16 July 2010

Why the Liberals will collapse in the Federal election campaign

This story misses the point: nobody gives a damn about the gaffe, simply because a) O'Farrell is not some gaffe-prone clown and b) it is an aberration and he will work even harder to make it appear uncharacteristic going forward.

The Liberals are a shambles. They are going into the election campaign with an organisation that is unskilled and lacking commitment. When the heat is on they will panic, lash out and be forced to withdraw; or they will simply loll about listlessly, leak trivia and nonsense to turned into drivel, and wait it out until their glorious summer rolls around at some point into the future.

In NSW they've lost a state president which would be no great loss if the state director wasn't an unimaginative dolt, running around enforcing "discipline" and stamping out any sign of initiative - including the fundamental political need to get candidates on the ground, properly resourced, so that people vote for the Liberals rather than just against Praetorian Labor.

In Victoria, ye olde guarde Melbourne has comprehensively had its fingers prised from decision-making in that state, and the Costello-Kroger generation have not stuck around long enough to cement their role as the new generation in command of the high ground (or at least that end of Collins Street where Parliament House and other institutions of power are). Even though he's no fan of theirs, this vacuum leaves Ted Baillieu exposed and will do unless he can win this year's state election and seize command, Kennett-style, but without the arrogance that made Kennett's time so fleeting. The state party is a joke, committed to the self-preservation of nobodies without any sign of determination in fundraising, campaigning, policy development or anything else. All the qualities of the Victorian Liberals have gone, save the conceit left behind from when they ran party, state and nation.

Victorians will vote against Brumby, just enough to undermine what confidence he has left, without replacing him outright. If he is replaced by Hulls, he will be past his best, as risk-averse as Brumby is now but more complacent, owing to the sort of contempt for his Opposition that Kennett had for his. If Brumby is replaced by someone else, they'll botch it too and make the Libs look good by contrast. That's all next term, though.

In Queensland too, the coming federal election is just a dry run for the next state election which the LNP expect to win. Labor MP Chris Trevor is all but begging the LNP to take his seat from him and many of his colleagues aren't much chop either, but they are facing LNP candidates who are lazy, stupid or both. Speaking of which, Peter Dutton will lose his federal seat and should go into state politics, with the LNP better off at both levels. The sort of people who voted for 19-year-old Wyatt Roy because he was articulate are the same people who voted for Bill O'Chee, and learned nothing from the experience. They know that the action is in state politics and that there Labor have the arrogant complacency that undermines the benefits of incumbency, the very quality Peter Beattie spent his time trying to expunge.

You can't blame the party machine for being encouraged by state politics. In 1987 John Howard might have done better (especially if they - we - had known then what we know now) were it not for the coming of Greiner in NSW and the last gasps of the Victorian squattocracy redoubling their efforts against Cain Labor as the main game and vacillating over Kennett, not realising that a Liberal government in 1987 could have sunk Victorian Labor and headed off its 1989-92 economic vandalism. If Bjelke-Petersen had lost momentum in 1986 Queensland would have concentrated its vote for the Coalition better than it did.

Howard was shunned by the state machines and did not reconcile to them. Like John Gorton, he was an antifederalist conservative and for the same reason: being kicked around by the states will do that to you.

Tony Abbott is getting in Barry O'Farrell's way, he's getting in Ted Baillieu's way (in Melbourne, red sluggos are sooooo 2006) and he's not doing John-Paul Langbroek any favours either. The idea of him getting hold of the federal government and doing what Howard did but less deftly - like Phaeton in the sun-chariot - can only appal anyone keen on good government, let alone one better than the incumbents. Top-notch candidates are staying out of preselection contests: with few exceptions, Liberal candidates are chancers who missed out on a winnable state seat and are racking up brownie points, or old lags who have stayed too long at the fair.

Where the Liberals do get candidates on the ground, they choose the wrong ones. The whole idea (insofar as it can be called that) behind putting John Alexander into Bennelong was "to fight star power with star power". What halfwit thinks that Bennelong hankers for "star power"? Nobody who has been both to Hollywood and Denistone would confuse the two. Bennelong voters want political substance: on the rare occasions that people turn to their federal member to fix a political problem, they want it fixed efficiently. The "Bennelong Funnel" aircraft noise issue in the '90s is the primary example of that. McKew had just enough political substance to push out Howard when the swing against him came. Alexander has no more political substance than any other tennis commentator. Again, all that is necessary for dud candidates to get up is for good candidates to get busy doing something else.

