13 February 2011

Waiting for the great leap forward

After all that's happened to the Liberal Party in recent days, Christian Kerr writes a piece like this.

Kerr's first paragraph uses that gutless media trope of "some say" (prove it!), which reminded me of the first verse from The Joker by the Steve Miller Band.

It's true that Frydenberg holds the seat that Menzies once held, but that's a coincidence not an inheritance (if Menzies wouldn't even vote for Gorton, what would he have made of Abbott or the jokers identified in Kerr's piece?). Julia Gillard holds the seat once held by Barry Jones and Jim Cairns; good luck with the inheritance thing there.
Jamie Briggs, Steven Ciobo, Paul Fletcher, Josh Frydenberg and Kelly O'Dwyer represent a new breed of Liberal MP. They are the closest the party has seen to an equivalent of Labor's machine. Politics has been their career.

Not that new really: the backgrounds of Howard-era politicians Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Tony Smith, Marise Payne and Mitch Fifield (to name five) are very similar.

Now let us consider how well the political class thing has worked:

  • Kim Beazley's father was a minister in a Labor government. He was in Opposition for three years before becoming a minister for thirteen years, and on becoming leader of his party was the first with more experience in government than out. He was the minister responsible for Telstra becoming a monopoly provider of telco infrastructure as well as a retailer, a decision that has taken two decades and billions of taxpayer dollars to undo (not including similar amounts in opportunity costs). He was Defence Minister, but instead of drawing on that experience as leader in the geopolitical turmoil of late 2001, deferred to Howard. Labor kept him on for years after this;

  • John Brumby was a Federal MP and lost his seat, even though the ALP were re-elected. Labor then put him into the Victorian state parliament, where they made him their leader and he lost an election. Ten years later they made him leader again and he lost another election, again.

  • Kristina Keneally (stop that laughter at once) was campaign manager in Gladesville in 1995; local Liberals at the time believed Labor had brought over a gun operative from the US Democrats (I said, stop laughing). She won a safe Labor seat, has never been in Opposition but is an experienced minister and Premier.

  • Jenny Macklin was a staffer to Brian Howe and it is unclear what, if anything, she learned from him. She was every bit as hopeless as Deputy Leader of the Opposition as Julie Bishop is. Her administration of the Northern Territory Intervention may be described fairly as appalling, provided you can view that policy from any perspective other than hers.

  • Kevin Rudd was a staffer to Wayne Goss. I could go on.

Now let's consider what the individuals cited by Kerr have in common. None of them have any idea what it means to be a Liberal in the twenty-first century. Christian Kerr and I joined a Liberal Party where this was at the centre of the political debate. You don't have to agree with people like John Stone, Chris Puplick, Peter Costello or Ian Macphee to know that they engaged in those debates and put their careers on the line. Shirking those debates helped put Peter Shack, David Connolly and Mike Pratt where they are today (Robert Hill also gave up and became a hollow shell). John Howard would have been political roadkill just like them had he not been honed and hardened by these debates.

Yes, the Liberal Party tore itself apart during that period. The alternative to that appears to be this blind insistence that the Liberals must focus on Labor and simply restore the status quo ante 2007. It's stupid and wrong: nobody in 1984 believed that the Fraser government had been robbed. It had its go and the country moved on. Liberals had the choice of packing it in or reconsidering what the party was about, and this is the same choice facing the Liberals today. George Brandis played a role in those debates back then, but today he offers nothing but his own self-importance.

The Liberal government following Fraser was, it's fair to say, different to its Liberal predecessor; and so must the next Liberal government be different to Howard's. The challenge for people like the Kerr Five is to define that.

It is not necessary for the Liberals to disown Howard to the extent that Fraser was disowned. Yet, the whole "ferocious opposition" thing isn't working. The slapdash approach to Liberal policy at the last election must have appalled people used to orderly policy development: no sign of that, no examples of how Liberal policy might be better, nothing from these people.

The failure of the Liberal Party in its current iteration is clear:
Mr Pyne said he wanted Anthony Albanese's job as leader of the house as well as to be education minister.

Look at how Pyne relishes getting thrown out of Parliament, like a bored teenager using antisocial behaviour to attract attention from police; genteel Adelaide must be thrilled, which is why he's turned a safe Liberal seat into a marginal. Look at Pyne's weak and confused efforts in education policy (not BER project management, but the full scope of actual K-postdoctoral education policy) under two leaders. Ask whether his ambition is legitimate. Show me any of the Kerr Five willing to take on Chris Pyne, and I'll show you the future of the Liberal Party.

God knows we are all flawed human beings, but ask yourself (as Kerr does not) what right we have to expect these people might get over their sense of entitlement:

  • Jamie Briggs only makes the media when simply relaying the views of his former boss, Alexander Downer: kind of sad at his age. Wyatt Roy has thought longer and harder about public life than this guy.

