Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Liberal Party

Best op-ed of the year

This is as good an op-ed as you will read this year: Dr Robert Dean via the

The day the sheep sold out the farm
December 8, 2009

By not backing Malcolm Turnbull, the small ”l” Liberals have betrayed the Menzies dream.

I AM one of the poor bastards who is a liberal Liberal, not a conservative. I’m a lifelong member of the Liberal Party now feeling like I don’t have a party any more. I feel like a child who has been left on the footpath alone because his mother and father had a fight and were so full of each other’s anger and vindictiveness that they stormed off in opposite directions completely oblivious that they had left me standing on the footpath inches from whizzing traffic.
Read the full article »

What will the Abbott Opposition look like?

tony_abbott2 By 1 vote in the party room Tony Abbott has defeated Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal Party. So what can we expect from his time as opposition leader?

Federalism: In his book Abbott makes a strong case that federalism is broken, that the conservative position ought to be to do something, and that the incompetence and irrelevance of the states leaves no choice but to place health and education (amongst others) under Commonwealth control. Whilst stepping back from his earlier call to get rid of the states, Abbott suggests that if a Government can pass a bill in both houses twice, separated by 6 months, then it should be able to override the states, in the way it can with the territories currently. This move would be tough to sell for a referendum, but if proposed Labor would be fools not to jump at the chance. Equally, an Abbott opposition offers by far the best chance for a Rudd/Gillard Government to really deliver an era of ‘New Federalism’. And by that I mean Centralisation.

Health: Abbott as the former health minister is deeply tied to the Howard governments approach. While his support for private schools may limit his support for centralisation in Education, under Howard Abbott regularly argued for a federal government take over of the system, and was the key proponent by the last-minute takeover of the Mercy Community hospital in Tasmania. Abbott also supports the idea of a paid maternity leave (though seems to prefer a Baby Bonus style one off handout). Roxon got the better of Abbott on health in 2007 so if her re-design of the system is strong, this should be a issue Labor would love to talk about, without it being a major vote changer.
Abbott may try to tie such discussions to the issue of Indigenous health & living standards in general, an issue he shows genuine concern for. His policy prescriptions are likely to be of the paternalistic variety (with a dash of Pearson entrepreneurialism thrown in), however it could demonstrate to voters a more emotive side to him than previously recognised. Not necessarily huge vote winner, but could soften up some voters to him.

Abortion: While Abbott has a rather extreme image to much of the public, he would be able to gain immediate credit and re-newed attention simply by making clear his actual views of abortion. While he disagree’s with the principle, he see’s draws a clear line between efforts to reduce australias 75’000+ abortions a year and efforts to re-criminalise it. Equally, he seems to recognize that his own past (a child out of wedlock, reputation as a ladies man), mean that he doesn’t have a good basis for being a moraliser. His views are most clearly set out in his 2004 speech “The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician”. This is still an issue that has great potential to get Abbott in trouble, but he isn’t the extremist he is often made out to be. He’s more like a Bill Clinton, who thinks abortion should be ‘Safe, Legal, and rare’. A pretty hard statement to disagree with. The rhetoric may frighten some on the left, but that over-reaction could if anything help Abbott with the mainstream.

Welfare: In welfare, the difference between Abbott’s conservative and liberal instincts is clearly apparent. As a Conservative, Abbott recognises the cost of raising families and the benefit of stable incomes, proposing to add significant extra levels of support (such as a guaranteed minimum income) and removal of almost all means tests due to the hideous marginal tax rates that apply as incomes rise and welfare is taken away. Yet as a Liberal Abbott also worries that welfare distorts peoples principles, and for the poor drives them towards poor moral choices such as a life of ease on unemployment benefits. As such he seemingly endorses universal welfare for all but the poor, with untold and uncalculated costs accumulated to the federal government to provide for all this. If Rudd went hard on cutting middle class welfare he could trip up the contradiction between Abbott’s complaints about debt and his desire for expanded welfare. Likely instead he would race him to offer even bigger handouts.

Foreign Policy: The great unknown. Abbott touches on the issue very briefly in his book, but it’s the usual boilerplate stuff of supporting the US, taking the fight to the terrorists, and supporting the Howard Government’s great leap into East Timor. He’ll probably go along with the foreign policy direction of the Govt, take a few opportunistic pot-shots where possible, but otherwise leave it to his foreign minister. If he starts getting hit on the issue by the commentariat, expect him to retreat to nationalism and supporting increased defence funding to prove his strength in the area. If Abbott started getting closer in the polls to Rudd, expect a strong retaliation on the issue of who is better at handling international issues (and going with the consensus on climate change is relevant here). Abbott will have to hit the books to be taken seriously, and needs to hire a good foreign policy advisor as one of his first acts.

Climate Change: The only reason we are discussing the rise of an Abbott leadership is because he is the most recognisable face of the anti-CPRS movement inside the Liberals. Obviously his position is dependent on those outright deniers such as Minchin (Abbott seems to have taken just about every position on this issue), so he will seek a lengthy delay and more generous handouts for the CPRS. More important will be his ability to control the pro-ets senators such as Troeth, Humphries, Trood etc. Despite winning due to support from climate deniers, Abbott surely knows the electoral risk of the CPRS, so he may propose some alternate form (A carbon tax could be appealing) to placate the supporters and appear to be serious about the issue for the public. But have no doubt, he is willing to fight, and hard against Rudd’s CPRS. He already road tested a number of lines against it, so expect to hear the words “giant new tax on everything” consistently for the next 9 months.

Rhetoric and Strategy: While Abbott came to the leadership because of his opposition to the CPRS, he has a moderate view of the role of oppositions, writing in his book: “An oppositions job is to clarify its own thinking rather than actually to govern the country… What is the point of opposing legislation when it is likely to pass anyway….There’s much to be said for adopting the view that the government is generally entitled to get its legislation through, because thats what the people voted for” (Battlelines 2009 p53). Recognising the harm Beazley’s constant oppositionism did to him, and the harm Workchoices did to the Howard Government, i’d expect a Abbott opposition to voice constant complain, whilst generally stuttering that they will give the government the noose to hang itself.

