Once there were moderates

Once there were moderates in the Liberal Party.

In those good old days the moderates advocated progressive policies, attempting to find a balance between market forces, freedom of the individual, social justice and protection of the environment.

It was so long ago that the names of those liberal warriors evoke less recognition today than the latest batch of Big Brother competitors. Some of those liberal luminaries – the ‘wets’ they were called – were a product of the Fraser years.

Peter Baume was at different times Malcolm Fraser’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Health and Education. It was his strong sense of social justice that caused him in later years, as Shadow Minister for the Status of Women, to cross the floor to support a bill giving equal employment opportunity in some government-owned bodies. Baume left parliament a few years later to promote progressive values in public policy, taking on roles in academia and medicine, as well as Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.

As Immigration Minister in the Fraser Government, Ian Macphee was instrumental in promoting multiculturalism. He oversaw the migration of Indochinese refugees to Australia and introduced a family reunion scheme for them. Later as Communications Minister he helped establish the SBS. In opposition, Macphee crossed the floor in support of a government motion targeted at his Leader, John Howard, that race or ethnic origin should never be a criterion for becoming an immigrant to Australia. He lost preselection for his seat to the Liberal conservative (or dry) David Kemp early in the following year.

Macphee’s summary disposal was the beginning of the dearth of liberalism that we see in the Liberal Party today. During John Howard’s second term as Opposition Leader and his time as Prime Minister, progressive Liberals were given a stark choice – get with the (conservative) program or be left to wither on the backbench.

For the most part, the successors to the Fraser liberals weren’t about to be brow-beaten. Petro Georgiou (once the Director of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs that Ian Macphee helped to establish), Bruce Baird, Judith Troeth, Judy Moylan and Mal Washer have all stood their ground against their right-wing peers, but mostly to little avail.

Others decided to dance to their master’s tune or – to quote the Cybermen – be assimilated. It’s almost impossible to contemplate that Phillip Ruddock was one of the two other MPs who crossed the floor that day with Ian Macphee in protest against John Howard’s comments on Asian migration. Yet he and Amanda Vanstone, another moderate, later ran the Howard Government’s hard line policies on asylum seekers.

The list of known ‘moderates’ in Tony Abbott’s kitchen cabinet is equally counterintuitive. Chris Pyne was serially overlooked for promotion by Howard because he was/is a progressive (and a Costello supporter). Yet he was rewarded by Abbott for doing the leadership numbers against Turnbull and is now a Cabinet Minister. Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt and George Brandis are all moderates and none did particularly well under Howard. (Anyone remember The Rodent?) Yet now they all are in the Abbott Cabinet, reciting the lines of the day.

If your mind is not yet boggled sufficiently, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is a moderate too (although apparently he attends the faction dinners of both the wets and the dries).

Is the day of the Liberal moderate well and truly over? Is liberalism dead or is it just playing possum?

According to reports the desiccated wets have – despite their assimilation and no evidence that a single word of social justice or equity has spilled from their lips – formed a cabal around Tony Abbott.

This has apparently caused disquiet in “Coalition ranks over what right-aligned MPs believe is an aversion to any policy that is not consistent with the populist agenda of certain powerful ‘moderates’ with the Prime Minister’s ear.”

Excuse me while I laugh, or cry …

If only. If only it were true.

The post originally appeared at SBS Analysis and Opinion.

Bandt puts politics before political nous

I am amongst the people who criticised Greens MP Adam Bandt for this tweet:

There are plenty of others who think Bandt’s action was entirely appropriate, best exemplified by this popular post from Ed Butler over at AusOpinion.

I posted a lengthy comment on Ed’s post, which is reproduced below, to demonstrate that it’s not only climate sceptics who are criticising Bandt for his intervention.

Unfortunately the discussion over the ‘appropriateness’ of exploiting a bushfire that is currently threatening lives is a conflation of a number of matters: scientific, political and behavioural.

The scientific issue is the most straightforward. Climate change is happening, and it is likely to increase the number and severity of extreme weather events including the high temperatures that exacerbate bushfires. We basically need to decarbonise our economy in the next 30-35 years to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Discussion and implementation of climate action in Australia has become a political football. The issue has been exploited, at different times and by most parties, to score political points against or wedge their political opponents.

