02 June 2011

Drop kick and punt

Souvent pour s'amuser les hommes d'equipage
And it's like talking to a stranger
Remember the panic in its delectable face, when I touched it
It was like talking to a stranger

- Hunters & Collectors Talking to a stranger

Arthur Sinodinos should know better than to refer to his fellow Australians as "punters". Political insiders use stock expressions to refer to people whom they notionally serve, but on whom they perform experiments in both policy and message terms: "Mums & Dads", "working families", "middle Australia" (not to be confused with "central Australia"), "battlers", etc. "Punters", however, are gamblers who voluntarily give their hard-earned to gambling operators and who have no right to expect anything but disappointment most of the time. Everyone who refers to their fellow-citizens as "punters" in a public policy sense (as opposed to their fellow-gamblers in a gaming/racing environment in a literally accurate sense) is being patronising.

So it is with Arthur Sinodinos. In surveying the political scene he underestimates the government, and doesn't overestimate the Opposition so much as blatantly misrepresent them. Either way, he is attempting to mollify conservative The Australian readers but he's lost the deft touch that made him such an effective adviser to John Howard: he's started to patronise readers on what they're about and what their politicians are up to, which is fatal for anyone operating at the upper reaches of politics.

First, I'm going to deal with the one telling point in a long article full of fluff and garbage. It's this:
Ross Garnaut's solution to the climate impasse is to give independent bodies a greater role in setting emission reduction targets and industry compensation: in other words, to take the politics out of politics. That raises the question of how to get the public to take ownership of the necessary changes.

That, seriously, is a good point. When this blog becomes refin'd I shall engage in lengthy disquisitions on mighty issues such as these. It can only be done in an environment of heightened social discourse, however, and as we are dealing with the crap dished up to us by the Australian politico-media complex we at the Politically Homeless Institute will have to deal with that.
JULIA Gillard's long game is turning into death by a thousand cuts.

I don't know what the "thousand cuts" are. Looks to me like the full arsenal has been trained on her and she's still standing, and there's even been a bit of an uptick in support. If the budget had been a directionless shambles the "thousand cuts" would be more apt than it appears here. The "death" thing isn't borne out by the rest of the article. This opening sentence is a rallying cry pure and simple one that rings increasingly hollow as you go down the article.

It would have been interesting if Sinodinos had compared the current travails of the Gillard government to the final year of the Howard government, where no tax cut, no Murray-Darling thing, no international conference made a blind bit of difference to the inevitable defeat (or to Dennis Shanahan's insistence that Howard would be re-elected regardless). What's it like being in the boiler room of the Titanic? That would have been real value-add in political insider terms, but sadly no comparison was forthcoming.
The carbon debate is not about the environment any more.

Translation: it better not be, all the scientists who know their stuff argue against the Liberal skeptic (not now) or denialist (not ever) position, and to keep to such a position is a losing proposition. Move away from the carbon-dioxide-is-the-fizz-in-your-drink silliness, it's a bit too Marie Antoinette - but not so fast or so dramatically that Alan Jones gets his nose out of joint.
It has become a proxy for public angst over broken promises, cost of living pressures and even the divide between Canberra insiders and the rest of the nation.

Ever since some journalists started asking pointed questions about what the Liberals might propose, rather than simply what they oppose, questions about promises and what the Liberals might do to address those issues have made Abbott and others uncomfortable. Such a turnaround should have been expected by seasoned professionals such as Abbott and those around him, and they should have serious, sensible and appealling policies ready. They didn't, and still don't.

Besides, if "public angst over broken promises" was truly palpable, why isn't John Howard's severed head dangling from a Canberra streetlamp? If Tony Abbott isn't a "Canberra insider", who is?
Gillard has locked herself into delivering a compensation package soon.

Is this not another way of saying: the Prime Minister has promised this, and looks like delivering on that promise?
It will not solve her problems but she will be hoping it staunches the bleeding of her primary vote and lets her move on.

