24 June 2011

Two bald men fighting over a comb

If you ever wondered how the once-proud Liberal Party could be stampeded into dopey and ultimately self-destructive decisions, look no further than this.
In a letter to federal council delegates from his home state of South Australia, the party powerbroker [Nick Minchin] says: "I know from talking to Labor senators the ALP is salivating at the prospect of Peter Reith becoming federal president.

"It would help them enormously in their efforts to put industrial relations back at the top of the political agenda, and make sure the next election is a rerun of the anti-Work Choices campaign of 2007."
Minchin is not yet described as a "has-been", which is more the pity. The Liberal Party, with its liberal wing gutted and insecure as to what being a 'conservative' means in an age of rapid and far-reaching change, is easily stampeded by fatuous claims that Labor wants X so let's do Y.

When Kerry Chikarovski was manoeuvering to take over the leadership of the NSW Liberals in 1998, the most solid claim she had was the oft-repeated claim (by the sort of Liberals who look up to Nick Minchin) that Bob Carr was terrified of her. The Liberal MPs who stood up to Howard against mandatory detention of refugees, particularly children, were told by people like Minchin they were playing into Labor's hands. There are hundreds of examples of stupid decisions made by the Liberal Party in recent years, and each of them had their advocates insisting sotto voce that theirs is the option that would most discombobulate the ALP.

In 1998 Minchin had nothing like the clout he has now, but if he did he might have come out with something like this:
In a letter to federal council delegates from his home state of South Australia, the party powerbroker says: "I know from talking to Labor senators the ALP is salivating at the prospect of the GST becoming law.

"It would help them enormously in their efforts to put tax and everyday expenses back at the top of the political agenda, and make sure the next election is a rerun of the anti-GST campaign of 1993."
If it amazes you that politicians can make decisions with no firm basis in fact, consider that as the Liberal trump card. It can't be verified: no ALP politician who really believed that a certain course of action by the Liberals would be disastrous for their party would go public about it, and if they did they'd be foxing, extremely stupid, or from NSW. Minchin is on shaky ground when he stands up for Liberal principles (a man with an employment background like his, whose main achievement was to make Telstra a monolith insulated from government policy, technological change and consumer responsiveness cannot seriously claim to stand up for free enterprise). He does, however, spend more time with Labor politicians than is wise or healthy most of us do, so if he tells you that Labor politicians believe X you have no grounds on which to gainsay him - other than a history of dopey reactionary decisions that have worked to the Liberal Party's detriment.

As to Minchin's central claim, so what? Reith was gone from politics before WorkChoices was even put to parliament. The ALP's Federal President is Anna Bligh, who faces the prospect of losing her day job as Queensland Premier at the next election. If the Liberals had the courage of their convictions they might be 'salivating' at the prospect of going into an election where their opponents could only offer:
  • A relatively unpopular Federal leader and Federal President;
  • Unpopular proposed taxes on mining and carbon emissions, with statements on compensation widely distrusted;
  • A reputation for ineptitude and bastardry; and
  • Oh, what more could you want?
Under those circumstances you could exhume the dead body of Stanley Melbourne Bruce and nominate it as Federal President of the Liberal Party. The next best option to that in terms of effectiveness, however, is for Alan Stockdale to remain in the role. Stockdale is a burnt-out husk who has little to show for this century. He went hard as Kennett's Treasurer and made good decisions as well as bad ones. Leftists who shook their fists at Stockdale as he closed schools and killed pet projects would've said things like "I hope you enjoy cushy rewards from the corporate sector for all this!", but, well, he hasn't. He has hardly set the world on fire since leaving parliament - you'd expect him to have the sort of directorship profile that, say, Nick Greiner has, or else to be enjoying his retirement playing golf or gambolling with his grandchildren. His only achievement in recent years has been to undergo the sort of complicated personal life that would have killed one's reputation in conservative circles in another age.

Stockdale has done pretty much bugger-all as the Liberals' Federal President, proven by an endorsement from Kevin Andrews. With the polls the way they are and some of the decisions taken by the federal government, you'd expect that the Liberal Party would be awash with cash from the mining industry, and Minchin's grateful friends at Telstra. You would expect that the best and the brightest people would flock to the party, boosting not only numbers but also improving policy input, enlivening preselection contests and making for a quality offering of candidates at the coming election. There is no proof that Reith can provide that either.

