27 September 2012

The value of experience

There are plenty who will advocate for this politician or against another. Journalists, however experienced, look silly when they try to do such advocacy.

Voters have to make decisions in favour of one set of politicians over others at election time (and it is an impertinence that they are asked to do so well before actual elections, or that rope statistical models enable your opinions to be imputed based on the responses of random strangers - but don't get me started). To do that, we need information; journalists like to think that they are in the business of providing that information, indeed the only ones who can be trusted to do so.

Michelle Grattan offers advocacy instead with this:
Now [Barnaby Joyce's] push for the seat of Maranoa, where he lives, has been thwarted - a major setback for his ambition to one day lead the Nationals and be deputy PM.

Sitting member Bruce Scott would have done the right thing if he had stepped aside for Joyce. Assuming there is a Coalition government next year, Scott will not be a minister in it. In contrast, Joyce has a bright future.
As with Abbott, the people who know Joyce best seem those most determined to block his ambitions. t is interesting that two men who strut around Parliament House like they own it can barely win a trick once they cross Lake Burley Griffin. That's the story here and Grattan has no excuse for not writing it.

Joyce is on the opposition frontbench and would clearly be forgiven much in an Abbott ministry, but this does not mean his future is "bright". Can we discount the possibility that Minister Joyce might be prone to outbursts that disrupt the smooth functioning of government and investor confidence in Australia?

If Joyce were thrust into government, is it possible that he might prove to be a floundering blowhard out of his depth? Is Australia really just a life-support system for Cubbie Station? In the past, people who were expected to have a bright future in politics proved not to; Grattan has experience of this and should bring it to bear here.

Like everyone, Barnaby Joyce has strengths and weaknesses, and there will always be those who focus on the former while others on the latter. While Grattan has her own views she should nonetheless help us form ours with a clear view of both. It is not clear why (even if you believe there will be a Coalition government after the next election) Joyce couldn't serve as a minister from the Senate, and prove his case to an extent that obviously hasn't been enough so far.

Bruce Scott may be an old man hanging on past his prime (is Grattan, more a contemporary of Scott than Joyce, in a position to judge that?). Scott may also know that no good can come from having Joyce in the House at this stage, posing less of a help than a hindrance to to Truss. Maybe one needs skills and qualities that Joyce does not have, and perhaps will never have; what might they be, Michelle? Can you bear to face them?

Barnaby Joyce is clearly thought highly of by many people, including Michelle Grattan. Why, then, does this not extend to a majority of NSW Nationals preselectors in New England, or a majority of LNP preselectors in Maranoa? Can a man who devoted his life to "the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal" understand the bush as well as Grattan might assume (nor does he understand economic and budgetary matters particularly well)? It is not only Scott who has thwarted Joyce; Grattan must know that and is wrong to present her story as though Joyce has been stymied by a lesser man in Scott.
Joyce's aim has been to move at this election, so he would be in a good position to go for the leadership when Warren Truss had had [sic] enough. Truss, a steady and popular hand, is impregnable and Joyce knew he might have to wait quite a long time.
If Warren Truss is as secure in his position as Grattan claims, and a man of sound judgment, then does he not share the belief that Scott and Joyce should remain where they are? Is he not going to the next election hoping to become Deputy Prime Minister with his conception of the best team behind him?

What makes Grattan think that Joyce would wait happily and patiently for Truss to give over? Remember him as a Senator-elect, telling the Howard government what to do; has he really mellowed since then?

Grattan was one of the main perpetrators who insisted over many years that the dead sheep that was Peter Costello was actually a wolf at the door (if not the throat) of John Howard. She either doesn't know or she is trying to whip up a story which isn't there, and either way this is not helpful to our understanding of this development and what is going on more generally.

By ramping up the hype Grattan isn't succeeding at being a journalist; she's failing at it.

Again, it's significant that Truss didn't exactly demand the LNP find Joyce a lower house seat. Grattan should have noted that; you can bet that Joyce has, an that his attitude towards Truss and other LNP heavyweights has been adjusted accordingly.
But he would have a chance to learn in the big House and display his skills.
Let's leave aside the fact that "the big House" is a film-noir euphemism for prison. There is a record of leading Senators who faded in the House of Representatives: John Gorton, Fred Chaney, Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot come to mind. Robert Hill could have posed the threat to Howard that Costello didn't had he won Liberal preselection for the seat of Boothby in his native South Australia; Hill was thwarted by Andrew Southcott (if Bruce Scott was a generation younger and based in Adelaide, he'd be Andrew Southcott) and Nick Minchin. Michelle Grattan should be aware of this phenomenon and reported accordingly as part of setting the context for this political development.

Instead, she laments for what could have been and fears for might might happen:
If he doesn't find some other seat, he has to look to the following election, and who knows what leadership competitors would have emerged by then?
We'd need an experienced political correspondent to tell us that. Where would we find one?

Joyce could have chanced his arm against Bob Katter, or Labor MPs in rural Queensland like Kirsten Livermore or Shayne Neumann, and the fact that he hasn't is worthy of reporting and analysis. He doesn't live in those electorates but he wouldn't be the first ambitious politician to move house. "Some other seat" indeed!
While some Nationals are disappointed, there will be a few Liberals quietly clapping Scott's decision.
In Queensland, where Joyce and the Maranoa preselectors come from, there is no difference between Liberals and Nationals. They seem to be handling both disappointment and applause well; maybe they're just stoic, or maybe it's hard to tell from this distance.
Tony Abbott, though, might feel for him - the two are quite close.
Closer than Abbott is to the Nationals leader he actually has to work with? And yet Truss is anchored firmly into place. How interesting.

Grattan vouched for Tony Abbott when evidence emerged that he was a bully. She has repeatedly written off Julia Gillard, not least because Grattan, like others, missed the story that she was becoming Prime Minister in the first place: these predictions were without value when first released and have since proven worthless. It is not her job to engage in advocacy or prognostications, but to tell us what is going on and what these developments might mean.

It used to be the case that Canberra was "the national stage" in terms of politics, and that if it didn't happen in Canberra then it probably wasn't political (and if it was, a reaction in Canberra would bestow upon an issue its political element). It isn't Michelle Grattan's job to react with puzzlement at developments beyond Canberra, or to insist that any developments at variance with Canberra conventional wisdom must be resolved in favour of the latter (and no, actually, I don't really care about Alan Reid). What happens in the country beyond Canberra is not non-politics, or anti-politics. If a political story lies beyond Canberra, then go beyond Canberra to get it - even if there isn't an organised photo-op with accompanying bus and/or plane.

Grattan isn't helping us understand what is going on in Canberra. What is the value in continuing to run her offerings to the wider public? Why has she been retained when so many other journalists have been let go (let us avoid unkind speculation about Grattan's accumulated entitlements and Fairfax's solvency)? What are all those years of experience worth in helping us understand issues that affect us all? Is Fairfax retaining Grattan to offer continuity in an age of discontinuity - in Canberra, in their own ranks, and beyond - or do they just not understand what their value proposition should be?

25 September 2012


Tony Abbott won't become Prime Minister because his party in his own home state are focused on things other than making him Prime Minister. He lacks the clout to make them focus. He does not have any compensating clout elsewhere that might make up for this. His own party in his own home state is going to shirtfront him and there is nothing he can or will do about it.

The Liberal Party in NSW is focused on their winning state government. State government is a bit of a novelty for most NSW Liberals and much-missed by those who remember the Greiner-Fahey days. There are plenty of jobs for party hacks and plenty of issues for activists and fellow-travellers to get their teeth into.

Yeah yeah, there could be a federal election any minute, and with it a federal Coalition government, that's all very well - but the State Government is no small beer and it is right here and now.

The 1993 Federal election loss had come as a shock to NSW Liberals and the then Fahey Government was keen to ensure it did not suffer a similar fate. They had to choose a State Director to run administrative matters and to manage any state or federal campaigns that took place. The two candidates were former Liberal staffers, Tony Abbott and Barry O'Farrell; O'Farrell won because of his broader knowledge of campaigning and because he was not a rusted-on factional hack like Abbott. Abbott got a consolation prize with Australians for Constitutional Monarchy and entered Federal Parliament.

O'Farrell resigned as State Director in late 1994, when he won preselection for a seat in State Parliament at the 1995 election. The position was still vacant a few weeks later when his former boss, John Howard, became leader of the Federal Parliamentary Party.

Howard knew what home-ground advantage meant. He was up against fellow Sydneysider Paul Keating and was on his last chance to become Prime Minister: death or glory, and he was damned if he would let his final chance be blown by a bunch of factional pissants he didn't respect. Howard got the NSW factions together and told them that his quest to become PM was more important than their factional maneuverings (and they believed him). He forced through rule changes, he brought people into the NSW Division from interstate (e.g. Tony Nutt), cracked heads and eventually got bitter enemies singing from the same songsheet. He basically rebuilt the NSW Liberals from the ground up and factional spats went on ice.

The fact that the Fahey government lost office made things easier for Howard, and clearer for NSW Liberals. State Liberal governments across the nation found themselves starved of resources, shut out of funding and announcements, and generally pushed aside by the Howard federal government; at the time they and Liberal members generally didn't seem to mind.

Tony Abbott would have seen all this at close quarters. He could have built some credibility as an enforcer for Howard in NSW, just as Michael Corleone proved his worth to the Don and took over - but chose not to. David Marr wrote that Abbott still wonders why Howard didn't find a place for him in his first ministry.

Since then, Abbott has been party leader for three years: ample time to go through the Liberal Party like a dose of salts, top to bottom. He's done nothing. He wouldn't know where to start. It's too late now.

