27 April 2010

Dr Henderson and the Liberals

Gerard Henderson has long bemoaned the poverty of intellectual discourse within the Liberal Party but his perceptions of the major issues facing the Liberal Party, and the motivations behind those issues, are not as clear as they once were. This piece is the sort of thing Henderson is increasingly putting out, his new norm: mostly wrong, but not (yet) so risible that you can dismiss him out of hand.

The decision not to make Turnbull shadow finance minister cannot be viewed in isolation from the decision as to whom that position was actually awarded. Senator Joyce is not an unintelligent man, but it is not only in retrospect that we can see that he was a poor choice for this key position. He had crossed the floor 29 times and was known for ill-considered outbursts that put Coalition unity at peril to enhance his own profile, yet even with such a record he was preferred over someone who had never done so but who might (have).

The Liberals are not adequately prepared for the Henry tax review or the coming budget; this is because of the Joyce choice and despite the efforts of Hockey, and to a lesser extent Robb.

Consider the fact that Abbott as an Opposition frontbencher would regularly cast doubt over Coalition policy by contradicting the leader and shadow ministers, and writing a book in isolation from the consultative processes of the party room and shadow cabinet.

Henderson is also wrong to make much of the Henson case, an arty storm in a teacup if ever there was one. If you have a problem with David Marr, Gerard, that's your problem. The Henson case was much less significant culturally than the Ern Malley affair - and it is far, far less important as a social issue than the arrogant approaches of churches toward actual sexual abuse of children. If Henderson is going to act as some sort of tribune for people in marginal seats and what they want, try the big and real issues Gerard. Really.

Hockey was right to question the idea that anti-terrorism legislation diminishes our rights under law in the interest of protecting our rights under law more generally. Henderson was wrong to claim that questions about our rights under our laws ought only be investigated by members of a (minor) party.

You can quote a minister in support of your arguments if you like, but there are two issues missed by self-serving Henderson: firstly, Tanner isn't the Attorney General or some other minister concerned with the justice system, and secondly Tanner didn't disagree with Hockey. The question of convictions merely means that some aspects of the laws work while others don't; there is a wider question of whether our legal protections against terror should be such a curate's egg/dog's breakfast/Gerard Henderson column.

Stephen Conroy is not trying to stop child pornography on the internet. He is deliberately avoiding real measures that real pedophiles actually use, and deliberately acting in ways known by those who work in this area to be completely ineffectual. He is doing this because he wants to create an impression that he is taking action when he is not in fact doing so. He is playing on the ignorance of people like Henderson (and Tony Smith) who think they have excuses for failing to inform themselves about this policy area (internet policy is no more complicated than, other areas of economic or national security policy). Hockey didn't go far enough in criticising Conroy: it is not true that any criticism of Conroy is a permissive one that allows for child pornography. It's not true, and it's not fair of Henderson to slur Hockey in this way, but he'll probably do so again.

Where Henderson is right, though, is Turnbull's failure to adopt Menzies' humility in the 1940s. Henderson might also profitably have raised Menzies' traversing the country during that time, making speeches and consulting about what a postwar non-Labor force might and should look like, another comparison that reflects poorly on Turnbull. It appears that Turnbull lacks this drive (however much he might have demonstrated in other fields), and the country (and its non-Labor politics) is poorer for it. Henderson can't imagine a post-Howard Liberal Party, one not fixated on trade unions and culture wars, and doesn't wish to; any attempts at reconsideration, any signs whatsoever of intellectual activity, will attract his increasingly feeble ire.

Henderson started his piece by asking - rhetorically - whether Turnbull should reconsider his decision not to recontest Wentworth for the Liberal Party. Those who want Turnbull to recontest fear that it may be lost to the Liberal Party unless he is its candidate. The Liberal Party, by electing Abbott as its leader, has cemented in place a deliberate strategy to repel people who would have voted Liberal in the past. It must follow through that strategic vision and, if they continue to lose seats like Wentworth, Bennelong and even North Sydney, so be it; there will come a time for the Liberal Party to decide how committed it is to voter-repellent policies, notwithstanding Henderson The People's Tribune.

