where people have the right to decide how they will organise and live their lives, to be properly rewarded for their efforts and to realise their talents and their dreams in life.

Kemp's entry to Federal Parliament in 1990 involved a factional putsch. He's happy to have people debate, so long as it doesn't make any difference. The fact that it makes no difference is the problem. You might be obliged to preside over a farce, but nobody else is obliged to participate in one. Given the choice between a debate which makes people back down, or no debate at all, people like Kemp and Sheezel will always prefer no debate at all.
"I want to remind you of a simple fact — opposition is not the goal," [State Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu] said. "We are here not to navel-gaze or sulk or play games; we are here to win." To make that happen, "business as usual is not going to be enough. To make this happen, above all we need a change of attitude. This party does not belong to a few, not to this or that individual or committee or the delegates in this room or the anonymous 'senior Liberal source'. It belongs to the people of Victoria, those who vote for us, who need us and who look to us to represent them. (It belongs) to the people who expect us to deliver ...

The swinging voter is greatly sought-after at election time, and fat toads squatting on polling data in back rooms claim they can read their minds (falsely, given Liberal election results in recent years). However, within party forums, nobody represents or cares about those people. All those committees exist to make unimportant people feel important, and grant or deny similar importance to others. By the time an election comes around, the committees and councils and whatever have disappeared so far up themselves they're of no use to anyone.
There is a compelling and fundamental rule of life: do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. It cuts both ways: those who attract respect are those who give respect."

That's right. It starts with respect for public servants, whom Kennett excoriated and never brought back around once the smoke cleared. It starts with respect for teachers and nurses and honest police, who tend to work harder than politicians do for even less reward than one finds in opposition. Demonstrating this, in word and deed, is the road back to government for the Liberals.
Baillieu knows he, not Tony Nutt or any other Liberal, has the worst job in Victoria.

So long as he believes that, he'll keep it. You can't save people from themselves.

15 April 2008

Be quiet

John Howard can't help himself. He's been a political schemer all his life, and his faint-praise damnation of Brendan Nelson is symptomatic of his disloyalty to any Liberal leader other than himself. If Costello or Turnbull had become leader, Howard wouldn't have been any more gracious or encouraging.

Howard knows that quiet counsel is more likely to be acted on within the Liberal Party. Malcolm Fraser influenced nobody with his criticisms of Howard. No Liberals sought Fraser's advice as they'd get it publicly anyway. Besides, Howard, his office and lackeys like Minchin would - and do - crack a hissy fit if any Liberals even mention Fraser, let alone went near him.

None of those Liberal leaders who lost elections have been sought out. No Liberals sought McMahon's advice after 1972; only the far right of the NSW Liberals paid him any mind. Gorton listened to those exasperated with McMahon, but by Fraser's time the only Liberal seeking his advice would have been Don Chipp. Rarely was Menzies' advice sought during his twilight.

Howard couldn't have done more to discourage people from seeking his advice. He offered nothing that had not demonstrably failed in the 2007 election campaign, and did not talk about the past in a way that offered insights for the future. It was all bathwater, no baby. He only offered the Liberal Party the opportunity to shackle itself to proven failure, to look backward rather than forward, to hope that the Liberals might preserve an image of economic competence in aspic as the country changes to render their experience irrelevant.

It flatters Howard that Liberal MPs would call on him and wait upon the pearls that fall from his lips. And they will, unlike with previous leaders. You'll see it when a Liberal abruptly changes direction; an authentic proponent of higher immigration will abruptly become a snide dog-whistler - and after getting belted politically will admit that yes, he had sought advice from Mr Howard actually, how could you tell?

It's when Liberals stop calling on Howard that things will get interesting, clear proof that they've started thinking for themselves and addressing the issues of Australia in the twentyfirst century. They're a long way from where they need to be: Heffernan and Minchin are pillows over the face of an already prone party. Downer is an embarrassment, the first Howard government minister whose legacy has been utterly eclipsed if not erased. Abbott needs to go or be politically spayed. Howard has had his day and has no fresh ideas for the future, he told everyone so clearly and strongly last year and he's telling them again. The only ones who can't hear this don't want to listen.