Those who think Malcolm Turnbull can just knock Abbott off because polls underestimate the sheer bloody-mindedness of the right. They would make his life hell, even worse than in 2009; and while a proud man like Turnbull would need to prove himself a team player, he wouldn't be anyone's front man. Turnbull would have to extract the concession that the price of his leadership is that he gets to clean out the Liberal Party as thoroughly as John Howard did in 1995. He has no chance of doing that before an election, but after a traumatic loss as 2013 is shaping up to be he might have a chance.

Abbott did learn the lesson about state governments, though. What he hasn't learned is how to make it happen:
  • Whatever might be said about Ted Baillieu, he isn't going to give up being in government just because Tony Abbott might ask nicely;
  • Barry O'Farrell quite likes being Premier of NSW and knows all the tricks that Howard played in stealing the oxygen from state governments - he has one thing in common with his enemies on the far right, he isn't going to give up anything for the sake of Tony Bloody Abbott;
  • Campbell Newman just got his go and clearly quite likes it too, and in amongst all his difficulties does he have time to stick his neck out for the sake of Tony Bloody Abbott? If Abbott could help him be more popular, perhaps; but north of the Tweed they are both about as popular as Paul Gallen.
  • Look, Colin Barnett is busy, OK? Piss off, eastern states sluggo man (even Howard found WA difficult).
  • SA Liberals are engaged in leadership turmoil, and they'll thank you to stay out of it. Abbott isn't winning the party much support in that state and it is likely Labor will win seats there. He lacks the clout to go in and sort out the state mess and it wouldn't be to his advantage if he did. He could rely on his right-whinge factional buddies, but in SA their chief is Cory Bernardi - you see the problem.
  • In Tasmania the state Liberals are resurgent because Will Hodgman has taken a stick to Eric Abetz and got him to stay out of state politics. Abetz is left with absolute control over the federal sphere and he doesn't need any help from Abbott. Both Abetz and Hodgman would regard Tony Bloody Abbott as more trouble than he is worth.
The part of the Liberal Party that should, in theory, be most focused on getting Abbott elected are the far right. They are even more committed to junking environmental controls and women's reproductive rights than Abbott is. They would have the Navy machine-gun asylum-seekers and have their corpses wash back on the coast of Indonesia to send a message that needs no translation.

Bernardi is their rising star, but while the right operates nationally let's go back to NSW for a moment. When the right get control of the NSW Liberals, they brook no dissent: disunity is death and all that. When they lose, they quite happily leak to the media, use violence to disrupt meetings and intimidate opponents, do backroom deals with religious/racist cranks, and take out Supreme Court injunctions.

If you must read a Paul Sheehan article, go straight down to about the second-last paragraph and read the almost inevitable "don't be fooled by claims that ..."; here will be the substance of the article and his motivation for writing it. To represent people like the secretive, schismatic and vicious David Clarke as agents of openness, fair play and democracy is pretty funny, and by the time you realise it isn't satire it is too late.

Any organisation shows people inside and out that you can't enjoy the benefits of that organisation without also submitting to its directions, and that sometimes those directions don't go the way you'd like. The right's patsies do not have the numbers to get Robertson FEC (the forum of Liberal Party branches in that federal electorate) to pass a motion of no-confidence in Lucy Wicks, nor bring any pressure to bear in internal party mechanisms to get their repellent mouth-breather candidates into positions beyond their competence. Instead, they want all the benefits of the Liberal Party's resources brought to bear for their benefit without any consideration.

It is too early to tell, but Labor MP Deb O'Neill will get the benefit of the doubt in Robertson at the next election if she shows up and puts the work in. Labor would be crazy to undermine O'Neill, but this possibility cannot be ruled out. Most Liberals in Robertson will get behind Liberal candidate Lucy Wicks but a good many will effectively go on strike - enough to make the difference in a tight contest. Supposedly loyal Liberals would rather see Labor's O'Neill beat endorsed Liberal Wicks in order to make a point in internal party machinations, rather than tolerate Wicks as their local MP.

If you place more credence in polls than I do, you have to believe that Robertson and neighbouring Dobell (current MP: Craig Thomson) are seats that the Liberals pretty much have in the bag.

Will that court injunction, and all that led up to it and all that will flow from it, do a single thing to help Tony Abbott become Prime Minister? It is leadership failure that it even came to this. John Howard would have jumped on such a nasty little exercise with both feet. Either Abbott stood by helplessly wringing his hands, or - worse - he assumed it was nothing to do with him.

The third instance of the NSW Liberals thumbing their nose at their federal leader came with the underreported Senate preselection last weekend.

Senate preselectors are drawn from the party's state executive and from electorates throughout the state. Few internal party ballots are so representative of the mood of the Division as a whole at the time they are cast. There were two winnable spots, and two sitting Senators seeking re-election to them.

Marise Payne has been a Senator for 15 years. She started out as a moderate before they went out of fashion and placed survival over principle. Like the Prime Minister, she is unmarried and childless (yes, I respect her choices too, but this stuff matters to conservatives). During the republic debate in the '90s she formed an odd pas-de-deux with Abbott in Liberal Party forums, arguing for a republic while he against. She would have made a good minister had Howard been in the business of promoting women and moderates (or if Costello had stepped up). She is kind of a shadow minister for portfolios that don't really have ministers, although the fact that she is on the front bench at all is further proof that Abbott is no Howard.

Arthur Sinodinos was Howard's chief of staff and spent many years putting Tony Abbott in his box. He replaced Helen Coonan. Abbott kept being told that his front bench was full of lightweights - Payne is a regular target for those with constructive suggestions as to who should make way for supposed Liberal talent - and conventional wisdom holds that Sinodinos would lend a policy heft to the Coalition which it apparently lacks.

The last time Coonan and Payne ran for preselection was in 2006. Howard wanted Coonan at the top of the ticket and tasked Bill Heffernan to do the grassroots work within the NSW Division to make it happen. Howard got his way, as you'd expect; Payne was furious with Heffernan, but so what?

Just before last weekend's NSW Senate preselection ballot, Tony Abbott made Sinodinos his parliamentary secretary. It was a clear exercise of leadership and authority. In Howard's day the NSW Liberals would have voted for a brown dog if Howard had made it his parliamentary secretary. Abbott had been the attack dog for Bronwyn Bishop when she nobbled shadow minister Chris Puplick in the vicious Senate preselection of 1989; Payne and Puplick have been close friends for years. The Liberal Party is all about leadership, and Abbott played what looked like a lay-down misére.

Last weekend the NSW Liberals put Payne at the top of the Senate ticket over Sinodinos.

The NSW Liberals are determined to fuck over Tony Abbott at every opportunity, and they know him better than anyone. You'd have to be a mug to vote for him, and I am sick to death of all this more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger crap that an Abbott government is inevitable. If the famously brutal Victorian ALP started shirtfronting Gillard in this manner, I might begin to entertain the idea that she might not be re-elected.

23 September 2012

A new phase of uncertainty

The press gallery hypnotise themselves into accepting certain premises as true, which is frustrating for readers/ listeners/ viewers/ taxpayers/ voters who have to filter that crap out before you can even get to the story (if indeed there is one). I've railed against this many times and don't propose to repeat myself here. Instead, let me say that I understand why journalists do it: it saves time and effort. They can rush around knowing that their story will pretty much write itself if you can just assemble all the assumptions and tweak them a bit with some topical references.

Here are four examples - two by the same person - of where The Narrative isn't even working for the journalists, let alone the reader/etc or the body politic in general.

First, Samantha Maiden has finally written the article that should have been published at any point in the last two years. "Devil is in the detail" is the code-phrase that the journosphere use to excuse their lack of skill and interest in actual policy, when that lack is at the core of their profession's problems. Being new to this policy stuff Maiden has let herself down by begging a few questions:
1. Turning back the boats sounds strong. But implementing the policy is dangerous and difficult ... It would also involve negotiating with Indonesia to accept the boats.
Indonesia's Foreign Minister and President have stated repeatedly and unequivocally that they will not accept asylum-seekers sent by Australia. That isn't the start of negotiations, it's the end. Read Abbott's disgracefully adolescent address-in-reply when President Yudhuyono last addressed Australia's Parliament and see how far the Coalition are out of their depth on this issue. This is so inadequate it's close to misinformation.
2. After resisting the Coalition's calls to reopen Nauru for years, Labor has run up the white flag. It's early days, but there's no clear sign it has stopped the boats.
The Coalition has no other policy option than that, Labor does. White flag, my arse; the Coalition are being played - be careful what you wish for - but they have lulled the media into being too dumb to see it.
1. The bonus [of the Paid Parental Leave scheme] is that all women would be better off in cash terms under the Coalition's scheme than under Labor's. But is it affordable? Abbott once pledged paid maternity leave would be delivered over the Howard Government's dead body, now he's rushing to deliver it to improve his standing with female voters.
The Coalition's grizzling about spending means that this policy has no credibility. Nobody believes it will not go straight onto the chopping block so why even bother entertaining the idea - unless you're a press gallery journalist desperate to curry favour and whip up a non-story to fill some blank space.
2. A Coalition government has set the ambitious target of working with the states to ensure 40 per cent of year 12 students are studying a language other than English within a decade.
It's not ambitious, it's a lie. I said in February that there was no commitment to it in terms of funding or any other policy that would buttress it and place it at the core of government policy (i.e. no overarching increase in engagement with Asia), no indication of what would be cut in order to fund it (apart from IT, viz):
4. It will take action to address disadvantage in schools, help children with special needs and address cyber bullying.
No it won't; this lot don't even understand the NBN, let alone cyber bullying. They see education as an act of mass charity rather than an investment.
1. The Coalition has pledged to ask the Productivity Commission to review childcare if elected.

