Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Howard

The Big Man game: Obama, Healthcare and his Foreign Policy

One of the most long running debates in International Relations is known as the Agent/Structure Problem. It is perhaps best summed up by a famous Marx quote that “People make History, but not in conditions of their own choosing“. Which of these was more important inquiring minds wanted to know. Could great individuals through sheer strength of will and character change the globe, or do conditions need to be right not only to birth & shape the history makers, but to give them space in which to act. In short, what is more important, the agents or the structure in which they operate? This isn’t just a debate about theory, how you answer this question and your assumptions, will drive both both what, and how you study history and International Relations. In the wake of Obama’s health care victory we have to very good examples of authors disagreeing over this fundamental point:

First up Andrew Sullivan, batting for the Agent side (if that sounds a little Matrix-like to you, fear not, individuals or groups are known as ‘Agents’ in International Relations jargon)

“In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.

But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative…… A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this”

Batting for the Structuralists is the IR specialist Stephen M. Walt

“Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no….
There isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011. Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons.”

Though Walt is correct that passing health care wont in itself solve any of these factors, I side with Sullivan. As a constructivist afterall I really should. Constructivism is an approach to International Relations which identifies how agents socially construct much of the structures they find themselves in(and in turn their own identity as agents). To take the most well known of examples (and papers) the ‘anarchy’ of the world between nation-states today is as Alexander Wendt claims what states make of it (pdf). That is, how the world is seen determines what is seen. How Obama is seen, especially by the other Big Men of the world is important to what influence and credibility he is likely to have with them. The more Obama is seen as a successful domestic leader, the better he will be as a foreign policy leader.

To cite from a local example, here is Michael Wesley in one of my favourite books ‘The Howard Paradox’:

“Over time, [John]Howard has come to enjoy the international aspect of his job. Domestically, those with whom he regularly comes in contact either owe him, resent him or want his job; internationally, he is able to mix with equals who are familiar with the challenges of national leadership, and who can offer observations and advice untainted by designs on his job. In recent years, according to one journalist, Howard has enjoyed the status of being the respected elder statesman in a region that respects seniority’
Michael Wesley, (2009) The Howard Paradox, ABC books

Wesley makes many arguments for why Howard was able to do much better than his critics alleged he would, but that last sentence is perhaps the wisest. By 2002, when his record started to shift in his favour, Howard had been in power 6 years with three highly successful election victories under his belt. To those in the region he was clearly a very capable political operator and not going anywhere soon. As other regional elders like Malaysia’s Mahathir retired, Howard came to assume one of the roles as regional elder statesman.

Obama doesn’t have the same luxury of time that Howard did. The US probably does a disservice by its Presidents by forcing an 8 year maximum, but they do start from a significantly higher platform than anyone else does. Obama, especially as a younger (and lets be honest black) president needs to stamp his international authority and quickly. Being dominant at home doesn’t change the structures that confront him internationally, but a clear legislative victory (and especially one of this magnitude) is likely to send a signal that he is a statesman to be respected and not just a lucky winner of the White House. His party will lose seats in November, but you’d have to be firming on betting that Obama will win in 2012. The message of all this to the Big Men and Women in governments around the world? This man is not weak, impatient or going anywhere. Deal with this man now, as he is only going to get better at this.

Politics is built on many things, ideas, history, geography, economics, and demographics, but it often ends with two big men in a room negotiating how all these factors go together. As Marx said, people make history.

Memo to Turnbull: Politics has its own skill set.

As I type, Malcolm Turnbull is probably sinking back into his office chair after just about the worst day of his leadership. Todays meeting was supposed to go for 4 hours, and sources expected he would get 2/3rds support. Instead it went on for about 10 hours, and he has gotten just half, if not having a majority oppose him in the party room. He has emerged battered and bruised, but at least has a deal. As he was at pains to remind everyone he is still the leader, but does he actually know how to practice politics?

Despite the fact that Turnbull has held the superior hand (the science, the polls, even Govt support) he has been consistently out maneuvered on this issue. He is being out played, if he does escape beyond this week it will have more to do with others lack of interest in his job(for the time being), than a sign of capability. (Word is that Tuckey and Jensen have written to ask for a leadership spill on Thursday morning) So why is it that a man who could outwit the intelligence services before the High Court, take on the Packers and Fairfaxes in the Business world, has crumbled before former real estate agents like Barnaby Joyce and cardigan wearing mofos like Minchin? Indeed only his decision to simply declare the discussion over tonight around 8pm has left him with any credibility, and seems his best move of the entire day.

The press like to think leadership is a beauty contest, with them able to define beauty, and the polls just the public endorsing their narrative. But it’s also about brains and using the system. To lead you need not be older, wealthier, more capable, more sucessful or even better looking, you only need to be able to consistently out politik your opponents.

Howard was a great politician not just because he could be populist and give the media/people what they want, but he also used the rules and settings to his advantage. In the republican convention he set up a fight between direct and indirect electionists to ensure the referendum failed. In 2007 whilst on the nose with the polls, media and colleague, having set up Downer to see if he should quit (the infamous APEC hotel meeting) he then turned and demanded that if he was to go they would have to force him. Though a majority were against him, he knew this would be too hard and he kept his job.

Obama is another one you see who understands the need for rat cunning as the basis of leadership. He won his first Illinois legislature seat by having voting registrations for his opponents tossed out, allowing him to be elected unopposed. It might jar with his rhetoric of hope, but his skills are the best hope progressives have for real change.

The ethics of this form of hardball are always of course debatable though hardball politics needn’t be wrong. More importantly however is that to do it you first need to be able to see it, imagine it. To be able to read the lay of the land, the personalities and circumstances and politik your way into a superior position.

What does this have to do with Turnbull ? Well, constantly we have seen him be out thought and out manouvered by his own party members, who are in many ways still playing soft on him. He faces an opponent in Rudd who knows very well how to play such politics, and there is no way he should be allowed to represent Australia to the world, facing the elite of the Chinese, Americans, or Indonesians if he can’t out think those around him in far easier domestic circumstances. We know he branch stacked like crazy to win his seat in Wentworth, but it must now be doubted how much of that was his own effort.

All this points to the fact that while we decry the lack of plumber/teacher/cafe owner turned politician, politics itself is a profession. It needs to be learnt, it needs to be experienced, it has its own norms, skill sets and oddities that have to become second nature if you are to obtain and weild power. If you cant, then you are just wasting everyones time.

This is why I’m not that concerned about the number of politicians who have never done anything else, and why though I like Turnbull, he has seemed headed for a humiliating defeat ever since thinking about running for the leadership. When Costello baulked on election night Turnbull began challenging for the job, finally rolling Nelson, all for the thankless task of being leader during a first term opposition. Since then, despite numerous government mistakes (groceries, nbn, school stimulus, debt, asylum seekers, utegate, cprs) Turnbull has failed to land a solid punch. All the pain for Rudd has been either self or media inflicted.

