30 May 2011

Leading the Liberal Party

You can lead the Liberals to government but you can't make them think.

The Liberal Party is a party of government. Its reason for being is to be in government. Internal party debate has been increasingly restricted because of the belief that any sort of disagreement constitutes "disunity", and therefore "death" (i.e. being out of government). This in turn has led to the belief that it is better for the Liberal Party to be united around a policy that is silly (e.g. "direct action" on climate change, or whatever the spot position on Liberal economic policy is right now), or to agree-to-disagree on policy for the sake of avoiding the appearance of disunity (e.g. industrial relations) than to have a debate and agree to a position that a) stakeholders can live with and b) might attract voters who have been voting Labor in recent elections.

The context through which the Liberal Party is to be led matters too. A Labor Government which is not necessarily disunited, but still can't convince people about its major initiatives or even why it should continue in government. An international climate of great uncertainty, where old friends in Europe, the US and Japan are in longterm economic and political trouble (decline? Discuss, etc.) while more recently-established in China, Malaysia, India and Indonesia don't necessarily have the same depth for this country's foreign policy, trade and defence establishment.

An issue with which the Liberal Party has trifled, the environment, has shifted to centre stage and become fused with economic policy. It is simply not possible to have a credible economic policy that doesn't address environmental issues - particularly carbon emissions, but also including such issues as the water supply in the Murray-Darling basin - or which treats those issues as some sort of bolt-on that can be discarded later.

The Liberal Party is being led through uncertain times, conditions which its background provides few clues if any as to how to proceed with confidence. Despite the Gorton government establishing the first federal public service response to environmental issues (and, at the same time, proposing nuclear power and weapons development), and Malcolm Fraser making some landmark decisions (such as protecting Fraser Island and the Barrier Reef, but also backing the Gordon-below-Franklin dam) the Liberals have largely left the environment to the left. The Liberal Party will always prefer clearly rejecting an issue to being a pale imitation of Labor or other parties by agreeing, which is why bipartisanship is not an appeal to rally Liberal members.

I disagree with The Piping Shrike when he/she/it says that the Liberal Party - and Labor, and presumably the Greens also - is in longterm decline because of a lack of popular support. Think of any other oligopoly squatting on the Australian landscape - Coles/Woolies, Rugby League/AFL, Rio/BHP, TV, the big banks - and ask yourself honestly whether or not lack of popular enthusiasm really imperils perpetuation of that oligopoly or the interests of those who participate in/benefit from it.

The question is who is best placed to lead the Liberal Party through such a future. There is the incumbent, but I have already commented on him. The two other contenders are Malcolm Turbull and Joe Hockey.

Turnbull need not demonstrate any further that he's a clever man of considerable accomplishment who reads widely. People who loathe the man admit those qualities freely, along with those who effuse about them and him. Turnbull needs to understand and accommodate those whose learning isn't what his is, and bring them along with him. It took Menzies the better part of a decade and a World War in order to do this, and Turnbull needs to do it within the next year if at all. It's alienating enough being part of a modern political party - your opinions are decided for you, largely by morons - and it does not do to have a leader who has already anticipated what you might say and dispensed an answer accordingly, regardless of how you might feel or what, if anything, you might think about it.

It's both a strength and a weakness in politics to stand by an agreement. Everyone criticises politicians for being slippery but Turnbull has been crucified twice on the national stage for being a man of his word. First, he was boxed in to an unsellable compromise on the republic by the strategic genius of John Howard, which he proceeded to sell in the face of predictable opposition. No amount of pushing could get him over the line, whereupon he abdicated in favour of the hapless Greg Barns. Then there was the deal with Rudd over the ETS - a man of his word, he was done over by Tony Abbott. Abbott still thinks he's a genius of political strategy on par with Howard, the poor lamb.

Turnbull might consider the Australian public at large as his clients, he might be mindful of his obligations under any deal he may cut - but the Liberal Party is not just some vehicle that gets you into power. It is an organisation that has interests and fears and with which the leader must have a close and ongoing relationship. When we was leader it was often said that Turnbull could afford to fund the Liberal Party's campaign out of his own pocket, but it's important to cultivate a broad base and be big enough to let them feel they've contributed.

