Chasing the Norm

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

The Firing List

Many many years ago, a newly elected young MP walked for the first time into the chamber of parliament and took his seat. He had been placed along side an elder party statesman, and as he sat down for the first time he looked across to the other side of the chamber and whispered ‘Ahh there’s the enemy’. The party elder smiled, then replied ‘no thats the opposition, the enemy’s on these benches’.

Such is the life of politics, and particularly for oppositions. As you may have heard, big business doners (with the ear of the press) are wanting a party blood letting to encourage new talent into the Liberal Party. Whilst I claim no special insight into Liberal party internal machinations, many of the figures wont be household names, so it’s useful to identify and run through who’s who & their likely chances:

ruddockPhillip Ruddock MP: Elected in 1973, Ruddock is the longest serving member of the Parliament. Nominally of the ‘wet’, moderate faction, he famously led the Liberal charge over asylum seekers in 2001 to great internal party applause. Whilst a former Cabinet official, his age works against him, with the feeling his best days are now well behind him. Tough to kick out (what else does he have to go to), but if not this term will be gone in the next. Ruddock seems to have a bit of a mission to prove that he isn’t the demonised figure he seemed in 2001, (when even his daughter publicly criticised him), he seems a relic of the past and with enough connections that if he wants to stay, he will. Then again the Liberals tend to be much more brutal towards ex significant figures than labor, and so he will have to fight each and every term to keep his seat one thinks. Probably a good voice for the liberals internally, 36 years in parliament, and witnessing both the Fraser & Howard Governments, and rise and fall of the post 1980’s New Right, Ruddock could be a good voice for helping the Party find its place.

heffernan1Bill Heffernan Senator : The only Senator on the list (why?) Heffernan is one of the most idiosyncratic parliamentarians. A favorite of Howards, he caused the party regular grief, from his calls for the Liberals to abandon their coalition partners (Heffernan is more of a dirt-encrusted farmer than any of the Nationals pretty boys), and his intemperate tongue. His 2007 comments that Gillard was “Deliberately barren” not only drove women to Labor and reinforced the view this was an old & crusty government, it played serious havoc with the Coalitions planned changes to work choices. As Peter Hartcher reveals in ‘To the Bitter End’, the coalition began to see some clear sky after Labor fumbled its first IR policy launch, and the Coalition set about scaling back Work Choices, before looking to the budget to spend its way back into Australian hearts. Heffernan’s comments distracted & delayed that effort, and the budget was received with little applause. That all said, the Liberals will lose a serious and worthy voice if they kick out Bill. He’s genuinely interested in the well being of rural voters, and the only politician (that I know of) to talk out about the supermarket du-opoloy that hurts farmers and consumers. It would be a shame to lose him, but given age, reputation and Howard’s departure, he will struggle to keep his place on the ticket.

schultzAlby Schultz MP The parliaments only working Pirate (he lost an eye after an accident with some household chemicals a few years ago) Schultz is a respected local member, though after a decade in parliament with scant chance of a promotion, people do begin to wonder what they are getting from a MP. Though he suffered a 7.8% swing against him in 2007, he still comfortably held the seat. Unless Labor is going to put serious resources into the seat, this is a pretty good seat and no doubt some aspiring Sydney young liberal is looking to grab a hold of a seat just 2 hours down the road.

gashJoanna Gash MP: The problem with lists drawn up like this one, is that it often defines “talent” in regards to policy input, ideological purity, and leadership potentials. Necessary in the top 15-30 members of the party, but even in a bad electoral year, parties have at least 80 federal representatives. Such is the case of Joanna Gash; whilst she will never rise in the leadership, or particularly take the fight to Labor in the national media, she has built a very strong basis down on the south coast, and is a quite popular local MP. The personal swing against her was 3.8% personally, bumped up to 5.3% when preferences of other parties are taken into account. Which suggests either slight over performance, or under performance depending on your take. Still Gash seems well placed and well liked, able to appeal not only to the retired seniors who’ve come to the coast like reptiles seeking a warm rock in the sun, but also the young families which are starting to build up in these areas as the demographics shift (and as the cost of living, esp housing is so much cheaper). Gash is very canny in tailoring most of her speeches to cover local issues, and building a loyalty with her constituents. Remove Gash for a parachuted candidate, and the Liberals could well lose the seat at the next election.

