28 June 2011

Lord of misrule

The Right are in the ascendancy in the Liberal Party at the moment. So long as this remains the case, the Liberal Party will be unelectable. The leader who wrests power from them will lead the Liberal Party to victory over the ALP.

Twice this has happened in NSW:
  • In the late 1970s, the Liberals fell into a slough of far-right despond - and yes, a far-right response is always an expression of despair rather than hope. Nick Greiner beat off the far-right within the Liberal Party while at the same time sticking it to a seemingly invincible Labor government. When Labor Premier Barrie Unsworth accused Greiner of being an apologist for Nazis, Greiner tore him a new one (not just because of his experience in the Liberal Party - Greiner had Jewish family members). The far right were weeded out of preselections and Greiner led the Liberals to a sizeable victory.
  • In the middle of the last decade, the Liberals fell into a slough of far-right despond - and again, a far-right response is always an expression of despair rather than hope. Barry O'Farrell beat off the far-right within the Liberal Party while at the same time sticking it to a seemingly invincible Labor government. When successive Labor Premiers accused O'Farrell of being an apologist for David Clarke et al, again it was out of hope rather than a sober assessment of the state of the Liberal Party. The far right were almost-but-not-quite weeded out of preselections and O'Farrell led the Liberals to the biggest victory over Labor for a century.
It's best to avoid the cancer of the far-right ascendancy, but it's never best to ignore it when it reveals itself.

Paul Sheehan confuses change with progress:
The mood in the room was buoyant, but the guest of honour was subdued.
Quite so. It's like that point in Power Without Glory where John West looks around at the height of his power and realises that he's surrounded by idiots. Eric Abetz has achieved precisely nothing at a time when the wily manipulation of a minor vote could have seen the downfall of a major piece of legislation, a ministerial career, even the government itself. Cory Bernardi would be the truest of true believers left and will be phoning Minchin daily to receive riding orders. Apart from them there would only have been mouth-breathers like Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Mitch Fifield, empty vessels who would be tailored to fit with whoever was their party's leader.
Minchin, by not deviating from his core beliefs despite enormous pressure to do so, had orchestrated the dramatic events that led to the end of Turnbull as Liberal leader and the shocking emergence of Tony Abbott as his replacement.
Yep - as long as Old Nick stays true to himself, bugger everyone else. The "events" Minchin orchestrated make a mockery of his claims of "treachery" about the party's Vice Presidents. Old Nick knows treachery when he sees it all right, but he squeals like a stuck pig when it's used against him.
[Minchin] also left Liberal Party politics behind, and he did so without a backward glance.
This is a lie. Minchin has nothing better to do - including care for his family - than become embroiled with who's doing what to whom within the Liberal Party.

As for Sheehan, he was the very sort of mindless drone of a reporter who would have been punted three rounds of Fairfax downsizings ago until he discovered his calling as chronicler of the far right. When what Gerard Henderson calls the "lunar right" overreached (Hanson and her lunges for public funding for elections, the CEC in thrall to American kooks LaRouche, racists, gun losers and tobacco-funded smokers' rights outfits) did Sheehan come back to the furthest right that is sustainable in Australian politics: the right-whinge of the Liberal Party.

