26 July 2008

Why bother?

Earlier this year 97% of Queensland Nationals and 86% of Queensland Liberals voted to merge their parties. Now it's on the rocks. It takes real political stupidity to mess up such a decisive mandate. And you wonder why nobody joins political parties any more.
the Liberal state council last night resolved to defer a convention which was intended to ratify the proposal.

See, it didn't resolve to sink it, or propose something better. It proposed to dither until it starved to death. Nice one - Anna Bligh must really be quaking in her boots.
"This is a victory for common sense for the Liberal Party and its future in Queensland," said former Queensland Liberal president Bob Carroll after the meeting.

Leaving aside the question as to whether 'Bob Carroll' and 'common sense' are at all compatible, the fact is that 86% of Queensland Liberals voted for an outcome that he helped to scupper.
"The only issue was about the fact that under the merger proposition the president would be elected from the floor," the source said. "And that was in the agreement that the members voted on in a plebiscite with an 86per cent yes vote.

"That didn't satisfy the federal president [Alan Stockdale] or (Queensland Liberal president) Mal Brough and that was the basis that they believed it was unsatisfactory to proceed."

It is a sign of weakness that Stockdale and Brough could not engineer such an outcome beforehand. 86% of Queensland Liberals voted for this outcome regardless of who the president might have been. Stockdale, Brough and Carroll thought that the job of President was more important than the thousands of members who voted for the merger.
Queensland Liberal senator Sue Boyce also reported receiving threatening emails from the chairmen of two Brisbane-based Liberal federal electorate councils.

One email warned that her anti-merger stance would "long be remembered". The second email warned the stance of federal MPs on the issue would have "implications" for their future.

C'mon Sue, smoke 'em out. They've got 14% of the vote, you could take the stick to them if you wanted to. Let's have one moderate with some guts.
The state council meeting was called by Mr Brough at the last minute. He had called for the convention to be deferred in line with federal party wishes. "It is clear that with this matter unresolved, this party will not be a division of the Liberal Party," he had said.

You say that like it's a bad thing.
"If the convention goes ahead, it will be in the full knowledge that we have not been able to reach a resolution that has been satisfactory to the federal party."

How about you inform the members and let them decide for themselves? Oh wait, you did that.
Queensland Liberal leader Mark McArdle said Mr Stockdale should have called a meeting of the party's federal executive to debate the issue. "You cannot, in my opinion, this close to a convention, pull the rug out from the rights of members," he said.

Federal executive would have voted against the Queenslanders. The other part of McArdle's analysis is spot on, though. This guy has 86% of Liberals with him: why can't he rally them to their own cause rather than just whining?
Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce had said the Nationals would reject the merger if a vote on the presidency were not allowed. "There are plenty on our side who don't want this party," Senator Joyce said.

No there aren't. 97% of Qld Nats in favour, that means 3% against - a small minority, Senator, even by the standards of a profoundly undemocratic party.

I realise that all of the foregoing makes it look like I'm supporting people like the ridiculous Santoro ahead of more sensible people like Boyce and Brandis. What this gets back to, however, is the question of what it means to be a member of a political party, for those who don't want to be politicians themselves. If you're going to scupper a merger, say so up front and take your chances with those who elect you. The executive have voted against their membership; now the executive's challenge is to elect themselves a new membership.

Update: Members overrode Brough and the merger went ahead after all. My favourite bit was this:
Mr Brough said he didn't know what his politcal future held.

"There's absolutely a career in politics if I want it, becuse that has been made very clear to me by my colleagues down south," he said.

"But whether or not I intend to do that or not is another thing all together, that's not a decision I've made."

While you're making your decision Mal, consider three things. First, your political career going forward really depends on you not telling conservative forces in the country's third-biggest state to get fucked, as you did. Second, the only thing you ever did was put out a press release about Aborigines in the Northern Territory, and it is not to spite you that they are busy cleaning up after you. Third, this is the same outfit that can't work out why the Coalition is in opposition at all, and considers Peter Costello a viable Liberal leader one day.

25 July 2008

Minchin and Abbott work toward Rudd second term

The next federal election is going to be all about climate change. Labor are going to win it and the Coalition will have to adjust to a vision of conservatism which involves emissions trading and a degree of Australian stewardship of the Australian environment.

There is one issue that is unequivocally a matter for Australian government, one where China or India or the US or the Kyoto Treaty are completely irrelevant: the agreement over the Murray-Darling, which Labor has botched. Since the republic, this has been Malcolm Turnbull's signature issue and one he should have flayed opponents within and beyond the Liberal Party. This is the issue that the Liberals can use to shore up its position in rural seats. This is a prime example of political and press gallery failure: Labor's failure to get an agreement that sticks shows the benefits of wall-to-wall Labor governments are illusory.

The northern border of Victoria is the high-water mark on the southern side of the Murray River. Every drop of water in the Murray River is either in NSW or South Australia. Yeah, Victorian farmers draw water from the river but so what? They don't vote Labor and Victorian rivers are among the worst in the country. The Victorian government had no leverage to gain 'concessions' from the Federal Government and even less to pocket the money without following through. Rudd should have stood up to Brumby and secured the deal. Brumby should have been big enough to cop that, or manage it in such a way that he's a victim of marauding Canberra. Baillieu should have taken Brumby apart.

Labor have failed and the Coalition won't press them on that failure, and the consequences that flow from it. The main reason why Labor will win despite that appalling failure is this failure of strategic judgment.
... some Opposition frontbenchers, such as Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott, who believe the impact of carbon trading is likely to become the Government's biggest electoral vulnerability, particularly in a deteriorating economic climate. The differences of opinion about the need for a more full-frontal assault from the Liberals are likely to lead to vigorous debate in shadow cabinet next week.

Minchin and Abbott are past masters at dressing up dumb strategy and poorly thought-out policy as somehow being tough, and they've done it again. An old experienced reporter like Jennifer Hewett has no excuse for not calling these two on their record. An 'exclusive' from them doesn't have the cachet it may have had, and where else are they going to go anyway but the Oz?

There is still considerable goodwill toward the government. Nobody believes the current economic difficulties are entirely their fault. In terms of environmental action, people still believe that however imperfect their policies may be, the government is at least doing something. Against all this, chuckleheads Minchin and Abbott believe they're going to whip up a scare campaign and that they're going to have such credibility that frightened voters will flock to the Coalition next time around. This is not to overlook the importance of the economy, but voters have shown that in hard economic times, the party with a cohesive strategy beats the scatterbrained mob without.
But despite the contradictory statements from Brendan Nelson over the past few weeks, the basic Liberal position is likely to remain in place as the Opposition prepares for battle with the Government.

So the 'leader' is now irrelevant to Liberal policy. This goes against a generation of 'presidential-style' campaigns. Parties that sell the virtue of a 'team' (like Bill Hayden in 1980, for example, propped up by Wran and Hawke and suffering by comparison) are almost always losers. Good luck selling that at election time, boys.
The political logic is that this still provides plenty of leeway for the Liberals to harden up their attacks on the failings of the Government's scheme.

The Liberals will fall with ill-disguised glee on the economic risks of the Government's options, to be outlined by Treasury modelling when it finally becomes available in October.

This not only means that the Government won't be able to rely on the Liberals in the Senate to allow a 2010 start date. It also means that the Liberals are likely to end up backing their own version of an emissions trading scheme with such flexible targets that the price of any carbon permits would be extremely low, even negligible.

The political logic assumes that the Liberals can and will get away with rejecting such international standards that do exist, and that people will accept the degree of risk that comes with acting on imperfect information rather than muddying the waters and embracing the non-answer of the status quo. Worked for the republic in '99, but you can't fight today's battles with yesterday's strategies.

This also assumes that Rudd won't go for an early election. An incumbent government, armed with data and a few sweeteners (look for an abolition of fuel excise in favour of a carbon-sensitive mechanism, and a system for solar power that rewards longterm investments), will be up against an opposition that hasn't been following the debate and won't be convincing - neither in pulling out the grab-bag of 'non-core' promises, nor in mounting a scare campaign against Rudd as both rabid greenie and Whitlamite spendthrift. I don't fancy the chances of a party with a non-leader and which is unconvincing in both economic and environmental responsibility, and it's pathetic that this is the best they can come up with.
The argument from Opposition Treasury spokesman Malcolm Turnbull and environment spokesman Greg Hunt is that the Liberals cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the climate change debate - particularly given the level of public support for some sort of action.

