31 March 2011

Johnny Panic

The selection of John Robertson as NSW ALP leader shows how committed they are to staying dysfunctional, on a number of levels.

The rise and rise of John Robertson has been happening for the better part of five to ten years. The same five-to-ten that has seen that party go from a credible, even in some respects formidable government, to being a small-scale rabble and a big national joke. You'd think that Robertson could cool his heels in the Legislative Council while they are still pulling survivors from the rubble, until the fabled consultation with the members takes place - but no. If Labor had won, Robertson would have switched to the lower house. Now that Labor has lost, the same solution is applied: Johnny Robertson, the man for all seasons. The accepted wisdom among the journosphere is that Robertson has somehow lucked in to the leadership of his party, just like Steven Bradbury's ice-skating gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics, which is rubbish. There's been a lot of work go into getting Robertson up, and journalists who claim otherwise don't understand politics and will believe anything.

You could argue that Robertson is a man who is wildly popular. You'd have to ignore the fact that his vote was 18.7% down on last election (not as bad as some, but a lot worse than most), when Paul Gibson was getting ready to prove himself unsuitable for ministerial office. People flocked to Blacktown to help Robertson during the campaign, but they weren't Blacktown locals. They weren't members wanting Robertson to rank and file them. They were the sorts of careerist who know the value of sucking up to the next leader at a time when he could use a bit of face-saving. Another victory for the Labor careerists: the voters, the ordinary members were right to turn off.

You could argue that Robertson is wildly popular because of his position on electricity privatisation. After thirty years of Labor and Coalition governments selling off public assets, only old-school socialists are against privatisation per se (and they are more likely to vote Green than Labor anyway). What people don't want is sudden price hikes or disruption of service - which are contradictory impulses, and without leadership you can only go the populist route and set yourself as the champion of an unsustainable status quo. Throw down the baton of leadership and you can't be sure that someone else won't pick it up.

Most Labor people who insist that Robertson is wildly popular assume that the voice of the unions are the authentic voice of working people. With fewer than one in ten private-sector workers in unions, this is a poor assumption - but one on which Labor seems to rely heavily. A non-entity made it to number two on Labor's Legislative Council ticket on the basis that all the shop assistants in NSW would vote Labor because he was so well known and loved among that occupation. I'd love to see some proof of that, but it would be like yanking the curtain away to reveal the 'real' Wizard of Oz. If Robertson had to rely on union members in Blacktown, he'd be finished.

Yes, he has enemies, it's part of politics and many other walks of life - but real power isn't having no enemies. Real power is making your enemies shut up. Robertson doesn't have that power, not even if he were Premier today could he hand out trinkets and threats to get a unified team. With Keating and Iemma coming out hard against him, Labor has turned its back on leaders who could actually win elections and chosen someone almost purpose-designed to repel them. People who've known Robertson for many years think he's a jerk, so why would most people who don't know him at all be persuaded differently? Robertson would need to back up the tough-guy persona with some chucking-out of the people who got him his job in the first place - can't see it happening myself.

Robertson's rhetoric indicates that he wants to hold the government "ferociously to account". Watch O'Farrell bat him away like Gillard is increasingly doing to Abbott. Labor lost government because it had lost its sense of big-picture, longterm policy, and little niggly criticisms will only reinforce the idea that O'Farrell is doing his best (for which well-meant slip-ups and newbie errors will be forgiven). Like his federal counterpart, Robertson can't be guaranteed to keep his inner boofhead disciplined, which will add to his troubles getting others to shut up and toe the line. You can see the 2015 election campaign from here: Barry the Gentleman vs Johnny Boofhead.

Of the 19 seats Labor can be sure of in the Legislative Assembly, 11 are held by women - the joke is on so-called "progressive women" that they can't get one of their own elected with a 11/19 majority. At what point do you tell Tebbutt to lead or get out of the way? Do you have to wait until the Greens develop a genuinely focused political killer in that district, someone who won't be distracted from the main game and who'll go door to door in order to represent the electorate?

There's an argument that says you put Robertson in and burn him out so that someone else can have a go. That idea didn't work last term, where Labor just looked stupid and flaky by changing leaders. It won't work given the extent to which the machine is invested in Robertson: if they try to take him down he'll take them all down with him, like the Man from Ironbark in the barber's shop. It's understandable tthat no other leader would want Robertson plotting away behind them, but show me a leader afraid of that and I'll show you no leader: Bob Carr survived ongoing comparison with Peter Anderson, but none of the current crop have Carr's drive and tactical sense. Robertson won't sit quietly after dumping like Rees did, either: when he's gone as leader he'll flame out and go at the worst possible moment, because he has no other job to go to, no "Paris option". We could yet have a Liberal MP for Blacktown.

There have been so many articles and interviews by Labor figures over the past week, all paying lip service to the shellacking but all proposing to carry on as they have been. They could have broken that pattern by choosing an outsider (too bad there aren't any), or even someone harmless but articulate like Daley, and demonstrating that things really are different without being worse.

It's a dilemma of participatory democracy that those who do it fulltime - and develop skills that part-timers or well-meaning novices develop to a lesser extent, if at all - get the rewards for effort, and that this discredits the whole enterprise. What looks like a "poisoned chalice" is like mothers' milk to some, just as there are creatures that live in alkaline or near-freezing environments that can't relate to fresh, temperate air. Nobody regards professional athletes as "hacks" or cries about "jobs for the boys", and nor does it necessarily diminish the same activity performed at the community level by amateurs.

Politicians fund sporting organisations to maintain those grassroots links, and though they also fund political parties their grassroots links to pollies and policies is weak and getting weaker. Preselection candidates disdain local connections and make a big deal of "media skills", which can be acquired quickly and are mostly bullshit. The assumptions behind these dark satanic skills work against genuine community activism anyway, and won't help NSW Labor climb out of its hole.

If John Robertson is your answer then you're asking the wrong question.

28 March 2011

Protesting too much

Labor strategists in NSW only embarrass themselves when they speak of campaigning, and there is nobody any more with any authority in Labor to impose STFU on these people. One would assume that journalists are giving them one last go-around for old times' sake (because they'd never be lazy; lazy journalism is against MEAA guidelines, so therefore it never happens). There is, however, one topic on which NSW Labor might be heard: how they did over the Greens.

In Marrickville, Labor gave Fiona Byrne plenty of rope by letting the anti-Israel motion go through council. They could not have dreamt that Byrne would be caught out trying to distance herself and embrace the idea at the same time. At an election where parish-pump issues and service delivery was at the forefront, nobody wants to hear any self-indulgent claptrap about East Jerusalem and Gaza. Byrne had a good story to tell the people of Marrickville about public transport and environmental issues generally. She faced an opponent who was neither a dutiful local member nor an especially formidable minister (relative to the jerks in the last government, she was a colossus; but in absolute terms, her policy achievements can be described as, um ...). Byrne blew it for the Greens.

In Balmain, Jamie Parker will probably win but will wear the sort of hounded look that Rob Oakeshott has increasingly borne: jeered at by the Liberals and shunned by Labor. Verity Firth seems to have roared back from the political dead, seemingly by denying her party affiliation and somehow convincing people to overlook her craven gutlessness over unflued gas heaters. The broadminded people of the electorate ignored the tut-tutting of the Murdoch rags over Matthew Chesher's adventures in pharmacology. It could have been worse: he could have been attempting to buy Horny Goat Weed.

Preferences are hard to map where preferencing is optional, yet some common sense can be applied. It's conceivable for people to vote [1] Liberal and [2] Green. It's conceivable for people to vote [1] Labor and [2] Green, or vice versa. It's almost inconceivable that anyone would vote [1] Labor [2] Liberal, or vice versa. The postals will favour the Greens.

Speaking of the ridiculous, here is hopefully one of Imre's last pieces on a subject he doesn't understand:
HAVING snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in one, possibly two, NSW lower house seats, the Greens now face the prospect of four years in the political wilderness without real power.

As opposed to all the power they had in the last term of Parliament? Surely the power to make Labor fight on two fronts counts as "real power"? The Greens are to NSW politics what the Sharkies are to rugby league.
Fronting the media to explain what was widely seen as a disappointing result for the Greens, lead upper house candidate David Shoebridge said the Greens could be proud of their effort.

"They focused their resources on those two seats. We stood up, we're still up, and we'll be in the counting for the rest of this week," he said. "There remains the possibility, in the NSW upper house, to get a majority to do things like call for papers."

This is precisely the sort of thing that the journosphere ignores in the hype of election time, but which is powerful in the actual conduct of Parliament. The Greens went into this election with one Legislative Council seat and came out with three. This puts them ahead already, regardless of what may happen in Balmain. A real journalist would explain what a "call for papers" is and why it matters.
Sydney University political scientist Rodney Smith said the Greens' Marrickville candidate, Fiona Byrne, had suffered from her difficulty getting to grips with the truth over her support for a boycott of Israel.

"It began to look like she was being a bit too clever by half by appealing to people for whom the boycott might be appealing, but at the same time saying, 'Oh no ... I don't support it'," Dr Smith said.

And since when do we at the Murdoch press start quoting pointy-headed academics other than Ian Plimer?

Byrne is not the first politician to talk out both sides of her mouth, but the fact that she was caught and went into a dither shows that she's second rate at best. Had the campaign gone on a bit longer she would have found herself beset by anti-Semites, never a good look for anyone.
He said that Mr Parker had struggled after the late entry of a rival independent candidate and former local mayor, Maire Sheehan, who directed her preferences to Labor.

