29 November 2012

To break a dealmaker

This week we saw Julie Bishop go from being an effective deputy to an ineffective one. For the Liberal Party, this is far more significant than merely changing the leader. Those who reject my idea that Abbott is a dud who'll never make it will come to agree that throwing Julie Bishop under a bus was the moment from which the Liberals could not recover the 2013 election.

The Liberal Party is built around the leader. The leader hasn't got time to crunch deals and make them stick, and loses a bit of burnishment in the process. Not hungry for the limelight themselves, effective deputies make up for their lack of name recognition by shoring up the leader and making him (a matter of historic fact rather than a requirement going forward) look capable of running an outfit bigger than the ad-hoc numbers-gathering operation, or "camp", that got him (sorry) the job in the first place.

Eric Harrison (1944-56) and Harold Holt (1956-66) underpinned Menzies' longevity. Phillip Lynch (1972-82) could not save Snedden - no deputy can save an inadequate leader - but Fraser regarded him as so indispensable that, when he sacked Lynch as Treasurer in 1977, he kept him as deputy because of his deal-crunching abilities. Peter Costello managed the transition from Downer to Howard, and Bishop from Nelson to Turnbull to Abbott.

Ineffective deputies undermine their leaders, either through mendacity (e.g. William McMahon 1966-71, John Howard 1982-85, Andrew Peacock 1987-89) or incompetence (e.g. Michael Wooldridge 1993-94). Ineffective deputies create a sense among Liberal MPs that nothing is settled and nothing is possible, and that engaging in leadership speculation (which an effective deputy roots out at every opportunity, or else rides when it becomes overwhelming) and gossip is no more/less useful than anything else.

Bishop was a dealmaker. She kept in contact with stakeholders, understood what they wanted and didn't want, and cut deals that stuck. Liberal MPs who opposed Howard's treatment of asylum-seekers were prevented from crossing the floor, from embarrassing their leader for the sake of a policy that has since proven illusory, through a combination of honeyed words and threats from Bishop. She cut a deal among squabbling wheat farmers, putting her own skin in the game as a Western Australian (WA wheat farmers play a more significant role in that state's Liberal Party than is the case in other states), which may yet count against her now that she is weakened.

Abbott isn't a dealmaker. He'll say anything and will go back publicly on what he said privately if it suits him. He has no experience in law and/or business. He wasn't a factional leader and fears the perception of getting rolled. Nelson wasn't a dealmaker either, operating under the patronage of powerful backers both at the AMA (Bruce Shepherd) and in politics (Howard); a natural deputy, but no leader. Like Abbott he was unable to make the transition from protege to patronage-giver.

Turnbull, of course, was a dealmaker, given his legal and business experience; but in Sydney since the 1980s legal and business leaders aren't Liberals. They were when Howard was learning the ropes in the 1960s and '70s, but that is one ladder that has fallen down since Howard climbed it. Political dealmaking is a different matter altogether from dealmaking in the Sydney business community, as Turnbull has either learned too late or not at all. This division is probably true of Melbourne, though to a lesser extent, and there won't be any Liberal PMs from there any time soon anyway. Elsewhere in the country, such as in Perth, senior legal/business people are still also senior Liberals - so when Bishop became a trusted dealmaker in one sphere she could straddle them all.

Bishop had gained a perception of strength from having kept her position while two leaders lost theirs. Until last week, a weakened Abbott needed Bishop more than she needed him. Nobody in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party could do what she does in terms of dealmaking and smoothing ruffled feathers. Western Australian Liberals deferred to her as the nearest thing they've had to a Liberal PM. Bishop has lost the credibility and the status necessary to make deals stick, without anyone else having gained it.

People on Twitter who'd never vote Liberal mocked Bishop's mechanical approach to asking niggling, minor questions of the Prime Minister, yet again wasting the opportunities of Question Time to gather information about how a government is working. This is highly esteemed in the modern Liberal Party. Liberals respect plugging away at a doomed activity far more than taking a punt on an idea that might be costly and not work. Bishop should have come out of this week strengthened within her party, however much she was diminished publicly by flogging an issue that started small and only got smaller.

When Peter Slipper became Speaker, Christopher Pyne frantically nominated half the ALP caucus instead, all of whom declined; again, most people viewed this with mirth or incredulity but for Liberals, Pyne was being a loyal soldier in the face of enemy fire. His effete mannerisms and history of moderation will be forgiven if he's loyal. So it is with Bishop's personal vanity and being from a small but bumptious state. Malcolm Turnbull knows this too, which is why he won't challenge Abbott before the next election; he is wearing ashes-and-sackcloth by professing loyalty to a lesser man as leader and spouting much the same pathetically inadequate policy that the Coalition took to the last election.

