30 May 2010

Where I stand (apparently)

The following results come from a US website, where certain issues considered definitely left there are pretty much mainstream here (e.g. support for public healthcare and broadcasting, and clearly my support for the Howard government's gun policies makes me some sort of socialist). Nonetheless:

My Political Views
I am a center-left moderate social libertarian
Left: 1.14, Libertarian: 1.59

Political Spectrum Quiz

My Foreign Policy Views
Score: -4.88

Political Spectrum Quiz

My Culture War Stance
Score: -4.28

Political Spectrum Quiz

28 May 2010

The (self-)destruction of Tony Abbott begins

Over many years, Abbott has constructed an appearance of strength in his intellect and sense of self, with touchstones such as conservatism, the monarchy, the Liberal Party as revealed by John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop, and Catholicism as revealed by B A Santamaria and George Pell. The swagger, the insistence that you have to take him as you find him (i.e. that you have to assume the image he projects at face value is the same as the substance at the core of who he is) is all part of this.

The requirements of leadership of a major party, and the idea that you might become Prime Minister, require from you more than just indulgence of the self. That's why Bob Hawke had to give up the grog, why Paul Keating had to retreat from the limelight and hope that people would miss him, why John Howard had to finally embrace Medicare and be nice to moderates. Kevin Rudd had it easy in that he didn't have a public persona to give up in pursuit of the Prime Ministership: what he did in pursuit of that office was assumed to be who he really was, in the absence of any information to the contrary.

Tony Abbott, however, has form. That whole take-me-as-I-am thing was never going to work. Everyone who becomes Prime Minister has to change to some extent in order to adapt to the office. Abbott can't let go of certain issues without losing sense of who he is. Worse, he has a parliamentary party behind him who will take any signs of personal growth as shilly-shallying and betrayal.

First there was the kind words about Malcolm Fraser: a man who had already left the Liberal Party, an act to placate people Abbott never had much time for and who never voted for him, who apparently aren't important to the Liberal Party's strategy in the coming election and nor to the party's future generally. Now there's this crap about the environment, and the sulky going-to-ground that followed. There's more of this sort of stuff to come, that whole idea of being a conservative but moving with the times - who does he think he is, a moderate?

Moderate liberals know that you have to pry ideas away from Labor in order to make the case for government, but to make the case within the Liberal Party makes you an easy mark for accusations of 'weakness' from the hidebound reactionaries who are Abbott's base. Preparing Liberals for change can actually make change harder to achieve, and has the effect where changes are made without reference to ordinary party members, which alienates them further, etc.

Tony Abbott has to wonder just how badly he wants to be Prime Minister. He was always going to have to soften the edges of the modern Liberal Party to appeal to voters who are alienated from Rudd, but skeptical of Abbott and for whom the 2007 election was not a clerical error but a determination to be rid of Howard. Policies like parental leave aren't game-changers, they so lack credibility that they erode the credibility of Abbott himself. Abbott's base hates Malcolm Fraser. They hate greenies and carbon-climate-blah-blah-blah. They don't have the devotion to Israel that the American right does (with its large base of Christian fundamentalists and Jews), so Julie Bishop looks more like a goose in defending Israel (and trashing Australia's passport system) than some champion of the Holy Land. They have their man in place and they won't tolerate any backsliding on his part.

Abbott's base believe that the solution to the success of the unions in opposing WorkChoices is to bring back WorkChoices, under the assumption that the unions can't be bothered opposing it again (or something). They are totally ready to sacrifice anyone who stands in the way of that assumption, including Tony Abbott.

There's only so much he can get out of old faves like the announcement on boat people. "We need to stop the boats", he said. It isn't a national policy imperative as overstayers are a worse problem. No, the "we" is Abbott and Morrison themselves, the scaremongers battling relevance-deprivation syndrome.

It was true that Abbott has rattled Rudd. Another appearance like his press club "debate" on health, another random good poll, and Rudd will rally. More to the point, the Labor front bench is not ready to die in a ditch wringing their hands like Howard's cabinet did this time three years ago, where they agreed the leader was preventing them from winning but couldn't bring themselves to move against him. Already, Gillard and Swan and Tanner and other ministers are using their experience and status in office, standing up on policy in a way that exposes the Coalition as unready (show me someone who's been savaged by Stephen Smith and I'll show you someone unfit to be Deputy Leader of anything). Labor isn't ready to leave office and the Coalition aren't ready to take it. Rudd will win despite himself and Abbott will lose because of himself.

This leaves Tony Abbott selling himself down the river on a hopeless mission and unable to come back once the inevitable defeat occurs - defeat electorally, defeat within the Liberal Party, and defeat psychologically. I wonder how many of Abbott's base, not strong people united in common cause but patsies waiting to be mugged and let down, will be there for Abbott once he confronts the unravelling of what he might call his integrity, others his superego. Maybe his family will be there for him, maybe a priest or two, and perhaps one or two faithful retainers, but no more.

With that will come the collapse of the whole Howard restoration idea - what will happen then is a matter for the Liberal Party, and those who claim they support Tony Abbott will be torn between their party and its current leader, who is on a hiding-to-nothing politically and personally. It won't be pretty and it can't be avoided.

Update 30 May: Stories like this and this, revealing Abbott as a flake, are long overdue. It's good that they haven't waited until after the election but they could've exposed him during his time as shadow minister for families families and dilettantes.

27 May 2010

Entitled to your opinion, too

Update 27 May: Two veteran members of the press gallery demonstrate that if you can't bring your years of experience to bear on a long-term phenomenon like Malcolm Fraser, it's pretty doubtful whether your analysis of anything else has any credibility whatsoever.