14 April 2008

Nasty, brutish and short

Federal Liberal MPs are seeking shelter from the storm in which they can only be blamed for the shortcomings of the Howard government, without receiving the credit that they feel is due them. Brendan Nelson can't offer them that shelter. Malcolm Turnbull offers a storm in himself. And some in the Aussie Rules states still pine for Peter Costello, apparently.
"The real answer is to have the natural leader of the party come back, and that is Peter Costello."

Ah yes, the king o'er the water. Technically, he can't "come back" to a post he never held, nor a parliament he hasn't departed. Won't go, won't muck in and fight.

It's said that one of the reasons why Labor stayed out of office for so long was their reluctance to embrace the Keating record of economic reform. Rudd didn't hide from Keating like Latham and Beazley, but nor did he embrace further far-reaching economic reform. WorkChoices seemed to be a high-water mark of hairy-chested reform for its own sake, and if the Rudd government does much in the way of economic policy it will be something that has come up since the election. Does this apply to the Liberals?

Peter Costello did leave a lot of economic reform undone. Labour market reform was not a high priority and died because it was too far ahead of employer (and employee) needs. He could have adjusted the tax system, and built more infrastructure, and invested in skills and education: it's these omissions that stand between Costello and greatness.

Costello could bring together the competing factions, and negate both Abbott and Turnbull. However, he won't. He would be Labor's dartboard for interest rate rises and bottlenecks in both skills and infrastructure.

The yearning for Costello is the same as Labor's comfort with Kim Beazley, and the fear of taking the risks necessary for victory. If Costello becomes leader of the Liberal Party it would not be able to shift the debate and leave Rudd looking flat-footed, like Rudd did to Howard.

One clear indication that Costello doesn't really want the Liberal leadership is that his erstwhile courtier doesn't rate him.
Abbott has been miffed at what he sees as his demotion to the families portfolio.

This is a man who bangs on about families, families, families in the absence of any real clue about how the country should be governed. As with everyone who's gotten in over their heads in the Sydney real estate market, Abbott should downshift or just cop it on the chin. It's interesting that his real estate woes have not resulted in him coming up with any sensible ideas about how to alleviate the situation facing those less secure financially than he: now that would be an audition for the Treasury (never mind the Shadow Treasury), and a challenge to Turnbull.
Abbott's reticence reflects his fundamental decency as a human being.

No, it reflects his intellectual laziness and gutlessness at not being able to admit a mistake. Deigning to speak to Milney and make him feel less irrelevant is nobody's idea of "fundamental decency".
... Minchin, Nelson's anchor in the present storm.

And the message, as of today, is that Minchin will continue to play that role. And as long as he does, Nelson will probably survive.

What should happen, given the rest of this article, is that Nelson should be the albatross around Minchin's neck and that both of them should piss off back to Adelaide.
Minchin's message is: hold your nerve in the same way Labor did after its 1996 defeat, when Kim Beazley arguably laid down the ultimate matrix for a Rudd victory, the maintenance of a veneer of a cohesive party that did not tear itself to pieces over core values.

In other words, just faff for a decade or so and arguably something will pop up. Hasn't exactly worked for the liberals, has it. Flip-flopper Beazley the exemplar of nerve? What a poor model for a party wanting to get out of opposition. What a poor piece of analysis by Milney, he should have laughed in Minchin's face. Minchin monstered Beazley and he fancies his chances of monstering anyone content to follow the lazy and complacent Beazley model.

The successes of the Rudd government have put the core values of the Liberal Party under strain. Neither Howard nor any other Liberal could have achieved the foreign policy success in China that Rudd did, another example of him shifting the debate beyond the tactical grasp and intellectual resources of the Liberals.

