21 September 2011

Tough but necessary

Ross Cameron has returned to the only role in which he was ever truly successful: Tony Abbott's piss-boy. He set out to write a defence of Abbott's unrelenting negativity but has only proved that no such defence exists.
[Abbott's] signature policy at the last election was a generous paid maternity leave scheme.
Yes it was: and nobody believed him. Nobody believed that Tony Abbott wouldn't yank that promise away while shedding crocodile tears about the budget. Nobody believed that he wouldn't make work so insecure that a maternity leave scheme would be a bitter joke.

Besides: in my day, Liberals were suspicious about politicians who were "generous" with taxpayers' money.

Let's give Abbott his due. He did well to lead the Liberal Party from defeat in 2007 to a single-digit deficit in 2010. Mind you, the same can be said for H V Evatt in 1951, Billy Snedden in 1974 and Kim Beazley in 1998. There was a time to slap Abbott on the back and say well done for this achievement, but if you are going to lift your game you need to do much better. Athletes know that you have to put in 50% more effort to get a 1% lift, but Abbott is searching vainly for a payoff where input and outputs are reversed.
Australians have curiously found Abbott to the left of Labor in his unwillingness to cast off asylum seekers, including children, to Malaysia.
Then he spoils it by going on about Nauru and the iniquity of TPVs.
Abbott has resisted admonitions to reopen the industrial relations debate from the right of his party.
He's frightened. Business is not speaking with one voice in terms of what's wrong with the Fair Work Act and how it might be fixed. The Coalition lost the last two elections on that issue, and the President of the ACTU announced publicly that they're going to whack them again. Only Liberals think Abbott looks strong in refusing to talk about this issue. It's an obvious weak point, made all the more vulnerable by the fact that no work is being done to address that weakness (distraction from it is not the same as, or better than, addressing the weakness).
His views on climate change turn out to be much closer to those of middle Australia - willing to give it the benefit of the doubt but no interest in splendid global isolation.
'Splendid isolation' is exactly the description of Liberal environment policy. At a time when Europe and China are ramping up renewables, Abbott is gibbering on about soil sequestration and huge tax-funded boondoggles that cost twice as much as Labor's market-based plans. Australians supported climate change remediation with a 70% majority, and they shall again when they can be sure real policies won't just be tinkered with and then abandoned by dilettantes like Abbott. I wish he'd just say that it's crap and wear the consequences.
When Labor adopted John Della Bosca's solid plan for national disability insurance, Abbott embraced it immediately, arguing only that it should start sooner.
That's stupid. Rushed policies like pink batts and school halls show what happens without careful forethought. I'd bet that Abbott pikes when it comes to standing on the same side of the House to vote on this legislation, just as he has with offshore refugee processing.
... the one card Labor has left is "negative".
While I wish I could wave a magic wand and command the lion to lay down with the lamb, I regret to inform my dear readers (both of you) that the swords of Australian politics are not about to be melted into ploughshares. I understand the impulse of those who wish for a more "constructive, collaborative and inspiring" debate, but they are not about to get it ...
This is a standard thing of Ross', as well as that of his brother-from-another-mother The Situation. When you criticise something for being dumb, Ross hears that as 'soft'. There's a lot of faux sympathy for your softness ("magic wand ... dear readers ... lion/lamb ... swords/ploughshares" etc) which is dispelled by what he regards as the hard crunch of reality. He thinks you have to be a tough-guy to make it in this world, and that tough-guy behaviour doesn't involve careful thought and determination but lots of big talk and that funny kind of waddle Tony Abbott has.

It's true that people are uninspired, if not repulsed and revolted, by Australian politics today. It's true that the incumbents cop the blame for that. It's not true, however, that anyone looks to the Liberals to set a more lofty tone from which clear and measured solutions might arise. If the Liberal Party were about clear and measured solutions, it would have no place for Ross and Tony Abbott. This is the central logical flaw in the argument where someone like John Forrest will insist on Respect For The Prime Minister in a sitcom but then screech like a chimpanzee at the real PM on the floor of Our Nation's Parliament. I expected Joe Hockey to lift the tone a bit; but sadly, no.

So, is Abbott the person to lift us from the miasma? Hell no, he's in it up to his eyeballs like a pig in shit. And it's not even his fault, apparently:
... frankly, Abbott is not to blame. Look instead to the relentless, unyielding laws of Westminster democracy.

Under our system of government, it's a winner-take-all arrangement. The opposition does not get to test and prove its arguments in a parallel universe - it gets one shot at the title every three years.
Oh yes, Westminster democracy. Abbott and Cameron wouldn't last five minutes in Westminster's Question Time, with its to-the-point efficiency and ruthless realisation that parliamentary theatre is utterly repellent to voters. The comparison was and the comparison is invidious. He talks a lot about Tradition and Our British Inheritance, but if you don't understand the gulf between what they say and what they do you'll never understand worms like Ross and Tony. If you want to scuttle Abbott utterly, nail him to the cross of Westminster traditions.