Sheehan must have missed Heffernan's heckling of Minchin, which would have made him even more subdued. He also missed the statement by Old Nick that it's time for factionalism to come out of the closet:
Minchin had wanted to say something more controversial in his speech but refrained because he feared it would have been used as ammunition in the heated behind-the-scenes battle for the Liberal Party federal presidency, in which Minchin was intimately involved. He was the numbers man for Alan Stockdale, who on Saturday staved off a challenge by Peter Reith.
Fear is a big part of Old Nick's approach to politics. Minchin's first speech has a few digs at Keating's pigs but otherwise spends all its time bagging Hewson for sticking his neck out over actual policies like tax reform. Nick Minchin was not some lion of conservatism, he was frightened and clueless:
  • For factional reasons, Minchin directed the Liberals to run dead in South Australia in the 1990 and 1993 federal elections.
  • SA Libs only won the state election in 1992 because Labor had absolutely collapsed: Howard hated Liberal state governments because they directed attention and resources away from him. Minchin engineered the Rudd-like removal of a popular first-term Premier and replaced him with a muppet who duly lost office.
  • The last refuge of the weak and clueless politician is to call for bipartisanship, as Minchin did over tax reform: Howard brought about the GST in the face of Labor's most committed opposition and over the dead body of the Democrats.
  • Minchin's most substantial reform was to privatise Telstra exactly as Labor wanted, leaving it as a bloated monopoly with all the arrogance of a large corporation and all the complacency of a bureaucratic monopolist.
  • Minchin was too scared to tell Howard it was time for him to go in 2006.
  • Minchin was too scared to tell Howard WorkChoices was a bad idea (Peter Reith wasn't in Parliament then).
  • Minchin could not, for all his factional manoeuvering, get the Liberal Party to state openly that it goes in for all that Ayn Rand crap that environmentalism is just a front for socialism; that you can be in favour of capitalism and consume its products, or you can have a concern for the environment, but not both.
  • What he did succeed in doing, however, was getting muppets like Mitch Fifield and Tony Smith to quit the frontbench to undermine Turnbull's negotiations for an emissions trading scheme. He succeeded in making like miserable for Senators with more guts than he ever had (e.g. Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth).
  • When Tony Abbott knew that he would be asked questions about industrial relations in last year's elections, Minchin told him to faff, and he did. The Liberal campaign stalled and doubts about Abbott calcified, leading not to a victory but the kind of non-result that frustrates the hell out of Liberals and simply confuses the cattle in the press gallery.
  • When Abbott wanted to be flexible in negotiating with independents, Minchin held him back. He remains convinced that independent MHRs can be won over in the way that Senators can be bullied and bamboozled, but the result has been that indepedents regard the very idea of supportng Abbott as like turkeys voting for Christmas.
How this timid man got a reputation for toughness is unclear. Coorey continues:
Otherwise, he would have used his valedictory speech to repeat a long-held view that the Liberal Party should follow Labor and formally adopt factions.

While the moderate and conservative wings of the Liberal Party are often referred to as factions, they are more like personality cults. Minchin, who has been the leading conservative for so many years, believes this to be cancerous because of the personal nature of disputes that erupt.

Formalised factional groupings would enable disputes to be based on ideology rather than personality.

"The Liberal Party should recognise that in an organisation like ours, there are going to be groupings of one sort or another," Minchin told this writer. "We should acknowledge the reality of essentially having a conservative wing and a moderate wing."

There has long been resistance in the Liberal Party to the concept because Liberal philosophy places a premium on individualism. But Minchin has allies, especially on the right.
Especially? Don't you mean exclusively?

Things have come a long way since I was a member. Back then it was the moderates who were well organised in NSW and SA, with enough sway in the other states to pull off the occasional win. The right-whinge denied there was any such thing as factions in the Liberal Party - Bronwyn Bishop denied it so often it became a punchline - they cursed the moderates because they were so damn effective at it, and denied they would ever stoop to it. Now, because the moderates have gone (quiet, or left the party altogether - same thing really) he can finally come out and admit to being the factional hack he always was.
Minchin acknowledges factions have a bad name because of the way they have been abused at times within the ALP, but overall they are a beneficial system for settling policy disputes, communicating backbench sentiment to the leader, and even easing pressure on the leader.
When moderate liberals stood up to Howard over refugees, nobody was more critical than Minchin. He didn't respect their opinions, even though they were very careful to keep it in-house (which Minchin never does when the boot's on the other foot).
"Our party has a problem because it was built around Menzies and it's terribly and unduly leader-oriented," he said. "Leaders do not like structures like this; they want all the authority ... [But] factions can be a check on their egos and abuse of power."
In the case of the right-whinge, factionalism is destructive only. It was a check on Turnbull and the ETS all right, and it has been a prophylactic to all substantial policy development in the Liberal Party since. Nothing has come from the right whinge, and nothing can. Even something so wonkishly non-political like alternatives to the NBN or significant investments in defence force hardware is berated by the right as going against the Legacy of Old Nick (such as it is).
''Howard saw everything I did through the prism of factionalism and every action and statement as the produce of my conservative factional base," Minchin said. ''My views were often discounted as a result.''

