06 December 2011

Something to talk about

In the last month or so the incumbent government developed a reputation for doing things, rather than talking about proposing to form a committee to convene a gabfest based on focus groups that may or may not do something. People began to look on the government and its leader in a whole new light.

People also began to look upon the Coalition in a whole new light once its entire strategy - wait for the government to stuff up - seemed to fall apart. As with the ALP at its worst there was no Plan B. That absence of fallback options makes for poor government, and shows why political skill is indispensable to effective government. Nobody in the Coalition seemed to consider that there was a possibility that Labor could do a passable impression of a competent and proactive government. Scales started to fall from the eyes of previously sycophantic journos on what sort of alternative the Coalition actually offered.

It was a category error of a piece with Labor assumptions that The Situation could not maintain the discipline necessary to be a potent threat but would inevitably revert to being a boorish gobshite. Sometimes I despair of the self-limiting nature of the so-called professional political class.

Anyway, the point is that the government's good work was pretty much undone by the ALP conference on the weekend.

The idea of all those topics up for discussion was to give the government the impression of momentum over the summer break. All it did was push the government back to where it had never wanted to be: in the land of Gonna-Do. Gonna give gays and lesbians the right to marry, gonna sell uranium to India, gonna gonna gonna; no have-done and are-doing and will-be-doing-even-more-and-better.

Gay marriage is one area where the Liberals are not going to claim to be able to do better than Labor. Abbott will have no credibility doing anything other than damn-the-torpedoes opposition. Any attempt to leaven this position will be undone by retribution at those who dare cross the floor over the issue.

There is now no benefit in staying on Tony Abbott's front bench in terms of career advancement. If Turnbull and others were to leave the frontbench and cross the floor, Abbott would be looking over his shoulder every day until the end of his leadership. If they didn't, there'd be no point to them at all (and it wouldn't save Abbott anyway). There won't be a conscience vote because Old Nick won't allow it. It would mean Abbott was no better than Gillard. The disintegration of Abbott will be a marvelous thing to see, all the better for being protracted and at the hands of people he doesn't respect.

Howard's position on selling uranium to India was weak, shilly-shallying nonsense. Abbott needs a position other than going along with the government, not for the sake of policy but for his own reptilian kill-or-be-killed mind; his problem is there isn't one. His foreign affairs spokesperson is not exactly the Percy Spender of our age. For all the explosion in International Relations courses, this country sure has been beset by the most appalling failure in coherent foreign policy.

There should have been no mention of refugees. The regional solution is a matter for the diplomats now. The idea that the government can play both sides of that game - insist on limits and due process while increasing intake numbers - is way beyond wrong, and well into the realm of stupid. The proposal put by Chris Bowen was just another bet each way that pleases nobody and satisfies no need, it should have been scratched by the stewards. Labor should just shut up and come up with a regional solution rather than draw attention to the awful predicament that it, and the country, are in over this issue.

I expect that the ALP conference would be disappointing to people who care about the ALP, but the pantomime about party reform being shunted off to a room full of factional hacks is no longer tragic or even funny, just boring. It's like an alcoholic promising to swear off white wine: they might think it's a compromise but it is actually missing the whole point entirely, and you can't tell them. Others can wail and rend their garments, but the only thing to do is just turn and walk away and ignore attention-seeking behaviour.

The ALP conference was also notable for the fingering of Rudd as responsible for the leaks that damaged Labor's 2010 campaign. History, as William Faulkner said, isn't gone and it hasn't passed. Labor's presentation of its national conference showed that it still sees its core role as throwing up announceables, assuming that news editors have a better sense of what the public want and are interested in than elected politicians and supposed numbers-men. This was not an event to maintain the momentum that will see Abbott eating Labor dust (and worse) for the next year or so. It was an event to let The Situation catch up, by playing the only game he can play: calling the government out for being all talk, just like he is.


  1. It seems to me Gillard sets things up before execution. I wouldn't be too quick to discount the weekend until we find out where she is going.

  2. It's a fair point. Gay marriage: there is no way it will pass the Lower House - even if Dr No allows a conscience vote the conservatives and Labor right will stop it. Which is a damned shame, but there's little downside that I can see for the ALP there.

    Asylum seekers: no victories here, just grubby defeats for everyone. The PM can try to paint the opposition as the blockers to an offshore solution. At least the continuation of on-shore and community-based processing will provide a rare example of a better outcome despite the idiocy and populism in parliament.

    Uranium to India. I'd say the ALP left doesn't have the clout to do much more than generate hot air on this one...but the cabinet can at least stake out a position of publicly defying the Greens and the left. For what it's worth, which probably isn't much either way. The only payoff is (hopefully) improved relations with an important neighbour and market.

    The biggest problem with the national conference is that it's given the media an excuse to ignore Tony's auditor troubles. Any journalist worth his salt should be on this story like sh*t on a blanket, but given that it would likely destroy any coalition claims to good economic sense it will be buried. Pity it didn't all flush out of the woodwork when parliament was sitting - the government could have had a field day with this as well as practically force the media to report it, at least indirectly as part of their continual fixation on theatre over substance.

  3. Andrew,
    You're usually on the money, so I expect that you are here also; however, the nature of a Party conference surely involves what they're gunna do. If your misgivings/criticisms are about the items which dominated proceedings, I'm closer to agreeing with you. I consider same sex marriage a 10th order priority, compared say to something like the issue of dental health which got a deserved airing in the media to-day.

    However, I'm prepared to wait and see how particular issues are given priority in the New Year, as that may be a better clue than drawing inferences from conference proceedings. I'll be particularly interested in how the uranium to India is handled, and whether Labor can break the habits of recent years and provide a compelling explanation for what strikes me as a sensible intention.

  4. Anon, the whole idea was to find out where she was going, surely?

    Michael, you might be right on the first three but I take issue with the last. The press gallery usually report either pro-Abbott stories or else pox-on-both-houses. If the Coalition financial ineptitude had come out during Parliament it would have been reported as just more argy-bargy rather than any sort of examination of the issues.

    PJF, I agree that dental health should have got a run. Labor people should have made it a priority.

    The gay/lesbian activists who got their issue up did everything you are supposed to do: assiduous lobbying, creating a groundwell of opinion, tying their cause to higher notions of freedom and equality. In a democracy it's hard to fault people for playing by the rules.

    The whole idea of the conference was supposed to be a clear idea as to what those priorities are. The fact that we'll have to wait and see is an indictment of the conference and the regard with which the Labor government holds it.

  5. The absence of coverage of the Coalition's audit scandal is a disgrace.

    I thought my opinion of the pro-Coalition bias of the Australian media had hit rock bottom years ago, but I'm still shocked by this.