2. Extending the 30 per cent childcare rebate to nannies would also be considered. Concerns that quality and safety reforms and red tape are driving up costs would also be considered.
Great, they're going to hit the ground reviewing. What have they been doing for five years in Opposition? Sounds like they need another five.
3. The Coalition would also reintroduce the $12.6 million Occasional Care funding.
Rubbish. Black holes and all that.
3. The Coalition has pledged to work with the states to slow the quality and safety reforms if required. But some of the reforms are popular with parents because they include improving staff-to-child ratios and requiring better training.
Hmm, sounds like they haven't thought through a policy with direct impacts on many thousands of Australian families: that counts for more than all of Abbott's pie-eating, hat-wearing stunts put together. We should get a journalist to look into that.

Second, Michael Gordon, the poor man's Peter Hartcher. Gordon describes a bit of parliamentary back-and-forth in the worthy terms you would expect from a Year 10 excursion to Canberra and then fretfully admits to readers he has nothing to say:
Suddenly, Australian politics has entered a new phase of uncertainty, where the dominance of the Abbott-led Coalition and another tilt by the Rudd forces against Gillard are still generally expected, but can no longer be assumed.
What dominance? Saying no all the time and offering no alternative was always a dud strategy. Expected by whom, Michael?
If there is one word that describes the state of play right now it is fluid.
Well, yes; but isn't it always? Even when it isn't, the seeds of what will eventually break up a smug consensus will start germinating when the situation seems least fluid. This is lazy journalism - a hung parliament, a year out from the election, and a fluid political situation? Wow, really?
This, overwhelmingly, is Gillard's achievement, though Abbott's uneven performance in recent weeks has also contributed. The main ingredients are the relatively painless (so far) introduction of the carbon price, Gillard's focus on a positive agenda (especially around schools, dental care and disability insurance) and the hostility generated by cost-cutting and job-slashing by conservative governments in NSW and Queensland.
No, this is a result of the destruction of Abbott's credibility. Abbott said the carbon tax would be a disaster: it hasn't. People are looking to Abbott to offer an alternative: he hasn't got one. People are looking to Abbott to be a better person than Gillard is: he isn't, he's a prick.
Gillard is still an unpopular leader, but her resilience is winning her grudging respect. She is exuding more confidence, but her every move is still seen by many in the gallery through the prism of leadership - and whether the prime motivation is to keep the man she replaced at bay.
Why is it seen that way, Michael, and how can we get them to see things differently? Isn't leadership getting things done? Why would two men who stopped things from getting done (Rudd and Abbott) be more popular than someone who gets things done?

Could it be that polls are less important than has been assumed? Who will stand up to the editor who believes that polls = story and tell them no?
Finally, there's the "drover's dog" argument that, even if Gillard puts Labor in a competitive position to contest the election, the caucus would switch to Rudd if they believed he would deliver a better result. This underestimates the loyalty to Gillard and hostility to Rudd.
Nobody with any credibility thinks like that. It is late-night Holy Grail talk, and everyone learned the folly of that at the last election - except Michael Gordon.
Right now, Abbott is an even more unpopular leader, but is still strongly favoured to be prime minister after the election.
Nobody but pollsters and journos believes this. In 2010 the Coalition's momentum stopped dead a week into the campaign once people realised if you vote Coalition, Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister; they didn't and so he didn't, and it will happen again. To believe otherwise is to be so captured by the press-gallery circle-jerk that you cannot report on it accurately.
Having exceeded expectations when they were low, he now faces the challenge of meeting them when they are high.
That sentence should read: he was fine when under no scrutiny, but when put under scrutiny himself he squeals like a stuck pig and even though we can smell the pork frying we cannot describe it to you.
Having displayed extraordinary self-discipline in the last campaign, he must avoid major slip-ups in the lead-up to the next.
Depends what you mean by "self discipline", really. Everyone's had a gutful of him being "on message" with nothing to say and nothing to offer. We don't have to Let Tony Be Tony or judge him by his own lights.
While Abbott will come under increasing pressure because of the polls to switch to a more positive agenda, he will resist it for three reasons: the assault on the carbon price remains his top priority; announcing policy would require mastery of detail and consequently involve risk; and the time to move is much closer to the campaign.
The first shows the sort of misjudgment that felled better leaders than him; the second shows both that he is no better than the journalists who "cover" him, and not good enough for the country; and that by then he will have no credibility and his stunts/announcements will have zero impact.
In the meantime, the strategies of both sides are short-term and could easily come unstuck.
Really? Labor's energy and education policies extend well into the next decade and the NBN goes far beyond that. The Coalition's education policy relies on trust and credibility in Christopher Pyne, who can't be guaranteed to hold his seat. "Both sides"? Really, Michael?
But there are two other possibilities.
Well, yes, and why are they in the second-last paragraph? They bob about uselessly like flotsam from a sinking ship rather than actual facts supporting real arguments. This is desperate stuff, unsourced gossip and graveyard-whistling masquerading as strategic insight. If Gordon was a poker player his table would echo with cries of "ya got nothing! Show us!". If you don't understand politics any more, collect your cheque and go do something else.

Our final victim used to be a regular target of this blog until she became ubiquitous, which meant that no-comment became the best policy. I refer of course to Annabel Crabb:
Can we please, PLEASE declare some sort of federal amnesty on embarrassing university behaviour?
Yes, on two conditions:

1) Said behaviour is a contrast, not a continuation, of attitudes manifested in public life:

  • The guy whose uni girlfriend leaves him for another girl, and who then makes some nasty comments about lesbians that don't quite square with his exemplary and substantial later record on GLBTI issues: that person deserves a break; 
  • The student who rails against job cuts because of deregulation, and who later becomes an advocate for further deregulation in order to foster job growth;
  • The East Timor advocate who found the only politician who'd get on side was the last one they expected, John Howard;
  • Even Nick Minchin, uni dopehead who became a straight-laced conservative in word and deed.
Those people deserve a break. Their hearts were in the right place, and it was long ago, so let the fog of nostalgia descend.

2) As I said earlier, Marr was wrong to lunge so far back for such an example.

Tony Abbott is a jerk. He was a jerk this year, he was a jerk last year, he was a jerk ten years ago and thirty too. His offences go way beyond fashion crimes. Those heavy-handed legal and ecclesiastical defences have put him in a position where he feels he can do no wrong, and so is blind to objective signals to change course to which others pay close heed. That's the significance of Abbott's behaviour, and it's a real shame Crabb missed it - willfully, insisted on missing the point.

In her coverage of politics, Crabb insists on describing politicians as she finds them, and on taking them and their quoted words as given. All that back-story stuff is beyond her control and her ken. She can't tell the difference between a politician undergoing a spot of bother and one who is doomed. It's one thing to be facile, but to insist that non-facile coverage be discarded is crazy. Crabb saw what happened to Mark Latham after the cabbie's broken arm turned him from a forceful personality to a thug, and whether she likes it or not she should be able to see a similar pattern emerging with Abbott.

Crabb's venture on Twitter today, imperiously insisting we #buythepaper to maintain High Standards Of Journalism, has shot her credibility. Like Richard Wilkins in the 1980s, Crabb is an old person's idea of a groovy with-it younger person; by insisting that we who read widely are personally responsible for "bleeding Fairfax" (while those who hired Crabb and gave her resources that were denied to others escape culpability), she has disappointed her readers while also showing her feet-of-clay to those who placed higher hopes in her reach and acuity. She has been every bit as bombastic as Gina Rinehart was in urging us all to work for the sort of money Crabb would have us spend on a wad of lifestyle supplements.

This is a new phase of uncertainty, all right. The less journalists focus on themselves and refuse to help the rest of us through such a phase, the less likely they are to come through it well; no amount of cramming by Sam Maiden, hedging by Michael Gordon or pearls-rattling by Annabel Crabb will substitute for gathering facts, recognising the story for what it is, and telling it free of the faux-entanglements of The Narrative.

20 September 2012

Ill discipline

Two articles in The Sydney Morning Herald show how the depleted organ can no longer analyse, or even properly describe, what is going on with the alternative government and how it might govern us if given the chance.

The first sentence of this made me laugh. Tony Abbott condemns what he is guilty of himself. Philip Coorey has no excuse to miss that, and Tony Abbott has no right to be taken at face value.

This is not high-quality journalism. It's not even valuable information. It is space-filling bullshit.
Time and again he warns against [ill-discipline], telling his charges the aim is to have people talking about Labor, not the Coalition.
No, the aim is to be governed well in a time of uncertainty.

There are legitimate discussions to be had amongst Liberals on how best to do that, and how they may mark themselves as better than Labor; the Liberals are not having those discussions. They are not having those discussions because Tony Abbott wants to impose discipline on them; he doesn't want them to talk among themselves about issues.

He wants to tell elected representatives what he and the PR dollies in his office have decided are the issues. Abbott and his office have decided that we can't even know what those decisions are until the election is called. We have no idea how those positions are arrived at, because journalists won't and can't tell us, despite all their supposed familiarity with the processes of politics in general and the individuals in Abbott's office in particular.

Liberal MPs play no part in policy discussion and formulation, Liberal candidates and party members play even less. Should you regard such people as muppets - especially when they have voted themselves into that very position - you are accused of breathtaking cynicism and even bitterness.

Just because Abbott wants the story to be about Labor, and not the Coalition, it doesn't oblige people like Philip Coorey to ignore Coalition-related stories or only cover those the Coalition wants covered, in the way the Coalition would want them covered. Coorey has reported Abbott's wishes and then followed them, assuming that his readers are as bound by press gallery conventions and Fairfax editorial policies as he is.

If Abbott doesn't want people to talk about the Coalition, why would he want anyone to vote for them? Why would a great democracy like Australia wish to be govern by an unknown force, about which their assumptions may or may not be valid? Why would Coalition MPs squeal about 'balance' and 'equal time' if they do not wish to be talked about?