This frustrated Minchin because, he said, his advice to Howard was motivated always by what he thought was good politically for the government, rather than being factionally driven.

By having formalised factions, such misunderstanding would have been eliminated.
That is so stupid it does not make sense. Howard discounted Minchin because he was a factional hack and if factionalism were formalised, he wouldn't have been discounted? Stuff that. More likely, Minchin pooh-poohed every idea Howard ever had so that when Minchin blubbered that it was all too hard and wanted to slink back to Adelaide and do nothing with his life, Howard chose damn-the-torpedoes-and-full-steam-ahead.

It takes a complete ignorance of politics to classify Peter Reith as a moderate: I'm surprised he hasn't sued the lazier members of the press gallery who've described him thus. It is fair to say, however, that Reith was tough enough to take the rough-and-tumble of political debate and that he did not shut up when Minchin got all jittery about Controversy. Every time Reith opened his mouth you can imagine Minchin wringing his hands and fretting and taking soundings from his buddies in the ALP who told him what his attitude should be. The ructions of this week over the Liberal Presidency go way back: as a conservative leader, Minchin could handle a moribund pensioner like Alan Stockdale, but not the bumptious Reith.

The fact that Tony Abbott felt that he'd "better" vote for Stockdale and wave his vote around like some gutless Paul Howes acolyte shows that he's not the guy to rise above the factionalism that got him where he is. I'm trying to remember the last Opposition Leader who was in thrall to his own chief of staff and her husband. Showing your vote is the sort of thing that happens in nakedly factional organisations: as personal behaviour within the polite circles of the Liberal Party goes, it's about as indecent as dropping your pants. It shows why Minchin's factionalism dream just won't fly, and the idea of a closed inner-party will only repel prospective members. Even Niki Savva made the startling admission that Abbott can't make the transition from stuntman to statesman.

Eventually, the Liberal Party will grow deeply weary of opposition. They will start to come up with concrete alternative ideas to those being put by the Labor government, and will tire of the insistence of happy-little-Minchinites that no policy is good policy. They may even come up with ideas that appeal to those who have voted Liberal in the past and are open to doing so again; people who today are appalled at Tony Abbott and want him well away from the levers of government.
First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

- Mohandas K. Gandhi, who never voted Liberal in his life
Yeah, but first you've got to get something for which to fight. Then you have to learn how to fight.

Some good people will cop it in the neck during the dark times of the right-whinge ascendancy, but eventually there will be some Liberals will stand up and say enough. That battle is not yet joined, however. Turnbull lacks the organisational nous and the patience to hunt down Minchinites and root them out. Joe Hockey has both those qualities but too few others to win a drawn-out battle and drag the party to government. It won't even begin until the Liberals lose the next election (and I don't care what today's polls say, they will).


  1. "Turnbull lacks the organisational nous and the patience to hunt down Minchinites and root them out. Joe Hockey has both those qualities but too few others to win a drawn-out battle and drag the party to government."

    This truly surprised me. I have always thought that Joe Hockey was an immature, lazy boofhead. His tweet before the spill regarding what he should do about the CPRS, last week's effort regarding the K Rudd cut-out doll, and his general blowhard performances in parliament, are examples that tend to suggest that.

    I'd like to hear your thoughts on the qualities of Joe Hockey.



  2. Just had a read of the Savva you linked too, she's got a long way to go! A qualified statement that Abbott may never become a statesman but still believes he can become PM.

    And how will he do that?
    "Abbott announced his unconditional support for unconditional tax cuts....
    WOW! What vision. And from a Liberal at that.
    "The commitment skewers Labor's attacks... Labor has now shifted its arguments, as it would, to pressure the opposition to say how it will fund the tax cuts, and the opposition, as it must, will refuse to say until the election."

