28 January 2010

Starts with why

As the Great Australia Day Kerfuffle over Tony Abbott's sexuality outburst begins to abate, with plenty of jowl-wobbling outrage on both sides, one question remains: why?

Why did he not anticipate being asked a question like this? Why did he not have a response ready? All those commentators who insisted that Abbott didn't have a problem with women voters look pretty stupid today - he sure does now.

Why is The Australian Women's Weekly such a political graveyard? Cheryl Kernot's feather boa, Mark Latham's first wife, Tony Abbott fretting over daughters he barely knows - all underestimated the Weekly and all came an absolute gutser because of it. So much for broadsheets, Sunday morning talk shows and talkback radio, not to mention the national broadcaster and the utterly otiose press gallery. Watch out for the mighty Weekly, ye media advisors and image consultants, and tremble when they come for you.

Abbott did not become a Cabinet Minister and leader of his party by answering every question that a journalist wanted to ask him. Why did he go there? He says he made those comments for his daughters' sake: but what can be said for a man who communicates with his offspring through the media? The Queen doesn't do that, John Howard didn't and George W. Bush certainly never did, and Catholic clergy don't have any to broadcast to (oh all right, but now isn't the time for timid moral retards who run off to seminaries to escape their responsibilities).

One's offspring aside, why even waste media time commenting on that issue? He's running for Prime Minister, not National Dad For All Women. Is he going to offer incentives for women who go to their marital beds as virgins (First Leg Over Grants)? No? Well there's no point in going into that issue at all now is there.

Gabriella Coslovich has a point:

The comment both fetishes a woman's virginity and reduces her value to the presence of a hymen, to the unpenetrated state of her vagina. Why is that the greatest gift a woman can give someone? What about her mind? Her actions? Dare I say it, her soul?

Why indeed? His daughters aside, does he really believe that Julia Gillard has less to offer beyond her own hymen? Does he believe that of Julie Bishop? Sophie Mirabella? Janet Albrechtsen? Senators Troeth and Boyce? Our head of state (pick one)? Any female Liberal candidate running for a seat with 5% margin of victory either way? Doctrine is one thing but a thinking person, as Abbott is alleged to be, has to test received wisdom against experience. Every Liberal woman is cheapened today, which may explain why they have been very quiet on this issue (except, commendably, Sharman Stone. He really has learned nothing from the RU-486 debate, has he. Why?

(It would be easy, and wrong, to claim that I'm besmirching the above-named Liberal women - their own leader did that. Don't bother with your comments charging to their defence as I recognise them as people of considerable achievement, which is more than can be said for Tony Abbott; only when you understand that you'll get the point of the preceding paragraph. Only when you understand that will you realise that it is Abbott who owes the apology. Now read on, and shut up.)

In purely electoral terms, the Liberal Party's problem with Abbott as leader was that he'd increase the Liberal vote in the safe Liberal seats and in safe Labor seats, but would do nothing for Liberals who want to take marginal Labor seats away from the incumbent government. Today is another incident arising from a known problem. Given the importance of women's votes in keeping the Liberal vote up, Abbott has made a category error. There is no way that Liberals can redress this error without shirtfronting their own leader. Why did he put his own party in a position of having to do this?

Abbott promised that he would take the fight up to the Labor Party. Why is it that on this issue, they are able to brush him off with ease?

And as for George Brandis, Gillard being childless does not make her "one-dimensional" any more than it does for Julie Bishop or [insert here names of female Liberal MPs who have no children but are obliged to work with George Brandis]. If only he were a clever politician.

Given that his stated reasons are piffle, disingenuous or simply don't make sense, why is this person leader of the Liberal Party? Why has his stated aim of putting the heat back on the Labor Party clearly not worked? Why did Liberals think he'd be better at leading their party than Malcolm Turnbull, Brendan Nelson, Joe Hockey or anyone else? Do the Liberals really have so little to offer Australia - and if so, why?

24 January 2010


Sir Walter Raleigh: Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall.
Queen Elizabeth I: If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all.

- attributed (in the spirit of our English heritage & shared values, &c.)

Michelle Grattan has seen every Federal Liberal leadership spill in almost forty years, from Gorton-McMahon to Turnbull-Abbott. She would have seen some doozies of conflicts within that party over issues of real substance. Her latest piece, however, strains credibility.

Tony Abbott has it all his own way, he really does. The Liberal Party's hand-wringing over getting rid of Howard in 2007 is over - Howard is back in every sense other than the physical. The mincing under Brendan Nelson and the catherine-wheel of ideas that was Malcolm Turnbull have stopped.

Malcolm Turnbull ought to be an irrelevance. If he tried to bring on a spill he wouldn't get half a dozen votes. His position now is weaker than that of Peter Costello in 2006. His latest outburst was on an issue that is not a hot issue for the coming election, and not even a Labor wedge against the Liberals: a republic. Turnbull is not firing off half-baked ideas like Abbott did as a frontbencher - Turnbull isn't even a frontbencher.

If Turnbull crossed the floor to support an ETS it would be to his credit as a man of principle, and it would further alienate him from the current Liberal Parliamentary Party (to say nothing of the extraparliamentary organisation). Storm in a teacup, people like Michelle Grattan may run giddy LIB SPLIT SHOCK stories, but that would pass (the very prospect is so irrelevant it would hardly be worth reporting).

Whatever O'Farrell's problems, the idea of Turnbull being parachuted in would be bizarre, a recipe for instability. Even if O'Farrell isn't a dream leader, the Liberals are heading to victory in NSW and should get behind the man they've got.

Indeed it would. The NSW Liberals should be tired of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Besides, NSW would get screwed under a Premier Turnbull by the incumbent Federal government, even worse than it does now.

If he ran again, it would signal unfinished business – that he thought a return to leadership possible. After all, he lost by the narrowest margins. Would the party be willing to contemplate a return to the Turnbull experiment, which nearly killed it? It seems unlikely but both John Howard and Andrew Peacock came back (to say nothing of Robert Menzies).

To say that Turnbull "nearly killed" the Liberal Party is absurd. Mark Latham led the ALP to defeat but it wasn't "nearly killed". John Howard arguably did more damage to the Liberal Party with its loss in 2007 than Latham did to his party three years earlier.

A key to Turnbull's thinking may lie in his recent piece for The Times:

Our culture has always been very open to new ideas. Australia’s dynamism, its readiness to embrace change is very republican and very similar to the culture of the US.

Bored by a timid batsman, the weary Aussie cricket fan who calls out “ ’ave a go, ya mug!” is really summing up what Australia is all about — have a go, give it your best shot and if you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and have another go.

That metaphor is fresh and economically makes its point, which is more than can be said for Grattan's stale imagery about choirs, song sheets, and hymns.

Anyway, enough about Turnbull.

All leaders need to crack heads. If Joe Hockey wanders off topic he needs to be brought into line - Howard did it to him and he's better for it. Hockey should have laughed when Sophie Mirabella was sooled onto him.