Again, the opportunity to get an insight from a political insider has been lost: is this not the same as Howard delivering on the GST? He won no votes for the tax or the legislation, but got grudging espect for having done what he set out to do.
As with boatpeople, it is a debate that she has probably already lost. In government you limit your losses and get on with the next agenda. It is Tony Abbott who has every incentive to mire the government in endless debate on the carbon tax.

The Opposition had a stick to beat the Government with on refugees, and now they don't. Nobody is a winner from that debate, least of all the nation - but if Gillard takes that issue of the table then what will Abbott whinge about? He'll have to propose an alternative.

If the government comes up with practical proposals about compensation and a carbon price, and gets them through parliament - Eric Abetz has been useless at stopping anything get through the Senate - then isn't that "get[ting] on with the next agenda"? Once a carbon tax is in place with compensation, won't Abbott be left without a "next agenda" to get on with?
Gillard needs to rebuild her authority quickly and convince the public that her government is not a one-trick pony but is governing according to some overarching and coherent plan.

Gillard's last agenda-setting speech was to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia in February outlining her skills proposals. The budget was a down payment on that agenda.

In other words: action will count more than words for this government. Yes, I think we're all across that idea - even people who attack Gillard from the left say the same thing. Speeches only really impress journalists, but the fact that there was follow-through in the budget looks like the start of the very kind of "overarching and coherent plan" you're talking about, Arthur.
Not much time was given to selling the government's own agenda.

Almost immediately Gillard and Wayne Swan went on the offensive, demanding that Abbott reply in detail to their budget.

Just like Howard and Costello did back in the day, Arthur.
Abbott did not rise to the bait, ignoring the budget in favour of outlining his own policies ...

And what were they, again? I follow politics pretty closely and I can't remember a single one. I live in a Liberal electorate, earning above-average wages, have a family and have voted Liberal in the past - if the Liberals aren't appealling to me, etc.
... and his mantra on stopping the boats ...

Hmm yes, edifying. Not a word on that since Malaysia and Manus Island got into gear, though.
... and the great big new carbon tax.

He forgot to mention his great big vote against the great big new compensation package.
Gillard and Swan did not leave themselves much time for their attack on Abbott's economic credentials. Under pressure from a self-imposed timetable they had to flick the switch to climate change last week.

What credentials? You can only wrestle with smoke for so long before you look like you're doing some sort of interpretative dance.

These days, there isn't much of a gap between the various taxation measures in the budget and the additional tax measure of the price on carbon, which will have far-reaching effects on the economy. The idea that you have serious budgetary and macroeconomic policy over here and stuff about plants and rivers and wombats over there is a conception of government that doesn't apply any more.
Handily for the Coalition, the nasty little row between Swan and West Australian Premier Colin Barnett over mining royalties served to deflect the government's attack on Abbott's economic credentials.

It's also true that Tony Abbott could not and did not establish any sort of "economic credentials", which Arthur seems (in spite of all evidence) to assume he has.

At least the Liberal Party is allowed to have Premiers these days, Arthur. In your day Howard went around nobbling Liberal governments, but they couldn't say anything lest the be accused of "disloyalty".
Abbott does not seem fazed by the looming compensation package. In the right hands, such a package of pension increases and tax cuts could be a winner with the public. Abbott is banking that punters are not impressed by having their own money recycled in this way.

The whole history of the Howard government was exactly that: taxes churned from the middle class to the middle class. The incumbents might not have as much front as Howard-and-Costello but the principle that Abbott is the man to rail against this fiscal shell game is ludicrous - particularly if he refers to people as "punters".
He will also seize on Green comments that the carbon price will have to go up through time, leading to ever rising power prices and job losses if industry is not sufficiently compensated.

I can still remember Simon Crean shrieking that the GST wouldn't stay fixed at 10%. The first journalist/talkback host who asks Abbott to sign a pledge to say that the carbon tax will "never ever" be increased while he's in government will burst that bubble. We punters have seen this before, Arthur.
Abbott will cast doubt on the permanence of the compensation. He will keep calling on Labor to go to the people to get a mandate for the new tax.

