22 August 2011

The subtle art of Dobell

The Liberals' targeting of Craig Thomson is more likely to ensure that he and the Labor government survives than falls, they are sprinting in a marathon across terrain they barely understand. I would not bet against Labor winning Dobell at the next election: their chances are better than the Liberals', polls be damned.

Dobell covers part of the Central Coast, north of Sydney. It is not part of Sydney suburbia and nor is it part of the Newcastle-Hunter region; neither the townships of Wyong or Gosford, nor the spread-out shopping malls at Tuggerah and Erina, can claim to be true centres of a region that can feel hard for visitors to come to grips with.

Yes, Dobell was held by the ALP under Hawke-Keating and by the Liberals under Howard, and since 2007 it's held by Labor again. This encourages people remote from the area to think it is some sort of pushover for a standard marketing campaign, and that it can be taken for granted. Some of those people are in the Liberal Party, and some more are journalists too enthralled by politics to not know hubris when they see it.

The stand-out Liberal candidate for Dobell would be Michael Gallacher. He's got support from the branches and among the party's executive. Had the Liberals managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the last state election, or had O'Farrell denied him the post he has worked toward for a quarter-century at least, Gallacher would be endorsed and campaigning in Dobell every day.

The next best candidate would be Doug Eaton. Eaton is a former mayor, a businessman and a Christian, but the Libs have rubbed him up the wrong way and aren't big enough to sort something out. A compliant Eaton on the ground campaigning in Dobell would see the Libs assured of winning that seat whenever the (by-)election is held.

For the kind of Liberals who fancy themselves as hard-headed political operatives, their preferred candidate would be Ken Ticehurst. Ticehurst is a proven winner, having won the seat in 2001 (would Mark Latham have become Labor leader had Michael Lee retained his seat? Discuss) and 2004. Ticehurst has a reputation as a nice man, which is handy in marginal-seat politics but far from essential in the wider scheme of things.

Ticehurst lost to Thomson in 2007 and made a mistake in lining up for another go in 2010. Ticehurst looked like the risk-averse choice that he was: he's in his mid-sixties and had made little impact over his six years in Canberra: he is not a rock upon which you build your party's future.

The Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party is convinced that the 2007 election was some sort of accounting error. For Ticehurst to run again after having been defeated is not the sign of some indomitable political will, as was the case with Patterson's Bob Baldwin or even Howard himself. It looked like a guy having another go at a cushy job in which he'd already had a good go, and from which he had been regretfully, politely but firmly evicted. The same problem applies to these people. With Ticehurst 2010, the Liberals asked "are you sure?", to which Dobell answered, again emphatically: yes.

In 2013 Ticehurst will be 68. This good man should not be put into a position where his local community rejects him thrice again. The area has a strong community of older people (what community in today's Australia doesn't?), but Coasties know that a man who is still working at 68 rather than enjoying the local lifestyle in retirement has botched it. You can be sure the so-called hardheads will blame Ticehurst for his failure and not themselves.

The other prominent Liberals in the area are State MPs for Wyong and The Entrance. Either would be insane to bring on a state byelection in pursuit of a Federal seat that is hardly in the bag, and anyway not so safe as to support longterm political careers.

That leaves a Liberal candidate who would be a chancer from the local area or someone to be parachuted in. In other words, a Liberal candidate for Dobell would be in the same position as anyone the ALP would choose.

The ALP would be mad to recycle (disinter?) the former MPs for Wyong or The Entrance. The last thing Federal Labor needs is any sort of connection with the former NSW state government. When a party loses office there is a process of sorting out what's worth keeping from what isn't, but the choice of John Robertson as NSW Opposition Leader means the party cannot begin that process without his position becoming part of the sorting-out. For the moment, assume that everything about NSW Labor is crap and keep them well away from Dobell.

Besides, it was Bitar and Arbib who are to blame for Thomson in the first place. It will be a sign of Labor's growing maturity that there is no coincidence between what those guys might want and what actually happens.

Let's take it for granted that Thomson is finished. In state politics Labor showed their talent for portraying dead bodies twisting in the wind as active and lifelike. The argument that he's done nothing illegal with his union credit card is feeble: when persuading hospital workers to part with their hard-earned and spruiking the benefits of union membership, HSU organisers raise issues other than the simple truth-in-advertising that your dues will help our boss get his rocks off. Labor owes Thomson nothing and he offers them less than nothing.

Thomson could try and charm his way out of it by cultivating an image as some sort of Casanova, but his grey persona can't go there. Being a root-rat didn't work for Ross Cameron or Bob Ellis, and is further proof against the idea that any publicity is good publicity for a politician. A guy who signs off questionable credit card receipts offers little to Labor candidates as a fundraiser and nobody will pay to hear him speak.