This has reduced the issue in the perception of the community to yet another political issue and not one of sufficient import for non-partisan support across the parties, for example in the way that gun control was seen to be ‘mostly’ non-partisan.

Having turned climate action into a political football, its proponents are faced with a community that does not care sufficiently about it and is skeptical about those who seek to generate a sense of urgency around the issue.

The lack of a visible directly physical connection between climate change and voters makes it additionally hard to convince the community that the impacts of climate change are real. It’s no coincidence that community support for climate action was strongest in Australia during the last sustained drought that primary producers say happen in our nation once every 100 years or so.

Once the drought broke, it was bushfires, floods and cyclones that became the next best illustrations of what unchecked climate change can do. This is complicated by the fact that scientists are reluctant to say that one causes the other, only that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will be increased by climate change. That’s not really the smoking gun needed by the proponents of climate action to move the issue from being a political to a non-partisan issue.

Which brings us to Adam Bandt – a politician – using a currently blazing bushfire that was threatening lives and homes, to score a political point against Tony Abbott, another politician who has travelled a very long way on the political exploitation of climate action.

It would appear Bandt’s intention was to transform community concern about the fire into opprobrium for Abbott over his scrapping of the carbon price. Unfortunately for Bandt, by reducing the issue – yet again – to a political level he will do nothing to sway those who are politically aligned to Abbott.

Bandt will be successful in maintaining the rage amongst those who politically agree with him, but not one mind will be changed amongst those who do not.

Until climate action becomes a non-partisan issue, it’s unlikely we’ll see real action occur.

And people will continue to be offended by actions like Bandt’s, which seek to politicise the issue at the worst possible moment – for the potential victims as well as for the prospects of consensus.

Albo, Shorten and the Democracy Baby

Albo, Shorten and the Democracy Baby

Until the declaration of the Labor leadership ballot result on Sunday afternoon, the shiny-eyed idealism generated by the process was a delight to behold. It was something I hadn’t seen since my teens when I was involved in the youth wing of a political party.

Democracy, apparently, was what it was all about.

But you see, no it wasn’t. The leadership ballot was only ever about survival: the survival of one K. Rudd. And now the process is over, there are arguably more disgruntled Labor members than before thanks to Rudd yet again creating expectations that could not be met.

Much to the consternation of Albo supporters throughout the land, it turns out having ‘a’ say in the Labor leadership is not the same as having ‘the’ say. Albanese’s just under 60 per cent of the popular vote wasn’t enough to beat Shorten’s almost 64 per cent of the Caucus vote.

Rudd’s decision to give Labor members a say in the election of party leader was just one element in the package of reforms he designed to take power away from the faceless factional foes that tore him from the big chair. A bonus feature was that it would draw new blood (and thereby money and physical resources) to a party haemorrhaging members because of four years infighting over Rudd, Gillard and their increasingly non-Labor stance on some issues such as asylum seekers.

The promise of potential new members and a reinvigorated party helped to take the authoritarian edge off the other part of Rudd’s reform – its true purpose – which was to make it almost impossible for the party leader to be removed from office between elections. Having assessed the pros and cons, factional leaders bit the bullet and approved the changes in the hope they would assist in Rudd’s ‘saving the furniture’ strategy.

But once the election was over, and Rudd despatched, it became quickly clear that the reforms could not quietly be reversed by Caucus (as was being canvassed by some in the party). Labor MPs were left holding the Democracy Baby, and decided to make the best of it.

They did pretty well too, kitting the baby out in fine democracy clothes. Hastily redrawn rules by Labor’s National Executive opened the vote to all party members regardless of time served. Nationally televised festivals of agreement, or ‘debates’, showed the nation how durable and decorative was the wallpaper covering the party’s Rudd-Gillard cracks. And real party members got to ask real questions at real party events around the country – although few received real answers in return.

But behind the scenes, factions were being factional, which is hardly surprising given Albanese and Shorten are both ideological warriors. The party’s factional tectonic plates did not fuse overnight once the Left’s Albanese decided to make the Right’s Shorten work for the leadership (thereby automatically entrenching the leadership ballot process for future years and giving the Left a better chance to compete against the Right-dominated Caucus).

Stories emerged of unions and factions attempting to impose bloc voting on party members. While less successful at the party level this tactic worked in Caucus where members of the Right used the buddy system to show colleagues they’d followed the ticket.

