17 December 2009

Is Arthur Sinodinos full of shit?

Probably not in general terms, he was a figure of substance within the Howard government and remains influential in business, government and Liberal Party circles. That, however, doesn't explain this. Nobody else is going to shirtfront Arthur but in this case he's making a lot of assertions that don't make sense, so it falls to me to make a citizen's arrest under the Emperor Has No Clothes Act.

So far the polls have not moved but that gives Abbott plenty of runway. It is unlikely that people have made up their minds about him.

If the polls were ever going to move in response to the new leader, they would have done so by now. In NSW, there has been no poll movement following the election of Kristina Keneally; this is proof that she's a dud. Federally, there has been no poll movement for the Libs following the election of Tony Abbott; anyone who "dare[s] to dream of winning the next election" is delusional.

It is absolutely the case that people have made up their minds that Tony Abbott must not become Prime Minister. He can have as much "runway" as Marwoto Komar but he's not going to make it.

The phrase loyal opposition is to him [Abbott] an oxymoron.

The phrase "loyal opposition" refers to the idea that one can oppose the current government of the country without being disloyal to the country itself, its institutions, its head and its people. If he's going to be disloyal to the country as a whole in a quest for power over it, then stuff him.

No quarter will be given and none is expected.

This would be fine if the ALP really was as soft as the Liberals would like to think they are. Again, in NSW the Liberals long assumed that Bob Carr was a cream-puff long after he'd left a trail of blood and devastation behind him through the ranks of the NSW ALP. He beat them four times, five if you count 1991. Abbott has positioned the Liberals within range of Labor's guns; Turnbull's support for the ETS was only ever a gambit and Labor was not prepared for where he'd take the game from there. Abbott has little room to move tactically and strategically. He couldn't even knock Jenny Macklin off her perch when she was practically begging to be relieved of an office for which she has no talent, aptitude or sense.

Next minute he will flick the switch to serious thinker, including on thorny topics such as indigenous disadvantage.

Abbott has no credibility on indigenous disadvantage. As Health Minister he cut $1.5b from indigenous health programs. Like his old boss John Hewson, Abbott can point out the weak points but can't convince people he has the strength to make things better.

He is sustained by strong beliefs and is comfortable in his own skin. He is offering the electorate a contest based on character and not polling or research. Like all guerillas, he has the luxury of picking and choosing when and where to attack. Governments prefer to get their opponents in the open and blast them away. In Abbott's hands, incumbency is a negative as government decisions create new targets for the opposition to attack.

All of that could also have been said for Mark Latham in early 2004. Liberals looked on in amazement when Labor chose Latham to lead them, and couldn't believe their luck; nobody should know this better than Arthur Sinodinos. Fans of Abbott's rootin', tootin', no-quarter approach are starting to understand why Labor turned to Latham, even if they don't see they are bound for the same fate. The trick is to convince people that the Liberals would do a better job, and Abbott can't do that.

Abbott is about avoiding cost increases and reducing costs for families.

No, Arthur, he isn't. He only says that in the hope that it wins votes, but nobody will believe him and the Liberal vote will collapse.

New taxes on wealth or the family home will be dead on arrival.

Rudd will run further faster away from any such proposals, leaving Abbott to mutter about socialism and wish that Labor was in fact out to tax everything that moves. Another example of the Libs hammering the wrong target - like the way they go on about law-and-order and state level with Labor governments happy to see and raise them on that issue, and ignore the whining of civil rights advocates.

Rudd cannot typecast [Abbott] as a "free-market fundamentalist".

No, but he can and will typecast Abetz and other senior members of the Opposition in that way, enough to show that the Opposition must not be returned to government.

Abbott's musings on re-regulation of the banks are opportunistic and principled.

Nobody seriously believes he would deliver on this.

Abbott views industrial relations not through the Left-Right divide but the prism of small business. He will protect it along with farmers, independent contractors and the self-employed. This should also play well in outlying states and industries such as mining.

Yeah, small businesses like mining companies. There are fewer than 15,000 coal mining jobs in Australia, Arthur, and you'd be surprised how many of them vote Labor and are members of the CFMEU. Likewise, playing to disgruntled farmers won't win back many any seats lost in 2007.

It also covers his flanks in the debate on micro-economic reform.

What flanks, and frankly what debate?

What about the manicured grassroots in safe urban Liberal seats? Abbott probably calculates that they will vote for him anyway if he looks competitive, whatever their reservations on specific issues such as climate change.

To "look competitive" he actually has to build an alternative government, which would assume a greater sense of responsibility than which Abbott is capable. If you're going to take power within the Liberal Party on the basis that the grassroots were ignored, you can't then ignore them - especially if you're bent on sacrificing your marginal seat members. Where exactly is the Abbott Constituency, those people who will only vote Liberal with Abbott out front? There was a definite Howard Constituency, as you know Arthur; but there is no more one for the incument as there was, say, a Crean Constituency.

Your job, Arthur, is not to describe the Abbott phenomenon: that's for Abbott himself and for the Grattans, Annabel Crabbs and Malcolm Collesses of this world. Your job is to describe how realistic their positions and assumptions are, which was the value you added to Howard's office.

The same goes for business. The ever-shrinking pool of corporate donations will follow the opinion polls and Abbott will be careful to mend fences.

If money follows the polls then the Liberals are buggered. If you were on a corporate board you'd have Mr Abbott to lunch as a matter of courtesy, and listen to him describe cutlery as namby-pamby and elitist. Then, you'd send a donation to the ALP to keep in sweet with Senator Arbib.

Abbott's best chance to staunch any voter leakage to the Greens is to polarise the electorate by providing a clear alternative to Labor.

No, that will make it worse. The Green vote will increase in Liberal areas, which may not matter in the House but in the Senate it will be the difference between a state electing one or two Green Senators, and the failure of the third candidate on the Liberal Senate ticket.

... early response to the global financial crisis ... kitchen table concerns ... higher living costs ... education ... Hospitals ...

Yep, all Labor shortcomings, all examples where Abbott can't make the case that the Libs would be better and stronger.

In government, Abbott wanted to take over the state public hospitals.

Would that have made them better, or worse? Given the result of the 2007 election we'd have to conclude it's less than the gamebreaker you might hope for, Arthur.

Abbott is not a great proponent of states' rights ... He supported the takeover of Launceston hospital by the feds in 2007

It was the Mersey Hospital in Latrobe, Arthur, and the people who live and worked there chucked out the Liberal MP.

genuinely believes in devolving decision-making to the community on health matters.

There are two issues here. Firstly, a Commonwealth takeover from the States makes this less likely, not more so. Secondly, as Health Minister Abbott listened to the community and made RU486 available, was in no way responsible for the Pan Pharmaceuticals debacle, and did a great job on educating Australian healthcare professionals to meet the skills shortage in health was high-handed and non-consultative with the full backing of the then PM. Where is the evidence of Abbott's acceptance of community consultation on healthcare, except for narrow and compliant stooges like Rosanna Capolingua?

Interestingly, a substantial proportion of women in a recent Newspoll survey indicated they have yet to make up their minds about Abbott. Here lies an opportunity for him. He should do a series of considered speeches through next year.

By "considered" do you mean "a complete departure from the kind of stuff he's been coming out with throughout his career"? Do you take the chance that he'll drop some sexist clanger that causes that suspension of disbelief to fall like a sword of Damocles?

Do not expect an early election; the voters would be cynical and Rudd needs to do Abbott slowly, jump on any evidence of policy flakiness to seed doubts about Abbott's fitness for office.

At last, a piece of sensible commentary! I knew you could do it Arthur.

Abbott has been in parliament for 15 years and served as a minister and leader of the house.

Kim Beazley had done all that and more, so what?

Nor will Joyce be an easy a mark. He is a higher primate who learns from experience. He is already moderating his utterances.

Until next time. He can't "moderate" his position on climate change and other key issues without backing down. A great description of Joyce being rattled and prone to gaffes is described here:

Barnaby Joyce is a fascinating interview subject. He is invariably affable and cheery but as the interviews wear on, he tends to become exasperated. His befuddlement renders the pinkish hue of his complexion into a scarlet, almost vermillion tone, little specks of spit collect around the corners of his mouth and his nose turns cherry red.

These physiological changes are signs that the interview is about to leap into the realms of entertainment and that soon will follow what we political pundits like to refer to as the “money shot”.

Besides, is it too much to expect more from a government minister than to be a "higher primate"?

Rudd has to be the steady hand on the tiller. He must make a virtue of his alleged nerdiness to paint Abbott as lacking substance. He should emphasise his command of issues but engage the public in a way he did not do with the emissions trading scheme.

And Rudd is in Copenhagen gathering tips and tricks from the leading politicians of the world to do just that. Abbott, meanwhile, is lolling around Sydney talking about his chest-hair.

The ascension of Abbott has tilted the odds in favour of more pre-election sweeteners.

It follows the whole narrative of reaping the rewards of saving the country from the GFC, and would have worked had Turnbull stayed in.

Abbott has targeted the economic stimulus package for savings. Expect Labor to pressure him to go further. Rudd needs to take the high ground on the budget and craft a narrative around future challenges, including the ageing population, the looming commodities bonanza and the conservation of resources.

Expect Abbott to be unable to match this combination of fiscal prudence and expenditure on the needful and necessary. That will be the telling difference, Arthur.

... expect to see more of those budgie smugglers.

A triumph of self-indulgence over political prudence. As I said earlier it didn't work for Debnam or Baillieu.

TONY Abbott is the Spartacus of Australian politics.

Yep: caused the Romans a bit of bother for a little while but they killed him eventually, routing his supporters and using their very corpses as proof of the power of the incumbents. Abbott's preference for martyrdom over victory should worry Liberals more than it does: it's another example of his callow lack of responsibility.