There's also the assumption that Abbott's interests are paramount, and that those of us who think he does a disservice to the nation are missing the main game set by Abbott. Well, fuck that.
Unlike the US, we have no term limits. A government could, conceivably, continue forever.
Only if it keeps being re-elected, Ross.
My father spent 17 years of his life in the NSW Parliament - 14 of them in soul-destroying opposition. The titles, ministerial salaries, uplift in retirement benefits, views, white cars, staff and the status - all the butter is on one side of the bread. Much more importantly, so is the power to do the good things that motivated every MP to join a political party and run for office in the first place.
By the time I met Jim Cameron his soul was a ragged thing indeed, held together by sheer pomposity, rage and baubles. He had spent 16 years in the NSW Legislative Assembly (1968-84) of which half that time - 1976-84, eight years not 14 - saw the Liberals in Opposition. He then spent almost a year in the Legislative Council as part of Fred Nile's Christian Jihad. He was a nasty old man and Ross is trying to make up in smarm what the old man had in bombast. Jim wouldn't have been close to Ross; he took up politics so that the old man would talk to him occasionally. This explains why the boy is so smitten with Abbott. Young Cameron is only writing for the SMH because John B. Fairfax felt sorry for him, and because Miranda Devine took her audience back to News Ltd (or as it's known now, Niche Australia) where it belongs.

Read Cameron's paragraph above again and smell the overweening entitlement coming off it. There is none of that butter/bread thing when Ross gets his chance at government, oh no, because when Libs are in government they get it all to themselves while Labor has to share, apparently.

Having proven himself mawkish in his lust for the trappings of office, Ross proves himself foolish as a tactician:
... in the movie Zulu ... Sergeant Frank Bourne gives a repeated command - "Hold ... hold ... hold ..." - to ensure the limited available shot, in laborious single-load rifles, is not wasted by firing too early.

An opposition leader faces a similar challenge. If he releases good, detailed policy too early, a government will copy it and assume credit for it. If it has defects or can be misrepresented, it will be subject to a sustained campaign of smear with all the resources of the state. 
One may say: "Surely it's in the national interest if a bad government adopts your good policy." The opposition leader will reply: "Yes, but even better if I can use my good policy a year from now to help replace the bad government with a better one."
Nobody outside the Canberra press gallery or the Liberal Party believes Tony Abbott to be capable of good policy. He is more likely to have a lovely singing voice or a keen eye for ikebana than any ability to discern good policy from rubbish. If he came out with good policy it would change the game so completely that no other player could hope to compete. Imagine some old homeless guy picking his nose and pulling out lumps of solid gold: that's how shocking, how utterly discombobulating, an Abbott policy would be. All he has is a policy for what isn't, not one for what is and what might be.

That lack of trust comes from trashing Westminster traditions. You can't deny people the right to attend funerals or the birth of their children, and then claim that your core beliefs include family, fair working conditions, and Westminster traditions. Gillard doesn't have to beat the better angels of her nature, she just has to beat Tony Abbott: and, all too slowly, she is doing just that.
I don't fully understand how or why this government lost the Hawke/Keating legacy of competent program execution, but Abbott is right not to deflect attention from that underlying reality.
Once Gillard came up with a carbon tax price thing that was likely to pass, once the BER was shown to be 97% effective, once Defence programs were wrestled under control like they hadn't been since Sir Arthur Tange was running the Department - then Abbott started to panic. The screechy behaviour by the Coalition in Parliament is the opposite of the sort of quiet confidence that Howard radiated in 1995 and Rudd in 2007. While the Austrians and Russians were embarrassing themselves at Austerlitz, you can be sure that Napoleon was not running around gibbering in a pair of sluggos.

It's the sense of frustrated entitlement that usually comes from within government: NSW Labor had the same hysterical edge in its last term in state government, flicking all the old switches that were no longer connected to anything and waiting for the next IED to go off. It is seen most clearly, not only in Abbott himself and Cameron, but in Joe Hockey's churlish response to Wayne Swan's Euromoney award. Ross would be one of the few people who could act as go-between if Tony and Joe really fell out (but Ross would always side with Tony in the end).

Hockey faces Swan in public but his job is where it is most important to have some sort of coherent policy. A party can say what it likes on immigration or health or saving some spotted frog, but a party that lacks a coherent economic policy is a rabble. Hockey's attempts at developing policy are undone by Abbott's insistence on loosey-goosey flexibility and disdain for detail. If Swan's award had any sort of corporeal form it is hard to imagine Hockey could have resisted the temptation to vault the table and wrest it from Swan's grasp, in order to have something to show for the sheer invidiousness of his position.
This is not an excuse for mindless contrariness or boorish behaviour and does not justify cat-calling or juvenile stunts, but it does mean conflict and scorching critique is an essential element of our system.
Oh but it is. Ross loves the stink. Mindless contrariness and boorish behaviour got him where he is today. "Scorching critique" does not mean any sort of extensive research or drawing deep from centuries of accumulated knowledge, but a quick shiv in the ribs and I-bet-your-mother-does when the mic is out of range. He admires Abbott for getting away with this.
In order to deserve to govern, the Abbott-led Coalition will need to produce a detailed suite of credible policy prescriptions for Australia's circumstances in August 2013. They will.
Ah yes, the old flick-the-switch-to-PM thing. Ross doesn't have such a switch but he only assumes Abbott has one because that's the received wisdom. Waiting for Abbott to become Prime Ministerial increasingly reminds me of that footage of September 11 in New York: you keep willing the plane to bank away from the building but there comes that sickening moment when you realise it won't and can't. Cameron does a good line in utter groundless certainty, but a quick tap of his assertions shows them to be hollow.
If you want to understand Abbott's policy direction now, read his book, Battlelines
It won't help.

