29 November 2012

To break a dealmaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 November 2012

The story that killed the story

The idea that Prime Minister Gillard did something dodgy in relation to legal arrangements for some sub-factional entity within the AWU back in the day had been a big story. Nothing of substance has been newly revealed about this matter for months, yet it continues to chew up prime space on the nation's news - not for the story that it was, but for the story it might have become. As with Peter Slipper's texting and Craig Thomson's alleged rorting-'n'-rooting, this has been another non-story that has dragged on and on - putting the lie to the idea that anything might be considered "old news" or "not significant enough for a serious news outlet like ours".

Any questions that might have hovered over the PM have been put to rest by this (Thanks to @Tadlette for taking the screenshot and providing me with a copy). There is now no more story, no cause for whipping up insignificant events from almost two decades ago and pretending they form a basis for news. That story has killed the story.

Let's leave aside the fact that the headline refers to the Prime Minister by her given name, in the way they never did with Kevin or John or Paul or Bob. Back in the day there were occasional references to "Mal" as an attempt to familiarise an aloof character, and "Gough" and "Billy" were only referred to thus after they had left office.

Let's leave for others the questions over the integrity of those who accuse raise legitimate questions make mountains out of molehills. Let's go instead to the political tactics at the core of this sleaze campaign, of which who paid for Blewitt's flight is but a mere detail. I laughed at the photo montage insisting that Gillard was a "key player" when the story shows she isn't. The story has been changed since I first linked to it. News Ltd later altered the story to this, so that they could keep the story going.

Julie Bishop, the Shadow Foreign Minister, had carriage of this line of attack upon the Prime Minister. Bishop is an experienced lawyer; she's had cases die on her before today. When she acted for CSR against Wittenoom victims, her central and apparently sole tactical maneuver seemed to be to wait for plaintiffs to die. She's brought the same level of savvy to this high-stakes affair, going into a knife-fight armed with a plastic splayd.

She is up an environmentally-unfriendly creek without means of propulsion, and has nobody to blame but herself for not having spoken with Wilson drectly. Her predecessor as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Peter Costello, would never have allowed himself to be caught out to the extent that Bishop has. She is no use to her leader at all. She is never going to get Mal Washer to shut up about asylum-seekers now, never going to stitch together any sort of deal on wheat or any other important domestic issue, and will never be regarded in Jakarta or Geneva or anywhere else as anything more than a punchline. She's finished.

To understand the depth and breadth of her failure, let us compare-and-contrast her to another nasty, sand-groping, flamed-out Liberal.

Recently Wilson Tuckey made life difficult for Bishop over wheat - once again, getting involved without leading, and leaving no trace of or scope for a positive outcome for anyone. If he had really wanted to wig Bishop out, Tuckey should have pointed to his own silly face and said: look at me, Julie, I am your future.

In 1986 Wilson Tuckey seized on reports that the then Treasurer, Paul Keating, had been sued for breach of contract by a former fiancee. He had meant to use a schoolboy jeer, "Paul had a little girl called Christine", but in the heat of the moment he transposed the names and looked stupid. Paul Keating tore Tuckey several new ones, cementing his reputation as a tough guy and Tuckey's as a sleazebag. Keating then famously turned to Tuckey's then-leader, John Howard, and promised that Howard would wear his leadership like a crown of thorns; nailing both the attacker and the leader who had pretended to be above it all.

Tuckey sealed his reputation when he boasted on Four Corners of lying to Howard in 1989 while dumping him as Liberal leader. About a decade later, Tuckey called Kim Beazley "a fat so-and-so", and Beazley's popularity shot up. Tuckey never made it into Cabinet; the insult to Beazley had more impact than any policy measure he implemented as Minister for - um, whatever, trees I think. Tuckey spent thirty years in our parliament and achieved less for the public in nett terms than almost all current and former local councillors, schoolteachers, emergency service workers, cleaners, or shiny-bum clerks. Remember that when you hear that politics is the highest form of public service.

If Tuckey had held his seat in 2010, Julie Bishop would now be in Cabinet and Julia Gillard would not.

Julie Bishop is as exposed as Tuckey was, except he had no reputation for niceness or diplomacy to lose as Bishop has. If the government went after Bishop there would be a bit of half-hearted chivalry from Abbott and Hockey, but it would be a deeper wound for the Liberals than yet another barrage against Abbott. Bishop, remember, is the Liberals' most substantive appeal to female voters. This time yesterday she was the nice one, the brains of the Coalition outfit. The day before, Abbott engaged in a, um, ah, piss-poor attempt at, um, insisting that the PM answer questions, ah, without, um, articulating what those questions might be. This attack has happened on Abbott's watch and Abbott must pay for its failure; but cutting his deputy out from under him would be the sort of gut-wound that neither Abbott nor his party could salve, let alone heal.