Why would Arthur Sinodinos write a piece he must surely know to be false? To keep his hand in and show that he's not a part of some bygone age, and to show that his loyalty is greater than his current capacity for cool judgment. When a party is hell-bent on self-destruction there are no prizes for being smart before the event, at least not publicly. His responsibility is not to churn out twaddle like this but prepare the triage team for the inevitable disaster.

13 December 2009

Madness in any direction not an attractive proposition

The Abbott-Minchin-Joyce Coalition are sending mixed signals, which is why they can't and won't win. What follows here is inspired by this post and this quote:

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.

- Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

That quote seems to sum up the feeling being projected by the Abbott-Minchin-Joyce Coalition at the moment. The road ahead is clear, and those who can tell them what (not) to do are few. The problem is that in framing the political debate, it's in the Opposition's interests to not carry on like they are.

The idea of a loyal Opposition in Australian politics is to say with credibility that the incumbent government is taking Australia in the wrong direction; it's going too fast on issues that are toxic or trivial, and not far enough on issues that are important. Having done that, it has to make the case that it would take Australia in the right direction, going fast and far on the good stuff and putting an end to all that rot.

I think the Rudd government is moving too slowly on a lot of issues I think are important: infrastructure; healthcare; the redevelopment of Aboriginal social systems; better and more extensive relations with Asian, African and Latin American countries; a proper broadband network; education; and yes carbon reduction strategies that will boost the economy - lots of things really. In none of those areas can you be confident that the Coalition would do a better job than Labor, however well they might highlight this or that example of inadequacy.

More to the point, a boisterous and bumptious Opposition is appropriate for a time when opportunities are going begging and a tired government has no real idea what to do. Queensland needs an Opposition like that, so do South Australia and Tasmania; but Australia doesn't. Australia is going through significant challenges economically and environmentally, and the Rudd government's policies are hit-and-miss in meeting these challenges.

The Opposition should represent more hits than misses; articulating new and better ways forward through a thicket of challenges that must, without a clear narrative, seem overwhelming. God help it if they adopt the wrong narrative: maybe this will be the get-out clause for those who believe Howard's policies didn't get a fair run.

A boisterous and bumptious Opposition is not appropriate for the complex argument that the CPRS is not an adequate response to the threat carbon pollution poses to our environment, but that something has to be done and that thing is yet to be determined. The difference between the 1999 republic and the 2009 CPRS is that simply negating the positive case does not leave a stable status quo. The idea that no action on carbon emissions (other than open-ended no-obligation grants to carbon producers, and vague musings on nuclear power) is a stable status quo is rubbish. The fact that business groups are not united in calling for any and all carbon abatement measures to be kyboshed, nor calling for "removing business uncertainty associated with the climate change debate" should worry the Liberals more than it apparently does.

Turnbull could have represented the Liberals as a safe pair of hands: economic responsibility with less debt, environmental change that doesn't derail the economy for some oblique culture-war purpose. Hockey might have too, had be become leader (his challenge is to come out of the Abbott Experiment unscathed, without looking like either a ratbag or a doormat). Oh well. It is Rudd who now looks like the safe pair of hands, doing his best under difficult circumstances.

Nobody is going to represent Tony Abbott as a safe pair of hands: he's the boy who hasn't/ won't/ can't grow up. Besides:

  • He's not going to promote economic responsibility, because having squibbed the great economic debates of the past three decades he doesn't know where to start (let alone on issues like house prices, mortgages and families). You'd think he would, with an Economics degree from Sydney Uni and having worked at close quarters with Hewson, Howard and Costello - but no.

  • He can't promote low debt because the Nationals will want (and get) too much pork for economic responsibility.

  • He can't just outsource foreign policy to the Americans and the Poms because they seem tentative about Afghanistan, and other issues like Israel-Palestine are less clear-cut than they were.

  • On top of all that, Abbott won't do anything that changes the environment because he genuinely thinks things are fine as they are, or that it's all too hard.

In 2007, the Liberals could not get used to the idea that Howard was leading them into perdition. In 2009, the Abbott Experiment is all about the idea that Howard-style conservatism is an idea that has not been properly tried, let alone exhausted. It's an idea held by nobody who doesn't vote Liberal/National/CEC already.

11 December 2009

Another weak Liberal

The Nationals own Tony Abbott, not that it will do either of them any good.

Barnaby Joyce's brain-farts about state debt, Chinese investments and the US economy was a gambit to show Nats voters just how much he had the Liberal leader in his pocket. Yes, what he said wasn't sensible - but after Joh and Tim Fischer we should be grateful that it was in grammatical English at all. The focus of the journosphere on our great and powerful allies or on the states is beside the point, and shows that political reporters don't really understand what they're reporting on.

There have been three times in Federal Coalition history when the Liberals stood up to the National/Country Party. Each time the country was better off for calling their bluff sheer bloody effrontery. This week wasn't one of them; the Nats have got themselves another patsy in the Liberal leadership, which is how they like it. On a regular basis the Nats will now get all huffy about threats (real and imagined) to their exalted position, and Abbott will cave. The problem is that some people are more important than the Nationals, and that sometimes you have to disagree with the Nats in order to produce positive policy and political outcomes.

The first Liberal to put the Country Party, as they were called then, back in their place was Menzies. After the 1955 election the Primary Industry portfolio was not allocated to a CP minister, as they considered their right; but to that slickest of city-slickers, Billy McMahon. McMahon applied himself to the role and impressed farmers groups and other stakeholders, to the dismay of the Country Party. In this, McMahon was ably assisted by a Liberal grazier in his first term in Parliament, Malcolm Fraser.

The second time this happened was during the 1980s, when John Howard attempted to both placate and distinguish himself from the Queensland Nationals, led by Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Bob Sparkes. The Joh for Canberra thing fell over in the late 1980s, as did the then Queensland government, with two unelected Premiers proving that you can't heal a party of perceived corruption while it is still in office. When John Howard eventually became Prime Minister the Nats did not say boo to him, they didn't dare.

The third Liberal leader not to put up with any crap from the Nats was Malcolm Turnbull. He even sacked the only member of that organisation currently in Parliament with any brains at all, Fiona Nash. The Nats even gibbered about leaving the Coalition until they realised they'd be voting themselves into oblivion.

The point about Joyce's remarks was the pissweak response from Abbott. If a moderate Liberal had made stupid remarks about the State Government of WA, Washington and Beijing, you can be sure Abbott and several other frontbenchers would have jumped all over them. Joyce got away with it. He'll get away with it again, and again and again, until a Liberal leader makes them realise that sort of carry-on makes largesse to rural communities less likely than more so.

The recent debates on the ETS, where Joyce was shown red-faced and spitting like some loser at chucking-out time, shows that he's a liability to everyone bar a few politically insignificant and self-marginalising yokels. Abbott has indulged Joyce, and you do start as you intend to go on. Bagging the Chinese does work against the notion of a prospective Liberal government as welcoming foreign investment or Australian prosperity generally. It goes right against the principle of seeking to build the kind of productive relationship that successive governments have built with Japanese interests since 1957 (while McMahon was Minister for Primary Industries - but by then the relationship with the Country Party had healed to the point where McEwen could take credit for it, but I digress), which is what Howard was trying to do, and what Mandarin-speaking Rudd was promising to do.

Christian Kerr's article on the removal of Turnbull in The Australian Spectator is one of the few sensible things written recently by anyone on that side of politics. That's what makes this so disappointing:

Abbott, Hulk-like, is rampaging around, talking about the government’s “emissions tax on everything”. Combet is responding with reason—and pages of figures.

Bruce Banner hates the creature he becomes.

But there can be no denying. The Hulk gets things done. And the angrier and baser he becomes, the stronger he gets and the more he accomplishes.

Abbott has accomplished nothing, in whatever guise (but all that Hulk/Superman crap does conjure up the image of Kerr as The Comic Book Guy from that other News Corp product, The Simpsons). If the Nationals think they can ride Abbott like the town bike, which they now do, he'll accomplish even less. Less than Greg Combet, who is more likely to be in Cabinet after the next election than Joyce. Slow and steady wins the race. Turnbull would have learned that after Godwin Grech turned out to be less a Clark Kent/Bruce Banner figure than the pathetic little man behind the curtains from The Wizard of Oz. Press gallery thrillseekers should be a little more critical of what gets served up to them.

09 December 2009

The puppet

The journosphere have latched onto two clichés to help them through a tumultous start to the month. One is that Kristina Kenneally is a puppet, because it is the one thing Nathan Rees said that won't evaporate in four days. The second is that Tony Abbott is some four-square conservative who is a devastatingly effective politician and very much his own man, you always know where he stands.

Tony Abbott is not a devastatingly effective politician. Every target he's had in the ALP has not only survived, but thrived: surely the journosphere have noticed that Julia Gillard, Nicola Roxon and even the hapless Jenny Macklin are none the worse for their having been shadowed by this toothless tiger. The fact that nobody knows what the Liberal Party's response to the Northern Territory Emergency is, and that Labor have spent $1b with nothing to show for it, shows Abbott's gifts for squandering political opportunity.

Tony Abbott is not his own man. He was owned by Howard and now he is owned by Minchin. During last week's shenanigans, Abbott was happy to let the ETS go through to get the issue "off the table", then he backflipped. He was happy to stand down in favour of Joe Hockey, then Minchin stepped in and backflipped him on that too. It puts the lie to this claim that "Abbott hasn't arrived at his anti-ETS position lightly". Yes, Ben, he did. He'll be even more casual with climate change policy developed by moderates.