The fact that the Stolen Generations apology was not a damp squib and that economic hardship looms to early to fully blame Labor has put Liberal values under strain - all the more with lack of support from any Liberal government outside municipal Brisbane (and not much there, as Campbell Newman has hardly stepped up onto the national stage).

The next Liberal government will be as different from Howard's as Howard's was from Fraser's government. To get ready for the next Liberal government, the challenge is to start working out what policy approaches should be retained, what junked, and what replaces the elements that get junked.

The storm will get worse. Once sturdy edifices will be blown away. Delicate buds being nurtured to sturdy oaks will be drowned and uprooted. The Minchin vision of the Liberals just sitting there with an umbrella waiting for the bus to stop by and take them gently back to government is beyond ridiculous, it harms the Liberals' chances of winning government again.

There's also the issue of Joel Fitzgibbon getting off scot-free in Defence - if Minchin was the political lion he fancies himself as, Fitzgibbon should be in dire trouble rather than just busy. Same with the hapless Jenny Macklin: Tony Abbott has been monstered by two Labor women already in Gillard and Roxon, do we have to wait until Kate Ellis starts climbing all over him to realise he's a loser?

To realise this is to say to Minchin and Abbott what they did not, could not say to Howard: go, go now, the Liberal Party is better off without you. The fact that these turkeys are good for nothing else need not be the Liberal Party's problem.

11 April 2008

Outside the tent

John Roskam hasn't been invited to the 20/20 thing so it's the end of democracy as we know it, apparently .
Obviously the Prime Minister's media advisers calculated that the sight of Kevin Rudd discussing the nation's problems with Hollywood celebrities would combat his image as a boring bureaucrat. So far those advisers have been proved right.

well, they haven't been proven wrong either. Who knows what burden of proof exists for this? If you don't bring glam to this event you need knowledge and analytical skill - unfortunately, our old friend Roskam is not offering that, either. If you see the list of attendees, it's hard to sustain Roskam's early sneer that the summit exists of vacuous human tinsel. Roskam's Eye Pee Yay has spent years developing a fraction of the kind of expertise that Rudd can knock together - and dismantle - in the space of a few weeks.
There's nothing wrong with Labor (or the Liberals) having summits, conferences, and talkfests. Sometimes it is useful to get experts together to debate policy, and occasionally a good suggestion might emerge.

But the timing of the summit is curious. It was only four months ago that Kevin Rudd won an election after he promised he had all the solutions. Obviously Canberra's 155,000 public servants can't provide the answers the Prime Minister needs - if they could he wouldn't need a summit.

Did Rudd claim that he had all the answers? All he had to do - and if I remember correctly, all he did - was establish that he wasn't intellectually stalled and politically deaf like John Howard. A change has proven to be better than a holiday. I'm pretty sure that people like John Roskam were criticising Rudd for not putting up any fresh ideas so that people like John Roskam could twist and/or dump on them. Having been frustrated at Rudd's unwillingness to fall for a simple trap, Roskam puts Rudd into the position he wishes he'd been in.

As to public servants - if they have all the answers, why do we need an elected government or a legislature? Was there some halcyon day where public servants had all the answers to everything? There's certainly nothing in accepted understandings of the Westminster system of government that sets such an impossibly high standard.
The problem with Labor's summit is that 95% of the participants will be in enthusiastic agreement that the Rudd Government is good, that the Howard government was bad, and that the solution to any problem is higher taxes and more government spending.

Again, look at the list of attendees, John. Here are more than fifty people who would not share the political views you ascribe to them, and nor would they necessarily believe that higher taxes and more government spending is desirable, let alone necessary.

The next few paragraphs are so silly that sarcasm is an appropriate response. The lowest form of wit they say, but what sort of -wit descends to this sort of thing in an op-ed piece anyway?
The Australia 2020 Summit is an exercise in pure and simple politics.

No! Really?
The summit will co-opt the country's elite into endorsing the Rudd Government's policies, and in the process the Howard government will be airbrushed from history.

That's right, and because there's nothing so stupid as an elite, they'll follow along blindly and get trapped into something like that.
If summit participants are to be encouraged to confront the challenges of the future they should at least be told about the conditions of the present.

