28 July 2010

Not cheap

Lee Rhiannon had so much more credibility on this sort of thing before she started using her State Parliamentary office to propel her into Federal politics. She mightn't be the first pollie to misuse Parliamentary privilege nor the first old Trot with more front than North Head, but she may underestimate just how much an infringement against the What's Sauce For The Goose Act can blunt your ability to cut through on key issues like a nail driven into a tree can stop a chainsaw (and its operator).

This is the best election climate the Greens have ever had. If they had chosen a moderate to lead their Senate campaign, as in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania, they'd walk in to a Senate seat and probably at the expense of National Fiona Nash. Instead, as appears likely, if NSW elects three Senators each from Labor and the Coalition on 21 August nobody will be whinging louder or longer about a major-party stitch-up than Rhiannon. Trots don't trust the public until they're on their knees, anyway.

Rhiannon was a dud choice for the NSW Greens (following on from that other campus Trot who couldn't hold on last time). Like Franca Arena with child abuse, Rhiannon has milked the donations issue rather than advance it. If the same turkeys who preselected her are running the State election campaign then Labor might be in less trouble than we might hope.

27 July 2010

She stoops to conquer?

Many people have been disappointed that Gillard hasn't been more of a visionary leader, and I'm one of them. However, I wonder if she's deliberately downplaying the scope of what she wants to achieve because her number one task at the moment is to beat Tony Abbott. Having done that, all things are possible.

Tony Abbott gnaws away at issues and then retreats, only to pop up somewhere else. This is, ironically, the kind of guerilla tactics developed and put to lethal effect by insurgents such as Michael Collins and Kim Il Sung. It does not encourage sensible, measured policies that Australians like, want and will vote for. It is not a strategy designed to inspire confidence in the insurgent's capacity to lead, it is designed for desperate people with nothing to lose.

Australians are not desperate people with nothing to lose, but those who are members of the Liberal Party and who believe in the immediate restoration of the Howard-Costello government (but without Howard or Costello) clearly are.

Abbott's way of working hides his lack of an overarching vision. This way of working works on the rugby pitch and the boxing ring, and assumes that the other party will at least turn up - and if they don't, you can win by default and play merry hell with their reputation.

This way of working can be negated only by engaging with it and beating it. Turning the tax bogey against Abbott is a good start. It takes skill and hard work, but this approach is vulnerable to the slow grind of repeated failure and the costs of copping the blows without any benefits to show for it. Only fools would follow Abbott through the valley of the shadow of death, and Liberals won't do so for long: particularly if they end up losing seats.

Tony Abbott was elected leader because polling showed Malcolm Turnbull would lead the Liberal Party backwards. If Labor end up with a net gain of seats from the Coalition, plus a Senate presence that means the Liberals can't effectively veto the big issues like climate change and tax, then Abbott has failed.

The Abbott tactic of a niggle here, a media stunt there works on a rattled and defensive government. It worked to undermine Nelson and Turnbull, and it worked on Rudd. It need not work on a government secure of its place in the sunlit uplands, with years to go before re-election. Liberals are right to hope that Arbib, Feeney and Shorten will keep Labor rattled internally by ongoing polling and destabilisation, but those characters now that one can overplay one's hand (and after Labor get slaughtered in NSW you'd expect the contingent from that state to be very, very quiet for a while at least).

Tim Colebatch put it best when he said:

It's not the immigration program that's out of control. It's Abbott's inability to distinguish between opposition and opportunism.

Quite so. This need not mean that Gillard has to join him in the gutter - until you realise that a short but sustained campaign of opposition is exactly what's needed to knock him out of the game, decisively and for all time, and the only way to do so. Ironically, it's the very strategy that Abbott himself used against Pauline Hanson in the late '90s. Nobody likes the taste of their own medicine but to Abbott it could prove fatal.

Gillard beating Abbott at his own game will be a psychic blow from which he cannot and will not recover. It will see the Howard veterans storm the exits or be left in the dust, Love Parade style. It will mean that the Liberals will have to deal with major issues that they have so far fudged while still insisting on their capacity to govern this country. If Gillard fails to lift her game, it will mean that the Liberals can develop policies to address those major issues in a vacuum; if Gillard does lift, they can keep up and overtake her when she stumbles. The end of Abbott will mean that the bankruptcy of the niggle, the dog-whistle and the knee-jerk no is complete. Bring it on.

25 July 2010

Dead, buried, cremated

Tony Abbott has already lost the election. He needed to win a dozen seats to secure the most bare majority on 21 August, but it just can't happen regardless of the debate later on.

During the RSPT fiasco it looked as though Labor would lose all four of its seats in WA, and probably that many again in Queensland. That would have, could have put him more than half way there.

If John Howard had been Liberal leader this year, he would have been all over Perth and mid-north Queensland like a rash, building presence and momentum that would have survived any Labor deal with the major miners. What Howard (or Turnbull for that matter) would not have done is prance around Sydney in sluggos while a political opportunity went begging. The very idea that the Libs stand to lose a seat to a minister from the despised former WA state Labor government is mind-boggling.

Then there was WorkChoices. If he wanted to restore it, or banish it forever, or tinker with it a bit, he needed to have a reason why. A generation of so-called political professionals has dismissed the idea of a rationale - even a principle - behind policy-making. Where that dismissal leads you is where the Libs are now: flying by the seat of their pants, straight into the turf.

John Roskam's piece in Friday's AFR attempted to imply that the business community was seething about the failure of a schoolkid to keep working at a part-time job after school, but at least he's trying. What was really happening there was an act of bastardry by Joe de Bruyn's SDA against the youth of Australia, in which he had nobbled any source of opposition to his wacky scheme to make retail a career for the desperate (who are likely to join the union) rather than a transition phase for young people (who aren't). At least, though, Roskam tried to put it in context, even if he honoured CIS/IPA traditions by getting it wrong.