Abbott’s not a bad speaker, he doesn’t mince words and uses plain language. It could appeal strongly compared to Rudd’s detailed linguistic specificity. He does have a slight stutter as he thinks about what to say, and I’ve yet to hear him give a really impressive or inspiring speech. He is best at press conferences, which is handy as that is where most of our political discussion comes from. He will make the occasional inarticulate gaffe, and say a lot of things that will drive segments of the left crazy, but his policies are likely to be pretty conventional. It’s not a bad act, similar to what Howard pulled. (Interesting the left rarely seems to do this, showing the rights rhetorical domination in recent decades). On that issue, as his first press conference as leader showed, a great rhetorical challenge for Abbott will be to claim the credit for what the Howard government did well, without being too tied to it, or looking like he is just advocating its return, as Labor will charge (it already is with its first -online- add “Dont Go Back”)

It will be easy to over-estimate the radicalness of Abbott as leader, but he will end up earning brownie points from the public for being more moderate than they were lead to believe. I doubt he can win, but he will be a tough leader to beat. Despite his years in the ministry, I have a feeling Australia doesn’t really know Abbott, or will at least give him a honest second look. So expect some volatility and change compared to this weeks polls. (When done here, you should follow that link to check Possum’s excellent breakdown of the post-split polls)

Abbott is a very committed, hard working and decent bloke. He spends a lot of his time helping charity/volunteer groups, he keeps himself fit and healthy, and he is passionate about public life and improving the country. Rudd in comparison could come off badly as a nerdy spin machine. That shouldn’t happen given the governments domination, but if Abbott can survive to face a second election he will be a real threat. I’m certainly look forward to this election. For all my political disagreements with Abbott, I rather like the guy. He’ll infuriate, he’ll make the Liberal Party a much more conservative beast, but he will be offering a clear and strongly believed alternative.

An ETS by dinner time

While we wait for the Liberal leadership saga to play out, just a quick reminder, that 7 Liberal Senators acting as a block could end this farce and pass the CPRS by dinner. Indeed the senate isn’t rising until 10pm, so they’ve even got time for some quick dutch courage before such an act. We are so used to party discipline being comprehensive, that even though the Liberal party is utterly divided on the issue, they still are voting as one, both to pass amendments from the McFarlane-Wong deal, and to delay the bill.

Just 7 senators walking into the chamber, with Labors knowledge could vote to roll all amendments into one, end the debate and vote on the final passage of the bill. Rather than worry about deals with Hockey or counting numbers with Abbott, Turnbull just needs to get the following people into the chamber – Birmingham, Simon, Brandis, the Hon George, Coonan, the Hon Helen , Humphries, Gary, Kroger, Helen, Payne, Marise , Ronaldson, the Hon Michael , Troeth, the Hon Judith, Trood, Russell,. It would be one of the most audacious acts in Australian political history, but hey, this is Malcolm Turnbull we are talking about, and he has a lot of free front bench positions to fill… Something to think about.

And just because I’ve been wanting to post this for a while : What possible reason does Joe Hockey have for taking the Liberal leadership job. He knew it was a dodgy deal last month, it is an even worse deal this month. He is being pressured by a lot of people worried about their own seats, to sacrifice his career for them. He needs to think strategically and in the long term interests of the party and his personal principles. Though only 44 if he takes the leadership and loses his career is effectively over in politics (unfair but thems the breaks). If Abbott takes over, and loses as expected (assuming Hockey can hold his own seat), then he will be unopposed in the leadership stakes, and be able to use the electoral drubbing as a mandate to sideline the climate deniers. He will have authority as one of the only former Howard Government ministers left (given that by then Turnbull & Abbott will be discredited or retired), and the time to re-establish the party as suits him.

But if he runs, he will be out of the job by this time next year, probably go down in history as a loser of Latham-esp proportions (without being responsible) and have a miserable time as the current divisions over Climate Change continue to play out. Even if he delay post Copenhagen (which is in 7 days), what will he do in January? February? March? These are the questions the government asks, all set to images of bushfires and dirty polluting coal plants. Indecisive or not across the details? Patsy to the deniers, or one himself? The Labor attack adds write themselves. To run now just sacrifices his talents and skills for no good reason. Don’t run Joe!

ETS: The Final Countdown – Todays Primer

Here is a quick primer for those of you unsure of what’s happening, or wanting to double check you’ve got the lay of the land down pat. I’ll also be live blogging the days events, so check back regularly to keep up to date.

3:25pm – It’s Over. No vote today.
Labor under Chris Evan’s passionately blames the libs ‘fillibuster’ argues “you have ratted on that agreement”. Cites 295 amendments, with only 34 dealt with. Labor must share some of the blame with its poorly organised chamber and inability to get supportive libs in chamber. Whinging about a ratted on agreement just looks week. This weekend is going to be ugly for all involved in the Liberal Party.

Liberal rebels have sent a letter asking for leadership spill Monday morning (suggestions might occur Tuesday instead), however notables such as Senator Minchin have not signed it.
Talk has now turned to how Labor responds, particularly if they call a Double Dissolution in response early next year. Rudd will have a trigger under section 57 of the Constitution if

the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree

If this happens twice, with a 3 month wait in between, then the Govt has it’s trigger. Deferral is not blocking or failure to pass, but could be left to lawyers. So whilst the test isn’t a full block, it’s also not clear a failure today will be enough for a DD. I’ll follow up on this in a post in a few days when some of the dust has settled.

1:50pm – The deal for Hockey to lead seems to be firming. However I have some doubt if that is the liberals desire, or the press’s. So the ugly side of twitter may be an increase of the press’s power to judge who is a valid candidate (as they universally and negatively did for Andrews). The Senate is finally getting around to debating the Govt-Opposition deal on the CPRS, but time is escaping, and no sign of any liberals willing to stand up and vote today. This sage may well go until monday lunchtime if not next few months…

12:15pm – Confusion if Bishop did or did not ask Turnbull to resign. Deal may be in works for Hockey leader, Dutton deputy. Abbott starting to waiver. May not have numbers, or be content to simply take Turnbull’s scalp and move up to Shadow Treasurer under Hockey. Who knows where this would leave ETS (prob delay to post Copenhagen, but who knows what then? & why would Hockey accept such a bad deal with the mal-contents emboldened)

11:30am – Deputy Julia Bishop has called on Turnbull to resign. Hockey is firming to run against Abbott on Monday. The Senate is crawling in pace. Not looking good for vote by 3:45pm (when Senate is due to rise).

