22 September 2008

Strutting Hamlet

Tony Abbott claims that as Shadow Minister for Families Families Families Welfare Aborigines and Families, he's not close enough to the action.

As Minister for Health, he was shadowed by both Julia Gillard and Nicola "That's Bullshit" Roxon. Both of them bested him and owe the senior positions in Cabinet to the sight of Abbott reeling under their blows. This is a man who, in his basic correspondence, can't cope with the appellation "Ms"; now colourless hack Jenny Macklin knows she can get away with almost any amount of incompetence because she faces no opposition that can't be brushed aside.

Consider the political debate in recent months:

  • The Northern Territory intervention: paternalism or last chance?

  • The baby bonus: is anyone in Warringah getting it?

  • The Family: divorces still sky-high, gay couples should not be denied super and pension benefits. Discuss.

  • The pension: Abbott must have been one of the few politicians not to comment on it. Fancy this media tart getting outdone by Margaret May.

  • Centrelink: a shambles. Nothing from Abbott, but a defence of welfare for people who don't need it - a process whereby people's money is taken from them and sent back. Madness.

  • Sexually abused children at Catholic schools - oh, what was I thinking?

Tony Abbott has to be one of the laziest shadow ministers in the Liberal Party. Clearly, Turnbull has kept him there until Abbott gets it right. You can't get "closer to the action" than FAHCSIA, it could be a real springboard for someone to rethink the way that government works in the community - but not under Abbott.

Abbott strikes the pose of a thinker, he has all those silly Eastern Suburban columnists fooled at The Australian, but actually Tony Abbott has stalled politically. He's too far right, but the right don't trust him and the moderates hate him. He's Captain Catholic, except when Pell's ineptitude on matters carnal comes out yet again, and he knows there's no votes in banging the pro-life drum. His father-figure has gone and he's not big enough to fill his shoes. He's got nowhere to go. What board would have him?

Tony Abbott has all the vigour of a landed fish. He might flop this way or that, but these are signs of desperation rather than defiance or vivacity. He's in that fascinating position where everyone can see he's on his way out, except him and the press gallery.

16 September 2008

Surrounded by morons

Brendan Nelson woke up yesterday and realised: oh no, I'm surrounded by morons. Clowns in his party room, fools in his office, patronising twits in the press gallery. He had one chance to sweep it all away, and by opposing end the predicament he found himself in.

Nelson's leadership was made possible by Minchin and Abbott. Both are lost without the carrots-and-sticks available from within government. Both cover dopey policy with rhetoric about "having to make the tough decisions". Both are to blame for having stacked Nelson's front bench and his private office with dead weight, dead losses and dead shits.

It is a key performance indicator for any Liberal leader that they act in such a way that encourages a majority of voters to choose a Liberal(-National) government. With Nelson performing so poorly in this regard, maintaining him as leader was a private indulgence of these two. Peter Hartcher was right - Nelson has acted in a way that nobody takes him seriously as an alternative prime minister, and has probably disgraced himself to the point where nobody takes him seriously in any capacity at all. His AMA days are long behind him. Nelson right to decline the offer of a frontbench position, an offer that should never have been made.

Insisting that Nelson have "clear air" was like insisting that Labor be able to have a clear shot at him whenever they felt under pressure. No Liberal leader should be kept in place to allow Labor to feel better about itself: this was the folly of keeping Billy Snedden on to ward off that threatening Malcolm of yesteryear.

How silly are Bob Baldwin and Costello's two sock-puppets, Tony Smith and Mitch Fifield, for declaring in favour of Nelson? Are they going to refuse frontbench positions too? Is Costello going to take them with him wherever he goes? Even the most loyal toady gets to the point where he has to round on his master and say: no, that would only make me look stupid, do it yourself. There is a generation of Victorian Liberals, now aged from their late twenties and forties, who put all their eggs in Costello's basket, and stood to gain high-status but low-profile positions in a Costello Government. These people now face three choices:

  1. the prospect of giving up on politics altogether, and starting again in some other profession;

  2. sucking up to Ted Baillieu and working toward state government; or

  3. sucking up to Malcolm Turnbull and working toward federal government.

