21 March 2017

Laws of gravity

The press gallery seems agreed that there were no implications for the Federal Government in the recent WA election, at which Labor won an overwhelming majority. I disagree.

In Warner Bros’ much-loved Road Runner cartoons, there is a trope where Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff and, for a little while, continues moving forward. He stops. He looks down, and suddenly realises that he’s no longer supported. Only then does he begin plunging toward the floor of the canyon. Senator Cormann is similarly paused, seemingly in defiance of known laws of political gravity.

At the grassroots level, the WA Liberals used to be a constellation of local fiefdoms, loosely aligned. Matthias Cormann blew into town and began uniting conservatives with no talent beyond loyalty to him. Part of this loyalty involved preselecting second-rate candidates to state parliament – the sorts of people who looked up to Troy Buswell.

Colin Barnett was a hard-working, clever man who might have made it to the top of any organisation; the organisation he joined was the WA State Parliamentary Liberal Party. Barnett watched in horror as capable local-hero MPs were replaced by mouth-breathing Cormann loyalists. Barnett could only drag such dead weights so far, and Cormann didn’t want to go into state parliament.
From far Canberra, as the tide began turning against Barnett, Cormann had watched his conservative followers ebb away from the Liberal Party and toward One Nation (the same thing is happening to the LNP in Queensland, for much the same reasons). Despite being beyond the pettiness of state politics, and pragmatically recognising Barnett was past it, no politician will sit by and suffer the loss of his power base. Cormann had an incentive to help Barnett, and Barnett had no choice but to accept it.

As Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Cormann deals with Hanson regularly. He is used to organising right-wing dummies. By contrast, Queensland’s George Brandis disdains them, after a lifetime fighting and outmanoeuvering them within the LNP (you'd give the job of reforming s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to Brandis only if you wanted it to fail). Cormann doesn’t patronise Hanson like Brandis does. Hanson’s newfound supporter base in WA were people Cormann knew; despite wanting to extend her influence nationally, Hanson didn’t know or trust them. Cormann cut a deal with Hanson as though it was all upside: keeping conservatives in the Liberal fold through preferences, and currying favour with Hanson’s team (including a new WA Senator to replace Rod Culleton).

You show me a press gallery journalist who insists that WA is a conservative state, and I’ll show you one way too close to WA Liberal MPs. The Liberal Party in WA is more conservative than in other states: moderates usually stay outside the Liberal Party, contesting state elections as independents. Moderate independents help the Liberals win tight elections. When Barnett won government he reached out to long-serving Independent MP Liz Constable as his Education Minister, which surprised no long-time observers of WA politics but which appalled Cormannites working their way through the party.

There is a long history of independents like Constable (and protest groups like Liberals for Forests) aligning with Liberals in WA. The state tends to vote Labor during economic downturns, and who believes Liberal policies will soon pull WA back into the boomtimes? As the McGowan government begins to fade, history suggests moderate independents will come back into WA politics in ways that work against the Labor government. The WA Liberals-One Nation deal assumed those people didn’t exist, or would doggedly stay with the Liberals like the mouth-breathing Cormannites did.

Federal politics in Cormann’s turf: he can’t promise much to his followers, nor threaten them much should they waver. In last year’s federal election Labor ran Anne Aly in Cowan against Liberal MP Luke Simpkins; the Liberals ran a Hanson-like scare campaign against Aly’s Muslim faith, trying to turn her expertise in terrorism against her. For federal Liberal MPs who held on in 2016, like Ken Wyatt, Steve Irons, Ian Goodenough, Melissa Price, or Michael Keenan, nothing has happened to boost their anticipated vote at the next election. There is no sign Aly or other marginal Labor MPs in WA need fear a Liberal resurgence.

Cormann’s people had their go in WA politics, and those who missed out won’t get another go for a while. Many of them have left the Liberal Party, and the failure of WA One Nation left them all looking and feeling stupid. The Cowan experience should have shown that One Nation-style tactics are more trouble than they’re worth.

Charismatic churches have organised and motivated conservatives within the WA Liberals in ways Cormann can’t match, let alone beat.

Cormann himself is in his fourth year as Finance Minister, presiding over ballooning debt in a stagnating economy. It isn’t much of a policy legacy to build upon, and less grounds for pride. That long Perth-Canberra commute wears down even the most committed politicians, creating a sense of entitlement to public junkets which exposure breeds resentment.

I’m not betting Cormann will chuck it in, but all the signs seem there. He had a good run for a long time. A powerbroker whose power fades is broke indeed: Cormann will be keen to avoid that humiliation, a desire strong enough to negate pleas to stay. Having seen Stephen Conroy and other ex-powerbrokers go out on top, he can leave long-term public service to party scions like Christian Porter or Michaelia Cash.

Though his record as Finance Minister is poor, his departure would devastate the political class. It would make tangible the departure of this government, the death of myths like Moderate Malcolm or Liberal Economic Management. The press gallery, for all their close connections and fingers-on-the-pulse, will be taken completely by surprise. How they love his stone-wall interview style. No federal impact from the WA election? Pfft.

Like Wile E. Coyote, Matthias Cormann is not going forward, or down, at this stage. He is preparing for the budget in May. He still has to get legislation through the Senate, dealing with the humiliated Hansonites, as well as the isolated Bernardi, Leyonhjelm, and Hinch. His Mitteleuropa burr has given him the gravitas of Kissinger in 1970s Washington, a quality Christopher Pyne never had and which Turnbull and Morrison are losing fast. He would once have been in the thick of leadership manoeuvres: but whatever happens to Abbott, Dutton, and Turnbull, his own position is safe. That might be a good point to depart.