13 February 2015

Black Friday's reminder

The demise of Phillip Ruddock as Chief Government Whip put paid to the idea that Abbott might learn anything from Monday's vote, and resolve to do better.

When George W. Bush was running for US President, his image as a callow and immature man turned off conservatives who were looking for a bit of dignity to follow Bill Clinton. Republican messaging held that Bush could draw upon the gravitas of his father to guide him through foreign policy and other issues requiring a calm and steady head. People fell for that, and the rest is history.

When Abbott became Prime Minister he dumped Warren Entsch as Chief Whip and replaced him with Ruddock to give both men a veneer of gravitas, for which the entire press gallery fell hard. They wanted to believe in an Abbott government and still do, which is why the subtext of most press gallery reporting is: Stop it Tony, you're embarrassing us!.

Appointing Ruddock as Chief Whip was a mistake. The job of Chief Whip, as Ruddock pointed out on departure, is within the gift of the party leader. The point of the job is its two-way communication between the leader and the backbench. The Chief Whip allays the fears of skittish backbenchers who had no role in contentious decision-making but who cop a public backlash nonetheless. The Chief Whip acts as a sounding board for dissent (especially when the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, the leader and his chief of staff, are as tightly interconnected as they are), and is able to tell whether complaints from the backbench are:
  • Just the murmurings of some whinger who can be safely ignored; or
  • A bit of a concern, but nothing to worry about too much; or
  • Worth a bit of the leader's time to calm the horses and maybe tweak things a bit; or
  • *grabs leader by the lapels and shakes hard* This is serious! Here's who your enemies are and who you need to work on! Cancel that junket to London/ Beijing/ Washington, you'll be finished by the time you get there and their intelligence services will brief their leaders accordingly; or
  • It's over, see ya.
The Whip is the leader's most sturdy defender, or worst enemy. The Whip is a person of great subtlety, understanding of human foibles and how to orchestrate them. The Whip has a big role in talent-spotting; when a leader replaces a frontbencher, that person should know which backbenchers are on the shortlist and who's on the shitlist.

Counting heads is a basic political skill. Everyone in politics got elected to the job. In military dictatorships the leader would have practiced a form of officers-mess politics before leading the troops to the palace, and whisperers in the cloisters run ecclesiastical dictatorships. Whips have to be across everyone in the party room: what motivates them, how do they perceive the leader, is that combination of fast-pace and loneliness in Canberra getting to them? The Whip's job is to keep a running count of the numbers in his head; the leader has other things on his mind, and can be forgiven for brushing off a backbencher's quibble.

Tony Staley, who decided Billy Snedden couldn't beat Whitlam but Malcolm Fraser could, came to that conclusion in the Whip's office. Francis Urquhart, the lead character in the UK House of Cards series, made his bid for power from the Whip's office. When Kevin Rudd challenged Julia Gillard the first time she thrashed him, but Chief Whip Joel Fitzgibbon didn't warn his leader and she sacked him. Fitzgibbon then began briefing gullible journalists against Gillard; anyone who briefed against Gillard got an extra helping of gravitas from the press gallery.

The Whip is not some fusty relic of Empire, like Peter Slipper's eighteenth-century garb as Speaker. Political leaders stay or go depending on the quality of their Whips.

John Howard had been both the victim and the beneficiary of backbench revolts. As Prime Minister he used his Whips assiduously to take soundings of the backbench, and trusted their judgment on how far he could push them. This is another of Howard's political skills that Abbott lacks.

Press gallery journalists of many years' experience should have the subtle understanding that good Whips do - but they don't. Julia Gillard was beset by a small band of whingers, but they made her detractors look bigger than they were. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were subject to leader-tossing rage from their backbenchers, yet the press gallery couldn't pick it before it happened. Peter Reith observed:
You only need one or two backbenchers to wander through the press gallery with a titbit of leadership distraction and the issue will rumble on for months.
One can forgive a partisan like Reith for not pointing this out in Gillard's day, but the press gallery cannot enjoy the same indulgence. It's silly for the press gallery (most of whose members remain from that time) to cover up the insubstantial nature of both their constant leadership speculation, and their misrepresentation of Abbott as an alternative Prime Minister.