Being touchy-feely has its limits, particularly in the Liberal Party. It was Eric Abetz who is to blame for Godwin Grech. If Turnbull was the Florentine Renaissance man Niki Savva would have him be, then he would enter the Liberal Parliamentary party room with Abetz's severed head, toss it onto the floor with a crunch and a squelch, and calmly call for nominations for Leader in the Senate. This Friday the Liberals are losing six Senators (including the only Liberal who knows anything about foreign affairs) and gaining two (including a retread from Adelaide who's back to top up his super): another one down would be no great loss.

As a political strategist Christopher Joye makes a great economist. Joye refers to an issue "encapsulated in a recent assassination by the AFR's highly regarded Laura Tingle" - it's hardly an assassination if Hockey is not only breathing but occupying his former role. Mind you, Joye has clearly been set up:
... when chatting with The Australian's Greg Sheridan afterwards outlined my own thesis. Greg said he liked it, so I thought I would reproduce it here. Let me say upfront that I have not spoken to Malcolm or anyone else about this. But here are my thoughts in any event.

Sheridan must have laughed all the way back to Surry Hills. The guy has lint for brains but I don't begrudge him so much as a titter at Joye's expense.
He is extremely wealthy, and can opt out of politics and pursue a life of leisure at his choosing. He has already served as a Cabinet-level Minister in one Government, and as the leader of the party in opposition. And he has previously had to endure as much political turmoil as one could wish on any enemy. Importantly, [he] also knows that he has almost no partyroom support. There is a lot of residual bad blood over what has transpired since he left the leadership.

The same could have been said about John Howard in 1992. The difference was that Howard was clearly giving the job everything, everything was subordinated to achieving high office in politics, everything. He was pilloried as a try-hard, but only by people who don't respect dedication and commitment. It's hard for anyone to give their all for a leader who might just up and piss off to Antibes at any moment, leaving you high and dry.

The great example is Jason Wood, the Victorian marginal seat MP who, at the very least, got on well with Turnbull. Wood could have won his outer-Melbourne seat of La Trobe but the Victorian Liberals had no incentive to help Turnbull or Abbott for that matter, so the strategic genius Mitch Fifield was dispatched to La Trobe to place the dying pillow over the face of Wood's career. Never mind MPs who might b a bit dirty on Malcolm; those who aren't there at all are the real worry, and they'll never get there so long as Abbott is leader. Who'd run for preselection and get photographed with that arsehole?
It is too late for him to stealthily build support with the backbench. Most are now a lost cause.

Great, you'll win a lot of support with an attitude like that. It's part of the problem I identified earlier. Read Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Chris, and be amazed at the old boy's perspicacity; send a copy to Malcolm and suggest he learn from it.
Malcolm's most powerful solution is to go into Kamikaze mode and compel a 'survivalist' partyroom response. This is a risky strategy, but then Malcolm has what is known in financial markets as a "call-option-like" payoff function. He has a helluva lot of upside if he can pull it off.

The very heart of this article, and it's a bit of financial markets screen-jockey wank. He's done Turnbull no favours in making him look like a dilettante.
He attacks Abbott principally on the basis of his climate change policies, creating as much public confusion as possible, and undermining, in the electorate's eyes, the credibility of Abbott's alternative. Malcolm also knows that a carbon tax will be legislated well before the next election, and must be hoping that Abbott's narrative loses resonance, just as the anti-GST story did.

Nothing to disagree with there. From the day he announced he was running for Wentworth, Turnbull was playing the long game and he plays it still.
Malcolm can de-legitimise Joe by subtly (yet relentlessly) assaulting his purportedly 'soft' economic and intellectual credentials, which seems to be low-hanging fruit in superficial media land.