That arrogant dismissal of an overarching context for policy in NSW gave the Liberal Party four successive losses from 1995 to 2007. It will do the same to Abbott, the anti-intellectual Rhodes Scholar, the minister with a decade's experience who is making every rookie mistake in the book.

Then there was the half-hearted and half-baked speech about the women in his life. It sounded like they were all the women he needed, thanks very much, and Julie Bishop was disingenuous at best in introducing him. It reminded me of all those pictures of Labor women in 2004 lining up to kiss Mark Latham, except there are clearly some things Liberal women won't do. The visuals were all about dirt and trucks. For a game-changer you need persistence and follow-through, and while you can blame it on the news-cycle you can't blame journalists for lacking attention if there's no substance to focus on.

It's not good enough for Abbott to "act decisively" against a pinhead like this. Abbott has spent twenty years puffing up people like that, making them feel like they had a real place in national campaigns and other forms of big-league politics:

"But I don’t know if we want at this stage in Australian politics a Muslim in the parliament and an atheist running the government."

If you don't know, keep your trap shut. It also looks like this is conditional on time, as though there might come a time when there are too few atheists and Muslims in Parliament, and personally I'd be fascinated to know what such conditions might be.

Abbott will go on like this of course. He's come this far and even people like Andrew Robb or Brian Loughnane have not yet summoned up the courage to tell him where he's going wrong. They'll get there eventually and they'll have all these reasons and more, but now is the time to try and pilot the plane away from the ground.

This all depends upon Labor not tracing the same trajectory of failure. Paul Daley is right about Latham's piece in Friday's AFR being a cut-out-n-keep on the modern ALP, but I hope they're both wrong about Gillard. It seems that she's trying to shut down debates on immigration, infrastructure and climate change - debates she can't win within the next four weeks, but which might benefit from clearer political air. You can forgive her for winning dumb if - if - she governs smart.

What is said in the election campaign itself only counts for journalists. Nobody else believes it and no vote turns on it. People are giving Gillard the benefit of the doubt assuming that her governing will be better than her campaigning. Nobody gives Abbott the benefit because everything gets worse if he's vindicated - but he won't be.

21 July 2010

Raw deals and burnt offerings

I love it that we live in a country where a joint press conference by two politicians (do not dare call it a debate) gives way to a cooking show. Perhaps they could both share the same theme:

'Cause you're hot then you're cold
You're yes then you're no
You're in then you're out
You're up then you're down
You're wrong when it's right
It's black and it's white
We fight, we break up
We kiss, we make up

(You) You don't really want to stay, no
(You) But you don't really want to go
You're hot then you're cold
You're yes then you're no
You're in and you're out
You're up and you're down

In the comments on the previous post, derrida derider reckons we get the government we deserve. I think this is only true if you believe our democratic processes are more remote than they are. It harks from a time when the class of voters was limited and those who ended up in Parliament could be expected to be reasonably representative of the franchise. I can't be convinced that the people of North Korea deserve the Kim Dynasty, nor that Zimbabweans deserve Mugabe; and that's sticking to our own time and avoiding Godwin's Law assiduously.

That said, Australia deserves better than we are offered:

Julia Gillard enters the campaign carrying the baggage of a Labor government which since 2007 has squandered its political capital on muddled, wasteful spending and a failure to begin the crucial productivity and infrastructure developments needed to lock in the China boom.

Couldn't agree more. However:

Tony Abbott begins his run for the prime ministership trying to lose the image of a Coalition so absorbed by leadership fights since the dying days of the Howard government, that it has failed to do the work on policy needed to renew the conservative agenda.

The Coalition is not absorbed by leadership fights.

There was no leadership fight in 2007: Costello was no further advanced in his 'fight' then than he had been in 1997. Nobody, no-one at all is holding a candle for Brendan Nelson. Malcolm Turnbull is giving Abbott industrial quantities of rope. Greg Hunt is entitled to refuse to serve on Abbott's frontbench, but there he is plugging away like he believes what he's saying. Inflated lightweights like Chris Pyne, Tony Smith and George Brandis have their shoulders to the wheel. Apart from Turnbull all of the leading best foremost Liberals are on Abbott's frontbench: no pretender is skulking away on the back benches, no fifth column of moderates or Illinois Nazis is nibbling away. God help them, the Liberals are giving this election all they have.

That quote is partly right at hinting that conservatism needs renewal. After Bush and the various pipple running the UK Tories, conservatism is seriously in abeyance and there are no green shoots to be seen. The Tea Party and the various brands of British xenophobes offer nothing to the Liberal Party: the vigorous activity of people like Limbaugh, Palin and Griffin is just the sort of twitching you see in a maggoty corpse.

The challenge for both leaders in the next five weeks will be to demonstrate they have thrown off the past three years of missed opportunities, that they have not been rendered frightened and timid by the recent past. They must show us that they appreciate the aspirations of modern Australians and how far voters have moved away from old ideological settings. Above all, both Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott need to understand that a community's yearning for stability does not mean an end to growth or a return to a "little Australia".

Indeed it is. All that is necessary is to ignore pretty much everything that The Australian has ever printed and will ever print. It is only a paper read by the elites; no seat, no election has ever swung on anything that has ever come out of that paper. Yes, it would take a real leader to say, "who gives a damn what's in The Australian?", and after the initial intake of breath from the journosphere the gig would be up.

I particularly loved the fresh breeze of sense eminating far from Canberra in this:

A new Galaxy poll of four marginal Queensland seats has found support for an emissions trading scheme (ETS) continues to grow.

Rudd was going quite well until he backed away from this issue. Under derrida derider's theory there would have been a lot more quiet acceptance of this, despair from those who want action on climate change and quiet vindication from those confused and fearful of any such action. This is further reinforced by this quote from an otherwise self-serving piece:
... the collapse in public support for Rudd was not the result of introducing reform. It was the opposite: appearing to abandon reform and the principles voters believed he stood for. He had promised to be different on asylum seekers and he had made emissions trading his own. The mining tax, announced on the eve of the May poll, played into voter reservations about competence. Net result: Labor voters shifted to the Greens and other minor parties in protest. Coalition voters stayed put.