  4. There is no fourth option for these people. It isn't my fault they have been kidding themselves.

Now Turnbull has to convince a party room that barely endorsed him. He has to convince them about his own political pulling power, and about the policies he would introduce. Turnbull's weakness so far has been in persuading Liberals that his policies are winning policies; and that they can embrace policies on climate change, pensions and whatever else without selling out what it means to be a Liberal.

The election of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader is the Liberal Party's most decisive step yet in putting John Howard behind them.

Turnbull is the Liberal Party's Bob Hawke: a singular talent, a personality so strong that party powerbrokers can never full own, and powerbrokers (like Minchin and Abbott, for example) don't trust someone who can't be owned. One thing Labor did was surround Hawke with their smartest political operatives; Turnbull surrounds himself with those who can weather the Ike-like storms that emanate from him. The smartest operatives available to the Liberal Party have scattered after last year's effort and they aren't flocking back (only some of these, and not so many as you might imagine, come from Victoria).

Without people strong enough to stand up to him, Turnbull will get frustrated with Liberals who won't have him lead them: he has surrounded himself with morons, and he has to find ways of dealing with that.

14 September 2008

Gold and shit

Christian Kerr had some interesting things to say about bloggers in the paper he works for. He had some uninteresting things to say, too. That doesn't mean we can engage in false dichotomies as this:
THE greatest tool for the sharing of ideas or an instrument for reinforcing prejudice?

Probably a bit of both, I expect. A bit like the media really. You can find examples of silly posts on blogs (this one included) and I can find examples of silly articles in newspapers. If the MSM were always (or even often) the source of "balance and fact" that Kerr claims, blogs would starve rather than thrive.

I'd love to hear Kerr make the claim that an undergraduate tone is absent from aspects of the MSM in Australia - I defy him to claim that it is nowhere found in News Ltd papers. The same challenge goes for factless assertions and
so much righteous indignation, so much sneering superiority, so little analysis and so little humility in the search for balance, or even for further information that may enrich or enhance the views expressed.

If you want to be outraged, you can find something in the "blogosphere" (assuming of course that it has limits, let alone being equidistant from a given point), and Kerr has found a doozy:
A blogger on one of the smugger sites recently referred to a discussion there on the right to free speech. In their view it "took far too narrowly American and thus falsely universal a view".

How do you divorce the US and freespeech? The US was founded on freedom of expression. The US has driven the ideal. The US's love of free speech and understanding of its consequence helped inspire a keystone UN document. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proudly declares: "The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech ... has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people."

Note that "universal" in the title. There are no gradations of freedom of speech there. They only exist in the ignorant and anti-American assertions of the online world. In that world, arguments don't happen any more. You're just referred to other blogs. Evidence isn't weighed. You're just referred to other blogs. You don't analyse data. You're just referred to other blogs.

I agree that it's silly to describe free speech as some American conceit. I disagree that "the online world" is anti-American.

If you read, as I did, the senior federal politics correspondent for The Australian insist that the polls showing a Labor victory were mistaken and that the Coalition would pull out of its death-plunge any day now ... an day now ... you'd know how silly it is for Kerr to assert that "nuance is gone" from non-professional (unprofessional?) journalism. If journalists can set themselves up as political players or historians, why can't any parvenu stumble into journalism? Hell, Christian - it worked for you.

I analyse data where it's available (unlike MSM journos who rehash press releases or merely quote spokespersons), and I don't refer people to other blogs. Actually, what I do is refer such readers as stumble upon this blog to inadequately written MSM articles - begged questions, sloppy research, motes in the eyes of others described in forensic detail notwithstanding planks in the writers' own.