I would now expect The Australian (Financial Review) to set up a webcam at Cheviot Beach, just incase 104-year-old Harold Holt emerges from the surf and wants his old job back. This is every bit as valid a story as the Wilson-Blewitt AWU thing. Politically, Holt is a proven election-winner and wrote the book on being a loyal deputy - and his future is every bit as bright as that of Julie Bishop. Given that the Perth legal market has changed beyond recognition since Bishop left for Canberra in 1998, she could do worse than waddle up and down Cottesloe Beach getting Life After Failure tips from the Bond family.

23 November 2012

The unauthorised voice

I have a right to be heard and so do you. This is a democracy and you have the right to have your voice heard. Having your voice listened to is quite another matter. Political parties used to provide a vehicle for aggregating the voices of (reasonably) like-minded citizens. Paula Matthewson unwittingly identifies another reason for party membership to dry up in terms of numbers and ideas: the rise of a professional political class, of which she is a member, trumping genuine community activism and replacing it with synthetic polls and cynical astroturfing.

Even the most deeply felt, widely held and well-researched ideas on policy were quietly strangled by the likes of Grahame Morris and Bruce Hawker, with their half-baked soundings of talkback radio. Matthewson makes sweeping assertions about a technology where preferences are shaped by the user: she reveals a lot about her preferences and less about Twitter itself. Her "echo chamber" thing is pretty funny when you consider she blocked me for offering different views to hers.

Matthewson ignores the similarities between talkback and Twitter to the detriment of her argument. Outrage over introspection? Yep. Toward the end of her piece her argument runs away with itself, not unlike the very Twitter memes she criticises:
What did Twitter actually do to find Jill Meagher? The same as it did to stop Kony: not much other than generate a lot of clicks. It has subsequently done nothing to make the streets safer at night, and some elements of Twitter have even campaigned against expansion of the CCTV system that ultimately helped to locate the missing journalist.
This would invite satire ("Twitter killed my dog! Twitter ate my lunch! Twitter made my girlfriend drop me for another man!") were it not for the core fact someone has died, and that Matthewson dismissed the event in an attempt to get at social media.

Social media (of which Twitter is one aspect) ensured that Jill Meagher was not just another missing-person statistic. Her disappearance heightened awareness of violence in the area where she went missing, an area where such events were rife. Reported acts of violence have declined despite Matthewson's idle claims to the contrary. As to "some elements of Twitter" (by this she means "some individuals") disagreeing with others? Well, you never get that on rigidly moderated talkback radio, or in the so-called "message discipline" of the politico-media environment in which she operates, so imagine her surprise.
What did Twitter do to make Alan Jones stop being disrespectful to the Prime Minister and other women? Other than provide a rallying point for people to voice their displeasure and threaten consumer boycotts, Twitter did nothing to change Jones' chauvinism, or discredit it in the eyes of his audience.
What did you expect: develop an app that would clap a hand over his gob and say to him "I know what you're about to say, so don't cost yourself and your station millions of dollars and shut your trap"?

Social media didn't just threaten Jones, the warning shots went straight to his hip-pocket nerve: Matthewson either knows this or wasn't paying attention. She has, curiously, paid much greater attention to talkback radio than to Twitter, a sign of confusion among a political class with little feeling for those they purport to govern.
Admittedly, Twitter did rally to protect whistleblower Peter Fox from attempts to demolish his reputation.
Some "elements" did, the better ones.

She doesn't really believe that because it doesn't fit her overall argument. She did it because of this strong and clever piece of journalism, bringing together a range of known facts to make a case that challenges what we thought we knew. Matthewson's piece flinches before and slides around the points made by Smith, but the real audience for it is not you or me but the new editor of The Drum, Chip Rolley.

Rolley is not going to publish the work of an irregular contributor unless it is anodyne and does not ruffle the feathers of in-house ABC people to the point where it becomes difficult for him to hold his own at staff drinks functions, thanks very much. His current post is but another rung on a ladder of all-care-no-responsibility schmoozing roles, like Leo Schofield without taste or wit, and he won't have much truck with Unauthorised Voices - even if the future of his industry depended on it. He'll notice you when you walk through his "open door" and schmooze him, just as if he were editor of The Australian Women's Weekly or Quadrant or Today Tonight.

There have been calls for a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse for decades. Those calls are no less urgent for Matthewson and Rolley ignoring them, for the sheer affrontery of their being Unauthorised (those who protect the perpetrators don't want for Authority, as well as public and covert influence). History will discredit John Howard for not calling one in 2003 after the disgrace of Governor-General Hollingworth, no matter what Matthewson might say about "Howard Haters". Social media brought it forward and imposed the idea onto both a government and an opposition that had other priorities, and which were both disinclined to co-operate with the other. Neither talkback radio or GetUp can claim credit for that.

