15 December 2015

Between two stools

Ian Macfarlane knew better to entrust his political career to the Nationals. As head of the Cattlemen's Union in the 1990s, he had shown a real skill at getting seemingly unreconcilable interests to come together and form some sort of agreement; a case of political skill preceding political ambition. When he began expressing an interest in going into politics, but was reluctant to join the Nationals, John Howard persuaded him to join the Liberal Party and to replace Bill Taylor as MP for Groom.

But I doubt he'd suit the office,

Soon after he was elected in 1998 he went on Lateline with then-Nationals MP DeAnne Kelly. Kelly ragged him for being less than a true Queenslander for not having joined the Nationals (I hope the ABC can dig up that episode; it must look pretty funny right now). Howard made him a minister and, like all ministers in the latter part of that government, he built his reputation on shelling public money at those who already had plenty in the name of incentives.

The press gallery regarded Macfarlane as a "straight shooter" because history shows they are suckers for that rustic schtick.

At every point in Australia's political history, in every jurisdiction, there has been at least one MP from the backblocks who turns up to Parliament with grass-seeds in his eyebrows. He is patronised unrelentingly by the urban press because this visage affirms their half-arsed stereotypes about The Bush. That politician proves a master at diverting money earned in the cities to pet projects in his electorate, and those of his growing number of vassals. As that politician rises in the ranks - rarely to the head of government, but close enough to escape scrutiny while getting his demands met - he continues to be patronised by the same media who puzzle at his success in getting things done and in securing largesse for voters in the back-of-beyond. A six-lane sealed highway from Kickatinalong to Wheelabarrowback. An irrigation channel where the water evaporates before it reaches the neighbouring electorate.

Such politicians deliver nothing whatsoever for local indigenous communities, nor for those who claim the local Bishop is too lax in enforcing rules against ... that which must not be spoken; but such absences, silences, and negatives are achievements in themselves for representatives of this type.

In recent times Macfarlane, Barnaby Joyce, Ron Boswell, and Bill Heffernan have pulled this rustic schtick over the press gallery. Labor does it to a lesser extent as they hold fewer rural seats (e.g. Dick Adams and Warren Snowdon; Joel Fitzgibbon looks stupid when he tries). Old hands who can remember Peter Nixon, Ian Sinclair or even 'Black Jack' McEwen have should be awake to it, and in theory an journalist who is fooled greatly for a long period has let down their profession as well as the public. Press gallery journalism is different to other journalism because experienced journalists show themselves over and over to be willingly gulled by pretty much anyone who tries it on.

Pantomime rustics wear press gallery scorn lightly, and relish the relative freedom from scrutiny that urban pollies don't have and can't get. Bill Heffernan can make rampantly sexist and homophobic remarks and even bring a weapon into Parliament: the press gallery just roll their eyes, that's Bill being Bill! If Mal Brough spoke and carried himself like Bob Katter or Doug Anthony, he'd have succeeded in shrugging off the Slipper-Ashby thing and made Mark Dreyfus look like a whinger. Lawrence Springborg gets another shot at state leader of the LNP over some new face (or someone urban like Langbroek) from the southeast, where the party needs to win seats to regain office.

Cut forward to late 2009

... and Malcolm Turnbull was, as the journos say, beleaguered. For all the media coverage at the time showing the frontbench deserting Turnbull en masse, the Liberal Party was evenly divided over keeping Turnbull as leader - certainly if the alternative was Abbott. By then the Nationals had realised their traditional base was no longer capable of keeping them in the manner to which they had become accustomed. There was no conflict between mining an farming interests so long as miners kept their operations well away from farmlands (e.g. the deserts and semi-deserts, and the Barrier Reef), or maintained the sorts of mine-farm balances seen in communities like the Upper Hunter or Gippsland, where rural workers even out the ups and downs of agriculture with steadier incomes from the mines. At the time they thought climate change was an issue that could simply be voted down. The Nationals were showing their donors that they could deliver, and currying favour with the rise of conservative Liberals who promised a closer Coalition than had been seen for decades.

Abbott went to Brisbane to court LNP powerbrokers. Turnbull phoned individuals, who mostly ended up voting as the powerbrokers told them to. Abbott's defeat of Turnbull in 2009 was more like Gillard's defeat of Rudd the following year than either side dares admit; more than the press gallery, who saw it all up close, could comprehend.