Posts - sorry, I meant articles - like Kerr's show the folly of sweeping assertions in defending the ramparts of newspapers from the seemingly all-pervasive blogs. Mark Day can be forgiven for being an ignorant old fart, but while Christian Kerr is probably skulling the Kool-Aid to show how loyal he can be to his current employers, to me it rings hollow. Christian, you're going to distance yourself from that article one day so you can start by never, ever writing dross like that again. Leave the straw-man work to the idle housewife from Bronte and realise that you only have a job because Glenn Milne is too lazy to do his, and develop some humility of your own.

Blogs supplement journalism because journalism is inadequate. Journalists from the old days of the forty-year lunch, like Mark Day, knew that deep down. And while bloggers don't always do a good job of calling the MSM on their own laziness, they do it often enough to provoke an ongoing jihad ("our chief weapon is fear ...") from The Australian. Why is that? There's the question you should be investigating, with all your resources, all your authority, and your interest in having an employer that doesn't die underneath you ...

12 September 2008

Dark night of the weasels

Joe Tripodi gave his support to Morris Iemma, and then dumped him. Tony Abbott gave his support to Peter Costello before the 2004 election, and then dumped him. Both weasels are now facing the consequences of their decisions, neither with particularly good grace.

Costello must have smelled a rat when Abbott apparently told him Howard would stand down, and if not then he'd intervene on Costello's behalf. As if. Abbott would never have tapped Howard on the shoulder, not even for the promise of deputy leadership and Treasury, for what gaineth a man etc. For Costello to have so little capacity to judge people and situations as to fall for such an obvious ruse belies the political skill Costello fans claim for their man.

Costello should have resigned. Yes, he would have been portrayed as a wrecker, but Howard was a wrecker for hanging on too long and failing to reverse dopey decisions because he was afraid of looking weak. Keating, Fraser and Menzies all flounced to the backbench before supplanting their leader, and Costello fails to establish any moral-high-ground for refusing to do likewise. The 2004-07 team was the perfect opportunity to do this. Labor was left with the hapless Beazley after Cyclone Mark had busted its levees - there might have been "no John Hewson", but so what? There was clear pressure over the economy, Kyoto and foreign policy issues to which Howard could not, would not respond. A spell on the backbench would have been the making of Costello and the unmaking of Howard, as happened to Hawke over 1991. Costello could have developed an alternative agenda, and with it a claim for leadership other than "it's my turn". By APEC it was all too late, and Costello was right to sit that out.

The class of 1996 was specifically chosen for their absence of ties to the Howard-Peacock ideological and personality divides of the 1980s and '90s. They were effectively sold a franchise model, where they could operate the Liberal brand in their electorate on condition that they outsource marketing and product development to head office. That's why there was the cult of Howard, a mystifying development for those of us who didn't take Howard as given. Asking Howard Liberal franchisees to vote for a non-Howard Liberal Party would be like asking McDonald's franchisees to vote for Red Rooster. Had Costello shown them that Howard-Costello was no longer an option, and that Howard alone was no option either, Costello's chances would have been greater than he might have thought. He'd have been Prime Minister now.

For NSW Labor, there is less dramatic tragedy involved because there's no woulda/shoulda/coulda involved, no damned-if-they-do-or-don't. Morris Iemma lay down with dogs and got bitten by fleas. Iemma sold Iemma out, and Tripodi had no right to complain about his leader trying to get rid of him. Tripodi peaked politically in the early '90s when he got his then-girlfriend up as NSW Young Labor President. Since then, his reputation as a numbers man has ebbed the more it has been exercised. Never mind Captain Underpants: retaining Tripodi in the ministry is a ticking bomb for Nathan Rees, any benefit he gains from Tripodi's First Class Honours Degree will be swept away by the next typical example of how this guy cuts a deal.