What is "the Twitter collective" of which she writes? Once you realise the very idea is bogus, and that her echo chamber (and Rolley's) must be yours too, her argument becomes so frail that it only works for those with no actual experience of Twitter or other forms of social media.

She could have at least had the good grace to point out that the founder of GetUp is moving on to old-school political activism of running for parliament. If the Greens do win a Senate seat in the ACT it will almost certainly be at the expense of Liberal Senator Gary Humphries, whose re-election is complicated by Abbott's promise to sack 12,000 to 20,000 public servants.
Effective campaigns deliver votes, change minds or influence behaviour. When Twitter starts producing these types of outcomes it will be making a real difference. And that's when we'll be able to tweet "Thanks Twitter!" without it being the ultimate act of self-parody.
Depends who you mean by "we", really, and to whom the votes are delivered. Twitter people are well-informed people, while old-school politico-media types tend to be about the fudge and the spin. Matthewson's piece reminds me of similar efforts from between the World Wars, where opinionistas mocked the early sputtering days of horseless carriages by comparison with the noble steed. The failure of imagination to the point of please-ambush-me vulnerability is hilarious, all the more so for being unintended.

Social media allows for the proliferation of Unauthorised Voices. Political professionals disdain social media but the smarter ones keep an eye on it. Once social media starts jamming the gears of some big wheels, the smarter ones like Matthewson will present themselves as having power over these media - Matthewson has a high Klout score, a blog and a strong Twitter presence. The mockery is appropriate to some fuddy-duddy who disdains what they do not know, but you can't be that engaged without knowing the disconnect between the front presented to Drum readers and the deft handling across various platforms in pursuit of issues important to her.

With pieces like this, Matthewson illustrates a let-them-eat-cake disconnect by the political class with those who pay taxes and are subject to the regulations for which she lobbies. Focus groups or polling can be more or less illustrative, but cannot really help advocates of narrow interests to appreciate more general, longer term interests.

19 November 2012

Liberals afraid of ideas

There was a time when people would join the Liberal Party as a way of making their concerns felt, and having a more direct, active and ongoing input into government decision-making than was the case merely by voting every few years. Under Tony Abbott, the party's policy-generation capacity has been exhausted. Liberals are actually afraid of ideas.

Earlier today Abbott announced a proposal for a Productivity Commission inquiry into childcare. This is not the same as announcing a policy on childcare. It is not the same as having a clear idea about what people need from childcare. Even if there was a bit of barrow-pushing from childcare providers, that would be a sign of life in policy terms.

Margie Abbott endorsed Abbott's statement but it was not clear what, in childcare policy terms or in actual outcomes, she was endorsing. It wasn't clear how her experience was being put to good use. Jeanette Howard or Therese Rein would have gleefully pointed out something that she had a hand in making happen, and then retreated back to the shadows; the expression on Margie Abbott's couldn't have been any more strained if she had a revolver jabbed between her shoulderblades.

I have two children aged under five: an announcement about childcare cuts through the static. In Abbott's announcement was, however, pretty much static. With "labour market flexibility", you need to be able to drop your kids off at childcare outside as and when required, rather than being locked in to a set number of days for a set number of weeks as per current policy. The childcare centre that Margie Abbott runs at St Ives opens no earlier than 8.30 am and closes at 3.30 pm - utterly useless for anyone who works full time. Even to speak of "labour market flexibility" would require Abbott to deal with workplace reform, the third rail of conservative politics. It's easier for him to hide behind the grey cardigan of the Productivity Commission than take such a stand.

At least Abbott's announcement knocked this into a cocked hat. As I said at the time - scroll down to the comments and search for my name - Josh and Alan are just another couple of Canberra elitist shinybums with no idea about childcare/early childhood education.

Other "announcements" of this type include:
  • A Working Group to Grow Tasmania,comprised of people who have contributed nothing so far and offer little going forward, by contrast with specific and costed bandwagon-jumping measures for infrastructure in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne;
  • A Working Group on Red Tape, featuring career public servants, which ignores the prospect of software overcoming "pages and pages of documents";
  • On foreign language teaching, there is a bit of an imperative to "work urgently with the states to ensure", but nothing at the tertiary or primary levels;
  • Simultaneously welcoming and discouraging foreign investment in agriculture;
  • When it comes to marine park assessment, there is a lot of Canberra-shinybum activity; private member bills here and committees there, and referrals, as well as advice that is supposed to be "independent" (of what? of whom?), as though marine scientists grow on trees. As though an Abbott government would respect a scientific opinion he didn't like.
These committees have increased in number at the very time when doubts have been aired from within Coalition ranks as to the nature and quality of its leadership, and whether the incumbents are best placed to lead them to government. When you understand the imperative to create make-work schemes for restive Canberra shinybums, you understand how red tape grows and how hard it can be to cut it back. They aren't taking input from Liberal branches either.