Politics in that area is basically Labor vs Not-Labor. The Liberals never had a look-in until recently and the Democrats were sneered out of town early on. The various flavours of communist gave up the ghost during the '90s, during the gentrification of suburbs like Rozelle and Balmain with increased numbers of yuppies prepared to vote Liberal. The strongest Not-Labor of that time was a bunch of ex-Labor middle-aged women rebelling at the deals stitched up by Labor men. Maire (not a mis-spelling; pronounced "Moira") Sheehan was one of these, and became Mayor. Since then, she must have made her peace with Labor: at every election where Labor is in trouble, Maire Sheehan comes out and wrings her hands and considers running, and then a couple of media cycles later she nominates. Her effect is to siphon votes off this year's Non-Labor (formerly No Aircraft Noise, now NSW Greens) and funnel them back to Labor. Surely somewhere there's a journalist in Sydney who's awake up to Maire Sheehan.
Former NSW premier Bob Carr hailed Ms Tebbutt and Ms Firth as "heroes" of the election.


Carr has learnt the lesson of military history that disasters are celebrated officially. The two battles at which more Victoria Crosses were awarded by the British than any others were Blood River and Lone Pine, two terrible defeats. Carr seems determined to pull something from the rubble of his legacy and here they are, the bedraggled Tebbutt and barely alive Firth. He doth protest too much.
"It's now clear that the internal politics of the Greens are chaotic," Mr Carr said.

As opposed to the well-oiled machine that is Sussex Street in 2011.

From this it would seem that Bob Brown basically is "the internal politics of the Greens":
Labor has seized on the Greens' failure to win seats on Saturday to demand that Tony Abbott follow the lead of the Liberals in Victoria and NSW by refusing to pass the party preferences ahead of Labor in the next federal election.

"It is difficult to envisage a situation whereby the Greens would win a seat in the House of Representatives without Liberal Party preferences," Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen said yesterday.

Easy, tiger: Bowen forgets that Victoria's Liberals kept Labor on tenterhooks last year before deciding against preferencing the Greens at the last minute. The normally unflappable John Brumby was well and truly flapped with his increasingly strident demands of Liberals to preference Labor. The new Senate, where the Greens have nine Senators whose votes are vital to get Gillard Government legislation through, has not yet been convened. Chris Bowen didn't get where he is today by going out too hard too early (unless he's rattled).
In last year's federal election, the Greens claimed the balance of power in the Senate and won their first House of Representatives seat -- Melbourne.

However, their failure to win seats on Saturday or in last year's Victorian election ...

In both states they have increased their representation. They do seem confined to the upper house, like the Democrats; and like the Democrats they are one big sell-out from a downward spiral of recriminations and oblivion. It's sloppy reporting to suggest that the Greens have gone backwards when they're ahead of where they were,
Yesterday, Mr Bowen said the results showed Mr Abbott had the power to determine the Greens' future in the federal House of Representatives.

"Mr Abbott goes on a lot about the Greens," Mr Bowen told the Ten Network's Meet the Press program.

"Well, it is up to him whether he'd preference the Greens or not ...

There are Liberal voters who preference the Greens: they're called moderates, Chris. All Tony Abbott need do is be true to himself and he will drive moderate Liberals away from the Liberal Party and toward the Greens. Neither Abbott nor Bowen are obliged in any way to give the Greens a two-year head start in building on their considerable progress in inner-city Australia.

Next year's election in Queensland will be fascinating as the state has experienced an array of eco-disasters. You'd expect the state's Greens to step up to a whole new level in seats along the Brisbane River, and in farmland resisting the encroachment of mines and gas wells. Bet they don't though: hacks like the ALP and yee-haw boofheads like Jeff Seeney will squeeze the Greens out of any elected office.

You could argue that the Greens are chokers, and that they'll be bereft after Brown goes. However, they've come a long way in a short time, and NSW Labor of all people ought not be jeering at anyone. They played Fiona Byrne off a break but if anyone is going to learn from this experience it will more likely be the Greens, not Labor.
... Heroes often fail
And you won't read that book again
Because the ending's just to hard to take ...
... But for now, love, let's be real.

I never thought I could act this way
And I've got to say that I just don't get it
I don't know where we went wrong
But the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back ...

- from If you could read my mind by Gordon Lighfoot

27 March 2011

Talking to Gladys

As a summary of the election result itself, it's hard to go past this. What follows here is just another spitball lobbed in the general direction of Journalism Most High, and of one pit of particularly poor journalism: the NSW state parliamentary press gallery.

For almost all of the last four years, polls in NSW have shown that there was at least a chance that the Coalition might win State government. For most of that time it was a dead certainty. It was incumbent upon the journosphere to get to know the State Libs and ask them penetrating questions over time rather than just accepting Labor's portrayals of them as punchlines in Labor jokes. We are all poorer for this failure.

Silly articles have appeared over this period claiming that the Coalition frontbench are "anonymous" (they're public figures and they adore attention from the media, so why don't you give them some and see how they go?), or that they have no policies (they released over a hundred - and no, you don't just have to accept lazy journalism as "the way media works"). Just because Labor want to frame them that way doesn't oblige the journosphere to present them that way. The articles that need to be written now - firstly, analyses of what the new government must/can do, and secondly NSW Labor picking through the rubble - should have written themselves. Instead, the journosphere is grappling for words to describe a situation that was crystal-clear to anyone who'd been paying attention.

Last night the only live TV coverage of the State election was on the ABC. Kerry O'Brien chaired the panel with stale State politics reporter Quentin Dempster.

O'Brien was doddery and dithery, unsure of state politics and ill at ease with the off-screen technology. There were a lot of Freudian slips where "Labor" had won seats actually won by the Coalition. This is why O'Farrell cut him and spoke directly to Gladys Berejiklian, getting his message through to her (including confirming her as Transport Minister) in a classy manner unfiltered by O'Brien. If O'Brien was so tired of Keneally's bullshit, why didn't he have her on what was then "The 7.30 Report" and just shred her?

If he had, it would probably have brought on a demarcation dispute with Quentin Dempster, a Queenslander who had crusaded against Bjelke-Petersen in his final days and was brought to NSW in the late '80s to do the job in Greiner. Dempster is a caricature of an-old school journo, but his heart is with Labor and he has been poor at disguising it. He would occasionally display irritation at Labor's media management and backtracking on commitments, but I can still remember him interviewing John Brogden and dimming the studio lights so that Dempster looked like he was talking to someone in a witness protection program.

Dempster interviewed the Liberal candidate for Balmain, who referred to inner-west Liberals. Liberals had won the seats of Drummoyne and Strathfield in Sydney's inner west earlier that night, and Dempster look stupid for asking "what's an inner west Liberal?". For the past twenty years Liberals had worked assiduously to break Labor's lock on inner western Sydney, but Quentin wouldn't know this as the non-members bar in State Parliament faces away from the inner west. Like most journalists he disdained the Liberals, and they are right to return the favour. Matt Wordsworth does the heavy lifting in State Parliament for that network, so as of yesterday Uncle Quentin's value-add on state political issues has plummeted.

Antony Green is a pre-eminent psephologist but he's not much chop as a software programmer. Every election broadcast for the last five years has seen a software glitch that makes a nonsense of his contributions, a disconnect between what one sees on the screen and a hasty verbal explanation of why a candidate who is supposedly getting thrashed is slightly ahead, or vice versa, or something. If he's wrestling with his own software it detracts from his attempts to clarify and electorally tricky situation, and only adds to the discombobulation of old-school presenters like O'Brien.

O'Brien looked rattled by the end of the program, a quill-and-ink man in the age of Twitter. The contrast with his aplomb on previous Federal campaigns, and with that of Virginia Trioli in last year's Victorian election, could not be greater. It's time for Kerry O'Brien and Quentin Dempster to give it away.

The only trouble is that the coming generation of journalists ready to take senior roles reporting state politics cut their teeth dutifully reporting bullshit from the Walt Disney Secord fantasy factory. Some may snap out of that, examining the O'Farrell government more thoroughly than 16 years of Labor ever were. Some will just put their brain in neutral and go along with the under-construction Liberal bullshit machine, while yet others will just end up as rain dogs (Brian Robins from the SMH is probably going to be one of these, unless he can be shunted into reporting on something else).

It would be wonderful if NSW state political reporting was so debased that journos were forced to get into policy and treat politics as a sub-set of that: but why would they bother? When your idea of investigative journalism is refreshing your email inbox, or having the new Opposition point out the political versions of IEDs that the new government will stumble upon, once can hope for better journalism out of Macquarie Street - but not too much.

26 March 2011

How I voted 2011

In the Legislative Assembly I voted [1] Liberal. I would have been justified in doing a donkey vote with compulsory preferential, as the Lib was top of the ticket followed by a former Lib who lost preselection, then Labor (if you're a Labor candidate at this election, what does it say about you etc.), then Green, and lastly Fred Nile Is Bigger Than Jesus Group.

The Legislative Council was hard. I didn't vote above the line, haven't done since the 1980s.

I voted for moderate liberals Catherine Cusack [1] and Greg Pearce [2] to encourage candidates like them.

John Hatton is running again; he doesn't have to and the fact that he is running means the age thing isn't an issue. The ICAC is all very well but the fact is NSW needs an anti-corruption campaigner in Parliament. I voted him [3] to see what he'll do and where he'll go.

Then I saw - the Democrats! I thought they'd been deregistered! I voted [4] Arthur Chesterfield-Evans.

Darren Marton [5] was a guy I had some dealings with years ago on drug/alcohol law issues. He can be a bit unctuous ("What sort of lesson are we teaching our children", etc.) but unlike a lot of candidates his heart is in the right place and he's smart. It will be interesting to see how he deals with backroom negotiations and having to live with compromises.