The modern Liberal Party is not for people who take initiative - this is a matter for history and rhetoric only, from when the party was dominated by small businesspeople. The modern Liberal Party is for people who carry out the brief set for them and do not question it. This is why drones like Julie Bishop have thrived while more subtle minds have floundered.

Bishop's skittishness in the face of her meetings with shadowy figure surrounding the AWU has proven to be her undoing in the absence of a knock-out blow against Gillard. The phone dropped out, I only met him for coffee etc., these are the classic evasions of a politician in over their head. Peter Costello would have distanced himself from grubs such as Blewitt - but Bishop's from Perth, you'd never drink coffee in that town again if you limited yourself to only dealing with the true and the good.

A Liberal Party with initiative would have steered away from Gillard's personal life and used their accumulated trivia about the AWU to profess concern about union members, using that as cover (along with the HSU saga) to impose the governance on unions that would make it difficult for them to support and nurture the ALP. They could have neutralised their negative perceptions about industrial relations, the issue that stopped Abbott in 2010 and on which he (and Shadow Minister Abetz) has made zero progress since. Oh well, too late now.

Abbott doesn't look good for letting Bishop carry the Gillard-AWU issue (to use the label on Credlin's folder - photo courtesy of Fairfax):


Bishop's tragedy is the Liberal Party's tragedy, and it comes in two parts. First, Bishop did what she was told but it wasn't good enough. It has made her look stupid rather than strong - all the more so for lacking the initiative to demand someone else do the dirty work (such as Abetz, for example, in a house where Gillard would not monster him directly). The Liberal Party has a weakened leader and a weakened deputy, and for what?

The second is that Bishop, Credlin, and Abbott have underestimated Gillard. They don't have a plan B if she fights back - and the more effective she is when she fights back, the more likely the PM is to do it again and again, meaning the poverty of simply assuming she will simper or weakly stonewall when challenged is exposed. Effective deputies have a role in getting the measure of their opponent and standing up to a leader who makes the wrong call.

Had Abbott led the attack on Gillard-AWU he would almost certainly be finished. Bishop would support her fourth leader and the Liberal Party would go forward, with a fresh leader stealing Gillard's oxygen. Her ability to make and enforce deals within the Liberal Party and with major stakeholders outside it would be intact. Until this week, Bishop could have demanded the leadership herself after being such a loyal deputy, and she would have been put there had Abbott been felled by an explicitly sexist event.

Abbott has certainly removed Bishop as a threat to his own position, and has avoided being thrown under the bus himself. It was a feature of the Liberals in the 1980s-90s when leaders started to be regarded in insider-politics terms for the hits they scored against their own deputies. Treating a woman (who has supported him) in a shabby fashion will not help Abbott at all.

Bishop is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is not a policy area which shifts a lot of votes but taking it seriously is the difference between a credible alternative government and a bunch of bludgers who just want another crack at all the perks. Mark Latham thought he could afford to be a foreign policy lightweight in 2004, and he was wrong. If you're going to complain about defence spending, if you're going to talk about trade and jobs created through export, if you're going to talk about immigration, you need a foreign policy framework.

Julie Bishop has done nothing in this area. Her experience as Education Minister might have been useful in the debate over Asian languages. Her lawyerly ability to master a brief might have yielded a respectable if limited policy. It is now clear, however, she won't develop any ability to do so. No other current Liberal MP has or can, including (especially!) Josh Frydenberg.

Other candidates for Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party lack what she had before this week:
  • Joe Hockey comes from the same state as Abbott and will always be seen as a rival. HOCKEY DECLARES FULL SUPPORT will become one of those zombie stories that no mere fact can kill. He can cut a deal but needs to be detail-focused and disciplined to compensate for Abbott's shortcomings;
  • Peter Dutton comes from a state which should be represented in the leadership group, where the Coalition must hold all they have and advance if they are to win. However, Dutton has also been policy-lazy in a key area, and he doesn't compensate for Abbott's weaknesses - he's a wooden personality, not particularly fast off the mark, and would (like his home state's Deputy Premier) be more likely to crack down on dissent rather than manage it productively and subtly;
  • Chris Pyne. Stop laughing, he's a serious candidate. It would raise his profile in his seat, and he could devolve the attack-poodle persona to others. He could switch to the kinder, gentler face of Abbott much as Bishop did does; and
  • Insofar as Bishop attracted female support for the Liberal Party, there is no woman who could credibly step up as Abbott's deputy. Mirabella? Sussan Ley? Teresa Gambaro?
Bishop has been exposed as a lightweight before, with outsourcing work submitted under her name to a book by Peter van Onselen. She floundered as Shadow Treasurer. Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Trade Minister Craig Emerson are essentially setting their own pace because Bishop offers them no opposition to speak of. This time it matters. The failure of Gillard-AWU shows Bishop can't master a brief and execute it. She lacks the sense to avoid consorting with grubs while criticising the PM for doing exactly that. Now that it's becoming clear that Abbott can't beat Gillard, it's now starkly apparent Bishop has no clue either.