Peter van Onselen decries formerly moderate Liberals for neither departing public life or making bigger targets for his employer. He starts with a bit of duff taxonomy:
The first barrier to moderate tendencies again securing a say within the Liberal Party is the rise of the non-ideological, marginal-seat MP. They are tribal warriors who know little about why they joined the Liberal Party, other than they dislike the ALP. Normally they are dissatisfied with the government of the day, or would not have been able to win preselection for the other side because they weren't in a trade union.
Really? Looking at this list of Liberal MPs, with the most marginal ones at the top of the list, few actually fit this bill. Most seem to have entered parliament when the Howard government was in office - so much for Labor dissatisfaction. Many newbie MPs on that list, such as Alan Tudge (Aston, V) or George Christensen (Dawson, Q), have long records of political activism that belie van Onselen's attempts to label them political blow-ins.
Perhaps having dabbled in small business, usually unsuccessfully (why else would they transition into politics)
Oh come on: Russell Broadbent (McMillan, V) ran a successful furniture business on Melbourne's outskirts. The three most marginal Coalition seats are held by former public servants. Liberal MPs with a background in small business have usually been successful for a long time and looking for a change in direction, not minding either the decline or steadiness of income. There are aberrations - the less said about Craig Kelly the better, and I disdain ex-staffers who go into lobbying as 'businesses' worth the name.

The Liberals have run out of new ideas. The central weakness of conservatism is that it cannot distinguish fads from lasting change. If the moribund party organisation is stuffed with lobbyists, whose agendas fill the space where local people's policy ideas used to be, then politicians will be less beholden to their communities than ever. Politics will become an apprenticeship for a career in lobbying, where representing general interests merely sharpens skills and builds contacts for representing small-scale interests. Nobody will be able to say "Thanks, Liberal Party!" for future policies with which they agree, because it has become a hollowed-out vehicle loaded by others rather than a political force in itself.

Now that the Gillard government looks less likely to lose by default, the Liberals will have to redouble their focus on state governments or else start the hard work of rebuilding for 2016. There are questions about the extent to which the straw men named by van Onselen can or will be part of that, as they all share the dread of repeating the ideological brawls of the 1980s and '90s.

Policies show that a party is listening and thinking, that it is comprised of people who are citizens before they are partisans. The Liberals sneered at Rudd in 2007 for promising to "hit the ground reviewing". Abbott is promising much the same except he isn't a kinder-gentler version of anything or anyone. At the 2013 election he is on track to hit the wall, not the ground. The Coalition won't be reviewing - they'll be recoiling and recriminating.

A political party that does not generate and stick by its own ideas will go the way of the Democrats, unelected and unmissed, because there are real issues that demand the focus that they lack.

11 November 2012

An economist at sea

Christopher Joye is an outstanding economic commentator. His pieces for The Australian Financial Review on economics reveal deep understanding and broad reading on economic matters, like this one; he's not afraid to irritate those who need to be irritated. His writing is generally courteous to the point of being old-fashioned. His pieces on matters other than economics are, unfortunately, not of the same standard - and worse, they are becoming increasingly frequent.

Take this piece for example. It's stupid. It looks sensational and got a lot of attention on Twitter, particularly from people who like Joye's economics stuff and who assume - wrongly - that he can turn his hand to reporting any old thing. A closer reading reveals Joye basically interviewed one superannuated rear-admiral and simply transcribed what he said, Latika Bourke-style, without really thinking about it but padding out the word-count.

Joye got this story, drilling into the inner reserve of substantive thought on the part of the Coalition, through his connections with the Coalition. His parents were mates with Malcolm Turnbull and Joye recently wrote a puff-piece on Hockey that make him seem safe to a bunch of people every bit as paranoid about the media as the government.

It would be stupid for the Royal Australian Navy to adopt nuclear submarines. It's not even a new idea. Joye has no excuse to take this crap on face value.

He's an economist. Building a nuclear enrichment and processing capability for military purposes would take vast amounts of money and considerable amounts of human resources at all levels of skill and training; more than are available at present to a short-staffed navy either as crew or on-shore maintenance.

He's a resident of Sydney's eastern suburbs. Not even the sort of government led by Abbott, careening between the inadequate and the insane, would install nuclear maintenance facilities at Garden Island (which is in the eastern suburbs) or at the submarine base at HMAS Platypus (which is just across the harbour from the eastern suburbs, in Hockey's electorate) Stirling, in Perth. There would have to be a new nuclear submarine facility set up somewhere far from Sydney Harbour or Perth - but not so far that it would be taken out by a first strike like northern Australian port cities were by the Japanese in 1942, or so unpleasant that nobody but pusser die-hards would want to work there.