The formation of the LNP in Queensland was a takeover of the Coalition in that state by the Nationals, with the purpose of securing the powers of state government to benefit Nationals constituencies. They resented the fact that the federal Coalition got involved in what they saw as internal Queensland matters; they agreed to Howard's demands to maintain a separate Liberal/National presence (including maintaining individuals like Macfarlane, or Brandis) in Canberra in return for letting the merger go ahead at state level. The powerbrokers who formed the LNP, like Bruce McIver, were the successors to Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Bob Sparkes: they arrogantly pushed aside their political opponents, scorned irrelevances in far-off Canberra (and the nerds who wanted to go there) and did pretty much what they wished. In 2009, the Nats who ran the LNP could happily sacrifice one Sydneysider leading the Liberal Party for another if it meant they'd be left alone.

One of the core motivations behind Abbott's leadership of the Liberal Party was the idea that Labor's victory in 2007 was illegitimate and some sort of mistake. They thought they were entitled to take up where they left off. Ian Macfarlane was no more, and no less, entitled than anyone.

Why 2015 is different to 2009

  1. Macfarlane has, as Turnbull said in September, had a good go at being a minister. At the time Macfarlane seemed to agree - even in the face of the ignominy at being replaced by Christopher Pyne.
  2. The LNP powerbrokers have been knocked on their arses. They fooled some of the people some of the time in southeastern Queensland, but this region proved so hard to govern and chewed up so much state government time that the Nationals' traditional plunder-to-the-regions never took off. That old Bjelke-Sparkes arrogance has been knocked out of them by Labor, and by the realisation that shafting Turnbull again would take them further backwards.
  3. The LNP powerbrokers have knocked both their current leader (Warren Truss) and the likely next one (Barnaby Joyce) on their arses. If those guys can't win the LNP executive, what good are they? Their credibility is shot, and not only with Turnbull.
  4. Consider this, Nationals voters: the Infrastructure Minister and the Agriculture Minister have buggered their own credibility. This is fine if you think Infrastructure and Agriculture policies don't matter.
  5. The Treasurer, who is not out of favour with the PM, is looking to cut subsidies. The government as a whole is under no obligation to make Truss or Joyce look good. While these guys are deciding whether or not they'll retire, Infrastructure and Agriculture bureaucrats will have to start putting budget proposals together, not knowing who the relevant minister will be. Now tell me again what the point of the Nationals is, and why you think their vote will hold up.
  6. Shenhua Coal have an approved mining permit to dig up much of the Liverpool Plains and affect the watercourses on the rest of it. The Liverpool Plains includes some of Australia's best farmland, and it's within Joyce's electorate. If Shenhua pulls out of the Liverpool Plains through sustained political pressure, Joyce will be a big winner in the local electorate - if not, he won't. Joyce's bargaining position is weakened rather than strengthened after his part in The Macfarlane Affair/ Maccagate.
  7. Joyce tried to rope Scott Buchholz (from the electorate adjacent to Groom) into a Lib-Nat switch. Buchholz used to work for Joyce, but Joyce has made him look like a patsy. Like Macfarlane, Buchholz looks more like a Nat than a Lib anyway.
  8. Turnbull's representative on the LNP executive was Peter Dutton. Had Macfarlane joined the Nats and been their candidate to displace a Liberal from Cabinet, Dutton would have been the Liberal displaced. Dutton is the weakest link in Turnbull's Cabinet (with the possible exception of Scott Morrison) and was, in effect, arguing for his own job. Macfarlane would have deserved the administrative clusterfuck and moral swamp that is Immigration.

The value of press gallery experience

Michelle Grattan, Paul Bongiorno and Laurie Oakes have all recounted Macfarlane's tale in traditional horse-race terms, as though it were disconnected from the Nationals-Turnbull relationship in 2009 or the coming Budget. Michael Gordon deserves special mention for a piece that is particularly vapid even by the low standards he sets.