Politics is a skill that needs to be learnt, and Turnbull is proving the classic case of a man who didn’t respect this. Like many, esp from the business world he simply presumed that skill in other areas directly translates, or that sheer force of personality will get you through. He is clearly a brilliant man, but political skill has never been about just sheer intelligence, but out thinking those around you and using the circumstances to leverage the best outcome for yourself/your position. Turnbull’s learnt a lot very quickly, but it is not quick enough if he wants to remain.

That could mean he has only 36 hours to find a new way to control his party. It saddens me to say it, but I think it would be best he lost the vote (if it occurs). If he sticks around he could take some time to lick his wounds and re-run in 2012 for the leadership. If not, then best to go out now rather than leading to an election debacle. Its not a fun club to have been leader without ever going to an election (think Crean, Downer), but right now, Nelson seems the smarter (and happier) politician than Turnbull.

Wither States Rights?

australia_flagIn a pleasing sign, the ACT assembly, with the support of the ACT Labor Party and the Greens has passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to have a legally binding ceremony. Gay couples can already bind themselves into a legal union, a change reluctantly accepted by the federal government, but last year Rudd decided that allowing that union to be publicly celebrated would be too much like marriage. The word petty doesn’t even begin to describe such a complaint. The Labor Party chose not to to support such unions at its national conference, and it’s probable that Rudd will again veto the legislation.

This raises a challenge for progressive however. Despite spending the 20th century fighting states rights, recognising it for the conservative impediment it was, in many areas such as social or environmental law, progressive ideals are best served by giving local communities far more of a say. Hopes in the federal labor party have faltered, as it has looked to ensure nation-wide support (rather than just majority support), and shown great hesitancy to risk taking. Interestingly, this shift is also occuring at the same time as the Liberal Party has just finished fundamentally walking away from promoting a states rights agenda. So should Progressives deliver the killing blow to states rights, or are recent developments signs that this is more prosperous ground than previously thought?

For future historians, one of the most important facets of the Prime Ministership of John Howard, was the virtual death of the States Right’s viewpoint within the conservative parties. Howard invoked the idea himself comonly when in Fraser’s government and during the 1980’s wilderness in opposition; by the time he returned for a second showdown, the heat was largely gone. Against Keating Howard positioned himself as one who would govern “for all Australia” against the sectional and geographic interest groups, a stance he would keep throughout his time in government. He wouldn’t even support his home state NSW in the State of Origin games, such was his desire not to be seen as supporting one state over others (or even supporting the states at all!)

There’s ample evidence (such as from Costello’s memoirs and Howard’s own musings on the subject) that this was a practical solution, rather than a philosophical shift, and came in response to a current political threat. Namely that the people would blame the federal government regardless of who was responsible, and that the State Governments were largely hostile to going along with Howard on most issues, most of the time. That said, the shift also re-enforced Howard’s growing sense of control and dominance, as he increasingly sought to leave his mark on the country, and deliver on the public trust invested in him through 4 separate elections. Howard not only changed the country, he also changed his party. Time in government converted many to similar views, and Howard’s views became gospel as older members retired, and younger, more impressionable ones came in. Practice eventually becomes principle, and the Liberal Party today under Turnbull, Abbott & Minchin has barely touched this criticism of states rights, despite its favored son status for conservatives in opposition for the last 108 years in this country.

This change in conservative thinking should have progressives cheering. After all, states have been (and were designed in the 1890’s Constitutional Conventions to be) strong impediments to any social change that may have upset the status quo or reduced the influence of men of property (Hence the Senate starting life as a States House, to review what the mobs in the House of Representatives proposed). Equally, there is good evidence that there was a big influence from current American trends on Australia’s constitution writers (especially Griffith and Barton) which lead to pushing a very minor, restricted federal government. Most people who follow politics will have heard of section 51. of the constitution. The reason it is well known however is that it is the only section which distinctly lays out the powers of the federal government. Anything not mentioned is assumed to be entirely under State control. Our constitution is not there to guarantee the rights and liberties of the citizens, it is there almost exclusively to give chains to the States to tether down the inevitable King Kong of National Government that they were reluctantly accepting.

So, given this history, the end of conservative support for states rights ought to be a good thing. The example of the ACT however suggests that there is an alternative: that progressives should now look to focus on the states where they can pass such legislation, or better marshal power such as to stop at the source developments such as the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill or the Mary River Dam. While Federal Labor supported the former and has just rejected the later, both were pushed by their state governments, which have fallen under the sway of and indeed often become corrupted by development companies as progressives look federally. Those with talent and a desire for being in parliament on the progressive side are almost universally looking towards Federal Seats, leaving many also-rans and backroom hacks in charge of the station (See Rees Government). Likewise on issues such as drugs, euthanasia, public transport, land use, and household trends (such as towards environmental efficiency) these issues either are still state issues, or have a greater chance of change at a state level.

So progressives are in a bind. They have an unparalleled opportunity to sign the death knell to the states rights argument from preventing progressive change, perhaps even to reform/do away with the entire states system (as the decidedly non-progressive Banaby Joyce advocates). Such changes would this be good policy in removing inefficiencies, ensuring uniform standards and laws, and overcome vested interests on national issues (everything from fixing the Murray-Darling to introducing a R18+ rating for computer games).

Yet the barriers to passing progressive legislation are significantly lower at a state level these days, with a cumulative effect in practice, meaning good progressive policy in one state tends to end up in the others (eventually). Equally many potential problems (such as corrupt/badly designed development) can be addressed before they become major issues. Add in the ‘common wisdom’ that progressives are more trusted on day to day domestic issues, whilst conservatives for outward looking concerns (the so-called daddy/mommy divide), which if not quite true at least benefits progressives electorally at a local level. Then again, they must also consider the thought experiment that if the situation reversed and a Federal Government introduced same-sex marriages and a single state dissented, would they keep supporting states rights.

For ACT residents it has been rumored that the Minister for Territories Brendan O’Connor would like to see a change to let the ACT govern itself, relieving the Federal Government from having to decide on such issues, as same-sex marriage. Nothing has occurred yet, and won’t before this bill is due to be addressed, but it would be a very positive sign considering the significant discrimination faced electorally by ACT residents.

No change has been bigger in Australia’s political landscape than the isolation of state government concerns from the dialogue of federal politics. Yet whilst this has come about because Conservatives under Howard walked away from their historical position, progressives ought to take their finger off the trigger for a moment or two to consider the real benefit of such a change. We are yet to see if Rudd will go ahead with his election ‘promise’ to takeover the health system, but if so similar moves in education wouldn’t be too far behind.

