29 March 2010


The term "spearhead" used to really annoy me, until I realised how revealing it is of those who use it.

For a start, "spearhead" is not a verb. It is a noun, an inert and senseless object which has no force and no sense of direction until it is given these qualities by someone else. It is passive, it is primitive, it is limited in what it can really achieve by itself or in concert with others.

I agreed with Scott Prasser in his critique of Wyatt Roy and the fools who made him possible, until he came out with this:

"Now I think this [preselecting a candidate for a marginal Labor-held seat] is an opportunity for the LNP to recruit people of experience, so they can go into Parliament to play the bigger game of spearheading attacks on the Government and developing policy.

Spearheads don't develop policy, and you don't have to be terribly sophisticated to see this bunch of, er, spearheads coming at you and take appropriate action.

This kid is a spearhead: wording crafted by others is tumbling out of his face without any appreciation of what a well-run hospital is, as opposed to a badly-run one; or whether hospitals are all there is to the public health? He doesn't appear to know what it means to say that Tony Abbott is "authentic", which is another way of saying both a) that Tony Abbott does whatever the hell Tony Abbott wants, motherfucker, and b) that being nerdy can't possibly be authentic. Is Wyatt Roy as "authentic" as Tony Abbott?

Is he any more of a spearhead than a trivia-quiz-answer like Don Cameron? Is he a more effective spearhead than Peter Dutton, who might have won both preselection and the seat itself?

Do you want a spearhead representing you in Parliament? If not, what are your options?

27 March 2010

Making yourself the story

Peter van Onselen has failed to realise what senior journalists know: that when you take sides you make yourself the story, and the more you make yourself the story the harder it is to report on other stories. As with most PvO articles, you have to do the analysis yourself as the commentary provided isn't much chop and doesn't match the morsels of fact within it.

The main story here is how frightened the Liberals are of Malcolm Turnbull. They're trying everything, and poor Pete is going along because Turnbull won't follow the stereotypes.

How did a former Liberal Party leader who, just more than a month ago, crossed the floor on the emissions trading scheme to sit all alone with the Labor Party imagine he could use the media to put pressure on Abbott to promote him to the front bench?

Remember way back when Turnbull was leader and Abbott was Shadow Minister for Families Families and Families? Remember how Abbott would run interference on Coalition policy development with his half-witted outbursts on anything that took his fancy? John Howard did much the same thing to Liberal leaders who weren't John Howard, and Abbott did the same - and has been vindicated. What's happening here - and what van Onselen has failed to realise - is that Abbott has great trouble complying with one of the key laws of politics, the What's Sauce For The Goose Is Sauce For The Gander Act.

Turnbull himself must have been aware that his reputation as a political strategist had taken yet another battering and that the door on his political future had slammed shut once more.

No, Turnbull has looked like a team player and Abbott has looked petty and paranoid.

The member for Wentworth may now decide that he has no future in politics and swiftly resign. If that happens, it would indicate a shift in thinking.

Newspaper editors like to run columns written by former politicians or former party leaders ... However, since Turnbull started regularly writing for The Sydney Morning Herald he could hardly have been more on message for the Liberal Party's cause.

Firstly, never mind what newspaper editors like or don't like. Second, the fact that Turnbull is on message indicates that he does not regard his political career as dead as you might like it, and you should have picked up on that. Third, the fact that he isn't writing for a News Ltd paper seems to really stick in your craw.

... when Turnbull couldn't find something to attack Rudd about, he would steer clear of politics and discuss issues in his electorate.

Or: leaving others (esp. shadow ministers) to plug the daily talking points, Turnbull reinforced his career by talking about an area in which many SMH readers live, and/or find interesting. If he was just going to plug today's talking points, why would the SMH publish him?

Of course Abbott's rebuke of Turnbull's ambitions may change that, making his copy more interesting if he reverts to the wrecking ball approach in his columns.

Remember how John Howard contradicted Hewson on interest rates in the final week of the '93 campaign? The fact that this is the sort of thing Abbott would do, and clearly isn't the sort of thing Turnbull does, renders half this article as bullshit: any paragraph with "may" in it can safely be deleted, even (or especially) if it starts with "of course".