He shouldn't have to wait for the Premier of South Australia, of all people, to put out a press release to examine the sorts of issues raised in this.

And so it falls to me, a blogger with meagre qualifications in history and IT, to do the economic analysis work on this proposal that Joye (a professional, highly-regarded economist with a PhD in economics) has neglected to do:
  • First, the next government is going to spend billions of dollars building and securing military nuclear facilities; and then
  • Secondly, they are going to recruit, train and equip a workforce to operate these bad boys; and
  • Thirdly, junk their whole cautious budget approach (fewer tax receipts and additional spending commitments notwithstanding), because the whole country will appreciate this bit of infrastructure just as much as some old rear-admiral does; and
  • The Treasurer who will do this will be the one whose constituents (and indeed whose family) live not far from the sub base; and finally
  • Only if we write off the enormous start-up costs and wildly underestimate operating costs will nuclear-powered submarines make any sort of economic sense.
Yeah, that will work. Put it out there Chris, the punters will love that. The very sort of thing to send AFR circulation and credibility skyrocketing. We can bash Gillard for failing to implement a not-very-good idea from fifty years ago, because that's how we make the Fin relevant in today's competitive market.

There are a whole lot of concerns about nuclear proliferation here too - but I don't care about those, Joye and the people he quotes don't either, and there is no evidence that the government or opposition do. Still, maybe there's a story in it, maybe not.

I can understand Joye being taken in by a retired rear-admiral, and lacking the skill to question him on military matters (in his time as a journalist, Turnbull would have done a bit of a swot and would have been less afraid to put tough questions to the old man). I cannot understand Joye suspending his economic judgment over whether such a proposal was even a good idea. This is how smart people make dumb decisions, not only Joye but his misled readers.
Privately, some defence ministers in Asia support Australia obtaining nuclear-powered submarines because of mounting tensions with China, which has territorial disputes with India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, sources said ...

“Australia would be much better served with nuclear rather than conventional submarines based on our strategic requirements and my experience commanding both,” [Rear-Admiral Clarke] said. “Provided the right questions are asked at the right level, I’d be very surprised if the US did not favourably consider this.”
In that case, they can fucking well pay for them.
Former submariner Rex Patrick, who trains the Australian, Malaysian and Singaporean navies in undersea warfare, says, “Australia’s annual submarine cost is approaching $1 billion. This has given us a pedestrian capability that usually delivers only two deployable boats. For $2 billion, we could build four Type 214s, which would supply navy with a dependable, high-end platform that meets 90 per cent of our requirements.”
The "Type 214s" refers to a German design that is designed for the cold, deep waters of the North Atlantic rather than the warmer and relatively shallower waters to Australia's north. That 10% requirements gap is a worry - to use a journo-cliche, the devil is in the details - and the doubling of expenditure is almost certainly not on.

To depart from Joye - why are submarines so labour-intensive? I accept that submarines are vital elements of Australia's defence, and an area where we - to use the dread phrase - punch above our weight. That said, it is stupid having so many personnel on board each one. Given that there is a dearth of personnel willing to work on submarines, why not turn this into an engineering challenge and have as few people as possible aboard them - or none. Drone submarines! Yes, the ten-year-old I once was smiles at the very idea. Pyow-pyow!

Times probably are tight at the AFR but this is the very point where resources must be put to best use, and no further trashing of the brand must be permitted. Christopher Joye is a fine economics commentator, and options for him to write sensible stories within his scope of competence should not be limited in a so-called financial review. He is the wrong person to allocate to idle non-stories like the submarine thing. Joye will survive as an economic commentator long after desperate and trivial ploys like this (or anything else Mike Stutchbury might do) have played out to nothing, and hopefully Joye will retain the wit and perspective to describe these days of hubris to us all.

Update 12 November: Reader, Joye has blocked me for the above.

He is squirting out articles on how wonderful nuclear submarines are by US academics, where they a) have different maritime priorities to ours and b) their Navy is regularly beaten by ours in tests of best use of submarine technology and c) the US has a mature nuclear power industry and we do not. Still, it exposes an important modus operandi of Joye's: cover up your lack of research by insinuating with People With Impressive Sounding Titles, rather than displaying any scrap of humility and good grace when caught napping.

Joye is out of his depth on journalism covering non-economic matters. He is seduced by all that journo crap of scoops, and of shrugging off/blocking criticism from readers - and even describing his output as a "yarn", giving no confidence as to accuracy. I could use another maritime analogy of rats deserting sinking ships, but Joye is demonstrating the reverse of this: sad, really.

09 November 2012

Honour and good sense

Never give in, never give in; never, never, never, never. In nothing - great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.

- Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, to Harrow School, 1941
Once again, misbehaviour at Sydney University's colleges has hit the news in Sydney, and thus been inflicted on the nation; this time at St John's College. There is, however, something different about the treatment of this issue. The way we look at such antics is different. These places claim to be helping raise the future leaders of our society, and because the society is different then the nature of leadership taught at and by places like St John's has to change.

The ideas behind "initiation ceremonies" at university colleges are as follows:
  • Look, we're all corrupt. Just because you're sweet 16 and never been kissed, doesn't mean we all are. We won't be looked down upon by pure little swots when we're in our cups, so when you're covered in vomit and faeces you're no better than us.
  • If you see anything wrong, shut up. Just shut up.
  • You will exert power over others as a matter of course, and you will be able to pass on the humiliations of this day.
  • Conventional morality is something you inflict on others (e.g. calling women 'whores'), not something you have to practice yourself, and if you play along we'll all stick together so that you don't wear any consequences.
None of those notions are relevant to any sort of leadership today. There are consequences from misjudgments and misbehaviour, and they have an importance that goes beyond mere solidarity or the keeping-up of appearances in which nobody believes any more. If you're a pig in the company of your besties then you're easily led astray, and will be no good to anyone as a team member, let alone as a leader.

Peter FitzSimons illustrates the leadership problem, however unwittingly, with this. He starts out by owning his Fellow Senate thing but ends with a particularly feeble bleat:
Not surprisingly, the worst of the excesses over the years have come from the all-male colleges, as the cocktail of undiluted testosterone mixed with too much alcohol and sudden liberation from school discipline has long been a fraught one.

These places are not mere dormitories as is the case on many American campuses, but wonderfully independent institutions with long histories and great traditions that have produced wonderful citizens who have made great contributions.

They have the capacity to change their own cultures, as we have seen with St Andrew's, particularly, and are now seeing with St John's. They will go on. And prosper. Independently.
"Independently" of what, Peter? Independently of whom? If the University can claim credit for colleges' successes it must also accept blame for the failures, and the legalistic duckshoving that allows the University to claim credit but escape blame is to be scorned. The Vice-Chancellor of the University resents the fact that his institution is being tarnished but there's not a damn thing he can do, so don't you make a show of owning the problem and then cheering your "independence" of it.

Why are those who have supposedly made "great contributions" unable to provide positive leadership to people with names like Benedict Aungles, who may not even survive beyond the rigidly hierarchical institutions like those described by Dickens or J. K. Rowling. You can't hush things up and shut down debate in today's world, and nor can you wait for these things to blow over like they might have in the past.

You just can't, and everybody who says otherwise - however eminent they may seem - is misleading you. They need a new operating model and there is nobody leading them toward what such a model might look like - not even Cardinal Pell:
FIVE Catholic priests quit the council of the elite St John's College last night as the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, and the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, voiced their disgust over the initiation ritual scandal ...

Cardinal Pell said he no longer had confidence that the council was able to fix the problems within the elite college at the university.

The mass resignation of the five priests from the 18-person council has left it powerless to continue to govern. Cardinal Pell called on the government to change the laws governing St John's in a move that could mean the church cedes sole control of the 150-year-old institution.

"Unfortunately, I no longer have confidence in the capacity of the council of St John's College to reform life at the college, despite their goodwill and the dedication of the chairman," he said. "I have therefore requested the priest Fellows of the council to resign."
"Unfortunately" is not the word to use here. This predicament isn't one of fortune, but of neglect.

Pell has the power to order the priests to resign, as the article should have made clear. He clearly has no call or suasion over the other members - none of whom were good enough to provide the sort of leadership that might have saved Georgie Carter from the assumption that those within the walls of the College were smarter than those without. Only later in that badly-edited article do we see that the council cannot operate without at least one priest (and a fat lot of good it did with six of them). Once again, for all their wittering about secularism, it falls to government to bail out a church institution.

The clearest MSM assessment of the current controversy, with its antecedents, is Johnsman Richard Ackland. Ackland** talked about the venerable institution he went to and the desire to fit in, and ends his piece with this:
At St John's the main concern of some of the fellows was the reputation of the young men who had conducted the horrible initiation ceremonies. Not the women who were the victims of their actions.

None of the male students have been rusticated because that might damage their reputations. They should be free to go on to higher things where as leaders they can bring their "values" unimpeded into board rooms, the professions and politics.
It isn't only women who are the victims here. As for "values", nobody seriously believes we are going to see a listed board or a Cabinet full of chundering dickheads yelling abuse at passing women. Ackland is right, however, in indicating that such "values" do not facilitate leadership but actually impede it.