First, Tony Wright's flatulent piece. Tony likes things to stay fixed in place so that he can slap his cliches all over them. When something happens that requires Tony to leave lunch early, say around 5pm, he gets very huffy indeed. Like Alan Ramsey, Wright starts his pieces with a tired old anecdote from yesteryear (whereas Ramsey made them crackle with an almost palpable energy, Wright can make even important and unexpected events sound lame). The key flaw in his piece is here:

Now it's Malcolm Fraser who has climbed the fence. In this era of the Abbott, he has quit the party that made him prime minister because, he believes, the Liberals are no longer liberal.

Fraser may as well have said his old party's top rail had been removed. Here was an opportunity to look bigger, his legacy more valuable … and he could clamber out.

He must really dislike Tony Abbott's Liberals ...

Everyone believes the Liberals are no longer liberal, Tony. It's amazing that anyone could have sat so long in the press gallery and missed this key fact. If Fraser was so keen on burnishing his legacy, why didn't he upstage other Liberal leaders (rather than criticise them from the sidelines), why did he wait 27 years after leaving The Lodge to release his memoirs?

The fact that almost nobody in the Liberal Party truly values Fraser's legacy gives the lie to Wright's mis-analysis that the Liberal Party is fixed in place like the fence around a cattle-yard.

Fraser, when he was opposition leader in 1975, thought Whitlam's government was so bad that he was prepared to cripple it, leading to Australia's greatest constitutional showdown and giving him the prime ministership after governor-general Sir John Kerr sacked the Whitlam outfit.

All these years later, Whitlam turns out to be not as bad ...

The reason why that 'turnaround' is confusing is because the first part of the analysis is wrong. Whitlam tried to raise public money in secret, off the budget and away from the accepted public loan process. Fraser saw that Whitlam was afraid of public scrutiny: part of the complexity of the Whitlam myth is that he had a great love for humanity but a disdain of actual people, a flaw that is replicated in other left-of-centre politicians like Gareth Evans, Al Gore and Gordon Brown. Kerr gave Fraser the Prime Ministership on 11 November on the condition that he would call an election, and on 13 December Fraser was rewarded with the greatest majority ever. I've never been a member of the parliamentary press gallery and I was six years old in 1975, but I still know more about it than a so-called senior member of the parliamentary press gallery.

If you're on the political left you can't hate the people for voting, so instead you hate Fraser. When Fraser adopted positions on refugees, civil liberties and Aborigines that made him impossible for lefties to hate him, people like Wright were left flummoxed. Wright lurched for the Labor notion of "rats", not realising that this has no place in Liberal (or even liberal) traditions, ignoring his own quotation from Sophie Mirabella: a single-person rabble who is far more representative of today's Liberal Party than Fraser.

Just because all your anecdotes are (at least) 16 years old, it doesn't make you some sort of sage, Tony Wright. You offer Fairfax readers no real insight into the way we are governed, and you're nothing but a huge superannuation liability for your employer. Get out, and give up your place to a keen young journalist who won't treat parliament like some half-arsed theatre. I suspect the reason why they closed the Non-Members' Bar in Parliament House is because bores like Tony Wright were clogging up the place.

Peter Hartcher's piece is slightly better, even if the whiny theme comes through in the headline. He gets the central idea that it is the Liberal Party that changed:

Fraser could well invoke Ronald Reagan's explanation for why he quit the Democratic Party to join the Republicans: "I didn't leave the party, the party left me."

The Liberal Party has always been an uneasy alliance of two distinct philosophies, liberalism and conservatism. These are such different world views that in some countries they are represented by different political parties ... Malcolm Fraser was not considered a part of the liberal arm of the party - or the "wets" - when he was in power, nor was he a "dry". As the political historian Professor Patrick Weller of Griffith University puts it: "Fraser managed to straddle both."

But in the 27 years since the end of Fraser's prime ministership, the liberal arm of the party has withered and the conservatives have advanced so far Fraser has been left increasingly angry and isolated. Since the Fraser years, the Liberals have moved to the right in every major realm of policy.

It isn't just Fraser who's angry and isolated.

In recent years Fraser has argued he was inclined to move towards free markets and a floating dollar, for instance, but faced the implacable opposition of the Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

This has always been the weakest part of Fraser's self-justification, and if either Hartcher or Wright were any good they'd focus on this. The economic debates since Fraser left office show how inadequate he was as Prime Minister, and how limited he is in criticising contemporary developments in economic policy. He's much stronger on social policy, within Australia and beyond.

Tony Wright is angry because someone he thought of as fixed in place forever has gotten out of place. Lazy people like Wright take umbrage at being taken by surprise, because it dents their fantasy of being in touch with politics and able to report on it in a meaningful way. Hartcher is right in his analysis of how the modern Liberal Party has departed from Fraser and he from it, but he can't see that some aspects of the status quo ("Labor and the Liberals have both become free market parties, both have increasingly tough approaches to boat people, and Kevin Rudd signed up to Howard's anti-terrorism policies") can't be taken as given, despite what a welter of polls and "conventional wisdom" might say.

26 May 2010

Entitled to your opinion

When it lost the 1983 election, the Liberal Party made a unseemly rush to distance itself from Malcolm Fraser. Moderates thought he'd gone too far; right-whingers thought he didn't go far enough. By the early 1990s those Liberals who thought Malcolm Fraser went too far were pretty much gone. Andrew Peacock and Ian Macphee fell as chaff before the Kroger putsch, replicated in NSW by Bronwyn Bishop. The right whinge pretty much had the Howard government to themselves, with the only signs of moderate liberal life were confined to one issue (refugees) and to a small bunch of members who were then in their sixties, and whose careers must surely end soon (where they haven't already) in the pursuit of that party's renewal. But that was many years ago, and we've all moved on since then.

