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.