But they are trying to take advantage of what will be ever louder complaints from business and consumers about the costs of the Government's proposals.

Because the Emissions Trading Scheme hasn't been rolled out yet, this is all just jumping at shadows. The level of support for some sort of action will carry Labor across particular objections. These complaints will not translate into a government-winning coalition and will make it harder for Liberals to demonstrate that they really get the whole climate change thing, and can therefore offer serious policy in response.

Yes, fuel prices are high - but this had nothing to do with the current government or the one before it. If you're going to play the victim role in global climate change you can't then blame the incumbents for high petrol prices, nobody else does. One group particularly affected by any ETS will be coalminers - good luck with capturing that bunch of swingers. Not a lot of them in Bennelong or Lindsay or [insert name of other seat Labor won at the last election by <5%], but don't let that stop you.

Treasury modelling will have to be taken as given by the Coalition in developing whatever proposals it does - to do otherwise would be the act of fringe players, not parties of government. Put down that phone to ACIL Tasman, guys.

Turnbull and Hunt have been at each other's throats over environmental issues - being lumped in together by the Failure Boys could do wonders, but not in the way Nick'n'Tony might want.
Turnbull heads to the North West Shelf this morning to sound extremely sympathetic about what a raw deal Woodside Petroleum and other resource producers are getting and how the Government is just not listening to their legitimate complaints.

There you have the old Nick'n'Tony theme: anyone showing sympathy is soft, whereas only the hard men like them are trying to run a good old-fashioned scare campaign. It could be seen as evidence of their sheer damn toughness that they are willing to run the risk that the Liberals will go backwards - but actually those two won't have to bear the consequences of their failure, their seats are safe and they're all right Jack. Again, Hewett has no excuse for taking this at face value like some starstruck groupie or Malcolm Colless.
To the evident frustration of his colleagues, Peter Costello would have the economic credibility to consolidate the Opposition's warnings about the potential risks to growth. But he's too busy on the back bench equivocating about his own potential.

Costello doesn't have a strong record on climate change either, nor against; he doesn't have the courage of his convictions. If the one example of policy vision and reformist guts that he has going for him is the GST, we're all in trouble. He is, however, wise not to throw in his lot with the Failure Boys.

Minchin and Abbott are sacrificing the longterm credibility of a party of government on a (the?) substantial issue for a short-term scare campaign that can only fail. Here's a tip: if the ALP are actively hoping their opposition will take a certain tack, it's best for that opposition to not take that tack. And if when it fails, the Failure Boys should lose their entirely undeserved reputations as strategic geniuses. The Liberal Party has learned nothing from the pattern that has repeated itself for a decade, whereby through denial they turn a slight loss into an absolute rout at the following ballot. The Failure Boys are leading the Coalition toward an unwinnable position, from which it will take them two or three elections at least to recover.

22 July 2008

Colless' credibility collapses

Malcolm Colless has gone after the wrong issues and ignored the real ones. He is shaping up as the worst press gallery reporter since Koutsoukis. Minchin et al diminish their credibility by using Colless as their mouthpiece as they have here.
THERE is a growing belief among Liberal powerbrokers that the conservatives can win the next federal election due by 2010.

At the same time they are adamant that they must win the next NSW election to be held the following year or face a major credibility collapse. Both prospects turn on leadership, and not necessarily the present conservative leadership in either area.

You'd expect these strategists to be further along than they would appear to be. If winning depends on Nelson or O'Farrell getting dumped, then it should be well underway by now. You'd expect an article like this to have salacious details on who's met with whom and what deals have been done to effect the (apparently) necessary change.

Someone's credibility has collapsed Malcolm. It could be your own: for the moment your article is all source, no substance. It could be that of your "sources": they seem to be all rattle, no sabre.
It is clear that Labor has rebirthed political correctness as a shield to protect it from the economic impact that the Prime Minister's latest vision to change the world will have on the lives of everyday Australians. And this is being reinforced by Climate Change Minister Penny Wong's tireless mechanical recital repetition of this policy dogma with almost robotic precision.

"Political correctness" could mean anything, really, but in the above paragraph Colless seems to be pre-empting criticism of his portrayal of the dour Wong as a robot. Remember when patriotism used to be the last refuge of a scoundrel?
Already under severe pressure from spiralling increases in the cost of living, Australians are now being asked to prepare for more pain through higher prices for electricity and gas and other consumer goods under Labor's solution to the problems of climate change. In the face of this they can quite justifiably ask: What do I get in return for this increased pain? The answer is a warm inner glow by knowing that you are doing your bit to save the planet and making life more environmentally secure for future generations.

While the opinion polls unsurpisingly [sic] suggest community support for this motherhood issue they also show that most people don't understand what they are in for. The Government has already swung its advertising spin machine into gear to underpin its policy. But the real test will come when it starts to bite, particularly if it becomes clear that the Government is itself confused.

And so far the Government's response to the climate change issue has shown some alarming inconsistences.

The political question is: will a vote for the Coalition alleviate current and projecte economic difficulties? The answer to that is a definite no, as Nelson, Hunt and Turnbull say different things on different days and make it impossible for Australians under pressure to regard the Coalition as their shelter from economic and environmental storms.

That's why your "strategists" are kidding themselves, Malcolm. An inconsistent Coalition makes for a poor alternative government. Labor don't have to be perfect, they just have to be better than the "alternative".
It also threw $70 million at Toyota to build hybrid cars

Tell us that Howard would never ever have done that, Malcolm, oh go on do.
a more sensible, and less open-ended, approach would have been to provide a rebate to people who opted to buy hybrid cars. Demand would then have dictated supply rather than the Government setting an artificial target to score a quick political plus.

That would be more open-ended, not less. There is something environmentally silly about importing vehicles that may or may not provide a net emissions benefit, and would have no local spin-off for developing lower-emissions technologies.
To muzzle criticism of the Government's response to what Rudd calls the great moral issue of our time, the Prime Minister says the conservatives must be responsible partners with Labor in the future economic direction of the country.

The Liberals have got some serious soul searching to do on this question in terms of acting responsibly, he added. Rudd's interpretation of responsible behaviour is for the Coalition to side with Labor, rather than the Greens who, holding the balance of power in the Senate, have called for a much tougher stance on emissions trading.

And the Coalition's alternative is ...? Because they don't stand for anything, it's an entirely fair assumption that the Coalition will fall for anything.
But Rudd's decision to throw down the gauntlet of economic management in fact provides former treasurer Peter Costello with the opportunity to re-enter the political debate instead of twiddling his thumbs on the backbench while he polishes off his memoirs.

Because writing is hardly work at all, is it Malcolm? You'd know. It might provide the opportunity, but will Costello take it? It's silly to raise a question and then dodge it. If you were a press gallery journalist, a Canberra observer, you'd have those answers.
There would be no shortage of forums for Costello to deliver a major speech responding to Rudd's challenge on economic management. This would send a signal to the electorate and the party that he was back in the game.

There are no such shortages and nor have there been for the past nine months, Malcolm. Anyway, what game are we playing at here? Costello has remained silent while Labor has blamed the Coalition for putting the country in an economic mess. Costello said and did nothing on carbon abatement. Labor have Costello's measure.
It would also show that instead of carping about lost leadership opportunities he now intended to do something about it.

Liberal strategists are adamant that the issue of Coalition leadership into the next election must be resolved by the end of the year. But there is no broad, enthusiastic support for either the present leader Brendan Nelson or the pretender, shadow treasurer Malcolm Turnbull.

A move by Costello would certainly provide a circuit breaker to the seemingly endless, counter-productive bickering between Nelson and Turnbull.

In other words, Colless' sources are not Liberal strategists - they are Liberal groupies, hopin' and wishin' and prayin' that the captain sleeping below will rise and lead them to victory rather than just scribble in his bunk. This is reinforced by Koutsoukis-like dreaming:
It would also dispel the perception that Costello has no stomach for the hard task of leading the Liberals out of Opposition, a view reinforced by his decision to duck the leadership mantle after the Coalition's election defeat last November.