Joyce has never been brought into line - nobody has been big enough to shirtfront him, not Anderson or Vaile or what's-his-name currently. If Tony Abbott had any self-knowledge at all he should find it within himself to reach out to Joyce and get him to work as a member of a team bigger than himself. To use one of those lazy boxing analogies beloved by the dimmer lights of the Federal Parliamentary press gallery: if Abbott can't put Joyce on the canvas he'll never make it against the champ at the title fight.

If Abbott thinks he can become Prime Minister without cracking heads, he's kidding himself.

If Tony Abbott's travails are really as bad as Michelle Grattan makes out, he's really up against it. They're not, however - she's seen Liberal leaders in worse predicaments than this. There is no rump of disaffected factional opponents. Moderates are few and largely co-opted, and not much cop anyway (Abbott's standing would be enhanced if Chris Pyne went him, and when was the last moderate policy measure he put forward?). The Liberal Party is united behind the idea that the public still loves all things Howard (except Howard himself) and that the 2007 election was a clerical error. In Nick Minchin he has an enforcer who is powerful, committed and feared.

Abbott has a more united party than any leader in a generation - more so than any party Howard led. He lacks quality personnel, but as Peter Coleman said, the organisation bears some responsibility for that. Grattan's sympathy for Abbott is utterly misplaced, he needs to use what power he has effectively if he is to be entrusted with more. If the job is too tough for him, he shouldn't have run for it.

No Opposition Leader since Kim Beazley has enjoyed so good a run with the media and so much goodwill from his party than Tony Abbott. Michelle Grattan should be foremost among those telling Abbott to toughen up rather than "fear" the coming Parliamentary session (he's going to be a mess by election time, isn't he).

Abbott has no excuses, and Michelle Grattan ought not set up any for him.

23 January 2010

Becoming and unbecoming Australians

Recently we had two senior Liberals talk about immigration. Scott Morrison's piece was well-researched, well thought out and a view of the country's future that is both credible and positive. Tony Abbott's piece (here and here) was stupid.

Scott Morrison's gold

... despite the Coalition doubling the country's annual immigration intake when last in government (that's right, doubling it), we managed to halve community concerns about the level of immigration.

This is an opening salvo between the eyes of the lazy portrayal of Howard as a narrow-minded bigot and panderer to Hanson (more on that later). He uses stats lightly but tellingly.

Morrison's use of sources is interesting too: rather than pretending to omniscience like Abbott does, he drops brand-names like Monash and ANU in ways that enhance his position. During the 1980s leading Liberals like Jim Carlton and Ian Macphee could draw on ministerial experience in making a case, but today intellectual crutches are provided by Access Economics and the CIS.

It is not surprising that Markus found a high correlation between lower unemployment and reduced concerns about immigration. When you manage things well, people are more likely to go with you ... I would argue that rising concerns about immigration levels may be more about community disaffection with how things are being managed by our governments.

Some may regard this as self-evident: but they tend to have been the people left dumbfounded by Hanson, unable to anticipate the onslaught or make much of a defence once it was underway. Morrison deserves credit here for making these concerns seem understandable without truckling to them.

There is no doubt that Australia's population growth since World War II has been the driving force behind our expanded capacity as a nation and the prosperity that we now enjoy.

Today, 45 per cent of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was. We are an immigrant nation and there is broad public acceptance, according to Markus, for the view that bringing immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger.

A recent Australian National University study found that net migration of 180,000 a year would add a full 10 percentage points to growth in gross domestic product per capita.

And research by Access Economics shows that every permanent migrant adds $20,000 to the budget bottom line over their first four years. For one year's intake, this presently represents more than $3.6 billion.

Marvellous stuff, solid grounds for optimism. If I were Andrew Norton or Possum Comitatus I'd go looking for those documents and interrogate the stats - and maybe I will, but for now I'll just revel in the idea of a thinking Liberal.

These figures provide a salient reminder to a federal government swimming in debt and deficit ... This is not an argument for a population blank cheque.

When you've done your homework you can be forgiven a partisan dig or two.

Labor's shift away from skilled migration will impose greater costs on our nation.

Yes it will, especially when the "education revolution" is such bullshit at an early stage of its development.

Compare and contrast with his so-called leader:

Tony Abbott's dross

Mr Abbott said Australians were worried about the rise in the number of boat people, the ability of migrants to obey the law and the strain new arrivals put on the nation's resources.

Which Australians, Tony? A majority, or the fringe-dwellers you call your base? If our resources are indeed under strain then obviously you have to blame the previous government for that and other inadequacies.

''The policy of multiculturalism expressed our willingness to let them assimilate in their own way and at their own pace because of our confidence in the gravitational pull of the Australian way of life.''

Migrants would be more popular if minority leaders encouraged them to adopt more mainstream values and abide by the law, he said.

Which is exactly what they tend to do. That happened with the Italians and Greeks in the '50s, the Vietnamese in the '70s, and every other group since. It was churlish not to point this out, not to express confidence that today's migrants can and do contribute as much as they can.

''The inescapable minimum that we insist upon is obedience to the law,'' Mr Abbott said. ''It would help to bolster public support for immigration and acceptance of social diversity if more minority leaders were as ready to show to mainstream Australian values the respect they demand of their own.''

Questioning the loyalty of particular ethnic and religious groups was not new, Mr Abbott said. He blamed the former mufti of Australia Sheikh Taj el-Din al Hilaly's attacks on women and Jews for inciting such doubts in the past.

al-Hilaly was a clown, but he's a poor example there because he did not break any laws as such. Sure, he was a boofhead - but if that was a crime Abbott would be deported to his place of birth, the UK.

"In fact, it's probably essential if the public is to be convinced that Australia's immigration policy is run by the government rather than by people-smugglers," he said.

What a despicable slur that is. Abbott has no excuse for not knowing what a tiny proportion of prospective migrants come by sea, that they are usually the wretched of the earth and have a higher chance of deserving admission than many who arrive by plane.

Here, though, the snivelling gutlessness of his pitch to the bigots becomes apparent:

"The last thing that any Australian should want is to make recent immigrants feel unwelcome in their new country," the Opposition Leader said.

Mr Abbott said people should be especially concerned that ethnic Indians could have become the victims of racially motivated crime: "It would be an affront to our self-perception as a society where people are judged on their merits rather than on their skin colour."

Firstly, very few Indian students arrive here by boat. Secondly, if racism is shown to be an issue Abbott won't do anything constructive about it - he'll just act all shocked, shocked that anyone would dare call him, of all people, a racist (and then, once the media kerfuffle dies down, the racism continues and gets worse).

Mr Abbott said immigration had been a success almost unparalleled in history, but it regularly featured as an issue of concern.

And if you were a leader you would act to alleviate that concern.