  • Kelly O'Dwyer is unconvincing as a forensic examiner in committees. Her former boss, Peter Costello, was a master of detail. In catching out those less across the issues than he, Costello believed he could afford a smirk; O'Dwyer is more humble but has reason to be, following poor examples like Bronwyn Bishop and Abetz in being tendentious and waspish. I think she can lift her game though.

  • The nearest thing Steve Ciobo has to an idea is one fed to him by Queensland property developers: urban sprawl into areas prone to fire and floods and lacking services and infrastructure. He's learned nothing from recent disasters, because he can't imagine a disaster greater than Howard losing office.

  • Frydenberg is a disaster waiting to happen. Search "Frydenberg" on this blog, go on.

  • Fletcher is a cold fish unless you have clout; he'll spend the rest of his career in politics doubling back and attempting to charm people he's snubbed ("I hadn't realised ..."). This kind of snobbery is a tolerable flaw in a lobbyist or even a staffer, but it's career-limiting to an elected official in Australia. Never mind the health deal, what would it take for Paul Fletcher to get over himself?

None of these people show any sign whatsoever of tapping into the wider issues of our age. They don't have to be pointyheads, but that's not the only alternative to the intellectual and political laziness exhibited by the Kerr Five (and, these days, by George Brandis).

By contrast: Andrew Peacock (another of Josh Frydenberg's predecessors in Kooyong) was elected to Parliament in 1966. Two years later demonstrations erupted throughout Europe involving middle-class people not dissimilar to himself and Peacock took himself to Paris to experience these generation-defining movements for himself. It's late on Sunday night as I write this, so why don't you call their offices and ask whether Jamie/ Kelly/ Steve/ Josh/ Paul have any plans to visit Cairo/ Algiers/ San'a/ Tunis/ Banda Aceh in the near future? Go on. I can tell you from experience that the staff in their office have absolutely nothing better to do than answer your enquiries.

Yeah, I doubt that many Labor MPs are that intellectually curious either. I joined the Liberal Party in the '80s because the debates within Labor were pretty much settled: Labor policy was whatever the executive decided, end of. Leftist thought in the '80s was limited to stuff like this. Only careerists and scions joined the ALP at that time and it shows.

Only the journosphere regard the Kerr Five as being red hot prospects ("Some are believed to have been briefing behind the scenes" - oh, please). There is no evidence that these people can imagine a post-Howard future for our country, let alone a post-Gillard one, and as to whether they can bring it about ... c'mon MSM, smoke them out. Tell them that you already have the press release from their leader's office and don't need to hear them parrot talking points.

If the Kerr Five are the future of the Liberal Party, put some responsibility on them and show us who rises, who falls. O'Dwyer has the strongest future of the lot; Ciobo and Briggs may well come into their own, but I'd need more evidence than is available from Kerr or elsewhere in the journosphere.


  1. Poor Christian must be losing sleep with the new family. This may explain his lack of perspicacity.
    Kelly O'Dwyer has all the political substance of a stick of Fairy Floss.
    Jamie Briggs putsch against the Asylum Seekers in his electorate appears to have amounted to a rancid hill of beans.
    Paul Fletcher fell over at the first hurdle in parliament, when up against Julia Gillard in Question Time, and hasn't been heard of since.
    Steve Ciobo=Santo Santoro. Anyway, Teresa Gambaro wears the pants in the Queensland Italian-Australian faction.
    Josh Frydenburg. WorkChoices. WorkChoices. WorkChoices.

  2. Kelly O'Dwyer has no chance. A woman that not many others would ever feel comfortable with.

  3. The Liberal Party used to believe that the future is something you create, not something you wait for. Costello showed the folly of sitting about and waiting, but Abbott and the Kerr Five are making the same mistake.

    I'd forgotten about Briggs' truckling to hysteria over asylum seekers. Frydenberg's work on the Wilkie paper is the key for me (that, and him being a sillyhead analyst): WorkChoices was always a JWH hobbyhorse.

    As for O'Dwyer, I think you are both being harsh - and if not, I'd offer Gillard and Thatcher as comparisons.

  4. It's interesting you mention David Connolly, a name not many have mentioned in years...

    He's currently working as a contractor for Wizard People, the agency the federal government hired to handle Refugee Status Assessments on Christmas Island -- a legacy of his appointment to the AAT by Howard. He's an 'Independent Merits Reviewer', handling appeals -- like the RRT only far stricter.

    He's one of the most brutal reviewers out there -- obsessed with minor inconsistencies, attaching extreme weight to tidbits, and, while I believe he's acting in good faith, applying a far higher standard of scrutiny than these desperate people, who've been locked up for months, jerked around by the Department and forced to relate irrelevant details of traumatic events of (by now) years past, can possibly meet.

    So I guess what I'm saying is: I'm sure it was great for Brendan Nelson's career that the Liberals got rid of him, but a lot of Hazaras are worse off than if you'd kept him.

    Anyway, just a 'where are they now' note.

  5. Thank you so much Anon2. If I was a journalist I'd follow this up.