17 April 2012

Back in his paddock

Barnaby Joyce is an increasing threat to the credibility of the Liberal Party without being a threat to anyone outside the Coalition. Tony Abbott needs to rebuke him publicly to shore up the sort of credibility that a Prime Minister needs, but he won't do it because he is weak.

John Howard used to do this sort of thing, but in copying him Abbott is learning the wrong lesson. Howard had his favourites and he would pretty much always defend them - or where he couldn't, would refuse to criticise them publicly. Abbott was a recipient of this level of protection and now Abbott is passing the favour forward to Joyce.

The problem with doing that is: Joyce is a Nat. Nationals do contribute to the Coalition from time to time but they take much more than they give. When a Coalition government collapses it's the Libs who do the heavy lifting and who therefore give out first. Leeches may drop off their hosts when they die but Nationals stay attached at a point close by the juicier organs. Howard in the 1980s was as open and conciliatory to the Nationals as any Liberal leader could be but they just kept spitting in his face. Peacock could deal with the squirearchy elements while small-town whingers like Charles Blunt did themselves in.

By the time Tim Fischer started running rings around Hewson and Downer, Howard had learned how to deal with Nationals: lend a hand in big issues they care about (e.g. snuffing out Aboriginal land rights) and make them feel involved with their simplistic contributions to macroeconomic debates (which always degenerates to a shopping list of special pleading), but otherwise you beat them hard with a big stick if they ever dare to wade into debates that truly matter. The one big issue where Howard lost sight of that was the issue that may yet sink his Prime Ministership in history: AWB-Iraq. Farmers wanted any blood-encrusted coins that Bill Hartley had left behind, and rather than go into bat for the bludgers, Howard and Downer should have dropped them out at sea in a chaff bag.

This is the lesson Abbott has not learnt. The idea of building big dams and super highways where nobody lives or works is stupid. It doesn't make you look like a visionary, it makes you look like you don't get it and that you hate Australians for wanting to squander their hard-earned in this way. It is the prime example of journalistic laziness that they let Joyce go on with pet schemes like this - fools may call it vision - without calling him on the economics.

Phillip Adams called him a latter-day Wilson Tuckey, but all Oppositions need a mongrel and nobody who reveres Eddie Ward or Paul Keating should be indulged in such a complaint. It's probably more accurate to regard Joyce as the Coalition's Paul Howes: obnoxiously self-regarding and not nearly the vote-puller he fancies himself to be, flogging the dead horse of old-school protectionism which only impresses easily-impressed media producers hungry for the ratings cut-through of a colourful quote. Where Joyce seriously overreaches is with stunts like this. His preferred candidate didn't get up and her opponent did, which is going to make life awkward in the Senate (which may well be a sign he's tiring of that joint). All that Queensland crap might gee-up people in NSW, where there is established rivalry over the rugby codes, but Victorians were always going to find his outbursts puzzling, if not disturbing.

Victorian Liberals assume that their people are going to form the core of any Coalition government, and that slap-in-the-face from Joyce only reminds them that the second-biggest source of Coalition MPs in Federal Parliament is not Victoria but Queensland. If someone like that is going to be in Federal Cabinet, riding roughshod over other members, then perhaps it's time to rally around Ted Baillieu and leave Canberra to its own devices. That's how a party can be so strong at one level of government but hopeless at another; it only takes one out-of-control galoot to turn people away from Team Loser and get with the strength. In NSW a decade ago, Charlie Lynn became the face of state politics to the point where any Liberal worth their salt could only focus their efforts on keeping Howard in office. Now Joyce is performing that role for Abbott and driving sensible Liberals toward their comparatively more successful and smarter state governments.

The deselection of Helen Kroger shows that being a whip is the most dangerous job in Liberal politics. Scuttling around Parliament doing their busywork, there was once a time when those who flinched under the Whips' lash had no choice but to cop it sweet. After Patrick Secker and now Kroger losing preselection (and make no mistake, Kroger will not be re-elected to the Senate), opposition whips will have to be a lot more subtle in getting their colleagues to move toward the holding pens of government.