The worst thing about trying to rabble-rouse with sneaky, passive wording like this - like so many turds floating in the swimming pool of national discourse - is that the rabble shows no sign at all of rousing for Abbott, much less in the kind of numbers necessary to offset the abandoned moderates.

The election of the Rudd Government removed a sense that there was something untoward about the treatment of refugees and that applications might be treated on merit. That dread feeling of slighting defenceless people for political gain is back, and we are all the poorer for it. Make this dirty man go away, and may we bury the New Guard once and for all.

18 January 2010

Still an issue

The Defence pay bungle, affecting the SAS and the RAAF, and no doubt other agencies. Big issue early last year, Rudd lost a Cabinet Minister over it.

Has this problem been fixed? Is it likely to occur again? It would be worth putting these questions to Senator Faulkner as, for all their conceit as investigators and a "fourth estate", the journosphere has simply dropped this issue and simply rehash press releases as "media content".

If ADF personnel are being mucked around on pay this is a significant poitical issue and a fundamental failure of government. It doesn't matter if the press gallery has "moved on", this is precisely the sort of issue that is worth revisiting in a "slow news week".

17 January 2010

With a bully crew and a captain too

If NSW and Australia had better governments they would take full advantage of this predicament in which the Poms have found put themselves.

Australia's big four banks have reasserted their dominance of the market, and they constitute something like a fifth of the Australian Stock Exchange. They do not appear to be becoming complacent (except, perhaps, in residential mortgages) but this is only a matter of time. The Federal Government appears unperturbed by this development, and a wise government would set a regulatory framework whereby Australian banks were strong but not complacent, and as solid and as innovative as any banks anywhere.

Peter Sands, group chief executive of Standard Chartered, one the UK's big five banks, said that conditions were now worse in London and that new financial business was more likely to locate elsewhere.

"I'm afraid to say that London has been damaged both by the failures of management of regulation that led to the crisis and some of the responses to the crisis," Mr Sands told The Sunday Telegraph.

What should happen is that state and federal leaders should step up and tell British banks to shift more of their operations to Sydney. Nick Greiner and Jeff Kennett would have done that (well, Kennett would have suggested they move to Melbourne but this idea is of course preposterous). Costello might have made an idle comment on the topic but left it at that. Mike Baird might do it for NSW, but by next year it would be too late.

It would have been bold and daring: UK retailers recognise that Australia is a market they need to be in, UK miners and mining investors know that Australia is where it's at (except for those hardy souls who think they'd be better off in São Paulo, Lagos, Baku or Sandton). Follow your clients and start expanding your Sydney offices, save on rents in Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street. The quality of bankers available to the Australian market would improve and it would keep the Australian institutions on their toes. It would accelerate a trend of shifting capital to the Asia-Pacific region without openly and directly ceding regulatory sovereignty to China.

Of course, it would never happen. Kristina Keneally would have no credibility at all and Wayne Swan appears fully occupied. Rudd would run into problems with British Labour, which provided support for the ALP in the '07 election: a campaign like this would be a further loss of face for Brown & Co. at a time when their electoral prospects pretty much shot. The UK will elect a new government this year and this window of opportunity will close.

These are the sort of opportunities you miss out on when your governments are crap and your oppositions are no better. You need ambitions not because it's great to be disappointed on a regular basis, but to set standards that won't be satisfied by whatever pap the incumbents think might be good enough for the likes of us.

16 January 2010

Michelle Grattan by default

Michelle Grattan apparently takes great pains to ensure that she has quoted people accurately, but here is another example of a basic flaw in traditional journalism: never mind if I am quoting this person accurately, far more pertinent issues include:

  • Is this person an imbecile?

  • Do they deserve to be taken on face value?

  • Is there any link between what they say they want to do, and what has failed or succeeded in the recent (and hence politically relevant) past?

  • After four decades in this job, should I apply some analysis and experience or should I be reporting as though I came down in the last shower?

Grattan's piece shows that she has nothing really to offer ahead of someone with much less experience.

TONY Abbott said before Christmas: "I hope to be John Howard's political heir, not his clone." In this early stage of his leadership, Abbott is giving plenty of reminders that he is Howard's child.

No, he's showing that he's a clone.

He has made the Murray-Darling a centrepiece of his first election-year policy initiative, as Howard did in election year 2007;

He mentioned the Murray-Darling, but as I mentioned earlier a bit of a mention does not translate to a policy centrepiece. He also mentioned a creek running into Narrabeen Lagoon, another waterway which will benefit not at all from Abbott's half-baked attempts. The fact that Howard didn't attend to the Murray-Darling until it was too late is one reason why he lost the last election, and the fact that Abbott is pulling a stunt on this and other issues means he'll lose this one.

[Abbott] is embarking on a series of defining speeches, reminiscent of Howard as opposition leader in 1995.

Reminiscent of every Opposition Leader, really. Giving speeches is what they do, particularly in election years. You might as well say Abbott is "reminiscent of Crean as opposition leader in 2002" or "reminiscent of Snedden as opposition leader in 1974" for all the good that does.

He has even hired one of Howard's right-hand men, Tony O'Leary, as his director of communications.

My guess is that O'Leary hasn't been flooded with job offers recently - particularly as he, like most Liberals, hasn't learned why Howard lost in '07 and thus can't really be of much assistance in 2010.

Howard is personally much closer to Abbott than he was to former leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. "He does [seek advice] from time to time. I'm not in his ear every day," Howard said this week. "Tony has a lot a views that are the same as mine," he said, but added that they diverged too, a reflection of the age gap. For example, "Tony has had more on-the-ground involvement in indigenous issues."

Tony's main achievement in in indigenous issues was to cut Aboriginal health programs by $1.5b, and he may well be on first-name terms with Noel Pearson. That'd be it really.

Even in government, the two had some sharp differences, particularly over Abbott's desire for a federal takeover of the hospital system.

Does this make Abbott heir or clone? More importantly, was this a smart idea or a poor one, and has it improved over time?

Abbott's conservatism, like that of Howard, has a strong streak of pragmatism. He is not afraid to pitch for what would be thought of as the enemy's territory

Yes he is, he's petrified.

When the Howard government was bold enough to steal a march on Labor, it came up with great policy: East Timor was a left issue forever, but Howard stepped up with the one policy initiative of which all Australians can be proud. Abbott sat across a table from me in the late '90s and told me that Aboriginal issues were left issues, and that any attempt by the Liberals to steal a march on Labor was futile. I thought he was gutless then and still do.

Here is Grattan's explanation of "pragmatism" and "enemy's territory":

"The political left shouldn't be seen as 'owning' the environment … and I am determined to challenge any assumption that it does," Abbott said, agreeing he was bidding for green preferences.

While (leaving aside the Greens) the environment is Labor's natural ground, Howard showed that the Liberals can play there too.