Abbott has nowhere to go on climate change or any other issue: he must toe the line that others have laid down for him. It is not a good thing that the Liberals'climate change policies are being developed by Greg Hunt and Simon Birmingham, we have seen this movie before. First, their riding instructions are so narrow that they can only ever come up with a cramped compromise. Second, on every day between now and whenever Liberal climate change policy gets released, senior members of Abbott's frontbench will dismiss man-made climate change as an issue. By the time the policy is released Hunt and Birmingham will have no credibility at all, within the Coalition or among environmentalists; but they will cop all the blame for Liberals losing votes for their skepticism denialism.

Hunt and Birmingham must be the biggest suckers around to believe whatever Abbott and Minchin offered them in order to take this role on. Birmingham swore blind that he'd support the ETS in the Senate, but when it came to the vote he wimped out - and Minchin and Abbott love it when moderates wimp out, they love it when their stereotypes are reinforced.

But from what I can gather, and others close to him say, he's anything but a mad, extreme-right-wing thug. As The Australian's Greg Sheridan said: "There is nothing at all in Abbott's philosophy or record that would justify the term extremist."

Leaving aside the fact that Greg Sheridan has no credibility, there is the wider issue that people ought not go into public life simply to indulge their friends. So he reserves his compassion for his friends, who doesn't? Or to put it another way: Tony Abbott already has all the friends he needs, and if you're not one there's no reason why he'd help you. Sure, he'd say he was compassionate toward a group he's about to trample underfoot, much like Howard did. Abbott has spent his life trying to dodge those most central of Chrisrtian injunctions: that by thy actions shalt thou be judged, as you do to the least of my brothers so do you do to Me.

During the 1980s and '90s John Howard's mistakes were all his own, he was his own man when he was riding high as well as when he was down in the dumps. It was Howard who gave orders to Minchin and Abbott, but it is not true that Abbott is in a position to dictate his own terms. Any difference of opinion between Minchin and Abbott will be resolved in Minchin's favour.

Because Abbott is so ill-prepared, he's kicked into "man of action" overdrive: WorkChoices, nuclear power, etc are all being bandied about.

He needs to slow down and focus on the ETS and painting Rudd Labor as the greatest squanderers of public funds since Whitlam, which they most certainly are.

He also needs to slow down because this may just be his first chop at Liberal leader. The path back to office is long. Rushing about exposes him to a Latham-style meteoric rise; then spectacular flame out.

This is a matter for those friends of his, and for those supposedly wise hands that he's put on his front bench. It also broaches the idea that being leader of your party is not a licence to do whatever the hell you want, as Malcolm Turnbull learnt to his cost.

Abbott's complexity means he has the potential to be a great prime minister.

No it doesn't. All of the lousy party leaders and PMs have been fantastically complex personalities. Setting up straw men and knocking them down is no proof of anything.

Fawning profiles like this are such bullshit: Tony Abbott will do what he is bloody well told and no backsliding will be tolerated. He might be a good source but he'd be a lousy Prime Minister, and hacks like Wright ae obliged to assess him on the latter rather than the former.

This leads us to the frontbench, handpicked by the Leader (Minchin):

  • Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is shadow minister for ageing, and Bronwyn Bishop is shadow minister for seniors. This should be hilarious. For the past ten years Concetta has been trying to convince Bishop to step aside as Member for Mackellar in favour of her own good self, but Bronnie was having none of it. Eventually, rather than stoop to the low rat cunning Bishop has in spades, poor Connie threw a tantrum and got a spot in the Senate (which she will shortly lose to former Minchin staffer David Miles). You can be sure Bishop will have done six seniors/ageing-related media events before breakfast, while Fierravanti-Wells will sulk and nitpick before eventually fighting a losing battle to save her own seat.

  • What will also stick in Fierravanti-Wells' craw is that she'll leave the Senate before Marise Payne will. Payne is shadow minister for a non-ministry, and will be overridden by shadow spokespeople on substantive issues discussed at COAG, health and infrastructure and what have you. Another foolish moderate beard on the most repellently rightwing Liberal parliamentary party ever.

  • Sophie Mirabella in Industry: one cretin from Melbourne with no idea about the private sector shadowing another.

  • Eric Abetz will not be able to sell workplace relations because he has no idea what it means to be an employee or an employer. The ACTU will marginalise him as a zealot long before Gillard swans in and deep-sixes him. He will frighten small children and no Liberal candidate for any seat +/- 7% will want him anywhere near their voters.

  • Peter Dutton: one weak performer shadows another, who can at least win preselection.

  • Kevin Andrews as Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services: lazy, dumb Macklin gets another easy ride.

  • Barnaby Joyce as Shadow Minister for Finance and Debt Reduction: this gibbering yokel wants to spend $billions of public money on sinkholes like Cubbie Station and dares to assume any credibility on fiscal rectitude? Artie Fadden he ain't. This is where he will be tested, and he will most assuredly fail. Tanner will have him on toast.

  • Minchin will agree with everything Martin Ferguson says and does and will fail to shake down substantial donations from mining companies, objectively and in comparison to Labor. No fearsome warrior this, he'll be completely ineffective outside his own party, a tinpot Cheney.

  • Joe Hockey should not have taken Treasury, but then who would be better?

  • Christopher Pyne has done nothing in Education, nothing as Manager of Opposition Business, and has failed to save his leader; this will continue.

  • Bill Shorten is safe with pinhead Mitch Fifield on his case.

  • Tony Smith Costello in Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy: God help us. A not-so-smart smart-arse bagging a piece of infrastructure essential to Australia's future at the behest of Telstra is a pathetic piece of miscasting. Watch for Paul Fletcher giggling behind his hands as Smith Costello gets all huffy about carbon fibre. He is exactly the sort of lightweight Conroy has spent his career dispatching to the briny depths.

  • "Mr Scott Morrison MP has been appointed Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. Scott brings energy and considerable policy talents to this portfolio. He will ensure that the Rudd Government is held to account for its recent changes to Australia’s immigration policy ..." - Yairs, but he won't be able to put together a coherent answer when asked what the Liberals would do if elected, and will be unsuccessful in failing to dispel the notion that they would reinstate the gulags.

  • "Senator the Hon Michael Ronaldson will serve as Shadow Special Minister of State with oversight of the Coalition’s Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee. This committee will continue under the Chairmanship of Senator Guy Barnett". Eh? Memo to Peter Phelps: brush up your CV and get a job with Barnett, Ronno has no future. Don't think of yourself as a rat deserting a sinking ship. Think of yourself as a leech latched onto someone who is out of blood.

Far from being a frontbench that puts the fear of God into the Rudd Government, this is a team that Labor must surely know they can beat any day of the week. The only way the Liberals could be at all formidable with this bunch is if they inspired Labor to be complacent.

Whatever they say publicly, Labor must know that they have Abbott's measure, and Minchin's. However inadvertently, Michael Duffy labelled Abbott as the boy not ready for adulthood, Pinocchio in sluggos. Tony Abbott is the real puppet of Australian politics, jerked to the right by Minchin and the crankies of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party. Kenneally is stuck so far into her own party's ordure that hers would be a dull puppet show. Abbott's will be both funny and sad, like any good drama.

01 December 2009

Get it off your chest

The lunatics have taken over the asylum, but they outnumbered the staff anyway and the matron was a bossy old so-and-so.

I should have known that Turnbull was gone as soon as Nathan Rees said otherwise. If I was still a member of the Liberal Party I would have my head in my hands at the idea of Tony Abbott leading my party. I'm not and it isn't, so I don't. I thought that Turnbull would win, and suspected Hockey might; but I never thought the Liberals would be so stupid as to elect Abbott, the Liberals' answer to Rees (if Abbott is the answer then the question, etc.).

There's only one thing for the Liberals to do now: get all the right whinge crap off your chest. Try out all those ideas of which Howard blunted the rough edges, and go for broke. No ETS, no carbon pollution action except in reaction to the US Congress (and even then it will be weak, with plenty of handouts for US-based polluters who will know what buttons to push to get handouts). Announce that you'll cut spending here and there, and that you'll micromanage those areas of government that involve social investment (i.e. everything but defence and big infrastructure projects). Outsource your foreign policy to Washington so that any twit from Adelaide can become foreign minister. Everything that you wanted John Howard to do but never got around to, make that Liberal policy and go your hardest.

If you're going to rely on the base, and champion the base, you're going to have to embrace the idea that the base will be all you're left with. "I can't promise victory", said Abbott at his press conference: electoral victory would be beside the point. He is leading the Liberal Party to the kind of landslide defeat that all first-term State/Territory Labor governments enjoyed in the '90s, and for the same reason: the Libs think their defeat was a technicality and they'll do less than they did last time, except with more umbrage, so they'll get fewer votes than they got last time.

There's no point moderating those policies any more. Like any moderate leader of the Liberal Party, Joe is the Mr Rochester of Australian politics, courting the heroine (the swinging voter) while the right whingers scream from the attic, wreck stuff, and generally make things difficult impossible. Our heroine will only come back once the edifice has been burnt to the ground and the maddie's dead.

I first met Joe Hockey in about 1989, and thought he was a breath of fresh air as a policy thinker and a natural leader, after a damp squib of two years in the NSW Young Liberals run by a control freak. I understood why the right whingers objected to his rails run into Parliament but I couldn't see them offer anyone better (still can't). He's smart and works hard, and anyone who scoffs at this is in for a hard time.

Turnbull has the opportunity to provide the voice of business on prudence and risk management on environmental policy, but anything coming from him will be portrayed as a leadership gambit by the journosphere. I hope he's like Menzies in 1941, under pressure only to rebound stronger than before, but I could be wrong about that too.