    Oh heaven help us. How short sighted. The bulk of the rest is just hilarity.

    Anyway, after catching Abbott's bit, about how they would tax cut just like back in the good old Howard days, on the telly, I made this http://thewetmale.tumblr.com/post/6889809038/. Thought you might appreciate it.

  3. Mick, I first met Joe Hockey 20 years ago. He's a smart guy (yes he is) and particularly good on financial/corporate governance stuff.

    He does need to stop all that "parliamentary theatre" crap - all of them do - and I agree fully about the KRudd cutout and the non-policy on the CPRS. Within his bounds he's very good, but people are right to be concerned in a broader role.

    He may grow into it, but he needs to do it soon. Getting dumped and having to do think pieces might be the making of him.

    Matthew: I thought he was going so well on QandA, bucketloads of gravitas, (dis)agreeing with Albanese when appropriate - but that stuff about cutting back and sacking public servants was stale and unimaginative. Mind you, anyone with ideas in today's Liberal Party looks "disloyal" or "treacherous"!

  4. Hi Andrew,

    You seem sure that Libs wont win the election. I hope you are right. Is this a gut feeling, or based on something else?



  5. Andrew: Thanks for taking the time to respond.



  6. Ben, not being at the head of some vast conspiracy to pervert the system of government in this country, I'd have to rule out 'something else'.

    Basically, people won't vote for parties controlled by shadowy offstage figures. Labor was unelectable in the 1950s because of perceptions that Communists and/or BA Santamaria were really in charge. The NSW Libs were also affected by such figures, as I said. Abbott looks like Minchin's tool after the Lib presidential vote.

    I've had a lot to say on this blog about how weak Abbott is, how he hasn't been that clever in winning over those who doubt him, and how he's blown his chance to sieze government. Peak Abbott is behind us, not ahead. The seemingly towering poll leads are very soft - a metaphor for Strutting Hamlet himself.

  7. Thanks, Andrew - this has helped explain a polictical mystery for me...

    At one stage, Minchin was Howard's right hand man, and then - it seemed quite suddenly - he faded back into the shadows.

    I always wondered why.

  8. Minchin is a party official. They read polls for a living, and are nervous nellies as a result.

    Keating knew how to use Richo but he never let him get in the way of the big picture. If Howard had backed down every time Minchin went wobbly, he'd never have done anything - he would have done nothing, then Minchin would have got rid of him because polling suggested he was a do-nothing. If only Rudd had stood up to Arbib in the same way.

  9. David Irving (no relation)30/6/11 11:26 am

    Has Minchin ever had a real job, Andrew? My earliest recollection of him is from the early 70s (I think - memory can play tricks after 40 years), and he was some sort of Lib apparatchik back then.

  10. Dope-smoking clown at ANU, less than a year in a small law firm, then onto the Liberal Party - Minchin has less private sector experience than Wen Jiabao.

  11. Andrew,
    Not sure I agree with you on Joe Hockey's QandA performance. Everytime someone, usually Albanese, nailed him on some issue, Joe's response was to scowl and shake his head. I couldn't help but think that looking angry and a head shake was a poor substitute for a well thought out, costed and practical policy. That is what the Libs are lacking. All slogans and negativity is we have been getting.
    Rgds, Don Quay.

  12. Don, couldn't agree more on the need for well considered and costed policy, disagree QandA is the forum for that.

  13. David Irving (no relation)1/7/11 1:02 pm

    "Minchin has less private sector experience than Wen Jiabao." That's devestating, Andrew! I'll never be able to see him froth about climate change being a commie plot to destroy capitalism without remembering that.

  14. Very interesting article. One minor complaint / query. Wasn't Nick Greiner a Liberal pollie in the 80s rather than the 70s?

  15. David, capitalism is more of an abstract construction for Minchin than it is for Wen.

    PB, Greiner entered NSW Parliament in 1981, but before he got there he had to beat off the Uglies who infested the Party in the late '70s.