For the 1996 election, Howard promised a $1 billion natural heritage trust from the proceeds of part-selling Telstra. In 2004, he cultivated the conservationists - but then when Mark Latham overreached on Tasmanian forests, Howard stepped back and stymied his opponent.

The Tasmanian forests are no better off for Howard's dosie-doh around Mark Latham. Like Annabel Crabb, Grattan perceives policy as the plaything of politicians rather than course of action adopted and pursued by government which affects the way the governed operate.

In one of the ironies of pragmatic politics, the election pitches of Howard and Abbott on emissions trading are diametrically opposed. As part of his struggle on the climate change issue, Howard in 2007 promoted an ETS that was later substantially reflected in the Rudd model.

Howard wasn't strongly committed to an ETS any more than he was to a federal takeover of health. It is likely to have been "non-core". Abbott isn't strongly committed to an ETS either: clone, Michelle, clone.

Abbott is walking both sides of the environmental street: his proposal for a private member's bill to unlock Queensland's wild rivers does not exactly fit the bid to be a greenie.

What Abbott's advocacy of federal action on the wild rivers and (if necessary) a referendum to get federal power over the Murray-Darling have in common is the resort to central power. Howard and Abbott both broke the nexus between conservatism and federalism.

Abbott is not walking both sides of the street: he is walking the anti-environment side, or at least the side that regards any development in environment policy since 1995 as irrelevant.

In his policy speech in Sydney on Thursday, Abbott sought to contrast his style with an unflattering description of Kevin Rudd's ... This is an attempt to reprise how the opposition of 1995-96 portrayed Paul Keating as arrogant and obsessed with highfalutin causes.

You say reprise, I say clone.

Howard became opposition leader (for the second time) about a year before the 1996 election; Rudd also got the job around a year out. They both had one big advantage compared with Abbott: they faced governments that people wanted to defeat. The Rudd Government is new and highly popular; it would be extraordinary if voters did not give it a second go.

An heir would be able to adjust to circumstances; a clone cannot.

Rudd was relatively unknown when he became leader; Abbott was a senior minister for a long time and a controversial figure because of some of his views. But many voters have little idea of him as alternative PM. People had a fix on Howard, even though for the '96 election he sanded off some of his harsher ideological edges.

This is the real point of departure: Abbott is burring up his rough edges. He is going to look like a real pissant and lose all credibility when Liberals realise Abbott's rough edges are leading the party away from government, not toward it. Grattan of course has missed this. Abbott's case is that Howard's loss in 2007 was a mistake, that voters really want more Howard not less and that the result of '07 will be reversed like a clerical error and dissipate like a bad dream.

Tom Switzer, a member of the Liberal Party and former staffer to Nelson when he was opposition leader, believes Abbott has the ability to win over "Howard battlers", especially in Queensland. "They deserted the conservative cause in 2007 because they felt WorkChoices, rising interest rates and costs of living threatened their economic security."

Abbott has said he wants to basically reintroduce WorkChoices, and he hasn't said much and can't do much about the other issues. Does Switzer think that Queenslanders are mugs? Does Grattan?

Left-leaning Phillip Adams, in this week's The Spectator Australia, argues that Abbott resembles Latham, and is as big a risk for the Liberals as Latham was for Labor. "Both are high-impact leaders. Like Latham, Abbott will campaign strongly and rattle the incumbent, at least at the outset. And like Latham, he's doomed to self-destruct … Abbott's no John Howard who constantly risk-assessed."

... Anecdotally, Abbott has made a better start than many expected. Liberals report good feeling among the conservative base. But his juggling act, which he started this week with his environment pitch, is to reach out to middle-ground voters at the same time as appealing to his stalwarts.

The "conservative base" are people who'd vote Liberal anyway, whether for [insert your idea of a moderate liberal here] or [insert your idea of an arch conservative here]. His environment pitch shows Abbott cannot relate to the facts in this area as revealed over the past fifteen years. There is one Liberal with environmental credibility and Abbott replaced him. Any attempt by Abbott to depart from his "stalwarts" would not only lead to "bad feeling", it would be fatal. Why would the Liberals rely so heavily on "anecdote" when the whole Textor-Crosby philosophy during the Howard ascendancy was built squarely on fact? "Anecdote", from anonymous sources? What next?

Labor argues that Abbott is a polarising, extreme figure who will divide people. An alternative view is that Abbott, because he does come through as "authentic", could be quite liked by those who find many of their politicians too confected (Abbott also has to juggle staying "authentic" but keeping disciplined).

But there is a big step between liking a leader and being willing to vote for him. Voters could warm to Abbott because of his "what you see is what you get" personality, but still be unprepared to take the chance that if he were running the country they might actually get something unexpected.

"An alternative view" doesn't stack up, and hence is not worth reporting except to knock down. This is exactly the argument that Labor put in voting for Mark Latham, and Grattan should have examined that rather than just mention it.

Tony Abbott is John Howard without the flexibility. The Liberals regard the 2007 election as a clerical error, and are seeking to reverse it with a string of policies that should start with "What we REALLY meant to say was ...", followed by a reprisal/clone of what was said by Howard at some point in the past. That's the political analysis we need, not the silly and groundless assumption that what is said by a politician is the same as what is done by a government or expressed by a populace at election time - or the equally silly assumption that what is said, by persons named and unnamed, is actually news.

15 January 2010


The Liberals' environment policy as foreshadowed in 2010 by Tony Abbott is pretty much the same as the Liberal environment policy of 1995. The dependance on landcare and work-for-the-dole on small-scale projects in the hope that they might add up to something greater is the essence of the Liberal approach to the Australian environment, then as now.

In 1995, "brown issues" were seen as the best way to reframe the debate about Australian environment. Never mind emotive but ultimately trivial issues like a proposed road through a rainforest, the real environmental issues were salinity and riparian property rights. It clothed the naked self-interest of the Nationals in a kind of patriotism, invoking the fierce toughness of Dorothea Mackellar's My Country (though not Nancy Cato's Mallee Farmer, which cast the supposed custodians of the land in a harsh light). It made Labor and the Greens look shallow by focusing on minor issues that looked good on telly, issues affecting broader tracts of land and bigger chunks of the economy, issues that no hippies would be seen anywhere near.

That year, Gerard Henderson released a book called A Howard Government?, in which he appraised the then Opposition and considered what sort of government it might make. The year before that, Liberals released The Heart of Liberalism in which Liberal MPs dared imagine what a Liberal government might do. Judi Moylan's article in the latter work, "Balanced Environmentalism", reads like a rough draft of Abbott's speech sixteen years later - except with a focus on WA Landcare rather than the Murray-Darling basin, and of course Moylan can be forgiven for not bagging the Rudd Government. What Moylan's article also referred to Menzies a lot, gingerly, like someone having to balance liberal and conservative forces in a way that is simply no longer necessary.