Once the cheques hit people's accounts once the 2PP starts to tilt in favour of a government with runs on the board, these calls will drop off. He'll need to come up with policies other than "no no no". What will they be?
He must also play more of a long game. He has an election-winning lead but the Australian people are not rusted on to the Coalition or any party. They are grumpy and disillusioned with flashy promises. They want things fixed and do not have time for day-to-day political games beloved of journalists and political tragics inside the Canberra beltway.

Abbott has a window of opportunity to trumpet a more positive agenda, building on his budget reply. He must become in the voters' minds the default choice for national leader. This will strengthen and not detract from his attack on the government.

I am sick to death of this assumption that "young Tony" will somehow come up with the goods, and display qualities of vision and leadership that his nowhere evident in his junkyard-dog persona. You may as well leave the front light on for Harold Holt as wait for Tony Abbott to become some forward-looking statesman. He is one of the few politicians less popular than Julia Gillard.

Nobody likes a complacent government, as Arthur found out in 2007, and Abbott certainly keeps the government on its toes. Abbott is the default choice for Opposition Leader. It is wishful thinking at best, outright bullshit at worst, to assume that Tony Abbott can or will flick the switch to statesmanship.

In parliament this week, Abbott had two choices to wrest control of "parliamentary theatre" from the government: he could turn Question Time into a shambles, or he could demonstrate the steely discipline that the government lacks to put himself in control rather than the government. He's don the former, and be it on his own head. People who know Abbott well, like Sinodinos, would have a right to project their hopes onto him only if they had seen some evidence that he could have done the latter - as Malcolm Fraser did in 1975. To know Tony Abbott, and still project your hopes for a positive agenda onto him, is simply dishonest.
The public wants something done about climate change, although its priority has fallen since 2007. Forget the nuances about the contribution of humans as opposed to other causes. The rubber hits the road when people are asked how much they are willing to contribute. The answer at the moment is not very much and, by the way, can you do something about my existing electricity bill?

This is what you get when there's no background of commitment over the long term. Abbott has less commitment to a low-emissions future than Gillard does, and no wonder you want to forget about quibbling over the science. To get a real perspective on this, I'm afraid you have to go back to the late 1960s, with hippies and what have you:
You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plans
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We're all doing what we can
But when you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you'll have to wait

- John Lennon and Paul McCartney Revolution

Don't you know it's gonna be all right? Well I hope so, but from this angle it's hard to be sure. I'm still convinced that Sinodinos is wrong when he says:
The Labor-Coalition tiff about whether carbon pricing is superior to direct action is a storm in a teacup. Labor is trying to take the economic high ground by pushing the efficiency advantages of a carbon price-trading mechanism.

... and the Coalition aren't. The Coalition aren't about efficiency, apparently, and insofar as they listen to business at all nobody is telling them to get the carbon price in place and stop mucking about.
It now appears that the political process has worked out a handling strategy for the basin.

So let's be clear: it's not the government that has done this, heavens no; it's "the political process". I don't think it is quite the done deal that Arthur would have you believe somehow.
No wonder politicians have embraced second and third best options in dealing with carbon.

Sorry? Some academic proposes that the big decisions be taken away from politicians, so they go scrambling for the low-hanging fruit? What sort of pikers are we electing here? I am still waiting for the senior Liberal who will start a new page for the Liberal Party, and part of that involves telling people like Arthur Sinodinos, Mark Textor and Niki Savva to get stuffed. From what Arthur says I'll be waiting a while.
That is Abbott's point. He is trying to do something while seeking to assuage public anger at rising energy prices. He is buying time for a global agreement that will galvanise local action.

Sinodinos shouldn't have said that.

