19 September 2011

Big and soft

The polling lead that the Coalition has over Labor is big, but it's soft. Amanda Vanstone is right when she points out that Abbott needs help in getting the Coalition into government. She is, however, so wrong in the assumptions she makes that it pretty much invalidates her message.

Let's look at some of the people she names. They all work hard but have achieved very little, which means that each of them needs a long hard look at the way they do (and the Coalition does) things:

Arthur Sinodinos was the guy who made sure that Howard's policy pronouncements made sense. He entered Howard's office in 1995 and played an important role - more important than Howard's press secretary at the time - in ensuring that what Howard said was a coherent criticism of the then Labor government and offered an equally coherent and appealing alternative.

Tony Abbott didn't get where he is today by being coherent. He doesn't respect policy costings and cost-benefit analyses, or even the long and painstaking work that others must do in order to make thought bubbles real. Peter Costello's book details numerous occasions where Abbott would come up with expensive policy proposals that weren't well thought out, which he would take responsibility for preventing; no doubt Sinodinos has done similar work to that end. Have the NSW Libs put Sinodinos in to reinforce what they know to be a structural weakness in Abbott?

The Liberal Party loves Arthur Sinodinos, but he doesn't necessarily love it back. This is the guy who spent his time dampening the enthusiasm of those who felt they'd been elected to do stuff. He spent very little time as a party member and his first run for elected office was unopposed elevation to State President. Even people who loathed John Howard couldn't deny that he'd paid his dues in politics; a lesser case can be made for Abbott but no such case can be made for Sinodinos. This isn't to say that his real and extensive policy experience isn't important - it is very much so - but Abbott will be tempted to discount it against the practical business of winning elections. In recent public appearances (and how can we judge The Situation except by public appearances?) that temptation has become overwhelming for Abbott.

Sinodinos will have to play a naysaying role with Abbott, without the authority of Howard to back him up. Sinodinos put up with a great deal of bullshit in Howard's office, and when the sheer weight of bullshit ceased to be the ballast of the Howard government and started causing it to sink in 2007, Sinodinos bailed out. It will be fascinating to see how (or if) Sinodinos gets Abbott to take policy seriously.

Joe Hockey will appreciate Sinodinos' help in getting some policy work done, but Abbott didn't get where he is by listening to Joe Hockey.

Barnaby Joyce is a gibberer like Abbott. He attacks Labor good and hard but because his attacks have no substance, or are misguided, it doesn't have the impact his fans might hope and makes a struggling government look authoritative. Joyce reinforces the idea that the Coalition aren't ready for government. Abbott didn't get where he is by listening to Barnaby Joyce.

Scott Morrison proves that the Coalition aren't ready for government. Their 'solution' was voted out of office four years ago and was kyboshed by the High Court. No amount of insistence to the contrary will or can change that, and simply insisting that any departure from the policy developed in haste in 2001 is "bad" only patronises people doing real work (and looking for real leadership) in that area. Morrison isn't doing what is necessary to think about immigration policy, all of the votes that are going to be attracted with his stance are there already, now he has to act like a minister. That's asking too much.

Christopher Pyne is annoying except to Canberra insiders and says exactly nothing on his shadow ministry, education, a policy area ripe for re-examination across a number of fronts. Always be wary of a man who constantly has to prove how tough he is; that goes for Pyne too.

Malcolm Turnbull is selling a silly policy (a hotch-potch of technologies that will deliver less than what the NBN promises) and hasn't really thought about what this country needs from its telecommunications systems; an extraordinary position for someone who should be without peer in both breadth of conception and depth of understanding of communications issues, given his work with Packer, UK intelligence interceptions and Ozemail. Abbott didn't get where he is by listening to Malcolm Turnbull.

About George Brandis, the less said the better, Neither a champion of our jealously-won rights and freedoms under the Anglo-Australian legal tradition, nor a skilful prosecutor. Abbott didn't get where he is by listening to George Brandis, and nobody else did either.

Nobody knows more about environmental policy than Greg Hunt, but so what? He's been given a silly policy to sell and until he rethinks it Greg Combet and Tony Burke will continue writing him off.