History: Labor passed an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The Liberals demanded amendments, with Ian McFarlane(Lib) and Penny Wong(Lab) doing the negotiations. These included major new breaks for polluters and households. Details here. After a 10 hour meeting on tuesday, Turnbull claimed he had the support of a majority of the party. Many dissented, claiming he was in minority. Anger at being over-ruled, led to a vote on whether to change leadership, with Kevin Andrews running as the potential replacement. The Vote failed 48-35. Party members pledged to support the bill or hold their tounge. After Question Time on Thursday, two leading dissenters, Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin, both members of the shadow cabinet went to Turnbull and demanded the vote be held off until Copenhagen summit or they would resign. Turnbull refused, and about 10 members of the Liberal Party cabinet resigned, starting with Abbott. Late Thursday night, Turnbull gave a defiant press conference saying he would fight on and try to pass the legislation. The Govt capitalised on this, and has rushed the bill forward to be voted on by 3:45pm today (Friday 27th Nov). Tony Abbott (denier) has declared that he will challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership, with a vote due on Monday morning. Pressure has been applied to Joe Hockey(supporter) to also run. Most MP’s have gone home to their electorates, so are not in canberra to vote on the leadership right away.

The Numbers: To pass a bill you need 39 senators to support the bill
Labor: 32
Coalition: 37 (33 Liberals and 4 Nationals)
Independents: 2 (Xenephon and Fielding)
Greens: 5

Who else supports an ETS

Greens: The Greens opposed the CPRS strongly. Though the most active on the issue and with the strongest supporters, they see the bill as a sell out and refuse to support it. Likely they will continue to make perfect the enemy of the good and vote with the climate deniers against the bill. However, they could also choose to at least vote with labor on procedural issues almost ensuring a vote will occur. With their support the CPRS would be almost guaranteed, without it will be very tough.

Notionally the Liberal Party supports the bill. Malcolm Turnbull has made a very strong claim for it, and is risking his position to support it. This may be stubborn digging in, but it’s also very courageous & principled stuff. Claims have been made that “15 of 32” or “a majority” of liberal senators support the bill. Many have reservations about the nature of the bill, and the push to pass before Copenhagen (Dec7-18 2009) On a vote on tuesday to delay the bill until after Copenhagen only 12 Liberals voted for delay, leaving potentially 20 in support. Only 7 are needed to vote today to support the bill. Of those who seem most likely to vote yes are:

Birmingham, Simon – Senator for South Australia
Brandis, the Hon George – Senator for Queensland
Coonan, the Hon Helen – Senator for New South Wales
Humphries, Gary – Senator for Australian Capital Territory
Kroger, Helen – Senator for Victoria
Payne, Marise – Senator for New South Wales
Ronaldson, the Hon Michael – Senator for Victoria
Troeth, the Hon Judith – Senator for Victoria
Trood, Russell – Senator for Queensland

How does this bill get passed?
1) 7 Liberals vote with Labor to over-ride any procedural motions against and vote by 3:45pm today in favor. For liberals who support the ETS this is their best chance as they are still technically voting with the majority of the party. If on Monday Abbott wins a spill (as expected) then any vote they cast for the ETS would be against the will of the party leadership. Far more extreme pressure could be brought to bear. Passing an ETS today would also take all the wind out of the sails of the deniers (for it would become law with Labors support in the HOR), and so could also guarantee Turnbull’s continued leadership (protecting and indebting those who vote for an ETS today).

2) The Greens come down from the mountain and support Labor, with 1-2 Libs supporting it.

3) ?? (Ie anything could happen. Xenephon has been against it, but could change at last minute if Labor offered a big enough bribe (as they did on Murray-Darling legislation).

4) The bill fails today. Abbott takes over and official Liberal policy becomes to oppose the bill. Labor goes to an election (potential DD if CPRS bill is voted down), and wins additional senate seats. Pass legislation on their own or with greens support.

5) It doesn’t.

Who’s going to be Liberal Leader next week?
Good question.
Malcolm Turnbull: could only remain if he gets an ETS passed before Monday, pre-empting Abbott’s campaign to become leader so as to stop the legislation. He’s been very impressive these last few days, but has about 20% of remaining leader.
Tony Abbott: Most expected him to wait until post election loss. Spurred into action by ETS which he has claimed is just a policy issue, though now will challenge. Likely to win such a challenge on Monday (Turnbull had only a 7 vote buffer, against the non-starter Kevin Andrews. Likely Deputies include Julie Bishop (if she abandons Turnbull), Tony Smith, Andrew Robb, Joe Hockey
Joe Hockey: Supported Turnbull, but seen as next best Pro-ETS, moderate leader. Being pressured to take on Abbott on Monday. Like Abbott doesn’t want leadership before the election (loss). But may have little choice if Turnbull is abandoned/moderates want to stop Abbott.
Andrew Robb: Was considered a serious contender as a caretaker leader till the election. Unlikely now that Abbott has thrown his hat in the ring. Still too early after taking a break for depression to be a serious contender.
Kevin Andrews: …..Just Joking. On a day like this we all need a laugh.

I’ll update this as information comes in. If you have anything to add or challenge, please post a comment or email me could either be a fizzle, or the start of a fundamental re-alignment of Australian politics (with Turnbull type liberals leaving the party for Labor, and the Coalition becoming a far more conservative body). Keep refreshing that webpage, and of course follow me on twitter for all the latest. (Though i also highly recommend adding the following people (Annabel Crabb, David Speers, Samantha Maiden, Latika Bourke, James Massola)

Enter the clowns

So Malcolm ‘Mugabe‘ Turnbull is in trouble, and the brightest lights of the Liberal Party have stepped up to bring down the tyrant. Or maybe not:

Illustration: David Rowe -

Illustration: David Rowe -

Former high-profile Howard government minister Kevin Andrews has confirmed he is prepared to challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the federal opposition.”There is growing concern in the electorate that this is going to be a massive tax by Mr Rudd which we will be paying for, not just for years, but for decades to come,” he said.

“There has been no economic debate about the real impact of this on Australians.”Meanwhile, prominent Liberal frontbencher Tony Abbott says he wants Mr Turnbull to remain Opposition Leader and that he won’t challenge him for the leadership.

“No, I won’t be challenging for the leadership,” Mr Abbott told the Nine Network.

