Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Words both old and new

Apologies for the low post count in recent days, but I’m under the hammer to deliver a few new chapters to work. But around the media have been two fascinating pieces: An inside peak into the PM’s inner sanctum at Parliament House, and a Liberal Senators efforts to seek a party resurrection through a return to its history.

As a sign of its confidence, it seems the government is finally willing to allow journalists to have a peak into the way the government operates when in Parliament house. In a long, interesting and yet strangely detail free piece Katharine Murphy spends the day with the PM’s Media Unit. Charting the young ‘alpha males’ (her term) who run the office it’s more west wing than the office, but still leaves them unilluminated.

A few times, walking through, watched furtively by onlookers, flanked by Harris and Kelly, I fancy I’ve fallen into an episode of Entourage. The running joke in the office and among the senior ministers drifting in and out for tactics is I am there to do a profile of Harris. When I mention the Entourage sensation to one person, he immediately casts Harris as ”Turtle” – the wannabe driver to the A-List Hollywood star in the HBO series.

A reception area divides the apparatchiks from the departmental liaison officers, who scurry about in the pre-question time period, and the speechwriters, Tim Dixon and former journalist Maria Hawthorne. The speech-writing pod has a think-tank vibe: there is a designer chair, and Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama look down from walls that are otherwise packed with books. Across from them is a private dining hall, a monstrosity of the 1980s, complete with mirrored panelling. Back a bit is the sitting room, where a television crew from A Current Affair is camped out patiently, waiting for three minutes with Rudd.

Meanwhile, Mark Davis offers up the plan for the Ground Floor ministerial wing as a sure fire guide to who is in and out in the Rudd Government:

Front and centre, naturally, is the PMO – the Prime Minister’s office, an L-shaped suite of offices housing Kevin Rudd and his advisers. Next door is his deputy, Julia Gillard; behind her and also immediately next to the PMO is the Treasurer, Wayne Swan. Across a corridor is the Transport Minister and left-wing factional chief, Anthony Albanese.

But most interesting of all is the location of Mark Arbib, the NSW Right factional chief who became Employment Participation Minister in Rudd’s frontbench reshuffle in June. Arbib is the only junior minister domiciled on the ministerial wing’s ground floor…

Both a worth read for political junkies. Of more substance however is some more media attention for Liberal Senator George Brandis’s efforts to re-cast the history of Australian politics. There is an old saying that winners write the history, which is often interpreted in a military sense: once the fight is done only those left standing will be able to say what happened. But politically it is better seen as ‘those who write the history will be the winners’. Those parties or individuals who ignore or sideline their history are constantly at the mercy of the opposition who will define them in ways they do not seek or enjoy (As John Howard did to Labor for the better part of a decade), Brandis, easily one of the top 2-3 smartest men in parliament is instead turning his gaze on his own party with a rather odd formulation:

In May this year, Brandis lamented that nothing was organised to celebrate the centenary of the fusion – the event on May 27, 1909, when the two non-Labor parties – Alfred Deakin’s Protectionist Party and George Reid’s Free Traders – merged. To Brandis, this was the origin of today’s Liberal Party which, although formally established by Menzies in 1944, has drawn from ”a long Australian tradition of liberal and anti-socialist politics”.

In an subsequent essay for the Spectator magazine, The Party that Forgot its Past, Brandis said the Liberal Party ”did not spring from the mind of Menzies like Athena from the brow of Zeus”. The Liberals risked being a ”one-hero party”, its history the ”veneration of an icon frozen in time”. ”Great though Menzies’ achievement was in reconstructing the non-Labor side of politics, what he created was a new party structure, not a new set of political values.

Brandis raises a good point, though I’m not quite sure its the one he is seeking to make. Brandis is seeking to use this history to re-claim the strong strand of liberalism for the Liberal Party, by reminding them theirs is a history beyond the conservatives Menzies, Fraser and Howard. But instead the story of Fusion best demonstrates that Australian politics is governed not by ideological debates, but by the forces of Labor and Anti-Labor. What unites the non-labor parties has always been what they oppose rather than what they hold in common. Today it is the same story, with the only reason the Nationals have to sit with the Liberals is their united hatred of Labor.

Unfortunately the Spectator piece seems to be down at the moment, but Brandis at least deserves credit for seeking party renewal in the pages of history. Indeed while there are many conservative accounts of Australian history (Kelly’s “The March of Patriots” being the most recent), there is prescious little about the Liberal party and especially Liberalism in Australia. It is a great story un-told (one i’d once planned as a PhD project, and would like to return to one day). If the Liberal party was actually liberal (and smart) it would have men such as Brandis front and center, but it doesn’t leaving him with the free time to speculate on the absent history. A good effort, but likely to be one soon forgotten.