By acting as messenger boy for Sussex Street Tripodi is a shell of his former self, naked and alone in the spotlight with the entire State Parliamentary Press Gallery waiting for his next stuff-up (even an old one that hasn't yet come to light will do). He's in for a hiding over the coming mini-budget. Scared and scarred, he's bound to do something rash and stupid any day now. Karl Bitar might claim his loyalty is to the Labor Party ahead of the State, and can justify perpetuating Tripodi in office on that basis, but when Tripodi melts down whatever self-justification he can muster will ring pretty hollow.

Speaking of Captain Underpants - how creepy was that whole business on three levels:

  1. Noreen Hay is not your standard femme fatale, is she;

  2. When you go to a press conference to announce your resignation over alcohol-fuelled weirdness, don't bring your toddler along - the Family Man thing is pretty much shot and you could be investigated by DOCS; and

  3. When you go to a press conference to announce your resignation over alcohol-fuelled weirdness, don't justify your behaviour on the grounds of your own humanity. The Rees Cabinet is comprised entirely of humans and nobody wants to think about what they might get up to after a couple of shandies.

For the first time in history, Kiama has two blowholes and is politically in play. Captain Underpants and Joe Tripodi face The Mother Of All Mid-Life Crises after 2011.

Tony Abbott faced the prospect of cutting down either Howard or Costello, but it now looks as though he has cut down both and is letting the carcass of Brendan Nelson twist in the breeze. If it wasn't for Nick Minchin, equally clueless and culpable, he'd be Tony-no-mates.

08 September 2008

Wall-to-wall, but empty

Labor has control of all Australian governments at federal and state level. Rudd promised to use this situation to "reshape Federation". It's all been business-as-usual so far - the nearest thing we've seen to far-reaching reform in this area has been the pathetic effort over the Murray-Darling, where a state which doesn't (technically) have the Murray flowing through it and whose rivers have the worst water quality on the mainland was allowed to spike the whole deal. Whether inside or outside the Murray-Darling Basin, Australians are entitled to be non-plussed by wall-to-wall-Labor. Not enraptured, not fearful: Labor has gone around stirring up apathy, and it isn't working.

Less than a year after wall-to-wall-Labor came into being, it has delivered nothing and it looks like passing into history as a historical oddity rather than as a period of change. It's interesting that the two jurisdictions that have delivered the first signs of the end are well outside the Murray-Darling Basin, NT and WA.

In the NT, Clare Martin knew that the armed response from Canberra rendered her government irrelevant, so she got out. Paul Henderson was so chuffed to become Chief Minister that he underestimated the extent to which it had become a non-job, and overestimated his ability to convince voters that a non-entity like himself would suit a non-job.

In WA, Alan Carpenter has blown the mining boom and has become cranky at discovering that politics is not as easy as it appears to a journalist. Perth should have infrastructure like Dubai, and the fact that it doesn't is the fault of Carpenter and the other nobodies in WA Labor.

It should be easy to accept the WA Nationals' ransom of $675m for regional areas. Turning Port Hedland into a real city with proper bulk cargo facilities would cost at least that much. Whack a few rail lines to the wheat areas, paint a few schools and put some new gear into some rural hospitals, and there you have A Government That Cares About Rural Areas.

Colin "Boonce" Barnett is more in tune with WA's drivers of growth than Labor and it shouldn't be too hard to convince him that the best thing you can do - the only thing left, really - for industry is to invest in a bit of infrastructure. WA Liberals have a closer relationship with that state's business community than Liberals in any other jurisdiction, and such is the infrastructure squeeze (the sheer scale of the opportunities for miners and other exporters limited by the extent to which it can be extracted) that industry can be persuaded that kicking in for infrastructure is in their interests. Barnett is the man to do that, but he (and Buswell, and the NCB/Corman creatures thrown up by preselection processes) may be unable to resist the urge to just bend over forwards for industry and do penny-ante stuff like screwing Aborigines out of leasing rights, building ugly developments along beautiful sections of coast, or whatever NCB wants, rather than longterm capability-building for the state.