Abbott's performance will be a testing ground for the sort of policies the Liberal Party embraces into the future. Joe Hockey stands as a philosophical alternative to Abbott in the partyroom. If Turnbull remains in politics, with a great deal of repair work to be sure, he could still emerge one day as a leader.

All political parties, in government or not, have differences of opinion within them. Would you consider Turnbull's SMH articles part of the "repair work"?

Abbott and Hockey may in time become their generation's John Howard and Andrew Peacock, jockeying for control of the heart and soul of the party.

See, that's just silly. It shows how frayed your imagery is, how unsustainable your metaphors are, PvO.

Nevertheless, such labels do help us understand the broad challenges the Liberal Party faces.

No, PvO, they don't. They help you set up a whole lot of "maybes" which look increasingly silly.

But even within the Right there are disagreements about the role of the market and the role of the big arm of government.

Such disagreements were never more obvious than when Abbott began promoting his parental leave scheme, opposed by senator Nick Minchin and perhaps even a catalyst for his early departure (in addition to family reasons).

So why describe people like Turnbull as "malign", when it is the Liberal right who are a rabble intent on either smothering us in bureaucracy or abandoning people to a market that passes them by in pursuit of those who are either/both well-heeled and well-indebted?

There is a supreme irony about a man who says he is resigning to care for his child, while denying childcare support to others.

My sympathies are squarely with those who don't try and shape Australian society to some predefined agenda, which is probably why I find PvO's piece so risible. He's trying to hammer the square peg of Turnbull into the round hole of political cliché, and like all lazy journalists he curses the object of his ire for not making his job even easier than it is already. PvO was appointed for his inside knowledge of the Liberal Party, and he is neither applying that knowledge or his analysis skills at all well.

25 March 2010

A vote of no confidence

Nick Minchin has quit the Coalition front bench because he despairs of becoming a minister again any time soon. He got the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party he wanted, but has come to the realisation that it cannot and will not win government in the foreseeable future.

Minchin saw Howard decay before his very eyes in 2007, and like most Liberals did too little to avert defeat - like most Liberals, any admission of frailty in Howard was also an admission of frailty in himself, and to admit such frailty is to hole your ego below the waterline. In Abbott, he sees a Liberal leader rail against the dying of the light, yet he also sees that the light is dying anyway.

It may be true that the injury to his son has been weighing on Minchin's mind, but it is true that he has, like Abbott, deliberately chosen a role which involves as much time as possible away from the duties of hearth and home. The image of Nick Minchin playing a caring role beggars belief, and can only prompt a seismic shift in the way he looks at people who do this sort of thing for a living - and families who do so with far less means than Minchin has at his disposal.

It isn't as though Minchin is going off to play golf. His interests include politics, politics and politics. He doesn't have marketable skills and business connections like Costello, nor does he have a commitment to service beyond the nation's shores like Downer, nor does he have a sense of social justice and the courage of self-discovery that Malcolm Fraser has. He is going to try and do what Howard is doing, brooding and making phone calls. He is going to watch Cory Bernardi fail, overtaken by Pyne and Birmingham and the state parliamentarians, while jabbering away about watermelons and that human achievement means conflict with the world rather than harmony.

Minchin's comments about greenies de-industrialising the West shows at the very least that he hasn't been paying attention, at worst that he's a nutter. His supposed mastery of policy founders on this rare glimpse into his very core. Look, I've got a copy of The Anti-Industrial Revolution by Ayn Rand too, but I recognise that it has been overtaken by events. Minchin should have seen market-based solutions such as Shi Zhengrong's solar initiatives and disdained science-by-press-release crap like CCS. He should have realised that the game has overtaken him, and that he lacks the ability to position the Liberal Party out in front. Bernardi has no such excuse, he is just a gibberer and the post-Minchin SA Libs should banish him to Monarto.

It will be interesting to watch those few federal Coalition parliamentary staffers who clung to staffer jobs, albeit in reduced numbers at reduced pay with reduced scope of action. With Minchin gone, watch those staffers cosying up to the next bunch of Liberals with a realistic chance of winning government - the NSW state Libs, maybe the Vics, maybe even swallow your pride and schlep to Hobart. For Abbott, this will be particularly galling - this is someone who has dumped all over the very idea of state politics, who defines himself by his contempt for people like state Liberals like John Brogden and Barry O'Farrell. Abbott watched Howard treat state Liberals with contempt too, but the difference was that the feds were winners and the state Libs were obvious losers. Abbott is not ready for the boot to be on the other foot.