Amid the apathy-inducing prospect of Australia's poorest parliamentary team squabbling amongst themselves came this pearler:
Most of Senator Ryan's cheer squad comprises opinion leaders for competition and the free market. Former Liberal Senate leader Nick Minchin wrote that he was "very grateful to the Victorian Liberal Party for selecting such an outstanding young man".
Let's see: free market - Nick Minchin - nope, I can't see the connection either. Schubert assumes a lot with a statement like that, but as with a Grattan article such facts as there are in the article aren't strong enough to prop up the assumptions.

Anyway, back to Joyce. Whatever he gains from drawing attention to rural issues is undone by the silliness of the issues themselves - big dams and nothing about remote schools or health services, nothing sensible about Aborigines, nor even any tackling of big and serious issues of farms versus mines. If you're going to stick your nose into Gina Rinehart's family affairs and accept her hospitality - even if that involves more curry than you're accustomed to - it's imperative to devote some thought to the big issues facing your constituency. Doubling the baby bonus does not bring all the votes to your yard, it's one of those statements that everyone remembers but nobody believes (like Hawke and no child living in poverty, or Gillard claiming to be against gay marriage). Too much time going into bat for Cubbie Station and Clive Palmer is going to erode this common-man-Barnaby persona that makes him such a media darling real fast.

Speaking of which, how silly were Joyce and Abbott in going after Christine Milne? She's a farmer and will take to farming communities far better than soft-handed townies like Joyce or Abbott might imagine. This isn't to say that a Green tsunami will wash across the bush, but Milne will succeed in lifting her party's votes in the three biggest states to the point where they will not only elect a Green Senator but Green preferences will play a more prominent role in other contests where they haven't been strong. Anti-CSG activists could do worse than study Milne's campaign against the proposed pulp mill at Wesley Vale - much worse, if listening to Joyce's jibber-jabber or soft-cock Max Tomlinson is any guide. Milne will also help to lift the Katter vote in the bush, where he's on he same page regarding farming vs mining; the Nats have nowhere to go but down, led by the man who talked about taking on Tony Windsor but who piked at the crunch.

Bob Brown came from a country background but was never comfortable in rural communities. Shutting down all those Hydro and logging jobs in Tasmania made for a stand-off between Greens and bushies that has become the very sort of political given that goes unquestioned by the politico-media complex, and which therefore is ripe for a kicking. If Milne was cut from the same cloth as Brown, the Greens would never have survived in Tasmanian politics once Brown headed for Canberra. Sometimes a leader who succeeds a popular and distinctive leader has to go their own way; Abbott, in cleaving too closely to Howard, hasn't learned that lesson either.

If Barnaby Joyce is to be any good to the Coalition, let alone the nation, he is going to have to be put in his place. The Coalition leader who does that will be a leader indeed. Truss is not that person and neither is Abbott. Laughing at Joyce, like Labor does, isn't good enough. A quiet word won't do either: only a public rebuke will get Victorian Liberals unified behind such a leader (which will involve them getting the most out of their own bailiwick; sometimes the alchemy of leadership is most notable by its absence). Knocking the Mouth from Maranoa on his backside will make uncommitted voters sit up and listen. A Barnaby Joyce who revels in the sound of broken china crashing and crunching underhoof while customers and shop-staff storm the exits might be enjoying himself hugely, but like Wilson Tuckey he only weakens those he would support. Tony Abbott must take this bull by the horns, but he won't; and the polls don't measure that either, so stuff the polls.


  1. There was a Mythbusters episode where they tested the bull in the china shop saying, and found that they were much more nimble and sure-footed than you could possibly believe. It's well worth finding that segment and having a look, if only for the ballet-like dancing of the bulls.

