Credlin’s mission to remove the Liberals’ woman problem

Credlin’s mission to remove the Liberals’ woman problem

It went largely unreported, but on the weekend one of the Federal Government’s most prominent women challenged the Liberal Party to do something about its woman problem.

Apparently redefining what it means to keep a low profile, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin spoke from the audience of a Liberal Party forum on gender and politics, reportedly taking a shot at the gendered put-downs levelled at powerful women, and describing politics as “the toughest, most masculine, most exclusionary place”.

Credlin’s strongest criticism however was aimed at the Liberal Party itself, for entrenching inequality by neglecting to pre-select women candidates for safe seats. Echoing the PM’s justification for initially putting only one woman in cabinet, Credlin argued that without female MPs in safe seats, there is no “pipeline of women” gaining experience and credentials over time that would qualify them for cabinet:

Our women are not in the safe seats, so when we lose government, we lose our pipeline. So it was really hard to put a ministry together in 2010 when … we didn’t have a pipeline of women.

Of course, this argument doesn’t quite stack up when it comes to the well-credentialed Minister for Human Services, Marise Payne, who is a Liberal moderate and still not in cabinet despite having been in Parliament for 18 years.

Nevertheless, Credlin appears to be belatedly acknowledging that more women are needed in the Government’s top decision-making circles, and that more women are needed in the Liberal Party to make this happen. She reportedly told the forum:

Unless you have women in places where decisions are made, either on committees who are making pre-selection decisions, at state divisions as presidents and as leaders … you’re not going to get women (to) run for seats.

If you don’t get women (to) run for seats, you’re not going to get female ministers, and if you don’t get women ministers … you’re not designing popular policy for half the population. We would never get elected if we pissed off and marginalised half the electorate. We are half the electorate.

Credlin’s comments are not her first on the broader need to support Liberal women.

It’s nearly a year ago that news first began to emerge that Credlin was actively seeking ways to help women progress through the ranks of the Liberal Party.

well-placed leak to the media in July 2014 reported that Credlin had told a private gathering of female Coalition staffers she was determined to make a difference for women in conservative politics while serving as chief of staff to the Prime Minister, and asked for their ideas about how to do so.

This came not long after Clive Palmer referred to Credlin as a “top dog” and erroneously suggested that the PM was only keeping his paid parental leave policy so that Peta Credlin could benefit from it.

After gathering feedback from that first discussion, Credlin went on to establish a formal network for female Coalition staffers, reportedly to provide support for each other and maximise their exposure to other women in leadership roles. However, Credlin also told a reporter that a motivation for creating the network was the silence from feminists following the attack on her by Palmer. According to Credlin, “This solidarity that women are supposed to have just wasn’t there.”

It could also be argued that Credlin has shown little inclination to be collegiate with the female staffers who have crossed swords with her, or even with the female MPs who have done the same.

Other than the Prime Minister who launched Credlin’s network in October last year, Credlin invited not one Coalition parliamentarian to that event; not even the sole woman in cabinet (at the time) Julie Bishop, or the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash. While this can’t be considered a direct snub to the Foreign Minister, enough information has emerged since then to suggest that when it comes to Bishop, Credlin is not exactly a team player.

So while the intervention from one of the Government’s most senior (but unelected) women is welcome, given the problem she’s identified is real and potentially a big risk for the Liberal Party, it’s important to understand that Credlin’s motives aren’t necessarily altruistic.

Credlin is on the record confirming she has no intention of moving into politics “at this time”. However, a senior Liberal in the state division that would hypothetically pre-select Credlin said she is too “toxic” and would not win pre-selection.

If Credlin is indeed interested in moving to politics eventually, she needs to rebuild bridges and establish networks before she has any hope of neutralising her perceived toxicity. And a network of up and coming female staffers, most of whom would also be Liberal Party members, would be the perfect way to start that reputation refurbishing exercise.

It’s reported Credlin concluded her contribution to the forum on the weekend with a rallying cry to a room full of past and present female Liberal politicians. Urging the women to be “fair dinkum” in bringing others with them as they climbed the ladder, Credlin also warned them not to be “one of those women who gets somewhere and pulls the ladder up behind you, because there are a lot of women who do that”.