And as at least one political observer on Twitter has pointed out, the leadership outcome is the same as if Caucus had made the choice on its own (as it would have done before the Rudd-survival reforms).

Sadly, Albanese’s claim that a horse’s head has been delivered to factional leaders is nothing more than a gracious loser’s empty rhetoric. This may become more evident as the shadow ministers are elected by Caucus and then allocated portfolios by the Leader.

The tectonic plates remain disparate but constantly agitating. The remaining MPs who supported Gillard or at least opposed Rudd will not easily set aside their condemnation of the colleagues who plotted for his return despite claims of furniture saved. Some make a distinction between Shorten’s ‘honorable’ change of heart in support of Rudd (similar to that of Penny Wong) compared with Albanese being a long-term Rudd lieutenant while standing at Gillard’s side.

While the usual post government election loss recriminations and blood-letting have been avoided by virtue of the leadership campaign, the temptation to hold the Rudd spoilers to account is strong and may endure, damning Labor to many years in opposition.

On the bright side, Labor party members have had more access to, and attention from, senior parliamentarians in the past month than any other time on record. The party machine and parliamentarians can either build on that initial engagement by including members in activities were they can observe their influence on the party, or treat them like mushrooms until the next leadership ballot.

It’s not as easy a choice as it looks, considering that giving members a ‘real’ say in other party matters necessarily means reducing the influence of the unions and factions that just helped Shorten get elected.

Shorten no longer has to worry about the Democracy Baby, but he does now have a grumpy Minority Toddler on his hands – the rump of Labor members and MPs who did not prefer him as leader.

Having a convincing majority of the Caucus behind him, Shorten has the potential to emerge as a strong and compelling Labor leader.

A few favourable runs in the media and resulting modest recovery in the polls may yet be enough to assuage the disappointment of Albo supporters and rally them to Shorten’s cause.

As the excellent blog, The Conscience Vote, says elsewhere:

If the party falls in behind Shorten and sticks to its stated principles, it can become an extremely effective Opposition.

If it doesn’t, it will only have itself to blame.

This post also appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Why are the Greens so surprised?

While Labor is using its shiny new leadership process to distract members from election loss disappointment and take the heat out of ensuing acts of retribution, the Greens appear to be floundering in response to a poor election performance that was a surprise to no-one but themselves.

It was becoming clear as far back as the end of 2011 that the Green vote had peaked at the 2010 election. The Greens’ hagiographies claim this result as the point when they emerged as the third force in Australian politics.

In truth the minor party was as much a lightning rod for those protesting against the invidious choice offered between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott as it was seen a legitimate alternative to the major parties. The almost doubling of deliberate informal votes during that election compared with 2007 (from 1.48 to 2.70 per cent), and the ultimate minority government outcome confirm that many voters were looking for someone, anyone, other the Labor and the Coalition to vote for in 2010.

So in believing their own PR, perhaps it’s not so suprising the Greens didn’t foresee their poor result at this election.

An inflated sense of importance may have also contributed to the some of the Greens’ decisions that drove voters away, such as their refusal to pass Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’ for asylum seekers.

Wanting to sit at the big table while maintaining policy purity was another. As the Democrats learned when they bartered with John Howard to ultimately pass the GST, the Greens also learned it’s hard to claim you’re keeping the bastards honest when you’re also doing deals with them. The Greens’ constant laying of claim to forcing Gillard’s hand on the carbon tax/price, but being unable to deliver a carbon penalty that would actually drive achange in behaviour is the most notable attempt by the minor party to justify their decision to join the bastards.

Christine Milne’s later announcement that she’d told the Gillard Government ‘you’re dropped’ did little to assuage the concerns of those supporters who thought the Greens had got too close to their shared-power partners.

Another factor likely to have contributed is that, like the two major parties, the Greens have to accommodate disparate supporter groups and juggle the risk of upsetting one group to satisfy another. Labor has the Left and the Right, the Liberals have moderates and conservatives, and the Greens have the far Left, progressives and environmentalists.

Yet to compound this challenge even further, Milne announced when she succeeded Bob Brown as leader that the party would be reaching out to rural voters as well. It would be fair to describe the reception given by long-term farmers to the Greens – the party opposed to live animal exports, conventional farming methods and land clearing – as mixed. The Greens vote went down in the vast majority of rural seats, although they increased in those which included alternative lifestyle communities, regions threatened by coal-seam gas projects and those seats from which Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott retired. A nine per cent increase in Green primary votes to 18 per cent in Fairfax was the standout exception.