Anyway, back to the Oz:

As Paul Kelly writes today, "the entire reputation of modern Labor is now on the block".

At every election, the entire reputation of modern Labor is on the block with its skirt hitched up too high and winking at leering passers-by, thus the government-or-opposition stakes at every election that comes around. How poorly served we are, not only by clownish pollies but by the intellectually exhausted journosphere.

Mr Howard was an extraordinary prime minister but he failed in two areas: he did not institute a succession plan around Peter Costello; and he avoided administrative reform, leaving the Liberals trailing the ALP in terms of party organisation and capacity to mount a sophisticated election campaign. Mr Abbott will be a formidable campaigner, having brought the Coalition back to a competitive position. But his lack of adequately developed policy mirrors Labor's shortage of fresh ideas.

That bit about 'administrative reform' got my hopes up - until I realised it was about the Liberal Party, which uses Young Liberals as carrier pigeons and still pays for ads with arrows from Asia stabbing Australia in the backside west. It is Howard who failed on the infrastructure front, and whose policy legacy can be seen with the proposal to jack up the price of school uniforms (now that they are no longer being made by Australians).

Both have leaders of considerable talent who have decided this is not the time to rock the boat with imagination and ambition for the nation.

In sport, we write off players of considerable talent who botch it in the big tournaments. Hand-wringing bullshit like this is designed to pander to an appalling situation where journalists cannot find out what's going on in government unless they maintain good relations with pollies.

The fourth leg of his pitch - to stop the boats - demonstrates how much both parties will seek to build their case for government around controlling our borders. This is a valid concern and the bipartisan acceptance of offshore processing is common sense.

No, it is bullshit and every oxygen-thief who blows their own brand of smoke into it shows their inability to handle real issues of the kind timidly mentioned here: urban infrastructure and environmental issues, in particular the idea that if you can't extract something without wrecking the water table or doing some other great vandalism, you leave it alone.

Labor must formulate a climate change policy that addresses the electorate's demand for action on carbon reduction without frightening business and coal-dependent sectors.

Hard to do in a month: much easier to faff knowing full well that the alternative is much, much worse; and they are.

Our leaders must understand the aspirations of modern Australians and show how they can truly move us forward.

Yes. And if the journosphere don't understand them either, and don't understand the issues they report on, what's the point?

This hand-wringing is all based on the idea that conservatives can no longer have faith in a Liberal victory. Shaun Carney is right: "A damning critique of the government is fine, but it's not enough". Talk of an Abbott Government is, like, so last week.

The Liberal Party really must get past John Howard. People are disappointed in Rudd-Gillard but they are only truly loathed by those they displaced from cushy and impressive-sounding jobs. Start by getting rid of his boy. Tony Abbott helped lose the 1993 election for the Liberal Party, he helped lose the 2007 election ("that's bullshit" - no, really), and now he's going for the trifecta. If anyone's earned a job in Sussex Street, it's Tony Abbott: after the state election he could be their only chance.

Gillard does promise more than is being revealed at this election, and people seem willing to take her on trust. Abbott, on the other hand, is firing on all cylinders and has nothing to declare but his own unfitness for office.

16 July 2010

Why the Liberals will collapse in the Federal election campaign

This story misses the point: nobody gives a damn about the gaffe, simply because a) O'Farrell is not some gaffe-prone clown and b) it is an aberration and he will work even harder to make it appear uncharacteristic going forward.

The Liberals are a shambles. They are going into the election campaign with an organisation that is unskilled and lacking commitment. When the heat is on they will panic, lash out and be forced to withdraw; or they will simply loll about listlessly, leak trivia and nonsense to turned into drivel, and wait it out until their glorious summer rolls around at some point into the future.

In NSW they've lost a state president which would be no great loss if the state director wasn't an unimaginative dolt, running around enforcing "discipline" and stamping out any sign of initiative - including the fundamental political need to get candidates on the ground, properly resourced, so that people vote for the Liberals rather than just against Praetorian Labor.

In Victoria, ye olde guarde Melbourne has comprehensively had its fingers prised from decision-making in that state, and the Costello-Kroger generation have not stuck around long enough to cement their role as the new generation in command of the high ground (or at least that end of Collins Street where Parliament House and other institutions of power are). Even though he's no fan of theirs, this vacuum leaves Ted Baillieu exposed and will do unless he can win this year's state election and seize command, Kennett-style, but without the arrogance that made Kennett's time so fleeting. The state party is a joke, committed to the self-preservation of nobodies without any sign of determination in fundraising, campaigning, policy development or anything else. All the qualities of the Victorian Liberals have gone, save the conceit left behind from when they ran party, state and nation.

Victorians will vote against Brumby, just enough to undermine what confidence he has left, without replacing him outright. If he is replaced by Hulls, he will be past his best, as risk-averse as Brumby is now but more complacent, owing to the sort of contempt for his Opposition that Kennett had for his. If Brumby is replaced by someone else, they'll botch it too and make the Libs look good by contrast. That's all next term, though.

In Queensland too, the coming federal election is just a dry run for the next state election which the LNP expect to win. Labor MP Chris Trevor is all but begging the LNP to take his seat from him and many of his colleagues aren't much chop either, but they are facing LNP candidates who are lazy, stupid or both. Speaking of which, Peter Dutton will lose his federal seat and should go into state politics, with the LNP better off at both levels. The sort of people who voted for 19-year-old Wyatt Roy because he was articulate are the same people who voted for Bill O'Chee, and learned nothing from the experience. They know that the action is in state politics and that there Labor have the arrogant complacency that undermines the benefits of incumbency, the very quality Peter Beattie spent his time trying to expunge.

You can't blame the party machine for being encouraged by state politics. In 1987 John Howard might have done better (especially if they - we - had known then what we know now) were it not for the coming of Greiner in NSW and the last gasps of the Victorian squattocracy redoubling their efforts against Cain Labor as the main game and vacillating over Kennett, not realising that a Liberal government in 1987 could have sunk Victorian Labor and headed off its 1989-92 economic vandalism. If Bjelke-Petersen had lost momentum in 1986 Queensland would have concentrated its vote for the Coalition better than it did.