This is undoubtedly true, and it’s hard not to wonder whether Credlin had a particular Cabinet minister in mind when she said it. More importantly, given Credlin’s take no prisoners management style, it’s advice she should also be taking.

Don’t like the current leaders? Good luck finding real alternatives

Don’t like the current leaders? Good luck finding real alternatives

There’s a lot that is depressing about Australian politics right now, what with the major parties trying to wedge each other on terrorism or pensionswhile neither seems perturbed by the latest allegations of sexual abuse in the offshore detention centres that remain open because of bipartisan support.

Political leadership has been reduced to either dog-whistling the worst prejudices of Australian voters, or policy timidity lest those very same prejudices come back to bite.

It’s bad enough that we have one political leader who can only communicate in jingoistic slogans like “Daesh is coming” and “anyone who raised a gun or a knife to Australians simply because of who we are … has forfeited his or her right to consider themselves one of us“; the other can barely utter a sentence without sounding like an amateur stand-up comedian waiting for the boom-tish. Both are so busy unleashing the hounds of prejudice against each other that they’ve lost sight of what is right for our society and the economy.

Without getting too nostalgic, it seems to be a while since we’ve had some “real” political leaders – people with the intelligence to know when it’s the right time to support or resist public opinion, the courage to do the right thing by the nation and not just key marginal seats, and the ability to convincingly explain why a decision was the right choice to make.

Granted, this combination of capabilities is a big ask and many politicians simply don’t make the cut, yet it is the responsibility of political parties to ensure potential leaders with these skills are recruited into the Parliament and promoted.

When the parties fall down on that responsibility, when they indulge in internecine warfare and factional trade-offs aimed at getting one of their own into the top spot instead of a capable leaders, then we end up with barely competent leaders like the two we’re currently saddled with.

The Prime Minister is a creation of the Liberal hard right, the conservative rump that would rather lose government with Tony Abbott than see a moderate like Malcolm Turnbull become party leader or PM. Some hardliners even claim Abbott’s leadership is on the line if he allows Liberals to have a free vote on gay marriage.

Yet if the conservative kingmakers were to dethrone Abbott, who would they install instead? The conservatives in the Liberal Party and some of the Nationals have made it clear Turnbull has little chance of uniting the Coalition, even more so since the Communications Minister resisted backbench enthusiasm for stripping citizenship from Australians involved in terrorist acts.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has wooed the hard right, and deftly stayed quiet on same-sex marriage, but was also in the Turnbull minority on the question of cancelling citizenship. Bishop also has the unfortunate disadvantage of being a woman, at a time when there’s no evidence that sexism in the Coalition, the media or the broader community has abated since the Gillard years.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s leadership chances fizzed out like a wonky Catherine wheel when he mishandled the Liberal leadership contest back in 2009.

Scott Morrison’s image is benefiting from his time in the social services portfolio but he still lacks depth of experience, and when he attacks the Opposition he lapses into a level of nastiness that rapidly reminds voters of the extent to which he was prepared to go to “stop the boats”.

Other than the known “leadership aspirants” Turnbull and Bishop, there is not one other Liberal MP who could be considered competitive leadership material. Not Scott Morrison (yet) or Andrew Robb, who is a policy wonk and solid political strategist but lacks clarity in communication. Not Matthias Cormann, who knows the detail and his lines but can sound robotic (and is in the wrong chamber).

Looking to the other side, Labor’s stock of leadership talent isn’t that much more impressive. For a start, those involved in the Rudd-Gillard machinations might as well kiss any leadership aspirations goodbye after the recent screening of the Killing Season.

That includes two fairly talented but now tainted potential leaders-in-waiting: Tony Burke and Chris Bowen. Both men are articulate and smart, with Bowen doing a commendable job while holding down the leadership fort during the contest between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten to decide the new Labor leader. As Manager of Opposition Business, Burke is proving to be an emerging force on the parliamentary floor.

This week may be the traditional “Killing Season” although there is arguably enough time left for a party committed to improving its electoral fortunes.