The Liberals will probably become a rabble over Christmas-New Year. Abbott will look weak and won't be able to rely upon anyone to charm/heavy the miscreants back into place. The wheat farmers of WA will attempt to meddle in Bishop's urban electorate. The Gonski reforms that start with today's legislation are designed to correct inaction on Bishop's part when she was Education Minister under Howard, and if Gillard ever has to dispense with bilateralism to get these reforms through then she will inject this into public debate good and hard.

Liberals are entitled to despair of their predicament, and if they can't take on their leader (who is protected by the National Right) then they will savage the deputy, even though the alternatives aren't great. Bishop could retreat and come back, like Howard; but she lacks Howard's commitment, patience and humility. She can't cut a deal any more, she's finished. Maybe she could go back to Perth and land some directorships, and if they become more attractive than the toxic environment of Canberra then she'll be off in a flash.

It's too late for the Liberals to develop a vision and from that a comprehensive suite of policies as an alternative to the incumbents. At the very least, however, they need a plan B for when attacks blow back on them. Bishop launched into an attack on Gillard without a plan B, and now it is Bishop, not Gillard, who has had the worst of it. Bishop's absence of a plan B does nothing to soothe jittery Liberals, but encourages Labor and gives them a momentum that can roll over zombie stories.

Liberals knew Abbott was imperfect, but with him and Bishop both on the ropes and no strong alternative that fits the Howard Restoration narrative, they are cruelly exposed. They could prise a feeble Labor government from office but not a strong one. They overestimated their own strength, and those of their leaders, while underestimating the growing strength of Gillard Labor. Having changed leaders so often, the Liberals have come to rely on their deputy more profoundly than on the leader pro tem. You can put up an umbrella when it starts to rain but when the levee breaks ...

41 comments:

  1. It wouldn't matter how bad things get for the Liberals. They are the party with the media advantage. Having the media pushing for them and against Labor more than compensates for the deficits in Liberal competence and morality.

    For a party preaching "self reliance" they are systemically reliant on the media to prosper electorally.

    Cuppa

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That would be all very well if the media wasn't also declining in reach and importance. Labor are clearly worried about their bad media but they have the confidence to take the chance beyond the media, while the Libs don't. That will change.

      Delete
    2. The LNP seem to have the media onside but I doubt the general public take much note of the Canberra Press Gallery.
      The fact is that most Australians don't want to rock the boat and if the economy is good- which it is despite the LNP preaching gloom then why will enough of them want to take a chance on Abbott who they still link to Work Choices which I knew when introduced, was the end of the Howard government.

      Nor was Howard really that popular but he didn't frighten the horses nor does Gillard. And the attacks in the past few days have allowed the PM to present herself as a gutsy lady which is drawing admiration from unexpected quaters.

      Delete
  2. Simple fact the Daily Telegraph prior to the NSW election had space for comment on any political manner that was detrimental for the Labor government, try and find space to comment on any story that is detrimental to the Liberal state government, there isnt any, they publish the stories to allegedly prove their uninfluenced position but they dont want to hear the voice of public opinion if it may detract from the brand of politics they support. As far as Abbott is concerned from the result of the last federal election he vowed to bring down the government in whatever means it took (in some countries this would be regarded as treason) He has taken every opportunity to muck rake and vilify anybody to do with the sitting state government but bitched and moaned when the muck was thrown at him. I shudder to think what will happen to this country if the same bunch of muppetts who voted in catastrophic Liberal state goverments also vote for him. All I can say is thank god I have paid my mortgage off.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the Tele has pulled comments on most stories. Their cost cutting has meant they can't moderate to the degree they used to.