When Henderson encourages Turnbull to "stick to his guns", it is only because Turnbull has those guns trained on himself. Where Turnbull had those guns trained on issues that Henderson barely understands but adopts positions in The People's Name, Henderson does not pause to examine the issues but lunges for barricades which aren't there, and certainly aren't actually blocking anything.

His pre-emptive attacks on the prospect of Liberals re-examining the Howard legacy shows that he has gone from attacking an unsustainable status quo within the Liberal Party to defending one, with little to show in the way of policy or political achievement in the interim. Much less than, say, Phillip Adams, or even Andrew Peacock. The more time passes and the more the issues of the 1980s recede, the less important Henderson will become - but that won't stop Fairfax retaining him.

07 April 2010

Learned helplessness

THE federal opposition is yet to formulate a position on the proposed internet filter despite Labor flagging its intention to introduce the measure before the last election.

The failure of Coalition leader Tony Abbott or his communications spokesman Tony Smith to indicate whether they would support the bill reflects divisions within the party about the government's plan to block access to internet sites banned under Australia's classification rules.

The Greens are opposed to the filter, giving the Liberals the crucial votes in the Senate that determine the success of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's plan ...

Success criteria for shadow ministers are fairly nebulous. Even those that force a minister to resign enjoy a brief moment in the sun, but rarely do they translate this to any sort of reputation as a giant-killer. However, the criteria for failure is clear: failure to engage with the issues and stakeholders in your portfolio area, to the point where your leaders look ignorant and incompetent.

Tony Smith has been Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy for two years. He shadows the rebarbative and potentially highly vulnerable Stephen Conroy. Conroy is a political animal first and foremost and not necessarily that strong on detail. There are two ways of getting to someone like Conroy:

  • Trip him up on detail. Somewhere in that maelstrom of activity surrounding internet filtering, NBN, digital television and what have you, there is an "i" undotted and a "t" uncrossed. Find it, build a narrative of why it matters, and beat Conroy with it in every forum available.

  • Go for his strong suit: politics. Graham Richardson was brought down by a silly piece of influence-pulling, and surely Conroy is similarly vulnerable. He is a big cheese in the Victorian ALP, why has he escaped the opprobrium that has beset his comrades there?

Journalists tend to be leery about attacking the minister that regulates their employers. What they're reluctant to do is wound him: if you're going to go the Minister for Communications you want to pole-axe his political career, or at least make him chastened and unable to wreak career-ending havoc on you and your bosses. Shadow Ministers have the investigative resources that media outlets increasingly lack: do some digging, then hand it to a friendly journalist (not the hopeless Milney) and enjoy the fireworks, push forward to punch a hole in the Rudd and Brumby Governments that may not fully mend.

Tony Smith didn't get where he is today by upsetting the apple cart. Tony Smith ran errands for Peter Costello and eventually started writing press releases, and then won a safe seat in Victoria because everyone else on Costello's staff was getting these handed to them. By this time Tony had absorbed Costello's vocal and physical mannerisms to the point where it isn't clear what differentiation existed between Smith and his old boss. We at the Politically Homeless Institute came to refer to him in previous posts as Tony Smith Costello; the apple that didn't fall far from the tree and doesn't look like producing much fruit in his own right.

The difference is that Peter Costello was not afraid to be part of the great debates of his day, on industrial relations and related issues. Tony Smith is shirking the debates over our digital future, quibbling about cost while lacking any capacity to link cost to value.

The whole BCDE area is rich with information about where the government is going right, where it is going wrong. From the ratbaggiest website to the most considered and wide-ranging analysis, information on the background, current state and future directions on this area all freeely available in a way that it isn't with, say, health or defence issues. Yes, those issues are complex but they are only unfathomable if you have nothing better to do than sit back and smirk at it all.

Take, for example, this article. It praises Helen Coonan's work as Communications Minister and explains why she deserves that praise: ring her, Tony Smith, and ask for some tips. It shows how and why Conroy is vulnerable: follow those threads and you might start earning your pay, Tony Smith, in a way that you didn't with episodes like this.

Mind you, this is scarcely better. Transcripts from the MSM quoted verbatim (see Tony go one-on-one with Ron Wilson!). Transcripts quoted verbatim with no indications of the thought processes that led out Tone to such positions. Or this: no recognition for BCDE work done in Casey? No recognition for the impact a fast broadband network will have on Caseyans (yes, yes, but what if it generates so much new business that the $43b outlay is soon made up)? None at all?