One of the key failings of the Nationals is that they didn't follow through on the brown issues. It's also a key failure of rural Libs, of whom Bill Heffernan was the leading advocate - all that culture-war stuff against Michael Kirby detracted from what little focus there was on these issues. It isn't good enough for Abbott to say:

The essential problem in the Murray-Darling basin is that there’s rarely enough water to meet human needs, environmental flows and irrigation allocations. Water has been over-allocated because no state government has an equal responsibility to everyone with a stake in the system.

That was the case in 1996, and it was still the case ten years later.

After years of frustration at the slow pace of reform, the Howard Government’s 2007 $10 billion plan involved improving irrigation infrastructure to make existing water rights more productive, buying out unviable irrigators and, most importantly, changing governance arrangements so that each state couldn’t sacrifice the interests of the others.

Years of frustration, my arse.

The minister who made that possible is the leader Abbott, and other Liberals, replaced. Turnbull's achievements as Environment Minister are not only greater than any ofhis Liberal predecessors, but Abbott is right when he implies that those achievements are greater than those of the incumbents. Those "governance arrangements" etc could have been put in place by 1999 at the latest, if they'd been serious.

Intensive labour is required if weeds and feral animals are to be removed and if national park infrastructure is to be maintained. Notwithstanding the scientific breakthroughs of researchers with the CSIRO and our universities, the dedication of Australia’s 4000 land care groups and the professionalism of our farmers and foresters, Australia is losing the battle against environmental degradation.

I blame poor leadership, myself. Any federal government agency thatidentified environmental problems was sneered at by ninnies like Abbott and Minchin, and threatened with funding cuts.

Properly restoring only the most obviously degraded land would require a labour force that just isn’t there.

And they won't be there on $50k a year, with no training and no career path - especially not on the Warringah peninsula.

Over 11 years, the ... main problem with the Green Corps was that it was too small – there were never enough Green Corps teams to deal with all the environmental restoration projects submitted by councils, landcare groups, and national parks. Too many of them involved studying a problem rather than fixing it. As well, the original Green Corps format, individual teams of ten young environmental trainees with a supervisor/trainer, did not lend itself to tackling larger restoration projects.

See what I mean about sloppy leadership? This area of the budget will always be cut and cut again. Rural communities, beset by environmental degredation and depopulation, will not be sustained by jobs like this. Imagine if an Aboriginal community had the temerity to suggest that a given project was a waste of time, or required more than clearing a bit of lantana? His first task in government was a resounding failure, hardly the basis to ask for another go.

Would you take this "land army" away from infrastructure projects, or trades training? If people in immigration detention centres volunteered for such work, would it help their applications? It's bullshit from the word go. He's not serious, the words are meaningless and impress no-one.

A concern to protect the environment should mean ... preferring those trying to do good rather than merely to look good on this issue.

This is a man whose whole life has involved sneering at do-gooders. It's industrial-strength cant, like invoking the Fraser Government, which he regarded as Liberal in name only.

Here's a piece that could have come from the Fraser government, and shows how inadequate Abbott's approach is to government:

Reducing emissions matters because many scientists think that they are having a serious impact on climate.

This is dog-whistling for the deniers. Reducing emissions matters because it is an exercise in risk mitigation. Pulling weeds around Narrabeen Lagoon won't do a thing to mitigate the risk to the country, the economy and the world in general from anthropogenic global warming. They didn't have the Stern Report in 1995 but the Coalition doesn't have that excuse.

Over the next few months, along with the Shadow Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, I will be talking to organizations such as Conservation Volunteers Australia and Greening Australia (the bodies that formulated and subsequently ran the original Green Corps) about the potential for a much larger and more capable national conservation corps.

More fool Greg Hunt for lending his name and credibility to such a self-defeating and futile exercise in greenwashing. There is no linkage between stuff like this and any practical action: wasn't in 1995, isn't now. Shame on the Coalition for fooling us once: shame on us if we let them fool us again.

Update 16 Jan.: This article seeks to portray Abbott as victim: only animals and rugby players engage in "mauling". Look further though and see which namby-pamby politically-correct latte-sippers are showing Abbott up:

the National Farmers Federation, the National Irrigation Council, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Irrigation Council.

"It's just ridiculous," said Arlene Buchan, rivers spokeswoman for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Indeed it is.

"The issues are so complex, and for Mr Abbott to come out and say that he can fix the river system by the commonwealth taking full control . . . well, I think it's a bit simplistic."

The National Irrigators Council said it did not support a full federal takeover because there was no evidence shifting management from one group of politicians and bureaucrats to another would improve the operation of the system. "The states have already referred some powers to the commonwealth, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is engaged in the development of a basin plan that will set new sustainable diversion limits that all basin states will have to comply with," chief executive Danny O'Brien said.

Never mind Abbott or his pony Greg Hunt, I want to vote for Danny O'Brien.

14 January 2010

Sketchy politics

Annabel Crabb offered this as a description of what she was trying to achieve and why. She didn't do a good job of explaining why she chose to be a political sketchwriter, what she might have achieved in doing so, or what else she might have done instead - or even how Australian politics might have been better had reporting on it been more effective.

Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens and Matthew Parris wrote/write well, they were/are observant and had/have a fine command of the language. The comparison here does not flatter Crabb: perhaps like all performers she is throwing herself upon the kindness of strangers. Annabel Crabb bolts together clichés to make bloated McMansions of articles that squat on the outskirts of political reporting - far from the central business of the economy and national security, far from the dormitories of health policy or screening the internet, all the while denying space to articles that might be useful in helping us appraise who it is that governs us, and who should, and why they want to; who benefits and who loses from which decisions.

Useful, and well written - a lot to ask, and too much of Crabb perhaps, but surely not too much for some writer as yet filtered out by the recruitment processes of Fairfax and other corporate media?

Matt Price at least tried to imagine what sort of impact any given policy might actually work in the country beyond Canberra. Some of his best pieces dealt with the sheer contrast between the verbiage surrounding some regulatory instrument and the actual way it was expected to play out upon those being thus regulated. Annabel Crabb never did that: she regarded "punters" as irrelevant by their not being directly represented in Australia's best subsidised and most boring theatre.

I loved reading his articles. They beckoned me into a lifelong interest in politics, with their affectionate and mischievous portrayals of Westminster's principal cast.

See, there you have it. Crabb regards politics as a spectator sport, something that occurs pretty much exclusively within that purpose-built building inside a Canberra hill. It's scripted and lame, yet she tried to make it as compelling as some awful "must-see" TV drama. She excluded the staffers and the lobbyists (and the serpentine career paths they followed) from her scrutiny, she cared not a jot for how policies would work (or not) in the wider community, in order to craft 300 words on something really important like Peter Costello put-downs or Mark Latham's complexion.

Parris gave me the rich lunacy of politics and a whiff of what it was like to be John Major, the then prime minister, whose promise to bring British politics "back to basics" had rather unluckily coincided with an unprecedented outbreak of conspicuous debauchery among his colleagues.