Howard was shunned by the state machines and did not reconcile to them. Like John Gorton, he was an antifederalist conservative and for the same reason: being kicked around by the states will do that to you.

Tony Abbott is getting in Barry O'Farrell's way, he's getting in Ted Baillieu's way (in Melbourne, red sluggos are sooooo 2006) and he's not doing John-Paul Langbroek any favours either. The idea of him getting hold of the federal government and doing what Howard did but less deftly - like Phaeton in the sun-chariot - can only appal anyone keen on good government, let alone one better than the incumbents. Top-notch candidates are staying out of preselection contests: with few exceptions, Liberal candidates are chancers who missed out on a winnable state seat and are racking up brownie points, or old lags who have stayed too long at the fair.

Where the Liberals do get candidates on the ground, they choose the wrong ones. The whole idea (insofar as it can be called that) behind putting John Alexander into Bennelong was "to fight star power with star power". What halfwit thinks that Bennelong hankers for "star power"? Nobody who has been both to Hollywood and Denistone would confuse the two. Bennelong voters want political substance: on the rare occasions that people turn to their federal member to fix a political problem, they want it fixed efficiently. The "Bennelong Funnel" aircraft noise issue in the '90s is the primary example of that. McKew had just enough political substance to push out Howard when the swing against him came. Alexander has no more political substance than any other tennis commentator. Again, all that is necessary for dud candidates to get up is for good candidates to get busy doing something else.

Loughnane and Credlin are duds and will be pole-axed by any Liberal leader with the Lodge in his sights. I thought Abbott was crazy to bring back Tony O'Leary to do his media but clearly he is trying to get another source of advice than Team Stupid. Even below-the-radar advisers like Sue Cato aren't what they were, and Abbott's own creation Simone Holzapfel is a proven loser. Abbott is pushing on and having a go, but it is clear that he is drowning in clear air. He can nibble away at Labor in community events but like the beef-witted Collins Street lawyers of twenty years ago he has no idea how to go head-to-head with Gillard, let alone beat her.

Oh yeah, there are other states I suppose. There might be one seat in play in South Australia (please let it be Boothby: the removal of bunion Southcott can only improve the nation's public life), same with Tasmania and the NT. The politics of Western Australia are so foreign it may as well be New Zealand - and yes, it has a fully-fledged state government that can and does offer real benefit (and punishment) for Liberals that is more real and immediate than those on the never-never emanating from the East. There is only one seat in suburban Perth that will swing either way and I can't tell what it is either. The ACT Liberals, chiefly Minchinite dropkicks, will probably lose their Senate seat to the Greens and be stuck with municipal affairs for at least five years (and will fail to learn any lessons from that).

This idea that polls show Labor and the Coalition as a dead heat is stupid. It reflects poorly on the government that such a weak opposition can be taken seriously. The journosphere should be a bit more humble in reporting back to people what they are already recorded as thinking. There wasn't an election held last weekend so the whole pretense is much less useful than the meeja seem to believe.

The only thing that can forfend a Liberal rout is similar incompetence by the Labor machine:

  • The re-emergence of Graham Richardson cannot be good for anyone, least of all himself. He will, however, still be around long after Mark Arbib has crashed and burnt.

  • Karl Bitar is overrated and will undersell Gillard, and will be of no use in coping with the tectonic shifts in Labor politics going forward.

  • Wayne Swan will to Brisbane and run Queensland's campaign himself because he rightly doesn't trust the dolts who almost sent Anna Bligh the way of Kirner and Lawrence.

  • Any gains in NSW (holding Robertson should be regarded as a win after the repellent Neal) will be down to the candidates and/or dumb luck rather than the Sussex Street Stuff-Up Squad. For example, Labor's Long March up the north coast will continue and they'll win Cowper, with no Coalition presence on the NSW coast north of Port Stephens (or if it's really on for Labor - Pittwater).

  • In Victoria, Shorten will take control and ride the Gillard wave in that state: Victoria should negate Labor losses in one or two other states (is it too much to hope for Sophie Mirabella to be knocked off?). It will be a real test of Victorian Labor's mettle if they can hold Melbourne from the Greens.

  • Labor in Tasmania and South Australia have nowhere to go but down, hopefully taking out that cud-chewing sluggard who sat behind Rudd's left shoulder.

  • WA Labor have no right to take anything but what time and fate may give them.

Labor are a long way short of perfect and are beatable - but not by the Coalition this time. The idea that an election campaign is a continuation of recent events but with more picfacs is a journosphere conceit, and shows no real understanding of how pivotal campaigns are (usually in unforced errors rather than any deft strategy).

15 July 2010

It was with much disappointment that I opened the weekend Australian

The story here is not the Hawke-Keating spat, or even the latest development within it - a story with which most Australians are entitled to be bored.

Let's assume that Keating dashed this letter off and sent it in haste. I was surprised by how illiterate it is - see the second sentence and the second-last sentence in the second paragraph on page two, as examples of stumbly-bumbly prose: reading much of this together with the more lucid bits is a bit like the difference between being hit in the mouth with a champagne cork and gently sipping the wine poured from the bottle. That said, this letter is not so wacky that we can dismiss the writer entirely.

However subjective it is, it's unlikely Keating made up the "malaise", which is of real and enduring significance. There are two stories that need to be told here, both of significant import to Australian history and politics, arising from this quote (also on page 2):

[following Hawke's] breakdown in 1984 ... [his] emotional and intellectual malaise lasted for years. All through the Tax Summit year of 1985, through to your lacklustre performance through the 1987 election, to the point when in 1988, four years later, Dawkins had to front you, asking you to leave. It was only after that that you approached me; at your initiative, to enter into an agreement with me to succeed you following the 1990 election. An agreement you subsequently broke. [sic]

Firstly, where was the journosphere in all this?