There has been some generational change but not by people who will or can disrupt the right-whinge status quo. There isn't a critical mass of such people and nor will there be, because no reserve of moderate preselectors exists within the Liberal Party and no deep pools of liberal candidates exist to draw upon. They can't effect any change because there is no evidence they have thought about the challenges confronting Australia and what liberal measures might be brought to bear on these. Moderate liberals tend to be trainee lobbyists rather than fully engaged with the policy process, which makes them little different from right-whingers really; only those right-whingers unsuitable for a lobbying career, mostly fanatics, tend to be fully engaged with public policy as such.

Much of this has been said before, particularly in The Australian, and it is a testament to Samantha Maiden that she can make old news seem relevant. That ad where Iraqis invade Perth and Indonesians sail up the Normanton River really is a crock and I hope it represents a low point for the Liberals, from which the only way forward must be up: but something tells me it's going to get worse before it gets better for them.

What really incensed me was the mendacious, self-regarding and self-negating piffle gainsaying Fraser toward the end:

Mr Fraser, the prime minister from 1975 to 1983 said today that the party was no longer a liberal party but a conservative party.

In response, Liberal frontbencher Chris Pyne said Mr Fraser “was entitled to his view, but I think he’s wrong,".

Malcolm Fraser is entitled to his view. Not because of any inherent human right or Australia's long history of freedom of speech, not even because of a lifetime of achievement: he has to wait until Chris Pyne condescends to grant him an entitlement. I wish we lived in a country where you could have a view regardless of whether Chris Pyne would condescend to you in this manner, but Pyne has to be good for something.

Insofar as it matters, on what grounds does Pyne think Fraser is wrong?

“The Liberal Party is as much a party of both liberal and conservative traditions, as it has ever been. It contains in it a number of very prominent ‘small’ ['l'] liberals such as Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis and others, and they are in senior roles," he said.

The Liberal Party has not been a party of both liberal and conservative traditions for a decade at least. The idea that there is any sort of equivalence between liberals and conservatives within the Liberal Party, as there was during and before Fraser's time, is bullshit. Pyne's exclusion from the Howard ministry for many years was one small element of proof of that; there are plenty of others, but chances are the only way one can explain anything to Chris Pyne is to make direct reference to Chris Pyne. You could never accuse Chris Pyne of doing anything to encourage moderate liberals to become active in the Liberal Party.

The Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party contains almost no moderate liberals to speak of, and those that are there have scant records of tangible achievement in promoting moderate liberal policy. True, Turnbull does; but he is a backbencher, occupying not a senior role but a very junior one, where any utterance he makes at odds with party policy is quickly disowned by the party leadership in word and deed. Brandis has no record to speak of: a couple of sound speeches perhaps, but still less than Fraser's output since 1983, and even less than Fraser's output as a backbencher. Brandis' position as a moderate is similar to those of Pyne, or Robert Hill: adopt an appearance of bemusement with maybe a few quips now and then, but when the right-whinge attack dogs come at you the only thing to do (apparently) is flinch, back down, and negotiate a few meaningless little perks to keep quiet. Nick Minchin established the pattern under wich moderates operate within the Liberal Party - crush them, and only then throw them meaningless concessions to shut them up - and now two generations of liberal moderates are confined within that nutshell and command the 'infinite space' allowed to liberal moderates. You don't get to have lunch with Glenn Milne if you're a moderate, he didn't get where he is today by lunching with losers. Brandis has only got to be Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (you can see why Chris Pyne is so impressed, can't you) by stopping all that moderate liberal nonsense once and for all.

Why would Maiden quote Pyne anyway? The journosphere perceive Pyne as some sort of leader of moderate liberals, whereas a greater perspective would show that to have Chris Pyne in such a position is a nonsense of itself. Here is an article that is not unsympathetic to Pyne but is all the more damning for highlighting his inability to think about policy, to imagine some aspect of Australian life greater than himself and to develop liberal policies addressing people's needs in that area.

Opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb said: “Malcolm, for whatever reason, has been uncomfortable with lots of our positions for 20 years, 25 years."

“I don’t know what’s going through his head. We’ve become used to Malcolm disagreeing with our positions on many issues for nearly a quarter of a century," he said.

That would be the same quarter-century in which the liberal and conservative traditions have been out of alignment: well done in negating Pyne, Andrew Robb, but no credit for drawing attention to yourself with a comment like “I don’t know what’s going through his head". Fraser has given long and lucid explanations of why he believes as he does, and I can't believe you haven't examined those in detail. If you still don't know what's going through the head of a voluble public figure then what does that say about your own?

Funniest yet, though, is this: Abbott tells Libs what? As if Abbott is some post-Howard leader. As if he is going to address the liberal-conservative imbalance, with his mealy-mouthed praise of Malcolm Fraser and his great big taxes. He's entitled to his opinion, he's even entitled to kid himself as Chris Pyne is; but he's not entitled to think that he can be believed that their party has the balance required to govern the nation.

20 May 2010

Watch out for the boomerang, mate

Even for a government going out backwards, this has to be one of the great own-goals of recent times. She's lobbed one at the opposition and it's hit her in the face.

The whole idea of Kristina Keneally is that her shit doesn't stink, that she's the wholesome face of an otherwise rotten government. Nathan Rees could get away with telling people to toughen up, any other MP - man or woman - in the NSW Parliament could have gotten away with this statement. The one person who couldn't get away with the tough-guy act is Keneally, who apparently lives around the corner from Ken's (convenient for Campbell to drop in his resignation on the way).

It's also something of an indictment on the Illawarra and those they choose to represent them:

  • Matt Brown (Kiama): that man will have a pair of jocks on his headstone.

  • Noreen Hay (Wollongong): femme fatale with a face like a bulldog. Like Campbell, was Mayor of Wollongong but had no idea about corruption over town planning.

  • Neville Hilton (Throsby FEA President): the workers' friend.

  • Frank Arkell (Wollongong): not Labor but Wollongong through and through.

  • This list isn't complete, not by a long shot ...

Another reason to vote O'Farrell: no Illawarrans on his front bench.