All institutions require sound leadership, and even seemingly robust ones will fail without it. Leadership involves knowing when to introduce new ideas and when to rely on the tried-and-true; knowing what parts of Tradition are useful going forward and which have had their day. What the socialisation of somewhere like St John's does is remove the ability to tell the difference.

The people on the St John's College board are eminent people in their own ways, steeped in the symbolism of the Lord and the Queen and the Pope and all they represent. The fact that they are fighting tooth and nail for a set of pranks that are at best silly and repulsive and at worst deadly. They cannot tell what these traditions are upholding. They think that any weakening of any tradition, however redundant or counterproductive, is a victory for the Secularists and Feminists and Socialists and other sub-species of Barbarian.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are both Johnsmen. Some believe that they are the next Prime Minister and Treasurer of this country. Neither is particularly good at identifying problems when they occur and taking action before they become bigger problems. Both have a fixation on hushing things up which they don't want to be made known. This attitude has become so pervasive that a non-Johnsman like Michelle Grattan shares their conviction that the leak is the big story, while the fact that the Coalition lack ability in economic management or policy direction is somehow beside the point.

Hockey can be forgiven for brushing off student pranks. Neither he nor Bill Shorten can, however, be forgiven for brushing off the much broader and more damaging issue of clerical sexual abuse as they do here. Hockey's record of action (rather than impotent if well-meant sympathy) on behalf of victims of clerical child abuse is not strong enough to sustain a claim that he's only trying to protect the victims.

As for Shorten: imagine if Daniel Grollo was harbouring a nest of pedophiles*, and see if your mealy-mouthed bullshit would be any different.

In recent years we have seen apologies for church-government co-operative policies to take children from their mothers. We have acknowledged such policies as misguided and the perpetuation of such policies as failures of leadership (and when I talk about "we" here, I refer you to set-piece speeches on the record by both Hockey and Shorten. Oh, and Abbott too. Our representatives). Clerical child abuse is another example of this phenomenon, yet Hockey and Shorten and others raised to occupy leadership positions take no action to head off such widespread systemic failure and poo-pooh any attempts to do so.

If that's what it takes, then go drink a bucket of off-milk and dog-food boys, get over yourselves, and show us some leadership.

It is telling that there is a very strong push for people to join corporate boards and judicial placements who would never have set foot in an animal house like that - women, people who speak Asian languages, people with an understanding of the arts - anyone but your bog-standard Johnsman-like output who has been raised to assume that positions of leadership are his thing.

The last word goes to, of all people, the well-meaning and much-undermined Rector of St John's College, Mr Michael Bongers:
Mr Bongers plans to keep confronting the old ways at John's. "There is a wonderful learning experience in this for everyone. But it's not just the whole student community. It's beyond that: the old boy network."

He is not intent on banning every tradition. "They must pass the test of commonsense, of decency, of the laws of the land. You've got to show you are respecting people and that you are respecting property and respecting the reputation of this college."
In other words, it's a question of leadership. Knowing which traditions enhance institutions and which disgrace them. It's a paradox that institutions that traditionally provide our leaders have to change fundamentally in order to continue doing so, but hopefully we can get some leaders who can manage the transition. Michael Bongers has shown more leadership than pretty much every living Johnsman, and this lesson in leadership should be recognised as more than just another journo-led kerfuffle bound to blow over eventually.

* This is a hypothetical example, I make no assertion to this effect.

** Update 10/11/12: I apologise to Richard Ackland for the slander of calling him a Johnsman and thank the commenters below for pointing out my error.

07 November 2012

The Grand Old Praetorians

I wrote an article for the mighty King's Tribune here (but you need to be a subscriber) on US conservative politics, and how a defeat by Mr Romney will most likely encourage rather than discourage them. You can and should support The King's Tribune by clicking this.

02 November 2012

Grist to the mill

By the time wheat makes its way to Sydney it is pretty well processed and refined. It's easy to take it for granted as a commodity and to underestimate the politics involved in making and selling it.

If you want to be Prime Minister, and especially a Coalition Prime Minister, you have to get your head across the politics of wheat. The idea that you should rise to a senior position without having done so is negligent.

Wheat was grown in small and feeble quantities in early Sydney. The Indian strain ruti was grown on a hill to the west of the city that is still known as Rooty Hill, but from which all trace of agriculture has since been lost. When the vast lands to the west of Sydney were exploited by the British it came to be grown in vast quantities; later vast quantities were grown in Western Australia due to subsidies channeled from gold revenue.

Government involvement in wheat-growing took off after the 1930s. It had become one of Australia's key industries and was then labour-intensive. One of the first impacts of the Depression on Australia came with the drying-up of wheat markets, when agents and brokers and other bulk-purchasers went broke and/or slashed their prices, leading to real and immediate impacts on jobs and liquidity generally. Government took over the selling of wheat with the aim of insulating the economy from that degree of shock, offering to pool wheat output and sell it through a "single desk" - with the consequences you'd expect, really, in a neoliberal age.