Jennifer Stefanac [6] has a long background in dealing with Aboriginal issues - far more substantial than Warren Mundine or Jenny Macklin, and she has clearly sacrificed concrete achievements for breadth of coverage. No other candidate came close in terms of bringing these issues to the table.

I did vote [7] for somebody or other but I can't remember who - it wasn't Hanson or anyone like that.

I liked the idea of Building Australia, so I put the guy atop their ticket [8]. If you won't employ engineers to build infrastructure, you may as well put them in Parliament.

After that it all got a bit difficult. I considered voting above the line - John Hatton group, Dems, Builders and Lib/Nats 1-4 in that order - but I got over it.

Duncan Gay [9] would have been a good minister and should have been ahead of some of the duffers who got gigs under Greiner and Fahey. Credit where it's due.

Michael Gallacher was inaugural President and a co-founder with me of Central Coast Young Liberals [10]. By this point I was struggling.

[11-13] went to the second Democrat, Building Aust and John Hatton person.

I looked back to the Lib/Nat column on the far left (don't you start). I couldn't think of a reason to vote for Natasha Maclaren-Jones or Scot MacDonald, nor vote against them, so I left them blank. Mind you, I recorded the same result against Peter Phelps, a man who has embarrassed himself and his party in a series of staffer jobs and will do so as an MLC (the fact that Gladys Berejiklian and Andrew Constance are prospective ministers and he isn't will drive him crazy).

I looked across to all those splitters: Socialist Alliance vs Restore Rights for Workers, Outdoor Recreation vs Shooters & Rooters, Fred Nile Is Bigger Than Jesus Group vs the Stephen Fleming All-Stars, and some carpetbagger from Queensland vs all decent people in this state. I sneered at wankers like Frank Monte, Danny Lim and Hanson, as well as inveterate try-hard Tony Recsei (save what, from whom, with what?). No Carers? I would have voted for them. No Sex Party?

Eventually I found three other candidates to fill [14-16] from the columns to which I've referred approvingly and I was away.

Will do an election wrap-up/predictions for new govt soon.

24 March 2011

Hanson's revenge

Nobody wants to see a future Prime Minister as a rabble-rouser. Prime Ministers pass by rabbles with a quiet dignity buttressed by tight security; they may be allowed a witty quip, but nothing more. They do not engage with rabbles. They certainly do not try any mealy-mouthed accommodation with them, let alone attempt to win them over.

If that rally represents the opposition to the carbon tax, then all of a sudden the carbon tax doesn't look so bad.

Greg Combet has taken up the snarl against Abbott directly, not bothering with the hollowed-out husk of his shadow Greg Hunt. Combet lacks the cruel wit or flamboyance of Keating, but he also seems to have a self-awareness that prevents him spending too long on the high horse. Only Alan Jones gets away with being a judgmental harpy.

Much is made of the plight of Andrew Demetriou and David Gallop, two men running billion-dollar businesses which are randomly plunged into ignominy by individuals behaving irresponsibly, even criminally. The same plight affects those who organise mass rallies to Canberra:

  • Ian McLachlan was President of the National Farmers' Federation in the late 1980s. He organised a rally to Canberra to protest something or other that the Hawke government did. 80,000 people turned up and their behaviour was impeccable, while forceful: Bob Hawke had no option but to front them. McLachlan was made as a conservative leader from that point on (even though he was past his best by the time he made it to Howard's cabinet in the late '90s).

  • As President of the ACTU, Jenny George tried the same trick. One union organiser smashed up some glass on the Parliamentary precinct and got into a scuffle with police, which became The Story; whatever the rally was meant to be about fell away. George did make it into Parliament but neither Keating, Rudd nor Gillard made her a minister.

  • Old stagers like Andrew Peacock and John Howard knew not only how to work a crowd, but how to read one too. By contrast, in 1993 John Hewson got carried away with the rabble-rousing thing and was energised by screeching leftist protesters (without the quiver of droll quips that Menzies used to drop interjectors where they stood). Graham Richardson said that those appearances lost Hewson the election, but he would say that: bugger was right though.

  • The Your Rights At Work rallies in 2007 were ferociously disciplined. Unionists did not respond to provocation: provocateurs looked silly in their attempts. The rallies reflected well on Labor in the face of a crumbling government and reinforced them in that year's election.

  • The rallies of Aboriginal and pro-Aboriginal groups on the lawns outside Parliament the following year to hear then-PM Kevin Rudd apologise to the Stolen Generations were peaceful and celebratory. The whole public sentiment behind the event would have evaporated had even one participant initiated or responded to provocation.

Abbott might not have organised that rally, but having sown a "people's revolt" this straggly, weedy crop is what you reap. The people who did organise that rally were shock-jocks: the same people who gave us the Cronulla riots of 2005, and the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull in 2009. With friends like them, etc.

One sign of too many journalists chasing too little news is that they lit upon the presence of Angry Anderson at the rally. They all seemed to miss the irony that if a song like Bad Boy For Love were released today, people like Mirabella, Bishop, Abbott and the shock-jocks would vilify it and him for glorifying violent crime.

In reading this piece by Philip Coorey I came perilously close to feeling sorry for Abbott:
Abbott was walking on eggshells when he arrived. His rock star reception dulled a little when he declared: "I don't think this is about climate change. Climate change happens, mankind does make a contribution," he said.

He then recovered the mob by hooking into Gillard and her broken promise.

Back in the building, watching on TV, some Liberals were mortified while Labor people were delighted. Framed behind Abbott's head were some placards. One conflated a carbon tax with UN global domination and genocide, another said, "JuLIAR, Bob Brown's Bitch" ... What went down well with the crowds may not have looked so good to the broader audience at home.

He can't help it. He just loses control. Put him before a mob like that, or even the Beaufort Crows, and he just loses it. The urge to please the crowd takes over and he's away.
I'm just the pieces of the man I used to be
Too many bitter tears are raining down on me
I'm far away from home
And I've been facing this alone
For much too long
Oh, I feel like no-one ever told the truth to me
About growing up and what a struggle it would be
In my tangled state of mind
I've been looking back to find
Where I went wrong

Too much love will kill you
If you can't make up your mind
Torn between the lover
And the love you leave behind
You're headed for disaster
'Cos you never read the signs
Too much love will kill you - every time

I'm just the shadow of the man I used to be
And it seems like there's no way out of this for me
I used to bring you sunshine
Now all I ever do is bring you down
Ooh, how would it be if you were standing in my shoes
Can't you see that it's impossible to choose
No there's no making sense of it
Every way I go I'm bound to lose
Oh yes,

Too much love will kill you
Just as sure as none at all
It'll drain the power that's in you
Make you plead and scream and crawl
And the pain will make you crazy
You're the victim of your crime
Too much love will kill you - every time

Yes, too much love will kill you
It'll make your life a lie
Yes, too much love will kill you
And you won't understand why
You'd give your life, you'd sell your soul
But here it comes again
Too much love will kill you
In the end
In the end

- Roger Taylor Too much love will kill you

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to compare a promiscuous bisexual rockstar who died from an AIDS-related illness to the Leader of the Liberal Party in Opposition, but there you go.

Pauline Hanson was never able to pose a direct threat to the Liberal Party in the way that Labor does. The chief threat she posed to it was to drag the Liberal Party down to her level, and that's what happened yesterday. The Liberals will try and dissociate their man, getting him to wring out one of his quasi-apologies and call for unity. It's too late for that. It's too late for this conga-line of Liberal MPs who can't tell the difference between ordinary Australians and wackos. Liberals are going to speak out more and more, and any attempt by Tony Abbott to pull them into line will be ignored.

This is how leaderships end, people. He's been Grech'd, and he's done it to himself. Tony Abbott came so close to becoming Prime Minister, but so did Arthur Calwell. Kevin Rudd was cut down within his first term. Better men than he have been thrashed more soundly, and now that we know him better we can see what fate awaits him should he lead his party to the next election. The next Newspoll will be a doozy and the attempts by The Australian to spin it will be fascinating.

Hanson has her revenge: after thirteen years, a fair bit of money gone and even a spell in the jug, her Javert might not go to prison but he won't be going to the Lodge either.

The Australian people are bigger than any mob. Polls don't adequately capture what they'll feel or where they are prepared to be led, so while they can't be ignored outright they can be taken with a grain of salt. The Australian people won't vote for Tony Abbott because he's easily swayed - by the weak and frightened, and by shouty fools in padded rooms.

22 March 2011

The blind leading the naked

Nobody really thinks Tony Abbott would be better off if he embraced beliefs about our future economic growth that he doesn't really support. He's not big on basic economics, so the idea of decoupling economic growth from growth in carbon emissions is clearly too hard.

This piece was originally going to be a tongue-in-cheek rightwing rant about how Tony Abbott should ditch all pretence at moderation, how he should affirm that climate change is crap and that refugee boats should be pushed out to see regardless of the danger to human life involved - mainly because I'd love to see Abbott be honest for a change, and I'd love to see the rightwing bluff well and truly called. Nobody is being fooled by the various evasions, token gestures and outright bullshit that Abbott and other Libs are trailing behind them. This is your big chance, Liberal rightwing - don't let it slide by in a drizzle of well-let-me-say-this.

Instead, there was this. Niki Savva was slightly less nasty this week (not one mention of Julia Gillard's make-up, even though it's probably made from petrochemicals!). She substituted it instead with a less pointed sarcasm against the world generally, but she still brought bucketloads of stupid.
IF Tony Abbott could only embrace the new global religion where belief in climate change is obligatory and in God optional, then he would spare himself the punishment of its spawn, the New Inquisition, and be better off politically if not spiritually.