    I think Joyce might be better described as a drunk in a china shop - "Oops, sorry 'bout that, oh and that one too" *hork*. What that does to your "taking the bull by the horns" I don't know . . .


  2. Why should Barnaby Goose be any good to the Noalition or the nation? His Leader, Mr-Rabbit isn`t. I suspect too that Fracked Farmers may see Milne and the Greens as a better option than the Pro-Corporate Mr-Rabbit and their bolt-on National friends. Brown managed to lead his mob to some victory`s and get some things done. Milne probably will too, in her own leadership. Mr-Rabbit still batting zero.

  3. Lachlan Ridge19/4/12 6:46 pm

    In the 2010 state election in NSW Peter Duddy stood on an anti-coal seam gas mining platform in Upper Hunter. He did OK-ish, but Gorgeous George Souris, a bloke who gives logs a bad name, still romped home. Duddy didn't take too much from the Nats vote. In Queensland the Greens vote flatlined despite CSG being a very live issue. Katter's 'lock the gate' position didn't translate into votes either. From all of this I think we can safely say that CSG isn't a vote shifter, and if CSG won't prise votes off the Nats base then it's hard to think what will. Despite some wishful thinking, the Greens base remains educated, largely well-off, urban voters. Issues like food security, CSG and land use are important to this constituency, but the Greens big vote winner is their stance on refugees - witness how their vote (and membership) has tracked since 2001. On the mainland the Greens pull their votes from the left of the ALP - Tasmania, as usual, is a unique case. I'm not sure how the capital friendly farmer image is going to play out amongst the left wing urban and youth demographic that is the Greens core constituency in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane.

    Richo and other geniuses dragged the ALP to the sh*thole it is today by taking their base for granted and selling themselves to a conservative uncommitted middle. All they succeeded in doing was p*ssing off their base (witness Lindsay, Macarthur, Robertson et al) without locking in this new magic marginal voter. It was called the marginal seats strategy, and it's left us some wonderfully marginal seats. The end game of this numptiness is best evidenced in Queensalnd and NSW with places like Holroyd and Logan now represented by conservative party MP's (what am I saying, the ALP is a conservative party! But you know what I mean, I hope).

    This is the risk Milne runs. If this great outreach to rural Australia doesn't work (and the AEC returns show that it didn't work in 2010, despite the Greens having some great policies for regional Australia; Freight rail hubs, baseload solar, better product labelling to name a few) then Milne runds the risk of alienating her mainland urban constituency without increasing the party's overall vote. This will threaten mainland senatorial positions - they needed preferences to get a senator up in every state except Victoria and Tasmania in 2010.

    Finally I wouldn't underestimate the Brown factor, especially amongst the yoof. An anecdote to illustrate: In 2010 in the Federal seat of North Sydney the Greens worked their backsides off and achieved a five and a bit percent swing. Next door in Bradfield they did nothing more than turn up and...achieved a five and a bit percent swing. The election was fought on the TV, not on street corners, and in taht environment Brown was the face of the Greens campaign. Milne is not a great media performer, which she would need to be if she is to cut through to the Nat voting small farmer who should, if they voted with their brain, be voting Green.

    That said, Barnaby Joyce is the sort of bloke who becomes secretary of a small town progress association and manages to alienate so many people that the association folds. He is a wrecker. There's plenty of them in public life today at all levels of society and the question I'd ask is Cui Bono?

    Maybe Roger Corbett could enlighten us?

  4. It's early days. The Greens might have had great policies but they had no credibility, and if Milne gives them that things will change (it won't happen overnight, and I think they will lift the Duddys of this world rather than get their own people up).

    In the NSW and Qld state elections people wanted conservative governments and it was simply the wrong damn time to get in the way of them. Federally, where neither party is popular, it's a bit more even - not quite anyone's game, but not a complete waste of time either.

  5. The thing about Milne is that she looks and sounds a fair bit like she's a member of the Country Women's Association. I think she'll actually do quite well in the bush without alienating us latte-slurpers.