Barnaby Joyce is finished. You can shunt him to the regions to get him out of the way, far from big-city media and major business donors/potential clients of a Coalition government. But he is tainted by his failure, the bushies know that he can't come through for them and that he is not the successor to the powerful National/Country Party figures in Coalition governments past. He's not cunning, not details-focused and outcomes-driven like Fischer. He's not the PM's peer like Anthony and Sinclair were under Fraser, and he's not the formidable presence that McEwen was. He's a sideshow, and while rural people appreciate people who take the time to visit they can smell a second-rater. He ain't gonna build Everald Compton's railway from nowhere to nowhere else. Where gas or mineral exploration threatens to corrupt farmland, Joyce can't and won't ensure that farmers and farming communities prevail over the fly-in-fly-outers.

One man who has his pannikin out for an extra helping of hubris is Eric Abetz. For the putative Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and the power behind the would-be Hodgman government in Tasmania, his moment is at hand. Watch him stuff it up. Watch him come out with the sort of wacky nonsense that makes Joyce or Bernardi look as dull calm and measured as Andrew Robb. Watch him do so at a time least convenient to Tony Abbott, and which renders the Liberals as the third wheel in Tasmanian politics for a generation. Watch him urge Abbott to be as wacky as he is, at the very time when Abbott is starting dimly to understand (on issues like gays and parental leave) that the centre really is where government is at, and how far his journey is to that place.

Turnbull is right to stand well clear of this rabble, while appearing to make himself available for the sake of the team. I wonder what he's learned about the country, his party, himself since losing the leadership.

Andrew Robb is the strategist that Lindsay Tanner thinks he is. Tanner will underestimate him and will look foolish for having done so. Won't make a damn bit of difference in electoral terms, but in the next term Tanner will be less than the towering figure he appears now.

The whole rise-of-Gillard thing I commented on a few days ago appears to be a determination by the ALP not to put all their eggs in one basket the way that the Liberals did with Howard. The transition will be fascinating, but it is a sign that Abbott and his supporters are not ready for prime time when they urge their boy to ignore the reality of the Rudd Government and shadow-box an opponent that isn't there.

Even a once-formidable Coalition strategist appears to have lost it. Arthur Sinodinos wanders all over the place and ends with this:

This is a hard time to be an economic reformer.

Maybe so, but this begs the question: who says Abbott wants to be one? Sinodinos sets up a whole bunch of straw men and stumbles over them himself, well before Abbott has the chance to make himself look silly by accepting such 'advice':

The Opposition Leader does not have to agree with every detail of Labor's new health policy. His choices are to smother it in agreement, trump it or punch a big enough hole in the plan that it is not viable, a difficult ask from opposition. While agreement may seem to give Rudd a big win, opposition works only if Abbott is confident he can produce something better. He is best going with his convictions and experience. That is what gives him passion and excites the public. He can do passion better than Rudd.

Compare this with Turnbull's performance on environmental policy. Turnbull agreed with Rudd, and was passionate - but so what? Did he establish that the Liberals would do a better job than the slow-and-steady Rudd? Tony Abbott didn't get where he is by agreeing with Kevin Rudd.

He also should study carefully what the premiers are saying. Health is literally a life and death issue and the states are at the coalface of what can and does go wrong. He can call his own health summit with the states.

If you were advising Barry O'Farrell, Isobel Redmond or John-Paul Langbroek, wouldn't you be counselling your boss that they are doing just fine running their own race and to leave Abbott to his (especially as people are at least open to Rudd, if not convinced that he's winning the debate)?

If Rudd is genuine about co-operation, he should invite Abbott to the Council of Australian Governments meeting in April. As a goodwill gesture, Rudd and Health Minister Nicola Roxon can stop the shadow boxing over Abbott's record as health minister.

Two questions, Arthur: did you have advised Howard to invite Rudd to the 2007 COAG meetings? Would you trust Abbott to maintain the air of kum-by-yah bipartisanship essential to getting an agreement in such forums? What do you mean, no on both counts?

This brings us to the once premier state of NSW. Abbott can make the federal election in NSW a referendum on state Labor. In 1990, Bob Hawke lost seats in Victoria partly off the back of the woeful performance of Victorian Labor.