Yeah, because they wouldn't know otherwise. They have no idea about Australia as it is or as it could be, so what they need is a briefing paper written by the very public servants Roskam disparages.

Clearly, the summit is not intended as some warts-and-all review across the entire gamut of government in Australia. This is the standard Roskam holds it to, and of course it's going to fall short of standards that were never set for it.
It's impossible to consider indigenous policy without examining the results so far of the Coalition's Northern Territory intervention. The background papers, however, make no mention of the intervention.

Indigenous policies will have to wait for another time, then. Perhaps at the separate, non-20/20, one-year review already stated elsewhere by Rudd and Macklin and others. If you're going to look into the NT intervention, you have to consider why it wasn't launched ten years earlier than it was.
Similarly, social welfare reform is discussed without reference to the single biggest welfare reform in a generation, namely the introduction of "mutual obligation" and work for the dole.

By 2020 one would expect this to be old hat. This is not intended to be an exercise in nostalgia or kicking over the traces.
Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the Iraq war, you'd expect it would be in the section on foreign policy or there would at least be a reference to it. Yet, bizarrely, Iraq doesn't rate a mention.

It's not a major element of Australian foreign policy, yet the resources devoted to it give it an importance it doesn't warrant. It's likely that people have their own ideas on Iraq, and they may even raise them unbidden by a briefing paper.
The Australian media analysed and dissected John Howard's every move in an attempt to discern the political advantage he or the Liberals would gain.

This didn't make for good reporting or sound analysis, but it did reflect the opaque and centralised nature of decision-making under Howard.
In contrast, Kevin Rudd's summit has been breathlessly embraced as an exercise in bipartisanship nation-building that is above the day-to-day reality of what politicians do.

Embraced by whom, John? It's been derided as one long PR extravaganza in the pieces I've read. More straw men?
Under the Liberals, the ABC, the ACTU, and Australia's public universities guaranteed that opinions different from those of the government would be aired and disseminated.

Oh come on, this is a lie. You know this is untrue. The Howard government made ad hominem attacks on those who said what it chose not to hear, and behind the scenes thwarted their current jobs and career aspirations.
Now, with Labor in power federally and in every state and territory where will those opposing views come from? They're unlikely to come from a summit of 1000 hand-picked participants.

Again, I doubt that any of the one thousand attendees would be bound never ever to disagree with the government about anything at any stage.

Opposing ideas are unlikely to come from the Liberal Party or the Eye Pee Yay, either, for the reasons described in the post below. They don't respect ideas or the sort of people who come up with them.
One can speculate on a participant's chances of success if they suggested at the summit that Canberra should have less power rather than more, or that there are bigger issues confronting the planet than climate change.

One can look at the list of names cited above for a good number of people who suggest - or even assert - these positions. Besides, after Stern and Garnaut and all that's transpired, you need to do more than merely suggest something bigger than climate change, or centralism.
There are strong incentives for those at the summit to co-operate with Kevin Rudd. He has an approval rating of 70%. Brendan Nelson's is 9%. Labor doesn't look like being dislodged from power across the country any time soon. Given this stark reality, the question is how many of those attending the summit will be able to afford to disagree with the Government?

And why should they wish to approach the national capital with swords drawn, John? Is this not a gathering of goodwill, of working with what's before you? Have you not, in your recent experience, seen support for entrenched and seemingly popular governments evaporate quickly? Have you not witnessed honeyed words not followed through, discrediting both words and speaker on the way through?

You don't get a seat at the table talking about the future by demonstrating your intellectual staleness and your insistence that the previous government represents the only template from which you are allowed to discuss government going forward. You can't complain about the lack of variety in public debate when your own contribution is so feeble and presented in a manner repellent to public support. Those opposing the government may need a forum other than the all-too-soon 2020 summit to get some clues. This will be easier once the Rudd government makes some decisions to criticise; easier still once you get a position from which you can criticise.

