09 April 2012

The lukewarm attorney

So then, because thou art luke-warm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit thee out of my mouth.

- Revelation 3:16
NSW Attorney General Greg Smith is in grave danger politically. His agenda needs to be clearer than it is, and stronger, if he is to survive. If he goes on as he is he'll become a bigger target for the opposition than Robyn Parker is but without the personal affection and entrenched political support that Parker can command.

Smith came out of the NSW Labor Right and the broader Liberal Party gave him one of their safest seats, Epping, in 2007. Say what you like about the hopelessness of the NSW Liberals, but it is a genuine pity that former Epping MP Andrew Tink had to retire through ill-health and never became a minister while [take your pick from any NSW ALP arseclown who became a state government minister in their spare time] did. Liberals love all that prodigal-son stuff. Smith was spared the indignity of powerlessness that afflicts other fence-jumpers and blow-ins through a Faustian bargain with the Christianist far right faction headed by David Clarke. As with all Faustian bargains it was probably a lot of fun while it lasted.

This article tells us the bargain is off.

The idea of attacking barristers because of their clientele is bullshit. It is both a deliberate misunderstanding and misrepresentation of how the Anglo-Australian legal system works, and a cack-handed attempt to import the worst tactics of US Republicans posing as people of principle when playing partisan silly-buggers. This post by Andrew Tiedt goes into more and better detail on this. Insofar as there was any substance to Phelps' attack it can be brushed aside easily. What's significant here is the politics.

People like Clarke used Phelps to shirtfront Smith because Clarke always looks pathetic when he launches an attack. He has power in close-quarter backroom combat that evaporates utterly under strong light. Phelps is happy to act as Clarke's catspaw in the hope that he might assume a position of substance one day, but it doesn't work like that. If you ever wondered why Liberals disdain PhDs, consider that Phelps is their most immediate example. When they're really desperate the far right wind Phelps up and he goes right over the top, hooting and hollering in a way that can be momentarily confusing for those who aren't used to it, and in that momentary confusion he draws his self-perception of effectiveness. In that sneaky and dishonest ambush the message from Clarke to Smith was clear: you're out of control so you're beyond protection.

Had Smith folded straight away it would have been a significant victory for the far right, whose power has waxed and waned over time but it has not reached the same depths since John Brogden broke down.
While Mr Phelps refused to comment on the altercation, saying his "one rule in politics is not to discuss party room in public", a number of other MPs have confirmed his attack on the Attorney-General.
Phelps didn't get where he is by courting the media or through popular appeal and there is no reason why he would speak to the media, unless he wanted to go the Premier directly. You'll notice that all other MPs quoted are anonymous:
Another MP said that many within the government were concerned with Mr Smith's political leanings, which were often "closer to the Left of the Labor party on issues of prisoner rehabilitation and sentencing".

"The first party he joined was the Labor Party. He doesn't have a Liberal Party bone in his body," one MP said. "He's being called the softest Attorney-General ever.

"This is not a good look for a conservative government. We want to be seen to be tough on crime."
It's hard not to feel some sympathy for Smith for having to deal with gutless shitheads like that. The Liberal Party spent most of its 16 years in opposition trying to outflank Carr from the right on law-and-order - and failing, miserably. "Another MP" has learnt absolutely nothing from that.

Consider that deplorable bleat: "We want to be seen to be tough on crime". No you don't: what you want is for crime to decrease, in incidence, in severity, in recidivism, across the board. That's what you want: to be the government that makes that happen. This is what Smith, apparently, is trying to do:
“The whole hardline approach against crime has been a failure in many places,” [Smith] tells me. “This attempt to make me look softer misrepresents what I am trying to do. I am trying to turn people away from crime. It’s not soft, it’s being more pragmatic.”

The challenge Smith faces in testing his pragmatic approach is daunting. Australia spends $11.5 billion a year on law and order, about $511 a year per person. The dubious honour for the biggest spending goes to New South Wales.
With NSW Labor determined not to be outflanked from the right on law-and-order, and with no "budget black hole" so bad that law-and-order spending will be cut, that level of spending bears out the assertion by Smith and others that the blunt instruments of law-and-order have to be recalibrated in order to be more effective.