Yet if either man was to become Labor leader, voters will be reminded by the Coalition come election time, repeatedly and unmercifully, that Burke plotted (in code) with Gillard before the “surprise” knifing of Rudd, while Bowen was one of Rudd’s key lieutenants during the destabilisation of Gillard. They may eventually live down their parts in the Labor civil war, but not in time for the next election.

Of the cleanskins, both Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and Labor leader in the Senate Penny Wong are ostensibly competitive leadership contenders. However both women have to contend with the small matter of their gender in a society that is in many ways still overtly chauvinistic if not sexist. Plibersek also has lost an edge by running hard on marriage equality, with some in the party now questioning the quality of her political judgement.

Wong like Cormann is in the wrong chamber to become leader, and while she is a formidable political talent (having overcome a tendency to drone when climate change minister), if the Australian community was uncomfortable with a woman in the top job it is regrettably not ready to put a gay Asian-Australian woman into the role.

That leaves three other shadow ministers. There’s the new ALP president, Mark Butler, who, according to another detailed account of Rudd’s campaign to bring down his successor, switched from the Gillard to Rudd camps but then contributed to the leadership speculation by refusing to confirm or deny it. Then there’s Mark Dreyfus, whose political judgement has been drawn into question over national security in recent days. And, somewhat counter-intuitively, there’s the Rudd loyalist Anthony Albanese, who seems to have emerged from the actual Rudd-Gillard wars as well as their retelling with his integrity and reputation intact. It was Albanese who warned that in moving to dethrone Rudd and install Gillard, Labor would essentially be killing two prime ministers.

This week marks five years since Albanese’s sage words were ignored, and two years since Rudd fulfilled his ultimate revenge fantasy.

Having thrown out Labor in 2013 for not being able to keep its house in order, voters are now faced with two reasonably tidy political houses led by deeply unpopular leaders.

This week may be the traditional “Killing Season” although there is arguably enough time left for a party committed to improving its electoral fortunes to make changes at the top.

For Labor, a leadership overhaul would involve the right accepting a leader from the left, and the parliamentary brawler Albanese finding his inner statesman.

A change for the better in the Liberal Party would require the traditionalists installing either a man they despise, a woman who they will inevitably think is considered not up to the task, or another man who is not yet ready to lead.

There is arguably enough time, but none of these changes are going to happen. The right installed Abbott and Shorten not only to retain factional dominance but because there was a dearth of viable options. It’s by default as much as connivance that Australian voters are currently saddled with two dud political leaders.

Is a cabinet reshuffle worth the instability?

Is a cabinet reshuffle worth the instability?

Coalition MPs have woken this morning to an opinion poll that suggests voters are pretty unimpressed with the Government’s untidiness over the past week.

Today’s monthly Ipsos Poll is the first to be published since Treasurer Joe Hockey dug himself into a Sydney mortgage-sized hole over housing affordability, and the Prime Minister and his Immigration Minister couldn’t get their answers straight on whether people smugglers were paid hard cash by Australia to turn their boats back to Indonesia.

Iposos has recorded a 3 per cent drop in the Coalition’s primary vote (to 40 per cent) since last month, and an increase in Labor’s vote of 2 per cent (to 37 per cent), which after the allocation of preferences gives a two-party preferred result of 53:47 in Labor’s favour. Ipsos’s post-budget poll found the major parties to be at 50:50, and this latest poll brings it into line with the other published pollsters Roy Morgan(53:47), Newspoll (52:48), and Essential (52:48).

Whether or not these other polls will show a similar deterioration in the Government’s position when they are revealed in coming days, it’s fair to say voters don’t like it when ministers look incompetent. And while Treasurer Hockey might have kept it together for the initial salesmanship of this year’s budget, he’s been all over the place since then.

Even setting aside the mishandling of changes to paid parental leave by suggesting new mothers were rorters and frauds, Hockey has reverted to the Sloppy Joe of old, making up tax policy on the runcasting doubt on the PM’s iron-clad commitment not to tamper with superannuation, and opening up a debate on housing affordability that the Government really could have done without.

According to today’s Ipsos poll, 69 per cent of voters living in capital cities say homes in their area are unaffordable for first-time buyers. This amount increases to 80 per cent for Sydney-based respondents.

