25 September 2012


Tony Abbott won't become Prime Minister because his party in his own home state are focused on things other than making him Prime Minister. He lacks the clout to make them focus. He does not have any compensating clout elsewhere that might make up for this. His own party in his own home state is going to shirtfront him and there is nothing he can or will do about it.

The Liberal Party in NSW is focused on their winning state government. State government is a bit of a novelty for most NSW Liberals and much-missed by those who remember the Greiner-Fahey days. There are plenty of jobs for party hacks and plenty of issues for activists and fellow-travellers to get their teeth into.

Yeah yeah, there could be a federal election any minute, and with it a federal Coalition government, that's all very well - but the State Government is no small beer and it is right here and now.

The 1993 Federal election loss had come as a shock to NSW Liberals and the then Fahey Government was keen to ensure it did not suffer a similar fate. They had to choose a State Director to run administrative matters and to manage any state or federal campaigns that took place. The two candidates were former Liberal staffers, Tony Abbott and Barry O'Farrell; O'Farrell won because of his broader knowledge of campaigning and because he was not a rusted-on factional hack like Abbott. Abbott got a consolation prize with Australians for Constitutional Monarchy and entered Federal Parliament.

O'Farrell resigned as State Director in late 1994, when he won preselection for a seat in State Parliament at the 1995 election. The position was still vacant a few weeks later when his former boss, John Howard, became leader of the Federal Parliamentary Party.

Howard knew what home-ground advantage meant. He was up against fellow Sydneysider Paul Keating and was on his last chance to become Prime Minister: death or glory, and he was damned if he would let his final chance be blown by a bunch of factional pissants he didn't respect. Howard got the NSW factions together and told them that his quest to become PM was more important than their factional maneuverings (and they believed him). He forced through rule changes, he brought people into the NSW Division from interstate (e.g. Tony Nutt), cracked heads and eventually got bitter enemies singing from the same songsheet. He basically rebuilt the NSW Liberals from the ground up and factional spats went on ice.

The fact that the Fahey government lost office made things easier for Howard, and clearer for NSW Liberals. State Liberal governments across the nation found themselves starved of resources, shut out of funding and announcements, and generally pushed aside by the Howard federal government; at the time they and Liberal members generally didn't seem to mind.

Tony Abbott would have seen all this at close quarters. He could have built some credibility as an enforcer for Howard in NSW, just as Michael Corleone proved his worth to the Don and took over - but chose not to. David Marr wrote that Abbott still wonders why Howard didn't find a place for him in his first ministry.

Since then, Abbott has been party leader for three years: ample time to go through the Liberal Party like a dose of salts, top to bottom. He's done nothing. He wouldn't know where to start. It's too late now.

Those who think Malcolm Turnbull can just knock Abbott off because polls underestimate the sheer bloody-mindedness of the right. They would make his life hell, even worse than in 2009; and while a proud man like Turnbull would need to prove himself a team player, he wouldn't be anyone's front man. Turnbull would have to extract the concession that the price of his leadership is that he gets to clean out the Liberal Party as thoroughly as John Howard did in 1995. He has no chance of doing that before an election, but after a traumatic loss as 2013 is shaping up to be he might have a chance.

Abbott did learn the lesson about state governments, though. What he hasn't learned is how to make it happen:
  • Whatever might be said about Ted Baillieu, he isn't going to give up being in government just because Tony Abbott might ask nicely;
  • Barry O'Farrell quite likes being Premier of NSW and knows all the tricks that Howard played in stealing the oxygen from state governments - he has one thing in common with his enemies on the far right, he isn't going to give up anything for the sake of Tony Bloody Abbott;
  • Campbell Newman just got his go and clearly quite likes it too, and in amongst all his difficulties does he have time to stick his neck out for the sake of Tony Bloody Abbott? If Abbott could help him be more popular, perhaps; but north of the Tweed they are both about as popular as Paul Gallen.
  • Look, Colin Barnett is busy, OK? Piss off, eastern states sluggo man (even Howard found WA difficult).
  • SA Liberals are engaged in leadership turmoil, and they'll thank you to stay out of it. Abbott isn't winning the party much support in that state and it is likely Labor will win seats there. He lacks the clout to go in and sort out the state mess and it wouldn't be to his advantage if he did. He could rely on his right-whinge factional buddies, but in SA their chief is Cory Bernardi - you see the problem.
  • In Tasmania the state Liberals are resurgent because Will Hodgman has taken a stick to Eric Abetz and got him to stay out of state politics. Abetz is left with absolute control over the federal sphere and he doesn't need any help from Abbott. Both Abetz and Hodgman would regard Tony Bloody Abbott as more trouble than he is worth.
The part of the Liberal Party that should, in theory, be most focused on getting Abbott elected are the far right. They are even more committed to junking environmental controls and women's reproductive rights than Abbott is. They would have the Navy machine-gun asylum-seekers and have their corpses wash back on the coast of Indonesia to send a message that needs no translation.