Having shown that he's a federal politics joke, Colless turns his glass eye to Macquarie Street:
Meanwhile in Nelson and Turnbull's home state of NSW senior Liberals are unimpressed with a recent public comment by state Opposition Leader, Barry O'Farrell, praising Wong and Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Responding to a question on ABC TV's Stateline program about his ideal guests at a hypothetical dinner party, O'Farrell said that along with Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, he would include both women, whom he admired. "I don't agree with much of what they say, but as politicians I think they're representatives that the public could and should be proud of," he said.

Liberal strategists believe that O'Farrell's media handlers need to develop a tougher public image for the Opposition Leader if he is to convince the NSW voters that he will deliver the policies needed to rescue the state from appalling mismanagement under the existing Labor Government.

It's all very well for them: O'Farrell will have to work with a Federal Labor goverment (oh yes he will, given that Colless' hopeful premise is crap) whereas "Liberal strategists" won't. Federal Labor will do all they can to prop up NSW Labor, but O'Farrell can blunt this with his avuncular and reasonable demeanour. Morris Iemma has been busy cultivating "a tougher public image", so has Michael Costa and all of the other jokes and muppets in the NSW government. If those "Liberal strategists" think that O'Farrell needs to be more like Iemma and Costa, they need their heads read. They certainly have no credibility as "strategists".
There is a message for O'Farrell in the leadership flakiness within the federal parliamentary Liberal Party.

There sure is. You're seven points ahead of Labor, Barry, and once you win the next election could you come and show us how it's done?

The same journal featured even more hysteria, this time from John Black about Gippsland. You'd think the guy had never seen a byelection before.
it's difficult to make projections of a Gippsland by-election result on to urban marginals at a general election.

Yes, John, it certainly is. Even more so when you're this stupid:
it's a lot more plausible than greenhouse science to say Labor is in trouble in its outer urban marginals, especially those which have a more activist religious constituency

I doubt that the Coalition are in any position to win religious voters back. Eleven years of Howard learning all there was to learn from US Republicans, shovelling millions at church schools and charities - and Rudd undoes it all with a couple of articles in The Monthly. Nelson or Turnbull can't win those voters back, and as I said Rudd can counter Costello. Amateur small-scale psephology vs climate change science? I doubt it.
In Ryan, earlier in 2001 there was a big swing of almost 10 per cent against the Liberals; following the retirement of long-serving sitting Liberal John Moore for what his constituents clearly thought were insufficient reasons ... Substitute ETS for GST and you have Gippsland 2008. The point here however, is that it took Howard five years to get to Ryan, but Gippsland has taken the Rudd Government only seven months.

Yep, and in Gippsland it hasn't even been a year since McGauran had been re-elected. I'd suggest that the then government was in worse trouble at that byelection than the current government is now. The ETS isn't the reality that the GST was in 2001, and the government did not lose Gippsland: Ryan is the safest Liberal seat in the country's third-largest city.
In Gippsland the threat of electing Nelson as prime minister was irrelevant and Labor's two-party preferred vote in the real world dropped by enough to cost Labor the government if repeated at a general election.

So you can forget using the present national opinion polls of voting intention as a means of projecting the next by-election result.

The next byelections will be in Mayo and Lyne: the former, and possibly both, won't be contrested by Labor. By your own admission this renders them irrelevant. The national opinion polls assume a general election, the capacity to change government, an opportunity which a couple of byelections just don't provide: it's not fair to make national polls bear a burden they have not claimed. Nice bit of straw man work John.
And if Nelson goes and the international economy is unchanged by 2010 ...

And if your articles were any more tenuous, John, you'd be no better than Malcolm Colless. Or his sources.

17 July 2008


The government's proposals for economic reforms to reflect real costs of carbon emissions is eerily similar to industry protection through tariffs and import restrictions in the twentieth century.

Back then, the tradeoff for having to pay Australian workers higher wages than those elsewhere was that imports of foreign goods into Australia would either be banned outright or subjected to tariffs. Industries lobbied for protection from the dreaded foreigners and were granted round after round of "temporary assistance measures". Broadly speaking, Australian industry was insulated from price signals. It did not rise to the challenge of globalisation in the latter half of last century precisely because they had lobbied to have the challenge removed.

The federal government has certainly bent over forwards for the NSW government, which is as politically insulated as the most cosseted industry ever was. It is not going to change its behaviour, it is not going to stop ripping "dividends" out of the electricity generation companies in order to upgrade, and it is certainly not going to engage external researchers in innovative power solutions. Instead, it is going to play silly-buggers with merchant bankers and not do a thing to fend off the projected power shortfalls in 2013-14.

What the Rudd Government has done is to insulate Australian industry from price signals that would force them to change. The carbon licence giveaways won't be invested properly and third-rate managers will sit on or squander the windfalls from these giveaways. Mind you, Phillip Coorey is right that there is no alternative:
If Labor introduced a scheme as harsh as the one the Greens are demanding, the Government would be out of office in one term, no question. Prices would be up, jobs would be lost, compensation would be minimal and people would be cranky.

The Opposition is completely hostile and will offer no support. It spies opportunity at every turn.

Brendan Nelson, who last week was advocating doing nothing at all, would be in power - and imagine the bleating then.

However, he correctly analyses that the government's position won't spur Australian people to action:
What the Government will do is set up a scheme, give business some certainty in investing for the future, and give the Government an arguing point when it urges others to act.

The whole scheme will be able to be ramped up and the compensation for dirty industry dropped as soon as the big polluters agree to join a global effort.

Which, at this rate, looks like never.

See, that's more significant than the breathless argy-bargy that keeps Michelle Grattan and Annabel Crabb in thrall.

There is no certainty if the scheme is politically malleable, which it is. The Greens are making an ambit claim but their focus is on the fact that major parties do and will cave if lobbied to do so. Christine Milne has slotted neatly into the role of Senate Scold once occupied by Haines, Kernot or Stott Despoja.

As far as this stuff for families, families, motorists and families is concerned, there's your election grab-bag giveaway right there. Any attempt by the Coalition to match or exceed these will need to be anchored to a comprehensive plan on climate change - of which there is and can be none. It took the Coalition four elections to live down their opposition to Medicare, how long before it comes to terms with an ETS?
"We're going to get attacked from the left, and that's what the Greens are doing; we're going to get attacked from the right, and that's what Dr Nelson is doing. My job it to get the balance right for the future," [Rudd] told ABC television.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: if Labor keeps to that position they can't lose electorally. That positioning also explains why the Democrats never made it back from the oblivion to which they consigned themselves.
Agriculture, responsible for about 16% of greenhouse emissions, will not be included in the scheme until 2015 at the earliest, with a decision to be taken in 2013.

Like hell it will. The US will exclude its agricultural producers too, and the Canadians and Australians will match them. Any residual political resistance will be leached away by whining like this.
Land clearing and logging are not included in the scheme, but those planting trees will be able to generate carbon credits.

At the very least, this is a stick to beat the Tasmanian pulp mill with. That mill is uneconomical without subsidies, and we all have to make sacrifices ...
Pensioners and other concession-card holders will receive direct payments, while other low-income earners will be helped through the tax and family payments systems.

No, what this means is that AGL and other power/gas companies will be on a steady drip of public funds, with dopey analysts convinced that these companies' steady income inflow is due to the inherent cleverness of management.

A sure sign that the carbon emissions market is working well is if all that talk about "clean coal" and sequestration stops cold. The Rudd government has taken the political middle-ground, putting it ahead of its opposition, but so what? This government is less likely to get bolder the longer it stays in office, the question is when the opposition will lift its game sufficiently to push policy not only in the right direction, but at the right pace.

But with a whimper

Gerard Henderson was a pioneer in Australian politics. He is now a wittering irrelevance, a living example of what happens when you get what you have prayed for and can't move beyond it.

There was a time when chaps with a few brains could exercise some influence in right-of-centre politics discreetly, behind the scenes. C D Kemp, B A Santamaria and Peter Coleman all did this to different degrees during the 1950s and '60s. Gerard Henderson positioned himself to do something similar for John Howard when the latter was Liberal leader during the 1980s - but John Howard doesn't like to be managed by his staff, and so Henderson was jettisoned before the Liberals did the same to Howard in 1989.