Firstly, wheat farmers have generally received an even but rarely grand income, as highly regulated as any award employee.

Secondly, the politics of selling wheat has gone way beyond mere hypocrisy and gone into the kind of dissonance that causes mental illness in individuals:
  • Coalition MPs who made bloody denunciations of communism were happy to flog Australian wheat to the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China (until Whitlam the communist regime in Beijing was not recognised as the official government of China, the Guomindang government of Taiwan was regarded as "China");
  • The Howard government sold Australian wheat to Iraq despite UN sanctions against that country. There was a royal commission into the private sector's role in this, but the role of the then government has not been examined to the same extent. I expected the Rudd government to square that circle, but no;
  • When you factor in government involvement in selling Australian innovations such as Synroc and Securency you have to concede that, in certain situations, libertarians have a point.
Basically, wheat farmers in Western Australia want to privatise the profits where prices are high and production is abundant, while wheat farmers toward the east of the country are prepared to stay under government protection to better ride out slumps driven by prices (set by overseas markets and competitors) and production (i.e. droughts, floods etc in Australia). When the government proposed to abolish Wheat Exports Australia (the latest label on the "single desk"), the Coalition found itself wedged:
  • Eastern-states Coalition MPs were instructed to vote to keep the "single desk" in some form, and did so;
  • Tony Crook, whose presence in Coalition ranks was always tenuous, voted with a calmly united Labor in the expressed interests of his constituents;
  • Julie Bishop, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, was mocked by some old has-been in her attempts to get Coalition MPs to all vote one way on the issue, and in a way that embarrassed the government;
  • Mal Washer and Dennis Jensen, two long-serving MPs who had relied on government incomes before entering parliament, decided they would play libertarian in abstaining from voting either with their Coalition colleagues or with the government (if moderates had done this, the Liberal right would have gone apoplectic); and
  • For their (non-)efforts, both were denounced by the Coalition spokesperson on agriculture, John Cobb. Cobb showed his genius for agricultural policy over New Zealand apples. He managed to harvest rural anger when the government banned live cattle exports to Indonesia, without a clear idea what he'd do given the breadth and force of opposition within Australia to Indonesian abattoir practices. Cobb pointed out that Jensen and Washer were not part of "the farming community", by which he means the agrarian socialist shakedown that makes people like him possible. 
Cobb's record of political and policy failure remains intact and ripe for rural independents to take advantage of. More broadly, the Coalition looked like a rabble in the lead-up to that vote, during it, and since in taking it to the government in Question Time (in the hope of uniting people deeply divided on matters of principle and what it means to represent the community's best interests).

Julie Bishop was used to brokering deals among fractious Western Australians, but this just proved too hard. Instead of focusing on policy, and taking the initiative away from the government, she instead focused on reacting to whatever the government did and making MPs toe an increasingly silly line.

MPs representing wheat-growing areas tend not to be party hacks with little direct experience in private-sector production, unlike most Coalition MPs. Simply cracking the whip and making these people do what they are bloody well told was never going to work, and nor would once-talismanic but no longer relevant input from Mark Textor jabbering on about elites. The main political tools of people like Bishop, and Abbott, were completely blunted in the face of a political issue that is, as it were, perennial as the grass.

Since his momentum has been slowed by sexism and misogyny, Abbott has been kept above the fray. The Coalition has realised that there is no further advantage for Abbott in his "junkyard dog" role. Bishop has taken over the role but she is no good at it. Pyne has disappeared from view and this is a good thing, nobody wants to or should have to hear from him. Hockey needs to be Mr Policy Substance but somehow he has been drafted into parliamentary theatre. Having abandoned his frontline role, Abbott sits there like his vision of the monarch: to advise, counsel, and warn.

The trouble for Abbott is that role is taken by Howard. His advice and counsel is not that valuable and his warnings have no impact. He sits in Question Time shuffling through papers like Kevin Rudd in 2007 - Rudd was a much more successful Opposition Leader and Abbott could do worse than emulate him more than he did. The difference is that Rudd probably read those papers, they were less likely to be the empty props that they are for Abbott. He will not become more Prime Ministerial by rising above the fray, but irrelevant in comparison with the hands-on Gillard.

The reason why you work on policy in opposition is that you can deal with "sudden" issues like this, complicated by an additional self-imposed requirement to gainsay whatever the government puts up. The Coalition reacts to events rather than demonstrating their capability in managing them. Pissant compromises are all very well for issues that come and go - but wheat is not an issue that disappears from Australian public life for long. The Abbott-led Coalition is not demonstrating that it is ready for government because it is not ready, therefore its criticisms of the incumbents will lose traction, and the Coalition will not be elected to replace them.