Ruddock is a man of subtlety. It is possible that he detected backbench dissent well before it started to threaten Abbott directly, well before even the better-connected members of the press gallery woke up to it. It is possible that he warned Abbott, in his courtly and understated way. It is possible that Abbott missed his subtle cues, or that he shouted at Ruddock to be yet another messenger of the lines cooked up in the PM's Office. The Whip failed the leader, not the other way around; the Whip should have known what he was like and responded accordingly.

Phillip Ruddock was 30 years old and a former President of the Young Liberals when he was elected to Parliament in 1973 (when Tony Abbott was in Year 10, and before his factional opponent John Howard won a neighbouring electorate). In 1983 the Fraser government lost office, and with it went his chance of becoming a minister: Howard had been Treasurer. He got onto the front bench under Peacock but was demoted by Howard.

He disagreed with Howard over Asian immigration; while that hardly endeared him to the then leader it enabled him to play a subtle game of courting donations and votes from non-English-speaking migrants to the Liberal Party. At this point, Tony Abbott was wondering whether he should join the Liberals at all.

In 1993 Hewson lost to Keating; Ruddock was now 50, he'd never been a minister, he had no contacts that might provide a comfortable post-political career. Had Tony Abbott not won preselection for Warringah in 1994 he may well have picked off Ruddock in Berowra. By then, Ruddock had learned to stop worrying and love John Howard. Other moderates followed him. Howard is seen as a great leader in the Liberal Party because he wore down his opponents. The right are big on forgiving prodigal sons, including Ruddock and all those ex-Marxist wasters in places like Quadrant.

Phillip Ruddock apparently told Abbott before last Monday's ballot that he should expect 16 to 18 votes against his leadership. The actual figure was 39. That isn't some minor discrepancy. Ruddock stuffed up very, very badly. There were only a dozen votes between Abbott and oblivion: nobody else was running. You'd sack an accountant who stuffed up so badly they almost sent you broke.

People who reviled Ruddock as Immigration Minister and Attorney General now keen for his dismissal as Whip, which is stupid. This blog is irredeemably biased against Abbott but dumping Ruddock is an understandable act of self-preservation.

Last Monday's vote was the last chance for Abbott boosters to prove their boy was capable of change. He looked gutted and contrite; someone with more humility, like Howard, would have used self-deprecating humour to garner sympathy and time. Abbott just floundered for about forty-eight hours and then reverted to his worst qualities.

He had to unify his party and stifle dissent. His Whip had failed, utterly and in public, to do that job. Abbott orchestrated blasts of hatred against Labor, with collateral damage against Professor Triggs' report on refugee children in detention. He had attack wombat Peter Dutton go Labor on some technical point that had to be explained even to people who follow politics closely (as a comedian has failed when their jokes need explaining, so too a politician has failed when their political pointscoring efforts need explaining).

That blast of hatred reminded Libs when they had a common, hapless enemy, and when they feared that rage being turned on them. It only works when the target withers in the face of it; they didn't. It only works when the hatemonger doesn't overreach, as Abbott did with his "holocaust of jobs". The press gallery reported this as a 'gaffe', which is stupid - it's not an aberration, it's how Abbott works. He overreaches, he apologises and withdraws, he overreaches again. Sin and purge, over and over, for years and years. Press gallery experience really is worth nothing.

The junkyard dog is the aspect of Abbott's personality swinging voters hate most, and which Liberals have the hardest time defending. Conservatives can't understand why Abbott doesn't just set aside all the hoo-ha and just govern, but here they are victims of their own mixed messaging. Abbott on his bike is like George W. Bush on his ranch - busy doing something other than imposing regulations or raising taxes on conservatives. If he enjoyed governing he would have put out and defended detailed policies.

The press gallery didn't notice the absence of policies. Only policy wonks who'd never vote for him did, and only they/we worried what a policy-inept government might mean.

Having started the week with a wake-up call, Abbott ends it by reminding people about two things. First, the division within the Liberal Party is real, it runs deep, and will fester. Second, it reminds people - friend or foe - what a vindictive prick he is. Any calm, moderating influence has gone. The junkyard dog is most dangerous when wounded, and will fight off anyone who tries to help. Good government never stood a chance.


  1. Good article as always Andrew.

    Noted this: "Phillip Ruddock apparently told Abbott before last Monday's ballot that he should expect 16 to 18 votes against his leadership.". Twitter was putting the numbers at around 40 before the spill motion had been tabled. What does it say when Twitter is more accurate than either the Press Gallery or the Whip?