To be fair to Hunt, he probably can't change Coalition policy in this area. Being equally fair, he should resign and work to show what sensible policy looks like from the backbench, until the Liberal Party wakes up to itself. Because the whole direction of Liberal thinking on the environment needs fundamental re-examination any work Hunt does in flogging the impossible is wasted. Vanstone's implication that Hunt isn't working hard enough is misplaced, and besides Tony Abbott, etc., etc., Greg Hunt.

Let's include Andrew Robb, even though Vanstone doesn't. Robb's inland irrigation policy might have been considered visionary if only it had been announced in, say, 1946. The idea of spending billions on a dam to service a handful of already prosperous landholdings over infrastructure badly needed by millions is stupid. It makes nonsense of notions of fiscal responsibility.
If Labor changes leader, things will change. Frankly, voters seem to be over the Tony and Julia show, so who can say where their relief at her departure would go in the polling?
By 1995 the Howard and Keating Show had gotten very bloody tedious.

Of the two major-party leaders today, Gillard is the only one with the capacity to change. The Situation is not a politician of great subtlety and both his strengths and his weaknesses are locked in by sky-high polls. If Gillard outflanks Abbott with onshore processing he is pretty much stuffed, and the hard rain of electoral defeat will fall equally upon those in the Coalition who have "worked hard" and those who have not.
For Coalition MPs to have the best chance of winning, they need to ... have confidence that the opposition will do better than the incumbents. Right now, voters see a lot of Abbott and a few key players. How can they judge the rest of the team if they never hear from or about them?
This argument is sheer bullshit. Since I started following politics in the 1980s I can't remember a single change of government, anywhere on state or federal level in Australia, where the opposition was better known across all or even most portfolios than the incumbents. This includes the change of government with which Vanstone will be most familiar, the Coalition's federal election victory in 1996.

Part of the work that the Coalition need to do is work out:
  • Why the people rejected them in 2007;
  • Why the people didn't elect them in 2010 (yeah, they did well - but the last thing Coalition supporters would want is another "did well" next time); and
  • Whether a win in 2013 simply means turning the clock back to 2007 and continuing on as before.
Hard work that, and necessary. Nobody in the Coalition - not Abbott, not Sinodinos or Hockey or anyone else - is doing it.
From the outside it is not obvious that everyone on the Coalition team is working anywhere near as hard as Abbott and a few others. That's why the arrival of Sinodinis [sic] is an absolute gift for Abbott. It creates the need for a reshuffle. Perhaps over the Christmas break.

Reshuffle talk is always unsettling.
And demotivating, Amanda. You can't insist that somebody pours their heart and soul into a job that will be taken from them in three months. You experienced this in Howard's first period as Opposition Leader, where he regularly reshuffled his frontbench out of sheer boredom and ended up getting reshuffled out of the job himself.

Reshuffling isn't the answer to what the Liberal Party needs right now. It needs to rethink how it goes about the day-to-day business of politics and drop those things that piss people off - including the much-derided independents. You cannot claim that Abbott is the depth of Craig Thomson's credit card away from becoming PM when Windsor and Oakeshott can't abide the guy. If you really think the current government is inadequate you need to think about how it might be better, not just revert back to 2006 and start again.
Julia Gillard's problems go beyond all the policy disasters. Abbott faces a Labor leader, the parliamentary leader of the union movement, who apparently cannot stand up and tell the workers of Australia that she will defend their right to have their union dues spent on union business. She apparently has no great interest in union dues from low-paid workers being used to fund prostitutes and heaven-knows-what-else for union bosses.
Fair point. I would be surprised if the SDA, for all its failings, would have similar patterns of expenditure. Doesn't really explain why Abbott pleads with Liberals to stop speaking about workplace relations issues though. If this issue was such a winner issue Abbott would be calling for all unions to be audited within an inch of their increasingly feeble lives. Perhaps he's just being lazy. Perhaps he just isn't as smart as Amanda Vanstone.
More of the heavy lifting on attack work will need to be done by his team. Again he will need capable fighters. Frankly, not enough of them have shown they have the capacity or energy to lay a glove on Labor.
But how can that be? They're all so tough: just ask them. Just ask any member of the press gallery.