Certainly something to keep an eye on, the historic forces are shifting, but it may be a while till we see where the pieces finally come to lie.

Photo by jemasmith used under a Creative Commons Licence

A Government of One

Always a man apart

Always a man apart

I always enjoy those insider looks at how governments operate. Horse races and polls are one thing, but what truly matters is the individual personalities at play and systems of decision making. This however was not a good way for Lenore Taylor to begins her piece:

THE Prime Minister and his three most senior ministers form a kitchen cabinet that takes the key decisions.

During the Howard years, Australia was run by the 17 or so men and women in the cabinet. Under the Rudd government, it is effectively run by four.

Oh dear. Everyone can understand that a good way to make your point more significant is to make a comparison to show it’s uniqueness. Only in this case Taylor (or a sub-editor looking for a punchy start) is completely and utterly wrong. Weirdly the rest of the article seems to make the exact same point, but in these days where Howard is being exhumed by conservatives everywhere it’s worth re-iterating how wrong it is. Howard’s government, was literally Howard’s Government.

No one who lived & followed politics during the era would record the Howard era as a period of cabinet governance, indeed most people most of the time didn’t even know any ministers names beyond the PM & Treasurer, such was his dominance of the party (a problem they are still grappling with). This was a government that almost never leaked, such was the fear of the PM, and the lack of information flow even at the highest levels. Howard clearly accepted a role for ministerial discussion, but it was to aid his decision making, rather than as the source of decisions.

Howard bypassed the cabinet consistently with senior ministers meetings on key issues, such as the Expenditure Review Committee which set the budget and the new National Security Committee which bypassed cabinet entirely on all foreign policy and security issues. Howard also created the Cabinet Policy Unit (CPU) which ran from inside his office to ensure a lot of matters were left outside cabinet, or pre-organised to ensure speedy passage by cabinet. This is all documented in great detail in the 2006 book on Cabinet Governance “Cabinet government in Australia” by Patrick Weller, which should be in the bookshelves of all political reporters. (You can even get it on Google books. Taylor quotes Weller, but no one whose read the book could write such a sentance.

There is ample documentary evidence to show that though there may have been 17 men and women in the room, but only one vote actually counted. First of course is Costello, who’s memoirs are one unabated howl at being consistently and regularly overruled by the PM on economic and some social issues. Even with issues as big as the GST Costello records that Howard would get cabinet approval and then go make the changes he wanted later in his office. Indeed Costello happily said as much publicly whilst in office

“I can tell you as a Treasurer, there are many occasions when my policy views are not accepted but I always accept a Cabinet decision. There might even be occasions when a Prime Minister’s view is not accepted although it is very rare, if it ever happens

Some of the biggest decisions such as assisting the War on Terror and the Iraq war were made by the PM with cabinet approval a later formality. Indeed in his later years Howard thought nothing of spending $10b on the Murry-Darling without even mentioning it to cabinet.

Likewise there are numerous books out on how Howard governed, including ‘Power without responsibility’ by Anne Tiernan on the unprecedented use of ministerial advisors to short-sheet ministers and center power in the Prime Ministers Office, and ‘No, Prime Minister’ by James Walter and Paul Strangio, on the rise of presidential style leadership, culminating under Howard (though Rudd fits very well too). All are sober academic texts without any agenda but clearly document the centralisation of power within the hands of the Prime Minister. Equally Taylor could have (and should have) read her colleague Paul Kelly’s book March of Patriots which documents Howard’s many presidential style decisions.

Indeed, read on in Taylors article and you see her essential point is that Rudd runs his government much like Howard did. Only slightly more centralised, and with informal groupings made formal. As a nation we are surly the poorer for this, and I suspect given recent events, people insider government are recognizing that too. But this is not Rudd’s creation, and the full scope of changes under Howard will be felt for many years to come. So why start the article with such an utterly false opening that is effectively contradicted throughout the rest of the article? The only people who will read such an article are going to be political followers who would laugh at the absurdity of the line, and probably turn the page. Anyway, the whole thing is worth reading, just ignore the first two lines.

Republican blues

A little tip to the Pro-monarchists today: Don’t look so smug. It doesn’t look good, esp as the public already have doubts about any group endorsing a foreign countries leader, and led by people like Alan Jones, Tony Abbott, David Flint and John Howard. Not exactly the most popular or down to earth group of individuals in this country.
Today, as in 10 years ago, around 60% still support a republic. Which is rather an odd measurement, given the more pertinent question is how many support the status quo of the Queen remaining our head of state, a proposition I would wager to get less than 20% support. The monarchists may crow today, but they all know well that the only reason the republic referendum failed was due to a split within republican ranks over which model, either a minimalist retaining of the status quo (my preference) or a direct election model. It was clever politics by Howard, but as Malcolm Turnbull perfectly said ‘it broke the nation’s heart’.

As Bob Hawke has proposed, and I wager Rudd will follow, the best way to proceed from here is to wait for the queen to pass on, then make the change. It’s rather an odd measurement historically (representing neither a military victory, or significant date) but it’s practical and in keeping with the general style of Australian’s political evolution. No bitterness, but a quiet and dignified change as represents a tidying of our affairs and formalization of the current practice.

Which is the other reason the monarchists shouldn’t look smug, for the change they have so resisted is guaranteed to come. And instead of managing that change as a sensible conservative would, ensuring the best possible reform (ie maintaining the way the system runs and making only editing changes to the constitution) we now face the very real (and I think slightly worrying) possibility of moving to a directly elected president (who may come to challenge the PM on issues, and change the way our legislature and parties operate). The voices for such a model are out there and growing. The introduction of such a model will in all likely hood be the real result of the monarchists actions 10 years ago. So not only will they have only delayed instead of preventing change, they will allow a system many of them will find far more unpalatable, and which represents a possibly fundamental shift in Australian politics.

Not quite so clever an achievement now, don’t you think.

Still, a sad day for all republican supporters. I never saw the issue as one of independence (if you don’t think we are an independent country you have a real lack of understanding about our system or a persecution complex), but rather as a way of writing in law what is already in practice. Unlike the American’s we haven’t tried to immortalize our constitution writers or the document they created. Most Australians recognise that it needs to be regularly returned to and improved to ensure the constitution of this country still suits our purposes and need. That it protects the citizens, restricts and accurately describes the governments operation (ie there is no mention of the PM in the document), and establishes its responsibilities (the entire problem of federalism from inefficent hospitals, a lack of uniform laws, and destroyed cross border assets like the Murray-Darling is due to the constitution).