I left the Liberal Party before Tampa. I could not cope with a Parliamentary party that consisted of two factions - the compliant and the supine - both worshipping The Leader in their big broad church. I was an ex-Lib long before Howard's self-indulgence drove his government to oblivion: the country made it out in time but the Libs are still trapped in the twisted wreck, face down in the gutter. The road back will be a crawl, with the Mincheviks screaming all the way about "selling out the base".

If I were Kellie O'Dwyer or Paul Fletcher I'd walk into the party room with an iron bar and beat the shit out of Wilson Tuckey; lucky they didn't preselect me, eh.

It's OK for us bloggers to be political dilettantes, less so - no, not so - for party leaders. I think Abbott is weak for being the front man for the Mincheviks, but he wasn't strong enough to do anything else. Being photographed in sluggos, as he was on the weekend, was an exercise in self-sabotage: he doesn't really want the top job, just like Baillieu and Debnam did with their attempts to look like action men. I've seen Abbott look confident and assured, as he was with the republic; but in recent weeks he's looked and sounded less than convinced, less than convincing.

Tony Abbott is a media tart and nothing else, nothing. He was absent from the economic debates of the 1980s and '90s. His entire ministerial career depended on his ability to attract showers of cash from Howard: as Health Minister Kay Patterson was locked in to a narrow range of policy positions but as soon as Abbott got in he could bend over forwards for doctors' lobbies and drug companies. When he got rolled on RU486 it brought the culture wars to an end in this country (the moderates won; it should have showed anyone who was paying attention that he'd never, ever become Prime Minister). He had no opinions on changes to Australian foreign policy, and shadowed Rudd's weakest minister so ineffectively that she's still there.

Tony Abbott is a much less substantial figure than Andrew Peacock.

To the right whingers; you've won, now show the way ahead. You know you want to, and the way ahead for you is clearer than it has ever been. Delight in your base, but if you want the Liberal Party to win government again, you will have to compromise. My guess is that the right whinge won't have the courage of their convictions, and will start moderating furiously once the Liberal Party gets outpolled by the Greens. Labor knows that there's nothing so true to Labor's traditions than selling out Labor's traditions, and so it is with the Liberals: only when the utter bankruptcy of Minchevism becomes apparent can the long road back to government begin.

Moderates are part of your base, you dickheads. Yes, they* are.

27 November 2009

Playing Hockey

Joe Hockey should not become leader of the Liberal Party now. What should happen next week is either (a) Turnbull beats Abbott or (b) Abbott beats Turnbull for the time being, and comes back once Abbott is shown to be gutless, strategically inept, and right about nothing other than Turnbull being the most substantial Liberal in Parliament at the moment.

Hockey's instincts that he could become the Steven Bradbury of the Liberal Party (i.e, waiting until everyone else crashes and gliding away with the gold) are right. To go against those instincts is to do Hockey, and ultimately the Liberal Party, a disservice. Shakespeare is full of people who go too far too soon, let Abbott do the Icarus routine by himself.

The very idea of floating Peter Dutton as deputy leader is a joke. It's a basic fact of party politics that you have to win preselection. After the low-level threat posed by Peter Costello as deputy, with status independent of the leader, it seems the Deputy Leadership of the Liberal Party is reserved for the sort of cream puff who poses no threat to anyone, least of all Labor. If Dutton has any backbone at all he'll take on Peter Slipper, the last surviving relic of the Joh for PM push, of whom far too much has been seen and heard lately.

If you want to know why the Murdoch press is so down on intellectuals, look no further than their in-house intellectuals: Imre and van Onselen.

One minute the "Liberal base" against the ETS are precious voices to be heard and obeyed, the next minute they're "furniture". There's a contradiction there Peter if only you'd get off the merry-go-round and analyse it for a minute.

So long as Turnbull doesn’t suicide bomb his way out of the Liberal leadership, the following scenario is what is required:

Turnbull’s lieutenants convince their man to go. The lieutenants are Christopher Pyne, Stephen Ciobo, Scott Morrison, George Brandis and Michael Ronaldson. There is a title that wouldn’t carry to much cache in the Liberal Party going forward – a former Turnbull lieutenant!

Heh! Not like being John Hewson's press secretary! Or the State Director of the Liberal Party in SA who sabotaged his party at state and federal level whenever it diverted resources away from his idol!

As a moderate he will need the cover of Minchin to control conservatives during his period as leader.

Cover be damned. If Minchin can knock off Malcolm Turnbull, nobody is safe.

Right now the nation's telecommunications policy is starting to unravel, and the one Liberal who could do something about it is doing the only thing he does well - attack other Liberals.

But Hockey will need to be prepared to accept the party rooms [sic] opposition to the Rudd government ETS. He can then go about planning for an alternative scheme that conservatives can stomach – good luck with that.

If the conservatives want an alternative scheme, let them put one up. Turnbull dusted off the 2007 policy and it wasn't good enough, so God only knows what will please those people.

Peter van Onselen had a duty to not just giddily report the latest scuttlebutt from Canberra, but actually weigh it up, think through the implications and tell us what was really going on.

If Tony Abbott is a weak leader for the conservatives, that should be made crystal clear and he should get hammered next week. I hope the bastard gets fewer votes than Kevin Bloody Andrews ("do I look like I give a fuck about curry-munching doctors?"). If Abbott's commitment to climate change denial is the basis of his run for the leadership, then he'd better be strong and knowledgeable. He'd better not just be Minchin's patsy, which is what he appears to be.

Abbott cannot be deputy because two New South Welshmen leading the Liberal Party will not be acceptable to Liberals from interstate. That said, Julie Bishop is not a viable deputy leader, that fact has been known for some time. Her replacement should be Queenslander Peter Dutton. Having a deputy from Kevin Rudd’s home state would be a useful electoral tool ...

He can't even win preselection Peter, he runs away from tough fights - do you think the state that gave us Mal Meninga and Ted Kenna VC would stand for that?

... and Dutton as a former assistant treasurer to Peter Costello would be well placed to take on the shadow treasurership Hockey will vacate to become leader.

Not really - he was useless in that role, useless as shadow Health. You can't make a case that he'd be better than Julie Bishop so leave her there until you can find someone better.

That would leave Abbott needing to be given a senior position for having been prepared to withdraw his leadership intentions declared today. As a former manager of government business in the House of Representatives [Abbott] could take over from Pyne in the equivalent role in opposition.

Whose needs are we talking about here? Gillard and Roxon and other members of Labor's frontbench climbed all over Abbott - indeed, they lost government with Abbott in this vital role.

That would free Pyne (responsible for Turnbull’s elevation to the leadership remember) for the fight of his political life in his marginal Adelaide seat of Sturt. And there is no love loss between Pyne and the newly formed leadership team I am describing anyway.

Really? There was Malcolm Turnbull, alone and palely loitering, and if it wasn't for a force of nature known as Christopher Pyne then nobody would have heard of Malcolm Turnbull today. That's some analysis, Peter.

Why doesn't Minchin run for Sturt? Obviously he'd be too scared to take on Andrew Southcott in Boothby. If you're going to lose any semblance of perspective as a big Capitol Hill playa, you may as well go right off.

New talent could be promoted into cabinet such as Tony Smith and the likes of Jamie Briggs and Mathias Cormann could make their way into the outer ministry. Most if not all of the fronbenchers who resigned yesterday could be retained going forward.

No, they can't. Tony Smith has blown his chance at being his own man when the going got tough. Matthias Cormann and the rest can piss off too.

Ian Macfarlane would have to be dumped from the frontbench altogether as the person who has spent the past few days emboldening Turnbull when he really should have been told to walk off into the sunset. Andrew Robb should be brought into tactics committee – as a former federal director of the party is has been bizarre that he hasn’t been in there up until now.

Macfarlane has done a difficult job well, it is the act of a dingo to hang him out to dry. Robb needs to cool his heels and take his medication for a bit.

Van Onselen's biography of John Howard shows him at his best when removed from the daily grind. When he's in the thick of it he's hopeless, gullible and self-contradictory. Next they'll be telling him he should be in Parliament and that he can win a seat without preselection - worse, he'll believe them. You can run for Warringah, Peter, unless Imre wants it.

Malcolm Turnbull should fight Tony Abbott and beat him soundly. If Turnbull stands firm the Liberals won't blast him out: this is not a party that does regicide well, much to the chagrin of Slipper, Tuckey and other old stagers. Turnbull should then put $10m of his own money on the table to fight the next election. Over the summer Turnbull will have fresh standing to hold Rudd to account, including amending the ETS. The quitters can shape up or ship out.

26 November 2009

Smoking ruins

Suicide Squad Leader: We are the Judean People's Front crack suicide squad! Suicide squad, attack!

[they all stab themselves]

Suicide Squad Leader: That showed 'em, huh?

- Monty Python Life of Brian

Mere election defeat is not enough for the Liberal right: we've seen that at state level. The Liberal right would not be happy until they get annihilated. Within a few months of losing office in 1983, Malcolm Fraser was history for the Liberal Party (and now he's not even that): John Howard is far more pervasive, and his half-life will be with us for generations. I always thought they had to work Howard out of their system, and I thought Turnbull was the means to do that - and so it has come to this. The show aint over until Götterdämmerung, baby, so strap yourself in and take the ride.

Not that they have anywhere to go. The Liberals rely on their counterparts in the UK and US for direction - John Howard and Peter Costello still cite Thatcher and Reagan as key influences. The US Republicans are bankrupt and bereft and the UK Tories have committed themselves to a bunch of policies position statements press releases on the environment and other matters that make Turnbull look like Dick Cheney.