In other countries, fellows like Enoch Powell and William F Buckley had shown that you didn't have to hide your light under a bushel. By the time the 1980s came around, the red-in-tooth-and-claw culture warrior was matched with thinktanks like the Cato Institute and the American Heritage Foundation. Neither existed in Australia until Gerard Henderson invented them.

His attacks on the ABC were inspired. First, there was extensive precedent from the US in their tirades against PBS and the "nattering nabobs of negativity". The ABC has a much more substantial presence in Australia than PBS does in the United States, and it's a soft target: lefties have become intellectually flaccid and underestimated their need to fight back. Besides, the media loves talking about itself and while someone listening in to Radio National with notepad at the ready would be dismissed as a crank, Henderson could and did get a run. After a while he could, in passive-aggressive style, bully his way onto left-leaning media organs like the ABC and the Fairfax press by claiming that he represented balance, and that to exclude him was to be unbalanced. At a time when declining readership of mainstream media was starting to bite, and when insecurity about political influence was at a premium, media organisations dreaded lack of balance. Really.

Henderson's prime was in the early '90s: the Liberals were trying to work out who they were and what they stood for without wanting to look disorganised. Tobacco advertising was banned and, to use a passive construction deliberately, the Sydney Institute was not unopposed to the sale of products in a capitalist consumer society that were not unlawful. The Sydney Institute ran what looked like a salon but with the behind-the-scenes control of a press conference. Its popularity paralleled that of the Harold Park Hotel's Politics at the Pub for lefties, except with coffee and wine and nibblies rather than schooners and Hall Greenland. It became the venue of choice for those selling weighty tomes who could persuade their writers to come to Australia.

By the time of the 1996 election, Gerard Henderson had helped us understand what we might be in for if we were to elect a Coalition Government: and so it proved, a government of limited imagination but great determination to achieve what little it did. Henderson was mildly disappointed by the Howard government's gradual abandonment of the Howard opposition's commitment to smaller government. He was supplanted as culture warrior by Frank Devine's daughter and Janet Albrechtsen, and was replaced as an intellectual force by refugees from the left like Paddy McGuinness and Keith Windschuttle. He lacked the intellectual strength of Thomas Sowell, the nagging consistency of Grover Norquist or the wit of P J O'Rourke - but he did his best.

Today, Gerard Henderson is a burnt-out shell as you can see from this piece. It fails on two fronts, the political and the moral, missing the threat in both cases.
The new sectarianism is quite different from the old sectarianism. Yet it is real enough. From European settlement in 1788 until about the mid 1960s, Australia was afflicted with a prevailing distrust of Catholics - many were of Irish descent - who formed the nation's largest minority. In those days sectarianism was essentially driven by Protestants.

Whatever people's objections to Catholics were at that time, nobody seriously claimed or believed that the Catholic Church was dedicated to the protection and advancement of child molesters, nor the persecution of their victims. It does not hold that anyone who criticises the Catholic Church for any reason whatsoever must be inherently biased, motivated by the same pettiness and lack of empathy that saw state school and Catholic schoolkids throw stones at one another at bus stops across the land. Yet, this is what Henderson is trying to establish by starting with this: Australia! Not only ragged mountain ranges, droughts and flooding rains - but also people who hate Micks!

Henderson also implies that only non-Catholics are sectarian. Good luck with that.
Nowadays sectarianism in Western democracies is fuelled by what Michael Burleigh terms the "sneering secularists".

Henderson conflates the idea of sectarianism with secularism. Sectarianism means narrowly confined or devoted to a particular religious sect, or bigoted or narrow-minded adherence to a sect. Secularism means that matters of civil policy should be conducted irrespective of how religious movements think they ought to be conducted (from the Latin saecularis meaning worldly, temporal). Henderson believes that sectarianists are secularists, secularists sectarians, and that anyone with any objection whatsoever to any of the attendant fuss that has accompanied the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Australia is solely motivated by this secularist-sectarian bias.
The sneering secularists in our midst oppose all the Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Secularists oppose the idea that all matters on which Judeo-Christian religion has an opinion must be done in a way that accords with Judeo-Christian teaching. It's one thing to frame an article in a slanted way, but to be misrepresentative sets Henderson up for the same intellectual laziness of which he would accuse the ABC and other targets.

The NSW government has - without passing legislation through Parliament - proscribed any act that might be considered annoying to Catholics for most of July 2008. There is no evidence that the Catholic Church has sought this legislation, but they have a duty to express sufficient confidence in their own beliefs that would make such a proscription unnecessary. The Church should have called for the ban, imposed in their name, to be lifted: it has not done so and has attracted criticism as a result. This is not "Pope bashing", as it is not the same as sectarianism. It is, however, secularism at its best: the freedom for Catholics to express themselves is the same for anti-Catholics to do likewise.

On the very day that the High Court decided that the NSW legislation was unconstitutional, Henderson had nothing to say about the issue of free speech: nothing. He had nothing to say about "balance", apart from a bleat about official complaints-handling processes at the ABC.
So far the award for the leading sneerer goes to The Age columnist Catherine Deveny.

And you can imagine Deveny embracing such an award. This goes to the nature of the political threat Henderson perceives: a Melbourne lefty commentator of limited influence beyond those of like mind, and of course the dreaded ...
... NoToPope Coalition.

That coalition wouldn't be particularly large, influential or substantial. It would be a small number of leftwing activists - small to the point of irrelevance, Gerard. I wouldn't say they'd fit into a phonebox, because they don't have phoneboxes any more, but they'd certainly fit into the loungeroom of a small flat in Newtown. Henderson is getting himself all worked up about a small number of people expressing predictable opinions. The fact that they are campaigning for free speech is admirable, but otherwise they are irrelevant - except for their ability to inspire Gerard Henderson columns.
I readily acknowledge that some of the cleverest men and women I have met, or read about, were believers in one of the great religions. They do not warrant mockery.

This is a straw man: nobody is suggesting they do. Deveny was mocking the idea that a major religion should celebrate its own existance with something so lite-brite-n-trite as WYD. There are many devout Christians and good people who wouldn't go anywhere near WYD. This does not mean, however, that they are in league with NoToPope, Catherine Deveny, or other aspects of the sectarian-secularist miasma.
Last year I sent Jane Connors, the manager of ABC Radio National, a note suggesting that it was somewhat imbalanced for Stephen Crittenden to line up three critics of Cardinal George Pell to take the only interview slots on one program of The Religion Report. All Connors wanted to know in her reply was whether this was a formal complaint.

This is what happens when you develop a reputation as a pain-in-the-arse, deal with it.
Last week Lateline began a campaign against Pell concerning his handling of a complaint of Anthony Jones who, at the age of 29, was sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest, Terence Goodall.

Last Tuesday Pell admitted that he had made a mistake in the manner in which he handled the case.

Lateline did not accuse Pell of making a mistake. Lateline accused Pell of being mendacious, writing one thing to one person and another to someone else on the same day regarding the same matter. Pell has no right for his admission to be taken on face value. As to Jones' age: is there an optimal to be sexually assaulted?
Apparently Lateline could not find anyone who would put an alternative view.

Was there anyone with an alternative view? The only "alternative view" was that Pell is, on he whole, a good man who ought not be criticised heavily for having made a mistake. There are plenty of Pell supporters out there willing to make that case, I'm sure, had Pell asked them to do so. However, the points made by the other commentators about the Catholic Church's stonewalling and/or prosecution of victims were well made and, for anyone with any sympathy for sexual assault victims (at any age), hard to refute. Lateline cannot be blamed for failing to find people who don't exist or don't want to refute the irrefutable.

It's also a fact that the Catholic Church takes a hard line against homosexuality. Yet, in the Goodall-Jones case, there was Pell explaining away an intimate moment between two adults - just like any secularist would. Henderson's admiration for Pell has blinded him to this, um, inconsistency.
Such crimes should not diminish the good that priests, brothers and sisters - and bishops - have done over the years. The Canberra Times columnist Jack Waterford is a critic of contemporary Catholicism. Yet, in a column on June 26, he conceded that the stigma ignited by a few offenders had cast a grossly unfair burden on up to 80,000 Catholics who signed up for religious duties in Australia over the past century.