Consider that expression, though: "I am trying to turn people away from crime". Smith is not working with community groups who work with the communities where crime is normalised, or who deal with actual prisoners and parolees and know what works and what doesn't. It's top-down, and given the hoo-ha in the party room Smith's willingness and ability to work with such groups toward sound and stable policy is going to be sharply limited.

An idea that's been held and espoused for so long that no-one really questions it is that increased support for troubled families, wayward youth and mental health services will reduce the rates and severity of crime over the long run. The Coalition government in NSW is in an excellent position to prove whether or not this is true. The NSW Coalition's majority and the feebleness of its opposition indicate that the Coalition will be in office for most, if not all, of the coming decade. A child of eight today facing the sort of disadvantage that beset many now in NSW's prison population should take a path that does not lead them to prison in 2022, when they will be 18. That's how you measure success of law-and-order policy; not "Another MP" preening before a funhouse mirror fretting about "be[ing] seen to be tough on crime".

Smith hasn't done the work to give effect to that; neither has the minister that deals with such community groups on a daily basis, Andrew Constance. Constance has no political incentive to save Smith's hide, nor any ability to appreciate the kind of far-reaching change that Smith would like to bring about. Smith seems to think he can do it all himself, and he's wrong. He hasn't done the outreach so he hasn't got the backing that would sustain him in facing the attacks from the far right, as though a bunch of loudmouths who talk tough understand crime better than anyone else.
“I want the community to be a safer place to live in,” he says. Then he turns the argument around by citing laws giving police greater powers that the O’Farrell government introduced in the wake of the drive-by shooting spree. The new laws have tightened the provisions about consorting and criminal gangs in ways that have alarmed civil liberties and prisoners’ rights advocates. The changes went through parliament unamended in March. “These are not soft,” says Smith. “They are tough laws, and I am behind them.”
So, the police have greater powers. What they don't appear to have is greater resources or a critical mass of intelligence. This is why the start of the article is puzzling:
WHEN Sydney’s southwest suburbs suffered a wave of drive-by shootings early this year, the city’s tabloid press and notorious radio shock jocks went into overdrive. Their target was Greg Smith, who is about to complete his first year as attorney-general in Barry O’Farrell’s state government.
Why Smith?
  • Why not the Police Minister, Mick Gallacher, or the Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, given that the problems in Sydney's southwest are ones of quantity and quality resourcing? Smith has ensured they have the powers they need, the application of those powers is a matter for Gallacher and Scipione.  Gallacher has not stepped up to help his former Clarke-mate Smith, and it would have reflected better on him if he had.
  • If smart, effective policing led to people being arrested who were getting off lightly due to legal technicalities or poorly drafted laws, then Smith would be a fair target. 
  • When you consider the proportion of crime connected to the illegal drug trade, something like the Australia 21 report into drug laws should have been manna from heaven for Smith: strong support, if not yet vindication for what he's trying to achieve. 
  • Shock-jocks have paraded their contrarian credentials by pretending to give drug laws some thought but the moment Smith does, they will bag him and the very social ills to which that report refers will lose all chance of alleviation in NSW - any chance that Smith might work with others to operate the sorts of trials that might support such an outcome, trials more substantial than Labor's relatively small-scale safe injection centre or the Drug Court, will be lost in a storm of bullshit.
Again, it's hard not to have sympathy for Smith in doing the right thing, but it's also hard to sustain the idea that he's the man to bring it about: partly, and ironically, because he wants to be that man who brings it about.

Unlike many people I don't believe Smith tipped off Patrick Power but he did mishandle the whole issue to the point where his competence is in question. This is a man who gets rattled under pressure. He also has a blind spot to the idea that people he admires might be guilty of crimes, a notion that is often cured by many years as a prosecutor. This is another example, and there are yet others I'm sure. That sort of blind spot can kill and has killed political careers more illustrious than Smith's. John F. Kennedy dealt with the conflict of loyalties that Catholics have when holding public office and doctrine conflicts with good policy or even popular will; Smith should be more mindful of that than he is. Smith should have the perspective to realise that his Church is strengthened rather than weakened by the removal of child molesters. Again, these are questions of judgment and character that find Smith wanting the qualities necessary for high office.

