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.

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