The premier also announced a major reshuffle in the wake of Mr Campbell’s resignation.

How would that be different than leaving the Transport portfolio vacant? Why would you put John Robertson in a high-profile role - did the Costa experience teach NSW Labor nothing? You can bet that Paul Lynch will get a lot of work done on Public Sector Reform in the next few weeks, and that in Maitland Robyn Parker will get to knock off a minister next March.

19 May 2010

Henderson lessens himself

It's normally the practice of the Politically Homeless Institute to ignore Gerard Henderson, a man still fighting the battles of 1985 (or, in the case of Robert Manne, long before) with the sort of half-baked polling analysis that tries to make savants from idiots. In this piece, Henderson has learnt less than he ought from the recent British election, and thus his ability to advise Barry O'Farrell (or anyone else reading his column) is limited.

In 1974 the Liberal Party leader, Billy Snedden, obtained some unintended notoriety when he declared that the Coalition was not defeated at the federal election. Rather, it did not win enough seats to form a government. That was all.

In 1974, Billy Snedden was attempting to lead the Liberals back to office after only 17 months in opposition, having been in power for the 23 years before that. In 2011, Barry O'Farrell is likely to lead the Coalition to victory after 16 years in opposition. Poor analogy, whether at the opening or close of an article. The parallel is closer to the position Tony Abbott is in, rather than O'Farrell.

In some academic circles in Australia it is fashionable to blame the global financial crisis on what is termed neo-liberalism ... The current electoral boundaries in Britain do not favour the Tories ... Cameron and his advisers made the political task more difficult by agreeing to debate both Brown and Clegg ... There is a lesson in the Conservative Party's performance for the Liberals and Nationals in NSW in the lead-up to next year's state election.

Maybe so, but this article doesn't prove that case:

  • Neo-liberalism and the GFC is not an issue for the NSW election. When there was plenty of money available in NSW, Labor was busy wasting it and pursuing facile media opportunities. Henderson takes more notice of "some academic circles" than most NSW voters, I suspect.

  • The electoral boundaries in NSW are neither particularly pro- or anti-Coalition; balanced, I think, is the word to describe them. It is eminently possible for the Coalition to win outright on these boundaries, and to win a proportion of seats roughly equal to the vote next March.

  • There is no coherent third-party force in NSW politics; you have the Coalition and Labor, then a motley collection of locals-first whatever-works pragmatists who lack a statewide scope. O'Farrell and Keneally need not have to choose between, say, Clover Moore and/or Peter Draper as debate partners. For Brown and Cameron to exclude Clegg would have given him other platforms plus a grievance, and would have diminished both the other leaders.

Henderson overreaches himself when trying to adapt different circumstances to NSW.

In Britain Cameron failed to distinguish himself sufficiently from Brown and New Labour.

No, Cameron failed to distinguish himself from the kind of economic vandalism that saw Britain kicked around by the EMU in 1992, policies that Cameron was then spruiking for the Conservative government at the time. He failed to win a majority because he could not rebut Labour claims that a Conservative government meant slashing and burning public services.

[Prime Minister Cameron's] major attempt in a speech to define a Cameron Tory leadership took the old form of the Hugo Young Memorial Lecture ... "big society" ... "empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives" ... resembled a meaningless mission statement ...

This was Cameron's attempt to distinguish his government from the combination of diminished social services and sexual peccadillos that characterised the last Tory government. O'Farrell doesn't need to distinguish himself from the Greiner-Fahey government of 1988-95: not to the same extent and not for the same reasons. Credit to Henderson for keeping tabs on the Hugo Young so the rest of us don't have to - but not for failing to understand what Cameron meant while on the Hugo.

On economic policy, Cameron decided not to square with the British electorate about the tough-minded policies necessary to solve Britain's economic discontents.

And quite right too: whatever ideas the Conservatives have about what should be cut will have to be renegotiated. Best they keep these to themselves: the old pantomime that "things are much wors than we thought" won't do. By contrast, O'Farrell can afford to target 16 years worth of Labor boondoggles, log-rolling and fucks-up while creating space in the budget to support infrastructure investment. It is fair to describe Britain's deep-seated economic problems can be described with a much stronger word than discontents.

And on issues of crime and terrorism ... the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition deal promises to water down the anti-terrorism legislation.

Firstly, I doubt that Barry O'Farrell has a major policy on terrorism other than working with federal and international authorities. Secondly, it should be possible to make these measures more effective by not sacrificing civi liberties in the process: good on the Brits for making this attempt, and hopefully an O'Farrell Government can distinguish itself similarly. Henderson is wrong to regard this as "water[ing] down".

In Britain the Conservatives found that Labour was deeply embedded in many of its traditional seats. The same applies in NSW.

The same applies everywhere, really. Long-established political parties have safe seats that remain with that party even in the face of considerable swings.

Since World War II the NSW Liberal Party has won only twice from opposition ... And Greiner was committed to economic reform.

Yes, but he didn't run on it. He didn't emphasise cuts and disruptions that would have sent voters fleeing back to Labor, did he Gerard. Cameron did the same thing, and ended up with a coalition of conservatives and liberals like we used to have in NSW - and it is to liberals you apply the slander "left of centre".

The opinion polls suggest Barry O'Farrell is heading for a comfortable victory. However, the sassy Kristina Keneally is popular. It may be that the NSW electorate is so tired of government by Labor mates that it will vote to change government irrespective of what the opposition has to offer. However, as Cameron has found out, the small-target strategy can backfire.

It would have "backfire[d]" if Labour and the LibDems had formed a coalition to keep the Tories out. As it stands, Britain has ended up with a moderate conservative government, lucky them.

The position O'Farrell is in today is more like that of Victoria's Jeff Kennett in the early 1990s. I don't know if you'd describe Joan Kirner as "sassy" (I wouldn't describe Keneally in that way: hopefully O'Farrell learns not to describe her that way either), but basically Labor is so unfit for government that the Coalition can be, should be, and clearly is given the benefit of the doubt.