It wasn't a coincidence: there was a complete contradiction between what was said and what was done, a situation in which government becomes impossible. Traditional journalism was and is utterly unable to cope with this: a situation in which a politician has so lost credibility that nothing they say on any issue translates in any way to action for or against a policy objective, or to aid any people outside the process.

In our own time we've seen the journosphere flounder in dealing with big issues from outside "the arena" of politics - Pauline Hanson, war and economic turmoil - issues that the journosphere of the press gallery mentions but dares not examine for fear of losing access to snippets such as, say, Andrew Thomson's reading material.

Parris combined a good historical knowledge of politics and a sympathy for his subject with an elegantly whimsical style of writing.

Crabb, his antipodean admirer, offered her readers:

  • No historical knowledge to speak of ("Wasn't John Howard leader of the Liberals during the 1980s? What happened to that Joh who wanted to be PM, or that Peacock guy - are Joh Peacock the same person?");

  • Considerable sympathy for certain individuals, but not for the jobs they were doing or for those affected by those jobs;

  • Functional, not elegant style; and

  • OK, I'll give her whimsy - the whimsy of a person deeply enmeshed in an environment from which she tries to maintain a knowing distance, a whimsy that leads to dissonance in the absence of real wit - present in Crabb's antecedents but pretty much absent from her writing.

The historical diversion was pretty much irrelevant:

The Westminster system, from which Australia derives much of its parliamentary design, has only really been open to direct public scrutiny for about 200 years ... In 1803, reporters were finally allowed to take seats in the chamber, removing any obligation for them to make everything up ... Some of its great writers - Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens, Bernard Levin and Frank Johnson - worked in politics as sketch writers.

Frank Johnson? Great writer? Really?

The political sketchwriter as working "in politics"? Really?

The choice of example of Parris' wit was a poor one, for his sake and Crabb's.

Australian parliaments had press galleries from day one. Reporters from W C Wentworth to Alan Reid to Paul Kelly blatantly played favourites, excoriating their opponents and shining a kindly light on their friends. This is the standard of the journosphere then as now: no imagination, no sympathy for those who are governed or the longterm consequences of decisions taken by government. Crabb is no different to that tradition and not distinguished within it.

The Australian journosphere offers two alternatives to this model of the press gallery, the chooks happy to feed on whatever is fed to them:

  • The first is the grey bureaucratic-style reportage of conventional wisdom that you find in Michelle Grattan, who in forty years has never written a sentence that can be remembered the day after it was first read. Grattan dutifully reports the Treasurer accusing the Opposition of being economic ignoramuses; when the current Treasurer was Shadow Treasurer, he was so accused by the incumbent, and so on, etc.

  • The second are the crusties tired of playing by the rules, who have done the straight reportage and see how limiting it can be and who bag the "players" based on a real appreciation of what it is like to be governed by monkeys who don't give a toss. The examples here are Mungo MacCallum and Alan Ramsey. They did everything that Matt Price ever did, including all that AFL stuff, in any given week and still propped up the Non-Member's bar.

The journosphere think that toeing the line is the only alternative to being dull or bucket-list wacky, and they're wrong about that too.

Consider a piece of commentary like this:

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin ... I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

You can overdo that kind of stuff, it becomes empty hype and it takes a real pro to do it well. Thompson could demonstrate his perceptiveness about politics while at the same time showing how alienating it was in its irrelevance and hostility until its relevance hit vulnerable people hard.

Again, Annabel suffers by comparison:

The odd thing about such lampooning in politics is the extent to which its targets are unperturbed by the attention.

Obviously, you're doing it wrong. When they're perturbed you've earned your pay (especially as readers will turn to sharp observations well-written).

When I first arrived in Parliament House as a political reporter in 1999, I went to a party in the suite of Bronwyn Bishop (then the minister for aged care) and was stunned to see her private office was a shrine to the political cartoonists' art. Even the savage cartoons were there, proudly framed.

She's still a good sport; in late 2008, when a brocade-clad Bishop appeared gloweringly behind her new leader, Malcolm Turnbull, in question time having just been dumped from the front bench, I described her as looking like a "small, malevolent armchair".

Of course, I ran into her the following day in the corridor; resisting the urge to flee, I was rewarded by a brilliant and diamond-hard Bronny smile. Phew.

That office is not "a shrine to the political cartoonists' art" - it's a shrine to herself. She looks around that office utterly mystified that the Liberal Party might want it for any purpose other than her own. What's most significant about her was not her "smile", but her malevolence - that smile is utterly empty of warmth and is more like the blade of a bulldozer than the start of a human digestive system. The whiff of kerosene, the hapless mismanagement of defence personnel issues, and the fact of Senator Fierravanti-Wells screeching in Senate Committees like the first Mrs Rochester is her true legacy, and Crabb was remiss in not having reported on that.

Andrew Thomson, who served John Howard briefly as minister for sport and ultimately was hunted out of the federal seat of Wentworth by Peter King, who was duly hunted out by Malcolm Turnbull, was a magnificently eccentric MP.

He was also a waste of time. The failure of Australia to capitalise on having hosted the Sydney Olympics in 2000 is partly due to his ineptitude and lack of vision. His parliamentary staff ran errands for his children. Thomson "served" us all, not just John Howard. Against that, who cares what he reads?

Sketch writing is not designed, on the whole, to stand alone; it provides an accompaniment to straight news reporting and an opportunity to learn, not whether the Grains Marketing Amendment Bill 2009 was passed or rejected but what the Parliament felt and sounded like as the vote was taken.

Sketch writers have the greatest luxury of all, in that we are permitted impossible latitude in our coverage of a day in politics.

Who was behind that bill? Who benefitted, who lost out? Did consumers of grains benefit as much as grower interest presumably did? Was that legislation inspired by the fallout from grain sales to Iraq, perhaps? I'm sorry the straight reportage is, like, so totally beneath you but the fact that the Member-for-so-and-so said "ah" or "um" 52 times in seven minutes really is neither here nor there. If you're going to report on Parliament, then don't just give us a boiled-down press release or a funny anecdote - put it into context.

I once read a Parris column in which his entire account of question time was taken up with his chance sighting of Peter Mandelson checking that his sock had not fallen down ... To write such a column was, of course, a fabulous indulgence.

But somehow it conveyed more about Mandelson's slightly sinister, fastidious clinicism than might a whole page of news coverage devoted to what he actually said.

Pity you could never do the same.

The common criticism of the sketch writers' art is that it is essentially insulting; that in poking fun at politicians and concentrating on their quirks of personality, the sketch writer reduces the noble cause of politics to low comedy.

And that in concentrating on personalities, the sketch writer twists and perverts politics into some kind of "Miss Congeniality" derby.