The small-scale techie media is not as beholden to stale interests like the other mainstream media are. They are more likely to give your press releases a run and, if you show a bit of interest, help you navigate the complexities of this area. ICT is an important sector of the economy, and people who work in this area are a demographic that could, with a bit of careful cultivation, be an attractive source of votes for the Liberals going forward.

Even if you're not enamoured by all that policy wonkery about the digital economy, and if you can't be arsed building a political constituency, it is an unavoidable sign of political failure as a shadow minister that you haven't even examined the issues in your portfolio. In this piece, Smith's leader and treasury spokesman are clearly winging it, displaying a weak grasp of issues which are important to the nation, issues to which they did not turn to Tony Smith about, because why bother? If he had let Peter Costello down like that, he'd be so insignificant that he wouldn't even be history.

In the late 1980s there was a Liberal MP named Peter Shack, who was spoken of highly and who was also then in shadow cabinet, as shadow minister for health. In the leadup to the 1990 election he called a press conference to say that, well, there was no health policy. He couldn't get it to add up and the whole thing hadn't been thought through at all, terribly sorry. This is the point Tony Smith is at now, the point of abject failure. The internet filter should now be a thing of the past, dismantled on technical, moral and ethical grounds, with Conroy left without a skerrick of that Guardian Of Our Families nonsense that Tony Smith is too timid to take from him.

The Liberals have no policy in this area because they have no clue, and they have no clue because Tony Smith is too dumb and too lazy to do his job. Tony Smith followed all of the other sheep out of Turnbull's frontbench and was put straight back into the BCDE portfolio until he gets it right. He hasn't. He's failed, and has thus let down Abbott, Hockey and the whole Coalition.

The whole thrust of the Abbott campaign in this year's election is one of competence. The Liberals would have you believe that Labor are incompetent to run the government and the Liberals are competent to do so. Having Tony Smith on the frontbench is incompatible with a competency-based agenda.

06 April 2010

What goes with Turnbull

Plenty has been written and said (and there's more yet to come) about how Turnbull did this and didn't do that, but what follows here is what could have happened had Turnbull stayed in politics.

Malcolm Turnbull's only hope of becoming Prime Minister was to build a base, to go through the dull grind of meeting small groups in obscure places to convince them to get active within the Liberal Party to support the two things he represented:

  • A concern for the environment and a willingness to spend money to address environmental concerns. Yes, he was careful to the point where he came out with that appalling series of compromises over the ETS. But let's go with him out on a limb, in Liberal Party terms, and what might we see: a post-agricultural vision for Australia, a way of appreciating our country for what it is and what it might be rather than just assessing how much we might extract from it if those bastards in Canberra gave us a subsidy. You could even get all giddy and say that this leads you to a better understanding of Aborigines and Aboriginal societies and cultures, and from there you can start talking about a republic ... but let's not;

  • A more liberal way of governing, whereby people got the services they expect from government without it intruding into their lives too much. It could have been possible to represent civil liberties as something other than anachronisms, and to encourage people to define and embrace them as first steps toward a republic we deserve ... sorry.

Turnbull's idea of building a base was to cultivate highly-placed sponsors who could lift him upwards, rather than to rally the mob to take on those already entrenched. It's unfair to project one's own hopes and wishes, but when there's the prospect of some real leadership that's just what happens, the odd burnout on the road to the sunlit uplands.

The longer he stayed in politics after being ditched (by a single vote!), the more likely it seemed that Turnbull would, like Menzies, use his wit and resources to build that base with a view to catching Labor at a moment of weakness and overreach. Not so, and understandable: the prospect of spending more time than is absolutely necessary with the clowns and jerks who make up the "National Right" of the Liberal Party is genuinely appalling, and the promises of this (Big!) country gleams through the arch like an untravelled world to Turnbull and his wife. Good luck to them both.

The departure of Malcolm Turnbull is another of those factors that the journosphere will insist is good for Tony Abbott, and indeed he does now have a freer hand than he did when Mr 41 Votes was still a potent threat. In reality it will make bugger-all difference and you can bet that Abbott will blow what little opportunity it presents to him. Abbott has seen off both Turnbull and Costello, both better men than he; this didn't do Brendan Nelson or Minchin any good and it won't help Abbott.

