08 September 2020

The three-body problem

When one major party is in government in Australia, the most significant figure of the opposing party is usually the opposition leader.

If that's not the case, the most significant figure in the opposing party (and hence the biggest threat to the prime minister and the incumbent government) is almost always another member of the opposition in federal parliament: there's a challenge, the most powerful member of the opposition becomes opposition leader and takes on the prime minister. This is what happened with Labor when Kevin Rudd knocked off Kim Beazley in 2006, and to the Liberals in opposition when first Turnbull knocked off Brendan Nelson, then Abbott Turnbull.

Over the past ten years or so, the most potent threat to the incumbent prime minister has been another member of the government. Rudd and Gillard knocked one another off, Turnbull had his revenge on Abbott and Morrison knocked off Turnbull. Even now, it's most likely that Morrison's prime ministership will end at the hands of Dutton, Frydenberg, or another Liberal rather than being defeated at the ballot box by the ALP.

In the last couple of months we've seen the re-emergence of a different dynamic in politics, one not seen since the late 1970s and hard for observers to fully describe then as now.


It was 9Fairfax who got off on the wrong foot at the end of last month, with Rob (Another Win For The Government) Harris and David Crowe falling over themselves to pump up Josh Frydenberg. In the tradition of media diversity in this country, both tried to present Frydenberg as the kind of titanic political figure who could soar high o'er the landscape of squabbling party branches and Sort Them Out, in ways not really understood by those who can only see politics as something that happens in Canberra.

Frydenberg debunked this almost immediately, not with the usual kabuki of downplaying his ambitions and reiterating his fealty to the leader, but by lowering himself to the standard set by the Victorian state opposition. State Liberal MPs have criticised Victoria's Labor Premier, Daniel Andrews, as being both too hard and too soft in response to COVID19, but always criticising, following rather than leading content in NewsCorp coverage. When Frydenberg followed suit, he lost any authority that might have come from his position as Treasurer or as Victoria's most senior Liberal in federal politics. He joined their yappy daily chorus that calls to mind those that follow a postie dutifully delivering letters along a street, irritating the resident dogs but getting the job done regardless.

Before he entered parliament, Josh Frydenberg had a regular column in The Age about The Great Issues Of Our Day which were, it must be said, bereft of vision and fresh thinking. The early days of this blog cut its teeth on the staleness of his prose and thinking. Frydenberg has taken these qualities forward into government: his handling of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) was so bad that nobody knows what it is or what it guarantees. Such a balls-up should have ended his career, not that of the Prime Minister.

For almost forty years the Treasurer has not been some titanic figure crafting he economy in his bare hands. Keating pretended he was just as he was dismantling his own power to do so, with privatisations and outsourcings. The role has not quite been dumbed down to the point where Frydenberg can take it on. There are moments when he looks out of his depth, moments the press gallery might find humanising, but where he never quite takes us into his confidence in rebuilding the economy together. As a politican he is someone else's delivery unit, not a man of the people, and the press gallery should stop trying to package him for our delectation.

Frydenberg's bleats about Reagan and Thatcher revealed his shortcomings rather than buttressing his strengths. Reagan and Thatcher reinvented conservatism and harnessed it to neoliberalism. Conservatism needs to be anchored to its time in order to succeed politically; neither Frydenberg himself, nor Morrison, nor Reagan and Thatcher's successors in Trump and Johnson, have succeeded in crafting conservative answers to the challenges of this time. Only Angela Merkel gives a hint of what might be possible, but if you're an ambitious young Liberal are you going to go to Berlin or strike out for the suburbs and become a sub-factional playa?

I get that Frydenberg keeps in constant contact with the press gallery and makes them feel less lonely. Surely they can see through him as yet another smarmy git who isn't particularly fast on his feet, who is getting outplayed by Michael Sukkar (never mind Jim Chalmers or Albanese or Andrews). Frydenberg might be a foil for Dutton if Morrison really starts to tank, but he is mostly the kind of healer that the Liberals tend to elect as opposition leader following a loss.

The faith-based press gallery coverage of Frydenberg is stupid, but you won't change them.

Smirks and wedges

With a piecemeal economic strategy geared around corporate handouts (a strategy that would have prevailed regardless of COVID19, if we're to be honest here), Frydenberg has no alternative course to chart for the government than Morrison's game of smirks and wedges. Morrison ignored expert advice around the fires last summer and was caned for it; he hewed closely, if imperfectly, to expert advice on COVID19 early in the year and received the warm but fleeting rewards of mid-term political popularity. He couldn't keep it up, though. His disdain of experts on matters outside politics (he might jeer at a contract tracer's projections, and as Treasurer would not hesistate to trash unflattering economic forecasts - but he would never do likewise to, say, polling by Crosby|Textor) was too strong.