Loughnane and Credlin are duds and will be pole-axed by any Liberal leader with the Lodge in his sights. I thought Abbott was crazy to bring back Tony O'Leary to do his media but clearly he is trying to get another source of advice than Team Stupid. Even below-the-radar advisers like Sue Cato aren't what they were, and Abbott's own creation Simone Holzapfel is a proven loser. Abbott is pushing on and having a go, but it is clear that he is drowning in clear air. He can nibble away at Labor in community events but like the beef-witted Collins Street lawyers of twenty years ago he has no idea how to go head-to-head with Gillard, let alone beat her.

Oh yeah, there are other states I suppose. There might be one seat in play in South Australia (please let it be Boothby: the removal of bunion Southcott can only improve the nation's public life), same with Tasmania and the NT. The politics of Western Australia are so foreign it may as well be New Zealand - and yes, it has a fully-fledged state government that can and does offer real benefit (and punishment) for Liberals that is more real and immediate than those on the never-never emanating from the East. There is only one seat in suburban Perth that will swing either way and I can't tell what it is either. The ACT Liberals, chiefly Minchinite dropkicks, will probably lose their Senate seat to the Greens and be stuck with municipal affairs for at least five years (and will fail to learn any lessons from that).

This idea that polls show Labor and the Coalition as a dead heat is stupid. It reflects poorly on the government that such a weak opposition can be taken seriously. The journosphere should be a bit more humble in reporting back to people what they are already recorded as thinking. There wasn't an election held last weekend so the whole pretense is much less useful than the meeja seem to believe.

The only thing that can forfend a Liberal rout is similar incompetence by the Labor machine:

  • The re-emergence of Graham Richardson cannot be good for anyone, least of all himself. He will, however, still be around long after Mark Arbib has crashed and burnt.

  • Karl Bitar is overrated and will undersell Gillard, and will be of no use in coping with the tectonic shifts in Labor politics going forward.

  • Wayne Swan will to Brisbane and run Queensland's campaign himself because he rightly doesn't trust the dolts who almost sent Anna Bligh the way of Kirner and Lawrence.

  • Any gains in NSW (holding Robertson should be regarded as a win after the repellent Neal) will be down to the candidates and/or dumb luck rather than the Sussex Street Stuff-Up Squad. For example, Labor's Long March up the north coast will continue and they'll win Cowper, with no Coalition presence on the NSW coast north of Port Stephens (or if it's really on for Labor - Pittwater).

  • In Victoria, Shorten will take control and ride the Gillard wave in that state: Victoria should negate Labor losses in one or two other states (is it too much to hope for Sophie Mirabella to be knocked off?). It will be a real test of Victorian Labor's mettle if they can hold Melbourne from the Greens.

  • Labor in Tasmania and South Australia have nowhere to go but down, hopefully taking out that cud-chewing sluggard who sat behind Rudd's left shoulder.

  • WA Labor have no right to take anything but what time and fate may give them.

Labor are a long way short of perfect and are beatable - but not by the Coalition this time. The idea that an election campaign is a continuation of recent events but with more picfacs is a journosphere conceit, and shows no real understanding of how pivotal campaigns are (usually in unforced errors rather than any deft strategy).


  1. Interesting as always, Andrew. Could you elaborate on the "tectonic shifts in Labor politics" you refer to?


  2. The NSW Right was central to the federal ALP government of 1983-96, and now it's going to be confined to the margins. Albo has put himself at a disadvantage too. The SDA and the AWU can only increase in relative power, as will the Vics.

  3. John Bignucolo17/7/10 4:52 pm

    I suspect the Liberals will do very well. Indeed, I expect them to win.

    I'm not sure that party structures really matter all that much anymore. Both the ALP and the Coalition are now characterised by an ossified and debilitated memberships. As long the candidates are not utterly hopeless and unappealing they'll be elected or not based on the broader swing. How many constituents can claim to have conversed with their MP on any issue?