This is not to say that Labor is in for some sort of thousand-year reich, and it is certainly not true that the next Liberal government will be a slightly more polished version of the shambles that Abbott has decided is good enough for the likes of us. It places a lot of the onus on Joe Hockey to decide what a liberal government might mean, and to encourage people to vote and act in other ways to bring it about; probably more than Joe can bear.

Like Bonnie Prince Charlie, Malcolm Turnbull was unworthy of - and incapable of realising - the hopes projected onto him. Realising those hopes will not come soon or easily, and what will happen along the way, is the stuff of both pathos and bathos ...

In a big country, dreams stay with you

I still believe in a Big Australia and am sad that my country's government no longer does.

It would be a poor, poor thing indeed if this government cut back the country's infrastructure and growth because of the temporary ebb and flow of budgeting, or worse because of a desire to drape racism in some dull grey garb in the hope that nobody will notice. The environmental concerns of Flannery and Brown in this announcement just don't ring true.

Who better to pull the wet blanket over hopes and fears alike than the lisping monotone of Tony Burke, the new Phillip Ruddock that the Liberals could never produce. It was Burke who was set to carefully unwind all those "temporary" "assistance" measures bestowed on hapless, helpless and hopeless farmers. It was Burke who ground to a halt the push by Marshall Perron and Philip Nitschke for legal euthanasia (the only national political movement to originate in the Northern Territory).

All long-term governments want to instill in their people feelings of dull-witted satisfaction with the status quo as a substitute for incessant demand for action. When this government starts feeling its age and resorting to that, it is Tony Burke who will lead that initiative - not the wild-eyed and grating-voiced Albanese, not Gillard (who as putative leader will have to both inspire and calm as needs be), not bossy Roxon, not any other of those slightly grasping wrong-side-of-the-tracks-made-good Labor types. Listening to Tony Burke speak is the equivalent of a meal consisting entirely of mashed potato. His student debating skills of polarising his opponents as unhinged ratbags have grown sharper and more subtle, not duller, with age and ascent.

Like Combet, however, Burke has a portfolio that is not just broad but hopelessly schizoid in focus. If Rudd isn't trying to confuse his ministers he is doing a mighty good job anyway. One has the feeling that neither man will feature prominently in the election campaign, but that when portfolios are reallocated afterwards in more coherent lines none will be more relieved.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison dismissed Mr Rudd's announcement as a diversion to cover his failure to control boat arrivals. "Effectively what he has announced is a plan for a plan after the next election," he said.

All big announcements can be pooh-poohed by quotidian concerns. It is silly to quibble that a population of millions is hostage to a few hundred desperates and unfortunates, and the "plan for a plan" thing suggests an impatience for the hard work of long term thinking. If the Liberal Party won the next election it would implode under the responsibility of governing. Don't vote Liberal, it would be cruel. Keep the Libs in Opposition, it's only fair.

It will be interesting to see where the new ministerial talent will come from - despite such a large backbench, this rearrangement of existing portfolios suggests that everyone who is already a minister is pretty much everyone who should be one. Seeing as the NSW ALP put up such a fight to keep Chris Hayes, and as he holds a seat held by two former Cabinet Ministers and two party leaders ... what do you mean, no? Next you'll be dismissing the mighty Senator Steve Hutchins. What about the scarily bright Melissa Parke, just waiting to be compromised by the rough-and-tumble of political life; or a second-chance for poor old Kelvin Thomson, who gave up a ministry in the Victorian government (stop laughing) for, uh; or bright young talent like that pudding-shaped brunette from Adelaide who chews gum behind Rudd during Question Time? Putting her on the front bench as Minister for Obscure Potfolios would keep her out of shot, at least.

No one, least of all Rudd, seems to have noted Tony Abbott's stand in all this.

No sensible person gives a damn, Milney. The competence thing won't work because the Coalition haven't made the case that they'd be better than Labor; Howard's government was a ranshackle thing, ragged toward the end, and only those who already vote Liberal regard it as a shiny stainless steel machine disrupted from its work due to clerical errors on ballot papers.