Is it even sensible or realistic to expect people who discuss Australian politics not to talk about the Coalition? Sure, people inside the ALP and other parties may discuss their own organisations and where they are going, but in the wider political context the Coalition are definitely a force to be reckoned with. In describing Abbott's position, Coorey accepts it
without really considering whether or not this is sensible or realistic.
[Abbott] is not naive and learnt about leadership from his years under John Howard.
Abbott is naive if he regards Howard as the be-all-and-end-all of leadership, which he clearly does. Howard's leadership led the Coalition to defeat in 2007 and, despite the conventional wisdom, could well be led to defeat yet again by the same leadership model. It seems that no lessons have been learned about leadership by the Liberals, nor by the journalists who cover them.
He knows people have to be given some licence, especially the Nationals, especially Barnaby Joyce.

It is sometimes easier to let them have a frolic in the paddock than try to rein them in. It's all a matter of balance.

Lately, things have become unbalanced. Joyce ran wild for a week, ranting against the sale of Cubbie station to a Chinese-led consortium and, in the process, whipping up the conservative base and angering the Liberals.
Note how Coorey has referred to Coalition MPs as "his [Abbott's] charges" and "[having] a frolic in the paddock ... running wild", as though they were dumb animals to be disciplined and controlled. This may be how their leader regards them, and it may even be how they regard themselves at times, but it's Coorey's job to unpack the assumptions in a description like that.

It is hard to imagine Labor caucus members described as cattle.

Note also that it is important for Abbott to let Joyce have a "frolic", free and clear of Coalition discipline, while it is not important to allow (or, important not to allow) others to be freed from discipline. Why Joyce gets to frolic and others do not is unclear, and worthy of investigation by a professional journalist.

To return to Coorey's farmyard analogy, a beast that is always in harness will become worn down and come to resent those that spend so much time frolicking.
Julie Bishop capped a geyser concerning the deregulation of the wheat market ...

Let me step in and do my own journalism here, seeing as the "professional" (pro tem) has failed:
  • Western Australian Liberal MPs who represent wheat-growing electorates were inclined to support the government's reforms to marketing wheat, which involve less direct control by government.
  • Nationals MPs, representing wheat-growing and non-wheat-growing electorates elsewhere in the country, wished to oppose the reforms and stick with the Gillard government's current policies.
  • Julie Bishop, the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, convinced Liberals to adopt the Nationals' position. Perhaps there was some discussion about this(!) which is presumably what Coorey means when he talks about a geyser of wheat(!!) and capping thereof.
You can see why I don't rate Coorey as a journalist, and it seemed only fair to tell him so - politely but directly, using my real name just as he uses his. Reader, Coorey abused and then blocked me, the sook.
... Cory Bernardi offended - again.
Against common decency as well as the 'discipline' of Tony Abbott, as I've said.

Given that Bernardi is so offensive and undisciplined, why did his leader give him leave to represent the Liberal Party overseas while Parliament is sitting? Is this a breach of discipline, and if so by whom?
Those close to Abbott say he handles pressure well.
Those of us not close to him say he doesn't, he's a sook, which may be why Coorey is so soft on him and unquestioningly accepts his assumptions.
He knew early yesterday he had a problem with Bernardi, especially when Coalition MPs started ringing his office.
He has no excuse not to have known from day one that Bernardi is a cock and an embarrassment waiting to happen. All that's changed is that the waiting is over.

There is a question to be raised about Abbott's judgment in appointing Bernardi and sticking by him, assuming that any criticism was just moderate bleating rather than a well-founded concern. A journalist really should look into that.
In acting, Abbott made three gains.
Really? Net gains, were they? Let's see:
First, he dumped a senator few on his own side cared for or about.
Easy to say that in retrospect. The guy will go to the next Federal election as the Coalition's top candidate for the Senate. Somebody cares about him.
Bernardi had already put many of his colleagues offside with his Islamophobic writings and speeches.
Why didn't they go to their leader to enforce discipline? Why was Bernardi allowed a Joycean frolic while others had to toe the line (further proof that there are no moderates in Parliament, because moderates have guts)? Isn't this a question of Abbott's own judgment and discipline?
Second, Abbott sent a message to the rest of the frontbench that he would no longer tolerate "freelancing".
We'll see how long that lasts, especially whether or not Abbott can avoid self-freelancing. This is a fair question given Abbott's record, and Coorey should be asking it.
Third, he was able to promote two people of real talent - Arthur Sinodinos and Jamie Briggs.
Abbott is the leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party. There was no reason at all why he could not have appointed those guys, and others, a long time ago. If they are so talented their impact should be decisive, and so far it's hard to tell. A couple of guys whose working lives have been limited to staffer roles are going to improve, um, what?

When he occupied the office that Tony Abbott holds now, Kim Beazley took the opportunity to promote two people of real talent - Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard - and a fat lot of good it did Beazley.

Coorey abandons his feeble article right there, and maybe it's just as well. Like most articles from the press gallery, a Philip Coorey article should not be regarded as the work of an investigating, professional journalist, but as half-baked input for a blogpost. As we have seen, there is nothing to be gained by closeness to those they report on, and there is not a scrap of perspective in Coorey's view of the would-be Prime Minister.

In another part of the paper was this, by a nameless troll identified only as "AAP". As straight-up, analysis-free reporting it's hard to beat, and I wish it were possible to get a direct AAP feed rather than muck about with the MSM.
A day after the lower house voted down a Labor private member's bill to allow same-sex marriage, the Senate continued to debate a similar bill.

Queensland senator Sue Boyce told parliament she supported the "intention" of the bill, but accused Labor of cynicism for bringing it on for the debate knowing that it would fail.

"The big news is that gay people are just people," she said.

"There are good gays and bad gays; rich gays and poor gays; gays who want to get married and gays who don't; gays who like footie and gays who don't; gays who want children and those who don't."

It is unclear whether Senator Boyce will cross the floor, but the bill is still likely to fail a vote expected late on Thursday.
It is a sad, sad day when such obvious truisms constitute "ill-discipline", as they almost certainly do.
Chief opposition whip Warren Entsch said he was talking to colleagues about a civil partnerships bill.

"I have already dusted it out from the drawer. I had it out immediately after the vote," Mr Entsch told ABC radio on Thursday.

"I have already spoken to a number of colleagues."

He acknowledged such a bill was inferior for a part of the community but he believed it had more chance of passing parliament.

I've read arguments in favour of same-sex marriage, like this one. I've read arguments against same-sex marriage, i.e. for the status quo. But nowhere have I read any advocacy from those to be affected by such a measure calling for same-sex civil partnerships instead of marriage, or for same-sex civil partnerships at all.

Entsch appears to be trying to solve a problem that doesn't seem to exist beyond Parliament House. I guess this is what conservatives mean when they complain about the incumbents, and government generally, for focusing on non-solutions and ignoring real issues affecting real people.

Where is the "discipline" in keeping alive an issue that conservatives want buried, and which progressives won't accept? Do they think they are clever by trailing an inferior option while proponents only have to wait until next term?
British Labour said [Bernardi's] appearance at the [European Young Conservative Freedom Summit] was "astonishing" and accused the Tories of paying "lip service" to equality.
They would say that, wouldn't they.

If you accept Coorey's premise that Abbott has won a trifecta, perhaps he is good for a loan to the beleaguered publisher. The journalism in the SMH is starting to suffer, and the way it is going it will increasingly suffer alone. It's hard to support Fairfax when it won't support itself.

19 September 2012

Team players

Malcolm Turnbull has to demonstrate to Liberals that he's a team player. He voted against marriage equality. He has done the full ashes-and-sackcloth routine since being defeated in 2009, and he did it again today while remaining dignified. Even people who loathe him can find no fault with his submission to the will of the Liberal Party room and its backing of its leader.

Cory Bernardi is not a team player. He thinks he can have one foot in conservative Australia and the other on the further-right lunatic fringe. This is why when Muslims rioted recently, he thought his hour had come; and why when the House of Representatives voted on gay marriage, he thought he was being useful in linking gay and lesbian relationships to bestiality. Now he has slunk away to depressed Europe to meet with resurgent representatives of the lunatic fringe, hoping that they can show him where he's gone wrong in failing to get the country behind him.

Bernardi raises funds separate to the Liberal Party in order to fund activities that bring far-right activities into the mainstream, such as Menzies House, and his trips - if he had travelled under Parliamentary travel allowances, where he stayed and who he met with would all have to be disclosed. Travelling on his own slush funds, he doesn't answer to anyone.

Bernardi is stuck with the epithet "shadowy"; I can't think of a Federal Labor MP who can be described similarly, now that all the old commos and spivs have gone. Recent preselection victories have strengthened Bernardi's hand in the SA Liberals, and he is making life more difficult than it need be for SA Liberal State Leader Isobel Redmond. Even his former mentor Nick Minchin contemplates Bernardi with his face in his hands, like Dr Frankenstein helplessly watching his monster crush, kill, destroy. Abbott does not have the power to get rid of Bernardi altogether; John Howard insisted on and got the ability to punt errant Liberal MPs in the late '90s, which Abbott has never had and it's too late for him to demand it now.

The right-wing has lost a trusted number on the Coalition frontbench at a time when it should not only be vindicated, but be in the driver's seat to press the Coalition's polling advantage toward the election. It cannot afford to concede anything when their man Abbott is weakened and the only alternatives - Turnbull, Hockey, Julie Bishop - are to his left. Bernardi's replacements on the Coalition front bench, Sinodinos and Briggs, are not as committed/beholden to the right as Bernardi.