... and partly off the back of a moderate Liberal leader, Arthur, but let's not go there. Kristina Keneally would love to run against Tony Abbott, as would John Brumby. The Liberal leaders in NSW and Victoria might be happy to use Abbott as a practice run for their state campaigns, once again inverting Abbott's view of things and allowing ambitious staffers to ingratiate themselves with some actual winners.

... the future of the federation [is] also [a] relevant topic ... Nothing is too parochial for high-flying federal politicians these days. Rudd and Abbott have demonstrated centralising tendencies, so everything is fair game. The health network proposal is the harbinger of the federation inexorably dissolving into a quasi regional model along British lines.

Gough Whitlam's original vision was to create strong regional authorities funded directly by Canberra.

And how would you suggest Abbott credibly distinguish his position on federation from Rudd and Whitlam? You couldn't get any differentiation there, and if you could it would hardly matter in electoral terms anyway.

State independence requires fiscal freedom, and what state is willing to argue for a return of income or consumption taxation powers? ... Fraser ... Keating ...

What about if the feds take over 100% of health, Arthur, game over and problems solved for the states? You don't need to hark back to the past when Rudd is setting the agenda today. If you get a strong set of state Coalition governments and a federal leader on the back foot, as Gorton was to Askin, Bolte and Bjelke-Petersen, you never know what might happen. Pity Abbott won't go all out to hand power to the states.

Right now, the Coalition are doing what they do best: keeping up appearances. The idea that Abbott might have a chance is now gone for all but his most shrill fans. The hard men have gone, are treading water, or are lost and befuddled. Soon will come the time to define what a post-Howard Liberal Party will look like, what it will do and how it will work: but finally the Liberals realise that will have to come after the election and not before.

19 March 2010

The red herring is the story

This year we are looking at our country and the way it is governed in preparation for an election, in which either the current government will be returned or the previous government will be returned without its economic credibility.

Mark Latham was deemed to have lost all credibility as a potential Prime Minister in 2004 when he promised to withdraw all Australian forces from Iraq "by Christmas", because it sounded good and that's what folks wanted to hear, rather than being the product of balanced and considered strategic thinking. Tony Abbott has done the same thing with his parental leave policy brain-fart, and Costello has nailed him on it.

Abbott is offering basically the return of the Howard government, less John Howard (who was forced to repudiate pretty much everything he stood for in order to get elected) and Peter Costello, who seems to have taken the Coalition's reputation for economic management away with him. Certainly, Abbott and Joyce have pissed it away and Joe Hockey hasn't got it yet. Abbott has Buckley's of becoming Prime Minister and anyone who says otherwise is blowing smoke. Jabber away all you like about polls or the dull pantomime of Question Time, but when the election campaign starts he is done for, the flaws are in place that can only see him fail.

Incidentally, it is interesting that Costello can only conceive of parental leave as simply a tax problem, and parental leave as solely an issue for women. This myopia bodes ill for his capacity to effectively scrutinise an organisation calling itself The Future Fund. Could be worse though - he could still be in Parliament making decisions that limit our future, knocking down imperfect ideas but proposing nothing to help limit the disruption to the lives of people and the nation arising from those who have responsibilities to both their workplace and their children.

The question as to whether the government can and ought to be returned centre on economics, education and health. These are complex issues and there is ample space in the journosphere, many sources of information and a plethora of analyst/commentators, who can help us citizens/ consumers/ voters/ taxpayers to sift and sort these issues. The Coalition has nothing to offer on those areas and this should be made clearer than it is. Instead, the journosphere is focused relentlessly myopically on a red herring that served them ill in the past, and which threatens to trash the credibility of press gallery journalists still further.

Michelle Grattan has cemented her reputation as a lightweight with nothing better to do than to hang around Canberra and churn out ephemera with crap like this. It's a non-story. Either Gillard is challenging Rudd, or she isn't: the prospect that Gillard might one day become Prime Minister is ramped up to baseless speculation that Rudd's job is under actual threat, and that all policy pronouncements must hereafter be viewed through a prism of a leadership tension which does not actually exist.

On health, an issue of far-reaching consequence for Australians, Grattan displayed her own limitations by portraying it as yet another political kerfuffle at COAG, rather than going into policy issues at work in various parts of the country. That would be actual high-value journalism; breathless stenography of press releases, set-piece announcements and scuttlebutt, much less so.