Over the past couple of years O'Farrell's message has not always been clear. In 2008 he declined to support Morris Iemma's attempt to privatise the NSW state-owned electricity generators. Here O'Farrell lined up with the Labor Left and Greens against the right-of-centre Iemma government. Politics aside, this was not good policy since this is the kind of reform that many would expect an O'Farrell government to make.

NSW's coal-fired electricity generation system is in need of such drastic reform that it can only and must be done by government directly. The technological, environmental and regulatory changes facing coal-fired electricity is far greater than that facing the Commonwealth Oil Refineries in 1950. This reform cannot be left to an organisation run by people who are charged with maximising short-term profit. Iemma would have sold these assets for a song, and extracted such concessions for the sale, and squandered the proceeds, that O'Farrell's manoever was the right public policy choice. This makes it brilliant policy by itself: the fact that a generation of Labor politicians (particularly creatures of the Sussex Street Right) have since been pinned to the barbed-wire and machine-gunned is a bonus, and one for which O'Farrell continues to receive too little credit.

The Liberal Party's three most successful leaders - Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard - all won elections from opposition by staking out Liberal Party positions that were dramatically different from those of the incumbent Labor government at the time.


  • I'll give you Menzies, but that was a while ago and much has happened since then.

  • The first thing the Fraser government did was to pass the budget developed by its predecessors, in full. It retained contentious Whitlam initiatives of family law, Aboriginal land rights and much else besides.

  • On coming to office the Howard government did cut government services and distanced itself from its predecessors on, well, Aboriginal land rights in particular. It almost lost the following election.

While not criticising those policies in themselves, one can dismiss Henderson's idea that the Coalition must first look to Labor to set the agenda, and only then adopt a position markedly different from whatever Labor initiates, preferably in line with Henderson's preconceptions.

O'Farrell will win office when he sets out an agenda that is right for NSW, regardless of whether or not Labor's media-cyclists adopt the same position or a different one. This is the secret of Labor's success federally: Rudd is often called "Howard lite" when his positions coincide with those of his predecessor, and a dangerous radical where they don't; always, however, Rudd can be said to be more his own man than his disingenous opponent who would restore Howard in every way except personally.

While the Conservative Party only narrowly failed to achieve a majority of seats in the House of Commons, it still failed.

It would have "failed" had it not secured the Prime Ministership, the three great offices of state below that office, and control of the government generally. Compromise isn't failure Gerard, in politics it's a strength, and O'Farrell has demonstrated that strength to build alliances that show Labor can be frustrated without a collapse of government in this state. Will Hodgman could do worse than ask O'Farrell what his secret is in dealing with the Greens - particularly when the NSW Greens are more militant than Tasmania's.

In The Monthly, John Hirst said that Henderson gave O'Farrell a job in John Howard's office in the 1980s. It's not ingratitude for O'Farrell to learn from Henderson's rant that he shouldn't let Henderson's misjudgments limit NSW, the Liberals or even one's understanding of contemporary British politics.

18 May 2010

The Ross Cameron Moment

Tony Abbott's ego will always trump the self-discipline necessary to lead his party, let alone the nation. The Liberals only now realise what they're stuck with, and that the ride won't be worth the fall.

In this interview, Abbott claims that you can believe him in prepared and scripted remarks but otherwise he just runs off at the mouth. However, look at the context of the question: Abbott said in a scripted and considered speech that there'd be no new taxes under a Coalition government. Abbott then said, in another supposedly considered and scripted speech, that paid parental leave will actually require a Great Big New Tax - even bigger than the ETS. Whether he's considered and scripted, whether he's talking off the cuff, Abbott doesn't know what he's talking about but you're supposed to take him on trust anyway. That moment will turn out to be as politically fatal as John Hewson's moment on chocolate cake.

Whatever tribulations Kevin Rudd was going through are now over: thanks to Abbott the clouds have parted. Thanks to Rudd's own flash of passion over climate change earlier this week, and now this, Rudd can now go to the people saying: I might not be perfect, but golly gosh I'm doing my best. Even if it only happens in the last week of the election campaign, people will rally to Rudd over Abbott because people will forgive a change of tack if there's a core of integrity. Attacks like this or this or even
this sorry effort have no force now.

Abbott might think he's John Howard, insisting that you know what he stands for and demanding to be taken on trust: but Tony Abbott isn't John Howard. Howard had been through the ups and downs of public life, in public, over many decades. Abbott has cruised along as Howard's pet. Howard did his time in the valley of the shadow, Abbott has not experienced anything like what Howard went through and thus deserves none of the respect. Any difficulties Abbott may have experienced are entirely of his own making: the Daniel O'Connor adoption thing is long past and doesn't matter now.

It's one thing for politicians to play the public for mugs, it's another to be blatant about it. What Tony Abbott has done to his party in the coming election is similar to what Ross Cameron did to the voters of Parramatta in 2004.

Ross Cameron was a Liberal MP elected to represent Parramatta in 1996. Both Howard and Abbott thought highly of him, and he of them; Cameron used to follow Abbott around like a puppy, raving on about how he was going to be in the Abbott Cabinet. Like Abbott, Cameron was unabashedly religious, but unlike Abbott was unable to trim or hide his religiosity to suit Australian conditions.

Like many in the American Bible-bashing right-wing Cameron's religiosity was a cover for his personal weaknesses. Religion should provide, and does for many, a structure by which frail individuals can get over themselves and help redress their personal weaknesses; not for our Ross. Cameron's main weakness involved sexual fidelity: the Liberal Party (one of whose main planks involves Keeping Up Appearances) insisted that Cameron be married before he could be endorsed and go to Parliament. In marrying - a public display of his private life - Cameron's challenge was to find an avowedly Christian woman who did not mind his sexual infidelity but did not practice it herself: a tough ask, impossible for our Ross. When the inevitable happened in 2004, Ross decided to go public.