No, they certainly shouldn't. However, Pell muddies the moral waters when he, as leader of Australia's Catholics, makes excuses for sexual abuse and other crimes among clergy that he should condemn and punish. If Pell is under attack, it is for falling short of his professed standards.
If you only listened to the sneering secularists you would get the impression that Catholicism is somehow responsible for high birth rates and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

No, you'd get the impression that Catholics preach high birth rates without practicing them, and that they reject preventative measures for HIV other than abstinence from sex and drug abuse. Mind you, if you only listened to Catholic spokespeople you'd get the same impression.

So this is what it comes to: Henderson sees a political panic from an Age columnist and a handful of radical students, and has wilfully missed the point about freedom of speech. He is amazed when a church leader who regards tireless caring people as human shields for sexual predators has found himself in a moral muddle. Gerard Henderson diminishes the "fine education" he claims for himself with his inability to perceive real issues and his doggedness in irrelevant straw-man work. He gives comfort to his opponents and doesn't help his fellow-travellers. He is unlikely to recapture the lucidity and determination that made his writings must-read commentary, and it is time to write him off.

16 July 2008

Open and transparent

This piece by Julian Leeser, a former Paddington Young Liberal and hopefully a future Liberal MP, is well meant but wrong.
Perhaps party structures prevent quality candidates from putting their names forward. Status and pay alone do not explain why it has been almost two decades since the party selected a practising Queen's Counsel, having once boasted four silks in its federal parliamentary ranks.

On the other hand, perhaps they don't. This is a weak hook for an article.

Perhaps party structures are the least of your worries when becoming an MP. The preselections for the 1993 election were held during John Hewson's peak of popularity, when he was beating Mr Recession-we-Had-To-Have by 10-20% - a margin almost equal to mortgage interest rates at the time. Being an MP is a dreadful life, demeaning busywork and frequent travel and public scrutiny and treating unimportant people with a respect they just don't warrant. If you're a high-income earner - a QC/SC or whatever, your overseas business/holiday trips are your business. You can fly first class and stay at the Ritz or the Plaza or the Orient and nobody need know - you can even yell at the staff. Not so if you pay The Daily Murdoch-Tabloid more credit than it deserves.

The only QC/SC in Federal Parliament today is Labor's Mark Dreyfus. The ethos of modern politics, where senior staffers and political machine operators have conspired to rework the expectations of backbenchers to simple shut-up-and-vote bums-in-seats is a position up with which no senior barrister would put. A QC/SC backbencher would take the urgings of lobbyists, senior Prime Ministerial staffers and machine operators as mere advice, which would make their ongoing role as an MP untenable.

To show you how untenable: among the four QCs Julian refers to was Billy Snedden (who came last in his law class at UWA and almost failed; he appointed himself a QC, probably out of sheer boredom as Menzies was pretty much his own Attorney General) and Edward St John (a prig who helped bring down a Liberal Prime Minister and then took a safe Liberal seat to the cross-benches). In a tight election in 1972, did these lions of the bar come through for the Liberal Party? St John didn't, Tom Hughes took his wig and went home, and Nigel Bowen was such a party warrior he was offered, and accepted, a job from a Labor government (led, as it happens, by a QC).
There is a trend towards greater participation in preselections in both parties through member plebiscites. While this is a step in the right direction, more can be done, including considering United States-style primaries for lower-house seats.

After such a weak case, I now feel railroaded into the whole primaries thing. Note the passive construction "There is a trend" - you can see why conservatives rail against "trendies", can't you. This is another case of "we've got to do something, this is something so let's do this".
Primaries were introduced in the US as a way of removing control of candidate selection from party bosses.

Yeah, but I think the bosses have twigged to the whole primary thing by now. Full-time professionals working on an issue will work their way around whatever rules well-meaning part-time amateurs will put up, or will co-opt said part-timers. The 2008 US elections have proved the exception to the rule, but this does not excuse them for generally delivering mediocre political outcomes to that country's voters.
Most important US elected officials are selected by a primary.

Indeed they are, and thanks for undermining your own case Julian. No party hacks in US politics, noooooooo.
The British Conservative Party has also begun using primaries, resulting in the selection of Boris Johnson as a candidate in the London mayoral elections. In that primary about 20,000 Londoners voted.

Given Johnson's poor choice of advisor and deputy, this is nothing to shout about. Given that London has roughly the population of Australia, that figure reveals a fairly low base vote - much like the membership of the Liberal Party, really - combined with a sizeable number of piss-takers.
In Australia we could adapt a primary system to our circumstances. Here is how it might work. After being nominated by a prescribed number of branch members, a candidate would be scrutinised by the party executive.

If you're going to propose a system that takes power out of the hands of party bosses, don't then immediately propose that party bosses have this sort of power.
There should be very few reasons for not allowing a candidate to contest a primary. Those reasons might include that his or her candidacy would bring the reputation of the party into disrepute or that the candidate was not a genuine party supporter.

Party bosses shouldn't be bloody-minded, but they often are. They will knock out a candidate just because one of their favoured sons copped it in the neck. They can claim "disrepute" behind closed doors without having to substantiate it. Party bosses favour time-servers; a talented outsider who has voted Liberal all their lives can be shunted aside for a talentless hack in the name of "genuine party support". Julian Leeser has no excuse for not knowing this, it would be stunning if he'd never witnessed it.

It's true that party bosses are accountable to members. It's also true that this accountability comes some time after preselections, and that having played a dirty game in excluding a talented candidate is no disqualification for holding party office (besides which, such an accusation can be countered with a counter-smear at executive election time, and so it goes, etc.).
On primary election day voters would arrive at the polling station and have their name and address checked against the electoral roll and party membership lists. If the voter is a party member, they would be given their ballot paper. If the voter is not a party member, they would pay a fee to vote. The fee would act as a disincentive for members of other parties to vote strategically, as well as encouraging party membership and recouping the cost of running the primary.

Bullshit! The disincentive might apply to individuals only if they didn't have to use their own money. If the ALP had this system, the Liberal Party could raise tens of thousands of dollars in order to keep Belinda Neal as that party's candidate for Robertson. If the WA Liberals had this system in place, Brian Burke would raise millions to entrench the chair-sniffer for all time. Individuals aren't the problem here - well-funded interest groups throwing the process is what you have to watch out for, fringe religious groups and companies afraid of sensible people who might put the public interest ahead of theirs. This is also a means by which the Liberal Party can expand its marketing database.
Primaries have many advantages. They are open and transparent. Increased transparency removes the mystery of preselections and would reduce the number of media stories about internal party issues, misinformed by the selective and strategic leaking of aggrieved parties.

Having just proposed a system whereby faceless party hacks act as unaccountable gatekeepers, you can't seriously suggest that media interest in internal party machinations would disappear. When I was in the Liberal Party there was a rule whereby voting tallies in preselections were never released; factional heavies always had the figures thanks to scrutineers, feeding (mis)information campaigns. If you're going to be open and transparent, cut out bullshit rules like that.
A primary system also indicates that the party is prepared to be outward-looking. It provides potential outreach for the party to the broader community. If individuals can have a direct say in choosing the candidate, they may take a greater interest in the activities of the party.

Primaries create a level playing field. They treat the conscientious campaign worker, the community stalwart and the successful businessperson equally.

Such a system makes for a facade of openness without the reality. Primaries make politics more expensive, which diminishes parties' claims to being representative of a broader community.
Primaries simulate electoral conditions and allow parties to properly test candidates. They may also help a candidate gain a deeper connection with, and higher profile in, the community.

Practice exercises for elections generate money for political consultants but do nothing for the candidates themselves: Andrew Peacock and Kim Beazley both embraced simulated election campaigns, to their political detriment. Money, the efforts of volunteers and staff, and other resources spent on a primary is not spent on putting the Liberal Party ahead of others at general elections - unless, of course, Julian is angling for public funding for primaries (but surely he would have been open and transparent about that).