The Importance of Atmosphere

Under the Bush Administration Fox News had a charmed position, under Obama, not only is it in opposition, the White House has gone after its credibility as a news organisation. Conventional wisdom is that it is a mistake to beat up on the media, but here’s perhaps why Obama is really going after them:

I think some people are under the impression that the White House wants Fox News to disappear. Nothing, I suspect, could be further from the truth. The White House is in fact delighted that Fox News and its merry cast of commentators exists. Nor is the White House vexed that its every pronouncement concerning Fox News solidifies Fox’s core audience; that’s actually the plan. The point is not to moderate Fox News by accusing it of being biased/not a real news organization/running or being the propoganda arm of the GOP; if anything, the point is to make it more extreme in the views it airs….
At the end of the day, Fox News’ nightly audience in the third quarter of this year was 2.25 million viewers in primetime (source). For perspective this means that it has roughly the same audience as your average Dollhouse episode, which was just yanked by Fox (the broadcast network, not the cable news network), so that its ratings wouldn’t stink up November Sweeps. Even with Fox News’ ratings going through the roof because of its little war with Obama, the actual number of viewers is minuscule. Or to put it otherwise, 2.5 million Americans watch Fox News, which means that 297.5 million Americans don’t.
Which makes it a low-risk ideological foil for the White House.

All politicians would love to have unchallenged power, whatever their motive or ideology. But given that is thankfully impossible (well most of the time), sometimes the next best option is not to have a meek opposition, but a crazy one. The more Obama seems to stoke Fox News’s extremism, the better he looks by comparison to lukewarm supporters, and the more he seems the only option for true independents. If Obama is facing a consistent backlash of 30% of the country whatever he does, then there is no way for his opponents to use that as evidence Obama is on the wrong track. If any single policy gets the same angry response as any other, then who can say if his healthcare is radical or just opposed on spite. Who can say if the 30% have a better understanding of warfare in opposing his afghanistan policy, or they just want him to fail.

You see this regularlly around the world, where canny politicians seem to benefit from the over the top reactions they inspire, despite their outwardly moderate nature. One who isn’t a moderate but still benefits is Hugo Chavez. Chavez may be slowly draining Venezlela of its democracy, but he is also making significant moves to combat poverty and illiteracy. Yet his opponents, from his first election win in 1998 have seen him as an entirely illegitimate leader, and so sponsored coup after coup against him. The extreme nature of their media opposition (Fox looks mild in comparison!) makes him seem a much more centrist and nationally focused leader. After a while people tend to see such consistent opposition to any one politician as due to the desires for power of those who attack them, and reflection on their character, than a actual response to the leaders actions. So Chavez can monumentally screw up (and has) but since the opposition already wen’t nuclear there is no way to tell from the reactions what is bad policy and what is just run of the mill.

Likewise during the Howard era in Australia there was a core group of opposition to John Howard. I think this opposition gets somewhat overplayed, as there was a strong effort by Howard and conservatives to try and delegitimise any criticism as proof you were a ‘howard hater’, but with Howard’s removal, the times and his policies also look a fair bit more moderate from this vantage point. Yet this is something which I think no author has yet truly managed to capture. One of the big let down’s of Paul Kelly’s book ‘March of Patriots’ was its absence of discussion on the atmosphere that pervaded during the time. Capturing that is a opportunity only immediate first and second drafters of history can, and to properly understand it, it is extremely necessary. On the left there was a palpable sense of anger about what was happening to our country. Events such as Tampa, Cronulla, Iraq and the debasing of institutions such as Parliament and the ABC left many feeling adrift and deeply distrustful of the core motives of this government. And yet Kelly (who set out to write a more policy focused book) not only ignores this, but calls it ‘March of Patriots’ as if Howard was warmly embraced by the community, or even upheld as a hero. Howard was popular at some times, at other times deeply unpopular late 1997 to early 2001 and early 2006 to his final loss in late 2007. He was also very popular during other times, or with certain segments of the population (he was excellent during a catastrophe ala Port Arthur, Bali). To miss or worse dismiss the opposition to Howard as simply crazy means you present an incomplete image of the period. And yet like Obama and Chavez, Howard also immensely benefited from the nature of his opponents and their consistent rejection of all his actions.

Obama is somewhat playing with fire by being seen to go after his opponents, and after a specific media outlet. But come the 2010 elections, Glenn Beck et all are likely to drive far more votes to the democrats (or away from Republicans) than they are likely to harm him. So its a net win, all for being hated. I first endorsed Obama because in 2006 I was sick of the Center-left losing elections and he was clearly the best political strategist I had ever seen. He makes some mistakes, I think he’s still slightly too cautious in acting (such as repealing Dont Ask, Dont Tell and not prosecuting on torture) but he is clearly still leagues ahead of anyone else in the country in reading the politics. It’s why health care will pass, why the democrats will keep the House and Senate in 2010 (they will lose some seats though not enough) and why he should coast to re-election in 2012).

Book Review: The March of Patriots by Paul Kelly

The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia by Paul Kelly Melbourne:Melbourne University Press $69.95 rrp
I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Paul Kelly tonight on his book and Australian politics, so I figured this was a good incentive to polish off my review of his book which I promised over a month ago. His speech was largely a re-emphasis of the books main argument, or defence of some of its views, but where relevant I’ll add in his updated thoughts, indicated with a *.

One of the hardest tasks for writers of politics is to see how close you can get to normal events, whilst producing something substantial. Journalists are used to having most of their work quickly forgotten and in that temporariness, can find a freedom to formulate and re-formulate how they see the world. But for those producing something longer, a book, a thesis, there is an expectation that you can both obtain enough distance to properly observe an event and its characters, and still getting it out before the public demand for insight fades. In his earlier book ‘The End of Certainty’ Kelly charted the economic reforms of the Hawke/Keating Government, and yet his best formulation was not what they did, but defining what they removed via the concept of an ‘Australian Settlement’. Kelly’s latest idea is that Keating and Howard are best seen as Australian patriots, whose similarities are greater than their differences. Unfortunately its not quite so catchy, and his colleague George Megalogenis got there first with ‘The Longest Decade’ (and arguably proved the similarity thesis better).

Given Kelly’s conservatism, it is remarkable that this is actually his first book on the conservative side of politics. Despite the joint images on the title, Kelly devotes around 1/3 or 225 pages to Keating’s 5 years, and 2/3’s or 400 pages to Howard’s first 5 years, promising a second volume to come covering 2001-2007. The numbers give a fair ratio of his biases. Where Howard and Keating overlap on economics he is broadly supportive, even downright impressed by Keating’s bravery and genius, likewise on Asian Engagement as a Foreign Policy objective. Where they differ, on nationalism, culture, war, Kelly comes down firmly on Howard’s side. While there are already a number of books on Howard, the March of Patriots is going to become a cornerstone for interpreting the administration.