The whole idea of claiming climate change is a religion rather than a science implies that there is no objective, provable truth about climate change, or that if there is it is obscured by the very institution that would preach it.

I don't know who "the New Inquisition" is and neither does Niki Savva. To rub her nose in her own pseudo-realism: I know that Muammar Gaddafi is killing people who don't support him, but I am not convinced that the Chairman of the IPCC is doing likewise.
The climate change religion purges dissenters.

You can't be purged if you were never really part of the religion.
Listen to the language of these latter-day evangelists: "I believe climate change is real; I have always believed climate change was caused by human activity; I believe Australians agree that climate change is real; the Australian people voted for me knowing I believe climate change is real; the Liberal Party, in the modern age, climate change deniers ..."

That was Julia Gillard, in case you couldn't tell.

Gillard is hardly the only person who recognises both that a) you can have economic growth without emissions growth; and b) if that's what you want for Australia, voting for the Liberal Party will do more harm than good. I still say, drop the pretence and say it loud and proud: vote Liberal if you think climate change is crap.
The Prime Minister does not believe in God, although the muscled-up caucus God Squad, as fellow MPs call the right-wing grouping that staged a mini revolt recently, sustains her.

That's the difference between the Labor God Squad and the Liberal one. Liberals have lost preselection because they're gay, or they are philanderers, or because they don't believe in church intrusion into aspects of social life (such as schools, medical procedures, etc). Plenty of Labor people with the same attributes have slipped through their party's processes unscathed. They then get into Parliament and sneer at the Liberals for being run by religious zealots: SA Labor Senator Linda Kirk is the only exception to that rule I can think of. The men who can make this stick, men like Joe de Bruyn and Senator Don Farrell, are not young men; those who might be expected to take over from them, Tony Burke or Mark Butler, might toe the factional line behind closed doors but they are not going to pole-axe a colleague for personal reasons (e.g. sexual preference), like the Liberals do.

Speaking of Tony Burke and climate change: Burke is the Minister responsible for the Bureau of Meterology. Cardinal George Pell criticised the head of the Bureau, Dr Greg Ayers, calling him "unscientific" and claiming "I spend a lot of time studying this stuff". Burke has a responsibility to stand up for Ayers and repudiate Pell, but I bet he shirks it.

See what happens when you mix climate change and religion? Let's drop that rubbish right now.
Abbott on the other hand, who readily professes his faith in God but was unable to tolerate the strictures of the seminary, finds it hard to be so unswerving in his belief in scientists. They are, after all, only human.

So are voters, Niki. So are you. So are economists, and a good many of those who commission filler for The Australian.
The Coalition was deeply divided on the issue, compared with only mildly divided now. Abbott did not express his unease at that meeting and in fact had been quoted in The Australian the day before effectively urging his colleagues to fall into line. It was only later that day across the border in regional Victoria his inconvenient little truth popped out.

He was guest speaker at a community forum at the home of the Beaufort Crows to help out the newly selected candidate for the seat of Wannon, Liberal up-and-comer Dan Tehan.

An hour late, Abbott walked in while Tehan was addressing the 120-strong crowd.

Most of the questioning was about climate change - not hostile, just your usual laconic country Australians wanting to know why Australia was acting and why it was acting ahead of most of the rest of the world.

Australia isn't acting ahead of the rest of the world, and Abbott had a responsibility to point that out. Which Liberal MP would do anything but laugh when told by Tony Abbott to show some discipline? He also had a responsibility to not get sucked into every rip and downdraft going, to truckle to whatever crowd he is addressing: climate skeptic when talking to Alan Jones, mealy-mouthed climate convert to Tony Jones, and yet he's a conviction politician.
The polls would have to drop a long way before any serious rumblings emerge against Abbott.

Rubbish. The leader should lift the party. Abbott is dragging the Liberal Party down. People want to vote Liberal but under Abbott, they just can't.
There is no threat to his leadership now except the threat Abbott poses to himself.

What about the fact that he is all that stands between Julia Gillard and political oblivion? He is like one of those bad guys in bad movies who ties up the plucky heroine, puts her on the path to certain death (e.g. strapped to a conveyor belt leading to a bandsaw), and then laboriously explains the whole plot, which gives her time to escape, foil the plot and cap it all off with a witty remark. Abbott has to go.
"We should take precautions against risks and threats, potential ones, as well as actual ones, but I don't think we should assume that the highest environmental challenge, let alone the great moral social and political challenge of our time, is to reduce our emissions."

The story here is not that climate change science is not yet settled: the story is that the strutting Hamlet we call our Opposition Leader is a flake. It's time to give up on the guy. What, then, is "the great moral social and political challenge of our time"? The Waratahs' front row?
Liberal MPs were gobsmacked. Two weeks ago Abbott instructed them to stick to the economic arguments against a carbon tax and avoid environmental debates.

There he was doing the exact opposite. "God knows what happened there," a frontbencher said.

Why were they gobsmacked? Do they have no memories at all? Do they not know that nothing is more typical of the man than flaky, don't-do-as-I-do anti-leadership? It might be a breach of "media discipline" but it's not at all untypical of Tony Abbott.
Economic arguments will determine the fate of the carbon tax.

Nah, I reckon it will be politics, quid-pro-quo and a lather of bluster on the side. Only people who spent too long in the eyrie of the Treasurer's office go for this ├ľkonomie ├╝ber alles stuff.
Almost 13 years ago, the GST package proposed the abolition of 10 taxes and promised $12bn in tax cuts. In 2007, the Coalition went to the election with $34bn in tax cuts fully paid for, no strings, and still got done.

The former was part of a coherent reform package, the latter was utterly disconnected from any reform at all. Lesson: first reform, then compensation. A government that offers compensation without reform is bribing its executioners. Niki Savva, being a doyenne, missed that lesson and is lecturing people from a position of extraordinary self-delusion.
To quote Amanda Vanstone, $5bn won't even buy families a sandwich and milkshake.

Five billion dollars would do wonders, you idiot - and it's a misquote (the original amount was $5). For a population of 22.3m, it's $224.22 a head - from whence does Madame Savva get her sandwiches and milkshakes?
A halfway decent treasurer could double that without imposing a new tax or raising a sweat.

Are we talking a tax take, or a tax cut? Are Australians overtaxed or undertaxed these days? Is it easier or harder for Treasurers to put taxes through Parliament when they have stonking great Howard-style majorities, as opposed to a minefield of pushme-pullyou arrangements with independents? Can you imagine Peter Costello dealing with Adam Bandt or Tony Windsor without losing his mind, and in such a context would Niki Savva's opinion be worth any damn thing at all?
Abbott has to convince Australians they will be worse off if a carbon tax is enacted, not that climate change is not real ...

But to accept the latter is to be a bit more accommodating about the former. To reject the latter proposition is the only way to get up the head of steam necessary to bury the former. Abbott knows that, surely.
... remember that climate change helped destroy John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Turnbull and Rudd ...

Because they all minced around it, like Abbott is doing now. The story is right there, Niki, slapping you in the face - and if you'd been in journalism as long as I have you'd see that. Abbott is in the departure lounge, all dope and no more rope, and here's you giving him advice on the mot juste.
Maybe both, depending.

See, only doyennes can write shit like that. Anyone else, and it's just empty nonsense.
Any other doubts he should keep to himself.

I doubt Tony Abbott will and should be Prime Minister, and I'd tell anyone. He's a clown and must never govern us again: that's the only political story you need to tell. Nobody who had any genuine respect for religion would compare it to climate change, and the reverse is true too.

Niki Savva has no sense, no nous and no respect. Because she talks nonsense, and her head looks like a fist draped in puff pastry, it is imperative she stays off the telly too.

Update 23 Mar: Tony Abbott is finished.

21 March 2011

Into the pyre

In the lead-up to Labor's victory at the 1972 Federal election a number of journalists produced books about Whitlam, either entirely as biographies of the man or at least partly so. Depending on your regard for press gallery journalists, these works either surfed the wave that swept Labor to power or they were gobbets of jetsam on that wave.

In the past six months, only journalists have been listening to Kristina Keneally. There is no relationship between what she says and what actually happens. When Bob Askin or Neville Wran or Nick Greiner announced something, it bloody well happened. The office of Premier of NSW can be a very powerful one and it shall be again, but it hasn't been under Keneally.

I lost count of the number of times she said she was "determined to see this through", and nothing happened about whatever it was. I lost count of the number of times she demanded "a full and immediate report" on something or other, and just sat on it. Many times she said "I am very angry" that a particular stuff-up occurred - but no consequences flowed from that anger and the same sort of thing happened again and again:

  • When Wran or Greiner got angry the structural changes were so substantial the ground almost shook;

  • When Bob Carr got angry a journalist would get a phone call laden with sarcasm. The entire state parliamentary press gallery would go to water and immediately drop any investigations they were pursuing into the inertia and/or malfeasance of that government. Then, Carl Scully would make an announcement about the Parramatta-Epping Rail Link to which they would all go and report on like it was real news;

  • When Morris Iemma got mildly displeased with something inside the Labor Party, Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar would use it as another excuse to get rid of him. When the issue was outside the Labor Party, he would call a commission of inquiry chaired by Fred Nile;

  • When Nathan Rees got angry, for the first month or so things happened - then after that, nothing; but

  • When Keneally gets angry, there is a grab on the news where she says how angry she is and that's pretty much it.