Milne has rightly declared she’ll review the Greens’ 2013 election performance. Her vow before the election to return the party to one of protest and holding the government to account will be tested with only one Greens member in the new House of Representatives that has no chance of influencing the outcome in that chamber, and a short-lived balance of power before the new Senate commences on 1 July 2014.

The review will necessarily scrutinise whether it was worth funnelling limited resources into retaining Bandt’ssymbolically important but practically useless green leather seat. Just as importantly it should seek to understand how the Greens failed to deliver on the expectations of potential supporters. Ultimately, like Labor, the prospect for a strong future lies in the Greens determining what they stand for and who they represent.

This post originally appeared at SBS Comment & Analysis.

Labor in limbo fails to hold Abbott to account

Labor in limbo fails to hold Abbott to account

Canberra’s parliament house has become the political equivalent of purgatory. The sprawling edifice is currently home to scores of lost souls stuck in political limbo since the government changed hands.

In the raw days after an election defeat, these staffers would normally be adjusting to the rhythms of life in opposition – measuring the ebb and flow of contrarianism and scrutiny instead of riding the highs and lows of governing.

But instead the bulk of the new opposition’s staff is sitting and waiting, with next to nothing to do until the ALP’s leadership is resolved. Aside from those working for the interim leader and two leadership aspirants, and the personal staff of each parliamentarian, the rest have no idea whether they will have jobs until the new leader is elected on 15 October, followed by a shadow ministry announcement and the government allocating the requisite staffing resources.

As a result, the people best equipped with the policy and political know-how to exercise scrutiny on the Abbott government are simply missing in action. Without portfolios to shadow and, in many cases, even functioning email addresses or access to basic office equipment, one of the principal cogs of our parliamentary system is simply spinning in neutral.

Our democracy is the poorer for it. An opposition that actually intended to deliver a one-term Abbott government rather than just mutter about it would be resisting every attempt by the government to lull the public into a false sense of security. Instead of indulging in empty theatrics to bolster its own membership books, the opposition should be exploiting the government’s weaknesses in strategy and judgement right now.

For it’s clear the government has lost some strategic and political clarity in the past few weeks, since the locus of control shifted from the Coalition’s campaign team to the prime minister’s office. Within hours of that transition, political smarts were being traded for political whims, even on an iconic issue like the number of women in the ministry. Without even a blink of shame, previous Coalition articles of faith were turned on their heads: stopping information to the public on asylum seeker arrivals took priority over action to deter them, the budget emergency dissipated overnight with the possible deferral of the mid year economic and financial outlook (normally delivered between October and December) to January, and the nemesis of travel rortersproved to be an adept manipulator of the travel allowance rules himself.

Each poor decision and stumble has rated barely a mention in the media, kicked along like an empty can by disheartened shadow ministers “sans portfolio” and treated with disinterest by journalists ironically transfixed by the incredible vanishing prime minister and his low/slow/no media strategy.

By the time parliament resumes, at best guess in November and only for a short time, the Coalition will have had two months to prepare and Labor will have had two weeks. It will be almost impossible for the opposition to bring the Abbott government to account on any shortfallings before the Christmas hiatus.

That leaves a lot of time between now and the next sitting of parliament in February 2014 for Abbott, his strategists and his ministers to get away with making bad or sloppy decisions, mis-counts or mis-speaks, and delivering the unpopular actions that most new governments jam into the early days of their parliamentary terms – such as Paul Keating dumping the second part of his L-A-W tax cuts, John Howard backtracking on election commitments by designating them as non-core promises and Campbell Newman cutting the number of public servants as part of his new government’s austerity drive.

Whether voters remember these early fumbles and flaws at the next election depends entirely on the ability of the opposition to hold the government to account – from day one, not two months after the government wins office.

Labor has embraced Rudd’s leadership election legacy like a vampire’s bride – succumbing to the mesmerising attractiveness of the members’ vote while choosing to ignore the danger that lurks beneath. It will be potentially destructive for the party if the caucus decision does not align with the popular vote.

But perhaps even more damaging for Labor will be a broad voter perception that the opposition vacated the field in the early days of the Abbott government, when opposition scrutiny and protection of the community was needed the most.

This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.