29 November 2015

Brough enough

As we head into the end times for Mal Brough, let's consider how his career represents several things wider than him: machismo, keeping Aborigines "in their place", opportunity costs, and the price of loyalty. Oh, and of course, piss-poor standards of political journalism.

Act I: Taking the crease

Before first entering parliament for the electorate of Longman (now held by Wyatt Roy) in 1996, Brough had been an army officer. The press gallery singled him out for Big Things. When Tony Abbott was promoted to Cabinet in 2001, Brough replaced him as Minister for Employment Services.

Malcolm Farr made a telling anecdote [link broken] about Brough at a cricket match. Because Farr is an old-school journalist in the mendacious world of political reporting, he did not use that anecdote to look into what Brough did and how he did it, questioning his statements and fitness for office generally; instead, the coverage of him (by Farr and others in the press gallery) is pretty much all direct quotes and giving Brough the benefit of the doubt.

Act II: Hubris

In 2004 Brough became Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer to Peter Costello, where he was responsible for hacking into the tax base at the very time the mining boom was taking off. Part of the reason why Wayne Swan, Joe Hockey, and now Scott Morrison, have been unable to do much about the revenue side of the budget is because of Brough's hard work back then. It's notable that those tax breaks did not lead to the private sector picking up the slack in terms of infrastructure; Australian history suggests that where government fails to take the lead, no infrastructure magically appears. Interesting experiment, though.

In 2006 Brough entered Cabinet as Minister for Families and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. This might sound like he was doing squishy welfare stuff; not a bit of it. Brough came up with the idea of using a report into sexual abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, Little Children are Sacred, as a pretext to send the Army in to occupy those communities and stamp out anti-social behaviour. He ignored the report and there is no evidence it made much of a difference one way or another, but it made a big splash - this may explain why Labor kept it after 2007. Frances Jones shows how Brough encouraged the Tiwi Islands Land Council to adopt schemes that created no jobs and degraded the environment: a lose-lose situation for people who were doing it tough already.

Despite the demonstrated lack of any link between the Northern Territory Emergency Response and any sort of success metric, the press gallery remained convinced that Brough was an action man and a Liberal star on the rise. He was Hotspur to Tony Abbott's Prince Hal. Consider this table of Sheer Damn Manliness:

Relationship to the Queen
Talked a lot of talk about the Queen
Held the Queen’s commission
Occupation before entering politics
Student (well into 30s), journalist
Army officer, sales
Economic credentials under Howard govt
Peter Costello disdained his understanding of economics
Minister for Revenue, helped diminish tax base
Military deployment proposals
To Ukraine, protect plane debris
To Northern Territory, protect Aboriginal children
Military deployment proposals supported by Labor
Re-elected in 2007
Complained publicly about decline in income after having been Cabinet minister
Disdained major political development
Climate change
Merger of Liberal and National Parties in Qld
Supported Brough for LNP preselection in Fisher for 2013
Supported Brough for Abbott ministry 2013
Supported Abbott as Liberal leader February 2015
Supported Abbott as Liberal leader September 2015

Act III: Nemesis

If Mal Brough had held Longman in 2007 then he, not Tony Abbott, would have been the favoured candidate for leader when Turnbull stumbled in 2009. Brough would have negated Rudd's Queensland appeal and been a bit more presentable than the often uncouth and puerile Abbott. The press gallery would have loved that action-man crap and Labor would hardly have been in a position to criticise his failures in Indigenous policy, having perpetuated them.

But, he didn't. If ever a minister was going to come out of the Howard government and fall into a series of cushy boards and advisory roles, according to the political-class fantasy, he was it. Brough faffed around and ended up as the last Queensland State President of the Liberal Party. He was against the merger with the Queensland Nationals that formed the LNP: he lacked the clout to stop it altogether and the wit to turn it to his advantage. He looked truculent, like a lamb trying to back out of a sheep-dip at the last minute, rather than a political operator contributing to something bigger than himself. It meant he couldn't secure a seat for 2010, which may have seen him back in Cabinet in 2013; more faffing around, this time outside the LNP power structure.

George Brandis also showed his true colours at this time, putting up a token resistance before succumbing. As Attorney-General his role has been to talk about John Stuart Mill, but then assert that civil liberties must be sacrificed to Daesh and that you can exercise a right to bigotry. If your idea of political activism and progress is to offer a token resistance before succumbing, Brandis is your model for involvement in major-party politics.

By 2012 Brough had come around to the idea that politics was his only real career option, and that he had no choice to suck up to people who were once his peers and juniors. Brough was a minister when Peter Dutton was first elected; when Brough went into Cabinet Dutton had taken over his junior portfolio. Dutton had been re-elected in 2007 and was cruising to a Cabinet role without doing anything. As Peter Slipper committed political suicide by all but switching to Labor, Brough could have played the statesman and let the LNP bring Fisher to him - but instead, he got his hands dirty. That sexist menu for his fundraiser in 2012 (no I won't link to it) is a perfect example of officers' mess wit.