      Delete
  3. I think Abbott deliberately got Bishop to run with this to protect his own position as leader.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Barry Tucker (@btckr) has the view that Bishop wanted to take on Gillard, pin her down as Abbott never could, then knock off both Abbott and Gillard and become PM. Interesting, but not sure I agree.

      Delete
    2. I don't agree either. In fact, I can't recall suggesting such a thing. I've never thought of Bishop as PM material.

      Delete
    3. I've never thought of her as PM material either, but there are plenty of people whose ambitions outstrip their capacities. Check your tweets from around that time.

      Delete
  4. What's with the WA bashing? Bumptious? Paying out on the coffee here? WA is roughly 1/3 of the land mass of Australia, we might not have the same population density, but you make it sound like WA is a puffed up Chrismas island or Tasmania.
    It's before my time, but I can see the benfits of the secession western australia if we have to listen to this grudging aknowledgement from the east and cheap shots about coffee?!
    I will say though, most of the liberals coming out of WA seem part of the very conservative mindset here. And I think there does seem to be a "I'm alright Jack" mentality for a lot of people here anecdotally.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No WA bashing, no cheap shots.

      Just saying that the business-political elite in Perth isn't segregated as it is in Sydney, they tend to be the same people. People like Bond, Grill, Burke still prominent in Perth whereas their Sydney equivalents disappear from public engagement.

      Delete
    2. He wasn't passing judgement on the quality of your coffee, just the quality of the company one must keep whilst drinking said coffee. No doubt from gold cups.

      I'm sure your coffee's almost as good as Melbourne's ...

      Delete
  5. Nice piece. I agree in part with Anonymous in that Abbott was trying to minimise further damage to his persona (just about extinct now one hopes)and the likes of Pyne, Hockey, Abetz I suspect are letting Bishop have this one because, despite their nastiness, they too can smell disaster in the making.
    I see Gillard is starting already to set the scene with the 'he's no Howard, and the Liberal Party is no longer the party of Howard'. Pleased to see that the strategists in Labor are no longer focussing on the immediate hoo haa but focussing on winning the war/election in 2013.

    ReplyDelete
  6. If nothing else, this farce has caused the mainstream media to examine the performance of the coalition more closely. Bishop is, deservedly, copping a flogging in the media. Until now, vested interests have kept the media at bay, but your can only ignore the bleeding obvious for so long.

    The Lib/Nats know that, policy by policy, the electorate is beginning to see that the bluff and bluster pronouncing that Doomsday will be brought about by any decision that the Gov't makes, has no substance to it. To this end, the Coalition are now playing the woman and not the ball....and losing because of it. It is a tactic that they have tried before and they have not learned a great deal from history.

    Now they are going to have to deal with the questions of: Why is this more important than Gronski, the NDIS, or the Murray Darling Plan, or pretty much anything else that is coming before Parliament?...and....Who will lead and co-lead us to the next election? Time is running out for them on the latter and the public really would like to see some action on all of the former.

    The transition from being expected to romp home any time an election is called to spending another three years as opposition has been swift, but not unforeseeable, given the profound lack of talent on the Opposition front benches.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Watching QT as I read this ... Bishop is still trying, playing with words, she did, she didn't ... I have to admire her persistence, but not much else. The liberals would have us believe this is the worst government since federation but has made no attempt this week t o highlight the shortcomings.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The only question left unanswered; if Bishop is such a play maker and strong women, why would she accept this turd-sandwich from Abbott? Its all well and good to tow the company line but not if you come out of it with shit in your teeth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's her job to go around telling Liberals they have to do what the leader tells them, and if you aren't leader yourself sometimes you have to live the example.

      Delete
  9. I read this afternoon that 2Lib Senators from WA have broken ranks and will support Labor's Wheat Bill. so while Bishop has been busy with Blewitt, she has missed controlling her colleagues.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It went through on the voices, and you're right - lots of small things signal the breakdown rather than any one big thing.

      Delete
  10. Abbott has followed the Howard strategy of surrounding himself with pygmies so as to look tall; in his case, it's a challenge to find candidates small enough

    ReplyDelete
  11. I wish there was video of Abbott boxing. At this stage, it's hard to imagine him doing anything except over-committing in the first round, hoping that optimistic big punch might get him a KO, retreating to petulance when it didn't work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "In a radio interview during the week, Tony Abbott gave a vivid description of his style in the ring when he won boxing blues as a student at Oxford University.
      “I was basically a whirling dervish,” he said. “I just went in, arms flailing. My intention in the ring was to knock them out before they had the chance to do the same to me.”

      http://www.news.com.au/news/whirling-dervish-tony-needs-to-keep-fighting-smarter/story-fnepjsb4-1226518647589#ixzz2Dwh1nb5z

      Delete
  12. Trouble is she only fights for herself, she won't fight for any underdogs, she actively tortures the underdogs and that does not make Gillard a leader, it makes her a piss weak fucking coward.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Drawing a very long bow to get to coward. Very easy to prove she has metaphorically bigger balls than much of the male parliament combined. Cowards don't dig in and fight the way she does.