    Abbott might get a brief lull though. It's starting to look like Labor is preparing to indulge in some factional infighting over the leadership. Now that a Labor victory is seeming very likely, the question is no longer "who's best at leading us through the long slog in opposition", to "We can win, why isn't one of *OUR* faction leading the party?". Hopefully saner heads will remind them of Napoleons classic advice 'Never interrupt an enemy when they are committing a mistake', but the urge for Labor to fight its oldest most hated enemy (other factions of Labor) may prove irresistible.

    1. You may be right, but Victoria, Qld and SA showed what Labor can do when they sort that stuff out at the local level rather than relying on national bigwigs like Richo or Faulkner. Even NSW has woken up to this. The idea that Labor is on the precipice is wistful thinking by the Coalition, methinks.

  2. Another great dissection Andrew. How do you think the current LNP rid themselves of this turbulent failed priest before we do it for them next year?

  3. "Overreach" is the right word for Abbott's hyperbole and attack dog style. It reached its zenith several times since the ballot, firstly with the attack on Grigg, and then with his "holocaust" of job losses.

    And who can forget, during one of his regular rants against Gillard and her government, the little sneer of "... a government that should already have died of shame..." ?

    It wasn't 'foot-in-mouth', his usual excuse for such a moment. The Jones insult about the dying John Gillard had been central political news in the preceding days. Even Abbott had rather shame-facedly retreated from it.

    No, it was intended to apply one further twist of the knife, in the petty vindictiveness which had never left him since his days as a student politics thug. In a nice bit of karma, Gillard unleashed all the power of her Misogyny Speech on him.

    Our tame-cat Press Gallery reported that speech as a failure just as it went viral worldwide.

    They still hold hopes for him, in an act of delusion equal to his own. The reality which has been staring in their faces for 5 years, as you've so carefully chronicled, is that Abbott is both unfit for and incapable of being Prime Minister.

    My congratulations to you for your most recent efforts which have remained at the highest analytical quality.

  4. This is fast becoming a favourite read for me.

    Personally, I begin to see them all in a negative light, the Nats walking out on poor Nova Perris just confirms a new perception of them as outright bigots rather than merely boorish conservatives.

    Labor should be glad these people are clod-hoppers, for they are often mediocre also.

  5. I like that you are now writing a regular/timely analysis. Thank you.

  6. Abbott does not enjoy the job. An interesting observation Andrew.

    Something clicked for me. The realization that We are Abbott's hair shirt.

    You are shrewd to couple him with George Bush jnr who was propelled into the White House by the dynastical ambitions of his family. He fled to his ranch. Abbott gets on his bike and pedals furiously.

    You are right too about the press gallery and commentators who have failed to understand that what you see with Abbott is what you see. He is a man who needs an enemy. He is like one of those TV outdoorsman adventurers who jumps on to the back of pythons for a bit of a wrestle.

    Many valiant attempts have been made to turn him a complex figure. At the heart of such attempts is Abbott's Catholicism and stint in the seminary. Somehow this man has been presented to us as a romantic Sebastian Flyte.

    Goodness me, why would anyone expect deep thought of the tormented kind from a man who threatened to 'shirt-front' the leader of a powerful nation and then stood beside him cuddling a koala.

    The early response to Ruddock's sacking says to me that Abbott is drowning in the pickle jar. There are ominous rumblings from the stalls with angry back benchers speaking anonymously of their disquiet. Ruddock, the reviled former Immigration Minister, has been transformed into a kindly grand pa who deserved respect. It has been suggested that he is Abbott's whipping boy.

    I wonder what will happen today?

    1. Pater Hartcher has sniffed the wind is suddenly defending the electorate. (http://tinyurl.com/ocf4u9o)

      Andrew, I wondered whether you think this means. In the name of "electorate volatility" are the MSM about to have a bit of meltdown of their own?

      I also look forward to you revisiting your thoughts on Julie Bishop and your sense that she "never misses an opportunity to miss opportunities".

      - Joe Fitzpatrick

    2. Why has it taken so long for anyone to realise that Liesalot would not just be a lazy, incompetent, inept appalling PM, but that he just wanted the fame he craved from the position, not the work it involves.