The Minchin right were always going to go the sook when they realised that they weren't going to have things their own way. What forced this issue to a head was not Turnbull's high-handedness: what brought this on was Turnbull's commitment to change. If Malcolm Turnbull seriously committed himself to listening and reconciliation, Minchin and Abbott would be completely stuffed. If Bob Hawke could get off the grog to become PM, it was entirely possible for Turnbull to get over himself.

While their commitment to the greater good of the Liberal Party, the nation and the environment is questionable, Minchin and the other Suicide Squad members can't be faulted for self-preservation through bastardry. Their real trick was to con others into thinking that their best interests were served by doing likewise. Idiots like Sophie Mirabella and Michael Johnson have done the Liberal Party a favour by departing, but people like Brett Mason or Andrew Robb have simply been conned.

The reason why this article is a self-serving drizzle of piss (and sloppy journalism) can be seen from the pic at the top of the article: to the right of Andrews and with Tuckey squarely behind them, a little world of stupid unto itself. The Frontier Economics model is no more substantive as a Liberal alternative than was Peter Shack's health policy in 1990. If you're going to spike the ETS, have something to offer in its place: muddied waters and complacency just won't cut it.

Turnbull offered a real opportunity for Tony Smith to grow up. Smith was Costello's gofer, press sec and general dogsbody, and he has absorbed Costello's mannerisms to the point where he had become a cipher. If Costello had been a pharaoh, Tony Smith would have been killed and mummified for Costello to take into his afterlife. Instead, Turnbull put Smith onto his frontbench, and the only significant thing Smith did in return was to quit. Pinocchio moved from being a puppet to a real boy, but not Tony Smith - he will be a pissant all his life.

It would be fair to describe the ETS as a dog's breakfast if only it were as substantial or as nutritious, and if there were some creature dumb enough to lap it up. But it's better than nothing, and nothing is the only alternative if you knock Turnbull out. A united Liberal Party would be able to turn the focus back on the inadequacy of the ETS - but not only is it the only policy response to carbon and Copenhagen standing, it's going to become law - before Christmas, after Christmas or after the next election. The Frontier Economics thing is going the way of The Things That Matter.

There has been a lot of wishful thinking that the Liberals' inability to come to terms with anthropogenic global warming is like the Labor split of the 1950s and '60s - it isn't. Some have involed the centenary of Fusion to claim this is the end of conservative politics in this country once and for all - it isn't. The historical parallel is with the Libs' implacable hatred of Medicare throughout the 1980s and '90s. As soon as they got over themselves, making Medicare a neutral issue and denying the stick for Labor to beat them with, they became electable again.

As soon as the Liberals get over themselves enough to stop hating the ETS, and develop a serious policy that takes the next step forward to a post-carbon energy future, they'll be electable again. That won't happen this week, it won't happen before the next election, so all you can do is dust off your fire plan and hope for the best.

25 November 2009

Too late

This is the period to which Labor people will look back and ask: why, why didn't Rudd call an early election to take advantage of Liberal disarray?

But this isn't about the actual government that develops and implements policy, oh no, it's about the opposition. Not enough about the former government or the next Liberal government, nor about the current government, just the current opposition and its current leader.

The proposal that Turnbull is putting forward is much the same as the policy that the Howard government put in its failed bid for re-election in 2007. Observers of the Liberal Party used to marvel at the way that John Howard would make a pronouncement and the Libs would fall in behind like so many sheep. Now we see that this was based on the supposition that such unity and obedience would yield - and be justified by - victory.

In theory the Liberal Party should just fall into line behind Howard-era policies in the same way that it has in other areas of policy: but it's too late for that now, too late. There's no victory to validate such a stance, the spell has broken. This is part of the remaking of the Liberal Party, wonderful to behold for those of us dissatisfied with Howard, terrifying for those seeking to build on what he achieved.

The climate change denialists in the Liberal Party represent the coagulation of two forces, one as perennial as the grass and another a noxious import.

The standard old-school conservative identified climate change as a minority position, far out to the left and using environmentalism as another stick to beat capitalism with (never mind environmental degradation in eastern Europe, the USSR and what used to be known as Red China). Ayn Rand's book The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, released in 1971, was an early primer for this way of thinking and ironically the Greens have pretty much reinforced its thesis of capitalism as the problem rather than the solution.

The noxious imports are the very sort of people Rand warned about: lefties in the early '70s who've since seen the light, and the vacant space among conservative intelligentsia, and scuttled across vast tracts of moderate middle ground to rebadge themselves as 'conservatives': Keith Windschuttle and pretty much every regular Quadrant contributor over 50 (except, perhaps, George Pell) can be included here.

This latter brigade group outfit are responsible culpable for the idea that climate change science can be politicked away. The same people who pooh-poohed the domino theory as a tool of imperialists and aggressors are trying to do the same to climate change as a tool of lefties.

Almost all of those who are the most determined climate-change deniers are aged over 60, and have no future in a Liberal government: Tuckey, B. Bishop, and the charity case Dennis Jensen (the Liberals' answer to Julia Irwin). This cohort will be worked out of parliament over the next two or three terms - younger members like Bernardi will be free to go with them, or to change their minds.

There simply is no future for the kind of quietism implied in the cc-deniers' position: even if the consensus was shown to be a sham, the idea that we would return to fossil fuels as though nothing had happened is a non-starter. It's no kind of policy, it preserves no industry or jobs, it offers nothing to the future of this country.

Turnbull and other Liberals are right to see climate change as an overwhelming reality, deserving of a proper and far-reaching policy response. They are right to perceive that scientific proof and public opinion will grow and solidify behind positions that call for sharp and permanent reductions in carbon emissions.

Capitalism is big enough to adapt to systems that minimise carbon emissions - indeed, only capitalism is so capable. New forms of energy (or even new-ish, such as solar energy systems capable of rendering an average home independent of the grid) are likely to proliferate into the near future. The Liberals are doing Australian industry a disservice by doing what the Rudd government is doing - sending inconsistent and ultimately counterproductive policy signals to what can only be a crucial industry of the future. Look at Nick Minchin's employment background and wonder what he'd know about business - I've seen traffic go by but that doesn't make me a driving instructor.

The other matters that government would need to consider in this matter don't seem to be important to the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party as currently constituted.

Firstly, it's indisputably true that the brown coal of Victoria is Australia's worst power stations, fuelled by its worst power source - "brown coal", slightly more energy efficient than burning old newspapers and household waste. It's also true that these power stations have to keep going until alternatives can be found - see above for a description of how the Libs are making this more difficult rather than less.

Time was that the Liberals would be awake up to Victoria's power needs, and would be busy developing policies accordingly. Those days have passed, and instead dipsticks and knuckleheads just say: no, not this, and not that either.

To some extent, it serves the Victorian Libs right that they keep preselecting such people. Look at the Victorian Liberals in the Senate - that lot should not be municipal councillors, the very idea that they might help shape the future of Australian industry is just ridiculous, and they wonder why they can't get a Federal leader up from there.

Second, since the Stern Report in 2006 the response to climate change has been one of risk mitigation than flat out denial. In company reports, you can see references to carbon mitigation efforts rather than long screeds denouncing lefties or ignorant nonsense about how warm days and rising sea levels might not be so bad. From the supposed party of business we hear not one word about risk mitigation.

Another important difference is that the policy of the current government, the CPRS with its target of a 5% reduction in carbon emissions, is not a substantive policy but a cobbled-together compromise that satisfies nobody. It is likely that the next Liberal government will go much further in clamping down on carbon emissions, much further than you might imagine the current government going. Watch for Gillard, Tanner et al being gobsmacked and stammering at Liberal progress on this issue - then you'll know the ground has shifted, but that's a while off yet and depends upon a stable Liberal Party.

Then again, there's Leadership:

"There are many elements to a campaign. Leadership is number one. Everything else is number two.”

- Bertolt Brecht

Turnbull has toughed it out, flouting the rightwing fantasy that moderates are softies just waiting around to be toppled by manly men of conviction such as they. Tony Abbott's switch has counted for nothing, absolutely nothing. Battlelines, his thoughts on Australia and the world in general, contains little on the pressing issue of carbon - and was no help in positioning him as a leader (and the sales haven't provided much of a war chest, either). Peter Slipper and Kevin Andrews have joined the ranks of political roadkill who still think they're part of the journey. All the Machiavellian skill of Nick Minchin has failed to shift Turnbull one iota. Turnbull just will not die. All he needs now is staff with some political skill and the wit to listen to them.

16 November 2009

Adding value

Peter van Onselen has been emotive and sentimental in overlooking the fact that a structural separation of the Liberal and Nationals would benefit both parties. Using the word "divorce" likens the Coalition to a family, with children and chattels to think of, when it is really more like the kind of corporate demergers that release value for all involved.

It is a distinct possibility that the Liberal and National parties could go their separate ways, just as they did ahead of the ill-fated 1987 election campaign during the ill-conceived "Joh for PM" push.

It's not 1987 any more, Peter. The Liberal Party has been able to represent itself to rural and regional voters as a legitimate representative of their interests. This outreach to regional communities, made possible by changes to transport and communications which make cities and regions less remote from one another, breaks down the sense of implacable divide implicit in the idea that only the Nats can effectively represent rural Australia.

Some Liberals, especially those representing non-metropolitan electorates, are dissatisfied with the Coalition because the Nationals, despite being the junior partner, are heavily represented in the allocation of rural and regional portfolios such as trade, regional development, agriculture and fisheries.

This was probably an issue when the Coalition was in government: not now. Why is trade a "rural and regional portfolio", when most of Australia's exports come overwhelmingly from the major cities? Given that Mark Vaile made such a has of the US Free Trade Agreement, why have they been allowed anywhere near this issue? Why aren't health, education or even Broadband & The Digital Economy "rural and regional portfolios"?