Never mind that Tony Abbott doesn't have a point - show me where Battlelines has manifested in any sort of political reality, go on - the idea that Abbott is "trying to do something" about carbon emissions, global warming or environmental issues generally is absolutely false. It is just not true and Sinodinos is wrong to misrepresent Abbott and Liberal policy in this manner. His credibility is shot.
Voters are waking up to the link between measures to promote renewables and household electricity bills. They only have to look at what state governments such as NSW are being forced to do to rein in the ballooning cost of subsidies to alternative technologies such as solar rooftop panels.

No, the NSW government is reining in the costs associated with having predecessors who were such absolute deadshits who couldn't comb their own hair properly, let alone implement sensible energy policy. Federal Labor aren't trying to follow NSW Labor.
Gillard should also be ramping up measures to promote more efficient energy use that will substantially reduce power costs.

Then, Arthur Sinodinos can run an article about the nanny state not letting him run his aircon on hot days.
Punters are not looking to be educated by the Climate Commission, Cate Blanchett or anybody else.

Punters want to know who's running in the 3rd at Moonee Valley on a sluggish track, Arthur.
They want evidence that someone is listening.

So Tony Abbott can go on telly and say "I'm listening", when all he does is stand there like Howard and let people talk at him without really engaging with them. People are over that. Maybe punters aren't though - Arthur knows all about the punters.
Maybe Gillard should have kept her promise to convene a citizens assembly.

Then, Arthur Sinodinos can run an article about the 2020 Summit and how rubbish it was, apparently. Cate Blanchett went to that, too.
The punters understand that and are willing to do their bit as long as other countries do not get a free ride on our efforts. They instinctively understand that it is complicated for an energy exporter such as Australia and that the burden of adjustment will fall on them rather than the authors of these reports.

I despair of such garbage sometimes.

Australians did not sign up to several wars worrying about free rides, they fought for what was right. So it is with climate change: do the right thing, work with others who do the right thing, and eventually the recalcitrants will come around. The idea that we should sit around until the last possible moment isn't just unsustainable, it goes against the very grain of our national character and out history. It's unAustralian, Arthur.
Forget glossy ads; there is no substitute for a government going out there and directly engaging the voters.

From a guy who spent a billion dollars selling government policy on television.

How would you know about engaging with people, Arthur? The Liberal Party offered you a safe seat in Parliament, and you knocked it back. When MPs who had years of experience in leading their communities came to you, voicing their hopes and fears about government policy - you yelled at them to do as they were bloody well told.

Arthur Sinodinos has lost the plot. He's become complacent and is part of the crust of Howardism that a new generation of Liberals have to scrape off in order to make their party a credible force. Howardism is not the way forward for the Liberal Party, it's a dead end.


  1. A superb analysis, Andrew, but I am not sure if the dropkicks are up to understanding, let alone appreciating, it.

    As to your response on the last thread, I'm not sure whether to say "Reowwww!", or simply to purr complacently.

  2. thank you for this. wonderfully enjoyable defenestration.

  3. Thank-you for that analysis, Andrew.
    I read that article and knew that it deserved a full deconstruction but didn't know where to start or how to control my anger.

  4. Hillbilly Skeleton3/6/11 9:22 am

    To show just how much the NSW Branch of the Liberal Party, which includes the Howard Consigliore Sinodinos, have lost the plot, they placed Dr Peter Phelps bum on a Legislative Council seat.
    I rest my case, yer Honour.

  5. Great piece Andrew, again, but do you think Howardism is really only a crust that can be scraped off?
    I still think it is the core of the current parliamentary party, and it will be a few election losses before new blood can be elected into seats let alone into government.
    Leaving aside the matter of potential leader for the moment, who do you think is likely to form the core group of an electable liberal government?

  6. Thank you all.

    HS, can I direct you to my conversation with Peter on this blog (a while ago now, but should still show up on searches). He is the classic academic, projecting his words out there without much clue as to how others will receive and act upon them. David Clarke had to have a win and Phelpsy is it, really.

    PeterH - it is as far as I'm concerned but others will face adjustment difficulties. As to who's the future - in the olden days Liberals were a lot more open with their thoughts than they are now, so who knows?