      I suspect that is why Peta Credlin has so much power. Liesalot really can't be bothered doing the hard yards.

    3. Anon, he's always blamed everyone else for his problems, now he's turned on his own.

      Joe, Peter Hartcher's wind-sniffing abilities just don't matter. I can still remember in 1992 his front-page spread on how Keating couldn't win in 1993 (a wall facing King Street Newtown reproduced that front page and kept it there for years). He defended Rudd when he was in trouble and continued to paint Gillard in the worst possible light. Since then he has turned his affections to Bishop and Hockey, but like Blanche du Bois he relies a little too heavily upon the kindness of strangers.

      Jane, the trouble with the press gallery is that they think this is a recent development. To say that they were gulled from the outset (as they were) is to negate the press gallery altogether.

  7. Thanks, appreciated getting a better understanding of the role of Whip. Sharing.

  8. Perhaps because I find everything this Government says does utterly detestable, and therefore try to avoid looking, that I hadn't noticed the Cadaver was the Whip.

    The guy showed no subtlety in his role as (possibly) Australia's first Government-sponsored serial killer, a role adopted with glee by every Immigration Minister since. It's no surprise, then, that Abbott, ignorant of what a Whip is for, appointed such a dud.

  9. Yeah, I never gave him a first chance let alone a second. The " Good government" line was proven empty when in the space of ONE DAY I hear these:
    1) Lib ministers walk out of the chamber when Shorten suggest that maybe the indigenous gap would close faster if you didn't take millions out of the programs.
    2) Bishop, she who killed asbestos victims, cried over the long awaited death of a drug smuggler.
    3) Abbott's dismissal of there being anything wrong with the treatment of children in detention. Royal commission into unions, but not child abuse? Yep that's our libs.

    4)Then the whole " holocaust" beat up.

    At what point can the Govener General declare these puppets a write off? That's the saving grace of our current system isn't it, we can have a revolution without the blood?

  10. Good riddance to the depraved Ruddock. I was in the house working for a Democrat senator when he crossed the floor against Howard on Asian immigration and we went to take him flowers and have a cup of tea.

    I met him again in 2002 when he forcibly gate crashed a meeting of the Survivors of Trauma and Torture and gave a stupid speech about the glories of TPV's, jailing refugees and returning them to death if he felt like it.

    Sandy MacFarlane was also giving a speech and pointed out that the Survivors of trauma and torture had a 400% increase in their work load thanks to Ruddocks depravity, it was like water off a duck's back.

    I will give Ruddock credit for a great memory for faces because he sure recognised me - I went to him after wards and reminded him of that meeting in 1988 and went on to say I thought he was a good man and a good person and he started to preen and drag himself up to 5'4" in height to meet me eye to eye, then I slapped his arm and called him a lying sack of shit.

    His only response was to tell me I had a right to my own opinion. Another man bailed him up about Kirsty fleeing the family home over kids in refugee prisons and he ran away and had my friend man handled by his thugs.

    Then he tried to get to the chicken supper but I stopped him in his tracks again with WHY DO YOU WRITE POLICIES THAT MURDER INNOCENT PEOPLE, like those on SIEVX, he ran out the door without so much as a chicken wing and I was loudly applauded for getting rid of him.

    He had thought to sneak into town, give his unwanted speech and escape but STARRS invited the advocates along, Ruddock's gutless parting shot was to steal our NO KIDS IN DETENTION banners.

    He should have been in jail for the past 14 years over deliberate and calculated child torture - anyone remember when he called Shayan Badraie IT on 4 Corners? - and so should all the others who have come after him because we just get worse instead of better.

  11. "vindictive prick" - at last an accurate and succinct description of Abbott.

  12. Terrible to think that Ruddock's successor Scott Morrison may be the one to oust Abbott.

    I did not watch Q & A last night but everything I have heard about Turnbull's contributions have made me yawn. He seems like another Costello to me.

    No I am afraid, in the literal sense, that Scott will get the gig.

  13. my sociologist friend said to me recently that the conservative Anglo_ Australian upper middle classes are some of the most heartless and selfish he has seen in politics worldwide...

    This asylum seeker debate has just reconfirmed that silly ole stereotype...

  14. Andrew....

    Let's not even talk about that speech by the idiocy of our human rights commissioner yesterday

    He's made a mockery of gay relationships in this country.