    In funding terms, the miners have already made substantial contributions, and given that the Coalition is led by vociferous climate change denialists, and are understood to be the parties of climate change denialism and inaction, they can expect a lot of support from the EITEs and rentseeksers. The Liberals will have no difficulty matching the ALP's advertising budget.

    The ALP isn't much different in their response to climate change, but if the difference is between a party that offers a 10% chance of placing a price on CO2 versus one that offers 0% chance doing so, the EITEs will support the latter.

    The other major thing going for them is that the Liberal's election messaging will be endorsed, buttressed and amplified by the Murdoch Media. The ALP will be damned with equal vigour. This will flow through to the ABC which these days is little more than cipher for whatever is News Ltd's line du jour.

    As for Fairfax, it doesn't have the reach of News Ltd and it doesn't set the agenda.

    And then there's the conservative biases of the various talkback networks (Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Steve Price etc), who have an enormous reach, and will result in a savaging of Julia Gillard, or any ALP figure brave, or foolish enough to go on the air. Tony Abbott, et al., can expect a welcoming environment and a sympathetic hearing from the presenters.

    All Tony Abbott has to do is repeat slogans, utter platitudes and avoid gaffes. I'm willing to bet even he can manage to do so for four weeks provided his media interactions are well managed. Policies are irrelevant because the Canberra press gallery, now completely given over to the idea of political reporting as theatre criticism, will limit themselves to reporting on who "won" on a given day. We're very much in "Shape of the Earth -- Opinions Differ" territory these days. All Tony Abbott has to do is avoid making a gaffe and they'll deem him the winner on the day.

    Tony Abbott will categorically deny that any nasty policies are in the bottom draw (eg Workchoices). He'll even offer to write it down. The Canberra press gallery and the commentariat will applaud his forthrightness and endorse his good sense. Stories will be written about his evident maturity and moderation. The idea of Tony Abbott as a threat or a nutter will only be seen in desperate ALP advertisements.

    I'll be very surprised if Tony Abbott doesn't follow the recent trend of Republican Party candidates in the US of avoiding perceived "hostile" media organisations and journalists. I think it unlikely that Tony Abbott and Liberal shadow ministers will appear on the 7.30 Report or Lateline.

    There's no upside for them, and there's always the risk of the dreaded "gaffe". They don't need to, and will instead deal with sympathetic News Ltd journalists and commentators. There's no downside to avoiding perceived "hostile" ABC environments. We can expect to see Piers and Andrew defending the tactic on Insiders, and explicity referring to the ABC's anti Coalition bias. Instead of pushing back and defending the ABC's integrity, a smug Barrie Cassidy will opine that it's what he'd do if he were running the campaign. Tony Jones and Kerry O'Brien might as well take a four week break given the number of opportunities they'll get to interview Coalition figures.

    The ALP will be reduced to essentially shouting into a hurricane of positive Liberal messaging and will end up getting the crap kicked out of them.

  4. John Bignucolo17/7/10 7:18 pm

    It will be interesting to see if the Liberals adopt the same strategy as conservative Republican Party candidates in the USA and limit their exposure to sympathetic media outlets and avoid media deemed hostile.

    The News Ltd and Fairfax commentariat have already sowed the meme that the ABC is deeply hostile to conservatives, so it's a short step to refusing to appear on shows and using that stated bias as justification. In fact, I'd expect Piers Ackermann and Andrew Bolt to boast about the strategy on Insiders and allege anti-Coalition bias from their comfy chair. Barrie Cassidy, instead of pushing back and defending the integrity of the ABC will accept the veracity of the accusation and smugly observe that he'd do the same thing if he were in charge of the Liberal's campaign.

    If they follow this strategy, Tony Jones and Kerry O'Brien might as well take a month off because there's no way Tony Abbott or any other Coalition figure will appear on the 7.30 Report or Lateline.

    Following this strategy would be one way for Tony Abbott to avoid committing any "gaffe."

    There is no downside to avoiding the ABC because the Coalition's messages will be uncritically promoted and buttressed by News Ltd. Given the ABC's penchant for following News Ltd's, and especially The Australian's lead, the ABC will propagate the Coalition's messages regardless.