In Howard, Kelly sees four key impulses at work (1) Economic Liberalism, (2) Social Conservatism (3) Cultural Traditionalism (4) National Security vigilance. The first two are common wisdom, and the latter easily discernible though usefully brought together here. I’m less convinced by his claim that Howard isn’t a neo-liberal. There is of course a difference between rhetoric and policy, but given that Kelly awards the term of Cultural traditionalist to Howard whilst admitting his policy achievements in this area are ‘threadbare’*, it seems odd that he ignores so much of the rhetorical trend towards free-marketeerism under Howard. Indeed Kelly has said he deliberately ignored a lot of the politics so as to focus on the policy/governance issues, but both are significant to understand a governments thoughts. The Howard government relentlessly sold the idea that the unhindered market was the best way to run economic policy, and its occasional reticence (such as with banking or communications regulation) or their popularism (middle class welfare) doesn’t necessarily prove otherwise. In private Kelly argues Howard and Costello rejected the self-correcting market theory, which is largely true of the legislation that passed (via an a largely hostile senate) but had Howard enjoyed Senate control at the beginning of his government, not its tired final term, history’s judgement may have been very different.

In terms of foreign policy, Kelly makes a far bolder claim in both book and person that Howard “pioneered the idea of Australia as a regional leader”*. This is an interesting claim, in that Australians have always been reticent about claiming that Australia could lead this region. We have a profoundly different culture, history, background and way of life. Kelly points to the case of E.Timor as the first time Australia took the lead in a military role. However this downplays Australia’s role in creating APEC, encouraging the Cambodian peacekeeping, and advocacy on preventing WMD non-proliferation in the region. The Australian Government may have titled the policy as ‘Engagement’ but to my mind, it was an unabashed effort at positioning for and achieving regional leadership, under a much more PR friendly label. To grant Howard the credit seems to miss the critical set-up work that he inherited (though Kelly quotes Downer and others stressing the critical importance of Hawke/Keating’s creation of APEC to achieving success in E.Timor) The Foreign policy story is also incomplete, with the book ending at the unfortunate pivot point of 2001, which marks the end of the major economic policies, but fits half way between the big changes in Foreign Policy. For that I guess we will just have to wait…

Kelly’s book is in some ways hard to criticize. He lives up to his pledge* to focus on policy issues over the politics. His central thesis that Keating and Howard were both focused on restoring Australian patriotism, and had more in common than divided them/suited their parties to acknowledge is eminently defendable. But this insiders tale, with immaculate access to the powerful, also feels somewhat hollow. Kelly doesn’t manage to capture or even attempt to define the anger or resentment many in the public felt towards Howard. But you can’t understand Howard and Keating’s story without understanding the often ambivalent, sometimes hostile public reaction to them. Both men were loved within their tribes, hated by the other, and often polarised most of the public at various times of their leadership. Kelly perhaps rightly knows his argument that what unites them is more important is controversial, however it is notable how little popular sentiment seems to be considered, and his almost outright dismissal for their being any legitimate base of anger at Howard from the left. This is a sin by omission rather than fault, and one not unique to his book, but I think significant to understand the environment Keating and Howard were operating in. In fact even if limited to Howard, this would have been a big improvement (and given Kelly’s previous work on Keating and the proliferation of books on his government, this may have been better served as a book solely on Howard over his entire administration.)

Kelly is for better or worse Australia’s Bob Woodward (who traded in his watergate credentials for a white house all-access-pass). This insider status grants amazing access to the powerful, with often revealing interviews. These interviews let the major players speak for themselves, sometimes even hang themselves with their own claims, but it’s traded for a very conventional level of analysis. Indeed Kelly’s book screams conventional in its analysis, a thought only tempered by the knowledge that it was probably Kelly who set the common wisdom which everyone else has come to endorse. Where he speaks or acts, the press typically follows. For political junkies and close followers, Kelly’s book is a must read. There is not much that is brand new, but the book is very well researched, organised and its focus on policy over politics a welcome change, whilst in an very readable format.

The Liberal Party’s Economic Confusion

In my last post I remarked on the Oppositions claim to support big budget cuts, but unwillingness to back a relatively easy example of it. It goes to a much larger problem for the Liberal Party: They don’t know where to stand on economics nor how to describe their position.

The essentials arn’t in doubt, they are for the free market, with a reasonable support for government welfare services chucked in to moderate the harsher aspects of capitalism. But over the last 3 years they have seen massive shifts within this range, and varying and contradictory explanations for these positions.

When the Howard Government left office in 2007, it was championed as a great Pro-Free Market government. It had restored economic liberalism after the savage blow of losing the 1993 Fightback election, and implemented a GST, deregulated many industries, privatised and outsourced significant elements (the famous yellow pages test), and spent 11 years advocating strongly and consistently for free markets. This was seen as one of the great strengths and records of the government. Where articulate critics pointed out they had substituted a lot of populism into this mix (such as Andrew Norton’s essay The Rise of Big Government Conservatism) it was generally ignored. If they hadn’t gone as far down the path as they had liked, this weakness was only a minor issue, one that had helped keep them in power and probably Labors fault in blocking reform in the senate or scaring the people. This wasn’t an extreme or libertarian government in any sense. But it was rhetorically and philosophically clear about the direction it wanted to go, and every step further down that path was seen as a good thing.

Then in the Spring of 2008 the Financial Crisis hit and suddenly economic liberalism was seen to take a body blow. This wasn’t entirely fair, as a particular form of US capitalism, bad oversight and regulations and some distorted government policy caused the crisis which then hit around the world. Now, the former members and defenders of the Howard Government couldn’t get away from the term Neo-Liberalism fast enough. Where they had mocked Rudds 2007 accusations of their free marketer ideals, wondering if he proposed poverty and socialism instead, they now sought to claim he was completely over-exaggerating their support for the ideals. They hadn’t been a free market government, just a pragmatic, cautious one that had only been continuing what Labor had started. What was a small weakness in the Governments economic policy in 2007 was now being held up as its greatest strength in 2009. But loyalty to the old ideas isn’t going away (which is a good thing), but it does mean some serious re-writing of history and rhetorical confusion is going on right now as they attempt to find a new place from which to detail their economic position.