No amount of dull, worthy committee work will save Thomson. If you want to spend your days grinding out dull, worthy public service work, why not join the public service? Same pay or better than a political staffer but much less hours and angst, and away from the office you can shag yourself silly.

The best possible representative for Dobell would be an unpretentious person, probably not university educated but someone with enough ability to muster people and money and able to relate to both kinds of Coast residents: those who work on the Coast and commuters to Sydney. There are plenty of people like that in Dobell; the problem is not with the people but the parties.

The major parties are so small a proportion of the local community that they wouldn't know where to start in looking for such a person. The other issue is that the major parties are full of people with whom unpretentious, unaffected people would not wish to associate, let alone work closely with, and this especially includes The Situation.

If you think it is some sort of statistical oddity that the high poll ratings for the Liberals contrasts with the lukewarm respect for The Situation as their leader, go to Dobell. The Situation does not have the same ease that Howard had, or that Gillard has, in dealing with working people one-on-one or in small groups.

Dobell's major employers are in retail and warehousing/distribution: watch The Situation blame the carbon tax for the peril facing the former industry in particular. Dobell has very high unemployment: watch The Situation fake sympathy for unemployed and hardly-employable people. Dobell has commuters who get up early to get to Sydney: watch The Situation dodge direct questions about improving the rail service and fail to realise people have switched off.

The disability and injury scheme would be a huge issue in Dobell: watch the media act all surprised, watch the Liberals fail to deal with the sheer depth and breadth of it.

Watch The Situation waddle around and try to both protect the jobs of power station workers while at the same time decrying the smoke chuntering from those same stations, as said workers battle harder and harder to maintain ageing infrastructure and keep the lights on. Coal-fired power is both the only game in town and absolutely unsustainable: people know both these things and are looking for political leadership to guide them away from that logical loop. Neither The Situation nor Gillard offer that.

Gillard would impress people with her guts and determination if only she would lose her cool just once. Just once, in a speech at the Mingara Club railing against injustice, just once in telling some Alan Jones bobblehead to get stuffed. There is nothing wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve. It is unfair to say that Coasties want someone who goes right off, but it is accurate to say they (well, enough to form a majority of votes anyway) will forgive such a person ahead of the person who is always smooth and talks in soundbites.

To the north of Dobell is the electorate of Charlton, held by former power station engineer Greg Combet. The whole idea that the carbon tax is the Liberals' rails run to office assumes that Combet won't fire up and push the issue at the core of his portfolio. The confidence Liberals have about the carbon tax as an issue that helps them reminds me a lot of the confidence they/we had in Fightback! in 1993. Never mind Gillard or The Situation, I want to see Combet confronted by local people shrieking about the carbon tax and gently talking them around.

The guy who ran against Thomson for Labor preselection two years ago must look like some sort of seer now, but it is in the nature of NSW Labor that such a person must be punished not rewarded. What they need is a candidate like Deb O'Neill, who won the neighbouring seat of Robertson.

O'Neill knocked off the mad, bad creature of the NSW Labor Right, Belinda Neal. In itself, this was not enough as the Liberals had a candidate and a campaign that was more than credible and a national swing behind them. However much the wide boys of Sussex Street might yearn to claim credit, it was O'Neill who won Robertson fair and square in her own right. As a capable politician, O'Neill has the potential that Thomson was assumed to have.

Smarter Liberals in the area have learned to be wary of those who assume O'Neill is some inevitable casualty of a Liberal swing. Bob Carr built a long career upon lazy Liberals underestimating him; O'Neill and the next Labor candidate for Dobell could well enjoy similar fortune.

The last place to turn to get an understanding of Dobell and what the (by-)election there might mean is the mainstream media. Watch the journalists who think following a politician around is the essence of their 'profession', elbowing aside people in shopping centres and giving local voters the shits. Political journalists have no idea about how issues work in the community: half-baked interpolations of polls and focus group data obscures understanding rather than improving it. They can't give you information that they don't look for and can't understand.

The Liberals will not trust any candidate, no matter how good, to campaign as their own person and run the risk of winning in their own right. The Liberal candidate for Dobell will have to be an accessory for The Situation, laughing at his jokes and furiously agreeing that traffic problems in Berkeley Vale really are caused by lax border protection. Even somebody of good standing in the community will be assumed - rightly - to have been turned into some sort of robot by the grasping crew surrounding The Situation.

For the Liberal Candidate for Dobell, a five-minute grab for national television with The Situation will be followed by days and days of campaigning to assure people that they won't go off to Canberra and get sucked in to the bullshit machine rather than represent the community.