As you might expect, I disagree. Most people will tell you politics is boring. It isn't and one of the reasons it isn't is because it is a terrifyingly unpredictable science. Personalities matter, because sometimes - no, regularly - the difference between the success or failure of a policy will come down to the historical relationship between two ministers, or two factions, or what sort of a week the Prime Minister is having.

Annabel Crabb's sketches never contained that level of background - just the shallow stuff. The kind of long-standing personality traits/conflicts and particularly tough weeks tend to be reported only as part of in-depth profiles some time after the event. If there was any of that information available, Annabel Crabb wouldn't share it with the likes of you, dear reader.

Politics isn't boring because it is the process by which resources are taken from us, and decisions are taken as to the use of those resources which affect us in the execution and in the fact that the decisions were taken in our name. It all depends what you mean by "politics", really, and your own powers of observation and description in sketching them.

The journosphere faces a dilemma in reporting on what they know, lest it discourage their sources - and they always get it wrong. If you had an art critic whose commentary was limited to "ooh, look at all the pretty pictures!", or "I really liked the one with the guy wearing the hat", this critic would have no credibility and would be replaced. In reporting on government in similar fashion, this level of reporting is not just OK but continuation of a venerable tradition and "a good thing". Stuff that - it's inadequate when done by ditzes like Crabb and the hit-and-miss Christian Kerr.

It isn't just politicians who let the country down, poor reporting plays its part in poor decision-making and in the decline of credibility of those who hire and broadcast such sketchy reporting of politics. It's nice that Crabb has enjoyed such luxury, being plucked from an obscure job in UK retail like Eliza Doolittle, but I wish her readers had been better off for her good fortune. Still, a well-informed populace may be essential to democracy and a well-entertained readership may take a heightened interest in politics - but they won't shout you drinks at the Holy Grail.

13 January 2010

Reaction is not very bright

The weakness of the Coalition's reactive approach, where it doesn't know what to do unless Labor proposes something, is clear with Barnaby Joyce's opposition to any Chinese investment in Australia.

Rather than just respond to today's story, there is a real need for a consistent policy on Chinese investment, the way that the Menzies Government and the Liberal governments of WA developed policies on Japanese investment that benefitted enormously both Australia and Japan. Saying no all the time is no better economically, diplomatically or in any other way than saying yes all the time.

The need for such a policy is much more important than the unproductive journosphere cliché of split shock, which has no entertainment value for its being so lame. Neither of these people understand foreign investment policy and they need to give the impression that they have some clue before they can be entrusted with the economic future of the country. In one of the best articles on Australian economics in recent years came this key piece of information:

The Treasury secretary, Ken Henry, and the Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, have warned of a re-emergence of the "two-speed economy".

According to Henry, the emergence of China and India as the next economic powerhouses has caused a structural change in the Australian economy that could last decades. As voracious buyers of our minerals and cheap suppliers of manufactured imports, they have boosted our terms of trade - what we earn from exports against what we pay for imports - in a permanent way ... According to Henry, this is a tectonic shift in Australia's economy.

No wonder the Coalition hate Henry - he sees things as they are and sets policy according to that, rather than waiting for government so you can gainsay whatever it might be. Get a clue, then get a policy, and only then might people take you seriously.

12 January 2010

We have principles, but we don't believe in acting on them

Now Abbott is becoming a caricature of himself:

We don't like whaling. We would like the Japanese to stop. On the other hand, we don't want to needlessly antagonise our most important trading partner, a fellow democracy, an ally.

No policy that is overwhelmingly supported by the Australian people will be supported by an Australian government led by Tony Abbott, incase somewhere there is a popularly-elected government somewhere that takes a contrary view. I told you he was gutless but even I'm stunned by this.

Abbott would never have stood up to Indonesia over East Timor. He would never have elped other countries with the tsunami ("I am full of compassion for victims of natural disasters, but ..."). If he got the chance, you could expect him to cancel next summer's Ashes tour - we don't want to stir up anti-English feeling do we? Besides, even if the Australian team did win the Ashes would remain in England, so why bother?

The Trade Minister, Simon Crean, said he was not concerned "one bit" that the dispute would affect trade with Japan, and that factor would not determine Australia's decision to take legal action.

Quite right too. This issue is so well established that a volte-face such as Abbott is proposing would have no credibility, in Tokyo or anywhere else.

Once again the Shadow-Foreign-Minister-in-name-only had a big role in this announcement, not to mention the would-be Trade Minister and Deputy PM in a Coalition government. The tin ear for the popular mood, the gutlessness in promoting Australia's interests abroad and the abject dependance on the ALP to define the otherwise shaky self-image of these so-called conservatives is what gets to me.

03 January 2010

Nice South Wales

Kristina Keneally has shown us how she's different to Nathan Rees. Rees wanted to convey a determination to make things happen: Keneally is not someone who makes things happen (well, neither was Rees) but someone that things happen to.

Since taking office, she's gone to see drought-ravaged farmers - not much can be done about the drought and the assistance packages are standard. Her comments made from there were particularly asinine and non-eventful, as were those on the bushfires and kids who did well in the HSC. If she had anything else to say on any other issue late last year, it doesn't matter either.

Her media policy was made clear on Channel Nine news on New Year's Eve. She was announced at the top of the news and stood there waiting for ten or fifteen minutes until the anchor was good enough to throw to her. There is no way that Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth, Nick Greiner or John Fahey would have copped that. Carr would have negotiated ten minutes of airtime, and even Iemma and Rees would have more self-regard than to hang around like a weather presenter. Anna Bligh, Mike Rann and John Brumby would have banned Channel Nine for even suggesting such a thing. Almost no Liberal leader would have been so desperate for airtime as to do that. Keneally did, however, initially posing as just anyone going to see the fireworks, until she let slip that she was off to an exclusive bash at Mrs Macquarie's Chair.

And there you have it - inanities in the face of major events in the life of NSW. Labor's one idea is that you might think Keneally is nice and therefore deny them the ignominious defeat for which they have worked so hard. If Keneally was going to do anything - even something trivial like canning the Rozelle metro - she would have done so by now. Even Kerry Chikarovski had more substance than Kristina bloody Keneally. The risk with Keneally is that people see her as insipid, which may be worse than just blusteringly incompetent, and subsequent Labor figures will find it hard to assert their own strength without appearing threatening.

All women know already that you can go along by getting along, but that it will only take you so far; this is pretty much all that Keneally's ascent proves. It also proves there are no new tricks left for Labor: this writer seeking "something else" need not waste any time on the idea that Labor might have anything to offer the people of NSW in 2011.

02 January 2010

Dead right

This excellent article on US politics got me thinking about the Liberal Party, which is in a similar state of moral and political bankruptcy but with the following exceptions:

  • Not a lot of rage and disappointment to speak of in the community, apart from the usual cranks. The fact is that the full force of the financial crisis has passed by this country and, for better or worse, the incumbent government gets a share of credit for that.

  • The country's leading politician is of the same racial group as the majority of the population. He has, and claims, no brief for society-wide social change.