If a primary had been held in Bradfield before the 1996 election, well-entrenched MP David Connolly would have trounced flashy but insubstantial Brendan Nelson. It was party bosses that got Nelson preselected, Howard as party boss put him into cabinet once the backroom boys had vetted him as Someone Who Does What He's Told, and party bosses like Minchin who put him in as leader. Why do you hate you own party's leader, Julian?

Besides, you don't have time for all this palaver during byelections. Tell me that party bosses would not suspend a primary in a particularly intense byelection, e.g. Gippsland.
By opening itself to community and public scrutiny ...

Is the community different from/to the public, Julian, and if so how?
... the party that trials them first may have an advantage. If successful, a primary system should lead to better candidates, better parliaments and a stronger Australia.

Doesn't do much for the quality of party bosses though. Doesn't really address upper-house preselections either. Or was that the idea? Primaries are a mug's game, a waste of resources, political dress-ups by those unconvinced about widespread apathy and resentment toward political machines. Julian Leeser is a promising Liberal but he has disgraced himself by championing such a poor idea, and doing so poorly.

11 July 2008

An air that kills

The turmoil in the Liberal Party over carbon emissions is symptomatic of the debate within the community. Liberals can take no comfort from this because Australia needs more than just the passive space of a stage on which to act out this drama.

The 2012 deadline is sound, not only because it marks the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol, but because it will take that amount of time to consult with people and hose down the wider excesses of both climate-change denialists and those who believe we have already entered the end of days. It is inevitable that the government will have to postpone its rash 2010 deadline, as anything put in place by then will be half-baked (especially, not even if, Bob Brown supports it). Waiting until 2012 puts the Coalition in the position that Nelson wants it in now, now, now - that of a responsible party of government.

The reason why this is so pathetic is that at a time when leadership is required, the last thing you need is to muddy the waters. We have no idea what the Indians and Chinese are doing, bleats Nelson, we have no idea what the Japanese or Americans are doing, so we should sit on our hands and wait. The dig at Al Gore is all very well for those involved in US politics, but it reveals the dangers of importing US neocons wholesale and wondering why they don't resonate with Australians.

Nelson, Turnbull and Hunt had the ability to establish some dominance over Rudd while he was overseas. Without Rudd, nobody else in the government has the standing to balance both environmental and economic responsibility: not Garrett, not (thanks to the non-solution over the Murray-Darling) Wong, not Swan. By going to Hokkaido Rudd was never going to be present at the creation of some paradigmatic deal coming out of the G8 - not where the only leaders not terminally damaged were those of Canada and Germany, neither of whom stood up and dragged the other sad sacks along with them. A concerted effort to engage with Garnaut would have put a dampener on Rudd's penchant for overseas travel, which may well cramp his style and limit his appeal for his current job. Nelson, Turnbull and Hunt blew it.

My favourite bit was Nelson's fear that the government's proposed emissions trading scheme both meant nothing and, at the same time, "has all the hallmarks of a giant revenue grab and centralist redistribution" - i.e. they're no better than Tony "Abolish the States" Abbott.

By talking across each other, the Coalition look like a rabble and will convince nobody that they are an alternative government. If they do this on the most important longterm issue there is, nobody will be convinced they can manage a budget, defend the nation from enemies real and imagined, etc.

Nelson owes his place to Minchin, the most powerful climate-change denialist in Australian politics today (Michael Costa is just a wacka). There is no political damage at all in laughing off Minchin and his quaint antidiluvianism. Doing so would encourage lobbyists for coal miners and other carbon emitters to be a bit more clever than they have been, to adapt to a situation where they don't have the whip hand that they had under Howard. Nelson's piece in today's Australian gives no confidence that if a global consensus were to emerge, the Coalition could respond

It is not only Brendan Nelson who is in thrall to the Tom Switzer/Abbott mentality that once you've muddied the waters, the status quo is sustained and the argument is won for conservatism. Lenore Taylor thinks that if you want a statement from the Opposition on climate change, who better to ask than the spokesperson on Families Families Families Aborigines Welfare and Families. Yeah, he'd know:
There is considerable support within the Coalition for a tougher line, with frontbencher Tony Abbott telling The Australian Online yesterday that he thought Dr Nelson was doing "a very good job in calling into question the apocalyptic language of the climate change zealots" and insisting that there was "nothing wrong with debate inside a political party".

This is not a tougher line, this is a dumber line. Tony Abbott's swagger does not equate to toughness, his assertion of rubbish is the sign of a weak mind rather than a strong one. Once you've knocked the far left into a cocked hat there are still carbon emissions buggering up the planet. Muddying the waters only works on trivial issues like the presidential republic or the Medicare safety net.

Besides, this time last year do you think that Tony Abbott was some sort of champion of internal party debate? And you wonder why bloggers dump all over the mainstream media.
Dr Nelson warned yesterday the climate change debate should not be allowed to become a "religious crusade", with "people that are running around saying, 'Look, if we don't do this we're going to have disease and death and plague and pestilence and all sorts of dreadful things visited upon us"'. And he repeated his view that by going alone on an ETS, Australia risked "economic suicide".

Switzer, Minchin and Abbott would love nothing more than a simple conflict between zealots from either side, with a muddying of waters and a clear victory for the status quo. Nelson's "warning" is a sign that he's not taking the initiative in this debate; conservatives don't need to take the initiative when they are in command by default. However, the one thing that comes out of Garnaut is that the case for the status quo cannot be maintained. That, and because the denialists aren't in government, makes this ridiculous strategy. It will get the Liberals further away from government not closer to it.

At the next election Rudd will get credit for trying and fine-tuning a response to carbon emissions, be it a tax, an emissions trading scheme, a combination of these and/or something else entirely. It might be counterproductive, it might make it hard for people already doing it tough, but on the whole voters will give Rudd credit for being focused and for trying. The Liberals aren't even trying to address the biggest political issue of the day. Indeed, they are using the very tactics that got them tossed out of government, and they certainly aren't focused. This will only get them tossed further out, and Rudd's rushed response to climate change will look better than it would warrant.

Because the position of the government is not clear, Barry O'Farrell should declare this is the wrong time to sell NSW's electricity system. This would sink Iemma and Costa and prevent Labor from having a bag of cash with which they can bribe their way back into government. He can also talk about using the transition period as one for beefing up non-carbon-emitting energy and introducing responsible power use strategies by business and industry to look all statesmanlike. None of the muppets in the NSW ALP could match that and they'd just drift.

People who can't address an issue until it's polarised just aren't helpful in coming to grips with the subtleties of an issue like climate change. You need debate for that, not people who have got where they are by sidelining debate. It isn't just Nelson who's irrelevant, jerks like Minchin and Abbott are rendering themselves irrelevant too, which gives faint and probably fleeting hope to those of us who'd like a liberal government.

04 July 2008

Or turn into a mishmash

Michelle Grattan should know better than to publish stuff like this. After almost four decades in Canberra you have no excuse for getting caught up in the flaky hype and bullshit from people with no sense of history nor any principle to carry them forward.
DAY-TO-DAY perceptions of politics can change with great speed, indeed sometimes faster than the reality, perhaps because media scrutiny is so intense.

Presumably (hopefully) the "reality" referred to here is the perceptions among the voting public, and alignment with (and shaping of) that reality should be the goal of both politicians and journalists. This might take the "intensity" away from things that don't matter very much. If you've been there long enough to see real crises (like 1975 the foreign exchange crisis of 1984; or the political responses to September 11, the Bali bombing and the Iraq war) you should have no truck with non-events like Gippsland or Iguana. The whole value-add of a seasoned political reporter is maintaining that focus on issues that do matter.
South Australian Premier Mike Rann is defining Mayo as the safest of safe Liberal seats. Admittedly it is on 7.1%, but you'd normally expect Labor to offer voters a choice. That the ALP is even contemplating not running suggests it is feeling risk-averse.

What Labor is doing here is what Labor has done consistently over the past decade, at state level if not federal: avoid head-on confrontations they can't win, dominate the ones they can. A bit of basic research would have illustrated this.

