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.

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