08 April 2008

Liberal studies

In the face of the slow decline of George W. Bush and the uncertain burial of the Howard government in this country, is the energies of Liberal youth really best spent in trying to stoke dying fires? Is Tim Andrews wasting his time and others' calling for a situation "whereby young Liberal people are recognised as an intellectual force"?

The Education not Indoctrination (ENI) campaign appears to be warmed-over crap from the US seeking some Pol Pot-style purge of leftist intellectuals. It is absurd that the people held up as the intellectual powerhouses of the right (e.g. David Horowitz, Keith Windschuttle and Christopher Pearson, to name a few) tend to be ex-leftists, and they have brought a lot of leftist baggage with them in their Long March rightwards. Much of this has, at best, no value to liberals or conservatives; at worst it's toxic. Worse, younger liberals and conservatives can't tell the difference. People who were determinedly, actively wrong about Uncle Joe Stalin and Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh are doubtful - not in terms of commitment but judgment. They were wrong then, they might be happy to partake of the fatted calf if offered to them but they could well still be wrong.

Leftist students become leftist intellectuals. Conservative students go into politics, they abandon politics altogether for the private sector, or they inhabit the shadow-world in between (e.g. journalism, lobbying) abhorred by libertarians. They don't, as a rule, become liberal/conservative academics.

There's no encouragement to do so, either. A young Liberal spends their career-formative years in an environment so hostile to academics that there is no incentive to become one - especially when a fully-fledged academic earns about what other uni graduates are making by their late 20s. Whenever an academic says something that a liberal/conservative doesn't want to hear, liberals/conservatives don't address the issue at hand - they get all nasty about the academic profession generally.

The alternative is an endless whinging. Gerard Henderson complains that a) liberals and conservatives don't celebrate their own history, and b) history of liberal/conservative achievements tends to be written by leftists like Allan Martin and Judith Brett. His alternative, writing poorly researched and badly written history on his lonesome, is not a longterm option nor a recipe for understanding, valuing and building on liberal/conservative successes.

Nobody should or does rate Janet Albrechtsen as a thinker - doing a Google search and then boiling down Krauthammer, Kristol or Will for a local audience doesn't count. If Rudd's salute counts for nothing, Janet, don't write about it. A conservative should resist petty and transient fancies. When the decline of Bush reveals Kristol to have been wrong about absolutely everything, Albrechtsen (and Sheridan, and Shanahan, etc.) should be replaced by postgraduate liberal/conservative students and up-and-coming academics.

The Centre for Independent Studies and the Eye Pee Yay have a plethora of Adjunct Fellows, Research Dudes and other impressive-sounding titles mainly of a voluntary nature. It puts out position papers and floats ideas in articles into which contributors and editors clearly put considerable effort. The Liberal Party could (but probably won't) learn important lessons about doing the hard work involved in researching and putting position papers together. Mind you, considering that these unpaid honoraria go to people like Jason Soon or Chris Berg, you have to wonder about their success in fostering a generation of like-minded thinkers. They adorn these thinktanks like the "gilded youths" in The Man from Ironbark.

The CIS is not part of the Liberal or National Parties but then again neither is the ALSF; there is a correlation between supporters of the CIS and liberal/conservative politics which would benefit the latter. Those raising money for the CIS would have an easier time of it than those raising money for the Liberal/National/Joh Barnaby Nationals Queenslander Party.

Liberals and conservatives should do more to encourage like-minded academics. They could eventually end up with a fully conservative university, an Australian Pepperdine or Liberty U. At the very least, they might have the kind of balance for which Liberal students will only keen, not work. The Catholic Church has done this with Campion College and a secular academy ought not be beyond means and will. Instead of this flatulent exercise in nostalgia by the Shadow Education Minister, what about some concrete proposals and encouragement for an academic elite working from liberal/conservative assumptions?