Where were those press gallery doyen(ne)s, Oakes and Kelly and Grattan and all those other legends in their own happy hour? It's one thing to look the other way while Hawke had his mistresses, but to fail to piece together that behaviour and point out the fact that the Australian government effectively had a vacuum at its peak. All those years of attending press conferences and jabbering on about "streaker's defence" and "banana republic" and "silly old bastards" and the like - pretty much everything and everyone that came out of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in the 1980s is completely discredited at having missed that story.

Hawke's then press secretary secretaries, Kerry O'Brien Peter Barron and Barrie Cassidy, must be the most brilliant spin doctors this country has seen. He makes They make Graeme Morris look like Lachlan Harris. No wonder O'Brien has fobbed off all suggestions by the ABC that he make way for younger talent. The man is a master manipulator to beat them all. Anyone who covets hosting The 7.30 Report or devoting that timeslot to something else had better wait until O'Brien is dead, for such a man is truly invincible.

Even if Keating does overstate his role in affairs of that time, the fact remains that the then Prime Minister did not and could not run the government of which he was nominally head. This so-called democracy with its so-called fourth estate was maintaining homes and offices for a leader behaving much the same way as Charles II, but without the legacy of infrastructure.

Secondly, where were the Liberals?

They were looking across that chamber at the whites of Labor eyes, and in that poky old Parliament House they would have heard the whispers and seen what the butler saw. Andrew Peacock did well to win so many seats from Labor in 1984: how many could he have won if he had pushed Hawke that little bit harder, maybe forced him back onto the grog and/or dangled a comely Young Liberal before him at a public function? Peacock and the moderates could have fobbed off John Howard if they'd had a sniff of victory, if they had exposed Hawke as a hollow shell with Keating snarling up front and the rest of the Labor ministry at the time basically doing their own thing.

Imagine if Hawke had lost the 1984 election:

  • Labor would have lanced the boil of floating the currency, and pretty much nothing else. No Medicare;

  • Hawke would have been seen as an utter failure, similar to Jim Cairns, a broken-down drunk with a dolly-bird and a nice line in "bringing Australia together";

  • Labor's economic credibility would be non-existent. After the Whitlam government, the rise and fall of the Hawke government would be the death-knell for any idea that Labor understands economic issues: just Hayden and Keating, wittering Labor into irrelevance until the rise of a vapid Labor leader like Clinton or Blair;

  • At a time when union membership was declining, there would be no Accord, no superannuation industry as we know it today, no arresting the freefall of the labour movement in this country;

  • Prime Minister Peacock, a product of the Melbourne establishment while also part of the Thatcher-Reagan conservative/neo-liberal axis, would have been responsible for moving Australia toward a low-tariff economy;

  • Treasurer Howard, returning to office after 19 months away, would have been confronted with policies diametrically opposite to those he had dealt with earlier, nailing his reputation as some sort of political weather-vane; and

  • Fraser-era policies on Aborigines and sea-borne refugees would probably have been re-established. A massive shift like Mabo and Aboriginal welfare would have been handled a bit more smoothly.

Isn't it funny how things turn out?

07 July 2010

In defence

Michelle Grattan lets her bias slip:
[John Faulkner] is an effective backbencher but, really, what's the point of remaining in Parliament in that role?

Got something against representative democracy, have we Michelle? Wouldn't piss on anyone under Parly Sec? Familiarity breeds contempt, eh?

there's been some backsliding on advertising rules

No, such rules as there were are completely buggered, and if you had the experience of Michelle Grattan you'd point that out.

Defence confirms its role as the death seat of Australian politics. It requires both a genuine vision with lots of complex, interlocked, supporting and negating elements, as well as the need for micro attention to detail. It gives politicians the willies: by the time they have squirmed up through the major parties they can't handle a job that is pretty much bipartisan, hard to get right but easy to screw up.

For an issue that is supposedly a conservative lock, there has never been a conservative politician in Australia who was anywhere near a great Defence minister. Labor have had Beazley, Ray and Faulkner in recent years, even Whitlam's Defence Minister Bill Morrison was the least bad minister in that government, and Dedman during World War II was exemplary in making the best of a bad lot in keeping supplies coming (notwithstanding the hated wharfies' union).

By contrast, Malcolm Fraser was competent in that portfolio during wartime, though he should have done more for the veterans. So should Killen, rather than getting caught up in brass-salutes-and-bullshit like Menzies-era predecessors like Paltridge and Townley: but he stands as Churchill alongside McLachlan, Reith, Hill and Nelson. When Grattan quoted Minchin on Faulkner it was all very nice, but would Nick Minchin know integrity if he saw it?

Who is Abbott's defence spokesperson? Who cares? Hopefully the next Defence Minister will be someone who can handle the portfolio, not just another duffer in the departure lounge with a hardware fetish and a susceptibility to the marketing budget of Northrop Grumman.

06 July 2010

Voting for the leader

It's all very well to have sympathy for Kevin Rudd, but the mawkish sense that lingers that Rudd has - and by extension, we have - been cheated is something different. It's been two whole weeks now. There's something going on.

At first I thought all this sympathy for Kevin Rudd was just a stick which the Liberals use to beat Labor. So Kevin '07 was just a slogan, a non-core promise, rather than some sort of patsy who would shuffle off to defeat and drag his party down with him. Turns out that the ALP was far more resolute than the hand-wringing Liberals who could not step up and save themselves from Howard.

In a column I don't normally read, this guy let out a howl that showed it wasn't all about trying to wring emotion out of a man who cultivated an image of being efficient to the point of coldness:

Am I the only person who feels like I've been putting $500 on the Melbourne Cup every year since 1988 only to be told the result is decided in the stewards' room before the horses have even jumped?

If I and the rest of the Australian public don't vote for the prime minister, why the hell did Bill what's-his-name and his chums in caucus sack the one we had?

If I and the all the other mug voters don't make the decision, how come it's the prime minister (or the leader of the opposition) who stars in all the advertisements on the tellie?