Labor behaving like political professionals might be a shock at the federal level but an exprienced journalist should get over it - and should get readers over it too.
The Rudd Government is looking potentially a little more vulnerable. This isn't just because of Gippsland, but especially as a result of the difficult issues and huge agenda Rudd faces. The looming emissions trading system is regarded as bigger than the GST, on which John Howard nearly lost the 1998 election. Unlike Rudd, Howard had a fat majority to take the hit. You'd still back Rudd for a second term but he doesn't appear the deadset certainty he might have before.

What does this mean for the Liberals, as they contemplate organisational reform and leadership?

On the first, they should avoid getting diverted.

Of course Labor remain likely to be re-elected. How is Gippsland 2008 different to the byelections in Wannon or Corangamite in 1983-84, Michelle? It isn't, really. When people look back on the Hawke government (particularly those who were there and remember it, Michelle) those jitters of the first few years barely get a mention. That sort of experience should have determined whether this piece was worth writing.

During that equivalent time the Hawke government was developing and rolling out Medicare - for which models already existed. Medicare had and has massive effects on the economy. It effects the structure of the federal government and federal-state relations. Politically, the Liberal Party failed to cope with Medicare in all of the elections until 1996, when it fudged and neutralised the issue rather than address it.

Just as Medicare was designed to contain the costs of healthcare, and its differential impact on people with less economic power, so today the emissions trading/taxing system is seeking to defray the costs of carbon emissions on the environment. There is, as you've acknowledged Michelle, significant goodwill towards the government and a preparedness to let them have their head for a while.

The idea that Nelson might even get a look-in during this time is nonsense. Governments always take a bit of a dip a year or so out from their first election. You know that, Michelle. Does anyone seriously believe Nelson is going to win the coal-mining vote for the Liberals?

You also know how much wishful thinking there is in the blithe statement that the Coalition "should avoid getting diverted".
Nelson could be forgiven for despairing. Even when things go reasonably for him, he can't break through as a credible leader.

How is this different from any of the other 13 Federal Opposition Leaders you've seen go around to varying degrees of success, Michelle? Is it even worth repeating that Nelson is on 15% popularity, let alone the hype and bullshit involved in presenting this as some kind of skyocketing ascendancy?
It's like the latter days of Kim Beazley, only worse.

It's like the early days of Kim Beazley, where he was getting his face on telly a lot but generally being ignored by everyone outside the press gallery, and the party had years of opposition ahead of them. It's like the early days of Billy Snedden, where Labor were too busy governing to take the stick to the demoralised and clueless fatheads to the Speaker's left. That's what it's like, Michelle.
With a huge policy agenda coming up from the Government, the Liberals will repeatedly face a choice: do they opt for expediency or judge according to the soundness of the policy? The emissions trading scheme, due to start 2010, election year, will tempt them to be opportunistic - like Labor was with the GST.

This can be double-edged politics. When a policy is embryonic or in its chaotic early stages, expediency can yield political dividends for an opposition; once it is bedded down, this short-termism can turn against those who persist with it.

It's hard to believe that the Liberals actually want to follow in the footsteps of Beazley Labor, rather than run screaming in the opposite direction. The question here is simple: does the Coalition think that it can bump Labor off its game to the point where it gives up on this whole emissions thing altogether - especially now that the Coalition has lost control of the Senate to the Greens? You'd have to be crazy. Beazley had a lot of credibility with the electorate and frittered it away. Nelson had none to begin with and can't build any.
If the Rudd Government comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - policy can be made more realistic and acceptable, or turn into a mishmash.

What mealy-mouthed bullshit that is. You could substitute the name of the current Prime Minister for any of his predecessors at any point and the sheer vacuity of that statement would be unabated. You could substitute the name of any of the state premiers or any foreign leader:
If the Mugabe Government comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - policy can be made more realistic and acceptable, or turn into a mishmash.

If the Iemma Government comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - policy can be made more realistic and acceptable, or turn into a mishmash.

If the Bush Administration comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - policy can be made more realistic and acceptable, or turn into a mishmash.

If whatever Government comes under increasing pressure, that is likely to affect the content of its policies. This can be seen as a positive or a negative - etc.

An editor with his/her salt should have flung that back in Grattan's face with an instruction to lift her game or piss off to the Murdoch papers.
The Senate will be an unpredictable player in the emissions trading scheme, with the crossbenchers (Greens, Family First and independent Nick Xenophon) likely to have diverse positions and the Opposition's final Senate line problematic.

Based on my years of experience in observing politics, here's what'll happen:

  • Green Senators Milne and Siewert will examine the scheme line by line. They will probe the government for their preparedness to move on certain issues, and when Labor push back these will be the flaws they will rail against. The other Green Senators, including the increasingly moribund Brown, will fall into line behind whatever Milne and Siewert decide.

  • The Coalition will shriek publicly that the scheme is appalling, that the sky will fall in, doom and gloom all round. In the Senate, Minchin and Abetz will be slightly more sophisticated in not opposing it outright at first but proposing to scuttle the operational bits of the scheme.

  • Fielding will say "look, I haven't made up my mind", while in fact his base will have green aspirations and he simply won't believe the jeremiads coming out of the Coalition. He'll take his chances with Labor rather than rely on Coalition preferences next time.

  • Xenophon will be interesting, but the Coalition will go in too hard and that will tip him toward Labor's scheme. He will be impressed by its congruence with Kyoto and the fact that Labor won (and got a post-election poll-spike) on a pro-Kyoto mandate.

  • The Senate will vote for the scheme, with amendments. The Coalition will try to claim that it will be a disaster while at the same time trying to establish green credentials - a bit like the mealy-mouthed nothing that was their response to the Stolen Generations apology.

The Democrats underestimated the GST - to their peril. The emissions trading scheme is core business for the Greens. Minchin and Abetz really are that stupid, and anyone in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party who is less so lacks the guts to take them on. That's what you should be getting from a political commentator. It's what you get from Peter Hartcher, Shaun Carney and Laura Tingle on their best days, even though all of them together have less experience in Canberra than Michelle Grattan.
Meanwhile, in Mayo, nominations open today for a late July preselection. The fight among the candidates is about both the past and the future. Jamie Briggs, 31, who is expected to announce his candidature today and will promote himself as part of a Liberal Party needing to rebuild, is under attack within the ranks because he was Howard's adviser on WorkChoices. Briggs' situation is a metaphor for the Liberals generally, still caught between past and future, as it dawns on them that the future might be just a little brighter than it has seemed.

Great, just what the Liberal Party needs: another Josh Frydenberg. Briggs' situation and that of the Liberal Party was illustrated beautifully by Peter Hartcher's column today: just tell us if Briggs is the sort of person who would have giggled with Downer after his "loser" comment.

Do you not think that the Liberals should have picked up a few crumbs politically after the demise of the Democrats, Michelle, rather than the bugger-all that has accrued to them? Never mind Mayo, Michelle, how would you think Nelson's Liberals would go in a byelection for Robertson? What about if they were led by Turnbull or Costello? Those are the sort of questions you'd expect an experienced political journalist to be asking.

Shane Maloney was right: in four decades Michelle Grattan has written nothing memorable. She is so focused on activity she has no idea about stasis and progress, wood or trees.

02 July 2008

Give John Roskam a break

John Roskam has scoffed a fistful of the Tony Abbott Angry Pills and complains that Kevin Rudd isn't giving him a break.

The main thing to say about Rudd is that he hasn't leapt out of the blocks like a sprinter, but has started with a canter like marathon runners do. With all those inquiries and a general refusal to throw babies out with the Coalition bathwater, this is a man settling in for a long time rather than a good time.

It would have been easy to go for gladhanding populism from day one. It certainly would have pleased so-called tough guys in the back rooms of ALP head office - the polls would have stayed up and so would the fundraising. However, there's more to governing than that. So Labor missed the chance to win a seat it has never held - a "rebuff"? Give me a break.
At the moment the most challenging job for Canberra bureaucrats is keeping count of all of the Government inquiries being held.

Really? Well, someone has put together a Budget. Someone is busy rewriting industrial relations legislation. Someone is reworking the way that immigration applications are processed at a time when more people are migrating to this country than ever before. Someone is reworking the way that universities operate. Someone is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgents in East Timor. Someone is putting together an emissions trading system (as Roskam points out) in the absence of any workable model for this kind of thing. If the bureaucracy isn't doing that, who is?