It’s possible to see Andrew’s claim as a noble act. After all no one in the party wants to sacrifice their best candidates like Abbott and Hockey for what is a guaranteed electoral loss next year (Given that no one is allowed more than one election loss anymore, despite its historical absurdity). So Andrews could be a useful caretaker leader to try and limit the losses, esp to the more capable members left.

Thats perhaps the nicest spin you could put on it, more likely its pure vanity. Andrews might know he can’t be PM, but at a cost of major disunity to his party he is clearly willing to take on the job of opposition leader. Quite a stark comparison to Costello who wouldn’t challenge to be PM, Andrews is willing to challenge to never be PM, but I guess it helps his biography writers find something to talk about. Even Banaby Joyce at the Senator doorstops the moment wasn’t willing to say anything nice about Andrews, so no one is really taking him seriously.

Andrews would be an awful leader, having neither the respect of his colleagues or opponents, and he has a very poor image in the public if known at all. More likely people recall him as the one who has xenophobic views about Sudanese refugees

Andrews was also the minister for Workplace Relations, making him along with Howard a direct author of WorkChoices. So while the Labor party drooled at the thought of pinning Workchoices on Costello as treasurer who introduced it, Andrews would be a golden target to re-run the workchoices campaign. And with Andrews far less able to defend it than Howard was, which was why Howard took away responsibility in early 2007 and handed it to Joe Hockey.

I doubt we will see a spill on Thursday, however Turnbull’s leadership is clearly terminal. Abbott and Hockey are going to stay out of the fight, so he may well survive until the new year, but if Andrews, Tuckey and Jensen can add about 5 more members to their numbers in open rebellion, then he won’t be able to ignore them for too long. (The media will make sure of that!). Still if we discount the ‘elder taking the blows to protect the young’ thesis for Andrews run, this must be seen as one of the most vain and hubristic claims of any politicians in a long time.

One final point about yesterday’s entertainment, twitter really came into it’s own for me during these events. I had to carefully cull my list, but when it was just journalists on the ground who were tweeting, it was the closest thing to being there possible. I’m used to having journalistic friends send me txt’s about what’s going on, but twitter let me and millions others have access to the best people on the ground in just about every situation. So if one person was out for dinner or in a different area, others picked up the slack to ensure total coverage. Congratulations to Annabel Crabb, David Speers, Samantha Maiden, Latika Bourke, James Massola and others for having provided such great reporting during the days events. It’s not yet a substitute for considered reporting, and indulges some of the worst of the 24 hour news cycle, but for those of us stuck on the glass outside trying to peer in, its astounding.

Update: Turnbull called a vote on a spill, allowed a secret ballot, and won 48-35. In an interview immediately after, Joe Hockey said that the votes today were the same as yesterday. A statement he repeated twice.

That is, everyone who opposed the ETS, supported the idea of a leadership spill. So clearly the idea of loyalty to the leader wasn’t worth a single vote. Enter the summer of discontent for the Liberals. Just a matter of time until Hockey, Robb and Abbott decide to run, of which Robb seems most likely.

And thankfully that is as close as Kevin Andrews will ever get to being the leader of the country.

‘You cant put tears on paper’

I have to be honest: I thought this apology was a bad idea from the start. It seemed to cruely mimic the one last year to the aborigines, and I could not see what it would achieve.

I was wrong.

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an emotional apology today to half-a-million “Forgotten Australians”, including British child migrants, who faced abuse and neglect in care homes over decades.

Mr Rudd, echoing his historic 2008 statement to Australia’s Aborigines, addressed about 1000 victims of abuse in orphanages and institutions between 1930 and 1970 who packed Parliament House.

“We come together today to offer our nation’s apology. To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent, that we are sorry,” he said.

I had the good fortune to be in the parliament gallery when Prime Minister Rudd gave his apology to Indigenous Australians. I could see some who were very moved by it, but on the whole it was a solemn, dry affair, more relief at its achievement, than anything else. Today was very different, and very moving.

The press gallery may have been wondering just who Rudd is, but his unvarnished nature was clearly on display today. Rudd clearly is very passionate about the basic issues of lodging and protection. This may spring from his own background in a family too soon without a father and with uncertain finances. He made homelessness the very first issue of his new government, and he clearly had been working on addressing this issue for some time. Rudd’s speech was low key, but finely tuned. Apparently written on the plane home, it was appropriate for the man, and the moment. As easy and tempting as grand rhetorical sweeps must have been, Rudd wisely kept his usual speaking style and allowed the crowd to deliver the emotion of the moment. When they cried, cheered, clapped or occasionally heckled, the focus was always on them, and their stories. I had at first wondered why the apology was not delivered in the parliament, but instead in the Great Hall, yet the choice to invite as many involved people as possible to participate in the event was an excellent one.

Of note were two important, yet unexpected applause lines. First was when Rudd apologised on behalf of the federal government for “denying you basic life opportunities; including so often a decent education.” This drew a spontaneous and strongly sustained line of applause from the audience. Their sentiments were not revenge or financial reparations, but this struck a core sentiment. The main desire was to move on, to say the greatest sin was simply the denial of the childhood that they deserved, needed and so desperately wanted after such a horrific start to life. For this was not just the institutionalization of abuse, it was the deliberate exploitation of that suffering in order to create a “better” generation.

One of the other most pleasing moments, was to see the recognition by both Prime Minister and Opposition Leader of former Senator Andrew Murray. Murray received generous praise, and a standing ovation. I do not know the particulars of Murray’s involvement, -beyond his membership of the forgotten Australian’s committee- but on a day when the national leaders spoke and espoused to nation, it was gratifying to see them both turn to a mere member of the legislature, and doff their hats to his moral leadership. Many members of the senate over its 100 years have worked without public praise or recognition, seeking a better country. In long and tired committee meetings they have toiled. Murray has toiled with them, and ought today to be seen as a representative of them. To see him praised in such manner, was very moving. This showed it was not just the leaders acting, but the entire elected representatives of the nation who participated in the moment.