Sinodinos is not able to reorient policy toward meeting the identified future needs of this country, as I've said before, and Briggs didn't get where he is either by departing from the idea that the Howard Government did everything right and everything that's happened since has been a comedown. Sinodinos might be great in the backrooms but he has never had to do the facework that he must do now, including presenting as Abbott's reasonable alter-ego to the media and the business community. The Howard restoration narrative has been strengthened, but a fat lot of good that will do them.

Sinodinos and Abbott would have worked closely in Howard's days, but this does not mean they are close personally. Part of Sinodinos' role would have been to hose down Abbott's wilder ideas, e.g. having Howard intervene on his side in nationalising the health system or maintaining his ministerial authority over RU486. Sinodinos gives Abbott a bit of a credibility lift but also restricts his freedom of action - but without the authority of Howard directly behind him, and without a powerbase of his own in the Liberal Party, Sinodinos will have to bluff for Australia in order to rein in Abbott, particularly as he gets more and more rattled as the election approaches.

Plenty of Turnbull's constituents will be angry with him for voting against marriage equality. The vote went down 42-98; had it been closer Turnbull's position with his voters would have been difficult, if not untenable. None of the ten MPs who were absent from the vote would have made a difference, and until the vote comes up again (in the next Parliament) it is futile speculating about who else might have changed their vote had they been able to do so. The size of the defeat dissipates any anger that may be directed at any one MP. Abbott has done Turnbull a favour, however inadvertently, and for now there is nothing for Turnbull to gain by resigning from his frontbench or flouting his authority.

Advocates of gay/lesbian marriage now have the information you need in politics: who's on side, who's offside, and who you need to talk to. There was a time, not far distant, when they would not have been able to get four votes; it is likely that the next Parliament will yield the remaining 34, to secure a majority, to pass such a vote.

Abbott does not look like a tough guy in seeking and getting Bernardi's resignation. He looks like the decision has been forced upon him. Bernardi was his choice in that most personal frontbench role. Bernardi has said nothing with which Abbott fundamentally disagrees: that the Muslim riots were distasteful and that gay relationships do not deserve the public sanction of marriage are Abbott's positions too.

The bestiality stuff is no more over-the-top than the sort of thing Barnaby Joyce says in any given week. Yet again, Joyce gets away with it and Coalition-members-other-than-Joyce who speak similarly get canned. This does not endear people to the Dear Leader, but builds resentment - even for those who aren't Bernardi fans. This position can be described with a word that Bernardi, Abbott and other Liberals would bristle at: unsustainable.

The idea that Abbott looks like a sensible moderating influence by getting rid of Bernardi? Oh please, it's way too late for that. If Abbott were to win Bernardi would be back, larger than life and twice as ugly (in terms of being in charge of taxpayer-dollars and regulations and all that government stuff).

So what happens now?
  • Abbott either has his wings clipped by Sinodinos, or else he asserts the authority of his office and wrecks the value proposition that those who brought Sinodinos into politics from a comfortable low-profile corporate career would seek to add;
  • The arguments against Turnbull replacing Abbott as leader (e.g. too negative in attacking the government on every issue! not a team player!) have been weakened while the countervailing arguments have been strengthened;
  • The Liberal right will extract some concession from Abbott that makes up for the loss of Bernardi, and it will not necessarily come at a time of Abbott's choosing or at a time when moderate and non-partisan voters prepared to consider voting Liberal are diverted away from political decision-making;
  • The next generation of Liberals, wasting away on the backbench and unsure about Abbott, are neither convinced that they just have to accept the decisions that Abbott has taken about frontbench positions and nor are they formulating a detailed and attractive set of policies to govern this country. They are still in no-man's-land, but - bless 'em! - they think they are in with a chance; and
  • All this leaves Abbott looking like, in e.e.cumming's deathless phrase, an arse on which everything has sat except a man; a man with many big problems and few options with which to solve them.
In other words, today the Liberal Party gave us a glimpse of its deep-seated, intractable problems, without the satisfying and interesting process of resolving them. The images that Abbott was a bit of a knucklehead but that the Liberal Party as a whole is fundamentally sound, and that the latter should be given the benefit of the doubt over the former, are not as crystal-clear as they were. Today showed that the sort of organisation that regards Tony Abbott as the answer is asking itself, and the country, the wrong questions.

From the old-school perspective of managing the daily news cycle, Abbott started the day with a problem and finished it with the problem solved. The fact that both problem and resolution fed the very narratives that are eroding the Liberals' credibility and feeding longterm decline in support is a problem that old-school media management people can neither airily dismiss nor adequately solve.

Today was not a diversion for the Libs that strengthened Abbott. Today was a day that saw Labor split but the Coalition united on the floor of the House. Labor people looked committed to their position yet bemused, like people who have agreed to disagree and leave it there. Abbott showed that his actions are not decisive, an ultimately fatal position for a leader. Today showed the Liberals lack a leader with the strength and common purpose to unify them.


On a completely unrelated note, it was so nice to see so many people at Greg Jericho's Sydney promotion for his excellent book The Rise of the Fifth Estate; and later to dine with such excellent company.

18 September 2012

Some sort of correction

Here at Politically Homeless we have been engaged in a concerted campaign to do burst two particularly pointless and toxic bubbles: a) Liberals who feel it is inevitable that their lot are going to win the next Federal election, and who have convinced impressionable journalists of same, and b) members of the politico-media complex who believe that only journalistic training and years of being an "insider" enable you to tell people what they must think about politics.

My long-held assessment is that the Coalition can't win the next federal election. It is only promising the reversal of pretty much everything the incumbents have done and a return to the period before they lost government last time; it's not good enough. Australia does vote conservative from time to time but never does it vote to go backwards, as though the last two elections were some sort of clerical error. The Coalition are deliberately shirking big issues affecting our country which, however imperfectly the incumbents are addressing them, must be addressed and not avoided.

Besides, people aren't going to vote for Tony Abbott, and I don't give a damn what the polls say or have said. During the election campaign people who are disappointed with the incumbents are going to change their vote to deny Abbott the Prime Ministership - in sufficient numbers and locations to give the desired effect.

Plus, as we've seen in the past week or so most poignantly, Tony Abbott is a sook. He can dish it out but can't cop it. His strategic ability is second-rate at best, and he is not exactly backed by strategic geniuses in the back rooms (neither is Gillard in hers, but in any sort of match-up she comes out ahead). The Coalition will only undertake the far-reaching changes they need to make after losing the next election, not before the prospect of doing so.

Today's target is Chris Kenny. Not having given a damn about polls I shall not deign to do so now. As I don't write for a company that has to plug its polling arm I can resist Kenny's weird urge to base a whole article on what he disdains (this dissonance is an in-house feature of Murdoch outlets: they do this with royal scandals, tut-tutting at paparazzi while slavering over their products).
The numbers in this latest poll show such a dramatic shift that you would expect some sort of correction - but we will see.
Whistle, whistle, whistle past the graveyard. Kenny hopes a "correction" means an increase for the Coalition vote, but any such "correction" could just as easily go the other way. A mistake might cause the government's standing to fall, but what might cause the Coalition's to rise?
Because of the situation with Independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor the ALP will need to do better than it did at the last election to hold government.
Well, yes, and the same may equally be said for the Coalition.
... the government and its media friends launched a vicious character assault against Tony Abbott. In my view the personal attacks on Abbott won’t do much long term harm. The public know Abbott well and while those who dislike him will lap up the smear campaign, it is unlikely to sway others who are just as likely to hold it against Labor.
They cement negatives about Abbott (i.e. perceptions that he's a bully) and have no upside. Abbott doesn't have the satisfaction that Craig Thomson and Julia Gillard had when they were recently subjected to "vicious character assaults" by Abbott, that they stood fast under a barrage that would have killed lesser folk and got on with the job.

Every politician has people who admire them, people who despise them and people who are unsure. After this week:
  • Those who really admire Abbott have a weaker case than they might have recently enjoyed.
  • Those who never liked him have a good reason to be reinforced in their belief and to expand their numbers.
  • Those who aren't sure about him have reason to get off the fence and join those who oppose him.
  • Those who hadn't taken much notice of him have an incentive to see what other crap lurks in the background of this man who would be Prime Minister.
Tactical geniuses like Chris Kenny might urge Abbott wheel out the sick, the halt and the lame for Abbott to be seen helping, but it is way too late for that; especially as these are the people whose lives Abbott would, however inadvertently, be making harder if he had his way with the country.

The perception of Abbott's strength of character has been diminished with his sooky responses, and the Clintonesque shading of words in trying to deny what (might have) happened all those years ago.

Julia Gillard has been popular, Tony Abbott never has. Abbott has been in the public eye longer and we have had a better look at him - as a monarchist campaigner from the early '90s, as a media-friendly backbencher who was a "junkyard dog" for Howard and then as a minister - he had a high public profile, while Julia Gillard spent most of her first decade in Parliament unknown except by politics tragics. Gillard is now drawing on a well of goodwill that has been there since 2007, so long as she delivered; Abbott has nothing to draw on because he's not offering a substantial, joined-up alternative.

For a while he looked like piecing together an image of the tough guy preparing to be unpopular by cutting the budget, but budget cuts by the three biggest state governments have cruelled that pitch to the point where it's simply not a sustainable strategy for the Coalition federally. Nobody believes it and nobody will vote for it. Abbott faces the polls before Baillieu, O'Farrell or Newman will, and he is not capable of offering such a substantial and different agenda from them for him to avoid being used as their whipping-boy.
More important in the medium term were the savage budget cuts announced in Queensland and New South Wales, leading to protests and condemnation. These were seized upon by the Gillard government, and at least for a while, will create angst and resentment in the electorate.
Those cuts go to services that people experience every day - like the carbon tax, but more so. You'll note Kenny has overlooked the Victorian government's cuts, which haven't simply been shrugged off. Anger in that state looks more like the increasing heat beneath the pot in which the Baillieu government looks like being boiled alive. In Kenny's home state of South Australia, the Liberal leader has gone from a sure thing to an also-ran because she let slip a plan to cut public service jobs.