Being cast out by the far right is a badge of honour for any Liberal, second only to not having anything to do with those bastards in the first place. Smith needs a support base if he is going to weather the storms from the media and handle the pressure of a difficult job for which his ambitions are both considerable and worthy. He hasn't reached out to the moderates, and nor they to him, and this is a tragedy for both. After a generation of failure and atrophy Liberal moderates desperately need a record of achievement; co-opting Smith on law-and-order and helping him realise his aims is a ready-made solution, achievable and sustainable and eminently in line with the highest and best of liberal policy.

For moderate Liberals to let Smith twist in the wind would be a monstrous waste of opportunity; but like the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The moderates would rally behind Parker and Constance, because they've done the hard yards during dark times for liberal moderates, but not Smith because he's not one of them.

Speaking of support bases, it's usually unfair to go after someone's family - Smith's sons are fair game because they have used their father to get positions within the Liberal Party and exercised power by extension to him. Smith's sons vetted candidates for staffer roles when the O'Farrell government came to office, blocking non-members of the Christianist far right and leaving that government less well staffed than it should have been - whether they would take the same support role today is an open question. The Smiths were a large reason why John Alexander beat Maxine McKew for the federal electorate of Bennelong, simply turning up while McKew went to ground. The young Smiths are like their contemporaries in Kevin Rudd's office who took the ride on the Hubris-Nemesis express, and it will be interesting to see how they juggle a relationship that their father failed to manage.

Greg Smith is plugging away at important work but he would be more effective, and more politically sustainable, were he to join forces with Liberal moderates. Any weakening of Smith's position enhances the anti-democratic and mendacious reach of the Christianist far-right, and that position shows all the signs of weakening simply because lofty ambitions fall short of their desired aims. Maybe Smith's media advisers can switch to the idea that Ray Hadley isn't their mate and that they can refer his requests for timeslot-stuffing to Gallacher's office.

Barry O'Farrell is finished if he lets the Christianists out of the box he put them in to win office, and reinforcing Smith keeps them at bay. On top of his important work Smith has some hard decisions to make about deeply personal issues regarding his Church and his sons, and their place in the agenda he has set for himself. I doubt that he can get over himself in order to get his agenda through, and the smart money would have to be on him failing - but if he did, greatness awaits and the smart money can keep to themselves.


  1. I think this is one of your top posts. It goes beyond critique and makes the politics easy to understand, and it's clear why this matters too.

    Was it a deliberate plan to release two pieces late in the long weekend? If so it worked, brain food is getting rare by this time of the holiday.

    1. Thanks David. These would've been posted earlier but life gets in the way. Will keep holidays in mind for future posts - have to say the traffic isn't that high though :\

  2. I'm still here, and am eagerly awaiting Part 2 of this blog, the analysis of George Pell vs Richard Dawkins on QandA tonight.
    Though I must say, I can't imagine that by the end of it either Pell or Dawkins will have budged an inch on their core belief set, but it will be fun watching them existentially jelly wrestle for an hour. :)
    Also, I would be interested in your scholarly analysis of putative policy under Tony Abbott and the Opus Dei sect that sustains the NSW Right, along the lines of some that we are seeing in the US, such as in the State of Wisconsin, which yanked women back to the future by introducing laws that mandate women must be paid less because 'money is more important to men'. No longer, according to the Religious Right, should women aim for equal pay for equal work, it's back to the kitchen they should go,in between having babies and homeschooling the kids about the Bible. Or, if they must work, well they shouldn't expect to be paid too much for this independence folly they feel they have to entertain. Hmm, maybe this is another way that Tony will be able to fill his Budget Black Hole. The possibilities are endless. Women can be supported by their husbands again. No more need for separate welfare payments because he will outlaw easy divorce(which he has already pledged to do). Child care payments for married women only. Family payments for families only. $70 Billion? Easy peasy. :)

    1. Not doing Pell-Dawkins, they both deserve one another. This is the only Superstition I'm into: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDZFf0pm0SE

    2. The Dawkins v. Pell cage-match was surprisingly good. (I expected to be irritiated beyond endurance by both of them.) Pell was intellectually out of his depth, and Dawkins was surprisingly gentle with him, given his usual inability to suffer fools gladly.

  3. wrong


  4. The moderates would not rally around Robyn Parker. They all want her job. Constance has the respect/ear of the Premier, Parker does not.