All that said, the highlight was the speech by Malcolm Turnbull. Where Nelson was sanctimonious and missed the tone and meaning of the moment in 2008, Turnbull hit every note. He started ambitiously, going for the big rhetorical approach, and at first the audience was hesitant to travel with him. Turnbull is certainly capable of giving a great speech; where Rudd was homely, he was sweeping. The crowd was understandably not on his side as much as they were for Rudd, but he steadily won them over. His tearing up, twice, including at a moment describing a small boy, alone with his suitcase and neither mother or father around seemed utterly personal and real. His embrace of a man who was a victim of such abuse – mid-speech – was a truly moving moment. It may have been staged, and yet absolutely real. By the end many, if not most rose in standing ovation to Turnbull’s speech. If his path is as pre-destined to electoral failure as everyone else has written, then let it be said, this was his finest hour.

The apology also brings into stark light the Howard years. John Howard not only didn’t give such an apology (the Senate Report came out in 2004), he couldn’t have given it.
John Howard has many talents, but on the big cultural issues he never could find the words. Many have remarked on his focus on Gallipolli and mateship, seeing in it either good old fashioned conservatism, or a backward looking 1950’s mentality. It was more the former than the latter, but it really owed itself to Howard’s inability to move beyond what had been said and what he already knew on such issues. Howard introduced massive new immigration levels, and yet had neither the words nor sentiments to bring them into our community. As James Curran has documented in his book About Speech, every Prime Minister since Harold Holt struggled trying to give Australia a new rhetorical basis, after the old British-Australian one had slipped away. Howard however abandoned that quest, not because he thought it wrong, but because he had nothing to say.

He had no ways to include migrants, no sentiments to heal divided communities, no empathy to address societies failings, no vision or foresight to see where this country could saftly dock its identity from the storms of globalisation. Instead we were told to forget about it, put the problems aside and focus on our own stories. So we as a people did, and it has its merits. Yet for the new migrant who struggled to fit it, for the children of migrants born here and yet unsure of where home was, for the indigenous Australians, for those struggling to come to terms with their own identities, whether their sexuality, religion, or just what it means to be a man or woman in the modern world, for the young who had to move overseas to be listened to and taken seriously, and of course for those 500’000 who were left to suffer in institutions as children, they all suffered quietly in a nation unwilling to confront its past, or talk about its future. The Prime Minister is our communicator-in-chief. When their words fall silent, or worse, when they speak but can only find deaf ears, our society can not move forward, nor even get into gear.

Rudd will likely not solve that problem (perhaps it never will be solved), but he is at least trying. Instead of the neglect and awkward silence of his predecessor, he is bringing these issues out into the open. They can and must be discussed if we are to account for and understand ourselves and our history. Many cynics will say ‘But this apology saves no child’, yet the policy solutions they seek can only be found when we have as a nation discussed and accounted for this past. The Senate Committee’s did that, the many who have fought to raise public awareness have done that, and now, in two excellent speeches by our Prime Minister and the Leader of The Opposition our nation has done that.

This apology has seen our nation at some of its best. That said, I have to wonder, like Bernard Keane if Fielding’s timing on his revelation he was sexually abused is more about getting attention when our minds are on such matters, rather than empathetically reaching out to those who the apology was directed towards. At the very least he should have waited until the day after (and probably it would have gathered him more press)

For more, here are

Kevin Rudd’s Speech
Malcolm Turnbull’s Speech

Congratulations to them both.

The Entitlement train is in

Peter Dutton is the Liberal Party federal member for Dickson, and Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing. His seat was re-jigged by the AEC recently and made nominally Labor (as it was Dutton only won it in 2007 by 217 votes). He then ran for pre-selection for the nearby seat of McPherson, and lost to a local candidate. And now he has officially spat the dummy:

LIBERAL frontbencher Peter Dutton is asking the Queensland Liberal National Party to deliver him a seat for which he doesn’t have to fight other preselection candidates.peter-dutton-200x0
This is likely to put heavy pressure on long-term sitting members, Alex Somlyay, the chief Opposition whip, and Peter Slipper, who hold Liberal seats. Both have said they want to stand again and under the Liberal-National merger arrangements, they are guaranteed the right to do so.Mr Dutton, defeated on Saturday for the safe Liberal seat of McPherson, said yesterday he had only ”one shot in the locker for a contested preselection”. His ultimatum puts the party organisation in a bind. Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has said Mr Dutton, who won’t run in his electorate of Dickson again because it is notionally Labor, must have a seat in the House of Representatives.

Mr Dutton, who had stayed silent since his loss, told reporters yesterday he had never intended to ”seek preselection elsewhere in that sort of an arrangement”. He would not run for the new seat of Wright – there already are strong candidates for preselection there. He also ruled out the Senate. Mr Dutton, who reaffirmed he would not stand again in Dickson, which he won from high-profile Labor member Cheryl Kernot in 2001, said the LNP ”has some thinking to do”. He said he would continue to work not just with Mr Turnbull but also with the executive in Queensland. ”I believe I have something to offer the Liberal Party into the future,” he said.

Dutton here is betraying his lineage as part of the Peter Costello school of entitlement politics. The Liberal Party is seen to owe him a seat. Not even a good chance at one (he has the backing of Costello and Turnbull afterall) but an entirely uncontested run in a safe seat. Forget that to be in parliament is supposed to be an honour and an opportunity to serve the Australian public, Dutton feels entitled to be there by virtue of… well something. He won’t even stay and fight in his own seat which he has held for 8 years (meaning far greater name recognition than any other possible candidate-) and which without him guarantees the loss of at least one Liberal seat next election (Fran Bailey’s retirement in McEwan means the same thing). Dutton is seen by some (such as Costello in his memoirs) as being a future leader of the party, a line many in the media have run with. Honestly however, I just don’t see it.

Sure, Dutton is one of the more capable members of the Young turks who came in under Howard, but that isn’t saying much. I got a chance to see up close most of these new Liberals during my time working at Parliament recording the chambers and committees (I’ve since left). MP’s such as Ciobo, Johnson, Laming, Markus, Mirabella, and Smith. Mostly elected in the heady atmosphere of the 2001 election, they reek of a ‘born to rule’ attitude. None appear interested in actual debate. Their speeches, even when delivered to an empty House of Reps spill over chamber (the Committee of the Whole) were simply lists of slogans to attack the Labor party, repetitive figures mirroring the leaders recent talking points, and utter arrogance about their superiority. It bores to watch, and compared to Howard, Abbott or Costello they looked adolescent at best. Howard could be devastating with a good one liner (‘5 minutes of sunshine’, ‘doesn’t have the ticker’ etc), but his speeches were always a guilty pleasure of mine because he actually believed in public debate. He would lay out his views, the reasons for them, and why the other side had the wrong take. He would reason and marshal facts to serve his cause. But far too many of our modern politicians (and I’m including Labor here) see reasoned argument as almost an admission of weakness. Better to just bluster and abuse and hope to get on TV they seem to reason.