Kenny has used the journo-cliche "savage" to describe those budget cuts. Actions that are "savage" are unpredictable and not based on reason or cultured sensitivity; this is a hell of a thing for a conservative commentator to say about the sort of governments he normally would be expected to support.
More interesting than analysing what is behind this poll is examining what its impact will be.
Examining? More like guessing. No more whistling past the graveyard: take his hand, dear reader, and off you go on a mad frolic with Chris. See you when you get back.
... the pleasing poll result helps to cement Ms Gillard in the leadership. It means there will be no panic in the caucus room this week and the government will be confident and unified in Parliament. The following three sitting weeks are spread over two months so a lot could change before the final sitting in late November. All the same, for now at least, this puts Kevin Rudd back in his box - which is great for Ms Gillard and, strangely enough, also good news for the Coalition.
Depends what you mean "for now", really. In real politics terms, Rudd was stitched up into a chaff bag and dumped into Lake Burley Griffin back in February. It was in all the papers, Chris. Since then he has mostly been quiet but occasionally appeared in the media a bit, but then so has Malcolm Fraser. Journalists seeking to justify their own employment have chased him around Canberra, and I suppose this is all pretty recent in geological terms, but Kenny's idea of relying on the same half-dozen Rudd supporters to keep LABOR SPLIT SHOCK stories simmering is pretty feeble. Leave that crap to Philip Coorey.

The government is unified because they have something to talk about, and things to do to make them happen. The government will probably not replace a leader who gives them productive focus and the popular esteem that comes from that with someone who lacks these qualities and whose popularity will plummet once his chaotic ways reassert themselves. It's good news for the Coalition only insofar as those who insist the Tony Abbott Way have no future have further proof for their case.
On the other side of the coin, this poll could panic some of the nervous Nellies in the Coalition, and those who oppose Abbott could use it to agitate against him. Superficial analysis can be used in Liberal ranks to create leadership doubts.
So could calm and in-depth analysis. Abbott is a loon and cannot provide the stability and certainty that conservatives, and the market, are looking for. There are no policies to detract from the personal shortcomings of The Leader: without any policies the Liberals are asking us to take this guy on trust (as far as strategies go, that's pretty weak).

Leadership doubts are felt in Liberal ranks but that is not where they are created. Just as workers in retail, manufacturing or state public services fear for their jobs, so too do Liberal MPs and staffers. Kenny is trying to issue a warning with no clout, a dangerous thing to do when people are nervous and so much is at stake.
... the only way the Coalition can lose the next election is through disunity and self-harm.
Getting solidly behind Tony Abbott and allowing perceptions of Coalition policy to be set by his daily talking points (which change wildly when he is under pressure) is the road to defeat, and it is the road they have been on for almost three years now. Three long years, and further away from government than ever.

Kenny's assumption that the election is Abbott's to lose shows disdain for the incumbents, which is understandable from a partisan perspective up to a point. Oppositions only win when they respect the incumbents. Keating didn't hate Hewson but did hate Howard. Beazley and Latham looked down on Howard too, while Hawke and Rudd treated him with respect: look at the respective records of those Labor leaders against Howard and you'll see what I mean. The Coalition can't and won't beat a Prime Minister they fundamentally do not respect - sexism is part, but not all of it. The US Republicans hated Clinton and Obama all the more because they could not beat them. At the risk of coming over all zen, only when the Coalition concede the strengths of the government can it overcome them.

Abbott assumed his current role when Labor was in disarray and now that they are getting it together, he has run out of things to say. He has reinforced his least appealling, most revealing characteristics, and Kenny overestimates how easy it will be to turn this around.
Labor’s hardheads will know it is far too early to suggest this poll demonstrates they are back in the game. But they will know Labor’s greatest gift from Newspolls like this is the potential they have to wreak havoc on the other side.
I always laugh at the fools at sporting grounds whose team is behind at about a quarter or halfway through a game, and instead of projecting an air of calm and confidence and hoping like hell, they gravely warn cheering opponents that it could all turn around. Chris Kenny has no clue at all what "Labor hardheads" may or may not know or think, and he has no business lecturing them. This is an imprecation aimed at the Liberals.

Liberals are right to question Abbott's leadership. The pro-Abbott Liberal right can't win an argument against logic and facts, so they change the subject and imagine a familiarity with The Dreaded Enemy that they simply don't have.

The Liberal right always claim to have great intelligence as to what Labor thinks, and it is one of the great perpetual lies of Australian politics. I can still remember being told by Liberal right luminaries that Bob Carr was scared of facing Kerry Chikarovski at the 1999 NSW election - so scared that he turned a slender majority into a landslide for his party. The ingredients for a repeat of such an event federally are there right now. If only Chris Kenny was able to escape the vortex where he is bound to report on polls and at the same time ignore them, he could see that a scatty, policy-free reactionary Opposition is going to be carved up by a government that only has to stay on its feet to look like geniuses by comparison.

There are few jobs in Opposition, only the prospects of better ones when your mob gets into office. The Liberals will go backwards at the next federal election and there will be fewer jobs still; but Chris Kenny will probably still have his. This time next year it will be necessary for Murdoch to get rid of all those personnel who are geared around the advent of an Abbott Government (e.g. Greg Sheridan, a prophet who can clearly see the post-Abbott future that looks apocalyptic to him, crying in the wilderness of conservative denial; Christopher Pearson and Dennis Shanahan; possibly even Darth Mitchell himself); Kenny will be sitting pretty. His fabric will be a little more frayed in the fray; however, his ability to judge the situation before him at that time, and to report on it, will be no better than it is now.

16 September 2012

Missions and omissions of 'Political Animal'

I started out writing a review of Quarterly Essay 47 Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott by David Marr. I think it is the best thing I've read about Abbott, and recommend very strongly that you read it if you haven't already.

The straight-up review is taking ages but the following pretty much wrote itself. It is a rookie mistake for book reviewers to review the book they wish was written and judge the actual book by an inherently unfair standard. Very well: let me separate the review from what I wish Marr had examined (allowing, of course, for the fact that he only had 25,000 words to work with).

The Education of Young Tony

Abbott's education at Riverview is significantly under-examined, and maybe only a full biography can do it justice. Readers from outside Sydney may appreciate the brief summary but Marr's brief description reads like that of a Sydney social-climber: the real estate and the prestige being all you need to know about the place.

St Ignatius' College Riverview (to give its full title) was founded in 1880. The systemic Catholic schools and nascent public system at the time was designed for the self-employed and those who would spend their working lives as employees to undertake valuable, but subordinate work. The elite schools of the time were exclusively Anglican, Methodist or Presbyterian; Riverview was established in order to provide Catholic men with the education that would enable them to participate in the elite of society in New South Wales. Not long after its foundation, Riverview was producing judges, surgeons, members of parliament, captains of industry and other worthies occupying leading roles in Sydney and throughout the nation. No doubt it is possible to trace Christian, and specifically Catholic values, exercised by those men in office as a result of their Riverview education. This aspect of the character of Riverview differentiates Abbott from the education Julia Gillard would have received at Unley High.

Marr makes much of Abbott's ability to write. He also refers to Abbott quoting Shakespeare and other evidence of great reading, and of course there's the adage that you can't write well without having read well. His mother may have read him Ladybird books about the great and good, but did she read him Taming of the Shrew? Somewhere at Riverview a teacher stoked and channelled a high-level of ability and interest in reading and writing: who was that? How many other Ignatians were inspired by that/those teacher(s) with a love of good writing and the ability to practice it?

What is it about the Jesuit education that's special/different? Why did Abbott emerge from Riverview as an, err, energetic Catholic enforcer while others (e.g. Nick Enright, Robert Hughes, Abbott's classmate Ignatius Jones) did not? Three Labor Cabinet ministers were taught by Christian Brothers at St Patrick's College Strathfield: what makes Abbott different to/from them?

Why did others, trained in the same "old-fashioned 1950s Catholicism" abandon it while Abbott stuck by it?


When Abbott was a member of the SRC and Barbara Ramjan was its President, it is possible that she was the first woman apart from his mother in a position to exercise power over him. Wall-punching aside, this aspect of the Ramjan-Abbott relationship is important: Abbott may be among the last of generations of men to have moved up in Australian society without having to deal with women in positions of power.

My guess is that before and during the 1970s, Riverview did not employ female teachers. The Universities of Sydney and Oxford would have employed few female lecturers and tutors, particularly in law and economics. The Catholic Church certainly didn't. The Bulletin and The Australian wouldn't have employed too many women at senior levels. Each of his political mentors/employers John Howard, John Hewson and David Flint were men. Only when he got into the Liberal Party when aged in his thirties would Abbott have encounted women in significant numbers, and at significant levels of power, where he had to deal with them in order to get what he wanted.

So Abbott had a girlfriend who, by the end of his first year at uni, he had abandoned while pregnant. Marr recounts his easy charm and his male friendships at university, and hints at 'women in the background' but fails to examine relationships with his female peers, other than Ramjan. Some of them must have fell for him, however hard, and others who gave him a wide berth. If, say, Greg Sheridan had been Gail Sheridan, would she have been able to form any kind of platonic friendship with the young Tony Abbott? Abbott's relationship with women outside his family, and other than the one he married, are significant.

Prurient detail is unnecessary. These relationships go to the issue of women's attitudes toward him, and to the wider question of whether someone who flouts social norms so flagrantly can truly be considered a conservative.