There is no coincidence at all between what's in that book and what Liberal policy is now, or at any time since Abbott became leader. Environment, tax, education - you name it, the Coalition is offering nothing at all like what is in that book. You may as well cite On Liberty by John Stuart Mill or The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon as prescriptions for 21st century Australia ahead of that book. Abbott has left it all behind in the name of maximum flexibility, and press gallery stenographers who call themselves reporters love him for it.
Tony Abbott's only real job is to get his team a credible shot at the Treasury benches.
Credibility: that would be a great idea.

Successful Opposition Leaders - i.e. those that become Prime Ministers - bring the country with them. The idea is to make people feel that voting for them makes the country better off, so that in all that cheering on election night their victory is somehow, in small part, our victory. Howard did that, and Rudd did too. It's why election-winning leaders promise to govern for all. Keating killed his chances of re-election in 1993 when he basically insisted that anyone but rusted-on Labor voters could piss off. Abbott's boorishness is likewise ensuring that only rusted-on Liberals can truly appreciate what he's trying to do, and that if any good thing comes from gainsaying Labor it will be the most unintended of coincidences.

The reason why playing dirty in sport is frowned upon is because when you lose, you lose utterly and when you win, you haven't gained much. Cameron is asking us to judge Abbott solely on whether or not he wins - and if he wins, to forgive him everything. Fuck that: Abbott's political eye-gouges and squirrel-grips aren't impressing anyone except bored press gallery stenos and stink-lovin' Ross Cameron.

Ross Cameron should be read as fanboy fiction for Tony Abbott, the big brother he never had. This is why all the pollsters can go boil their heads: the Liberals under Abbott are a shambles, a-quiver with frustration at being so close to office and yet so far. The frustration will eat them up and increase the number and rate of unforced errors. They cannot and will not beat the slow grind of Gillard and Swan. Cameron thinks it's his job to make light of objections to Abbott and highlight virtues real and imagined: those who disdain this aim are wrong to regard his gibberings as worthless. The value in Ross Cameron's pieces on contemporary politics are to show the mechanisms of thought that are otherwise utterly opaque to those outside the Liberal Party. They show how they have come to stand atop the rickety tower of hubris and proclaim the scope and range of their view, and where good people might go to bring him and his mate undone.

People are demeaned not when someone like Tony Abbott plays us for suckers, but when someone like Ross Cameron convinces you that this is the only way you deserve to be treated. Cameron can deal with not being pretty, but he insists you recognise him as pragmatic. Refuse to do so on the basis that his assertions have no real basis and the braggart becomes what he fears most: being lost in the crowd, a nobody. He cannot demand of others "Don't you know who I am?", and cannot answer the question when alone with himself. This emptiness lies at the heart of Abbott also; Abbott is a more complete man than Cameron but still the void is there, beckoning some and repelling others. A bit of tap-tap-tapping from the journosphere will make this clearer than it is, once journos realise that the best way to keep their jobs is to do their jobs.


  1. You've written this article a few times this year (though it's not like the clowns and their publicists have been mixing it up either) but this is its finest iteration.

  2. I rarely read a piece by you that doesn't have me chuckling. This time it was "You may as well cite On Liberty by John Stuart Mill...". Inspired.

    But I'm still unconvinced that "They cannot and will not beat the slow grind of Gillard and Swan." Abbot's numbers have grown consistently since the last election, presumably peaking at 59/41.

    You've told me before the numbers are 'soft', but I don't see why the Libs can't continue being flaky and 'flexible' right up to polling day, and ride in on resentment against JuLIAR blah blah blah. What is going to make people suddenly want more from politicians than keeping the boat steady? It kept Howard in power for 11 years.


  3. Yesterday I wondered what was the point of Ross Cameron. I see the answer is essentially none.

  4. Lachlan Ridge22/9/11 8:04 pm

    It is an edification to this column (which is how I view this series of commentary) that one can dismantle a son of entitlement like Ross without once ever referring to his demonstrated commitment to family values. I wouldn't have been able to resist. The analogy of the nose picking homeless guy and Abbotts policy development was up there with the best of Eric Blair. This is wonderful stuff - so good it shows the appalling standard being spewed out of our communication faculties around the land, as the Good Mr Denmore so elequently pointed out recently.

  5. Hillbilly Skeleton23/9/11 8:58 am

    Now, can you weave Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' into a think-piece about Abbott now? :)

  6. Utterly Brilliant, Andrew. Thanks.