Oh, please. I was a fairly active and observant member of a political party and studied politics at uni. People like Sam de Brito have spent their lives ignoring or sneering at politics nerds - until they get blindsided and stumble around like some comic actor who ends up with a bucket on his head, feebly waving his arms.

This isn't the place for a lesson on the Westminster system. It isn't the place for some absurd conservative-libertarian wail about how ignorami decide the outcomes of political contests. Nor is it (however tempting) to lecture this mainstream media employee about why you can't believe everything you see in the mainstream media, particularly when it comes to politics. de Brito is not alone here, in pining for a leader who wasn't that popular. There's something else going on here.

What's going on here is that we thought we had a de facto republic, and so all the fuss of 1999 was somehow unnecessary. The focus on party leaders meant that people thought we did elect leaders and thus a republic was unnecessary. Now it's clear that this idea of electing the Prime Minister directly was a bit like blocking the budget: if the immovable object of political convention comes up against the unstoppable force of political interests, back political interests. Never, never bet on sentiment.

In NSW we've seen that you don't vote for a Premier, you vote for a Praetorian Guard who may direct the knives outward from the leader or inward toward them, as they and not you choose. If the same thing happens federally (and if hacks like Arbib, Randall and Feeney get ahead of themselves, it will), if Gillard goes and is replaced by someone else who is subsequently replaced, etc., the whole republic thing could come to the fore again in a way that the wide boys can't control. We'll want a local member and more broadly based members, who currently sit in upper houses - and we'll also want a leader, who tells it like it is and who meets with whomever has to be met with, and who then makes the call and then that's the issue dealt with. We'll want a President/Governor, and we'll want to vote for them ourselves.

The Prime Minister and the Premier used to play that role. They may do so again, but the facade has gone now and can never be fully restored. The weakness of party leadership and the Praetorian role of the factions means that the desire for a single, personified leader - one elected directly by the people - will grow.

For the first time, the direct election model for an Australian republic appears to have a point. Countless mayors across the country are elected, with a face and a name that sets them above the mere "tickets" offered by their opponents. The push for an elected head of state will continue long after the latest empty nuance to the failed parliamentary nomination model of 1999 has vanished without trace.

It's true that the established political machines will have a head start in building and winning competitive races for an Australian Presidency. It's true that anyone wanting to be a contender for that office will have to play factional games. It's no less true, however, that once in office this person will be free to react to political situations in a far more authentic way than seems possible under the primus inter pares model of party leadership. Again, Gillard may knock that notion into a cocked hat and so might O'Farrell - but then they might be the exceptions that only prove the rule.

Yes, I'm doubtful at the prospect of some elected jack-in-office disconnected from all the machinery of government but the military. Yes, I disdain the appalling leadership that US state governments, recent presidents of said country and indeed of other republics. There is no structure that compels only good process and outcomes.

Political parties have seen the rise of professionals/ hacks who take greater control, only to have that which they control become diminished. That's what's happening and there will be a response that reshapes the body politic. Hopefully there might be something in it for we citizens, we who contribute to and are recipients of the common wealth.

05 July 2010

The bifurcated message

Americans refer to the process of uncritically believing one's own PR as "drinking the Kool-Aid", a reference to hippy activist Ken Kesey offering his followers soft drink spiked with hallucinogenic drugs. The Liberals are drinking their own Kool-Aid, not only by leaking their own research to Milney but allowing themselves to be as carried away as Milney is about the results.

First, the community has been deeply "unsettled" by the manner in which Julia Gillard became Prime Minister at the behest of faceless factional and union power brokers. Even among those who did not particularly like Kevin Rudd, there was the feeling that "this is not the way things are done in Australia".

The bifurcated message to emerge was: "I'll decide who is our prime minister, not these f..kwits."

Then the subtext that the "NSW disease" - as Rudd called it at his last caucus meeting - had now arrived in Canberra.

Sure they would, if this wasn't politics as usual. Labor have changed leaders once since the last election: the Liberals are on their third leader since John Howard led the Liberals to defeat. Only people outside NSW believe is something called "NSW disease" - one in three Australians is not a disease, a state that is and has always been pivotal to Australian politics is not a disease.

When Keating and Richardson were exercising what they saw as their birthright in taking over the federal ALP, nobody was gibbering on about "NSW disease". When the NSW Labor Right were firmly locked in behind Beazley, when they shifted to Rudd is late 2006, there was no "NSW disease". If there was such an ailment Rudd would be a symptom, a carrier rather than a sufferer. It might be a State of Origin thing but it's dumb politics to apply the antics of Bill Shorten and David Feeney to the country's largest state. That said, state politics is a predicament and we voters of NSW will deal with the NSW ALP in ways that will reshape Australian politics. The point is, however, treating NSW as less than integral to the national body politic is an indulgence for those not serious about understanding how this country is governed.

Abbott will get absolutely nowhere with crocodile tears about poor Kevvie-wevvie. Firstly, he has form in his own party (in NSW, as it happens) that would make him look hypocritical: the Liberals are no more One Big Happy Family than is Labor. Secondly, now that Rudd has committed to staying in Parliament, and given the magnanimity of his exit, it is highly likely that Rudd will publicly commit to the wider Labor cause even while admitting to a little disappointment - thus elevating his own public standing without vindicating Abbott at all. If Rudd had spat the dummy the Liberals might be in with a chance with this idea. If you like Kevin Rudd and admire what he stood for, then you'll have to vote against Tony Abbott.

I live in Bennelong, where local MP Maxine McKew was a Rudd loyalist to the end: Rudd will almost certainly campaign for McKew in this area, particularly among the electorate's large Chinese community. Nobody will vote Liberal on the basis of what happened to Rudd, and this is a must-win seat for the Liberals. Nobody who lives outside Bennelong will vote Liberal on that basis either. If there was anyone who voted Liberal in 1983 because they felt sorry for Bill Hayden, who cares?