The reason why Christopher Pearson is blowing smoke is because Liberal students have expressed no interest in the kind of academic rigour Pearson is talking about. Liberal students want to be able to drop quotes from climate skeptics or intelligent design gurus without some Marxist impugning their academic rigour. Why learn to write an essay when you can cut-n-paste some cliches into a press release?

Pearson is, however, right that this article is silly, assuming that all university students have to be fashionably leftist and that any movement to the contrary is "sinister". Fancy asking Carolyn Allport whether academics are running their own agendas!

Depends what you mean by conservative, really. I reckon there's nothing more conservative, even homely, than the insistence by Foucault or Derrida that we're all unable to transcend our backgrounds, social class, gender or whatever. Patrick White's novels warned against frivolity and vulgar ambition, and supported work, faith and stable relationships. Not everyone shares my belief in their stifling conservatism but then again I'm not an academic.

Like Pearson, Mark Bahnisch engages in nostalgia for his alma mater as proof that good teachers can elevate students of a different persuasion with a shared respect for facts and ideas. He and Andrew Norton rightly call the bluff of Liberal Students claiming bias: whether you're making a claim in a public debate or in an essay, you have to prove your case or you can piss off.

Not only will they not do the hard work of building academic careers in areas run down by the left, they can't even build a simple case of bias against one - just one - academic.

Despite the fact that academics rate highly in public surveys of trustworthy professions, Liberals regard them as soft targets. When you lose office in a democracy, you can't attack the voters - you can't attack outgroups like women or ethnic minorities or even gays, these days. A mob whose self-identity depends on being able to beat up on defined outgroups needs a soft target, and academics seem to be that target. Again, what Liberal Student wants to join the targets?

To be recognised as an intellectual force, you have to become one. Liberals and conservatives disdain academics - the challenge for them is to not only stop this, but turn it around. The onus is on liberals and conservatives to create incentives for conservative students who can both chalk a campus and pass exams to pursue higher study with a view to becoming academics. The sheer dimension of this cultural shift ought not be underestimated. It is beyond an organisation that oscillates between three states:

  • sulky resentment at being denied the perks of office

  • blithe smugness that no substantial reform on their part is required, and

  • whingeing, whingeing, whingeing.

Colless at brink of irrelevance

In the thin gruel of a Malcolm Colless article, we rarely see a substantial chunk of fact. Paranoia, wild surmisings and seizing on something trivial and irrelevant and squeezing it to death is standard. This doesn't disappoint fans of bare-minimum journalism, where a little bit of useful information serves as a launching pad for doom, gloom and four-year terms.

The little bit of useful information is the Last Stand at Traralgon. Colless accepts without question the idea that three-cornered contests (where both the Liberals and Nationals contest an election against one another) represent political death for the Coalition. Normally three-cornered contests depress the Labor vote, but in the aftermath of defeat the two parties could only enhance their image of weakness by running against one another.

Then, at the end, there is this genuinely marvellous piece of imagery:
"There's no light on the hill, just the sound of crickets in the dark," was how one despondent conservative powerbroker summed it up.


In Gippsland, both parties would produce two mediocre candidates who'd pussyfoot around one another, while Labor would choose a candidate with nothing to lose and keen to give it a red-hot go. The latter qualities would impress people not swayed by party affiliation, rubbing salt into Coalition wounds. You can have all the polls you like, but the Liberals will ignore them and then yell at their scrutineers for "being negative": the Minchin Principle, never tell me anything I don't want to hear. The Minchin Principle put the Coalition where it is today, and will keep it there for some time yet.

The obvious joint-Coalition candidate for Gippsland is Julian McGauran. He's got the name, he's keen for a continuing political career, he has experience of both parties and they're both desperate enough to overlook his past.
Ironically, a fond belief within the NSW Coalition that it will win the next election is driving a resistance to any change in the status quo.

Because what you need to do is cruel the chances of the best chance for Coalition victory. The NSW Coalition is busy building a credible agenda for government - what they need is for Bill Heffernan to come and grandfather them and usher in the Meagher Government.
... veteran Liberal numbers man Bill Heffernan, who sees Gippsland as a watershed in the battle for reform inside the Coalition. He is pushing for a merger in which all existing Coalition positions in the House of Representatives and the Senate would be grandfathered. In other words, sitting members would not be caught in an internal preselection wedge.