As with Kathy Jackson, Independent Australia were onto Brough from the outset. The press gallery resisted the allure of sleaze and illegality because Brough was part of the Restoration narrative. This is why there's no point dipping into broadcast-media summaries, and why ABC reporters look silly when they write off questioning of Brough as 'Labor mischief': the Ashby thing ain't their mischief. IA put out numerous articles and a book on the matter while the broadcast media can offer only potted half-embarrassed recaps.

Act IV: You can't step in the same river twice

When the Abbott government took office in 2013 there were a few changes to the Shadow Ministry becoming Ministers, but basically the Abbott government was all about restoring the Howard government as though nothing had happened between then and 2007. Two Howard-era Cabinet ministers elected in 2013 did not get a portfolio - Philip Ruddock and Mal Brough - and Ruddock had declared he didn't want a portfolio. Brough sucked it up and got on with backbenching, and the press gallery stopped gushing over how great it was to have the old gang back together. Brough didn't have the twinkly-eyed gravitas of veterans like Philip Ruddock or Warren Entsch, and wasn't a fresh face either.

The LNP merger Brough had so opposed was designed to make it easier for the Coalition to win State government in Queensland. Brough had foreseen that it would be a disaster, and the performance of the Newman government 2012-15 proved him right. In politics you can be a drunk, a thief, a sex maniac and/or a terror to work for, and people will cover for you; but get proven right when everyone else is wrong, and that warm inner glow won't save you. The January 2015 Queensland state election proved everything turned out to be just as bad as Mal Brough said it would be.

The first chance he got, in February 2015, he voted against his brother-from-another-mother Abbott. In September he voted against him again. The lack of press gallery coverage about Ashby (mainly protecting favoured source Christopher Pyne) must have lulled Prime Minister Turnbull into thinking Brough was cleared of the matter concerning Slipper's diary and other questionable behaviour. It was always a sad joke to put him in charge of electoral probity, and now it seems like the Prime Minister will have to find someone else.

The longer Brough stays as Special Minister of State, the less likely it is there will be an early election. A quick replacement would have been a clear sign the government was up to something. He is also Minister for Defence Materiel at a time when big procurement projects are up for grabs.

If Turnbull hadn't appointed Brough to the ministry, Brough would have joined the Abbott-Abetz sooks' club, and/or gone bonkers like Senator Macdonald.

Abbott allowed himself a chuckle as Labor finally started questioning him over Ashby-Slipper, at a time when even the press gallery would give them coverage for doing so. Abbott allowed himself a chuckle, as he does when others come under the scrutiny he has always escaped: a could-have-been Liberal leader mocked by a has-been.

The Australian Federal Police had all but dropped their investigation into the events surrounding the Speaker's diary until recently. I note, without making any allegation, that the minister responsible for the AFP is George Brandis. If this investigation damages the political careers of two of Brandis' ministerial colleagues (Brough and Pyne) while leaving his untouched, it could be a masterstroke worthy of House of Cards. If not, it could be the greatest own-goal in Australian politics since the Costigan Royal Commission.

Governments can lose a minister or two without affecting their ability to be re-elected. Turnbull knows this, as does any student of Australian politics. Predicting the demise of Brough or even Pyne will finish Turnbull is to over-egg the situation. Mind you, Mal Brough's whole political career has been empty hype on the part of the press gallery. Now that it is over, it is clear how insubstantial it was.


  1. Your 'telling anecdote' link unfortunately goes nowhere, Andrew. Just the news.com home page.

    1. Apologies. It worked a few days ago.

    2. Apologies. It worked a few days ago.

    3. This may be the one: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/september/1377957600/nick-bryant/mal-brough-crashes-through

  2. I think Frances Jones got the link wrong too.

  3. Mal Brough has and always will be completely consumed with himself, that he could not get a job after his dumping from Longman and not one Liberal stepped up to help him secure employment displayed the absolute distrust they have for him. Brough has made himself the victim of his own hubris, temper and ideology, while he remains the Ashbygate affair will stick to the Liberals like dog poo, every time Brough opens his mouth people look at him and see the mess that is Ashbygate not what a Government wants or needs leading into an election. He will not under any circumstances fall on his sword he does not have it in him, the only way will be if he is given a job that he sees as befitting his stature other than that Turnbull will have to grow a pair and do what needs doing, like a band aide quick and painless.

  4. Your unmade allegation in the second last para is very interesting. I suppose time will tell, as you say.

    In either case, Brandis would be acting with the tacit approval of the press gallery.

  5. Yet another first-class effort, Andrew. I am glad you cited the Intervention catastrophe because it is one that Labor stepped back from opposing or even questioning. The classical Rudd response to Howard's infamous Wedge tactics was to go with a "me too".

    And they went on with it in office. Presumably that was on the ostensible grounds that promises should be kept. Yet it shouldn't have been all that hard to prove that it was an enormous white elephant. The more likely reason was that indigenous affairs were seen as a divisive issue and getting into a protracted argument on them would not help the populist cause. Gillard-Macklin must have seen what a dog's breakfast it was, but what with leaking and a PM-in-exile looking for a cause to win disgruntlement, decided that the least troublesome course was to continue it. In miniature, it was like the Boat People insanity.