The second, and probably most important, message from the Liberals' research is that Gillard's approval is only "top of mind". In other words most people, including Liberals, wish her well as Australia's first woman prime minister. But that does not necessarily mean they'll vote for her.

Well, that's always been the case with "approval rating" - there was never any correlation between approval rating for a leader and actual vote received by that leader's party. An experienced politics reporter has a duty to point this out rather than getting carried away with the spin, or examining the self-delusion involved in believing that Gillard's popularity will have no bearing on tight races.

Doesn't Milney's second point negate his first? If people were genuinely aggrieved by Gillard supplanting Rudd, wouldn't her approval ratings be in the doldrums? If she was some sort of evil Lady Macbeth figure, or the kind of bonnet ornament that Kristina Keneally is, her approval ratings wouldn't be that high. Focus groups can send mixed messages and political savants flatter their ability to find consistent messages in these bull sessions, but Milney hasn't done that here. Skull that Kool-Aid, Milney.

The third area of vulnerability to emerge from the Liberals' focus groups is that whatever she does, she has been irrevocably "branded" by the debacle of the Building the Education Revolution. Voters simply will not forget the gross mismanagement of funds involved in a multi-billion program that now seems more about electoral advantage than economic stimulus. "It is red hot out there," says one senior Liberal familiar with the party research.

Politicians waste public money, it's what they do. It would be hilarious for any Howard government veteran to work themselves into a lather over this. The BER was hit and miss and for every expensive balls-up there's a much-needed facility that's being used effectively. I'd be surprised if any marginal seats feature a million-dollar fiasco with BER signage acting like Liberal how-to-vote cards. Keep in mind that the Liberal education spokesperson is Christopher Pyne, a suited-up King Charles Spaniel with no real vision for school education.

Fourth, Liberals have been heartened from their research by evidence that despite the media over-hype that has accompanied Gillard's ascension, voters still have not made up their minds.

This overestimates the Liberals' ability to put a sufficient case to get people to vote Liberal this time, especially those who did so up to 2001 but probably didn't in 2004 and definitely didn't in 2010. These are people who aren't averse to voting Liberal but who need a reason to justify why they should not give Labor another go.

This is where Gillard could be really vulnerable. Consider the three major policy problems facing Labor, which Gillard claims to have either fixed or says she will fix; the mining tax, a new emissions trading scheme and boatpeople. The optics of the so-called deal on the mining tax were good for Gillard. But the fact is it was a backdown and Abbott says he'll rescind it if he becomes prime minister. Gillard's "new" policy on climate change is likely to resemble much more closely Abbott's "direct action" model. And if she does toughen Labor's policy on boatpeople, she will have moved substantially in Abbott's direction.

The fact is the mining tax deal was a compromise and that's what politicians do. If the miners agree to the tax, who is Abbott to rescind it and why would anyone who has voted Labor vote for that?

Why would Gillard's ETS be like Abbott's? Given that Labor was elected to do something about climate change, given that it is haemmorrhaging votes to the Greens - votes that matter, in Melbourne and in the Senate - and given that it lost a Prime Minister over the decision to defer the action for which he was elected, why would Labor offer less than John Howard did in 2007? Why wouldn't Gillard offer more than Rudd offered - having stared down the mining companies she's in a position to sell a more stringent carbon reduction target, reinforcing that idea that she's doing what Rudd can't (and Abbott won't)? If she said that she's going to give it the focus it deserves, that it's the focus of the next term in office, she'd romp it in.

A bit like the Liberals, but not quite: this has been the ALP mantra for the past 15 years, and it has worked in terms of winning and holding office. This drives Labor stalwarts crazy as well as the smarter Liberal strategists (the dumber Liberal strategists, such as Loughnane and almost everyone in NSW except Barry O'Farrell, don't think it's an issue), but only because they can't beat it.

I cringe in anticipation with what they're going to propose over boatpeople. It will be expensive and it will be bullshit, but there's hope for a more considered time in her refusal to countenance turning the boats around.

Meanwhile in the key battleground states of NSW and Queensland, they've seen it all before and don't like what they see.

Yawn! the state-federal blurring thing. Honestly, no body who's been through more than one electoral cycle has any excuse for that. Consider also that the Coalition's candidates in five of the eight most winnable seats are outright duds such that your dull union-organiser Labor MP/candidate from central casting will walk all over them. When Peter Dutton gets politically secure to the point where he can put out policy documents that aren't just dot-points, then we'll talk about Queensland. As far as NSW goes, send Kristina on holiday for a month to give federal Labor clear air, and no problems.

Says one Liberal: "If the voters had the baseball bats out for Rudd, don't think they'll just automatically put them away because there's a new face in town. It will take more than that."

Wait a minute, aren't people sorry for Rudd? Isn't that the whole point of Gillard's flurry of activity, to differentiate herself? Aren't the finest minds in the Liberal Party snookering themselves and rendering victory impossible? Isn't that the story you should be telling Milney, ringing the alarms and - if not forestalling Liberal defeat - making sure your party learns the right lessons?

The real issue here is not Milney himself, but the extent of self-delusion within the Liberal Party that Milney has transcribed without really analysing it - or without the Liberals effectively analysing what the focus groups - and their party's own recent experiences of defeat - are really saying. You can have all the research you like, but if you're too stupid to analyse it properly then you've got no chance.

01 July 2010

Pull the other one, it tells a narrative

In an age where you can't tell whether or not a political promise will manifest itself as a reality, or what form that reality might take given the hype and folderol in the kind of announcement pitched at the journosphere, the best you can do is try to fit announcements into some sort of consistent narrative.

Michelle Grattan was right that Julia Gillard needs a narrative. For the time between now and the election, being the first woman PM and appearing to engage in some traditional activities (opposing gay marriage, tidying up the mess left behind by her male predecessor on resources tax) while eschewing others (not being married or having kids, not kowtowing to organised religion) will be enough. The Labor government has its own narrative: health is squarely a part of that and could do with being burnished a bit more than it is. Rudd was at the height of his powers with his steady demolition of Abbott at the Press Club, aided more than either of them knew by Abbott's decision to play parliamentary pantomime in a non-parliamentary setting.