Look at the final term of governments that have lost office and you'll see a steady departure of ministers. Some of them rush the exits, some are carried out feet first; but there's enough of a pattern there to show evidence of decay. The reason why the Coalition hasn't laid a glove on Labor is less the frontbench than the leadership. They really think that going on and on about how incompetent Swan is will take the focus off low unemployment. They really think that berating Glenn Stevens with inanities matters more than reconsidering what it means to manage the Australian economy today and into the foreseeable future (and testing Stevens' effectiveness in dealing with that).

You can work as hard as you like on finding out some detailed, hard-to-understand aspect of policy that will bring down a minister - but if there's an orchestrated campaign in getting kicked out of Question Time in order to get early flights home, why bother?
Anyone in the Coalition who thinks they can just work hard when government arrives is dreaming. It's a bit like refusing to start serious training until you're sure you're in the grand final.
That's absolutely true.

What's equally true is: that's hubris for ya. The Coalition so believe that they have the coming election in the bag that anything looking like hard work just smacks of desperation.

It's a political cliche that both government and opposition will claim to be underdogs in order to attract public sympathy. When you look at the Coalition today, however, you can see why they do it. Howard always claimed to be the underdog because his comfort in office was tempered by years of experience of bitter defeat. It would be a joke for Abbott to claim to be the underdog. Gillard has been beaten so hard and so often it is a wonder that she gets out of bed every morning. Everything Abbott says and does conveys the idea that he is in no way an underdog. It also conveys the idea of pride going before a fall.

Abbott leers at the world which, on the pollsters' paper at least, lets him get away with anything. He has been confirmed for so long in the idea that whatever he dishes up is good enough for the likes of you. No amount of lecturing from Vanstone, or anyone else really, can turn that around. Abbott's leadership is not a given and Vanstone should stop pretending that it is.

When the leader is such a clown (and this is not compensated for by the leadership group, including people like Pyne, Abetz and Julie Bishop) then no amount of busywork by the troops can compensate, let alone add to the attack. The idea that the Coalition might make a case for governing us better than Labor does would be nice, but either Vanstone doesn't care about that or she thinks it's too much to ask of today's Coalition.


  1. Hillbilly Skeleton20/9/11 9:33 am

    You just have to examine with a magnifying glass things like the Press Conference held yesterday by Abbott, Morrison and Brandis, wherein they were obviously trying on their new persona of 'We are the government,actually' to see how transparently paper-thin it was. All style, no substance.
    First you had Abbott assuming his best confected Prime Minster mien, Brandis trying his hardest to sound perceptive and learned about the government's Asylum Seeker Amendments and the Opposition's absolutely-unchanged position dressed up in new clothes, but ending up sounding and looking like a pompous git; finally, they let smug Scott Morrison off the leash to prove, once and for all, how politically inept the Opposition's top attack dog actually is. Seeing as how he continues to suspend the reality of the illegality of the Opposition's own incredibly inadequate policy on Asylum Seeker's Offshore processing, aka the Nauru+TPV+Sink,er Stop the Boats Solution.
    I was horrified to hear Abbott openly canvass the fact that he would authorise the Navy to clandestinely, under the cover of darkness, tow Asylum Seeker boats back out to sea in order to try and deposit them again in Indonesian waters. Which the Indonesian Navy will not allow, of course, and which country, Indonesia, is also not a signatory to the same convention that he is Rabbitting on about the government not respecting by signing an MOU with Malaysia.
    Which just goes to the heart of the 'Inconsistencies Ahoy!' approach of the Opposition, wherein they hope that their fancy footwork will not see them slip up on the banana peels of their own logical inconsistencies.
    Talk about not ready for government alright. They aren't even ready to hold a Press Conference together as a simulacrum of a viable alternative government. All they ever do is perform their set pieces to camera, then only ever take questions from the Gallery for 10 minutes at the most. Also, if the questions they do take are even the slightest bit inquisitorial and attempting to point up their inconsistencies and failure of any internal logic to their stated position, well then they just avoid answering it altogether and turn it simply into another opportunity to kick against the pricks as they see them in government.
    They are the men and women of pathetically small political stature in other words, having all read Sun Tzu and gone to their Conservative Brainwashing, er, Training Schools in the USA, but not understood that to actually be successful in politics and to win the only poll that counts, you have to be more than a mile wide and an inch deep.