While the Treasurer hasn’t yet resorted to complaining about his lot, as he did last year when things got tough, his position is again being eyed by the more ambitious and impatient among his parliamentary colleagues.

Talk has already emerged about a possible ministerial reshuffle prior to next year’s federal election. However, just like the last time such talk surfaced in the media, this is more likely the work of ambitious MPs pressuring for change and jostling for positions than the PM flagging his intentions.

The fate of wholly-unimpressive Attorney-General, George Brandis, has been placed in the media’s sights by at least one anonymous backgrounder, while the extended absence of Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz to deal with a family matter has prompted others to suggest Finance Minister Mathias Cormann should be placed in the leadership role.

According to one commentator, “Abbott had always planned a big reshuffle in the second half of 2015, to take a fresh team into the 2016 election.” But that statement is more likely the wishful thinking of an over-looked backbencher than a reflection of Abbott’s current thinking, particularly considering the PM essentially brought forward the traditional pre-election ministry reshuffle to the end of last year.

Whatever the Prime Minister ultimately does about his ministry, the move will be inextricably linked with the state of his leadership within the Liberal Party. The hardliners within the party are reasserting their dominance, having seen off the leadership hopeful Malcolm Turnbull at the failed party room spill in February, and split the Turnbull-Bishop dream-team vote by cultivating the Foreign Minister’s own leadership aspirations.

Meantime, the hard-right’s heir apparent, Scott Morrison, has essentially swung in behind Abbott to bolster the PM’s position on two of the right’s emblematic issues: national security and same-sex marriage. The former Immigration Minister publicly backed the national security proposal, which divided Cabinet but has strong backbench and community support, to strip Australian citizenship from sole nationals who were found to be terrorists. As a possible alternative, Morrison also proposed suspending their residence rights rather than cancelling sole nationals’ citizenship altogether.

In doing so Morrison has clearly set himself apart from the Turnbull-Bishop “legal eagles” on the matter, and aligned himself with the majority of the backbench and the populace. He has also differentiated himself from Turnbull on gay marriage, an issue the hardliners are reportedly claiming could destroy Abbott’s leadership if he allows a free vote. Interestingly, Bishop has not yet declared her hand on the matter, although she has said in the past she’d consult her electorate if Liberal MPs were given a free vote on legislation to legalise gay marriage.

It’s hard to see how the pragmatists in the Liberal right would tear down a prime minister on an issue that has such strong support in the community, even if there are claims the Coalition could lose Senate seatsif it stops resisting the change.

Focus group research conducted last month showed that voters take a dim view of political instability. Given the choice between Turnbull, Bishop or Abbott, “Abbott is a long way last,” according to the market researcher who conducted the focus groups, Tony Mitchelmore. But if asked whether they wanted Turnbull, Bishop or stability, then “stability wins”.

This antipathy for government sloppiness and instability will be driven home as the televising of The Killing Season reminds voters that this was what they most despised about the Rudd-Gillard years.

Today’s opinion poll results are sure to cause anxiety in Government ranks, and throw fuel on the smouldering ambitions of ministerial and leadership aspirants.

But if there is anything to be learned from the poll dip, to the extent that there is one outside the margin of error, it is that voters want stable government. Any thought of throwing out an accident-prone Treasurer, who has privately threatened to cause havoc if demoted, must be carefully weighed against the public perceiving the Government as not being able to keep its house in order.

Flicking the switch from opposition to alternative government

Flicking the switch from opposition to alternative government

It’s taken a while to sink in, but Labor appears to have finally worked out that it can’t depend on an accident-prone and self-absorbed Prime Minster to hand it government at the next federal election.

Thanks almost entirely to the Abbott Government’s badly misjudged first budget, the Opposition has until recently had a dream run in the opinion polls with a campaign focussing on fairness. According to Newspoll, Labor has almost consistently held an election-winning lead since December 2013.

However, the second Abbott budget is less obviously unfair than its predecessor, and the PM is doing whatever it takes to improve his own approval ratings. As a result, Labor has to find other ways to remain attractive to voters.

It would be an understatement to say Labor leader Bill Shorten hasn’t been particularly successful in mimicking the negativism that made Tony Abbott so successful as Opposition Leader. In fact, all Shorten has succeeded in doing is making himself similar to Abbott in the eyes of voters.