I wrote a while back that the big flaw of Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines (which seems to have sunk without trace) was that this confusion was visible on every page and yet never directly addressed. But theres just as clear an example in Paul Kelly’s new book ‘The March of Patriots’ (2009). Kelly is a conservative if sympathetic writer for both sides, but also one clearly in support of economic liberalisation (As I am too). But this leaves his narrative into contrary directions because of the Liberals recent re-writing (which began to occur whilst interviewing for the book)

‘The 1993 election extinguished more than John Hewson’s dreams – it terminated the neo-liberal political experiment…Hewson’s Fightback! program was the only package resembling neo-liberalism ever presented to the Australian people. Its defeat was a turning point. No Future leader – not Keating, not Howard, not Treasurer Costello – would contemplate the model or its specifics as a package. This was the conclusions from the 1993 election despite occasional polemical claims that Howard as a Prime Minister was actually a neo-liberal – Page 75

Yet just 11 pages later as he details the fall of Hewson he recognises that whilst the man was gone, very little had changed in the party:

It was a view shared across much of the coalition frontbench and it took more shape as the 1993-1996 term evolved. It was the position of Howard, Costello and Dower. Their sentiment was to avoid any over reaction filled with recrimination, to recognise the policy integrity and energy within Fightback, to review policies applying a sharper test of what the people would accept, to return to the political centre but stand by the pro-market economic reform agenda and to avoid any early detailed policy release’ – Page 86-87

Where the Coalition seethed during office that they couldn’t implement all their reforms, out of office they have come to claim this was a deliberate design. Apparently they wanted some of their bills to fail, wanted to lose on workchoices, wanted to be rebuffed by the public on selling Aus Post and others, wanted to have the democrats force them to take food out of a GST, etc etc. In office they would nod and acknowledge yes it was bad economic policy to hand tens of billions over to families on comfortable wages, but that was the price to keep Labor out of office. Now they seem willing to make welfare for the wealthy a core principle of the party.

Labor has responded to the Economic crisis by indulging their desires for government spending. In many ways it seems this has worked very well (we have stayed out of recession, unemployments stayed in reasonable shape), but a reckoning will come and only some seem (Lindsay Tanner) seem interested in talking about it, and then more as an electoral weapon than a shift in policy.

The Liberals on the other hand have got themselves completely tied up in knots. Their baser instinct and education is to return to the proud support for free markets that they enjoyed under the Howard years. To promise to cut spending and demagogue debt. But like a dog beaten too often, when anyone gets close they flinch. When media questions get too hot they jump back. No specifics, no details, and NO NO NO to means tests for government handouts. The only time the Liberal Party has looked at all comfortable in opposition was a few weeks in July 2009 when they had the issue of debt to rally them, and remind them of the good old days. (In fact it reminded them too much of them, repeating old ideas such as a debt truck) , but soon Godwin Grench reared up, Rudd & Swan managed to hold us up out of recession and the Liberals lost their nerve again.

As for Kelly, his book is thus far enjoyable (I’ll do a review when finished early next week) but it feels rather over-written, and with a deliberate eye for the future. He’s trying to make this the essential history of the period (as his End of Certainty became for Hawkies govt). But if he’s willing to uncritically accept this clear re-writing of Liberal views, then it is unlikely to gain as much traction. Nor does it have a cleaver summing up in the way the previous book had with its formulation of an ‘Australian Settlement’

Update: Michelle Grattan is clearly a reader of this blog :p

Australias strongest Lobby

Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences on the left side of politics is between those who favour equality of outcome and those who favour equality of opportunity. The first ex-socialists, the latter shy liberals. But it is also a divide that comes out in most analysis of social outcomes too. One of the most common though often mistaken approaches I see my students taking is to look at an unequal outcome, and assume that it has occurred through an unequal or discriminatory process. Sometimes however it also seems to afflict those who should know better:

I am suggesting that there is almost a regionalisation of wealth, income and culture based on urban geography.
Battlers, migrants and assorted low-income earners who formerly lived in the inner city are now being flung out, as if by some centrifugal force, to the city’s edge. What is left in the inner city is an odd coalescence of tribes — namely students, singles, couples, dinks, gays, expats, corporates, divorcees and, most important of all, the professional and entrepreneurial classes.

One of the key drivers of social division within the city is income. Between 1996 and 2006 the average income per person in Melbourne’s Melton and Wyndham and Sydney’s Blacktown and Penrith hovered a few percentage points above or below the Australian average… However, it was a different story in the city centre. In Sydney’s inner-western municipality of Leichhardt, income levels on a per-person basis jumped from 43 per cent to 73 per cent above the Australian average over the decade to 2006…The same upshift applied to Melbourne’s City of Port Phillip, where income levels moved from 27 per cent to 50 per cent above the Australian average in a decade…At the heart of the differences is education. In the inner suburbs it’s not uncommon for two-thirds of adults to hold a bachelor degree or higher. In the outer suburbs this proportion is less than a third.

And yet this is a voice that is rarely heard in the Australian media. Name a newspaper columnist, let alone a radio broadcaster or a television presenter, who projects their perspective on life from within the middle suburbs, never mind outer suburbia.Why are there ample caricatures of unsophisticated suburbanites (Kath and Kim, Edna Everage, Kenny) but none of the inner-city elite? Is the educated well-to-do, inner-city-living class beyond parody or satire? The problem I have is that city planning, and more often Australian culture, appears to be determined by those whose lives are based in the inner city, and not by the silent majority of average Australians who live in the suburban heartland.

If you are of the first kind of lefty then these figures will shock you. Surely if one groups income is rising far faster then some sort of discrimination is occuring? Salt even suggests a reason: an absence of a definate ‘voice’ within the national discourse as the cause, resulting in an unheard ‘silent majority’ who are being excluded and deprived. Tony Abbott expresses similar sentiments in his book with a sub-heading ‘how families have been forgotten’. If the outcome is different surely the process is flawed? Perhaps not

For the latter kind of lefty and most centrists, however there is another factor at work: A self-selection bias that is going to always cause such changes, and need not expressly worry us. As Salt acknowledges the heart of the difference is education. Those who have gone to universities, perhaps even for higher research have prospered, those who have not added such skills, have in this analysis seemingly missed out. But this ignores that both groups have seen rising incomes of all income brackets during this period, so the difference is only one of relative gain. More importantly is how this advantage came to be accrued, with the HECS system Australia has a system which does not deter the poor from attending higher education:

in 1989 the government introduced a charge for university attendance – the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. This had a unique characteristic: students could choose to pay their university fees after they graduated, and only if and when their incomes reached a specified threshold – about A$34,000 a year at the time, although it has since been lowered.
The effects of Hecs have been studied extensively, particularly its consequences for access for the poor to university. The bottom line is that there have been no implications: higher education enrolments by all socioeconomic groups have increased by an average of 40 per cent. The university system is thus much larger than it was 13 years ago, and this has happened because of the creation of a healthy Hecs revenue base.

(You can find a more detailed paper on the subject here)

So the opportunity to access Higher Education in this country has been equal and non-discriminatory for the last 20 years, including this studied decade. So on the basis of the opportunity one group has taken the opportunity and been rewarded, another has not and thus not obtained it. An outcome most children would recognise as fair when taught through stories such as Aseops fable about the Ant & the Grasshopper.