What a brilliant strategist that man is: cementing dead wood in place is just what's needed in the face of defeat.
Nelson desperately needs some serious political traction if he is to survive the mounting internal grumblings over the lack of inspirational leadership in the Coalition. Failure to make headway on the Liberals' historical strong suit of economic management could well be the final straw.

There's also the degree to which this response is at all informed by the Listening Tour. Didn't work for Hillary Clinton, didn't work for Andrew Peacock in 1989-90, and I doubt there is a single successful politician anywhere who has bounced back from the ignominy of a Listening Tour to win office, hold it and achieve anything of note.

Malcolm Colless had a factoid handed to him, and promptly dropped it into a festering vat of foolishness. It would be a mistake for the Coalition to regard this man as a trusted intermediary with the public. Get the factoid, ignore the dross - but is Malcolm Colless worth the dross?

05 April 2008

Kulturkrieg under Kevin07

This is the best article yet in The Australian on the lame local cover-versions of the "culture wars". This isn't saying much, as The Australian has rendered itself irrelevant within the national debate with its insistence that "culture wars" matter, and that the witterings of Sheridan and Albrechtsen, Adams and Manne et al, are in some way linked to issues of importance to the lives of Australians and the communities in which they live. The Australian had to run the piece again, in its main news section with a slightly punchier headline, hoping to rouse people to Kulturkreig (and, as it turns out, the responses to the dumbed-down shorter version are not exactly at talkback-radio levels of quantity).

The authors of Dear Mr Rudd are entitled to their opinions. They are entitled to compile them into a book. Rudd's expression in the photo on the front of the book shows a man trying to look interested while at the same time trying to stifle yawns and/or annoyance.

In his review of the book, Megalogenis fails to make the case that Robert Manne and other authors of Dear Mr Rudd are imposing some sort of agenda upon Rudd.
Rudd may be the second leader to win on the other bloke's turf, but he is the first to be greeted with a book advising him how to govern

There was a plethora of books on the Liberal Party and what it should/shouldn't do during its period in Opposition 1983-96. Manne is seeking to play a role similar to that played by Gerard Henderson in the mid-90s. Before that, there was a swag of Labor Essays saying what should happen post-Fraser - many of them written by future ministers in the Hawke/Keating government - with patchy records of implementation.
This is the third in a series of quickie compilations to spring from Manne's pet complaint: that his academic voice wasn't being taken seriously enough while the conservatives ruled in Canberra.

Playing the man rather than the ball, George? Is it possible that Manne's objections to the operation of the Howard government wasn't just a hissy fit? How does this square with Megalogenis' blog comment: "One of things [sic] I don't like about the culture warriors is they make it personal. They need each other to keep their columns ticking over".
"Dear Mr Rudd," [Manne] writes, "hopes to help resume the public conversation between public intellectuals and government, which broke down so badly during the Howard years." The problem with this construct is it repeats the folly of the Right in demanding that only fellow travellers get to talk directly to the government of the day. What partially redeems the book is that many of the contributors are experts in their field, and have less interest in the culture wars than does Manne.

No, it doesn't. Manne complains that Howard simply stopped listening to public academics altogether, and is not talking about any sort of exclusivity. It would be extraordinary if Rudd stopped dealing with everyone on the right of Australian politics; even more so if Manne also called on Rudd to do this, and totally beyond the realms of possibility for Rudd to do so at Manne's behest.
The rush to publish while the Government was still in its infancy may explain why some chapters read like early drafts of ideas that may become bigger with time or which may change with experience.