*Update* – A canny reader has noted the discrepancy in the AEC figures I’ve used, so I’ve tried to clear that up in the text. They also encourage a less positive take on Gash noting that this result was “despite an electoral boundary redistribution that saw her lose the Labor-stronghold north Kiama/Jamberoo area and add the Liberal heartland around Batemans Bay to Gilmore”. A good point, and which I should have taken into account. This blog is not running to become a Psephologist (there’s much better candidates such as Possum Pollytics and Adam Carr out there), but in this case the analysis was particularly colored by my own interpretation of Gash as a very locally focused MP (Paul Neville of Hinker in QLD is another) and the strong support I noticed for Gash around Bateman’s Bay last election).

b_bishopBronwyn Bishop MP: Bishop dominates her seat, and suffered almost no change in her personal vote in 2007. That said, she is regarded as a joke inside and outside the parliament, a noxious woman at the best of times, and a wasted seat. I once heard the lady profess that those who were designing and pushing the MP3 and MP4 standards for audio & video files were acting in effect like a ‘cartel’. Such ignorance and digital illiteracy should have no purchase within our national parliament, and if just one name on this list is to go by 2010, it should be Bishop.

moylan1Judi Moylan MP: Another popular local member (just a 2% swing in her WA seat in 2007), whilst elected in 1993, she became a well known name after speaking out against the Howard Government over Asylum Seekers in 2005. (A move I long contend helped encourage inner-city liberal supporters to hold their nose and keep voting for the party). She will struggle to hold the seat against a concerted push, though if Turnbull does get involved he may want to keep people like Moylan around. They will say what he cant (or wont) on some social issues, and help keep the Liberal Party in the mainstream. A little dissent is not always a bad thing for the “big tent” Liberals, though makes her internally unpopular. Moylan will have to fight very hard to keep her place.

tuckeyWilson Tuckey MP: Old ‘Iron bar’ Tuckey (so called after a long running rumor about how he dealt with two men who tried to rob his hotel) was the only MP to publicly call for Howard to step down prior to the 2007 election. Yet if Bishop is number one on the list I agree with, Tuckey would be number two. He sits in a very safe seat, yet still suffered big swings against him in 2007. He is of no use to the party and ought to be replaced as soon as possible. Whats more surprising though is that he has kept his seat for as long as he has. The Liberals tend to keep around not elder-statesmen but crusty weirdos (see Bishop, B) who have long term roots within their local seats that are impossible for young up and comers or even externals parachuted in by the leadership to dislodge. It’s one of the strengths of the liberals more independent pre-selection process (in that a good local member can keep their place), but can turn into a disadvantage when said local member becomes a punchline which only themselves and their local branch members don’t notice.

mayMargaret May MP May came into parliament at the start of the 2nd term of the Howard Government, yet didn’t take a portfolio until after the Liberals lost government in 2007. That should tell you something about her popularity. She holds the relatively safe seat of McPherson, which probably explains her place on the list. Seems competent, but whilst the Rudd government has managed to self-inflict numerous wounds on the issue of Pensions, as shadow Minister for Aging, May has been almost entirely absent from the public debate. Still it is a sign that the list has been prepared with a focus on seats and contribution and not gender. There are 10 men and 4 women on the list, roughly reflecting their relative ratios within the party.

forrest1John Forrest MP: Forrest’s place on the list is interesting, if only because he is a member of the Nationals Party, and the hit list is being sold as the work of a “Liberal Party donor”. It’s either a mistake, put there by someone else, or reflects the truth that the Liberal Party has been cannibalizing the nationals for the better part of 20 years, and wont stop now. The Nationals are a dying party, and rather than engage in ‘mergers’ ala QLD, the national liberals are quite content to sit and wait and take seats of the Nationals at elections, until they are just a rump of a party that can safely be ignored. Still until then the nationals for their pittance of a vote get the cherry of Deputy leader of the Coalition and Deputy Prime Minister when in government. Forrest himself strikes me a a decent bloke from my limited exposure to him, though given his party allegiance, it’s hard to assess from a distance if his lack of promotion was due to internal unpopularity, or simply the ratio’s which kept most of Howard’s ministry of Liberal party birth. It will be interesting to see if his name continues to pop up, which would give some insight into if this is a Liberal blood letting or one hoping to run across the coalition.

scottBruce Scott MP. Scott amazingly won a 10% increase in his personal vote in 2007, though this is probably due to the lack of a competing conservative candidate. Another National party member, he is well liked, though more as a senior statesmen, and with a good record in Foreign Affairs and Trade issues. Whilst not exiting or leadership material, such figures are often useful to keep around, and with the reckless Barnaby Joyce now leading the nationals in the Senate (and musing on running for PM) older figures such as Scott will be useful to keep him in line, rather than putting in impressionable young turks who may follow Joyce. Then again, this may also identify that the Liberals want to pilfer this seat too for their own party. That would do even better at keeping Joyce and his noisy colleagues quiet.