Not all of the 2001/04 class are a loss, Greg Hunt has started to impress me, not least with his clear knowledge and interest in Foreign Affairs, but in its period of utter domination during the 2001 & 2004 elections, the Liberal Party abjectly failed to bring in the best possible new candidates (save Malcolm Turnbull who had to fight a unholy branch stacking war in 2004 to get in). Turnbull, now leader, is having to deal with their lack of overall talent, inability to seriously contribute to new policy or political strategies, and now the stink they are beginning to kick up as it dawns that many will not make it through the next election. Expect more stories like Dutton’s in coming months, as many Liberal MP’s begin to decide their best chance of holding on is to publicly abandon their party, whilst still taking its advertising dollars and volunteers. It is not a strategy that usually works (unless you go all the way to become independent), but the media will lap it up. Labor meanwhile should take heed. Given the greater control head office has in the parties’ less-than-democratic selection process, Rudd needs to be ruthless to bring in the very best people, not just ones who are loyal and willing to kick the tories. As JFK said, the time to fix the roof is when it is sunny, not when the rain is already poring in.

Update As if to prove my point that some in the Liberal Party have an entitlement mentality, Costello is going to cost tax payers $500’000 so he can skip out early on his electorate. After having claimed he honours serving in parliament, he has clearly decided that even the 5-12 months till the next election is simply too much. Once more Costello shows his greatest gift is getting media attention, without doing anything worthwhile with it. Though interestingly enough, his former boss John Howard is much more gracious this time around. Incidentally Howard’s also in the news as a rumored NRL chief (could work, though remember the boos he got at the 2007 Grand Final) and as a target of Bob Brown’s (disorientated?) media team on more troops for Afghanistan – It’s 2009 guys, Howard’s no longer in power….) No wonder Labor has gone to ground recently, the rest of parliament is in full circus mode.

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.

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

The Politics of Climate Change #2

At the start of the week I talked a little about the Greens political strategy over the Emissions Trading Scheme, so with the Senate having this afternoon voted down the Government’s scheme, it serves to look at how this may all play out. (I also offer this because I don’t have the scientific knowledge to contribute anything beyond what has already proliferated online and in report after report, and because my own preference is for a Carbon Tax, so all the groups plans seem off kilter for my liking).

First, I think contra-common wisdom that this vote should be regarded as a defeat for the government. All governments like to see their legislation passed, and whilst this one faces a hostile senate it didn’t manage to convince any of the non-Labor senators to support the bill. Most of the public havn’t been watching the horsetrading, but they know Labor is absolutely dominating the opposition, is highly popular and yet must now square that up with an inability of the Government to get through what it promised. It also suggests the Governments legislative efforts such as combining the Renewable Energy Target Legislation with the CPRS hasn’t helped, nor their many many concessions to polluting industries such as coal and agriculture. Whilst these groups and the business lobby have accepted the need for such legislation and therefore been reasonably quiet in their complaints, expect some to demand a much better deal second time around.

For that reason, I think the Greens have probably helped their own cause at the expense of the environment, although that all depends on if they are able to fully capture the balance of power at the next election (DD or otherwise). They seem to have made the best the enemy of the good, and likely this vote will keep Australia at least a year if not 2 from getting through its legislation. Sure thats not a lot of carbon, but I’d wager even with the balance of power in the Senate the Greens could achieve more pushing through small (quiet) changes that steadily removed concessions and increased targets (and therefore carbon prices) would be an easier and more successful way to get the balance they desire than trying to get Labor to agree to it all at once. Already a number of environmental groups have voiced their dismay at the failure of the bill, and in part blamed the greens. It shouldn’t hurt the party, but it does show how varied the entire movement is and the difficult politics of leading it. Brown has gambled, first on the adds, now on the No vote, it may work but it depends on their success at the next election and if Labor feels a) more urgency b) more concilliatory towards Brown’s Greens.

For the Liberal Party this is also a bad result. Had the vote passed with independent and Greens support, most of the heat taken out and let them spend the next few years blaming the Government for rising prices and hurt industries. For now however as the old saying goes, sometimes the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it. The Government will do all it can to pin the blame of this squarely on the Opposition, and if its dominance inside parliament this week is anything to go by, it will absolutely savage the Coalition come election time. Until the Liberals get a policy they haven’t a hope. Their release of Frontier Economics Research was like a Ventriliquist rudely insulting passers by and saying the Doll said it. Either way it deserved and got a solid punch in the jaw from Labor this week and likely from the public come election. Turnbull especially for the image he brings to the role, and his former history as Environment Minister is well aware of this and yet clearly incapable of pulling his troops into line, only exacerbating the visible tensions in the party. If the Coalition passes something by the end of the year they may be OK come election, but the longer this goes on, and the closer it gets to an election (which must be next year) the fresher it will be in the public mind. The only alternative would be a radical new approach (such as a Carbon Tax) that could be simply understood by the public and supported by business and industry. Doubtful, but when your that far down a hail mary might just save a few people’s seats.

For the independents it’s a difficult business to work out. Fielding has proven himself way out of his depth here, and whilst never having a chance of retaining his seat anyway, has further cemented his loss. Who takes the Victorian senate place is tough, probably Labor in the climate (they should have had it by all merits in 2004) but it’s not certain.
Nick Xenophon wont be up for election (unless there is a DD) but I think the public (and indeed the press) are yet to make up their mind about what he’s up to. He’s beginning to be tarred with the Coalition, but can easily cut himself free as they sink. Maybe he is just playing hard to get and will place heavy demands before the government, but if fielding and the coalition remain opposed come December, he may not actually have much bargaining power.

So long story short: Everybody is going to look bad from this. Internationally it makes us look regressive, domestically Labor looks weak, the Opposition disunited, Fielding incompetent, Xenophon cagy and the Greens utopian. Not a good day for anyone (well except those few who think it’s all a big hoax, I guess they are celebrating.)