Given the weakness of The Situation against the far right, it is entirely possible that the Liberals will preselect some proselytising idiot from a shed-church who rails against Long Jetty Skirts, Unwed Mothers or other such Sinners who abound in Dobell. The resulting backlash would be the apogee but not the vindication of the grievance politics embodied in The Situation, even as it caused Dobell voters to recoil from a self-righteous dickhead.

A Labor candidate will have to stand on their own two feet given the unpopularity of the government. The same people who took NSW Labor from power to oblivion are still running the party: their capacity to choose some voter-repellent arseclown need not be underestimated. The fact that they regard "polls be damned" as a heresy or a sign of lack of seriousness is a big part of the problem.

Even so, there is still a chance that Labor might choose a Deb O'Neill or a Greg Combet and let them run their own race, using national figures as support rather than as calipers. There is no chance the Liberals will do this: any candidate, with or without experience, will have the life sucked out of them by The Situation and his support crew.

The Liberals will probably not win Dobell without Labor's help. Dobell is theirs to lose, and the hunt for a "proven winner" shows they are more risk-averse than Labor and makes a Liberal loss more likely. As goes Dobell so go the chances of The Situation becoming Prime Minister.


  1. A subtle piece on the subtle art Andrew, thank you. I was never going to get something like that from the gallery in Canberra.

  2. Andrew,

    A correction if I may. Ticehurst did not run again in 2010. John McNamara ran for the Liberals in 2010, a Wyong councillor.


  3. I think you've given yourself away a Coastie with this blog. Utterly spot on.

  4. Whoops looks like local members are wanting to support David Mehan (see Crikey) Who ran in the state election, where the Labor name was poison, under the slogan "True Labor Values" I'm guessing the Libs will need to fuck it up royally to lose.

  5. Thank you all - Ben, this piece will be edited accordingly.

  6. I've got no idea whether Thomson has done something wrong or not. But lets assume the police do investigate Thomson and they do charge him (after getting advice from the DPP) and he pleads not guilty and the matter goes to trial, it's highly unlikely that the trial would be held any time in the next 18 months - and meanwhile Thomson would be fully entitled to continue sitting in Parliament thumbing his nose at George Brandis. So what is the big kerfuffle about?

  7. Kind of surprising to read real political analysis about my general area that doesn't involve a five second grab of 'Iguanagate'. Thanks again for a very good post.

  8. Lachlan Ridge24/8/11 7:06 pm

    If, and that's a massive if, Thomson is evicted from Dobell prior to the next Federal election then the Gillard government has the perfect campaign tool (and I use the word deliberately) in the O'Farrell government. ABS reports that Dobell has a higher than state average of public sector employees and the O'Farrell government is embarking on...oh dear. That'll do wonders for the Liberal 'brand'.

    A friend who is in the Ourimbah-Narara branch of the ALP concurs that Thomson is toast regardless come the next general election, but states convincingly that Mehan will be endorsed unopposed. They have no one else to N40.

    He notes, too, that the entire electorate has 100 financial members of the ALP, most north of 65. That's pause for thought for the ALP in terms of campaigning on the ground in a general election. Another shining example of the success of the Richardson tradition. These guys are professionals.

    As an ex-coastie I can only marvel at the subtle genius of your analysis Andrew. Dobell is exactly the sort of seat that the genii from Phillip Street are likely to screw up by screaming at their base around Terrigal while forgetting the swinging voters in the new commuter estates around Wyong.

  9. Lachlan Ridge26/8/11 4:49 pm

    Oh, and just prior to 2001 Lee didn't even have the numbers in his own ALP Rights sub-faction, let alone in the wider caucus. Lee's enemies were too close to home for him to ever be considered a leader. He was also a considered Beazley toadi...err...supporter, so wouldn't have run against that bellowing self-entitled galoot. Speak to Lee's mate Jack Robertson if you doubt me. This is also canvassed in the Latham Diaries, although that could be seen as a biased source.

  10. first time here.(sandgroper)

    many thanks for a report on your local situation.

    any chance of finding something like this in/on/from "our diligent,accurate and timely"
    information industry?

    erm no.

  11. What? Nothing about how Rudd and Gillard have absolutely srewed the nation? Greg Combet can't push the carbon tax. He doesn't believe in AGW. He has just brought a seaside house. Dobell may not be a long term Liberal seat (it will probably always be a marginal), but what with the government has stuffed up and the local member allegedly being a thief, you really think that Labor has any hance of retaining this seat? In the immortal words from "The Castle", Tell him he's dreaming

  12. Anon,
    labor are in chaos now - leadership speculation - what next. I live in Dobell and the libs have a great female candidate. Libs will win Dobell and may go close to winning 100 seats on 14Sep14. Bring it on