Equally, some Nationals are sick of their party being treated as the poor cousin in the Coalition relationship. They feel they don't get enough respect for what they bring to the table as a party representing the non-metropolitan regions prepared to follow the Coalition line on most issues.


So, the Nats don't get everything they want - does this make them "the poor cousin", or just another bunch of whingers? How about some analysis of how good they've had it, and a link to the degree to which they are obliged to STFU.

If they don't, it will guarantee that the conservatives don't win their way back into government for many years to come, as happened after the 1987 split.

The Coalition split over Joh was history by the following election in 1990. It wasn't drawn-out, like the Labor split over Communism in the 1950s and '60s.

It's true the Nationals benefit - and they know it - from the funds generated by taking a share of the public funding from the joint Senate tickets in NSW and Victoria. But if the Coalition were broken, alternative revenue sources would fast open up if the Nationals pursued a populist policy approach in the bush, which is exactly what they would do. And the electoral benefits would soon follow as well.

The downside for the Nationals breaking from the Coalition is that while they would likely maintain or even increase their representation in parliament, they would do so at the expense of achieving a share of power incumbency brings. The reason the Nationals are a political force able to disproportionately deliver for regional communities is because they are regularly part of a Coalition in government.

If they know that they benefit, why don't they stop whingeing? If they think they can make as much or more after a Coalition split, why bother with the Coalition at all - just grab the new opportunities with both hands. Why this gutless sniping followed by cloying declarations of fealty to the Libs and Turnbull? Never mind the nostalgia act Peter, the better story is to call it as it is.

If the Nats cut themselves off from funding sources in the cities, where exactly might these "fast" funding sources come from? Third parties in Australia have a history of loudly proclaiming their own purity by spurning the corporate coin, whether we're talking about the Greens, the Democrats or even the DLP. It's unlikely that the Nats would follow suit, but even so I think Peter overestimates how much largesse is available from, say, a meat tray raffle at Dubbo RSL.

One example is the proposal to drill for gas on the Liverpool Plains, potentially poisoning the water table in one of Australia's richest farming areas. Now imagine the gas producers wanted to make a friendly donation to the Nationals - to accept, or not accept? That is the question ... the very kind of dilemma that could scupper the Nats, like the GST did for the Democrats.

For a start, Joyce would immediately become Nationals leader. Warren Truss's strength is that he is a bridge between the parties. Without a Coalition the maverick Joyce would easily win a leadership ballot and, as head of a minor party not in the Coalition, being based in the Senate wouldn't be a short-term problem for him. He would move to the lower house at the next election, quite possibly winning a seat at the Liberal Party's expense.

All the other minor parties know the real action is in the Senate. Why would Joyce want to move to the lower House? He doesn't want to and can't become Prime Minister, and if there is a party rule that says that the Senate leader must defer to the House leader, Barnaby can change it.

Let's assume he did - which seat would he go for, Peter? Probably the seat where he lives, Maranoa, currently held by the Nationals. He might go after Ian Macdonald in Groom, but it's not clear that he'd knock him off given that Toowoomba is increasingly an urban settlement in its own right. If the good people of Groom wanted to knock off a once (and future?) Cabinet Minister in favour of a populist loudmouth, van Onselen would need to re-examine all his assumptions about the wonders of being part of government.

Warren Truss's strength is that he is a bridge between the parties.

Yairs. And what a great job he's doing.

Joyce would be free to become even more populist than he already is and not just on the basis of his opposition to emissions trading, about which rural Australia has serious concerns.

He might even embrace policy positions such as giving farmers back their guns, highly selective immigration reforms or a quota for spending in rural communities, similar to the royalties-for-regions policy the WA Nationals successfully took to the previous election.

Let's leave aside the fact that van Onselen is starting to sound shrill here, and doesn't quote any hard data.

Part of the perils of being an honest broker is that you need at least one of the major parties with you. Let's do something that scares Peter van Onselen - let's unpack his assumptions:

  • Emissions trading - after the exemption for farming nutted out between Labor and the Libs, the response to this is only too easy - be part of the solution or we'll lift the exemption. That would negate Joyce from the whole debate, and give him nowhere to go on carbon risk mitigation.

  • Guns - Labor won't back it, the Liberals might prevaricate but it was John Howard who bought the ban in - and urban MPs of either party want fewer guns rather than more and can be persuaded that the current regime works for farmers, shooting clubs and other legitimate users in the regions.

  • Immigration - rural communities know that the only way they can get infusions of either unskilled willing workers or professionals is through immigration. Pauline Hanson lost a rural seat in 1998 (to a Liberal) and Hansonism won't be the powerful tonic in 2010 that it might have been a dozen years ago.

  • Royalties for regions - would that be such a big departure from Nationals' standard operating procedure?

At this point you'd hope van Onselen would have a cup of tea and a lie down, but he digs himself in further:
On the back of such populism, Nationals candidates would happily take part in three-cornered contests in rural and regional seats right across Australia. This would threaten the futures of a good number of Liberal MPs and it would certainly make marginal Labor-held seats unwinnable for the Liberals or likelier to be picked up by the Nationals.

To be sure, the Nationals would not limit their push into new electorates to non-metropolitan seats: they would also contest some city-fringe electorates such as Macarthur, McEwen and Paterson in a bid to increase their statewide Senate vote. So the Liberal MPs whose future would be on the line would include those holding marginal seats in or on the outskirts of big cities.

It is sheer crap that the Nationals could win Macarthur or Paterson, or Robertson or any other "urban fringe" seat for that matter. If the Nats can't even win Indi or Corangamite and are not that strong in Gippsland, then they've got Buckley's in McEwen (regardless of whom it's named after).

Let's have a look down the list of Labor's most marginal seats. A CLP member for Solomon NT would more likely side with the Libs than the Nats or independents. The Nationals might have a chance of winning Herbert or Flynn in Queensland, but only with a 1996-style landslide. The Nats are not a strong asset to the Liberals.

By contrast:

  • Nationals seats Calare, Cowper, Gippsland and Hinkler are vulnerable either to Labor or the Liberals - and if the Liberals are more likely to deny these seats to Labor then the Nats should stand aside.

  • Riverina's standing as a Nats seat owes more to its local member, Kay Hull, than the brilliance of the Nationals machine. The same can probably be said of Bruce Scott in Maranoa, and John Forrest in Mallee. All are aged in their 60s: if Joyce were to run for Maranoa it would not be a bold gambit, but a holding pattern.

  • Wide Bay is up for grabs without Truss, it's one of the poorest electorates in the country. There's nothing stopping Truss joining the Liberals.

  • This leaves Parkes, and a one-man party is not much of a party at all - a point proven by the craven Fielding insinuating himself with those abused in adoption centres - nice attempt to deflect churches' responsibility for that abuse, eh Senator.

This leaves aside the possibility that, in one or more of those dwindling numbers of seats, there are people amassing war chests and volunteer rosters to run as Independents.

You'd have to consider the Nationals a net liability as a Coalition partner, and not much of a threat to the Liberals (nor, indeed, Labor) as a competitor/enemy. The Nationals are more trouble than they're worth.

There would be no guarantee the Nationals would even preference the Liberals.

An average of 28 per cent of Nationals' preferences flowed Labor's way in three-cornered contests at the previous election, even though in every instance except the seat of O'Connor the Nationals officially directed preferences to the Liberal Party.

Again, van Onselen has shot his own argument. Official direction of preferences are irrelevant, and if the Liberals want to run a gibberer in O'Connor then more fool them. If the Coalition is built on mutual preferencing then it's already done for.

The loss of support for the Liberals if Nationals ran against them in a large number of electorates would be fatal.

No it wouldn't, you've already blown that argument. In those circumstances the Labor vote tends to go down - spend more time as a political scientist and less time doing Glenn Milne impersonations, and this may be clearer than it appears to you now, Peter.

Then there is the difficulty of breaking the newly formed Liberal National Party in Queensland. If the LNP were to disintegrate it would leave what remained of the Queensland division of the Liberal Party more or less bankrupt (a reason the merger was approved by the Liberals in the first place) and shatter the state wing for both parties.

It does not follow that a demerger at the Federal level requires one at the state level. The LNP has the Labor state government on the ropes (if not quite on the canvas, as in NSW), led by a former Liberal. Besides, the Liberal Party's Queensland Division has been blowing huge political opportunities since Gordy Chalk's day - no sympathy for that lot.

In NSW, where the conservatives are considered almost certain to win in March 2011, the Coalition would once again have found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

This is the nearest van Onselen comes to having a point.

The 1987 Federal split did not prevent the Coalition winning government in NSW the following year. The Nationals realise that all issues are regional issues, which is why their Deputy Leader is also the Shadow Minister for Education. The O'Farrell-Stoner relationship appears strong. The nearest thing to a Joyce-style ratbag, Andrew Fraser, is stepping down and is no threat to anyone (apart from Joe Tripodi, heh heh).

The NSW State Director of the National Party may be forgiven for losing one or two Federal seats next year, but he will fail utterly if all NSW Legislative Assembly seats currently held by the Nationals are not National-held after 2011. He's failed upwards this far, but no further: no Legislative Council seat for someone who doesn't come through.

And where would a federal break-up of the Coalition leave the WA government?

Given that WA Labor is a rabble, it would put them in the box seat for a crushing win at an early election ... but you're the WA-based political scientist, Peter, you tell me.

And Liberals couldn't be happy about the likelihood that the Nationals would try their hand in Tasmania, a state they have always left for the Liberals to contest.