The Free Trade Left

I’ve already raised the issue of ending the ban on parallel imports of books. The Productivity Commission has now released it’s final report and its findings are clear:

the Commission has
• concluded that the PIRs place upward pressure on book prices and that, at times,
the price effect is likely to be substantial. The magnitude of the effect will vary over
time and across book genres.
• Most of the benefits of PIR protection accrue to publishers and authors, with demand
for local printing also increased.
• Most of the costs are met by consumers, who fund these benefits in a nontransparent
manner through higher book prices.
• PIRs are a poor means of promoting culturally significant Australian works.
– They do not differentiate between books of high and low cultural value.
– The bulk of the assistance leaks offshore, and some flows to the printing industry.

Alan Fells, former head of ACCC and now at the Australian New Zealand School of Government has suggested that means a cost of up to $200m for consumers.

But what is most interesting (though if you know your history not surprising) is that most of the push for this end to protectionism has come from the left. It was Chris Bowen, in the Rudd government who initiated the Productivity Commission’s survey. It has been most publicly championed by Bob Carr, former ALP premier of NSW. And has received support from a variety of quite left wing types such as the ACT’s own rising star Andrew Barr (as I noticed this morning via his facebook – who says blogs don’t break news:P). Whilst the libertarians at Catallaxy have of course been forthright in wanting a change, I could only find this lukewarm press release from the Liberals Competition policy shadow minister Luke Hartsuyker, with not a single mention by Malcolm Turnbull.

This may seem counter-intuitive if you think the right is pro-free trade and the left against it. Yet whilst the two party structure of Labor and anti-labor sometimes creates that mould, the history is quite different. The single largest reduction in tariff’s in this country occurred in 1973 under the Whitlam Government. After some drift under the conservative Fraser, Hawke and Keating picked up the mantle and effectively ended the way Australians had run their economy by reducing almost all tariff’s. This was encouraged by Howard (having supped from the classical liberal economics of Reagan and Thatcher), but his own government whilst rhetorically adamant, ended up doing very little on the free trade front. It liberalised small areas such as CD’s (in the way now proposed for books) and seeing the flaws of multilateral deals pushed into bilateral deals with mild success. The two big areas still under the umbrella in agriculture and cars remained protected, or got effective protection through constant handouts. In fact if you examine Australian political history, it has been the moderates and liberals within both the ALP and Liberal Party who have lead the move towards free trade in this country (Howard being the obvious exception). The more conservative forces, much like the union-left have largely been against such moves. Take for instance this piece by Tony Abbott writing in 1995:

‘His [Keating’s] Asian crusade is simply the second phase of a long battle – hitherto fought around Australia’s economic structures – to extripate the legacy of Menzies. The first phase meant changing Australia’s economic structures and breaking down the old business establishment. The second centres on smashing the Crown which he thinks is the ultimate icon of conservative Australia. Asia played little part in his drive to ‘reform’ economic institutions – after all, most Asian governments pursue pragmatic interventionist economic policies similar to those of pre-Keating Australia’ (p220)
Abbott, Tony in Sheridan, Greg (1995) Living with Dragons: Australia confronts its Asian destiny Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Abbott went along with, even championed Howard’s economic ideals, but never was at the forefront of the debate, and with his mentor out of the game, it will be interesting to see which way he turns in his forthcoming book. Whilst the forces of free trade have largely won out (both due to argument and circumstance), don’t be surprised if there is a slight shifting back amongst the right should the conservative forces lead by Abbott take charge. As i’ve predicted many times before, I see the two party system shifting to a more liberals vs conservative basis instead of the weird cross-overs we saw under the Reagan/Howard coalitions, but either party could take either role, depending on their internal struggles. Long story short the “common sense” idea in the media and the general public that the right is pro-free trade and the left against it is not sustainable in current policy nor historically accurate. As the new left begins to develop it’s form, I have little doubt that a strong stand for free trade will be at the heart and soul of its economic system. Only such a system can encourage universal rather than national sentiments, international organisation, healthy free competition and the free flow of ideas and people.

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.

Read the full article »

The Open Society and its Enemies

Shorter John Pasquarelli: Libs should be non-professional racists.

Johns claim to fame is only as ‘a former member of the Liberal Party and of the One Nation Party’, but you have to wonder what the editors of The Australian were thinking publishing this piece as serious commentary. In various forms it:
– Credits B.A Santamaria with stopping communism in Australia
– Calls Petro Georgiou liberalism “mischief” that has no place in the Liberal Party
– Accuses the Liberals of being too close to the Greens
– Labels Howards 1988 call for reducing asian immigration ‘innocuous’
– Claims Hanson ‘merely’ sought equality for ‘Aborigines and other Australians’
– Argues the public voted one nation because of her ‘treatment’ at the hands of the liberal party
– Claims anonymous ‘ Indians, Filipinos, Asians and Aborigines’ supported Hanson (so therefore its not racism!)
– Attacks the idea of allowing in Sudanese migrants, whilst asserting unnamed evidence shows some claim to be Christian when actually Muslim
– And finally argues the Liberals can re-find their feet by ‘flying the flag on the continuing Aboriginal industry, immigration, refugees, Pacific Islander guest workers, multiculturalism, militant Muslims or ethnic crime’.

This is what passes as commentary from our leading conservative newspaper ? Really? At a time of major economic crisis, bashing immigration & pacific islander guest workers is raised as a sensible suggestion ?

Other than the suggestion for less young hacks (& ‘phone manners’) nothing advocated here will gain the Liberals more than a thousand votes nation wide if that. In fact, given John’s regular efforts to insert himself into the story (‘in the 1990s, I was having a cup of tea with Bob Santamaria’; In 1996 I came to fully appreciate the implications of Hansonism. I began to receive calls from Indians, Filipinos, Asians (mainly Chinese) and Aborigines; It didn’t take me long to realise that most of these people spoke good English, were Christians and the product of assimilation; When I questioned Abbott about the Sudanese, he said they were favoured because they were Christians. I reminded him that evidence was mounting that many Sudanese were Muslims posing as Christians; As I watched Turnbull being sliced and diced by Labor’s Tony Burke in parliament …. I wondered what ordinary Australians were thinking. My emails to Turnbull’s office asking him how he was going to sell Double Bay to “Joe Blow” remain unanswered‘), the Liberal Parties lack of good phone manners to this obnoxious man stands as the best point in their favor in the entire article.