Lately, however, there have been all these biographical pieces on Keneally as though she's storming into office like Whitlam in 1972. Andrew Clennell in The Daily Telegraph (I tried linking but the News Ltd search engine is crap) and this piece by Sean Nicholls in the SMH are running the sorts of puff pieces you'd expect at the start of someone's career, not the end.

All that stuff about her fierce determination, from the high school basketball courts of Ohio to the backrooms of the NSW ALP - it seems to have dissipated once she got the top job. There should be more evidence of it, in actual transport and schools and hospitals, than is apparent. That contrast is the real value-add in reporting, and none of these profiles went there.

There is also plenty about her compassion and her work for Catholic social organisations. It's all good, but none of it really explains why she talks at people rather than to them. None of it explains why as Premier she lets her media outfit use kids and others in need of special (labour-intensive, costly and highly-regulated) care as backdrops for picfacs.

Overdoing that determination and community work makes journalists look like they are just taking whatever PR bumf Labor hands them and running it uncritically. John Fahey played rugby league for Canterbury-Bankstown and the Liberals would have looked absurd in 1995 had they over-emphasised that in terms of the Premier's toughness and determination.

It would have been nice if journalists could get over themselves enough to understand how disruptive it can be for an organisation for the Premier to descend on them. The relevant manager is informed and comes under increasing scrutiny, including fielding calls from media flacks making veiled threats and demands but not offering extra resources. Then a bunch of media people turn up, trampling the flowerbeds and running cords everywhere, and they snarl whenever you ask them to do their job in a manner that respects the place they are visiting. Then the Premier arrives, patronises everyone, makes an announcement (which, in Keneally's case, is almost always later retracted) and leaves, then the journalists hang around for a while and they leave, while those who remain try and fail to answer the question: what was all that about?

It would have been nice if journalists could get over themselves enough to understand the sheer poverty of their assumptions:
"It would be foolish of me to sit here and claim that I would never be in a position where I have made a mistake", [Keneally] says. "In hindsight, sure, if I could do it over, I would do it differently. If I was faced with the same decision today, perhaps I would have spoken to a wider group of people about the ramifications."

It's the closest she will come to admitting error. Yet it's not clear if she has grasped quite how much damage it inflicted. Inside Labor there are mounting concerns about her strategic judgment and apparent lack of deep political instincts.

A government backbencher states: "She has a real ability to go and learn a brief and go out and talk about it. But as far as real political nous goes? I believe that she lacks that and so do many of my colleagues."

Keneally was chosen for the Premiership precisely because she can transmit ideas. She was never expected to have political nous, deep roots in the community anywhere within this state.

Political nous involves the interplay between the opinions of the community and the extent to which they can be changed. Democratic policy-making is a two-way process; an increasingly educated populace armed with technology should be more of a two-way affair, but not in an age where communication shapes policy and governments regard themselves as transmit-only mechanisms. Contemporary politics, with its focus on "selling the message" and repetition of "talking points", is a one-way process. This can be seen from restricting the scope of action for backbenchers, to renaming press secs as "media advisors" and having them override policy decisions, to misinterpreting focus group data, to preselecting candidates who have "media savvy" but who lack the depth of experience that might give them political nous.

For journalists, where there is two-way democratic interplay you can report on surface-level goings-on, because the debate is out in the open. You needn't go into dull backroom operations, because that isn't where the action is anyway. Where politics is one-way transmissions, the backroom processes that really make decisions become all-important and the journalist must not be fobbed off by spin or inappropriately old-fashioned journosphere notions that it's all too boring.

One would expect a senior politician to have political nous. Keneally wasn't hired for her nous, she outsourced it to people who overestimated the extent to which they had it: Roozendaal, Tripodi, or the various State Directors of the NSW ALP. She outsourced it to the people who put her where she is, because what further validation of their political judgment could she want? When she talks about consulting "a wider group of people", she doesn't mean a particularly wide group - certainly not so wide and so representative as, say, the State Parliamentary ALP Caucus.

The factional system within political parties can work to manage disputes within that organisation, to distribute rewards and punishments in a manner that is orderly and sustainable for the party. Factions are not responsive to community needs, notions of efficiency, or policy issues. What has happened to NSW Labor over the past 16 years is that they have believed that to manage the party is to manage the state. In the absence of an effective opposition, this has been a fair assumption, but with the emergence of an Opposition that has established not just a threat but pre-eminence, the Labor government just looks like it can't get out of its own way.

Rather than flog the dead horse of NSW Labor again, let's look to Japan. The major parties in Japanese politics operate on factional levels so that the Prime Ministership is turned over regularly: the holder of the office transmits policy but does not receive political signals from the populace, and does not stay in office long enough to get airs that would place any political imperative above the factional. Now that Japan needs real, cut-through leadership - where emergency services must respond in real time to real issues on the ground - the Prime Minister of Japan is unable to give it, reciting the kind of anodyne scripted lines on radiation levels or fresh water supplies that might be more appropriate for slower-moving issues like teachers' pay negotiations or the biodiversity of some gully.

Anna Bligh is the product of the Queensland ALP machine, but she also had the ability to cut through and get information from her bureaucracy in that State's recent travails, and communicate them to the public. She did not get in the way of operational decisions; she did not have to. Keneally is also the product of a Labor machine, and she lets her staffers get in the way of operational decisions. Keneally's character evaporated once she got a job with real power: all she has left is the front for a whole lot of dopey decisions.

There is a difference between smiling as the ship goes down, rallying the troops etc., and the kind of denial verging on mental illness seen from Keneally these days. The complete disregard for what others may think, the scorn for the very idea that the will of an ill-governed people might have consequences, only confirms that chucking this government out is the right way to vote. In times like these, voting Labor is an anti-social practice performed by a small number of people, like spitting. The idea that a bad Labor government is better than the best Liberal one comes from a time when Labor governments were rare, and the current NSW government negates it utterly.

Maybe the reason why the MSM are lavishing attention on someone to whom the public has stopped listening isn't just because they are lazy ("that's what we do every election, it's what the punters want, it's balanced") or because they are tired of having viable businesses and an engaged public. Maybe they expect Keneally to bounce back in some transmit-only capacity (the federal government would be mad to take her on until they get a sizeable majority), in which case they are investing in a longterm relationship. Whatever it is, wherever you have a politico-media co-dependency complex it is clear that over time the pollies do all right, but the media suffers. Given technological and social changes on top of that, the MSM have to wonder how much suffering they are willing to tolerate in the name of "just doing the job".

19 March 2011

Sorry for what?

Matthew Parris was a British Conservative MP who later became Parliamentary Sketchwriter for The Times. He had the ability to take a snippet of parliamentary proceedings and link it to wider issues in British politics.

Annabel Crabb was a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald who also had the title of Parliamentary Sketchwriter. She was abysmal in that role because she would take snippets of parliamentary proceedings and either ignore broader issues in Australian politics, or try and shoehorn them into whatever had caught her eye that day. By the end of her time her writing had not improved, her ability to pick wider movements and key issues was no better, and she remained wedded to the politico-media death spiral. Editors found this charming, for some reason, and she has a loyal following of readers who are every bit as silly as she is.

Now it is Jonathan Green and the ABC who are stuck with publishing embarrassing drivel like this:
Okay: I'll be the first to say it.

Sorry, Kevin.

After all the fuss about the Foreign Minister flouncing in post-tsunami and imperiously demanding nuclear updates from the Japanese foreign minister, it's now pretty clear - after a horrifying week - that he was right to do so.

Timing is everything in politics. Kevin Rudd had it in 2006-8, then lost it after he apologised to the Stolen Generation. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami in Japan - when lives were in the balance and the priority was on restoring the sort of basic communication required to make society function and respond to crisis - people were entitled to say: not now, Mr Rudd, not now. We're gathering live bodies, the data will have to wait and so will you.

Since then more information has come to light, including information not formally announced about just how rubbish Japanese authorities are at dropping the pretence and getting aid to those who need it. Rudd needs Japan's support in international forums for any initiatives he way wish to put up (including his own post-Australian-politics job prospects); getting people's noses out of joint at a time of extremis is not in our interests or his.

It is, however, in Annabel Crabb's interest to curry favour with a politician she once brown-nosed, but who she has pretty much ignored since his dumping as Prime Minister. Julia Gillard got to where she is without the help of Crabb and other hacks, so no point brown-nosing her; journos have not paid Rudd the same attention for almost a year because they assumed he'd be packing his bags by now. Crabb has decided that if you want a Labor insider who's prepared to dish on Gillard, who better than her most high-profile victim?
After all the intrigue about Kevin being out of control and off the reservation and personally obsessed with establishing a Rudd-shaped no-fly zone over Benghazi, it might now be time to admit the possibility that it was the Foreign Minister who was right all along, and the Prime Minister who lost a little focus.

Based on what?

The Prime Minister was behind as wide an array of options as were available to support the anti-Gaddafi forces. Rudd's obsession with the no-fly zone still hasn't borne fruit: it's increasingly looking like a cover for inaction. Gillard was being appropriately modest about Australia's lack of skin in this game, while Crabb's crap about "a Rudd-shaped no-fly zone over Benghazi" is way beyond whimsy and well into the realm of stupid. It's not reporting, as opinion it is less than half-baked, and it is empty of wit. Why toss out a line like that without backing it up?
And while evidence exists to support the contention that the Foreign Minister is a deeply, ornately strange human being, it's certainly fair to say that if ever global circumstances could suit the characteristic oddities of a man whose very favourite thing is to sit up all night phone-stalking the members of the UN Security Council, then these are they.