Tony Abbott was Health Minister, but so what? John Howard had been Treasurer, and you didn't hear him crowing about maintaining a fixed exchange rate, unemployment and interest rates above 10%, or industry protection. Abbott has not built a healthcare narrative for the Liberals, and neither has his so-called shadow minister for health. That's why this is surprising, however welcome it might appear.

It may be that mental health practitioners have finally lost patience with politicians and aren't prepared to play nice any more, proving that sometimes rocking the boat can be the only way to move it forward. Professor McGorry is right, however, to realise that the government is the main game:

With yesterday's "very welcome" $1.5 billion announcement from the Coalition, he hopes he may be halfway there.

"I'm optimistic that the Gillard government will now turn their attention to (mental health)," Professor McGorry said.

The Abbott opposition are merely being provocative about this issue: it is the government who are playing the main game. Michelle Grattan is wrong in placing too much importance on this news cycle to an issue that is long-term, non-partisan and way too complex for press gallery gadflies (or most people really) to evaluate on any sort of sensible level.

The incumbent government has, like other governments before it, not invested enough in maintaining mental health services, let alone exploiting new developments in the field. All it needs to do is match the recent announcement and Abbott and Dutton are stuffed, because mental health fits the narrative of the current government. It is not enough for Nicola Roxon to declare that Abbott's policy lacks credibility, but it won't take much of a departure to make it so.

When the Coalition announced its parental leave policy, it felt like a stunt. After Abbott's strutting do-it-yourself, anti-government narrative (well beyond anti-Labor or anti-Rudd), opposing niggardly pay rises for the lowly paid, the idea of action on parental leave by a Coalition government was just wacky, at best. At worst, it looked cynical. The way it was to be funded ( a new tax on the 300 biggest companies) damaged the Coalition narrative on economic responsibility. This policy didn't fit the narrative so it was ignored.

A Coalition mental health policy doesn't fit the narrative either. It was unaccompanied by what Andrew Norton would call "familist" rhetoric, on the burden on carers and families of mental illness (neither Labor nor the Coalition are doing much for carers). It doesn't begin to place neglect of mental health care on wider social issues (e.g. the prevalence of prisons being misused as mental health facilities of last resort), which would complicate state campaigns in Victoria and NSW on "laura norder". It doesn't fit with the recent Coalition record of administrative trimming on Medicare and kyboshing big reforms (GP clinics, dental health). It doesn't fit with Liberal policy on the state level: Jeff Kennett's work on mental health with beyondblue has been magnificent, but his record as Premier of Victoria in this area can best be described as scant (the Black Dog Institute exists as a back-handed compliment to Kennett: it arose from both his activism in addressing depression as a social issue, while being targeted at people who would never give Jeff Bloody Kennett the time of day).

You can be as giddily optimistic as Professors Mendoza and Hickie if you will:

"This is a game-changer in that it creates a whole new service infrastructure, that offers ... evidence-based services to hundreds of thousands of young Australians and their families, who at the moment are locked out of any specialist support for what are the most common illnesses in early adulthood," Professor Mendoza said.

He added he was hopeful the $1.5bn would "break the cycle of crises in mental health that have dogged the sector for four to five decades".

Ian Hickie, executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Centre and a prominent critic of the Labor government's limited funding for mental health so far, said the planned early intervention services for psychosis were the "critical missing link" in the current system.

"This is very welcome news and certainly proves that someone in Canberra is listening to what's really needed in mental health," Professor Hickie said.

Smells non-core to me. Yeah, that's cynical but then cynicism can be well earned - all the more so after four or five decades in this area - and it's much more cynical to promise something to vulnerable people to get into office and then drop it once you're there.

However supportive, none of those authorities quoted show any sign of having been asked their opinion by Coalition policymakers. This isn't to say that experienced mental health practitioners should write their own ticket, or even that industry insiders with vested interest should be entitled to hold one area of public policy ahead of the others. If there was intensive consultation, if there was close work with carers and practitioners in developing policy and making announcements and criticism of the current government, a narrative would have built itself.

Thus the Coalition accepts the government's proposal for activity-based funding. But it says it would not have a new "bureaucracy" to administer it but use existing entities, saving nearly $92 million.

So, you're going to use "existing entities" largely responsible for mental healthcare dysfunction to manage something different and more substantial? Do you think this should be taken on face value or should it be examined? Where has this figure of $92m come from, and from what is it being saved? Only if you take this on face value can you really sustain press gallery drivel like this:
Health is naturally Labor's ground but the Abbott move gets him back into the debate in a substantial way.

Until this weekend (during which no election will take place), perhaps. It would be a triumph of hope over experience to treat Coalition mental health policy in any other way. It's facile for someone like Dennis Shanahan to gibber on about "Abbott [getting] a double bang for his buck". It doesn't fit with anything else they are doing or with a general approach of having the state step in to address social and market failures.

Abbott needs to get out in the public with positive policy and now that the drama of the Labor leadership is passing he needs to do so quickly.

Yes, he sure does. Pity that all the policy brains have gone from the Liberal Party, leaving only stunt-pullers and log-rollers hoping to get away with offering the Howard-Costello government without Howard or Costello. He's got a swine of a narrative, Dennis, and no amount of pearls is going to make much of a difference to that.

When it suits them, the journosphere can talk about the tyranny of "the narrative" as an excuse for not looking at policy through the eyes of those most affected by it, or those most vulnerable to sudden and far-reaching policy shifts. They can be quite content to fall back on press releases, statements and stunts that fit "the narrative", all the while oblivious to the breadth of sources working against a limited narrative, or the ability from time to time to turn an established narrative on its head. Yet, the Coalition narrative on mental health is established and this announcement need only be placed in context to be found wanting.

The whole idea of being a press gallery doyen(ne) is a refusal to be impressed with stunts, even detailed ones. Once again, by merely reporting what's in front of them, the journosphere has failed us once again.