Roskam's catalogue of the Rudd Government's activities to date is clearly taken from the kind of shallow analysis we'd expect from the Canberra press gallery. Personally, I despaired for their shallowness - Rudd has built an entire new government but, because he didn't put out any press releases about it, shallow people like Annabel Crabb and John Roskam focused on cocktail parties. You'd hope that an Institute of Public Affairs would examine the activities of government more closely - give me a break.
At his meeting with premiers this week, one of the biggest arguments the Prime Minister faces is whether the Commonwealth or the states will pay for the electrical equipment required to implement his "education revolution".

Really? The biggest state in the country has folded. The Feds have the money, they have the legislative force majeure, and none of the shopworn Premiers/Chief Ministers are going to win politically by holding out on the most popular leader in the country. What is there to argue about? You haven't been sucked in by shallow press gallery hype again have you John?
It's true that some spending has been cut, but means-testing the baby bonus to stop millionaires getting it was also popular.

Damn these politicians for doing something popular! Curse them for wrecking Roskam's vapid little theses! Give me a break.
It's not too tough for an MP to hand over a cheque to the local sporting

Considering that sort of thing didn't save the Howard Government in 2007, nor the Keating Government in 1996, and will be forgotten by whenever the next election is - this could be tougher than you think.
First and foremost, he hasn't brought down the cost of groceries, petrol, or mortgages. It's true that Rudd was clever enough to avoid any explicit promises about these things during the election campaign. But he was happy enough to leave the impression with voters that should he become prime minister he would help alleviate the monetary pressures on working families. Now he says his government has done as much as they can for them. To most people this sounds like a feeble excuse.

What it sounds like is politics as usual. You don't have to be John Roskam to see through non-specific promises. The fact that Rudd's then opponent didn't see household expenditures as a major issue accounts for Rudd's success at and since the last election. Give me a break.
Second, the Government hasn't revealed what it is going to do to improve the quality of life of indigenous Australians.

Did he promise, explicitly or otherwise, to do this? Will this not take many years of extensive consultation (part of which, IPA-style, will inviolve the government leaving them alone)? Hasn't the first step, the apology, been taken? Given that Rudd has never said, nor does he apparently believe, that >2 centuries of Aboriginal disadvantage can be redressed and reversed within a single year - what makes you think that?
Labor has done its best to avoid revealing what exactly is its position on the Northern Territory emergency intervention.

Assuming it has one. I thought that public servants were monitoring and analysing this, but what would I know?
Instead of worrying about things that may or may not happen in 100 years' time, the Government could focus on what's occurring right here and now in indigenous communities.

Instead? What about "as well"? Is the climate debate focussed on 100 years time, or is it focused on the next decade? Are you really sure that there is no focus whatsoever by the Rudd Government on Aborigines?

Can you really make the case that Gippsland voted as it did because of a concern for Northern Territory Aborigines? Me neither. Give me a break.
The third thing Rudd hasn't done is to tell Australians anything about his emissions trading scheme for greenhouse gases. All we know is that we're going to have one and it is going to start in two years. We don't know how it will work, how much it will cost, and how many jobs will be lost because of it.

Probably because they are still working this out, John - when they're not having cocktail parties and keeping track of inquiries, of course.

The comparison to Hewson in 1992-93 is more than fair. However, Hewson did this from opposition - Rudd was smart enough to wait until he had the practical help of government and some political momentum behind him. Same with Howard on the GST after 1998.

Roskam can't hold Rudd to Roskam's standards, insofar as he has any. Roskam can't hold Rudd to Rudd's standards, failing to resist a flight of fancy over the living conditions of Aborigines, an issue he clearly considers both difficult and tedious. I wonder why Roskam bothers, and it's a shame he doesn't. Give yourself a break John, because it won't just be you who's better off for it.

01 July 2008

Time for leadership in Zimbabwe

Mugabe's time has passed and Tsvangarai's has not yet come. There's a stalemate in Zimbabwe and there is only one way to resolve it.

Even though Tsvangarai won the first vote and the "runoff" was always going to be a joke, the reality is that the MDC (the party opposing Mugabe) has been smashed. It cannot perform the role of a political party, namely tying the elite to the community and vice versa. Tsvangarai's appeal is that he has stood against Mugabe, and he may yet stay standing after the old man has fallen. It's hard to know what else he stands for, really. He says all the right things - but then so did Milton Obote, long thought to be wronged victim of Idi Amin but actually had more in common with him than anyone dared imagine. Tsvangarai can no more save Zimbabwe single-handedly than did Mugabe wreck it single-handedly.

It's pantomime politics to say that Mugabe alone is to blame for everything that goes wrong in Zimbabwe, the flipside of the equally silly claim that he's that country's savior. Clearly, he has a trusted group below him, and they them, down the line to most areas of Zimbabwean life. The people within the army/etc. have seen Mugabe decline and have witnessed things getting steadily worse. The fact that their economy is the world's worst cannot have escaped these people. Tsvangarai's criticisms had to have struck a chord with even the most diehard Zanu-PF loyalist. And yet, even now, they line up behind an ageing despot whose mental state deteriorates with his body. The condemnation of Tutu and Madiba mean more than the quiet support of the irrelevant Mbeki. They have to know the status quo can't last. They might be committing foulest, most evil acts, or at least condoning them - but they are not stupid. They're as smart as any national elite anywhere.

The one thing that works in Zimbabwe is the army/police force/Zanu-PF. It's well organised and can run everything from synchronised thuggery to a post-inaugural garden party. It has the esteem of old anti-colonial warriors like Thabo Mbeki. The people of Zimbabwe cower before it and everyone in that country who wants to get ahead in life has to come to terms with it. Let us recognise the sheer force of this entity (it's probably too shambolic to call it an organisation), and turn it to good instead of evil.

Somewhere in Harare tonight, there has to be someone who has known Mugabe for decades and who has done well out of him - someone who can approach Mugabe without being frisked. There is someone who can command loyalty in Mugabe's name, yet who might be capable of doing so in his own right. That person might submit to being the power behind Tsvangarai, he might assume power in his own right, or he might opt for some third party to be nominal leader. Whatever might happen, it's undeniable that this person must step forward now. That person must decouple the machine from the broken-down figure at its head and bring it with him across to the new Zimbabwe. Today is the first of July 2008 - by the end of this month we must be able to speak of Mugabe as we speak of Ian Smith, a figure from history.

A post-Mugabe Zimbabwe would face the temptation of anarchy, for the thugs with billy-clubs to get what's coming to them. With proper leadership it will face this down. A post-Mugabe Zimbabwe would face manipulation by foreign forces, like Iraq. With proper leadership it will assert its national interests and allow its civil society to rebuild sufficiently to provide for itself once more. A post-Mugabe Zimbabwe would face shrill righteous cries for persecution, if not dismantling, of the army/police/Zanu thing. With proper leadership it will sort the wheat from the chaff.

That "proper leadership" is nowhere evident except in the very longevity and pervasiveness of the army/police/Zanu thing. It is under enormous pressure, and it's possible that the country's entire elite will crack up individually and fragment into numerous warring factions, All Against All as Hobbes put it. It's easy to be a pessimist. It's hard to imagine that people seriously believe that liberation means fighting with Mugabe rather than against him, but Zimbabwe's ruling elite not only believe it but have lived it. To ask them to believe the reverse is to ask proud and powerful people to break the habits of a lifetime. What's hard is to get a weapon and conceal it, to stand up and approach to an old comrade who embodies your country, whom you've long known and admired and who's treated you well - and to dispatch him like every other expendable running-dog in Zimbabwe's long struggle. Every other option simply will not do - not chanting another pro-Mugabe slogan to the empty-bellied fearful, not waiting for British paratroopers to fall from the sky, not hiding out at an embassy. Now is the time to act and there's only one thing to do.

The mechanism that made Mugabe possible must transfer its loyalties without falling apart. In this scenario war criminals will go unpunished and may even prosper, but it may be that Zimbabweans will pay that price. This is a Faustian bargain, and it's a poor situation where it and extinction are the only choices - but neither Mugabe nor Tsvangarai can provide the leadership necessary to give that country any hope. That leadership has to come from within the existing elite, it should surely be available, and the time for that leadership is now.