      "Only fights for herself". Gee, your bias slip is showing. She's the one got Labor into the current government when it was the Liberal's for the taking, and she has been leading the fight ever since - for the government.

      Delete
  13. "Chris Pyne. Stop laughing, he's a serious candidate."

    Thank you for this little gem of humour; it made my day (and no I am not being facetious)!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Pappinbarra Fox30/11/12 8:44 a.m.

    Just a question: what was Abbott's boxing record? How many fights-wins-losses-draws?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. According to David Marr (I think) he only went into boxing because his rugby wasn't good enough. He just thrashed away and gave it up before real boxers got to work on him.

      Delete
    2. Good article here by Martin Flanagan about it.

      Abbott won four from four.

      http://www.theage.com.au/sport/abbott--not-the-greatest-but-a-fighter-20091204-kb20.html

      Delete
  15. I think you are right. This weeks disaster means the Liberals need to get rid of both Abbott and Bishop, (I suppose the lesson is that should always keep church and state separated.) One potential Deputy that you didn't nominate is Andrew Robb. I could see a move to a Hockey/Robb Leadership team in the new year

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. See Hillbilly Skeleton below. Robb won't be a public vote-puller or a backroom fixer, so not much good as a deputy.

      Delete
    2. I am not advocating this as a good solution to their problems, but after looking at their front bench, as probably the only solution to their porblems until after the next election.

      Delete
  16. Gillard has earned the respect of many in the polity including Liberal voters

    She has guts in spades!!!



    ReplyDelete
  17. Andrew, I would love to know your opinion of 'the other Deputy', Wayne Swan. The chi chi talk at the beginning of Labor's period in government was that he was a weak Deputy and would be easy for the Liberals to knock over. However, he's still there and it's the Liberal(Coalition) leadership team whose foundations have been rocked and now look terminally-weakened.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Swan proved his mettle as the Qld ALP Secretary who got Labor ready for state govt after 30 years in Opposition, and he did the numbers against Rudd pretty comprehensively on two occasions - why he's weak was never clear to me. I blame the journosphere.

      Delete
  18. Steve 1, Hockey & Robb are unable to work together, even as the Shadow Economics Team. Can't see them as an effective Leader & Deputy.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Sinodinos and Turnball

    Dream team leader and deputy

    Classy coalition couple me thinks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lachlan Ridge2/12/12 2:36 p.m.

      Sinodinos as leader? He's a bit long in the tooth! Reminds me of those 1974 DLP commercials where they tried to portray themselves as young and vibrant - problem was all their senators were over 60!

      Turnbull may be playing Hawke's game and waiting until the last possible moment to challenge for the leadership and romping in during his honeymoon period. That would put any challenge to Abbott deep into next year. That we have passed peak Abbott is a no-brainer, but the influence of Clarke and coy. in NSW demands Abbott be persevered with.

      The conservatives are lurchiung towards a worlkd of pain, because if Gillard wins in 2013 after everything that has been thrown at her she will be unstoppable, and they shall know her by the trail of dead.

      Delete
    2. ^ Arthur Sinodinos born 25 February 1957. Malcolm Turnbull born 24 October 1954.

      Sinodinos doesn't need to worry about his age. His main concern is that he is a moderate in a party that is fast headed to the far right.

      Delete
  20. Sinodinos and Turnball

    Hes a Hellene with a heart

    Malcolm is an Anglo with money that the Liberals should be very lucky to have in parliament

    The dregs of the finance industry and law et al end up in the lnp

    sigh

    Andrew

    what type of liberal were you??

    ;)

    ReplyDelete
  21. andrew
    whats your feeling on the improvement in november, and now a bit backwards to lib. sigh i never understand what people think also when pollster poll do we k now what seats they poll in do they know what seats they poll in.
    tuesday 11th

    will look back later hopefully with your thoughts here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Don't do poll-jockey commentary, I think it's bullshit and that Gillard will beat Abbott at the next election.

      Delete