The next step on from this critique is dramatic in its political impact. Abbott is approaching the point where for the first time in living memory bipartisan support for existing and projected immigration intakes will be abandoned by the Coalition in the run-up to an election and declared open season for community debate.

Yeah, just like Howard in '87. Only when the Liberals drop this crap will they be electable.

But the politics of this debate have the capacity to spin wildly out of control.

Out of whose control, Milney? Is there a single issue where the Coalition's media savvy and resources runs rings around Labor's?

Labor and its proxy refugee supporters -- who've been hypocritically quiet as Rudd has stumbled from one crisis to another on boatpeople -- will immediately accuse the Coalition of being racist by opposing the immigration programs necessary to meet the 36 million number.

What's racist is the focus on a couple of hundred non-Caucasian boat people rather than thousands of overstayers and illegal workers who fly here. If you want to point to problems in our migration system, never mind Christmas Island - go to the Coogee Bay Hotel late on Friday night, there's your piss-off-we're-full deportation quota, Morrison's indictment of the whole immigration system, right there.

Morrison's point is that Rudd didn't bother asking voters whether this was OK with them. "The Coalition," he says, "believes we should ask Australians about what they think about future population growth before signing on to any particular growth path."

Bullshit. They never did it in government, and Tony Abbott isn't going to start and neither is Scott Morrison. Milney, your job is not to be Abbott and Morrison's stenographer: yet on he goes.

Morrison points to the Pauline Hanson ascendancy, to which the Howard government responded by more than doubling the annual immigration intake during the next decade to a peak of 158,630. During the same period, according to independent polling, the number of those concerned about immigration fell to just over one-third of the population.

But critically, as Morrison points out, this was also a time during which Australians were confident the government had control over the nation's borders. Not a claim that could be made now, especially in the context of increasing the nation's population to 36 million.

"When the Coalition started calling for a population debate, the usual charges of racism followed. However, just like with border protection, this would be a dangerous assumption for Labor to make, let alone assert, as they have," Morrison says.

Hanson was responding to the Keating government's economic policies, which stripped well-paying jobs from the low-skilled and ageing rural workforce. Howard was attempting to blow the racism dog-whistle, one reason why he almost lost in 1998. Only when he dropped that crap for all time and put migration in the context of growing Australia - skill-wise and not just in numbers - did he regain credibility. Border protection is the last issue that hasn't crumbled in Abbott's hands, and it seems that no amount of polling will persuade him to drop this most sleazy of issues: that we're being overwhelmed by boat people.

I hate the fact that this big country is run by small-minded people, I hate it and my only choice is to rail against it until I can find some way of forcing them to leave the stage by confronting them with issues too big for them to handle.

05 April 2010

Blood lust and resistance

Eugene Terre'Blanche lived a violent life, and his life ended violently. His life is complete but the futility of that life is not clear to those who regarded him as anything but pitiful and absurd.

Terre'Blanche fought for a white homeland for the Boers after forming the Afrikaans Resistance Movement in 1973 with six others to oppose what they believed were moves towards majority rule by the apartheid government.

That effort failed, everyone in South Africa and beyond is better off for that, and hopefully in a few days he will be seen for what he was: a man who bet it all on the wrong outcome, and lost.

AWB commandant Pieter Steyn ... [said] "We're not racists. We just believe that you should stick to your race,"

Too stupid for government, some people.

To imagine what an AWB-run country would look like (a kind of reverse Bantustan) look no further than Zimbabwe: where silence is the effective substitute for well-run government; where terror is currency, law and national discourse; and where a doddery dictator's ramblings replaces local culture to the point where the country repels the world.

Several AWB supporters had to leave their firearms with security at a press conference held by the minister of police on Sunday, with one elderly man kissing his reclaimed revolver as he exited the meeting.

The organisation, which uses a swastika-like emblem, believes Terre'Blanche's murder is linked to a controversial song urging people to "shoot the boer" sung by ruling African National Congress (ANC) party youth leader Julius Malema.

Two court rulings have banned the use of the slogan but the ANC has vowed to fight for its use, saying the song is part of South Africa's liberation struggle.