Accept me as I am, he insisted: I'm going to talk family values but I won't practice it. Mrs Cameron realised that there was more dignity in abandoning this farce than standing by to prop it up. The people of Parramatta, not averse to voting Liberal, decided not to be represented by a man who could not act in his own interests let alone theirs. Cameron's political career is over and so it should be. His supporters, people who believed in some sort of synthesis between what he said and what he'd do, turned out to have been fools.

Accept me as I am, says Abbott. I might talk parental leave but I'll drop it if I feel like it. I might talk tax cuts and no-means-tests but I'll also talk reducing deficit, and you can't bullshit a bullshitter. I might do something for the environment or I might not. I might cut public service numbers to the point where debacles like school halls and home insulation become more common rather than less. Hell, I might appoint my old mate Ross Cameron to a plum job, because I'm Tony Abbott I'll do what suits me. Abbott's main weakness is the importance he places on an office to give his life meaning, in a way that family and church and even sport have clearly failed to do, while at the same time being careless about the needs, wishes and hopes of others who do not hold it from the office of Prime Minister.

Howard did the "non core" thing after he won office, he was not so stupid to do so beforehand as he'd been though too much. It was a small element in Howard taking the third-biggest majority ever and going to preferences less than three years later; no Liberal who went through the white-knuckle ride of 1998 wants a repeat of it. Liberals like certainty, none more so than those who raise funds and run election campaigns. Abbott offers himself as leader and whatever he says goes: you can't have Falstaff and have him thin, you can't have Abbott and instill him with an integrity that he not only confesses that he lacks - but the real slap in the face is that he regards consistency and integrity as unimportant.

Like Ross Cameron in 2004, the game is now up for Tony Abbott. It's one thing to lose an election with dignity, having done your best; but Abbott's Liberals look like mugs whether they strive their guts out or whether they cruise along like Tony Smith. The easy road back to office, Howard without Howard, is now revealed as the dead letter it always was. Never mind the polls, the Abbott Liberal peak has already passed.

16 May 2010

At face value

Probably the single greatest failing of the journosphere is their reliance on press releases to tell them what they should be reporting. The importance they place upon a press release or an announcement which bears no responsibility to what actually happens to people beyond Canberra is lame. Lazy journalists get one story when the announcement is made (i.e. when the straw man is set up), another when the straw man is knocked down (circumstances change, someone who knows about the issue calls bullshit on it, or the politician in question was never serious). This creates a situation where what journalists care to report and what readers/listeners/viewers consume are different, which causes the journosphere to wring their hands but plough the same old barren ruts.

Take this:

Last year Wayne Swan was so desperate to distract attention from his $58 billion deficit, he didn't even mention the D-word in his budget night speech. This year he was so keen to focus attention on the early return to surplus he announced almost all the rest of his budget beforehand.

All but a couple of the new spending ideas had been preannounced or leaked. So had the new mining and cigarette taxes to pay for them. Left as the big news on budget night was that the budget was returning to surplus in 2012-13, three years before schedule, and that net debt would peak at about half of where we thought it would just a year ago.

In case we missed it, the Treasurer spelt it out. "The main story tonight is the fiscal story," he said.

Swan's predecessor John Howard had his 1980 budget pre-announced by Laurie Oakes. The idea of the nation's leading political correspondents any bunch of self-respecting journalists having some politician instruct them how to report it should have led to an uprising, or some other display of character. Instead, the media reported the budget exactly as Swan hoped.

Remember opposition leader Kevin Rudd who made a television ad to tell us that when it came to government finances "economic conservative" was a badge he wore with pride. It's him again.

And he's back to talking about how to manage runaway economic growth - with spending on skills and infrastructure and hospitals and railways and roads. Kevin the Nation Builder, just like in the 2007 election campaign.

You know what, Lenore? It's entirely possible that this is bullshit. It was bullshit the first time around and it's probably bullshit now. I supported Rudd because I thought he'd be Mr Infrastructure, but if he can't even lance the boil of Sydney's second airport then what are his chances of doing anything in subsequent terms? Calling bullshit might cause Labor media wranglers to yank away your drip feed of Chinese whispers and quasi-facts, but this could well be the best thing that happened to you. Try and compare press releases with what actually happened, how policy developments actually take in the communities on which they're afflicted. Stuff the narrative and call it for what it is.

Then there are the pluralities of reports in which Tony Abbott advocates small government. Tony Abbott is for government bloat: every ministry he took under Howard was smaller than it was when he left it, in budget and headcount terms. He is no more committed to small government than he is to nuclear disarmament or same-sex marriage. There was a DJ in Melbourne called bullshit on him, and then again Laurie Oakes on Dutton putting his money where Abbott's mouth wasn't - both times, the supposedly media-savvy and combative Abbott went to pieces. The journosphere has largely ignored these, calling them "gaffes" and assuming that Abbott knows what he's talking about when he talks about government.

He doesn't know about economics, he doesn't know about the government he opposes (as opposition spokesman under Nelson and Turnbull he spoke about anything but his portfolio, on an assumption that he knew about other portfolios: he doesn't know anything but stunts that impress the MSM), he doesn't know about the government of which he was part (he gives WorkChoices too much credit and Howard government handouts too little). The polls showing Abbott and Rudd at parity were an aberration because Rudd has the capacity to lift, Abbott is firing on all pistons and starting to blow smoke.

Rudd has the capacity to lift because he has a credible team. Swan can tell the media what the economic story is, and that's the story that gets published (cemented in place by a lazy and insubstantial opposition response, which Abbott described as his most important speech ever). Abbott had momentum before that speech but he's blown it. Conroy, Roxon, Tanner, and Gillard: all have higher announcement-to-action ratios than Abbott has, or had when he was a minister. Look how useless Howard's ministry was at carrying him when he stumbled, or in failing to pole-axe him when it turned out he was no good.