Bernardi is their rising star, but while the right operates nationally let's go back to NSW for a moment. When the right get control of the NSW Liberals, they brook no dissent: disunity is death and all that. When they lose, they quite happily leak to the media, use violence to disrupt meetings and intimidate opponents, do backroom deals with religious/racist cranks, and take out Supreme Court injunctions.

If you must read a Paul Sheehan article, go straight down to about the second-last paragraph and read the almost inevitable "don't be fooled by claims that ..."; here will be the substance of the article and his motivation for writing it. To represent people like the secretive, schismatic and vicious David Clarke as agents of openness, fair play and democracy is pretty funny, and by the time you realise it isn't satire it is too late.

Any organisation shows people inside and out that you can't enjoy the benefits of that organisation without also submitting to its directions, and that sometimes those directions don't go the way you'd like. The right's patsies do not have the numbers to get Robertson FEC (the forum of Liberal Party branches in that federal electorate) to pass a motion of no-confidence in Lucy Wicks, nor bring any pressure to bear in internal party mechanisms to get their repellent mouth-breather candidates into positions beyond their competence. Instead, they want all the benefits of the Liberal Party's resources brought to bear for their benefit without any consideration.

It is too early to tell, but Labor MP Deb O'Neill will get the benefit of the doubt in Robertson at the next election if she shows up and puts the work in. Labor would be crazy to undermine O'Neill, but this possibility cannot be ruled out. Most Liberals in Robertson will get behind Liberal candidate Lucy Wicks but a good many will effectively go on strike - enough to make the difference in a tight contest. Supposedly loyal Liberals would rather see Labor's O'Neill beat endorsed Liberal Wicks in order to make a point in internal party machinations, rather than tolerate Wicks as their local MP.

If you place more credence in polls than I do, you have to believe that Robertson and neighbouring Dobell (current MP: Craig Thomson) are seats that the Liberals pretty much have in the bag.

Will that court injunction, and all that led up to it and all that will flow from it, do a single thing to help Tony Abbott become Prime Minister? It is leadership failure that it even came to this. John Howard would have jumped on such a nasty little exercise with both feet. Either Abbott stood by helplessly wringing his hands, or - worse - he assumed it was nothing to do with him.

The third instance of the NSW Liberals thumbing their nose at their federal leader came with the underreported Senate preselection last weekend.

Senate preselectors are drawn from the party's state executive and from electorates throughout the state. Few internal party ballots are so representative of the mood of the Division as a whole at the time they are cast. There were two winnable spots, and two sitting Senators seeking re-election to them.

Marise Payne has been a Senator for 15 years. She started out as a moderate before they went out of fashion and placed survival over principle. Like the Prime Minister, she is unmarried and childless (yes, I respect her choices too, but this stuff matters to conservatives). During the republic debate in the '90s she formed an odd pas-de-deux with Abbott in Liberal Party forums, arguing for a republic while he against. She would have made a good minister had Howard been in the business of promoting women and moderates (or if Costello had stepped up). She is kind of a shadow minister for portfolios that don't really have ministers, although the fact that she is on the front bench at all is further proof that Abbott is no Howard.

Arthur Sinodinos was Howard's chief of staff and spent many years putting Tony Abbott in his box. He replaced Helen Coonan. Abbott kept being told that his front bench was full of lightweights - Payne is a regular target for those with constructive suggestions as to who should make way for supposed Liberal talent - and conventional wisdom holds that Sinodinos would lend a policy heft to the Coalition which it apparently lacks.