No, it isn't. There is no Australian skin in the game over Libya, and many others deserve credit for the Security Council's resolution ahead of Kevin Rudd: to fail to recognise this is laughably parochial, and ignorant to the point where one can scarcely call oneself a journalist. Put Rudd's efforts into perspective and all you have is an aforesaid odd man.
First: Relationships are everything in politics. Mistrust between a PM and her senior Cabinet ministers is as corrosive for decision-making as a goanna loose under the bonnet is for trouble-free motoring.

If Annabel Crabb can work this out, so too can practitioners of diplomatic and political arts in foreign countries.

It is not difficult to imagine a foreign diplomat/politician receiving Rudd with all the ceremony and courtesy due to his office, listening politely to what he might say, and responding with: "That's all very well, Mr Rudd, but have you checked that with your Prime Minister?". This is why the Foreign Minister can only speak on behalf of his/her country's government with the support of the leader of that government, and vice versa: if Rudd wants to be a free agent, good luck with that. Rudd operating independently from Gillard isn't impressing anyone, it makes him look like he's not a team player both at home and abroad.

No, Crabb was not hinting at that. She was, like, imposing a schoolyard prism over politics, that Rudd is "strange" rather than self-defeating in policy and political terms.

If John Hewson had won the 1993 election, John Howard would have been carrying on like Rudd is now, in some other field of policy than foreign affairs.
Second: The relationship between Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd is especially compelling - partly because of their seniority, partly because of the relationship's rather lurid immediate past, and partly because, as anyone who viewed the pictures of the pair's Brisbane hostage situation election encounter would readily intuit, these two are a pretty long way away from being comfy around each other.

So: last August they were uncomfortable with one another, and here we are in March and the most significant policy upshot of this is a couple of announcements? Is "lurid" the most appropriate word to use to describe the events of June-August 2010? Really? That's your idea of "compelling"?
Thirdly, there's no denying it: We in the media love a blue.

So? We outside the media, we consumers, we citizens and voters, hate it that the only journalists available are distracted from big, real issues by confected outrage and "blues" either real or imagined. If there is a "blue" then it gets in the way of the policy, doesn't it? Isn't that the point, rather than your attempts to cultivate Rudd as a source?

I don't care what sort of story you want to write, and you should be smart enough to know that wherever there's a "blue" in politics, it's almost always a feint for the real action happening elsewhere.
And fourthly, a narrative that has Kevin Rudd pinging around the place as a sort of intergalactic Mr Fixit, reeling off Benghazi rebel stronghold coordinates in one breath and complex calculations of reactor core temperatures and radiant millisieverts with the next is one that is exhaustively familiar around Canberra.

Fine, but the job of journalists is not to confuse activity with progress, or to only report on federal politics in such a way that is "exhaustively familiar around Canberra". At this point, you would hope that those who love quality journalism would realise that confusion is the very death of journalism, and would act to clear it up: it may mean recognising that Annabel Crabb and her adherents (Bella Counihan, Katharine Murphy, Latika Bourke, James Massola, Samantha Maiden to name five) are not journalists and stop paying/employing them as such.
Just ask John Brumby, who tore his hair out behind the scenes when Mr Rudd, as prime minister, developed a strong interest in the grass-roots logistics of the Black Saturday response. Mr Rudd's reputation for occasional obsessive-compulsive overkill is sufficiently entrenched for apparent fresh instances unthinkingly to be filed under T for "Typical Kevin".

Did Rudd impede the Black Saturday response? Is it in the interests of public order and good government to keep him the hell away from doing something similar in Japan or wherever else disaster may strike? Why did he not take such an interest in the relief efforts affecting his electorate? If you were a journalist, Annabel Crabb, those are the questions you'd ask.
... the Julia versus Kevin soap opera ...

What soap opera? Last August she had the numbers so overwhelmingly that Rudd didn't even run. By contrast, Tony Abbott beat Malcolm Turnbull by a single vote the previous year and not even Annabel Crabb is going on about "the Tony versus Malcolm soap opera". If the carbon and mining taxes go through, Gillard will be able to crush Rudd, Arbib and other flakes; if they don't, Labor still won't have Rudd back. Again: what soap opera? Why is soap opera more important than policy outcomes?
... to the extent that that happened, it was wrong.

Oh, piss off. No names, but plenty of journosphere pack-drill. The qualifier that negates the apology is standard journosphere bullshit, the product of an ego too big to get over itself and too fragile to bear rigorous self-reflection.
I didn't write a massive amount about it, but I certainly committed thought-crimes on most days.

What thought? Why were your writings about goings-on in Canberra any more or less piffle than that for which you're apologising (or not apologising, as outlined above). Having gutted the apology of all force and substance, why bother delivering it?

That, however, is not the biggest "thought-crime" (to the extent that that happened, of course). This is:
Annabel Crabb is ABC Online's chief political writer.

18 March 2011

The teachable moment

The momentum seems to have gone against the revolutionaries in Western Asia and northern Africa, but President Obama has an opportunity to step up and show the world what he meant by his high-minded rhetoric about democracy and self-determination.

The basic assumption of al-Qaeda is that there is no getting rid of autocratic regimes in the region. Legitimate sources of opposition are either killed, imprisoned, otherwise intimidated or else co-opted into the regime. They offer fake militant Islam, violence mixed with trancendence, as the only option that hasn't failed. They adopt the Leninist approach of making law-and-order impossible (autocratic societies are particularly brittle in this regard) so that society collapses and they can offer their own self-discipline and the absence of competitors as their right to rule, whereupon they become an autocracy in itself.

Al Qaeda has no place in a country like Australia, because blowing yourself up is not going to help anyone. They'd be just another eccentric and powerless minority: they only work where other alternatives are exhausted, and here in Australia we are not without alternatives. Yes, there is discrimination against Muslims here to be sure, petty and gutless stuff: powerful people who are slow to condemn it, or who truckle to it, are called to account. There is a real sense that such people are failing this country because they indulge the worst aspects of this country and fail to bring out its best. This is what I'd call a liberal mindset; socialists can share it but not own it.

A few weeks ago, the revolutions in the region put the lie to that: those regimes were beatable, and it wasn't necessary to rally behind fake militant Islam to bring down the dictators. Al-Qaeda was caught out by the overthrow of the Tunisian regime and the coup in Egypt, and their significance in the politics of Yemen and Bahrain is roughly equivalent to that of, say, the Central Coast Mariners. These were genuinely popular uprisings, not Islamist and not socialist either (I'll get to them later).

People in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere want rights and freedoms but not in some abstract sense, in the way that Western civil libertarians do. They want economic opportunities that neither fake militant Islam nor socialism can provide, but they don't want the proceeds of working those opportunities to be siphoned off or abrogated outright by friends and relatives of the dictator. These are liberal uprisings, and it is with great optimism that I refer to them in the present tense.

The late Mohammed Bouazizi was a small business operator doing his best against the dead hand of government. Western libertarians and market-fetishists would have you believe that this sort of struggle is experienced on a daily basis in Western countries, but they are attempting to elevate inconvenience to life-or-death melodrama. It is important to note that he was not trying to organise a strike, or leaking government secrets, or doing anything that socialists might recognise as intrinsic to their philosophy. This is the key reason why Western socialists don't support these revolutions: they can't recognise them as socialist, so they don't support them.

Since the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe 1989-91 it's pretty stupid supporting socialism as a live objective. It's a sentimental archaism; you may as well campaign to restore the Papal states or apartheid. If there are any socialists in Western Asia/northern Africa they aren't leading this revolution, it is leading them. The socialist regimes of eastern Europe (and, to some extent in Italy, with which Libyans will have degrees of familiarity) were not dissimilar to the dictatorships of Western Asia/northern Africa, in their co-opting of any activity that couldn't be suppressed.

Socialism assumes that it is in the avant-garde of history. Once that assumption is over, and the socialist model is shown to be dysfunctional, there's not much point to being a socialist. The 1989-91 revolutions in eastern Europe were anti-socialist, liberal revolutions: libertarians and capitalists followed rather than led those revolutions, and this is what we're seeing this year across northern Africa/Western Asia. Socialists are following, not leading, these revolutions. They are simply not in the vanguard of history in any meaningful sense.

The autocrats are going over the heads of their people and appealling to the Americans and other powers by claiming that the uprisings in their streets are the work of al-Qaeda. This is rubbish, a desperate act by desperate people rather than the measured assessment of successful politicians in a democracy who need to distinguish a trend from a structural shift. The problem is not that those politicians in Western countries assume that any bunch of Arabs getting cheesed off for whatever reason represents a triumph for al-Qaeda, or a dire threat to Israel. The problem is not getting past their record in propping up dictators for the sake of "stability". The problem is that they are reinforcing the idea that liberalism is a non-starter and that only anti-liberal regimes are stable.

The revolution in Libya is touch-and-go. In Egypt, it is not yet complete: the military that took orders from Hosni Mubarak is still in charge of that country, and could well impose another unelected jack-in-office on them (or bring Mubarak back from his comfortable villa, on his home soil). If Gaddafi succeeds, Mubarak is going to look stupid and cowardly by giving in to the mobs, and none of the other regimes are going to do anything but crack down hard. Those who led this liberal revolution will not be kept in reserve, like Mandela was in the latter days of apartheid South Africa; they will be slaughtered or exiled, like the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, or the 1991 uprisings against Saddam Hussein.

This will leave the autocrats in office, shaken but in command. Yes, it may make them beholden to the Americans, but only to a point and they will thumb their noses at Western governments wherever they can (particularly for "five-minute hate" sessions against Israel). They will tolerate fake militant Islam on their soil provided it is for export only (just as Libya provided training for the IRA). Western socialists will sneer at Western business interests profiting from dictators, but why would anyone care what they think?