Look at the Opposition frontbench now: dud Dutton, lazy Smith, Spongechris Squarepyne. This rabble can't make their presence felt where the Liberals are riding high, and when Labor press their momentum these clowns won't have a contribution to make when their party needs them. It is of no consequence that such people might feel slighted when you ignore them. On a weekly basis Tony Abbott is having the sort of crisis that John Hewson had over chocolate cakes: the Liberal campaign could well be over before the parliament is dissolved.

When a policy is dropped on a "busy news day" it stays dropped; media campaigns against broken promises are therefore exercises in self-indulgence when circumstances change, because no allowance was made for such a development when the announcement was made. The journosphere should be more skeptical of announcements than they are, and keep the focus on the gap between announcements and on-the-ground reality.

10 May 2010

Who is he?

He replaced his party's long-suffering dauphin as leader, in a party-room ballot nobody expected him to win, and became Prime Minister. His gesture toward Aborigines was a mile wide and an inch deep, but its heart was in the right place: it extended the fair go, a respect for the humanity of a marginalised people, a recognition that they have a better of a place in the life of the nation than we often recognise. He tapped into public goodwill at a time of intractable war, a mining boom, high immigration, and an opposition with more vigour than well-thought-out policy ... but his own policy development left much to be desired. Too much responsibility was placed on his own office, on young staff thrust into senior roles. At one point, all the Premiers were from his side of politics.

(I was referring to John Gorton, who did you think I was referring to?)

The analogy falls flat with Gorton's carefree spirit versus Rudd's buttoned-down uxoriousness - and the Opposition, though. A vote for Abbott is a vote against 2007, in which Howard and the Coalition were so tired they could not get out of their own way. In 2010, The Coalition are like dogs chasing a car: full of sound and fury but are they seriously going to jump in the driver's seat and seize the controls? They need to have more of a clue than "now, where were we?", and they just don't. I wanted these right wing losers thrashed and thrashed and trashed again until they began to look as inadequate as they are. I wanted them to be so exposed that even the timorous moderates might have some heart.

It's stupid that Labor are content to give a head start to such poor opposition. They're not doing them slowly, they're not doing them at all. I thought Labor was a broad-based party. And if it was such a broad-based party, and if a leader could choose any of its Orders* to gather around him, why would he choose the hapless NSW Right?

In Gorton's day, the DLP took middle-aged moderate votes from Labor and channelled them to the Coalition via preferences. Today, it is the Greens who are taking disappointed younger voters who might have been moderates if only, if only there was something to show for eleven fucking years of Liberal-in-name-only government and funnelling their preferences to Labor. It's a funny old world.

* The freudenbergism of equating Labor wrigglings with religious activity is deliberate. While Freudenberg sought to portray Labor as divinely inspired, it's more accurate to compare modern Labor to the flatulent and complacent bunch of reactionaries who run both the Anglican and Catholic churches in Australia.

06 May 2010

A little bit rich

Tony Abbott was far too slow off the mark in condemning the resources tax. Andrew Robb, a former ABARE economist and the best political strategist the Liberal Party has, spotted this for the opportunity that it was and went after it hard.

When the Liberals slipped behind Labor in the polls in 2006, companies were less inclined to donate money to them. This affected the confidence of the Liberals, in governing and campaigning for re-election, which saw donations dry up in the face of that lack of confidence, and so it went: the Liberals lost office, elected an unsuitable leader who made capital-repelling mistakes, but then they turned it around.

Malcolm Turnbull was wealthy enough to fund an election campaign out of his own pocket: business, however, piled on the money and for a while the Liberals' financial position was looking rosy. In NSW, Labor finally ruled themselves out of contention at the state level and donations began to flow to the Libs. The came Grech, the ETS kerfuffle and the downfall of Turnbull, and any promise in the Liberals' financial position evaporated overnight.

The cautionary tale of Robert Tickner illustrates how Labor has become complacent and given their opponents a leg-up that wiser heads would never have given them.

From 1984 to 1996 the Federal electorate of Hughes (southern Sydney, northern Illawarra NSW) was held by Labor's Robert Tickner. By the mid '90s Tickner had become Aboriginal Affairs Minister, and was exploring a relatively radical agenda in his portfolio. The High Court decisions on Mabo and Wik, the Hindmarsh Island bridge cancellation, and the whims of his Prime Minister, forced a great deal of attention onto this portfolio: more than Tickner could bear, really. He didn't allay the fears of mining companies and others that a bit of recognition of Aboriginal rights was not some first step in a wider agenda.

Mining companies offered the Liberal Party a fortune to get rid of Tickner. In the leadup to the 1996 election, the Liberals targeted Hughes but it wasn't the difference between winning or losing government. Liberal strategists and fundraisers told their prospective donors that they should give the party money and it would spend it where it considered best: even if Tickner survived, he'd be in Opposition and thus redundant, so give us the money and we'll give you a Liberal government.

The miners/pastoralists/other companies relying on free and unfettered use of land sought a more direct return for their money, while the Liberals were reluctant to cede control over political strategy to those who had no knowledge or experience in this area. The Liberals got their money - not as much as they might have liked, but a lot. Tickner lost his seat too.

Those who eschew the centre of politics, on both the left and right, assume that political donations are a simple fee-for-service proposition: companies donate to political parties and they get what they want. The reality is more complex: a politician hustling for votes will make promises and sometimes deliver, sometimes not; so it is with donations. Occasionally a donor will wail publicly that they donated $A to B party in the expectation of C, but instead the policy delivered was D - quite the opposite of what they wanted. That sort of whingeing is of a piece with the sort of flat whine that eminates from this blog, or many others. Suck it up baby, that's politics. The tireless activist who sees their beloved program trashed is the same as the millionaire donor who has given a leg-up to some politician, only to end up with nothing but the after-effects of a rubber-chicken meal.