lamingAndrew Laming MP: Marred by controversy over alleged electoral funding rorts (he was cleared by the DPP prior to the 2007 election), Laming held his seat by only 64 votes on election night. Laming won the Labor stronghold of Bowman with a 6% swing in 2004, but then suffered a slightly greater than state wide swing against himself in 2007. Now clear of the allegations he seems the Liberals best chance to hold onto the seat, but whilst he came in with much promise (a former doctor and son of a notable ex-QLD MP), he has yet to really impress. A good performance over the next year should see him keep his seat.

johnsonMichael Johnson MP: Johnson reflects the essential problem of such lists and calls for “renewal”. Even when you elect young turks, they may not actually be any good. Johnson has proven surprisingly resilient since his election in 2001, with significant efforts to unseat him having been carried out at consistent efforts. Regarded as a somewhat under performer, and perhaps of dubious local strength, he did slightly better than the state average in 07, and against a significant Labor effort to unseat him. Ought to have made it to the shadow ministry by now if he was going places, you can understand why many would like to see his seat handed over, but I think the Johnson story has more to be written, his apparent dislike of his fellow liberals if nothing else suggests any effort to remove him could be publicly ugly.

andrewsKevin Andrews MP Along with Ruddock, as the only real household names on the list, Andrews is deeply stained by both the issue of Immigration and Work Choices. Capable and sometimes effective against Labor, many were slightly surprised that he didn’t follow Downer et all and retire during this term. His remarkable openness in Hartchers new book (Giving sourced notes on who said what in that now infamous APEC hotel meeting to discuss Howard’s leadership in 2007) suggests he is not too concerned with party discipline and may be looking to leave. Labor would like him to stay as a public punching bag, but I suspect he will soon retire, and as still a relatively young man (54) he could easily find another lucrative career with less stress and punishment.

somlayAlex Somlyay MP: Somlay is actually the chief opposition whip. So if anyone knows the numbers and who has power or not in the party, it’s Somlay. His public record isn’t too flash, but he is a hard working and well respected committee member. If Somlay’s name really is on the list it indicates the “senior” donor has no idea about whose powerful in the party, or knows and is willing to really go to war to get these changes (which may explain the willingness to leak the whole thing to the press). Then again, he is nearing retirement age, and suffered a very heavy swing against him in 2007. A good candidate, able to claim to be able to hold the line at the next election could mount a strong case for his removal.

There seems no great pattern to the list, which suggests its a bit of a wish list, and driven by a number of personal animosities. Only Bishop and Tuckey deserve the boot asap, with the rest being middling, but usually decent members. The two nationals represent an interesting inclusion, given some of their party colleagues could equally be considered fair game.

That said, whilst the leadership is likely to try and shift some of these members, Turnbull looks too weak to engage it significantly himself, but nor is it likely he will seek to protect all or even most of these members either. So if the donors really do have power in the coalition, the fate of these members may be a useful case study. Keep watching this space.

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  1. fhakk

     /  May 4, 2009

    Tuckey I certainly agree with – he needs to go. It’s hard to be a standover man when the entire party is in disarray and there is no clear leadership.

    Heffernan should be #1 on the list. He has a long list of misdemeanors; His accusations against Justice Kirby in parliament, comments about the now-deputy PM, impersonating an ASIO agent, roughing up Fiona Nash and, most recently, carrying a knife into NSW Parliament.

    I’m surprised I haven’t heard much from Kevin Andrews, Howard’s personal bulldog. He botched up workchoices and is probably in hiding somewhere, scared that someone from the CFMEU is trying to hunt him down armed with a crossbow.

    Bishop is a scary, yet incompetent woman, not unlike Sophie Mirabella. She should have left while she had the chance, and become an ambassador like Amanada Vanstone.

    With the exception of Heffernan, none of the four mentioned on that hitlist in the article have been in the headlines since ’07. Only their reputations from the Howard Government remain, and that’s not a good thing at all. If they had been a bit more proactive, instead of hiding from the past, then they may have had a chance to appease the Liberal party donors.

    The Liberals/Nationals will still lose the next election, but the transfusion of young blood will help prevent the party from becoming a corpse.