Firstly, clowns who kiss inanimate anti-personnel weapons need to have a good look at themselves, and not in an admiring way. Second, Julius old son: if you're going to make it as a politician, choose your music a bit more carefully. Leave the nostalgia trip for the oldies, the lesson of South Africa is that they got everything they wanted for your country - and your generation in your country - without having to kill the boers.

Emile Coetzee, a historian at the University of Johannesburg who specialises in white nationalism, travelled to the farm to assess the atmosphere and told AFP that Terre'Blanche's followers live in fear.

"AWB supporters are living a lifestyle of fear, not knowing when any perpetrator might break into their houses and do the same thing which these two murderers have done to Eugene Terre'Blanche, their leader," he said.

People like F W de Klerk got there first - they realised that a nation divided against itself has no future and that cranking up the fear with explosive rhetoric makes things worse, not better. If Terre'Blanche can be wiped out then clearly racial violence makes nobody safe. Bury him, and bury the AWB with him. Black people breaking into your house is the least of your worries: being bullied by the likes of Terre'Blanche and Steyn every day for the rest of your life is the real worry, and with the death of the former that threat has lessened.

At the centre of the AWB logo is a design that some have likened to a swastika, but which I think looks like a triple boomerang: Terre'Blanche tossed that triple boomerang out there and now it has smacked him in the head. Sometimes you can worry about something so much that it becomes more real for your worrying: get back to work and stop whingeing.

As for all these "calls for calm", such calm is the norm in a free society. It is only possible in an environment of depoliticisation, where benefits flow from hard work and reading the market astutely rather than various kind of toyi-toying (the AWB can't complain about bloodthirsty ANC songs because of their own bloodthirsty rhetoric). The most effective weerstand/resistance is one where people just get on with it, a situation not possible where extremists want to "organise" people - or destroy them - to lessen their unslakeable feelings of worthlessness. Feed some worms, Terre'Blanche, and create something positive in death that you never could in life.

01 April 2010

Phoney Tony

Tony Abbott has been busy diminishing the Liberal Party's appeal - and now his party has helped him trash the one quality his fans claimed he had in spades, both absolutely and compared to Rudd: his authenticity.

The Liberal Party had a reputation for dour economic management, one that John Howard built assiduously and which Kevin Rudd stole from him. Abbott can't and won't compete with him on that front, it bores him and he thinks he can shrug off those in his party who thinks it is the main game simply because he's Tony Abbott and they're not. His one attempt at shoring up his party's main drawcard yesterday sank without trace.

The revelation that Liberals are getting Abbott some acting lessons is the end of Authentic Abbott, and the whole principle of Let Tony Be Tony. Everyone who shakes his hand from hereon in will be getting the full cheesy experience, like you get with Bronwyn Bishop or Kristina Keneally. Marginal seat voters, captains of industry, anyone he has to impress in order to increase the Liberal vote and engender confidence in a Coalition government, all of those people will ask 'are you for real?', and not be able to answer it either way convincingly. Abbott will project the feeling that he's having a lend of them.

Yeah, I'll bet that Kevin Rudd has had training as well - but a nerd can be expected to get help to take it up a gear, and Rudd doesn't strut around proclaiming how authentic he is.

Liberals complain that Abbott is being criticised for keeping fit, but that's missing the point too. Abbott is being criticised for his hope that projecting his physical fitness might make up for an absence of aptitude for office, a compelling reason why people should vote Liberal rather than default to the incumbents. He thinks all that hard graft about policy and which way to take the country is beside the point, something you can toss off the top of your head while he gets to the real point of his life: a sub-Whitmanesque song of himself with, ah, without the ah, depth of conviction that, tscha, you might expect.

The Liberal Party has no choice but to put up with this self-indulgence because there's nothing more important than letting Tony be Tony (well, there is - but the Turnbull era showed one thing, that if you don't indulge Abbott in his whimsy he melts down). By sending him off to acting school they underestimate how much they have not boosted their leader, but undermined him utterly and irretrievably.

No point in him doing the Captain Catholic thing either - it isn't just patriotism that is the last refuge of people like Abbott. With the perceptions that child abuse is an endemic problem in the Catholic Church, and that its officials are unwilling or unable to act to clean it up (and that they have a bias in favour of perpetrators over victims), it's a huge error to proclaim that you're the guy to solve the nation's ills while shackling yourself to The Brotherhood of Secrets & Lies.