  2. Lachlan Ridge20/9/11 8:05 pm

    It's worth noting that Sinodinos came onto Howards staff to bolster the lacklustre work of Tony O'Drear...err...Leary who, quelle suprise, has popped up on Abbotts team.

    Quelle surprise (or horreur) because this fits neatly into your narrative Andrew that the whole syncopation of the conservatives is to hanker for a re-run of the Howard years. And what better way than to celbrate by pushing on with the ministerial; staffers that led to the 2007 debacle.

    Also, Gillards wonderful snookering of Abbott and flushing out his gamesmanship could have been written by you in some politicasl fan-fiction as it all unfolded today and Abbott is left looking like the bloke who ran over the kids dog on this issue, while the ALP luvvies will get onshore processing by default! And if the member for Lindsay gets bailed up on this he has the perfect out of pointing at Abbott.

    Also, the cement they've been drinking on pairs is looking decidedly silly once the disengaged people I deal with 'get it'. It's unAustralian to not let people have a sickie.

    In all of my trawls through the pitiful MSM I didn't see one commentator who has spotted this trend, but there are a few bloggers who have, and that's where I am going to for enlightemnt (and information on schools funding policy!) from here on in.

  3. So why is it Liberal staffers and backroom boys - Sinodinos, Minchin - fast-tracked to Senate positions are not described as faceless men?

  4. Mitchell Observer21/9/11 6:48 pm

    "..Gillard's wonderful snookering of Abbott..."

    I read this piece by Elder, with utter disbelief, but knew, when I saw the comment I've quoted above, from the 'Comments posted' that everyone posting here is smoking something.
    Abbott has been the most effective Opposition leader seen for several decades, primarily because his political instincts are so well honed, and his ability to put an argument succintly and clearly, so good, that first Rudd, and now Gillard, are gone.
    Gillard is just 'swinging in the breeze', to borrow a well worn political metaphor.
    Abbott's position resonates so much with Australians that they are prepared to overllok his short comings.
    And as for Sinodinos being put into the position of NSW President to constrain Abbott's policy weakness, well nice theory, pity about the facts.
    Sinodinos was pushed by Abbott himself to get the woeful NSW Liberal executive into shape after Messrs Campbell, and his minions, cost the party the last Federal election, leaving the pre selection of candidates in several seats so late, many barely had time to introduce themselves to the community.

  5. HS: first he disses the Indonesians, then makes out Malaysia is some sort of squalid dump - hell of a price to pay for a few votes.

    LR: yeah, Getting The Band Back Together has its limits as an objective.

    Anon: pot, kettle ...

  6. MO: you started with an insult in the hope that it might give your position more force than it has.

    Effective Opposition Leaders become PM. They have a quiet confidence in themselves and in their policies which is utterly lacking in Abbott. It's a bit like watching one of those rugby players who goes the biff and everyone says how tough he is, until it's cruelly exposed that biff is all he has and any minute he'll get sat on his backside.

    Defeated PMs flounder like Howard did throughout 2007, and like Keating did in 1995-6. Gillard may only be starting to get traction now but she is as determined as Abbott without being as up-himself and complacent.

    Abbott has gotten where he is by doing whatever David Clarke tells him to do on organisational matters, and that's what happened in NSW. If David Clarke told Abbott he had to appoint Kristina Keneally as State Liberal President, he'd do that.

  7. Do you not think that what you said about Hunt and environmental policy applies equally to Turnbull and communications policy?

  8. Who would want a "hotch-potch of technologies", really? Obviously we all want the same thing. Just one technology does every conceivable job. The only tool you are ever going to need, is a hammer. After that, keep your eye on the nail and jobs done.

    Come on guys, this isn't exactly difficult.