This isn't a courtesy on the Nats' part - they simply can't run an operation on the ground, they can't convince rural communities that they can both reflect their concerns and represent them effectively in Canberra.

Now that the Liberals can operate in the city and the bush, and now that Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor have proven that the only popular Nationals are ex-Nationals, the Nationals themselves are redundant. Unlike 1987, a demerger would benefit both parties - indeed, no other political action in Australia would improve the body politic nearly as much.

04 November 2009

Seeking refuge

Peter Costello has produced another of those columns that give some comfort both to those who admire him, and those who don't; which have at their core a desire for self-justification, with attempts to disguise this with a bit of partisan swingeing. This one is about border protection.

If they are admitted to Christmas Island and the passengers are successful in their claims to enter the country, the number of boats and the number of passengers will only increase ... The volume of the traffic is in direct proportion to the chances of successful entry.

The number of people seeking to enter Australia by whatever means is not solely a function of how easy it is to get in.

Costello does himself no favours by ignoring the push factors, reasons that cause people to abandon their homes and communities in search of better lives. The sheer hardship of a seaborne journey with internment along the way, not to mention persecution beforehand, suggests that this is not done for the light and transient reasons that might cause Australians to seek "a change of scene" from time to time.

It is also true that those who arrive by boat are judged to have legitimate grounds for refugee or asylum-seeker status 70-85% of the time. By Costello's own standards, this alone should mean Australia would be inundated by refugee/asylum applications. Why would anyone arrive by plane, where refugee applications are much less successful? Why would people consent to stay in refugee camps, where dithering bureaucracies are flat out providing food and shelter let alone information on emigration and professional processing of applications? Why would anyone stay at home and suffer persecution from a hostile government? Back in the day, Costello used to talk about private enterprise and individual effort.

One day, someone is going to come ashore off a cruise liner or a merchant ship and claim asylum, and the whole sea-versus-air distinction will be seen for the nonsense that it is. Either your claim is legitimate or it isn't.

Costello is trying to create the impression that any issue not mentioned by him is unworthy of his gaze - yet it is also possible that he has overlooked it from a vantage point no less comfortable than those he ascribes to his opponents. It's one thing to follow a party line in government, particularly when it affects issues outside your portfolio; to stick to the same line in Opposition suggests a lack of perspective, an unwillingness to embrace new ideas, and an inability to read a popular mandate.

Critics of the Howard government complained that its policy was too harsh, inhumane and brutal. If only the government were more welcoming, they suggested, the whole problem could be managed. The claims were of course nonsense - the kind of claims only people with no responsibility for the outcome could make from their comfortable vantage points.

The second sentence reveals Costello's view that nobody outside of government can legitimately criticise policy. If you think like that, you've been in Canberra too long.

The fact that Australia has an immigration program at all means that, to some extent, this country and its government welcomes new migrants. In tourism and other promotional campaigns (including the response to in 2005 tsunami) we present ourselves as a generous and inviting people. Our history is one of accepting migrants in significant numbers. Against all that, the idea that we might not be welcoming to some people is incongruous.

When presented with incongruous information the first temptation is to ignore it. When you have experience of overcoming insurmountable odds, you will be tempted to try your luck.

The most humane way to assist asylum seekers make claims in Australia would be to use Qantas to airlift claimants from Sri Lanka or Iraq or Afghanistan direct to Christmas Island. That way no one would have to board a boat and everyone would get their asylum claim dealt with in an Australian territory.

But I have never heard anyone argue for this.

This is a standard Costelloism: set up a straw man and blame others for not helping prop it up. He's trying to ignore those who fly to Australia (on whatever airline), not to Christmas Island but Sydney, Melbourne or elsewhere, and who either blend into the community or who seek refugee/asylum status and fail. His argument is the weaker for that, a deficiency that could have been remedied with less straw-man work.

If an airlift is out of the question, the next best thing to do is to stop the sea trade and insist all claims for refugee status be made offshore, with humanitarian visas granted to those who have observed the rules and waited for lawful entry.

The next best thing to do, as I said earlier, is to redirect foreign policy to address the movement of people around the region. This will also improve the speed of information flow - and hence of applications (successful or otherwise), which will reduce internment expenses (monetary and otherwise).

There are people still interned in our region who were forced to flee the Vietnam war and the idea of getting in line behind those who have waited for decades is appalling, to refugees/asylum-seekers and those who sympathise with them. There is no queue to jump.

Why "humanitarian visas", anyway? Why not straight-up, come-and-join-us get-a-job residency? I'm not going to accuse Costello of callousness for proposing this, just a dull-witted lack of imagination of what refugees'/asylum-seekers' predicaments must be like.

Hannie Rayson even wrote a play designed to show how ministers in [the Howard] government had connived in the tragic deaths [of those aboard SIEV-X].

This isn't some by-the-by, he's been waiting years for this: nursing the grudge and burnishing it until he could sling it back - not just at Rayson directly but at all those Age readers who helped stage Two Brothers, who paid to see it, who wrote articles on it in The Age, etc. Hopefully he's gotten it off his chest now and won't descend into some Nixonian abyss of bitterness over this. Hopefully he's not there already. It wasn't that good a play and persists only for political reasons.

No Australian minister would welcome having to deal with this issue. There is no easy or soft solution. The public has an instinctive understanding of that. The object must be to dissuade people from attempting to reach Australia by unauthorised boats.

Stuff the boats. People who are not acceptable to this country must not come, and everyone else is most welcome to - as we say in Australia - have a go. That's what the objective must be: part of a consistent and overarching policy on immigration, tourism, defence and foreign policy. To use such language might make you sound like Kevin Rudd, but he's not exactly putting such a framework together.

It's just a pity that Costello was not big enough to see, let alone pull off, such a policy. Neither is Rudd: this is one for the statesmen. This is one tragedy you can sheet home to the man, and the others whom he leaves behind in the various "camps" from which Canberra correspondents report.

01 November 2009

Sussex Street Circus

The journosphere has focused on the hapless Nathan Rees as Premier of NSW, how unpopular he and his government are, and how they have a kind of reverse Midas touch where everything they touch turns to dross. This is seen as some sort of contrast to the all-conquering feds. This reflects poor framing of the issue, and poor framing will make it harder for people to understand important features of our political system and what looks likely come from it.

However unwittingly, it is Imre who, like an old-school journalist, parades his contacts while keeping them hidden from outsider view. People who care about NSW Labor politics can guess who Imre's contacts are, I can't be bothered: it's just pathetic that he's the world's only Glenn Milne wannabe.

A SENIOR Labor official in NSW was recently heard to observe that "Nathan Rees is one bad Newspoll away from a crisis".

This could be it.

In all pertinent respects, this poll is as bad as those that were seized upon early last year by party and union bosses at Sussex Street who were bent on fatally damaging Morris Iemma - and ended up inflicting more damage on the Labor brand in NSW than anybody since Jack Lang in the 1930s.

The first three paragraphs of Imre's story tell you the real problem with it. Rather than focus on Rees - who never promised anything more than he has delivered - the real focus here should be on the geniuses who comprise the once-mighty NSW ALP machine. The rest of Imre's article rehashes every other article over the past year, another example of zero-value Murdoch content.

"Whatever you might say about the folks at Sussex Street" - what about that they, rather than Rees, are the real story here? These are the geniuses who thought that too much Bob Carr was barely enough. They are the same people who thought that Iemma was an ideal replacement - and when proven wrong, still think they have the right to pop the bonnet and tinker with the engine while considering changing driver. These are the same geniuses who think there's mileage in taking Imre out for a Chinese meal now and then.

The folks at Sussex Street are clowns. All of them.

If Rees is going to avoid a tap on the shoulder, he needs a big policy win, or a spectacular few weeks in parliament between now and Christmas ...

There are no "policy wins". Anyone who knows anything about State politics knows that, and it does no credit to a parliamentary roundsman to pretend otherwise. Nobody gives a damn about "parliamentary theatre".

This can't help but affect the coming federal election, especially given that it will occur before the next state election. There will be a lot of nonsense about state issues interfering with federal issues, when in reality the NSW ALP will stuff up the most promising political environment for Labor in a generation.

NSW has lost a seat in the redistribution; it's a Labor seat. In the olden days, NSW ALP hard-heads (the sort of people who wouldn't piss on Imre) would sort something out and chuck out some dead wood. Instead, the clowns at head office are being upstaged by a jobsworth with a severe case of born-to-rule syndrome: the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia has had to take time out of her schedule to sort this out.

Mr Ferguson served six years in state politics before joining Federal Parliament. It is highly unlikely he will ever serve in the ministry.

You can understand why they thought of him as political roadkill: but did they not count on the Deputy Prime Minister? What else are these clowns not counting on?

Barry O'Farrell has rebuilt the NSW Liberal state office largely in his own image: he's a former State Director, knows where the bodies are buried. If Turnbull keeps going the way he's going then O'Farrell will basically use the federal poll as a test run for the State Election in 2011. Certainly, the money coming into Liberal head office is predicated on state success, and any money coming to the ALP to curry favour with the federal government will go to national head office rather than Sussex Street.