If he could wedge Labor in parliament, Morrison assumed that he could do likewise to Andrews, Palaszczuk, and McGowan; all three reaped the political rewards in their home states, and Morrison lost his (even with strong media support from Murdoch and Stokes). Howard showed that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing to have Labor governments at state level, and Morrison has shown himself ambivalent to the fates of his state colleagues. This has done two things detrimental to Morrison and his government: it has created openings in those states for federal Labor, and it has created a substantial leader for Labor in Daniel Andrews.

Morrison has overestimated how clever he has been in shutting down Labor in federal parliament, moving that Albanese not be heard on major public debates (denying him the oxygen Abbott got after almost every Question Time). Morrison sits with his back to the Opposition, slumped like a bag of garbage too late for the council pickup. There will come a time when he will feel compelled to get voters excited about re-electing the Coalition to government: he will find this difficult, not because of any Albanese masterstroke, and not because of any fourth-term juju invented by the press gallery, but because he is showing us a man not rising to the occasion of national leadership but shrinking before it.

The "sports rorts" affair has all the makings of the slow, corrosive scandal that kills governments and stops people listening to new initiatives. The same has not yet happened with water trading and Angus Taylor, but this could change if significant independent candidates stand in Murray-Darling basin seats that ought not be marginal for the Coalition, and which could pose an existential threat to the Nationals. Morrison has stood by Richard Colbeck far longer than any PM in recent years would have tolerated system failure resulting in many Australians dying. Colbeck is a decent man utterly out of his depth in a life-and-death crisis, because among the other careerist hacks assembled behind him nobody is going to step up into a role that will end the political career of anyone who goes near it - possibly including Labor's Julie Collins, the putative minister in the next Labor government.

Traditional media in an unconventional time

The NewsCorp response to the Morrison government's aged care failures has been interesting. They have tried to pin it on Andrews but this isn't even working in Victoria, let alone outside it. Simon Benson and his editors are not pretending that only politically-correct elites care about this. Janet al-Brechtsen and Timb Lair have uncharacteristically refrained from referring to frail elderly nursing home residents as 'bedwetters'. The government has been in office for seven years, for 18 of the past 24 years; it is not a new issue, and nor is it good enough to insist all normal checking and procedures have been followed. Labor's mild responses cannot be, and are not, framed as mad extravagant socialism.

The ABC's focus is also interesting. Hospitality is a big employer in Melbourne and in much of regional Victoria. For those of us beyond Victoria, hospitality and tourism are part of the lens through which we view and understand the place. The ABC's focus on devastated hospitality business owners helps the framing of COVID19 not as a life-threatening virus, but as a pretext for Dictator Dan to stomp on people's hopes and dreams.

Progressive projects have been scuttled when people are persuaded that the problem(s) they set out to solve aren't real, or aren't pressing. Progressives appalled at the wreckage of the policy agendas of Whitlam, Keating or Gillard acknowledge through clenched teeth that conservatives were effective in bringing them down. Only when those problems show themselves to be real and enduring, and when Labor has answers to those issues and the conservatives don't, does a once-in-a-generation political window open for progressives.

9Fairfax and 7West have largely offered watered-down versions of the Murdoch line, but where mawkish sympathy for victims of the disease does not translate to appreciation of public health efforts by anyone above frontline nurses. So much for 'go woke, go broke', or even media diversity.

People are stuck at home, and traditional media can't make money in this market. Maybe they're just no good.

The kitchen sink

There are 151 seats in the House of Representatives, the Coalition have 77 and the ALP 68. Morrison has made the wrong calls and Labor the right ones in Victoria, WA and Queensland. In The Australian [$] Simon Benson wrote that polling shift was driven by the border wars, with the PM caught on the wrong side of the argument in states where continued closures remain popular. The trouble with that is state border closures are popular everywhere - you can't consider it an exception when it's the norm.