Journalists should be more adept at recognising and avoiding red herrings that tempt them away from issues of greater importance to citizens/ consumers/ voters/ taxpayers, rather than gleefully pursuing them because every other fool is it really is The Story, darling, and if you're not pursuing it too then you are just nobody from nowhere. No wonder the journosphere is having such problems with PR, apparently: if you don't know what a story is then of course you are happy to have PR flacks spoon-feed you what you should be writing.

If you really think, and tell your readers, that health policy is a matter of politicians performing the same ritual confab that leaves hospitals and other health programs starved of resources, o if you believe that parental leave is all about tax and a desperate lunge for women's votes (by a party that should have more of them, were it not so committed to repelling voters by telling them what, and how little, they really think); then you are pretty sharply limited and your experience is worth stuff-all. Such people ought to be too limited to be involved in public policy or reporting thereon, and the idea that such vapid people are respected doyen(ne)s in public policy is pitiful.

09 March 2010

Lost near Fossil Creek

Tony Abbott has set back the issue of paid parental leave with his hasty, ill-considered and credibility-free outburst. He's also demonstrating the sort of hubris that classical rise-and-fall stories are made of.

Abbott promised to consult with his parliamentary colleagues before making policy announcments. In springing this policy upon them, and his shadow cabinet, Abbott is being every bit as imperious as Turnbull - or John Howard. He is daring them to defy him, and they won't for a number of reasons:

  1. The Liberal Party has an acute case of Fuehrerprinzip, where the leader is all-important and must be supported (until his position beomes untenable).

  2. Abbott's position among women voters - the essential demographic for the Liberal vote - needs work, and there will be a desire to give Abbott the benefit of the doubt. Apart from the odd wife/daughter with a bit of nous, the fossils known as Liberal MPs will have no reference point for how unconvincng Abbott's outburst is for women, how little it will factor in to changing votes where the Liberal Party needs them to change.

  3. Post-Fightback! Liberals will never go in for carefully detailed policy when a big splashy stunt will do.

  4. Abbott is the third Liberal leader in as many years. Any Liberal who has a problem with this policy, or the non-consultation aspects of it: suck it up, bite your lip, and sell sell sell.

The fact that business has come out against the parental leave policy - big business is stridently hostile and small business is very, very quiet - will be a source of great angst within the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party did not get where it is today by slugging business with new taxes. Liberals with a chance of winning government (especially now that health has been moved off the state political table, thanks Mr Rudd!), like Barry O'Farrell and Isobel Redmond, will find it harder to raise funds after this outburst. People like Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb would be having their ears bent by senior business people within the Thirty-Two Hundred; this is the time you point to when we talk about Abbott overreaching himself, the point from which the fall began.

The national chairwoman of the Women's Electoral Lobby, Eva Cox, expressed scepticism about Mr Abbott's conversion to paid parental leave, but welcomed talk about a more generous scheme.

"The thing I would agree with him is that the government's plan is Mickey Mouse," Ms Cox said.

Imagine if Malcolm Turnbull or Brendan Nelson had tried to court Eva Cox; Liberals would have gone berserk. Plenty of oppositions have lost elections by identifying a Mickey Mouse government policy, and then producing a worse one (whereupon the Mickey Mouse policy is vindicated and held up as a model going forward, etc.).

Watch for a mad scramble over the top 3200 businesses, where everyone will want to be Business No. 3201 and nobody will want to be Business No. 3199: a quick scan of the top 150 companies on the stock market shows considerable volatility at the lower end of that limit, how much more so would it be further down. That definition probably does not include the local offices of multinational companies (e.g. News Ltd). It definitely includes Telstra, who are currently being shafted by Conroy but who can't do much to help his opponents lest they fail to win government, as looks likely: Stevie Boy hates it when people give aid and comfort to the Liberals. These calculations only come into play if Abbott has a real chance of winning.

That definition would probably include the companies that own Channels Nine and Seven. As if.

For all the Rudd-down-Abbott-up talk about polls, the fact is that Labor are on track to increase their majority. Faced with such a prospect, does anyone believe that any Liberal leader this side of Billy McMahon would go and get themselves lost, with a bunch of journalists in tow? Why would he barge into people's homes without asking? He comes back and he's still lost.