Still, the piece serves as a useful reminder that Hanson was a Liberal Party member, and many like her still remain in the party. Howard, Costello, Turnbull and the party leadership clearly don’t hold such views, but they have yet to sever the link rhetorically. They have embraced an open economic system, increased migration significantly, and claim to be the party of individual freedom and liberty. And yet, it all rings hollow whilst the xenophobic, culturally insular fears of people like John Pasquarelli still remain a significant element of the parties world view. Arguing for a clear and unafraid open society ideal, both economic and socially would be a good way for Turnbull to truly show the Liberal party stands for something. And one, he as a man who embodies such ideals is well placed to present.

Shaking out the Deadwood.

A few weeks ago I dinged Turnbull for his seeming drift as leader of the party. As far as anyone could see, it was the same party, with the same people in charge from 07, just a different name on the leaders door. The problem here was it was a waste of Turnbull’s skills, artificial to his character & world view, and reflected poorly on his authority within the party. Perhaps however I was too hasty in judgment:

Mr Turnbull is convinced the Liberal Party organisation needs to be revamped, its finances restored and new talent injected wherever possible.

Mr Turnbull said yesterday that the decision of Dr Nelson not to contest the next election was “an opportunity to bring new talent in, and every political party has to renew itself all thetime”.

At the moment, Mr Turnbull, or Liberal forces associated with him, have looked at unseating [Federal Party President] Mr Stockdale next month, supplanting party executive director Brian Loughnane, replacing the Senate leadership team of Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz and, once and for all, heading off Peter Costello.

Long-serving Liberals are critical of Mr Turnbull’s style and claim that “he is trying to turn the Liberal Party into the Turnbull Party”.

“This party was founded by Robert Menzies and any attempts to turn it into a personal fiefdom will be resisted,” one said.

Even the fact that Turnbull is trying to change the leadership council for the party is a good sign. It’s a sign he’s feeling confident (or daring) enough to push for change, and for the party offers its only potential revival. Loughane, Costello, Minchin and Abetz are yesterday’s men, as is Nelson. The sooner they are gone, the better for the party. Such changes not only help their media profile but offer an opportunity for updating (and indeed uniting around) a set of core beliefs and identity that can recruit new members, bind old ones and be sold to the public as a set of values to rival Labors. Turnbull also has finally taken the bull by the horns and declared Costello has had his chance. Everyone who follows politics seriously has known this since the moment Costello turned down the leadership on election night, especially the media swags who keep trying to revive it for good copy. Turnbull’s acknowledgment of the obvious is a fair sign he’s realised Costello wont play nice and simply go away, but has to be driven out like the loser he is (Policy wise Costello was a fine politician, politically he is one of the least successful in 30 years given his obvious talents)

But take again a look at that criticism in the highlighted quotes above – The unnamed critic is decrying the idea of the Liberal Party being a Personal Fiefdom by invoking Robert Menzies ? The man who single handedly ruled the party for 20 years and drastically weakened its chances of success after his retirement through a systematic process of sabotaging potential rivals in a way that would have made Joseph Stalin blush. The liberal party was Menzies personal fiefdom (for good and ill), if Turnbull’s critics want to get at him, they could probably benefit by withholding from comparing him to the revered founding father of their party. Just a thought…

4 months on and no change

malcolmturnbull_30_1_09As Norman Abjorensen writes in Inside Story

A century after Deakin’s social liberals meekly succumbed to Reid’s conservatives to combat a rising Labor Party, the social liberal dream continues to flicker sporadically among modern day Liberal supporters. The conventional wisdom is that John Howard purged the party of social liberals (which he did) and that Malcolm Turnbull represents some kind of social liberal resurgence (which is doubtful). Turnbull might well try to soften the party’s more hardline policies (in the face of staunch opposition from staunch conservatives such as Abbott and Minchin), but any hopes that this heralds the start of a Deakinite revival are entirely misplaced

I’ve been advancing the theory for a couple of years that we are seeing the broad re-alignment of our political parties to Conservative/Liberal lines. The Reagan Coalition (of which Howard made much profit) of Social Conservatives and Economic Liberals has effectively broken down. A lot of the accommodations made by the conservatives arn’t sustainable (witness the populism of Mike Huckabee’s campaign, or the economic incoherence of the current Republicans). Likewise, with growing levels of education, prosperity and legislative protection of workers are sapping the unions of their strength (the 2007 effort against WorkChoices will come to be seen as a high water mark), and fundamentally changing the membership of the ALP. Kevin Rudd was never a member of a Union, and whilst most ALP types will still claim some union heritage, they no longer will drive the leaders world view. And despite the current economic struggles, the debate over capitalism and its benefits as the primary system of economic organization is done.

In light of this, Abjorensen’s point is well made. Turnbull has led his part for 4 months, including a quiet few months over Christmas mid-way through a term, the crucial time if you were to try and achieve real political and philosophical change within the party. Turnbull either hasn’t the numbers to even raise the question (unlikely if he was actually committed) or he simply doesn’t see a point in trying to move the party in a new direction.

As such, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that The Liberal Party is going to hold onto its Conservative turn, and solidify. Whilst the Labor Party will shift from its labor movement origins to one of both increasing Economic and Social Liberalism. It will never acknowledge this shift, but considering the great pressure coming from the Greens, it will have to make the move on issues like Gay Marriage, whilst redressing its economic commitment to the welfare state & social services in terms of a larger open competitive economy (as Rudd has been doing effectively for Education). What union/working class elements that are disgruntled by the change (such as those supporting protectionist or more exclusive nationalistic policies), will quite easily slide over to the Right as they did under Howard, though with less capable manipulation by the Liberal Party once the divisions become starker.

In some ways this is a change a long time in the making, the left has long been more compatible with a liberal approach to the world, seeking liberty and opportunity for the individual, freed from the bounds of tradition, culture and inheritance.

Sadly, the party of Turnbull and co would have to face electoral annihilation, and someone with an ego the size of Menzies before it relinquishes its ‘Liberal’ title, so confusion will remain for those of us Liberal in politics but not party. But at least the lines should be come clearer.

Update: Turns out Chris Bowen the Labor Assistant Treasurer penned similar thoughts 6 months ago, advertising the ALP as the natural home of Liberalism.