    But the real culprits, aside from the instigators of Ashbygate, were the Press Gallery and the AFP. The Press Gallery has long ignored Ashbygate, probably for the reasons you mention, even though it was a major breach of propriety. Justice Rares called it as a conspiracy and in times past it might have led to major media coverage and calls for a Royal Commission. It is astonishing that the AFP should ignore and/or stonewall what was clearly an offence cited to them by an elected MP, Graham Perrett. And that the Gallery saw nothing out of the ordinary in the AFP behaving that way. Somebody lamely mentioned that even the Rares judgement occurred just before the Christmas break. Apparently that's an excuse for not reporting it. It's as lame as their excuses for missing the impact of Gillard's Misogyny speech as 'context'.

    It's hard to see directly Brandis's role in it then or now. Somebody had to twist Finance's and the AFP's arms about going after Slipper despite the Minchin Protocol. A story there on who. And how did AFP get unleashed now?

    So Brough has to go finally, you believe. When the Abbott-Pyne combo was working the media, I'd have backed them to brazen it out. It seems less likely now, even if Turnbull has taken on a lot of debts to get over the line.

    Maybe one of the losing sooks is working them on the matter. It's still very hard to see the Press Gallery breaking out of its paralysis and running with it. But a bit of Brough's troubles has seeped through.

    We can but hope.

  6. An instructive summary of Brough's unstellar career, thank you Andrew. You might have a look at the link to Malcolm Farr's telling anecdote. It took me to a general News Ltd page. I managed to Google it and read Farr's story in an article in The Monthly. Yes it is telling. I can remember behaving like that a couple of times when I was about six but not since.
    Rais, Thornlie, WA.

    1. As a child playing sport, and certainly in a blokey, team-based environment like the Army, surely that kind of behaviour would be unacceptable. I can't imagine how he got away with it for so long.

    2. As a child playing sport, and certainly in a blokey, team-based environment like the Army, surely that kind of behaviour would be unacceptable. I can't imagine how he got away with it for so long.

    3. I'm not across the details of Brough's military career, but as long as he remained respectful of his senior officers (just as there never seems to be a suggestion that he tried his Big Shouty Man act on John Howard or even Tony Abbott) then it's entirely conceivable he got away with that kind of behaviour towards his subordinates. Unfortunately. You hear a number of stories of that kind of guy in the military, all proper to the brass but drunk with power when they're the biggest authority in the room.

      It's also pretty likely that his ego was bigger by 2001, as a government minister with an eye on bigger things, than it would have been when he was just a junior officer in the Army in the early 90s. He may not have been quite as bad back then.

  7. Lachlan Ridge30/11/15 7:23 pm

    A beautiful metaphor of Brough as the lamb backing out of the LNP deal!

    And this: "If your idea of political activism and progress is to offer a token resistance before succumbing, Brandis is your model for involvement in major-party politics."

    Brandis has been Albo's model then. Sums up the ALP Left since 1980 pretty well, especially the narcissistic wing around the member for Grayndler, who has mastered this art since he was Tom Uren's eminence grise back in the eighties. Nothing changes for the new conservatives of both parties; keep the theatre alive with the status quo..

    Which also explains why the intervention wasn't shut down. Don't want to annoy the rednecks in Lindsay now, do we. Also explains why the ALP NSW Left loved the sociopath Rudd in the end - they are no more interested in effecting policy change than Statler and Waldorf are interested in taking to the stage.

    And yet this is how we are supposed to arrive at public policy! Which explains why surveys show a majority of Australians reject much of the "bipartisan"effluvium of neoliberalism, such as privatisation, deregulation and smaller government.

    God help us all.

  8. Sadly, I feel that once again a conservative politician in this country will 'get away with it'. There's no appetite in the press for pursuing Brough or explaining to the public why they ought to care. Slipper is not a sympathetic character and so the distinct possibility that Brough crossed the line in pursuing him (and then lied about it) isn't really exciting the public imagination.

    When push comes to shove, politicians in this country can get away with any amount of lies and deceit unless there is a perception they have rorted taxpayer money. Children Overboard helped steal an election for the Coalition and none of them suffered any consequences for it, but Peter Reith's career was screwed up by the phone card scandal, Bronwyn Bishop's career ended by her travel expenses, and Sinodinos at least heavily set back by the spectre that he acted improperly for financial gain vis a vis Australian Water Holdings.

  9. Hi Andrew, your blog is back on line I see.

    BTW, did you notice the other day that one of your muses, Peter Hartcher, was awarded a Walkley! You'd almost be at the point of Tom Lehrer, the satirist, who announced he was going to retire when Henry Kissinger, the architect of the Vietnam War, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and said that he could no longer compete with reality!

  10. Andrew, whats your take on the Macfarlane defection?