  • Healthcare reform is a matter of administrative tinkering rather than the root-and-branch reform we saw twenty years ago.

  • Climate change was an important differentiator in 2007 and it remains so. The apathy induced by inaction has been countermanded by the increasing articulation of how high and rising the stakes are in not mitigating the risks of inaction. There hasn't been the kind of sea-change in the vote on climate change policy as happened over the Vietnam War, where the Coalition won in a landslide in 1966 and lost two elections later over the same issue. Labor owns climate change policy, for better or worse, and the Liberals have no credibility at all - not with swinging voters or business.

The Liberals deliberately chose a leader who was less popular than the man he replaced. That leader is a dilettante in the world of ideas, yet the journosphere think of him as an intellectual. That leader has appointed a frontbench who have less of a clue about any area of policy than he does, and much less than many of the very weak ministers they are supposedly shadowing.

Labor's polls are climbing, the very opposite of what should have happened if the supporters of Tony-the-Tough-Guy were to be believed. The same thing happened in NSW in 1998, when the leader was replaced with a "fresh and energetic" new leader who dumped what few policies there were and led the party to a landslide defeat.

Hopefully the journosphere will not subject us to any nonsense about a hung parliament like they did in 2007, or like these British journalists insist on doing with their own moribund government. Indeed, the only indicator of conservative renewal comes from Britain, and it consists of grafting a moderate wing back on - anathema to the Abbott-Minchin-Joyce Coalition.

01 January 2010

The sinking boat

Tony Abbott's claims that he will turn back refugee boats are rubbish.

For a start, it's not a pledge:

"If the circumstances permit it, you've got to be prepared to turn boats around," Mr Abbott told The Australian yesterday. "John Howard was fiercely criticised for this.

If the circumstances permit it. What a weak qualifier that is. If the circumstances supported action against carbon emissions for the sake of the environment, would you support an ETS? What about arts funding? What about abortion? Abbott's statement is now clear as a mealy-mouthed person's way of appearing tough. Pauline Hanson and the knuckleheads in the Coalition parliamentary party who are to blame responsible for Abbott's ascent in the first place would not have been so equivocal.

Mr Abbott acknowledged that turning boats around could provoke asylum-seekers into taking dangerous measures, such as scuttling their vessels.

"But the fact that it was prepared to do it, I think let people in these countries know that trying to come to Australia illegally was a pretty risky business," he said.

This assumes that people with nothing left to lose are risk-averse. No wonder the press gallery regards him as an intellectual.

The ABC, less desperate than The Australian to confuse boofhead rhetoric against the vulnerable with genuine toughness, has Abbott to rights when it had him turning some boats back:

"It can't be a boat that's going to sink ...

No, it can't. Mind you, a snap judgment on seaworthiness will be difficult and you can be sure that if a turned-around boat suddenly does sink, Abbott would not hesitate to blame the junior officer responsible for such a decision. What if a boat is structurally sound, but overloaded? What if its engine has failed but everything else is OK?

... and you've got have the kind of relationship with the source countries that if the boat goes back the people will be accepted," he said.

These would be the same countries which these people are trying to flee.

Besides, what action is taking place on building those relationships? What is the foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop - who has been in that office since before Abbott became leader - doing in terms of realigning Australian foreign policy to that end? The Attorney General would be ultimately responsible for the Federal Police and the intelligence services - is the shadow AG doing anything toward recalibrating these organisations toward people-smuggling rings? What about the shadow immigration minister?

Opposition spokesman on immigration Scott Morrison says the only thing deterring people smugglers from Australian waters is the weather.

"With the monsoon season approaching that makes it an even more hazardous voyage and as a result we would expect to see some of the boat arrivals dissipate over that period of time," he said.

If policy development is too hard for you Scott, meteorology won't be any easier.

This vacuousness over policy shows Abbott hasn't made the transition from commentator to leader. It should have been a proper announcement, with high-level strategy spelled out and the promise of further details closer to the election. Instead, it's just a brain-fart of the day.

This is how a proper government considers issues. Apartheid Malaysia may want to abandon refugees to monsoons, pirates and other perils, but Australia must not. We still bear responsibility for closing Australian borders to Jews seeking to flee various anti-Semitic regimes during the 1930s, and we cannot be sure that refugees today are not in similar peril. This takes time and fusty bureaucracy, and while that's better than towing people out to sea this does not mean it's the best option available.

Clearly, Rudd has learned the lesson that dealing with refugees is not as simple as declaring that you'll tow people out to sea. That is the story The Australian has missed here in pursuit of junior-minister-shirtfronts-PM-shock.

Mr O'Connor said he was satisfied with the current policy of taking asylum-seekers to Christmas Island for processing.

And the fact that there isn't enough room at Christmas Island is of no concern, to O'Connor or Abbott or anyone else ...? What about the seasonal lesson of "no room at the inn", lost on Abbott and other self-professed Christians too?

A spokesman for Mr O'Connor, when asked if he supported a policy of towing boats back out to sea, said the minister was "confident the existing policy is correct".

"That existing policy is that when boats are intercepted, we take them to Christmas Island where their refugee status is processed."

The remarks amount to an effective rebuff of the Prime Minister, who in the last days of the 2007 election campaign promised tough measures to deal with refugee boats.

"You'd turn them back," Mr Rudd said in November 2007.

The then opposition leader went on to say that such measures formed an effective deterrent.

If his actions since have truly diverged from his words, the question is why. It could be plain old hypocrisy, say anything to get into office and then repudiate it. It could also be that government demands more detailed and nuanced consideration of issues than is possible with the five-second-grab, which is the more interesting story. What's to say that Abbott won't bend to this logic too?

Such complexity and political heavy-lifting may also explain why GetUp! is nowhere to be found here.

Yesterday, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, whose government in 1979 welcomed thousands of Vietnamese boat people despite fears of public opposition, led a chorus of criticism directed at the two leaders.

Fraser criticised Rudd and Abbott, others criticised them, but this does not mean that Fraser "led" them necessarily, nor that such criticism constitutes a "chorus".

Mr Fraser, whose government accepted more than 200,000 refugees, said refugee policy remained skewed against boatpeople, who were consistently shown to be genuine.

Then and now, boat-borne refugees tend to be genuine refugees. Time to treat "boat people" the same as "plane people". This may require reframing the media debate on this issue, or ignoring the media entirely: so much for all that "fourth estate" crap.

Nobody who voted Liberal in 1996, 1998, 2001 and/or 2004, but who voted Labor in 2007, will vote Liberal in 2010 on account of Abbott's statement. It's silly, it's ill-considered, it's a nostalgia trip through the sorts of policies that appeal only to Liberal nostalgics and which repel swinging voters (which now include moderate liberals, as Howard gave them no reason to remain with the Liberal Party). Hell of a way to start the new year - but they say you should start the year as you intend to go on.