  7. Australians did not sign up to several wars worrying about free rides, they fought for what was right. So it is with climate change: do the right thing, work with others who do the right thing, and eventually the recalcitrants will come around. The idea that we should sit around until the last possible moment isn't just unsustainable, it goes against the very grain of our national character and out history.

    You know what? I'm really surprised Gillard et al haven't used this line of reasoning loudly and publicly. It's so bloody true and resonates a lot more than mealy mouthed bits about how Europe already has an ETS etc etc. Are we a nation of bludgers that (despite having the highest per capita emissions) will hold back and wait until others take all the risks, do all the hard yards, then, and only then, when we're sure we're nice and comfy, then we'll take a baby step forward and do something. It's an embarrassment, and I'm surprised the ALP haven't done what you have and pointed to history to show that this is a really pissweak approach to take.

  8. Anonymous @ 7, I know nuffink about the wondrous ways of the ALP, but it strikes me that your eminently sane approach has been trumped by F@#*us Groops.

    Which are indeed an embarrassment, and high time that they were taken to the guillotine and dealt with.

    Now, that was a slight distraction from what I really wanted to write about. Andrew, has it occurred to you that Sinodinos is doing a brill impersonation of Monty Python's Black Knight?

  9. Lachlan Ridge4/6/11 11:30 am

    Another shining piece Andrew.

    To Anonymous: I can say as someone who has spent no small time dealing with a large number of the people that are now ALP Federal MPs, including few cabinet ministers, that their knowledge - both collectively and individually - of history is disturbingly absent.

    In the late eighties I recall one current Cabinet Minister asking me, in a perplexed tone, as to why the ALP had "thrown away" government in 1917. Another who looked at me blankly when I mentioned HV "Doc" Evatt.

    This is the symptom of the deeper disease, which is the self-obsession and vanity that drives these people, which blinds them to all matters that act as a distraction from their own personal glory. Like a corporate sponsor of professional sport, the past is simply another angle by which to monetarize the present. You and I, however, may think of it as history.

    There is nothing wrong with ego, as Skyhooks pointed out, but when it comes in public polity at the exclusion of decent policy it is bloody dangerous. Showbusiness for ugly people indeed.

    As Exhibit A I would point to the current Minister for Immigration, but there are others. The intellectual capacity of the Communications Minister is also a salutary point.

    We are poorly served by the quality of elected representatives. The good Mr. Elder does a wonderful job (along with Mr Densmore) in revealing the role and shortcomings of the Fourth Estate in all this. But we must also look at a situation where the major two and a half parties are completely trapped in a permanent present tense, devoid of any context of history and absent of any imagination of a future beyond glib motherhood statements.

    I'm yet to read Tanner's book, but if he exposes this then it could well be the most important book on Australian politics since Murray's 'The Split'. If he doesn't then I suppose someone will have to pen the very book that is needed to lance the boil disfiguring the face of Australian politics. Good public policy demands it.

  10. Thanks very much Lachlan.

    I'm trying to imagine how Billy Hughes would have reacted to Karl Bitar telling him that conscription was a dud with the focus groups, and lobbying on behalf of Cobb & Co to restrict the uptake of the combustion engine.

    From what I've read so far Tanner's book is telling but hastily written.

    I think there has to be a broader focus on public policy, with politicians only able to play a role within that process rather than the role that hogs all the limelight. It's a work in progress.

  11. Fiona: nothing wrong with cheering for your side, but Sinodinos is being dishonest - and worse, wistful - in promoting his side ahead of the others.


  12. Ever since some journalists started asking pointed questions about what the Liberals might propose, rather than simply what they oppose, questions about promises and what the Liberals might do to address those issues have made Abbott and others uncomfortable. Such a turnaround should have been expected by seasoned professionals such as Abbott and those around him, and they should have serious, sensible and appealling policies ready. They didn't, and still don't.

    Who can convince Abbott this is the trajectory?

  13. You'd hope someone like Sinodinos might, rubiginosa, but clearly not. Hints at a wider malaise.