The last time Coonan and Payne ran for preselection was in 2006. Howard wanted Coonan at the top of the ticket and tasked Bill Heffernan to do the grassroots work within the NSW Division to make it happen. Howard got his way, as you'd expect; Payne was furious with Heffernan, but so what?

Just before last weekend's NSW Senate preselection ballot, Tony Abbott made Sinodinos his parliamentary secretary. It was a clear exercise of leadership and authority. In Howard's day the NSW Liberals would have voted for a brown dog if Howard had made it his parliamentary secretary. Abbott had been the attack dog for Bronwyn Bishop when she nobbled shadow minister Chris Puplick in the vicious Senate preselection of 1989; Payne and Puplick have been close friends for years. The Liberal Party is all about leadership, and Abbott played what looked like a lay-down misére.

Last weekend the NSW Liberals put Payne at the top of the Senate ticket over Sinodinos.

The NSW Liberals are determined to fuck over Tony Abbott at every opportunity, and they know him better than anyone. You'd have to be a mug to vote for him, and I am sick to death of all this more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger crap that an Abbott government is inevitable. If the famously brutal Victorian ALP started shirtfronting Gillard in this manner, I might begin to entertain the idea that she might not be re-elected.


  1. Thats not leadership i reckon but many people behind the scenes telling Tony to put some class in with Sinodinos

    Should have happened ages ago

    Some arrogant policy wonk tweeted that Sinodinos was a very,very good call

    Hes respected by gen y also


  2. Still don't get it. Every party has nasty factional in-fights. Doesn't stop a big swing from sweeping them into power, internal hatreds and all. Tony just has to stay ahead in the polls and he should be able to command enough loyalty to get himself to election day as Liberal leader

  3. Your faith in "a big swing" toward the Coalition is touching. The possibility that poll results might be insubstantial is an article of faith on your part that needs to be re-examined in the light of underlying political realities.

    Abbott should have enough clout to shut down nasty, petty factional disputes. Certainly, Howard did. I gave an example of an electorate where the Liberals should be able to win, but where they are busy spraying themselves with voter repellent. I'm leading the horse to water here, but if it just isn't thirsty then I've done what I can do.

  4. I'd love the press gallery doyens to explore which particular Howard era gems people like Sinodinis and Briggs were involved with. If all of this 'policy nous' leaves us with rubbish policy like work choices or AUSFTA then Tony's senseless repetition of meaningless slogans might actually start to look better by comparison.

    In NSW it looks as though the Labor party is starting to get its act together organisationally however Dastyari seems closer to Paul Howes than i'd like. If they can resist their moronic tendency to try and play to the News Ltd crowd they'll probably do pretty well out of this debacle for the libs.

  5. What does shirtfronting mean?

    1. You need to get out more. Shirtfronting is a violent confrontation. It stems from the tendency for protagonists in "a little harmless fun, perhaps a trifle overdone" to grab each other by the shirt in initiating proceedings.

    2. I thought it was when you grab the back of someone shirt and pull it over their head - so you can reign down the punches.

    3. I always thought a shirtfront was where you hip and shoulder someone and they are unaware it is coming, hence you hit them on the front of their shirt.

    4. I think you need to form a committee and put together a working paper on a final definition.

    5. I meant it in the sense of contradicting your leader to the point where you are not merely challenging but undermining their authority.

    6. Thank you. The blog makes a bit of extra sense now.

  6. Thanks once again Andrew, for the insight and actual knowledge of party politics that is so sadly from mainstream media coverage. I reckon if there's anyone who's interested in politics that doesn't read your blog, they're mugs.

  7. Will Lindsay Tanner's bagging of Labor save Tony Abbott?

    1. Tanner is the shadow of a hollowman these days and his latest effort on book self promotion is testament to that. Besides Gillard has already effectively won Government once without him.

      David Perth

    2. As if! The story will have sunk without trace by tomorrow night. (Notice how they have a habit of doing that lately? And very quickly too? What happened to all those 'questions' Gillard still had to answer about her departure from Slater & Gordon?) You can almost hear the audience and the readers groan at the gallery's slavering over it: they never miss a chance to remind us how bloody useless they are to any understanding of what's actually happening - or going to happen - in this country's politics. Frankly, apart from the ABC - which loves re-living its big scoop of that night - and The Australian - which won't miss a chance to bag the government - nobody gives a rat's anymore about the events of 2010. We've all moved on. We're over it. KRudd's a busted flush. Pity the gallery haven't twigged. But hardly surprising.