Why would anyone want to assault fruit? A mixed metaphor is always a sign that the writer isn't thinking about what they are trying to say.
This may have begun with the internal ructions around Joe's banking war late last year (with The Oz's army enlisted to mount offensive raids from Malcolm's bunker)

A more feeble army is hard to imagine. Again, there is the idea that Turnbull is going to have to work with Hockey: how do you imagine that's going to work, Chris? Do you imagine that at all? If you admire Hockey so much, if Hockey is so underestimated, surely Turnbull's effort to delegitimise him is doomed?
The most important strategic point here is this: if Malcolm can eliminate the credible leadership candidates, and position himself as the party's best hope of winning the next election, he knows that the partyroom will fall into line. That is, he knows that when push comes to shove, the partyroom will vote with its self-interest front of mind. So Malcolm has to establish what I would call a "self-preservation catalyst" for the partyroom by knocking over both Abbott and Hockey.

One mistake some in the party seem to make is dismissing his public appeal. You often hear the rejoinder that Malcolm is only popular with Labor and Green voters. I don't get this: aren't these precisely the target markets you need to secure in order to win an election?

Here Joye redeems himself, he's spot on. His recommendations on how Turnbull gets there are pretty dire, to say the least.
John Howard died and rose again.

No he didn't. He's not Christ, and he's not a Labor figure: Manning Clark and Graham Freudenberg clumsily apply Biblical imagery to Labor figures, it doesn't work with Liberals. Lazarus had help.
Malcolm Turnbull enjoys extraordinary support amongst media influencers

So what? Show me someone who drinks the media Kool-Aid about how influential they are and I'll show you someone who knows nothing whatsoever about Australian politics.
An objective analysis would conclude that there is risk that the polling does not get much better than this.

Abbott will blow strong polling and Labor will crawl out of the crypt. The problem is that the Liberal Party can't give up the idea of the Howard restoration, the idea that the public will join them in a conspiracy to wind the clock back to 2006. If you wonder why Abbott put Bronwyn Bishop, Phillip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews on his front bench, consider his core pitch and wonder no more. There was no NBN or GFC in 2006.

To vote for Malcolm Turnbull is to admit that dream is gone forever. People vote in favour of their dreams and against their own interests all the time, and only a fool or an economist would believe otherwise. Joye may be right about Turnbull, but if so it is for all the wrong reasons.

He's right about Hockey, though. Hockey is a more formidable politician than he's given credit for, and the Libs are crazy not to get him out and about in marginal seats (unless the incumbent is frightened of him). In parliamentary hurlyburly Hockey looks like - and often is - an oaf. Politicians often promise to clean up parliament but never do - if Hockey makes that promise, it will be because he realises how few favours "parliamentary theatre" does him.

Hockey's strong point is in prudential and corporate regulation, and he could damage Swan significantly if he left aside auditing quibbles and went after him on that. If he went after Bill Shorten it would be one of the epic clashes of contemporary politics. Because the Treasury field is so wide, and because Hockey flounders on macroeconomics, Swan sidesteps his attacks and waits to strike when Hockey has wedged himself into a corner, as he regularly does.

Hockey must know that the "deficits bad" line is stupid and wrong, but he hasn't worked out how to shift emphasis away from it - or to what that emphasis might profitably shift. Being outfoxed by Abbott is no recommendation, which is why Hockey is not striking fear into the hearts of Labor like Turnbull is. Hockey has a stronger background in the Liberal Party than Turnbull but he'll overlook people who aren't in his face all the time, he can't do what Howard did and give an ear to every pissant and whinger just so that it looks like he's listening. Hockey doesn't have much of a base outside NSW, and even within it if he brought down Abbott he may not be able to handle the backlash from the right as adroitly as Barry O'Farrell has handled them.

Hockey is different to Abbott because Hockey has scope for growth. Abbott is finished; those who say Abbott still has time or might rise to some new level of statesmanship are kidding themselves.

Neither Turnbull nor Hockey have what it takes to lead the Liberal Party, but if you had to bet it's easier for Turnbull to get over himself than it is for Hockey and Abbott to develop the sorts of substantial capabilities and vision that neither man has so far demonstrated.

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