In 2010, the Liberals' financial worries are over. If they want $10m for a you-beaut targeted marginal seats campaign, that money will be found. The wide boys from Sussex Street who run the ALP federal campaign will not know where to start. Kevin Rudd will be tearing his hair out as marginal seats in Adelaide, NSW and Queensland fall to the Liberals - when he could've had an increase in his number of seats and a compliant Senate.

The minerals tax is an idea that could have been introduced next year - and then safely backed away from, once the heat became too great. There's no backing away from this, not now, not after all those double-turn-and-pikes over "the greatest moral challenge". Any of those ideas that were actually in the Henry report would have been better - it would have reinforced the comforting idea of the policy nerd beetling away at stuff that makes a big splash in Canberra but doesn't stop the rest of us making a dollar. People liked that Rudd, and would have voted for him again and again. Instead, we get Red Tape Man who can't and won't make a decision but still wants everyone to like him. Stuff him and stuff the party that plonks him out in front like a bonnet ornament.

It's still true that the Liberals are policy-lazy and that swinging voters will revert to Labor once this becomes more obvious. It's also true that they have the wrong leader: John Howard would have been all over this in a flash, and so would Turnbull. These things used to be clearer than they are now, though.

Vindictive bastards

It is clear that this hack has to go. It is equally clear that Labor would lose Penrith in a landslide, and that the Federal Libs would win the corresponding seat of Lindsay to boot. What will happen is that Palluzzano will be forced to resign but that there won't be a byelection for the Liberals to cut their teeth on; instead, the seat will be kept vacant and will swing with a vengeance next March, like the rest of the state.

This is what happens when you have two governments run by the fading, failing, flailing NSW Labor right: poor candidate selection (loyalty to some factional clown), timid risk-averse policy, and a political "solution" that treats democracy and constituent service as priority last. Rudd harnessed the power of NSW Labor Right when they were the nation's most powerful political machine; the rapid fade of the Carr gloss and the arid state of the NSW government after the departure of a few spivs key people to Canberra shows how low the stocks of this once-great political machine have become.

Palluzzano is only in Parliament because of the ALP machine. She is not there because she is the Authentic Voice of Penrith, The People's Champion, as independent MPs have to be to their communities. Labor feminists like Meredith Burgmann who sought to create the same opportunities for mediocre women as there are for mediocre men can look upon Palluzzano with great satisfaction. Labor might want to distance themselves from her but they can't because she, and others like her, would have no access to various parliamentary funding schemes without that party. Penrith people who work for the ALP in whatever capacity cannot seriously distance themselves from Palluzzano: in Penrith anyway, she is Labor and Labor is her. The Labor Federal MP for Lindsay will not succeed entirely in distancing himself from Palluzzano, even if he wins (though with the "Ala Akba!" pamphleteers still around, found by courts to lack conviction and reduced to plaintively eyeballing passers-by at railway stations - it's a distinct possibility).

It will be interesting to see what will happen to Tim Horan, the whistleblower: probably the same thing that happened to Milton Orkopoulos' staff (except, of course, Nathan Rees), i.e. he'll get screwed. The rugby legend of the same name must be livid.

Labor can, however, take some comfort in the ineptitude of whoever advised Barry O'Farrell to say this:

... Karyn Paluzzano should be suspended from Labor Party membership," Mr O'Farrell said yesterday.

No: it's neither here nor there whom an organisation wants (or doesn't want) as a member unless you are also a member. If Palluzzano ceases to be a member of the ALP, you can't tar them all with that brush (which is why they'll do it). Palluzzano is a symbol of NSW Labor's last, desperate lunge for the trough, and the least you can do is draw attention to this.

01 May 2010

Down but not out

I'm pleased that Malcolm Turnbull is staying in politics. Not giddy, but pleased (is that the reverse of "alert but not alarmed"?). Nobody else has the ability to eclipse Howard's legacy in the Liberal Party as completely as he did to Malcolm Fraser's.

I had to laugh at the idea of Abbott holding out on Turnbull's return to the frontbench while he supports an ETS. Firstly, Joyce crossed the floor 29 times and got Finance handed to him. Secondly, where does a bear sleep? Anywhere it wants to, anywhere it wants. Abbott is the Ghost of Liberal Governments Past and will be cut down once the Liberal Party finally moves on from Howard.

What would a Turnbull Second Coming look like? Christopher Joye has some thoughts and he's known Turnbull all his life. Let's look at Joye's opinions from a position of sheer ignorance and see if they stand up:

  • Decision-making - Joye's right, and j'accuse Minchin and Abetz in particular. He can only build that reputation for effective decision-making after a long march through the branches, getting the parliamentary party he needs rather than the fag end of Howard's lot. If people owe their position to Turnbull they are more likely to trust his judgment. Whether or not he can remake the Liberal Party in his image is the operative question.

  • Assimilation - Turnbull lost votes by the truckload when he came over all smarmy. The reason why he could not position the Liberals as an alternative government is that he had a policy-lazy frontbench, which put too much responsibility on the rapid-fire pronouncements coming out of his own office.

  • Risk-taking - Here Joye is spot on. "The visionary Malcolm Turnbull as policy-making maven is by far your best lever. You are never going to progress on the basis of a jocular, man-in-the-street appeal like Joe Hockey. When all is said and done, your interneuronal connections still remain your most effective calling card. The risk, of course, is that you once again fail. So be it. That is life. Risk-taking is the single most important explanation for success."

Before he can go on his long march though, Turnbull needs to keep breathing and registering a pulse. Today, he's lifted himself off the slab. You can be "thrilled" or not, but Turnbull's back - let's just hope Minchin doesn't reverse his decision.