You gotta get in for your chop, I suppose. Being ignored for so long should mean that ideas are better developed, but the collapse of the Howard government did come in something of a rush. Imagine pitching this book eighteen months ago, the assumption that the Howard government was a goner and that Rudd the next PM would be risible.
At the risk of stooping to the level of culture warrior by broad-brushing an entire subgroup of the community, it must be said that the chest-beaters on the Left and Right of our national discourse are surprisingly naive in the ways of politics. They think governments run nations when, in fact, they manage them as best they can. They mistake the limits of power for cowardice and think the exercise of policy reform is an exact science.

This isn't a comment against individuals, but against a style of writing that assumes only one version of Australia, be it Left or Right, is the true expression of national identity.

I basically agree with all of that, but am not sure how it fits with the book under review.
This level of complexity escapes the cultural warriors because they need caricatures of good and evil. But the pots and the kettles create a din that most Australians, the subject matter of the debate, close their ears to. There is, I think, a message here. If you can't capture the attention of the disengaged, what hope of writing the definitive text of national identity?

The complexity and absence of easy answers would seem to be the point of intelligent, earnest hand-wringing of Manne and others in recent debates, and it would appear this carries through into the book. On Aborigines, policies of segregation and control have demonstrably failed but so have policies of abandonment and permissiveness. On the head of state question, Howard has undermined the fragile construct underpinning the office of Governor-General but the best hope for a republic is not only buried but still reeks of piss.
I suspect the so-called culture wars drew much of their venom from the manner of Howard's ascension. He went into the 1996 election offering bipartisanship on native title, immigration, even a process for testing public support for a republic. Yet he governed from an alternate manual ... In reply, Howard's supporters in the media and in the think tanks celebrated each election as a triumph of everyday Australia against the elites, as if the the ballot paper asked each voter to tick the box marked Them or Us.

Howard's defeat last November of his government and also as the member for Bennelong should have been the cue to wind up the culture wars. But Manne, in his introduction, can't quite break the habit of the past 12 years.

All the culture warriors seem a little lost at the moment. You'd think this would make them a little less bellicose, a little more willing to sit back, watch and reflect. Janet Albrechtsen's squeals that Rudd's moderation is some sort of vindication of Howard is starting to look funny considering her missive that it was time for him to go last year, more so since the apology to the Stolen Generation.
Dear Mr Rudd is a love letter, of course. Yet in places it carries the same tinge of belittlement that those on the Right directed at Howard after the 1996 election

Which places, George? Get down off your high horse and read the book!
Australians are interested in politics again, but not as a morality play.

This doesn't explain why binge drinking is such an issue. What people have tired of is bellicose certainty about things which are doubtful (e.g. the war in Iraq, how to make houses affordable). So far, Rudd has rescued the country from this boofhead ignorance without becoming weak and directionless. The Dear Mr Rudd people seem to be feeling their way through a number of issues that are important to Australian society, yet which have long been ignored by its government. Rather than a "love letter", would it be more appropriate to be a collection of hopes projected onto someone who may give them a hearing?
Rudd has fed the doubt about the meaning of his mandate, perhaps unwittingly, by calling the Australia 2020 Summit, to be held in Melbourne later this month. The future game is fraught for the obvious reason that we can't predict the international forces beyond our small Australian hands, or local shocks to the body politic such as the Port Arthur massacre. This isn't meant as a dig at the Ruddfest.

Calling it "the Ruddfest" is definitely a dig, George. It's true that predicting the future is fraught - nobody in 1908 was predicting the First World War - but is that what Dear Mr Rudd is seeking to do?
The most interesting chapter is Marcia Langton's on indigenous affairs, which is inexplicably shunted to the back of the book alongside other female writers.

Now there's a sly dig.
... the test for Rudd, and for all those who write about his Government, is: "Show us your evidence."

The same could apply to book reviewers. It's too much to expect writers to have extensive experience of the Rudd Government at this point. On the other hand, it ought not be too much to expect for a book reviewer to read the book under review rather than use it as a riff into a "war" which, he claims, bores him. The whole "culture war" thing is a far-left construct, part of the baggage that refugees from Stalinism bring with them in their long march through conservatism. I had expected better of Megalogenis than this.