Secondly and more importantly however, Salt both decries the “centrifugal force” flinging families into suburbia, yet presents the figures as if the groups were static the whole time. Rather than assume all in the city have had their incomes rise, we should expect to see that those who’se incomes were rising tended to migrate towards the city. This would be both for job opportunities and in parallel for social organisation reasons to. People with similar outlooks or culture tend to want to live nearby each other and so employers follow. If everyone was static in residence then such changing figures might seem discriminatory, but instead they are exacerbated by change, rather than mitigated by it. Secondly, if the opportunities for this benefit was equal then the different outcome is not so much discrimination as the natural variation we find amongst people in the world. Each of us have different talents, skills, work ethic and personalities that lend themselves to or detract from our ability to demand a higher income. And of course having families necessarily means some trade off between time available for involvement in culture and spent chasing career advancement.

Yet Salt plays with numbers, or mentions a single TV show in order to demonstrate that socially families are excluded or mocked. But as his concern is with economic and demographic issues, what we are really discussing is not a social but a political process. And within the sphere of politics the accusation that families or suburbia are being ignored is not only laughable but offensive.

As I was remarking to a fellow blogger the other day, families are the very first in this country to play the victim card. Whatever the overall national economic circumstances there is a omnipresent view in this country that families are doing it tough and need help. In 2007, at the end of our longest ever economic boom, Labor managed to tell families they were doing it tough as ‘working families’ and ride this resentment into government. Howard’s truthful though arrogant claim that families ‘had never had it better’ helped cut the lingering ties between the government and its former supporters.

Indeed despite Abbott’s odd chapter heading, we have never seen a government as obsessed with helping families than the Howard Government (which ruled from 1996-2007, exactly covering the period in question in Salt’s figures), as Andrew Norton made clear in his essay ‘Big Government Conservatism’

In 2004–05 Commonwealth assistance to families with children, primarily via Family Tax Benefits, cost almost $25.5 billion. After adjustment for inflation, it increased by 18% in the three years ending 30 June 2005 (included in figure 2), with the Budget papers forecasting another $3 billion a year on top of this in 2007–08.

Though the Prime Minister correctly observes that children are costly, people caring for them typically earn more than households generally. In 1996–97, two-thirds of couples with children had incomes placing them in the top 40% of households when ranked by income. By contrast, only one-third of lone adults aged 25–64 earned enough to be in this upper income group.[12] In 2003–04, market income (excluding government benefits) for the median couple with children was more than $76,000, compared to $45,000 for households generally.[13] For most couples, children coincide with the financial capacity to raise them.

The net effect of this is that 42.2% of families pay no net tax, receiving more in benefits from the government than they pay in income tax:

Take a step back and recall what happened to the politically ubiquitous working family during the past decade. The proportion with both parents employed increased from 54.5 per cent in 1997 to 59.9 per cent last year. The proportion of jobless families – where both parents were out of work – fell from 8.6 per cent to 4.8 per cent during the same period.

Oh, and the home ownership rate also rose, despite talk of an affordability crisis, from 78.3 per cent in 1996 to 79.6 per cent in 2006. Against these undoubted boosts to living standards, governments, both Coalition and Labor, decided it wasn’t nearly enough. The proportion of couples with dependent children who are tax free jumped from one in five (20.1 per cent) in 2004 to one in four (26.3per cent) in the present financial year.

Ours is a nation obsessed by suburbia, with all politicians having to pass the ‘family’ test to be elected and certainly to become Prime Minister. No single men have made it to the top, and those without kids (such as Bob Carr from NSW) are the exception that prove the rule. Over the last 20 years practically every election except 2001 was decided on the issue of who would better support families. 2007 was working families, 2004 aspirationals and interest rates, 1998 & 1993 on tax breaks and 1996 on putting ‘suburbia not special interests’ front and center.

Raising a family is certainly a tough decision, and as a country we need more kids and should encourage and congratulate those who do. But to pretend families are not being heard or looked after is a gross distortion unworthy of a federal newspaper columnist. A populist fiddle with figures that ignores the overwhelming political context where families dominate and exclude all other groups day after day. And thats fine, its a good thing our countries focus is on those seeking to raise kids, but so long as the opportunities that created this outcome are fair, then small deviations are not reflections of inequality but personal choice and natural circumstance.

Letting the Market be the Market

One of the fundamental principles handed down to us from the modern birth of democracy was the imperative to separate church and state. Having had well over a thousand years of church dominated political life, thinkers in the west came to recognize that such cross-over harmed both. Government failed the people physically and the Church spiritually as both were corrupted from their primary purpose. It is also no co-incidence that America is one of the most religious places on earth due to giving the churches wide space to act outside and away from the grasp of state-doctrine & man-anointed leaders.

This principle is well ingrained, and now as we end the first decade of the 21st century I’d like to advocate another similar principle: The separation of Corporation and State

Lindsay Tanner writing in the Age this morning makes the point well in relation to health-care:

Australia has been fortunate to avoid the most extreme form of this phenomenon, where individual companies became vehicles for social welfare policy.

American car manufacturers are threatened with bankruptcy partly because they are burdened with enormous health and pension obligations. China is struggling to build a social safety net as it can no longer afford to force companies to provide services such as health care and housing.

This is something that has always intrigued me, in watching apparently pro-market forces condemn government paid health-care services. Even some of the most thoughtful tie themselves in knots trying to justify the massive costs forced onto business, all the while charting those for whom the recession has meant not just the loss of their job, but their health care too. But in spite of this burden on business, and great risk on the individual, the idea of universal coverage paid for by taxation (and lets face it US rates arn’t that much lower than anywhere else in the developed world, and such costs pale next to the defence budget) is anathema and must be rejected out of hand.

Yet why should business’s already struggling to compete as efficiently as they can, be forced to provide for the healthcare needs of their employers. They only pay for their education when it comes to specific business related learning, so why cover their general maintenance and well being too? If business’s want to add an extra incentive to attract workers thats great, but most business’s offer it only because they know they have to (in some cases are forced to) And so issues related to hiring and firing and workplace flexibility become infinitely more complex and emotionally tied up due to the link to the health of both the employee and their family. Given business’s already pay taxes, why are they forced to become a secondary social welfare vehicle ?

Yet the point is obvious in other areas too. In politics our politicians are ever more having to account for who they met and interact with, less they be revealed to have dined from the table of Lobbyists (and to which President Obama has, -at some cost to the progressive movement- banished from the white house staff)

Even more transparently, corporations and states rarely mix for a beneficial outcome to the public, from dodgy deals in no-bid contracts, to the vast extent of corporate welfare which burdens out budget and distorts our policy, particularly in primary industries such as Agriculture and Manufacturing. And whist the prophets of the free market warn darkly about the return of tariffs, the single greatest force encouraging such protectionism is the very corporations who are idolised by these same figures. Individuals and towns are often ignored by governments, but put a big corporation before a government to plead it’s case and more often than not tax payer money seems to flow their way. All for the good of the people we are told.