No corporate leader would survive a situation where all of his direct reports were calling for him to stand down: such a person's position would be absolutely untenable. The idea of riding in with sabre drawn in defence of such an obvious dud and gibbering about "treachery" is desperate stuff. It's interesting, though, that none of those Vice Presidents are stepping up and that someone is being parachuted in from exile.

That said, it's hard to agree with Amanda Vanstone's pitch that a Reith Presidency is a ticket to the sunlit uplands for the Liberals. Reith, like Vanstone, is a throwback to the Howard days and endorses the idea that what Australia needs is a Howard Restoration, rather than a rethink from the ground up. Reith is no more a grassroots Liberal than Stockdale, or Vanstone for that matter.

Both Reith and Stockdale come from the wrong state. The Liberal Party has overindulged Victoria for the sake of nostalgia. Melbourne hasn't been the country's business and legal capital for three decades, and in terms of business clout in politics the biggest corporates based in Melbourne have a global perspective and are run by foreigners, precluding much involvement in local politics. Ted Baillieu owes about the same credit for his success last November and any successes since to either man. Gillard's mockery of the Melbourne Club verged on cruel in its enfeebled state. Victoria's dominance within the Liberal Party is not only gone but its very presence in federal politics is less significant than that of Queensland. The fact that the Liberal Party can't inspire candidates from beyond the less windy parts of the country represents a failure of leadership in those parts of the country where Liberals have a real chance of actually beating Labor.

Vanstone does a good line in shaking the Liberal Party by the lapels and making the case that the status quo is unsustainable (well, without the necessary examination of the incumbent's failures), but she treats Reith as a blank canvas onto which any hopes can be projected. The last Liberal politician to have an image like that was Andrew Peacock.
Australian politics has a nasty side that is not so prevalent in other countries. It is an ugly but common political tactic when some don't like a policy, to attack the proponent. The so-called "Howard Haters" were masters at this.
The GillardHaters™ are their successors. Imagine you could ask the ministers in the government anything at all, and the best you can do is refer to The Lodge as "Boganville". The incumbent Liberal Shadow Treasurer (successor to Reith) tooling around Canberra last night with a cardboard cut-out of the Foreign Minister was playing the man and not the ball, and in turn it is impossible to refute claims that he is a fool or to insist that the policy debate must rise to some higher plain. It does not make for an interventionist Federal President to call the Shadow Treasurer and urge him in the strongest terms not to do anything like that ever again. Who will do that?

From time to time both major parties come out with a lot of cant about public service. Service involves putting the interests of others above your own. The paradox of political parties is that they must appeal to their own base supporters while at the same time  appealing to a broader but less engaged constituency, in the name of hard-to-define notions such as 'the national interest'. Thanks to people like Minchin, the Liberal Party appeals to its base and to hell with everyone else - this works in the US but not in Australia, where compulsory voting means slaughter and irrelevance for parties that appeal only to their base (or, in the case of NSW Labor, not even to that). This makes for a membership that is too old to staff a booth on election day, or who would rather ride around in a publicly-funded car on such days, rather than engage with communities where they live - and have that engagement go both ways, putting local concerns to the party's decision-making forums and putting party platforms to local communities.

Minchin was too spineless to stand up to Howard and say that WorkChoices was a poor idea. He lacked the vision and capacity to offer alternatives (having made Telstra what it is today, he wouldn't know a good idea from a bad one). Even today, Minchin can neither disown nor embrace WorkChoices. Minchin killed off policy debates by claiming that whatever he didn't like played into Labor's hands, owing to his supernatural power to divine the will and soul of the ALP (an ability lacking in, say, Sam Dastyari or Kevin Rudd). It was Minchin who left Abbott bereft when the media started Abbott questions about industrial relations policy at the last election, robbing the Liberals of election-winning momentum rather than the crock of excuses that console them today. You'd think he'd just slink back to Adelaide and leave others to clean up his mess, but it would seem he'd rather fight to create more mess.
Q: How does Nick Minchin take his coffee?

A: Ask Labor Senators how they think Minchin should take his coffee, then do the opposite and give him that.
People like Minchin have to preserve Stockdale in aspic because otherwise they will become the has-beens that people like me would wish them to be. If it's more important for people like Minchin to control the Liberal Party than it is for it to be the sort of organisation that might win elections, then Stockdale will win.

This isn't to say that Reith will turn the Liberal Party into a lean-mean-fighting-machine or the sort of place where members are valued and ideas welcomed, striking out for a post-Howard future. The Liberal Party isn't looking for a post-Howard future, and if it were it wouldn't turn its lonely eyes to Peter Reith.

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