Katharine Murphy has developed a strong reputation for describing game-playing across politics while being coy about the press gallery and its role in political manoeuvrings. Sure, Macfarlane is throwing a tantrum - but consider the role played by Murphy and her colleagues in building Macfarlane up as a "straight shooter", someone with unmatched largesse-shovelling skills, etc. She's been a sucker for the pantomime rustic routine, and now is piling onto the poor hapless bastard ... presumably so she can write another one of her hand-wringing pieces about piling onto poor hapless bastards. Murphy writing about cynicism in politics is like Abbott beating up Islamic extremism: be the problem you denounce, rinse and repeat.

Mark Kenny, the Official Bunny of this blog, proffered two gobbets of analysis on this matter:
Macfarlane's rejection has left his career in the wilderness - with only his credibility for company.
Snappy line, that.
But whatever is done with him, it is pretty clear his party backers are too. Done with him that is ... Now Macfarlane is hinting he might look at something in the resources sector after his stint as Australia's longest-serving minerals energy and resources minister.

The cynicism of such manoeuvring apparently knows no limit. Having failed to secure personal advancement through skulduggery, the risk is he could take the corporate knowledge of national service and deploy it for private corporate gain.
You can't look at something that isn't there. Macfarlane should know that by now.

In challenging times, the mining industry needs all the friends it can get in Canberra - why would they hire someone with no credibility? Former Labor minister Martin Ferguson would probably have better standing with the current minister, Josh Frydenberg, than Macfarlane could ever muster. Do you reckon Clive Palmer would want him involved with Queensland Nickel? You see the problem here, provided you aren't as shortsighted as Mark Kenny.

Nobody in the press gallery is prepared for a post-Joyce environment.

Plenty of journos out there will tell you political journalism doesn't - can't - get any better than those people.

Update 24 December: Tony Windsor's piece on Macfarlane a superior article to the one I had written, so I disavow the above to the extent that it departs from Windsor's analysis. As you can see I placed too much reliance on gallery interpretations (e.g. Macfarlane as turncoat). My post would have been improved with more of the dreary cynicism of which I am so regularly accused.


  1. The unanswered question is what deal Turnbull did to get the LNP executive to block Macfarlane's defection and spare Turnbull the gigantic headache of appearing to lack control over his own ministry and being forced to reward naked political chicanery. There's always a quid pro quo.

    Re Murphy, I don't know if you saw her final liveblog of the year but after criticising what Shorten said was the objective lesson of the MYEFO she came up with the comedy gold of saying what the objective lesson of the MYEFO actually was "in her mind". It would explain a lot if press gallery journalists genuinely do not understand what the word objective means. Dearie me.

  2. Macfalane was Turnbull's negotiator in the CPRS. It was thought to be a rather shrewd move because Macfarlane was widely recognized as being a climate change denier so if he could agree to something that was acceptable, it should be palatable to the rest of the rabble. For whatever reason, it wasn't and Turnbull got booted before the Senate vote on it. What I was always left wondering was whether Macfarlane voted for Turnbull or Abbott in the 2009 ballot.

    I haven't seen any mention of Macfarlane's roll in the CPRS negotiations in the recent reporting of either Macfarlane's dumping from the front bench or the Nat's switch but I'd be surprised if it didn't have a roll to play.


  3. I reckon you should leave out the critiques of the journos Andrew. Most of your readership knows they're crap and probably don't read the MSM (well, the Murdoch rags, at least) anyway. I think your insights into the political process would stand alone just fine.

    Thing is, in a way, your critiques of the journos probably innoculates the blog against the cut-and-pasters. Who among them would want to be caught out copying from their harshest critic?

    Unless of course you think they might change as a result of your critiques. I doubt it myself. They're too thick and lazy.

  4. "Plenty of journos out there will tell you political journalism doesn't - can't - get any better than those people."

    And they are correct. In general, political reporting in Aus doesn't get much better than Kenny and his dross, and the current atmosphere of smug sloppy complacency ensures it can't. Sad but true.

  5. That guy really is ignorant, Andrew. Talk about a maiden aunt watching the pennies!

  6. Tony Windsor's comments in the Saturday Paper Bold Macfarlane bought the farm are an interesting counterpoint.

  7. just a couple of weeks after Macfarlane was knocked back from joining the Nats Turnbull gives Bruce McEver a 90K PA director ship with Australia Post # jobs for the boys or simply a pay back for Turnbull getting his desired outcome