This was also one of the great faults of the Howard Government, which claimed to be pro-market, yet was more accurately pro-business. What major companies began at the start of its time in office, it put in all viable resources to see them continue. As I outlined a while back, the Howard government was relentless in its efforts to protect the major corporations in Australia from competition and the forces of the market, even when it hurt it’s own electoral base. That is those who advocated the most about preventing government distortion of the market to benefit the social welfare (such as in opposing regulation or taxation) were often the first to embrace their own distortions when it helped corporate welfare.

Of course no complete seperation is possible, nor should it be advocated. Just as we would lose out if we tried to ban religious arguments from our public sphere, we should not try to stop corporations advocating their case or playing their role before the public. But where possible, government should see that their mission is quite different to that of corporations, and too close a link (however much it might help in promoting wealth and prosperity) is likely to corrupt both away from their actual skills and constituency.

After the experience of the middle ages, new political thinkers realised that seperating the church and state benefited both. After the experience of the depression, fascism and the new market crashes, we should realise that separating Corporation and State will also benefit both. Unleash the market to compete as vigorously as possible, and restrain the state to keep as focused on individual freedom & well being, not business bottom lines as possible. In short, let the market, be the market. It’s a lesson those who profess to love it most, will find the hardest to accept.

The Great Pretender

Mark Twain once said “History may not repeat, but it does rhyme a lot”, an insight many political watchers must be feeling watching Peter Costello once again destabilize the Liberal Party whilst simultaneously damaging his own standing and reputation. Yet, such an observation seems to fly in the face of the Australian media’s Conventional Wisdom that Costello was the best politician of his generation in his dominance of parliament and policy as Treasurer.

It fits a pattern, Costello was the liberal wunderkid, becoming famous as a young barrister taking on the unions in the Dollar Sweets disupte. After a quick rise in 1994, he wisely (or so it is held) chose only to be Downer’s Deputy, and then again in 1995, took the junior position to John Howard, knowing his standing as next in line was cemented, whatever the outcome of the election.

Victories in 1996 & 1998, along with the introduction of the GST, and slowly improving economic circumstances of Australia (whose rise it must be noted began before the Coalition came to power), and a lack of any strong (or even comfortable) parliamentary performers to challenge him, and Costello was seen as the next PM without a doubt, and a political talent without equal.
Yet from here, our story and the conventional narrative for this great political talent; one that still holds, and sends his troops to the fore breaks down. Costello ended the twentieth century pushing for an Australian Republic and pushing for reconciliation with suggestions of a walk for reconciliation (Costello later backed out; blaming his colleagues).

And, of course having done his loyal time, Costello expected the deal to be honoured, and his ascent up the greasy pole to be complete.

Costello then promised to speak freely, and show the Australian people his full command and leadership, but like most of his promises, it never happened. He stayed fixed almost entirely within his comfortable, unchallenged high ground as treasurer during an economic boom. As we later learned, the great political talent maintained the same aloofness even to his colleagues, the few dozen people who’s votes actually mattered and could have given him the leadership. This great political talent never got any closer to the leadership, year after year. Yet Every 18 months he would step out to have a whinge that the top job was not already his. All without ever being willing to challenge, a pattern he maintained during the coalitions death spiral and Howards late night pre-election meeting on stepping down. Costello of course, the great political talent according to the conventional wisdom, didn’t initiate the conversation, wasn’t in the room that mattered, didn’t have his colleagues loyalty, and ended up going down with the ship, in the same position he had been in 13 years before.

And so, the dawn after his white whale was harpooned and brought down, Costello couldn’t even bring himself to accept the burden of leadership. And so as Nelson and now Turnbull lead the party into oblivion, the great political talent, continues to destabilize, and harm his party. His memoirs passed almost without incident, and the Australian political world, apart from a few rubberneck spectators the man himself, and the same political press corps who created the conventional wisdom of his great talent, has moved on.

For all his talent Costello is a man who (as the Chaser boy’s quipped) wouldn’t even challenge for the leadership when it was already his. This great political talent, never once changed his own parties policy stance on a major issue, shifting from being a rare liberal amongst conservatives, to just another mouthpiece for whatever came out of the PM’s office that day. This great political talent never showed to the public any great vision or inspiration in any field beyond economics, and even there what was new came from Howard, what was competent from Treasury. Having had a better opportunity, promotional base, and luck in national conditions suiting his ministry, Costello still managed to never, ever get any closer to the leadership, than he was on 31 January 1995 when Downer resigned and Costello could have taken the leadership.

Peter Costello is clearly a smart, talented, bloke, but if politics is the art of gaining power or using it for the pursuit of one’s ideas and aims, politics is not one of his skills. He may just well be, the worst political talent in Australian political history. So much opportunity, so much ineptness in actually achieving what he wanted. The media should forget this has been never will be. Good on John Hewson for saying so.

Or, just turn to Paul Keating who nailed the man 15 years ago:

Of great and petty things

In the 15 months since the Howard Government fell, I’d wager a fair percentage of the publics opinion on that time has shifted. Whilst most are happy under Rudd, they naturally have come to associate the time before as one of prosperity, less economic stress, and stability. So, whilst the current liberal party tears itself apart (though a necessary bloodletting), you can understand why people may be keen to hear what the former PM John Howard thinks and perhaps even re-evaluate him having voted him out in 2007.
Thus, this morning both Fairfax and News Ltd reprinted large swathes of his recent Lecture to the Liberal Party faithful. Indeed as my own philosophy is growing increasingly liberal, I was beginning to wonder if I’d misjudged a politician who could casually reference both Mill and Burke.

Yet one quick skim through the lecture was enough to remind me just how much I detest the lying rodent all over again. Here’s three quick lies & distortions:

1) First Howard claims the subprime crisis was caused by “a laudable social goal to spread home ownership as widely as possible”. As referenced before on this blog, it is quite simply false.

2) Then Howard uses the Liberal Parties deliberately misleading claim that we are suddenly $200b in debt from the $42b stimulus package. Unsurprisingly the impossible maths here means this distortion hasn’t caught on in the publics mind, but its worth turning to the economist Peter Martin to show why its so deliberately wrong:

Kevin Rudd is planning to spend $42 billion over two years, not the $200 billion needed justify the Liberal Party’s calculation. But the bills before the Senate do allow his government to borrow up to $200 billion if needed. It’s like a credit limit. It’s not a debt unless you use it.

3) Finally, Howard promised us that he would be a “very quiet ex-prime minister and not provide a running commentary”. This is about the 6th time Howard has popped up to criticize the Rudd Government since the election, on a spectrum of issues.

It took 15 months for memory to slowly fade and cast a warmer glow on the former PM, and only 5 minutes to bring all the dismay and disgust come flooding back.