  5. I notice you failed to engage with anything in my post, John. Modern 'debate' means talking past ideas that don't suit you rather than engaging with them, and this just makes me sad.

    Taking your longer post, paragraph by paragraph:

    1. I don't.

    2. Membership is neither here nor there (I know this as a former member myself), it's the quality of the organisational leadership and staffers that counts these days, and the Libs are weighed down with duffers.

    3. Agree with you on the ad budget, but because of the issues in 2. above, it will be misspent. Look at those puerile ads they've put up so far.

    4. If Kevin Rudd hadn't abandoned action on climate change, he'd still be PM today and with solid approval ratings. People voted Labor for this very reason in 2007: nobody who voted for Rudd then will now vote for Abbott because he's promising nothing (or close to it).

    5. So what? That was the case in 2007, fat lot of good it did them.

    6. I don't even know what that means, and sadly, you don't either.

    7. See 5 above. All Gillard needs to do is hold her own in those environments - especially if one of them (my money's on Price) goes too far.

    8, and your shorter post. That's all you'd expect from Abbott anyway, and I will happily take the silliest bet I've seen this year. Again, you're assuming there's some sort of correlation between the opinions of the media and the way people vote: why do you think circulation is plummeting, and The Australian has never made a profit?

    Tony Abbott is gaffe-prone, no matter where he is: the Pope is a Catholic, bears shit in the woods and Tony Abbott is gaffe-prone, some things are just true no matter how you feel about them. He's not PM material, never was. He doesn't like women and doesn't understand them and no amount of jowl-wobbling by Piers Akerman will change that (will probably only reinforce it).

    9. Abbott's brother-from-another-mother Mark Latham did that in 2004, see 5. above.

    10. The Australian media market isn't as big as the US, and the cliquey nature of the journosphere in this country means he won't get away with it. If the Liberals disappear from the ABC and other non-News media, they may as well pack up now.

    11. So what? If Andrew Bolt and Barrie Cassidy had a smug-off I'm not sure who'd win, and given the ratings of 'Insiders' (particularly in marginal seats) I'm not sure who'd notice.

    12. See 5. above.

  6. John Bignucolo17/7/10 11:34 pm

    [Andrew, thanks for posting my long comment. I hit the character limit and got an invalid URL error so I wasn't sure it made it through.]

    I apologise for not engaging with your points. It was more of a case of agreeing with much of what you wrote and not being at all familiar with the electoral situation across Australia, but I'll discuss NSW since I'm from Sydney.

    I think Maxine McKew will retain her seat, possibly with an increased majority. She's done the hard graft for her constituents, and I've noticed that the frequency of letters critical of Maxine in the local paper from Liberal sympathisers has steadily decreased over time.

    I agree that the selection of John Alexander will turn out to be a mistake. He originally nominated for Brendan Nelson's old seat and people are aware that Bennelong wasn't his first choice. His references to Bennelong being Liberal "sacred ground" probably played well in Lane Cove, but the steady westward march of the electoral boundary has radically changed the electorate's demographics from when John Howard won in 1974.

  7. Lane Cove isn't in Bennelong; I live in Bennelong.

    Alexander is a lightweight who underestimates how hard he'll have to work in order to win. I think he's a stand-offish person by nature and you can only win safe Liberal seats with a personality like that.

  8. derrida derider19/7/10 9:54 am

    Most oppositions are a shambles - it's what they do best. That's why governments lose elections, not oppositions win them. The real trouble is that this lot would still be a shambles in government.

    Labor don't really deserve to win, but I think the odds still are they'll do so, possibly comfortably. This is another of those elections where the old saw that "people get the government they deserve" is a profoundly depressing saying.

  9. Labor deserve to win and the Liberals deserve to lose badly, so everything should turn out for the best.

  10. John Bignucolo21/7/10 8:22 pm

    Well that didn't take long. I would never have imagined that Tony Abbott and the Liberals would manage to get themselves called amateurs by Paul Kelly in the Australian only four days into the campaign. It's surreal.

  11. No John, it isn't. It's the culmination of a range of factors that have been coming for a while. A guy I know who is still drinking the Liberal Kool-Aid big time reckons he is "standing firm" by voting for these wasters.