This will mean that Islam will be the only activity not controlled by the state that is allowed by the autocrats. Therefore, any opposition to the autocrats must be Islamic in nature. This is what happened to Iran under the Shah, all mild annoyances were disposed of until only those remained who a) wanted to do away with the system of government root-and-branch, and rearrange the economy for its own benefit; and b) had the organisational skill to work within Islam, avoid arrest and build a parallel regime.

This means that politics in Western Asia/northern Africa will be limited to reactionaries vs ratbags. The assumption that Arabs can't handle democracy depends on that dualistic assumption to clothe its naked racism - and wherever there is dualism, socialists think they're in with a chance and look for a bandwagon to jump on. External powers will always favour reactionaries as they know which side their bread is buttered on.

The fact that Libya can suppress its revolution to the extent that it has with such outdated equipment is amazing. The need to upgrade that equipment should inform those Western leaders who found Gaddafi chummying up to them a few years ago ("OK, I'll pay compensation to Lockerbie bomb victims - now can I have some new tanks?").

The revolutions in Western Asia/northern Africa vindicate Western societies. We have what they want: not autocracies, but not squalid you'll-get-what-you're-given-so-shut-up socialist or Islamist regimes either. They seem to want the sorts of rights and freedoms we have. Are they wrong to do so? Reactionaries and ratbags are wrong to want rights and freedoms they won't share across their communities; if these revolutions fail, the only political options available to people will be these two.

The latter half of last century was devoted to wiping out fascism and communism in Europe, which some would have as the only two legitimate forms of politics. Liberals stood and fought those regimes as well as the very assumption that they were the only real options. In Western Asia/northern Africa, the assumption of reactionaries vs ratbags must also be smashed, within those countries and beyond.

There's plenty about conflict in Bahrain and Libya, lotsa images from the wires. There's very little about Jordan, which hit the headlines a few weeks ago. Either it has maintained its reputation for relative liberalism and tolerance and worked out some solutions with aggrieved parties; or it is a desolate wasteland of the dead, the imprisoned, and those intimidated by either prospect. Either way it merits more attention than we've been offered so far. We can download stuff too, MSM, but if you want us to go to Jordan and do our own journalism then you'll really be irrelevant.

People who want a broadly liberal way of working, living and government should have it: making the case for autocracy should be hard, and ratbaggery harder still. People who are fighting for a broadly liberal kind of country deserve our support: a no-fly zone is the least we can do, and disempowering autocrats and their toadies with awesome weaponry is deeply satisfying on different levels. I have never been to northern Africa or Western Asia but I'd go to see and help liberal regimes working themselves out. Western military force is more justified in Libya than it was in Iraq or Afghanistan, because those who are wounded or killed do not do so in vain.

Teach our leaders to embrace regimes in those countries that are as complex as our own, and to face reality by abandoning reactionaries vs ratbags. You don't just sit back and let the liberals get massacred, then deal with the ratbags. If they'll face up to reality abroad there's hope for them to do so at home. Societies abroad that allow for complexities, challenges and opportunities are less likely to exude refugees, are more likely to provide trade opportunities, and will help us put down the dualists (racists, socialists, other anti-liberals) within our midst.

15 March 2011

What do we do with an ex Prime Minister?

After reading Niki Savva's nasty and self-defeating piece, I realised that former Prime Ministers are often regarded as a blight upon successive governments:

  • Menzies was physically absent from the Liberal-Country Party governments that followed, but he loomed large over them nonetheless;

  • Holt was of course also physically absent but left few policy legacies to his successors;

  • McEwen's legacy of protectionism (and trade with Japan) had been built long before the possibility of hiom becoming Prime Minister was ever contemplated, and by the time his short tenure passed he was past his most politically potent;

  • Gorton was both mischievous and incompetent for his successor;

  • Whitlam never had to worry about previous Labor PMs, he made plenty of problems for himself;

  • Neither Gorton nor McMahon had the good grace to exit the stage for Fraser, though they didn't do much other than give rise to inconvenient headlines;

  • Whitlam was co-opted by Hawke and Keating even though they undid many of his 1970s social-democrat policies;

  • Howard got where he was by denigrating Fraser, and that continued while the former held office;

  • Hawke and Keating continued their own spat while Rudd was in office, until Hawke joined the chorus calling for Rudd's head; and

  • Hawke and Keating seem to want to support Gillard without much of a clue how to help, and Rudd doesn't help much at all.

What do you do with an ex-Prime Minister? Surely there is some use to which they can be put that benefits public policy without posing a threat to the incumbent. No Prime Minister has really come to terms with their predecessors.

The best (or least worst) at dealing with former leaders was Hawke. He sent Whitlam to a ceremonial role in Paris (also inadvertently sending Mark Latham there as well, in an attempt to de-bogan him). He indulged Bill Hayden's first-class tourism. He seemed to value Malcolm Fraser as an envoy to South Africa, until Fraser and others were overtaken by events following the de Klerk-Mandela talks of the late 1980s/early 1990s. No other Prime Minister has made more effective use of his predecessors.

These days Hawke seems content to play golf, and he seems to consult between domestic and foreign interests that are so large they require government-to-governnment involvement. Keating is too busy being Mayor of Toytown, a role that will (hopefully) disappear within the next month or so. Whitlam is apparently in frail health. Malcolm Fraser seems too frail to travel much or offer much beyond his memoirs. John Howard seems hale and hearty enough, but what use could you put him to, what could he offer?

This leads us to Kevin Rudd, Foreign Minister:
As I walk this land of broken dreams
I have visions of many things
But happiness is just an illusion
Filled with sadness and confusion

What becomes of the broken-hearted?
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find some kind of peace of mind

The fruits of love grow all around
But for me they come a-tumblin' down
Everyday heartaches grow a little stronger
I can't stand this pain much longer

I walk in shadows, searching for light
Cold and alone, no comfort in sight
Hoping and prayin' for someone to care
Always movin' and goin' nowhere

What becomes of the broken-hearted?
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find some kind of peace of mind
Help me, please

I'm searching though I don't succeed
For someone's love there's a growing need
All is lost, there's no place for beginning
All that's left is an unhappy ending

Now what becomes of the broken-hearted?
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find some kind of peace of mind
I'll be searching everywhere
Just to find someone to care

I'll be looking everyday
I know I've got to find a way
Nothing's gonna stop me now
I'll find a way somehow

- Jimmy Dean, Paul Riser and William Witherspoon, What becomes of the broken-hearted?

The "dispute" over the no-fly zone in Libya was a perfect demonstration of Rudd's weaknesses and Gillard's strengths.

Rudd was (is?) fixated on the no-fly zone as the one and only solution to the Libyan problem. There was no explanation of the context, no exploration of what Australia's interests were in having Gaddafi gone (and no indication that Australian blood, treasure and equipment would be expended toward the possibility of post-Gaddafi freedom). You just know that Rudd would have dismissed other alternatives: the no-fly zone is a quick fix and by his presence he could claim some credit for it (the longer it takes to come about, the less credit Rudd can claim).

Gillard insisted on taking the longer and wider view, with the implicit recognition that a) there's not much for Australia to do except be broadly supportive of any specific request for assistance, and b) carbon abatement measures such as the tax really is the main game in Australian politics right now.

Savva lists the countries that Rudd has visited recently: no India, no Indonesia, no follow-up work for Gillard's recent visits to New Zealand, no Thailand (after the political uphevals of recent years, what does that country's new government look like, how does it work?). Those omissions bode ill for Australian foreign policy over the long term:

  • Surely Gillard should appoint a junior Minister Assisting to DFAT who can learn the ropes of Australian foreign policy with a view to grooming them for more senior roles down the track?

  • Surely a Liberal MP with too much time on his/her hands will be doing some reading and consultation with a view to contributing to the foreign policy debate, and shaping it when the political tide turns?

  • Is there a Green foreign policy? What would it look like?

  • What would a Christian foreign policy be, and how would a small number of Senators with the balance of power bring it about?

All this high-minded policy stuff confronts me with complex issues that neither my studies nor experience equips me to critique. I want a sound and positive foreign policy for Australia; I am aware of complaints by DFAT insiders that the department is under-resourced. Foreign policy and trade policy are not identical; one need not be subordinate to the other but they do have too be coherent to Australians as well as foreigners. Kevin Rudd seems on paper like the ideal minister but it's also possible that he's a nightmare for those who work there - not that any government department should be judged chiefly by the criteria set by those who work there, but good morale is important for any organisation.

Good policy should be matched by good reporting, rather than crap like this:
He is not so much prime minister-in-exile as he is master of the mythical vessel the Flying Dutchman ...

He's neither; he's the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It's a distinct job in itself and Rudd brings strengths and weaknesses to the role. If Niki Savva can't get over her dislike of the man then that just devalues her commentary about foreign policy under this government, and her political commentary generally.
Choking back sobs over the moon landing ... You could hear the noise rising above the treetops of the leafier suburbs as the grabs were replayed.

In other words, Savva is confirming my earlier thesis that the only people down on Gillard are those who never voted for her, which ought not be confused with the opinion of swinging voters, much less The People.
If there is the whiff of a protest in Ulaanbaatar, you can bet that Rudd will head there, or if he can't get there, then to the airport closest to the Mongolian capital that will allow him to land and report to the Australian people as swiftly as modern technology will allow.

Firstly, Australia has large and growing investments in Mongolia, thus there is a legitimate foreign policy interest there which might not have been present back in Niki Savva's day. Second, there was this, and by Savva's own admission Rudd was nowhere near the joint. Some journalist, some political analyst she is.
With his trusty mobile in his top pocket, as soon as he disembarks he will press the speed dial to call any number of radio or television stations to offer his expert commentary on whatever grievances might have spurred the locals to take to the streets and how Australia might or might not be affected by the consequences.