Going by Antony Green's assessment of the next Federal election, let's look at the NSW seats and see just how badly the Sussex Street clowns could balls this up:
  • Macarthur: had Pat Farmer been re-elected under the traditional Liberal Reverence For Dead Wood rule, Labor would have a real chance at that seat. Russell Mathieson is a serious candidate and all Labor have are the deadshit councillors they always run in that area. Prediction: Labor FAIL

  • Macquarie: Louise Markus will win that, factional squabbling and the Greens will do for Labor. Prediction: Labor FAIL

  • Robertson: Belinda Neal. Need I say more? She'll do enough to sail past preselection with the most unlikely Princess Di act ever, but will run out of puff into the new year as her husband no longer has the heft to pull her out of problems she causes. The Libs will choose a local bloke who wears polyester ties with shortsleeve shirts and a $10 haircut. Neal will court the national media, which Coasties don't give a damn about, doing glossy pics that make her look like a rouged-up front-end loader. Prediction: Labor FAIL

  • Gilmore: Should be there for the taking, but isn't. Prediction: Labor FAIL

  • Paterson: Like Gilmore, except you'll have to pry the seat out of Bob Baldwin's cold dead hands and the Hunter Valley ALP are even more useless than Sussex Street. Besides, anyone who's any good will go after Joel Fitzgibbon rather than Bob. Prediction: Labor FAIL

  • Hughes: Oh come on, the redistribution has given a chunk of southwestern Sydney to Labor and Danna Vale is retiring. Even David Hill could win this seat now. Prediction: Labor could still stuff this up.

  • Cowper: Held by the Nats, but demographics favour Labor if the economy stays on an even keel. Prediction: Labor could still stuff this up.

  • Calare: Held by the Nats, a strong local candidate backed by a well-regarded state government could tip this into Labor's column: but where would they get some of that? Prediction: Labor FAIL

  • Lindsay: Might be interesting if Whimpering Troy Craig stays out of it, otherwise it might not be. Prediction: Labor could still stuff this up.

  • Bennelong and Eden-Monaro: Will be quarantined from Sussex Street influence. Libs will run no-hopers. Prediction: Labor will not stuff these up.

  • Wentworth: Nah. Doesn't swing. Labor's next candidate is likely to be a hack rather than a McKew-style game-changer. Prediction: Labor FAIL

Labor will go backwards in NSW at the 2010 election: you read it here first. Like Andrew Peacock in 1984 it is possible that Turnbull could perform creditably against a first-term Labor government - but only within NSW, apparently.

31 October 2009

Dennis Ferguson

Perhaps now it may be possible to speak of this person and the issues surrounding him without being part of a lynch mob.

Dennis Ferguson has spent most of his adult life in Queensland prisons, convicted six times of sexually abusing children. He does not participate in rehabilitation programs. He attempted to settle in communities in Queensland which included children, and was hounded out of them. All of a sudden he popped up in a public housing facility in Sydney, where he was hounded out again, and was last heard of at Coogee and in a homeless shelter.

For the first time since 1840, New South Wales has accepted responsibility for a convicted felon from another jurisdiction. Yes, he has to live somewhere and it was clear that the Queensland government found it difficult to locate him in any community within that state without a storm of protest.

He did not have to live in NSW, and was not obliged to be a government responsibility by being accommodated in this state's public housing. He was not entitled, let alone obliged, to vault ahead of others in the long and time-intensive queue for public housing. Those who advocate more low-cost housing in Sydney have a harder time of it because of this stunt.

Ferguson's lack of remorse and his lack of rehabilitation means that children in the community wherever he might live are in danger. This is the pattern he has set and that pattern is unbroken. It is true that he has served his sentence, but this is no reason why he should be given the benefit of the doubt going forward. It is those people living in the community, going forward, who deserve the benefit of the doubt: Ferguson represents a real risk that children in that community might be abused.

There was a time when the rights of a freed convict might have trumped those of others in the community, and no amount of jowl-wobbling outrage from lawyers insisting that procedures known and practicable exclsusively by them vincit omnes will or can change that.

There was a time when sexual abuse of children was tolerated more than it is now. Those times have changed: people are acutely sensitive to the possibility of child sexual abuse to the point where children no longer play in the street or have unstructured play time to the extent that they did. The very prospect of child sexual abuse has caused far-reaching changes in the work practices of those who deal with children, even on a voluntary basis. It erodes people's faith in one another, and even in religious institutions that have not cottoned on to the implications of child sexual abuse as a serious, faith-destroying issue for people today.

Rehabilitating offenders and having them return to the community after their sentence is over is one of those issues that could always be done better. To the extent that it does happen, public housing communities perform an unheralded role in quietly facilitating this. It would be a mistake to assume that all public housing facilities contain all necessary facilities and goodwill required to effect prisoner rehabilitation; more could certainly be done generally, but for an unreconstructed and unrepentant offender there is little to be done. It is cynicism to use the publicity surrounding Ferguson to lobby for more resources: the worst type of cynicism, one where the means won't justify or be justified by the end.

Ferguson can only be accommodated in a community without children. He does not have the right to live where he pleases; the rights of children to grow into communities free of likely harrassment trumps those of this recidivist. Prison is one such; if there are others, then Ferguson must go there. Any community with children in it is a community of which Ferguson is unfit to be part. If there is no such community in NSW, then the NSW government can take no further responsibility for Ferguson and he must be returned to Queensland. If he is harrassed from Coolangatta to the Cape then this is an indictment of Queensland.

It was wrong of the Rees Government to think it was clever helping solve a problem for their neighbours by shunting this serial offender into a Liberal electorate (while I have no proof that this is its motivation, such is the position of the NSW government that nobody should believe any denials).

Fancy taking on a problem that couldn't be solved! What clowns.

30 October 2009

The slow tsunami

Conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, amongst other places, will see cause thousands of people to seek better lives elsewhere. The Australian government should be more proactive in addressing this problem.

When the tsunami struck in 2005 the then Australian government was extraordinarily generous to stricken nations and communities. It's not a snark against the Howard government to suggest that it was proactive policy: the more it could do to stabilise those communities the less likely any transmigration would occur, and thus it was less likely that Australia would be besieged with migration and asylum applications. It seems to have worked (in a national-policy sense rather than a party-political sense): the Howard government went to the 2007 election claiming responsibility for having stemmed a flow of asylum-seekers and refugees.

What has to happen now is the recognition that it is in Australia's foreign policy interest to do all it can to avoid, minimise and resolve conflicts that cause social displacement.

If Tamils believe they can no longer live in Sri Lanka after the defeat of Tamil Eelam, as appears to be the case, this is a foreign policy issue for Australia.

It's one thing for Australians to participate in military action with allied forces and what passes for the national government within Afghanistan; but there is an additional and distinct interest for Australia to limit emigration from the AfPak region. The Howard government was wrong to close the immigration desk at the Australian Embassy in Islamabad, but it was also wrong to limit it to a passive administrative role, waiting for applications. Instead, a role exists there for a proactive person, working with local communities and international agencies, to limit the number of people who feel unable to live in their own country and compelled to seek refuge/ asylum elsewhere.

Rather than reacting to events and displaying the limited focus that might have made him an effective staffer, Stephen Smith should be proactive and start wading in to these disputes. Backbench MPs seeking either promotion or a post-retirement diplomatic post should start volunteering to act as emissaries on the ground, in much the same role that Richard Holbrooke plays on behalf of the US government.

Such a role would involve tough and dirty work though, dangerous but hopefully not thankless, which may explain why nobody appears to have put their hand up for it. The sort of role that Alexander Downer is playing in Cyprus is a model for what could happen here.

This isn't about Australia being a global do-gooder; it's about solving a problem for Australia in a way that minimises cost to Australia.

This isn't about being a global cynic either, just focusing on stopping the outflow of refugees/ asylum-seekers (as with Rear Admiral Thomas' trip to Sri Lanka). A government responsible for war and social dislocation on a mass scale can hardly be relied upon to cut a deal to block the reffos (short of slaughtering them, perhaps).

Australian foreign policy should be about maintaining strong relationships with stable countries in our region; a country with mass social dislocation is not stable and incapable of providing much in the way of trade, pro-Australia votes in international NGOs, or anything else really.

There is a increasing understanding that the problems of our neighbours are our problems too, and that we need not consider ourselves obliged to sit and wait until the problem ends up within our borders, however they might be defined. The fact that there are thousands upon thousands of people throughout the world who'd like to come here, more people than we feel we can accommodate in a short time; that is our problem. Countries like Indonesia have their own refugee problems. Countries like Australia can do the hair-shirt rhetoric of "we decide who comes to this country" (this is what John Howard will most be remembered for in fifty years' time - discuss), but we need rhetoric to resolve complex social and international issues.

Far from being nakedly self-interested in seeking to solve displacement problems before they hit our shores, and without pretending to have the means to enforce "gunboat diplomacy", Australia could develop a reputation for helping bring about practical solutions to problems that cause social and political dislocation throughout the Asia-Pacific. We can overcome perceptions of self-centredness or blithe racism through ongoing, active on-the-ground diplomacy, practical action to prevent exoduses.

If we have to build a school here or a hospital there, this is better than having to build detention centres here.

This is the kind of foreign policy we could have if we didn't have such muppets, like Smith and Bishop, running the country's foreign policy. It's what could happen if Rudd wasn't so starstruck by bit-part acting in big-power politics (which is part of foreign policy, but need not be all of it).

This sort of engagement would also work its way through other areas of society and help avoid ignorant nonsense like this. Our options ought not be limited to one poorly thought out and morally expensive policy versus another. It is not so appalling being an Indonesian, or a Sri Lankan for that matter - people locked up on Christmas Island don't have the option of showing how well they could integrate with the Australian community, until they are dumped in it following successful "processing". The whiteness thing may be fairly levelled against Howard but it seems irrelevant when levelled against Rudd.

I agree that the distinction between people who arrive by boat and those who arrive by other means is bogus. Frankly, I would like to see "plane people" sent to detention centres to mix it with genuine refugees/ asylum-seekers in order to get them past their self-indulgence. I would like to see refugees/ asylum-seekers "earn their keep" by doing the sort of agricultural work Australians seem reluctant to do. You may say I'm a dreamer, etc.