The University of Sydney

Again, it's significant that Abbott went to the University of Sydney, rather than UNSW or Macquarie (the latter of which is closer to Killara than the city's other universities). Why did he not light out for somewhere like ANU, like his contemporary Kevin Rudd? Why didn't he go straight to the seminary at 18? A Sydney graduate himself, Marr assumes that simply everybody goes to Sydney.

Also: given that Abbott was drinking, rucking, fucking and politicking quite a lot at uni, how on earth did he pass his studies? You don't get a Rhodes Scholarship by barely scraping through. Did any of the subject-matter actually captivate him? Given his love of good writing, and the fact that more female students study those courses, why did he not study Arts?

Sydney's Economics faculty at that time included several prominent marxists, like Ted Wheelwright and Frank Stilwell: how did Abbott bear it? Is the quality of his economics education responsible for the dismissive attitude of Costello and other commentators toward his grasp of economics?

Aside from Joe Hockey, and Marr's erstwhile Fairfax colleagues Peter FitzSimons and Malcolm Knox, many of Abbott's fellow students and rugger-buggers now occupy senior positions in law, finance, medicine and business (Knox writes novels about such people). It's one thing for them to have said "shut up, Abbo" at uni, but how do they feel now that the Prime Ministership is within his reach? Do they cheer him still or does the swot from Unley High not look so bad in comparison? The Liberal Party and the business community are no longer so synonymous nor as in lockstep as they were, even as recently as the 1970s.

Voting in campus elections is voluntary. It is possible to do very well in student politics with very few votes. It relies on apathy to speak and act unchallenged on behalf of students, and this aspect translates into the ennui of wider politics through student politicians carrying their assumptions through to the bigger games. It is a symptom of the failure of campus politics to extrapolate to national politics that Abbott's Sydney University contemporaries have not acted sooner to thwart his ambitions.

One of Abbott's associates at uni was one Steven Lewis. News Ltd employs a political correspondent called Steve Lewis, recently notorious for targeting allegations of homosexual activity as Abbott was at university. Are they the same person?

A junkyard dog in the Liberal Party

In the year following Sir John Kerr's dismissal of the Whitlam government, more Australians joined political parties than at any time before or since. Tony Abbott was not one of them, disdaining the very party he would one day lead. Marr should have made more of that than he did.

I was a member of the Liberal Party at around the same time as Abbott. I was a committed Young Liberal by the late 1980s when he was still flirting with joining the ALP, and I remember when he went to ACM. In the interim he was a "junkyard dog" for the right in internal party machinations.

The most notable of these was the 1989 Senate preselection, for the election the following year. The favourite to win top position on the ballot was a sitting Senator and a Shadow Minister, Chris Puplick. Also running was the immediate past State President of the party, Bronwyn Bishop. Only the top position was guaranteed of election; the second position on the Coalition ticket went to the National Party and the third was vulnerable to the vagaries of preferences.

Conservatives supported Bishop and the moderates Puplick; the moderates were being routed in Victoria and were under pressure across the nation. Abbott was a preselector and tore into Puplick with such ferocity that he became flustered, particularly on Puplick's support for gay issues such as HIV funding. The genteel NSW Liberals had never seen anything like it but they rewarded Bishop with the winnable spot, mainly because the moderates did not respond in kind to Abbott's provocations.

Abbott did the dirty work for Bishop and Howard. The right had no love for the relatively moderate Greiner-Fahey state government and people like Abbott made life difficult for it within its own ranks. It is telling that Howard had the clout to get his man into Warringah in 1994 while Hewson didn't, and couldn't play the internal party game; it's one of the reasons why Hewson never made it to the Lodge and Howard did. Abbott went into his first preselction with a sizeable chunk of votes in his pocket not despite, but because of, all that dirty work. It is genuinely amazing that Marr omitted this.

It is a real weakness of political history - particularly when written by journalists - that one minute someone joins a party and the next the party bestows their most prized offices and emoluments, lending a sense of inevitability to a process subject to duckshoving and luck. Marr was a journalist during this time, he had to be aware of it and it would not be hard to find Liberals who worked more closely with and against Abbott to talk about his role in the party.

After he became an MP Abbott would have watched at close quarters as Howard went through the Liberal Party like a dose of salts in 1995-96. This was the price the party paid for his leadership and the prospect of power. As leader, Abbott hasn't transformed the Liberal Party in his own image to anything like the extent that Howard did. Abbott was a happy spear-carrier for the right but he never led it. People like David Clarke call the shots; never has Abbott disagreed with them and carry the day. This is hugely significant as to Abbott's hold on his party's leadership.

Humanae Vitae

That factional warfare gave rise to this. People thought that was out of character too, because they weren't paying attention. My patience with Abbott's verbal binge-and-purge approach ended there, and so did my ability to regard his supporters as mugs and/or shits. Marr didn't mention this episode at all, and it (along with Foyle's article) complicates Marr's thesis about Abbott being a ratbag at uni who later matured.

Abbott refrained from making similar comments when Labor MPs Nick Sherry and Greg Wilton attempted suicide, but this should be a basic measure of humanity rather than a special concession on his part (Abbott is not entitled to be judged by his own standards). His condolences to the Prime Minister on the death of her father are niggardly to say the least.

When I first found out many years ago that Abbott's father was a dentist, this was the first thing that came to mind. Never mind that nice house at Killara, David, or the various organs of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church; Abbott has simply been badly raised.

Joe de Bruyn and anti-materialism

Latter-day conservatives in the Liberal Party consider that moderates have no place in that party. Any moderate objection to the conservative agenda was met with a chorus of "Why don't you go and join the Labor Party?". Abbott used to do this most enthusiastically to me and other moderates. This simple binary approach belies Liberal conservatives' close relationship with Labor's conservatives.

Marr identifies Joe de Bruyn as having encountered Abbott at school but ignores him thereafter. This is a mistake, particularly for someone who professes to examine the interface between religion and politics in this country.

During the Howard ascendancy of 1995-96, de Bruyn built back-channel relationships with Liberal conservatives; especially Howard, Abbott and Kevin Andrews. Unlike other interest groups the union movement cannot openly work well with both major parties, so any relationships it has with the Coalition must be covert. After he left the portfolio Peter Reith and others have argued that there was much to be done in workplace relations reform, and one major reason why Abbott and Andrews did so little was because de Bruyn made it clear to them that any such initiatives were unacceptable to him.

On other issues, de Bruyn is active in Liberal circles and acts to support Abbott, especially on those issues where the Vatican line is engaged. He intervened with conservatives for Abbott in the debate over RU486 against Labor's then Shadow Health Minister Julia Gillard (those who are amazed that Prime Minister Gillard, a lefty lawyer from Melbourne, won't support gay marriage would be less amazed if they understood de Bruyn better). It is a cop-out for Marr and his entire profession to simply label de Bruyn "shadowy" and/or ignore him altogether.

In this interview (at 13:28 - 14:03) Marr claims the role of conservatives is to keep the price of labour low, and that the DLP don't do this.

De Bruyn works with two of Australia's biggest companies and most significant employers, Coles and Woolworths, to keep labour costs down, down and to limit industrial disputes. The combination of labour cost reduction with Catholic principles is significant in disdaining the materialism on which trade unionism is built. Marr observes Abbott's personal lack of materialism, but fails to mention how this flows through to his regularly expressed scorn for people who band together and carry on for the sake of a few extra bucks. He never supports campaigns for higher wages other than those for MPs. If you're going into Abbott's record and projecting it forward onto what an "Abbott Government" might look like, anti-materialism as an impulse to keeping wages low is a misunderstanding of how what used to be known as Groupers operate today.

You can over-egg the Abbott-de Bruyn relationship, and to be fair de Bruyn operates in a way where he leaves very few traces that journalists can detect. His impact is so significant that Marr tells half a story when he labours the DLP-Santamaria aspect of Abbott but then ignores de Bruyn, who is a latter-day Santamaria in many respects.

Craig Thomson

Craig Thomson was Federal Secretary of the Health Services Union from 2002 to 2007. Tony Abbott was Federal Minister for Health from 2003 to 2007.

Given that Abbott was the sort of minister who'd work with a wide range of stakeholders to get things done, according to Marr, he and Thomson would have worked together at various points over some years - including during the period when HSU member funds were allegedly being misused.

As a political animal, Abbott must have been aware that Thomson was targeting what was then a marginal Liberal seat. He must have been able to pick up indications, however subtle, across the political divide that Thomson had baggage.

For most of this term of Parliament the Coalition have targeted Thomson. It is unlikely that any Coalition MP or camp-follower knows Thomson better than Abbott. Abbott led the attack on Thomson and even, in a simulacrum of magnanimity, suggested that Thomson resign for the sake of his family (which, if Thomson had resigned, may well have made Abbott Prime Minister by now). It is hard to imagine what more the Coalition could have done to ramp up the pressure on Thomson, yet he remains an obstacle to Abbott's ambitions.

This isn't some facile point that Craig and Tony used to work together and now they don't: that's politics, baby. The question here goes to Abbott's judgment. He decided that Thomson was Labor's weak link, he decided that the Coalition's road to government was over Thomson's political body, and this tactic hasn't been as successful as Abbott and others might have hoped.

"the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years"

Marr said that Abbott is "the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years". This is one of those mantras of the Canberra press gallery whose adoption is almost a price of admission to that institution, and facilitates the groupthink by which it operates.