Carpenter is bearing the sort of backlash that Bob Carr should have faced in NSW. Morris Iemma was hailed as someone to watch when he entered Parliament in 1991 and I still don't know why. Here was a competent Grade 9/10 Clerk wasted. Like Carr, Iemma had the full backing of the Sydney media but Iemma's luck, and his credibility, had deserted him. Even when he resigned, nobody believed Morris Iemma at the end. Here was another talentless hack who'd equated stubbornness with toughness, and like Mark Latham has nothing to show for his political career but a pension (and having had Glenn Byers on his staff. Where will this genius show up next?).

NSW Labor's Centre Unity faction had done a better job than any political party had ever done in identifying political talent. The bad news is, well, take a look:

  • Reba Meagher: when Iemma came in she was promoted as The Next Premier. Yeah, right.

  • Joe Tripodi: less said the better really. The fact that Rees is still lauding his economics degree is pathetic in light of his net performance. At a time when infrastructure could not be more crucial, this buffoon should not be put anywhere near it.

  • Eric Roozendaal: now stands to do to the state's finances what he did to transportation in northwestern Sydney.

  • Cherie Burton: put herself in reserve to the point where she could become a future NSW Opposition Leader, if she doesn't lose her seat.

  • Tony Burke: smart enough to get the hell out of Macquarie Street, the only NSW Right factional player in Federal Cabinet and barely tolerated for that. Has the Tony Abbott talent of decisively knocking down straw men he has set up himself.

  • Matt Brown: has achieved nothing, which is fine so long as you have confidence in the backroom boys to get it right.

  • Kristina Kenneally: has Thatcher-like focus in bulldozing opposition without hope for much of an ability to see the broader issues surrounding planning, like urban infrastructure or simplified processes.

You can tell that Rees is more interested in plugging political hioles rather than solving problems in governing NSW. He did nothing much in Water and his successor will do little better. There should not be a separate ministry for roads, and Transport is too hard for the duffer from Wollongong. Verity Firth is a lightweight, someone who thinks her job is explaining policy with her jerky Arts Revue arm movements rather than shaping it. All ministers will spend the rest of the year getting across their new responsibilities.

Rees became a garbo because he lacked confidence in anything but his workin' class credentials. Neville Wran knew that workin' class westiness was overrated as a political drawcard, and so has every Labor leader since - while Rees is now polished within an inch of his life his idea of getting things moving is to go toe-to-toe and get shouty. His experience as a staffer hasn't prepared him for front-office work, because the most effective tools of the backroom operator are irrelevant, or counterproductive, if they see the light of day. O'Farrell can make Rees out to be reactive and rebarbative if he works it properly. Rees' face has two expressions: a smug grin or a scowl, neither of which can project confidence to nervous Labor backbenchers. Rees can minimise Labor's losses if he's lucky, it's doubtful he can pull off a fifth term.

The NSW government has been steadily depleted of its policy-making capability, and after being governed by the one party for 13 years the inadequacies are starting to show. The News Cycle, the bitch-goddess of modern politics, no longer provides scope for Labor as the excuses have all been used up in empty re-announcements. They simply have no capacity to engage with the Feds, the well-resourced Victorian government or anyone else over "reshaping Federation".

Mind you, there is no Liberal voice in this debate. Tony Abbott's "idea" of centralising everything in Canberra is the nearest there is to a contribution from the other side of politics. However shaky things might look for Labor at the moment, you'd have to bet on them (outside NSW, that is) having the capacity to pull out of the terminal dive, a capacity lacking in the Liberals. The press-gallery groupthink that Labor is in trouble is a pantomime, they will get past this in better shape than the Coalition could ever hope to, even if when Nelson is replaced.

Let us now give up on the idea that Rudd and Labor can or will "reshape Federation". A shame really, it was a fine idea while it lasted. Once the recession bites there will be the usual regret that reform didn't happen ages ago, but Labor can't complain that voters didn't give them what they needed to make it happen.