Imagine an Australian foreign minister using modern technology to do his job! Savva can sneer at Rudd, but not when he does what he is supposed to be doing:
... unless, of course, there is a flood in Queensland and he has to help neighbours rescue their suitcases ...

Rudd helped his constituents through a crisis: everyone in Australia thought better of the man for doing that, except clueless and bitchy Canberra insiders like Niki Savva. This person really has no idea, does she? How did readers bear to read her output for so long? Why did Costello put up with it, and her? How does an imperceptive clown like this not get shunted into early retirement?
A big job at the UN? With Australia's help? Doubtful.

There is extensive information available on the internet and elsewhere showing that Kevin Rudd runs his own race, doesn't consult, gets fixed on short-term stunts to the exclusion of wider issues, and can be a nightmare to work with.

If he became Australia's Ambassador to the UN he could be left to his own devices from there; if he were appointed toward the end of next year Labor could develop its own plans for the seat of Griffith. By then, the political landscape will have changed: Abbott will be terminal (see previous post), and the local LNP will either be poised for State government or tearing itself apart at not destroying Bligh when they had the chance. But all that is to get ahead of oneself.

It isn't just the first paragraph of Niki Savva's article that was bullshit. I thought they did well to get rid of Glenn Milne but in net terms the appointment of Savva doesn't enhance the federal politics capabilities of The Australian. We need good and sound foreign policy, and a journosphere that can critique it effectively. MSM organisations need to get rid of dead wood so that new talent can thrive: Savva, Colless, Sheridan and Franklin are surplus to requirements (but then so is Chris Mitchell, who is ultimately responsible for making such a call).

Australia should make better use of its former Prime Ministers while they are capable and willing to offer real assistance; this means the incumbents need to be big enough and secure enough to find roles for them. Australia should have a better foreign policy than it does, which again is down to the incumbents as well as the media. The flatulent response by the Lowy Institute toward the coup in Egypt shows that politicians and journalists can't outsource foreign policy analysis to that organisation. If I can find any specks of good foreign policy out there, given my own limitations, I'll let you know: but the first step has to involve chucking out the dross.

14 March 2011

The party of opportunity?

Labor's federal polling is dire - but not terminal. Voters doubt that they will introduce carbon abatement measures at all, or that they can introduce such measures that will both have a real impact on Australia's emissions while also promoting economic growth. People resent Julia Gillard for going back on her word - but they don't write her off like NSW has written off Kristina Keneally, or as South Australians are starting to write off Mike Rann.

In theory, the Coalition should be poised to take government any day. In practice, Labor has some scope to develop and introduce its carbon tax and ETS. It has some breathing room and goodwill (not much, but still something to work with) in order to implement that and its other policies.

The fact that the government is not now going the way of Keneally and Rann is because voter support for Tony Abbott has fallen further than that for Gillard. Sure, support for the Coalition remains high - but Labor recently went into three elections (1998, 2001, 2004) with higher poll ratings than the Coalition and still lost. The Coalition is led by people who had direct experience of those elections and seemed to have learnt little from them, apart from mocking Labor for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Despite having regularly bagged him, Michael Gordon is spot on here. What Gordon doesn't say is this: Tony Abbott is not leading the Coalition to government, Abbott is the Coalition's chief impediment to forming government. The cross-party MHRs won't have a bar of him as Prime Minister, which means the Coalition hopes of forming government are zero.

Abbott isn't a new Opposition Leader learning the ropes. He is a seasoned performer whose opinions and operating style are as fixed as the opinions that voters have about him (the undecideds are Liberal voters waiting to endorse any leader but Abbott). That cat is belled, he aint changing his spots. The whole idea that he was tough while the PM was weak only held while Rudd was PM, and then not very well: look how Rudd demolished Abbott on health policy this time last year. Gillard has more than held her own with Abbott. She will almost certainly be able to do so once the carbon price with associated modelling comes to light.

Crikey's Bernard Keane regards Abbott's poll decline as "bizarre", but to agree you need to both a) spend too much time in the Canberra press gallery and b) honestly believe that anything at all is achieved by "parliamentary theatre". Abbott promised to hold Gillard "ferociously to account", but it's now plain that way of operating is getting them nowhere. The account is overdrawn.

Here's how "parliamentary theatre" works:

  1. Government goes down in polls; then

  2. Great hoo-ha in Parliament, evening news showing confected outrage, Leaders Of Our Community jumping around like monkeys, and futile shouts of "Or-dah!" from the ref; then

  3. Public revulsion for politics, politicians, and politicking; then

  4. Journalists expressing how thrilling parliamentary theatre is, without really explaining why they like it, which distances them from their audience (a bit like people who rhapsodise over modern art or some obscure hobby); then

  5. Public impression of "a pox on both your houses"; then

  6. Public opinion hardens to the point where, regardless of how individuals voted or how highly they regard them, the belief forms that the incumbent government should just be left to get on with it and we the public will sort it out at the next election; then

  7. Government goes up in polls.

Governments win parliamentary theatre in the same way that "the house always wins" at a casino. Incumbent governments love "parliamentary theatre": that's why Hawke and Keating played it up (particularly when they were sagging at the polls), as did Howard and Costello in their day.

For Abbott and Chris Pyne to engage in "parliamentary theatre" from opposition is immeasurably stupid. The only other explanation is that they are trying to focus Coalition MPs away from the failings of their own leadership. When Rudd had it over Howard in 2007, he wasn't playing up "parliamentary theatre"; the government did that (Manager of Government Business in the House: Tony Abbott) and because Labor refused to play along, it only made the government look desperate as well as disgraceful, which reinforced poor public opinion of them and then one day they weren't the government any more. Labor looked calm and assured, like a proper government, and eventually they passed the audition.

The Coalition's path to office lies over the (politically) dead body of Tony Abbott. The Liberal Party could change the game by dumping Abbott in favour of a new leader. It won't, it can't, because it still thinks of Abbott as the solution rather than the problem and can't snap out of it.

Julia Gillard had Tony Abbott's measure when he was health minister and she the shadow; she has it still. John Howard had the measure of every Labor leader he faced except the two who beat him (Hawke in 1987, Rudd 20 years later).

Malcolm Turnbull has the credibility on environmental and economic issues to be able to pull off the kind of balance that people are seeking on this issue. However, Turnbull still creates the impression of waiting it out rather than applying lessons learned. Howard got a lot of credit for creating the appearance of a changed man - Lazarus with a bypass, wandering through the wilderness, a prophet without honour in his own land, all that Biblical stuff. Like the Bourbons, Turnbull seems to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing: at the risk of lapsing into Eastern Suburbs stereotypes, it appears he simply doesn't do ashes and sackcloth, darling.

Joe Hockey has no more credibility on environmental issues than he does on any other non-economic issue, except immigration (Turnbull was quite craven on immigration as leader). Hockey is well read and I have no time for the meme that he's stupid and/or lazy: it will be easier than many imagine for Hockey to demonstrate a firm grasp of policy debates across a wide range of issues. The longer Abbott's poll numbers stay down, the more you can expect him to stretch his wings policy-wise. If Hockey can demonstrate his resolve by taking down a minister, much like Costello did by taking down Ros Kelly in 1995, he will be the frontrunner for the Liberal leadership by July.

Mal Brough is a private citizen but he carries a lot of goodwill from his time as Family & Community Services Minister, particularly regarding the Northern Territory Intervention. You could argue that the Intervention was flawed from the start, or you could argue that Jenny Macklin has botched it; if you argue the former you have to accept that Macklin could have turned things around but hasn't, so either way Macklin is the problem (as is her dull-witted shadow, Kevin Andrews, in failing to show her up). That said, Brough's can-do reputation is intact and if he knocks off Peter Slipper he comes to Canberra with real momentum as a circuit-breaker, just like John Hewson was the circuit-breaker for the Liberals in the Howard-Peacock conflict of the 1980s and early '90s, after the next election.

The difference between an Opposition and a prospective government is that they change the game. Incumbents have all the advantages but sometimes they can be, and are, wrongfooted - occasionally at the worst possible time. Mark Latham changed the game on Howard a couple of times in 2004 but Howard changed it back in time for the campaign. Kevin Rudd changed the game for Howard again in 2007 and Howard never regained the initiative: Rudd did to him what he had done to Keating in 1996. Tony Abbott changed the game on the ETS in 2009-10, but by election day Labor had changed it back with a new leader who was able to negotiate some breathing space.

The Liberals have to decide whether they're going to keep giving Gillard that breathing space, or whether they steadily and decisively snuff her out (like Rudd did to Howard, like Ted Baillieu did to Brumby and like Barry O'Farrell has done to successive NSW Labor Premiers): all successful Oppositions turn lame-duck leaders into dead ducks. Abbott is not the man to do that, for all his swagger and niggle. Gillard will go to the 2013 election with a perceived record of achievement and leadership if Abbott remains as Liberal leader. He is predictable, she can and does get around him.

The smarter Liberals must realise this. Some may be wringing their hands over whether they are going to spill blood, and whose. All political hard-heads know that the more you indulge a poor leader, the more likely it is that the blood to be spilled will be your own. If the Liberals change the game by changing their leader, they will be in government.

If the Liberals do not change the game, the question must be asked: do they really want to be in government right now? They can't agree on the economic or environmental questions of the day, so like the Liberals of 1983-96 perhaps they should wait it out until some of the questions they find most painful are settled. If they want to take the initiative, however, they will have to start grasping some nettles.