    3. Not to forget Maxine McKew's book next month. The timing of their releases would seem to indicate that their love of a buck is a tad stronger than their really honestly sincere desire to save the ALP.

      Unfortunately, they might have overestimated our interest in what they have to say. Apart from Tony Abbott, I'm not sure anyone's rushing out to buy their books. And we all know he doesn't read anyway.

  8. Hi Andrew,

    I must say I debased myself by reading Sheehan's article yesterday and had a good chuckle at David Clarke and his friends about being portayed as agents for openness and democracy within the Liberal Party.

    However I'm not sure that Abbott's problems with the Liberal state governments is as simple as them being focused on their own successes.

    In all three eastern mainland states the new(ish) governments have been notable for their failure to execute beyond a sort of bunyip austerity that threatens to take Australia down the path of southern Europe if the terms of trade move too quickly against us.

    This in itself isn't going down well with the voters and gives the Gillard Federal government plenty of ammunition for next year's election.

    Specifically in New South Wales the problem is more acute as the O'Farrell administration's similarity with the Greiner government is becoming clearer by the day.

    Just as Greiner showed he was just like the previous mendacious Labor mob when he approved Eastern Creek and the M2 in the same manner Laurie Brereton approved Darling Harbour and the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, O'Farrell's release of a half baked wishlist posing as a transport plan confirmed in many NSW voters' minds that the new mob is devoted to empty spin masquerading as policy in exactly the same way as the previous four Labor Premiers were.

    On top of that the state has stagnant property market and O'Farrell's ministers are further scaring the chooks with developer friendly changes to strata and building laws that put unit dwellers and small property investors at a disadvantage.

    Couple these with the silly squandering of political capital in the "Get Clover" campaign and you see a government that is at best struggling for direction.

    To make matters worse for Barry, The Parrot is unhappy that Clover Moore's supporters still control the City of Sydney and he's now campaigning to get more anti-Clover laws passed which will further distract ministers who have problems deciding on what to have for lunch.

    Overall, this is all great news for the incompetent nincompoop apparatchiks of the NSW Labor Party and in itself could win the election for Gillard.

    Far from being deliberate, I'd suggest its structural incompetence in the O'Farrell, Baillieu and Newman governments that may well sink Abbott's campaign.

    Anyway, keep up the good work and stop reading Paul Sheehan articles.

  9. Always enjoy your insider pieces on the Liberal party but I didn't understand this para at all, Andrew! :

    "If you must read a Paul Sheehan article, go straight down to about the second-last paragraph and read the almost inevitable "don't be fooled by claims that ..."; here will be the substance of the article and his motivation for writing it. To represent people like the secretive, schismatic and vicious David Clarke as agents of openness, fair play and democracy is pretty funny, and by the time you realise it isn't satire it is too late."

    On your recommendation I read the article and it seemed clear to me he was saying quite the reverse: ie that Clarke, along with Photios and Alex Hawke were in fact part of the cabal responsible for the use of emergency powers? And the point he made you found objectionable was nothing more than each of them being from a different faction?

    For the record, this is what Sheehan wrote:

    "Don't be suckered into believing that what afflicts the NSW Liberals is a battle for power between liberal versus conservative, left versus right, secular versus religious.

    The party's structural deformity stems from an alliance made by three men, each from different wings of the party, to introduce the special powers that have been so abused.

    The three men are Michael Photios, a lobbyist, Alex Hawke, a federal MP, and David Clarke, a state MP. They have unleashed a process they can no longer control.

    None of them has been asked to account for what they have done to the party. That process began in court on Friday."

    1. Sheehan has long stood up for the right, and he is drawing a long bow in drawing Photios into an initiative that Clarke escalated and could have stopped at any time. The responsibility is with Clarke and his buddies, and the leader should have cracked down.

    2. ?? But you claimed Sheehan was representing Clarke as "an agent of openness, fair play and democracy" when in fact he was saying the opposite. He said that Clarke was one of three (of a larger cabal) that introduced the "special powers that have been so abused.
      Where did openness, fair play and democracy come into it in relation to Clarke in Sheehan's article?

  10. 'north of the Tweed they are both about as popular as Paul Gallen.'

    One of your best Andrew! :D