In the next federal parliament there are expected to be 150 House seats. It is entirely feasible that ten seats - and hence federal government - could change hands in those three states alone:
  • The Liberals in Victoria have been enfeebled by thirty years of factional war, winning three of the nine state elections in that time.
  • In WA the departure of Matthias Cormann exposes the incapacity of Chilla Porter's boy and George Cash's girl to hold the show together and fend off the evangelical churches as loci of organising strength.
  • The LNP in Queensland was always a shitshow and the Murdoch media there embarass themselves by pretending otherwise.
  • In South Australia, the Liberals are reverting to their mean (in both the pejorative and statistical senses of that term), which make losses more likely than gains.
  • Liberals in NSW and Tasmania will be flat out holding the line rather than making up for losses elsewhere.
Labor should have strong and experienced operators in those states. Labor's factional problems and state government issues can be assuaged by expanding into federal politics, in fields previously denied them by effective Coalition campaigns organised from outside those states.

Daniel Andrews has simply hewed to the advice of experts, which gets him credit both for being right (what the experts said would happen has happened, and all he did was support them) and wrong (look, he just followed what the experts said, tough times etc). He has answered press gallery questions simply and in few words, which is what Abbott did in his ascendancy. He has kept calm and resisted the urge to be nasty, while also being firm in putting detractors in their place. Morrison has not done this consistently. Andrews has become a figure of national authority, a position Premiers rarely attain and which none of the other incumbents have.

The Murdoch press threw the kitchen sink at Andrews in 2018, hoping to beat him or at least force him into the bare-majority impotence that beset federal Labor in 2010-13. It is doing so again now. The criticism of him isn't consistent and doesn't have to be. The point of the criticism, from all sides (even washed-up footballers jonesing for one last media fix) and unrelenting, is to fix Andrews with the virus: to make it in him, and of him. The idea is to make Andrews the face of everything you hate about the virus - the horrible and lonely death of your νόνα, the closure of your local pub/coffee shop/nail salon, the footy matches in far provinces full of ingrates and unsophisticates - and when it is over, to consign it and him to history like the scapegoat of old.

The Victorian Liberals have their opponents but can't make them a unifying force for their internal combatants. As with Abbott, the Victorian Liberals are happy for NewsCorp to dictate both strategy and tactics. Menzies distanced himself from Keith Murdoch, as he had seen how Hughes had come to rely on him too much, and he was polite but distant to Murdoch's lad when Sir Keith died. No such nous or confidence exists in Menzies' successors today. Victorian state political reporters say that Liberals admire Andrews' political skills, much as NSW Liberals begrudgingly admired Carr and Iemma; but in both cases in didn't take a genius to keep those Liberals in opposition.

The trouble with the pact between the Victorian Libs and NewsCorp for Krieg ganz Krieg against Andrews is that there is no fallback position for either party. If Andrews is vindicated and the lockdown results in a negligible COVID presence until the (swift) arrival of a vaccine, his opponents in both media and politics are exposed. NewsCorp's sales have declined to the point where their business model depends increasingly on handouts; an Andrews victory, cemented at the state election in 2022, will embolden those less disposed to reward this editorial line. The Liberals have lost Hawthorn and came close to losing Brighton to Labor - a concerted independent campaign by the sorts of people who are too good to run for Liberal preselection could finish the party in what was once its homeland.

Dumbed down

The press gallery narrative dichotomy that people are either Dan Stans or Freedom Warriors is stupid, one of those media constructs that impedes public debate rather than facilitating it. The large majorities supporting lockdown reflect a sober-minded, mature populace recognising the strains on the health system and the desirability of sharply limiting the spread of the virus that has already ravaged so many, and so much. The people to which the media report is always better than the media that supposedly serve them/us: to invert that is to court career disaster.

You'll notice that Andrews is not exactly beating quiet public respect off with a stick. As political legacies go it is potentially much better than NewsCorp would have you believe.

It's also true that Andrews was Premier for five years before COVID19 struck, and before that was Health Minister under Brumby and Bracks. Any shortcomings the Victorian health system has, absolutely or in comparison to NSW/NZ/any other jurisdiction you think is valid, belong with Andrews as much as anyone else. Pandemics aren't a Liberal/Labor issue, so good old-fashioned ministerial responsibility will have to do. Andrews seems to appreciate this in ways that Frydenberg and Morrison do not.

That was a cue?

But, I hear you cry, Labor already has a federal opposition leader; and indeed it does.