Marr doesn't define what success means in that position. Given the high standards and competitiveness of the major parties, you would have to say that a successful Opposition Leader is one who becomes Prime Minister. Here are some Federal Opposition Leaders with a better track record than the incumbent:
  • Malcolm Fraser became Opposition Leader in February 1975 and was Prime Minister within ten months. He led the Coalition to the two biggest electoral majorities ever.
  • The winner of the third-biggest election victory in our history, John Howard, took 14 months to go from being elected his party's leader to the Lodge (yes, yes, he had another four years or so in the 1980s).
  • Kevin Rudd became Opposition Leader in December 2006 and was Prime Minister a year later.
  • Bob Hawke achieved the same feat within a month.
  • Billy Snedden became a laughing stock for refusing to concede that the Coalition had lost the 1974 election. Even so, he led his party to set the parliamentary conditions that saw a popular and reforming government turfed out. He was a "political animal" at uni and was rude to the incumbent Prime Minister in the House.
  • Kim Beazley led Labor to 51% of the two-party-preferred vote in 1998: yet we all agree that Labor lost that election while Abbott's result in 2010 is a "near victory", whatever that means.
Being at best the seventh-best Opposition Leader doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

Going back further than forty years, Abbott has a lot in common with his co-religionist Arthur Calwell: a record as a minister that belied a hardline set of beliefs, an authentic representative of an aspect of his party that is no less attractive to the public for that, and a leader who got lucky in his first election from which it was all downhill. Mosman Town Hall is in Abbott's electorate.

In word and deed

You can only accept the claims by Greg Sheridan and Gerard Henderson that criticism by Marr and others of Abbott is "anti-Catholic" if you assume that Abott's every word and deed is done to advance the word of the Lord and the Church. Good luck with that.

The organisation that Abbott leads is looking to increase its numbers in Parliament, while Sheridan's employer is looking to cut staff. Mateship aside, Sheridan's shrieking about Abbott must constitute something of an audition for redundancy. If I were responsible for putting names to job-reduction targets at News Ltd, Sheridan would be top of mind.

Redemption and forgiveness

There was a time when such appalling behaviour would see a chap blackballed from clubs and other institutions of the elite. Clearly this hasn't happened to Abbott, and in this regard too perhaps he should be grateful for living in an age free of the social rigidities he would seek to (re-)impose.

Abbott may insist on a fresh start, but this does not mean he has to be given one. Expecting forgiveness to follow from confession without the drudgery of introspection and atonement may be as Catholic as all get out, and certainly the media seem prepared to cut him plenty of slack. There is, however, real doubt that everyone accepts Abbott's insistence as much as the Catholic church or the Canberra press gallery do. In this disconnect will Abbott's fate be sealed.

In a recent episode of ABC Radio National's Sunday Extra, one of Australia's most professional trolls made the following observations (at 14:33):
... reciprocity, that is ... [almost two minutes of drivel as he marshals his thoughts, then] I turn up to work on time, I do a good job, I expect you [the government and other 'élites', strangely not including him] to do the same.
He used that to imply that Australians were basically conservative and that they would therefore reject the incumbent government. Here's why (in line with his patchy record of success) this guy lacks the ability to make the link and make it stick.

Tony Abbott has gotten away with it all his life. The vandalism and violence as a youngster, the leer and swagger, all show a man who cares not a whit for the opinion of anyone else and is supremely convinced that everything he does is right and good (or if not, that he'll get away with that too). Gillard at least takes people seriously, and the education and NDIS initiatives provide proof of that.

Abbott has done all the learning he is going to do, and if people don't accept the scraps of contrition he tosses out from time to time then to hell with them. Such an unstable man cannot deliver the stability in government that conservatives crave, and that conservatives need to convince voters of if they are to form government. That's why he relies so heavily on Howard Veneer; and he'll thank lefties like David Marr not to probe it too hard and rake over old ground, thanks very much.

13 September 2012

Profoundly out of character

Should one incident, many years ago, denied by one of the two parties involved, be enough to disqualify someone from the Prime Ministership? No.

Should that incident give rise to a repeated pattern of both violence and cover-ups? Yes, it should disqualify Tony Abbott from the Prime Ministership.

It is a fact that Barbara Ramjan alleged Tony Abbott threatened her in 1977, and it is a fact that Abbott has (later) denied doing so. It appears to be true that there were no witnesses to this event. Both of these facts appear in David Marr's Quarterly Essay Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, with direct quotes from both Ramjan and Abbott. The wording of Abbott's quasi-denial (on page 17) is significant:
"It would be profoundly out of character had it occurred".
Out of character, you say.

Greg Sheridan stakes everything on Abbott's character. It is interesting that he places such great credence on the word of Jeremy Jones and then fails to quote him directly, leaving the reader hoping that Sheridan has summarised Jones fairly. According to Sheridan, it is not enough for Abbott to be a man of high character in himself; someone else, in Manichean terms, must be made out to be less than he appears:
Marr claims that in 1977, when Abbott was defeated for the presidency of the Student Representative Council by Barbara Ramjan, he went up to her, came within an inch of her nose and punched both sides of the wall beside her as an act of intimidation.

Marr records Abbott's denial of this but says he, Marr, believes the incident took place as described by Ramjan. Marr is wrong. And this mistake reflects his overall sloppiness as a journalist, failure as a historian and distorting bias as a polemicist ...

Abbott was my best friend at that time ... I remember the night in question quite well. No such incident was ever discussed by Abbott or by anyone else in his circle. It is utterly inconceivable.

Marr could have found this out if he were a competent historian.
Found what out? Found out that Abbott's friends support him, and that Ramjan's support her? That sort of thing might pass for EXCLUSIVE at the Daily Murdoch but it's not much chop in itself.

Marr described an incident between two people: one described what happened and the other denied it (and apparently neglected to discuss it with his muckers). There were apparently no witnesses to the encounter itself apart from the two protagonists. Marr sets out the facts and declares his judgment: a reader who was not there on the night in question is free to come to a conclusion other than the one Marr reached.

Marr was not obliged to hijack a wider story by rounding up a posse of non-witnesses to vouch for the general character of either protagonist in a single event that may or may not support conclusions on the general character of a man with more power and responsibility than the whole of the Sydney Uni SRC put together.

Sheridan's attack on Marr's journalism, historianship etc seems like a lunge for some objective quality in a subjective dispute (and criticising a polemicist for being biased and even distorting is to misunderstand what a polemicist is, whether or not Marr is one).

What might have happened if Abbott had confessed to Sheridan of having committed an act of violence, or if Sheridan had witnessed such an event, and Abbott had then asked Sheridan - for the sake of their friendship - not to tell anyone? In the sky-high dudgeon of his wouldn't-hurt-a-fly routine Sheridan has not denied Abbott's assault of Joe Hockey: Hockey himself has admitted it, and there were plenty of witnesses. Sheridan protests a little too much.

Sheridan has since been refuted, if not negated, by fellow Bulletin alumnus Lindsay Foyle referring to a separate incident.

Marr sets out a pattern of behaviour where Abbott trashes - physically, verbally and otherwise metaphorically - those with whom he disagrees, particularly if they are women. You could probably find people who regularly attended Sydney Uni SRC meetings chaired by Ramjan who'd deny that Abbott ever addressed her as "Chairthing" (if Sheridan was an investigative journalist, rather than one whose only forays into investigative journalism involve a feed and claret on Rupert's coin, he'd be on that case now).

Look at the way Gillard and Roxon ran rings around him as his shadow minister, and how they make him mope and snarl today, how he doesn't respect them enough to engage with them.

If you've been in and around politics a while you have seen crises come and go, and you develop a bit of a hide to get you through and realise that even big-seeming crises can pass without a ripple. The trouble is that after a while, you can't tell when things have built up slowly to the point where "just another straw in the wind" is the one that ends up breaking the camel's back. Howard ended up like that in 2007. Abbott may be approaching that point.

Andrew Peacock and Kim Beazley Jr spent their careers as Tomorrow's Man, until one day they woke as Yesterday's Man, without ever having the days as The Man that Fraser, Hawke and others had. Tony Abbott is headed that way. If the government dusts off this campaign from 2004, hoisting him by the petard that finished his brother-from-another-mother Latham, Abbott won't make it to the next election as leader. The Liberals will dump him as leader not because of any abhorrence of violence against women, but because he's becoming an impediment rather than a facilitator and leader of a Coalition Government.

Dennis Shanahan became a laughing stock throughout 2007, predicting that Howard would turn those bad polls around; like a longer-form version of watching a man fall from a plane, Shanahan was predicting that the parachute would open any moment now, any moment; when Howard bit the dust Shanahan alone could not believe it, and he has stumbled through Canberra incredulously ever since. With Shanahan still there, and Christopher Pearson and Sheridan and a few others, The Australian has more than its fair share of staff who look like being surplus to requirements once it becomes clear that there ain't gonna be an Abbott Government.

It's one thing to watch Abbott at a stunt for journalists, who lap up whatever he dishes out; but when people flinch when he waddles toward them in what Abbott and the press regard as a marginal seat (but which locals regard simply as their community) it will be all over.

It's the cover-ups that get me: the petty vandalism here, the offences not recorded and written off as youthful hi-jinks there. When he became a man he should have put away such childish things, but over time the protection of Abbott from consequences that have put him in the position where he simply can't be trusted with important stuff.

The let-Tony-be-Tony crowd have done him no favours, and those that remain inside his bunker must realise they are doing the party and the country no favours either. It must be like Howard's office in 2007 (the old stagers from those days have no excuse not to know what political death smells like) - except it's one thing to go from government to opposition, but where do you go from opposition?

Tony Abbott was never going to be brought down by a single, sharp blow, the way you'd take out a feral boar with a shottie. This is why the who-said-or-did-what-in-1977 will be fruitless for friend and foe alike (even for someone like Sheridan, whose favourite game is zero-sum). What will bring Abbott down is getting stuck in a bog of implausible denials and ill-considered statements and hollow promises; where the daily cycle still spins but no longer fully rinses.

Although he's not finished yet, Abbott has fewer options than his fans imagine. Those who believe Abbott is big enough to shrug off difficulties of this degree have never really seen him do so.