Around the turn of the century, when Anthony Albanese faced a concerted campaign in his seat against the Greens, the Daily Telegraph ran a front page lauding him: Australia needs Albo screeched the headline, without being clear what it/we needed him for. Anthony Albanese has spent his entire career in inner-western diffusing generations of near-revolutionary energy and zeal across the spectrum of the left and harnessing it to the lumpen ALP, facilitating urban development and gentrification while minimising other changes. I doubt whether any federal electorate but his has so many ABC employees and tertiary education workers. Labor was founded in the 1890s to represent the sorts of people who dwelled in Rozelle terrace houses and Marrickville workers' cottages, and Albanese has helped ensure it still does.

Like Joe Biden in the US, he has known tragedy and disappointment in life. Both men are backroom deal-makers rather than orators. Like Biden, Albanese comes to the leadership of his party where rather more is expected of the role than glad-handing the increasingly uncompromising right. Now is the time to demonstrate what Australia needs Albo to do, to say, to be, and not to yield.

Albanese's problem is that Daniel Andrews has demonstrated to a far greater extent what is needed for Labor leadership in these times. Paddy Manning noted that Albanese has stepped up, to a point, on aged care. Manning noted that Albanese has given more interviews recently - you bet he has. Katharine Murphy gave Albanese an expansive interview, which started badly for him (and which, sportingly, appears in the transcript on Albanese's own website in all its glory):
KATHARINE MURPHY, HOST: Hello, lovely people of the podcast and welcome to the show. You are with Katharine Murphy and the show is Australian Politics Live. And with me in the pod cave is someone who has missed their cue. ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Oh, that was a cue?

Listen to that for yourself, but Albanese tries to make the case that as Opposition Leader, he isn't the hapless Kim Beazley and nor a boofhead like that other veteran of Sydney Uni student politics named Anthony - nor does he make a compelling case for removing him from opposition altogether and putting him into government.

Maybe that wasn't the idea of that interview. The trouble is that all successful opposition leaders are aggressive and push the government out. The old saw that "oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them" is dead wrong - the opposite is true. Abbott, Rudd, Howard, Hawke and Fraser all knew that time is short and life is cruel, and each pushed hard until they could afford to be gracious on election night. Unsuccessful opposition leaders, from Sir John Latham to Mark Latham, all played The Long Game and fat lot of good it did them.

Albanese seems to lead a united team in Canberra. Plibersek, Burke, and Bowen are all from NSW and all have similar strengths and weaknesses to himself. Non-NSW contenders like Jim Chalmers can't yet make the case that Albanese has failed, and that they have what he lacks. Shorten is an exhausted volcano, like Simon Crean proof that Hawke shut the union-to-PM door behind him.

The three-body problem

The federal government, the Victorian opposition and commercial media have combined to present Daniel Andrews, not Anthony Albanese, as the most significant Labor figure and the most potent external threat to the government. Andrews is not a member of federal parliament and isn't subject to either the argy or the bargy of that arena. He does not confront Morrison and Frydenberg across the dispach box, and nor is he hunting Albanese in the caucus room.

The last time Australian politics had this predicament was in the late 1970s. Malcolm Fraser had crushed Gough Whitlam with what are still the two biggest electoral majorities in Australian federal politics. The Opposition Leader in federal politics was Bill Hayden, but he wasn't Labor's most potent threat to Fraser. That title belonged to Bob Hawke, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The Canberra press gallery rarely grilled Hawke (at a time when they had more journalists who hunted out their own stories and were offended by the pre-digested pap that passes for reporting these days) but they knew all about him. Polls consistently showed Hawke as much more popular than Hayden or Fraser or anyone.

In 1979 Hawke entered parliament and Fraser began monstering him straight away. He went from running his own show to the very different arena of federal parliament, where he had to at least pay lip service to Hayden. By 1982 Fraser had seen off a challenge from Andrew Peacock and was playng Hayden and Hawke off against the other. He was the master of the House, and if you believe in that Annabel Crabb theatre-of-parliament guff then Fraser looked unassailable (which is precisely why it's garbage political analysis).

Morrison has seen off one opposition leader already and may well see off another - so what?

Last year there was talk that Mark Dreyfus, federal member for Isaacs (Vic), would resign to take a state judicial position; but in this time of COVID19 and Some You Wreck all that has gone quiet. Nobody in the press gallery has followed up on it, of course.

If you accept that the Snap Back isn't going to happen, you need a vision for how we go forward through and out of the COVID19 predicament. The idea of a Roadmap Out Of Lockdown is absurd in the absence of a vaccine. It works only as a conversation topic amongst idle people and also as a stick with which to beat Daniel Andrews. It will not sell newspapers and offers little of value in terms of economic and business planning. Perhaps Andrews is the man of the hour without our political media being able to fully explain why.