According to the latest Essential Poll, Abbott is unsurprisingly seen to be worse than Shorten on a range of leadership “attributes” such as narrow-mindedness, intolerance, arrogance, aggression and being out of touch with ordinary people. Yet the two men are considered to be about the same on other characteristics such as the extent to which they are more honest than other politicians, and whether they’re trustworthy, hard working, or capable.

On the last measure, the 13-point gap between the two men in February has been closed to just three points, and Abbott has retaken the lead as preferred PM in all of the published opinion polls.

In the absence of a compelling leader or a sufficiently self-destructive government, Labor is now taking the only option left to make itself competitive at the next election – policy differentiation. Yet as the annals of modern Australian political history show, this is a much more risky approach.

Ever since Liberal leader John Hewson took the detailed policy manifesto Fightback! to the 1993 federal election, and was beaten to a pulp with it by PM Paul Keating, opposition leaders have been reluctant to divulge policy detail before an election. This “small target” approach makes it more difficult for the government of the day to attack the opposition, but it also makes it harder for voters to discern what the opposition stands for.

A small target strategy is most effective when voters are looking for any reason to toss out the incumbent, such as in the recent state election in Queensland. Other than such times, voters tend to stick with the devil they know, and particularly if they still have bad memories of the last time the opposition was in government.

In those instances, an opposition must release enough policy detail to show they’ve changed, but not enough to scare off the voters who prefer the status quo.

Former Labor leader Kevin Rudd wrote the rule book on this approach in 2007, when he aligned with so many of the Howard government’s policies that he was accused of running a “me too” campaign. One political commentator at the time explained this as Rudd positioning himself close to PM Howard “on all those issues where the Liberals have the advantage and differentiating himself only on those issues where Labor has the advantage“.

As a result, Rudd was seen as the “other” safe pair of hands, but also the candidate that offered ratification of Kyoto, the scrapping of WorkChoices, and a different approach to asylum seekers. This was enough to convince voters to abandon Howard, who they had backed as the status quo option for more than a decade but had come to view as no longer having the best interests of Australians at heart.

Considering the current Labor leader was instrumental in the leadership coup that unseated PM Ruddless than three years later, it’s not without some irony that the Rudd approach is now being explored by Shorten and his team.

Labor is sticking to the Government on the issues where the Coalition has the advantage, particularly (and controversially) national security and asylum seekers. The Opposition supports the Government’s small business package, and even flagged that it will support a move to scrap a small tax cut (which would have modestly increased the tax-free threshold) that was supposed to occur this year as part of the carbon tax compensation package.

This latter move is particularly smart for Labor, which continues to suffer from a reputation for profligacy and economic incompetence. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen took a step towards repairing that reputation by acknowledging on the weekend that “Labor had taken the ‘responsible view’ that the tax cuts were no longer appropriate” and “given the state of the budget deficit, the responsible thing for Labor to do is to give its support”.

The political challenge for Shorten and Labor is to successfully identify and prosecute the points of policy differentiation with the Abbott Government.

Rudd stuck to a few key points, for clarity and memorability, and Shorten would be advised to do the same. So far, the current Labor leader has set his party apart from the Government by taking a contrasting position on the tax treatment of superannuation and multinational corporations, and policies where Labor has a natural advantage such as marriage equality and climate action.

The potential spoiler will be Labor’s national conference next month. Debates on marriage equality and asylum seeker boat turn-backs could confuse the points of comparison between Labor and the Coalition, making it less easy for voters to differentiate between the two. Invariably in such cases of confusion, voters default to the devil they know.

As this writer pointed out a fortnight ago, political negativity is easier and can be considerably effective, but Shorten seems to be incapable of doing it well. And in reality, all voters really want is a competent, responsible government. With the next federal election only a year away, Labor’s best bet may be to flick the switch from being an ineffectual opposition to becoming a compelling alternative government.

Labor’s same-sex marriage ploy: cynical, naive or just poorly timed?

Labor’s same-sex marriage ploy: cynical, naive or just poorly timed?

Like its cousins in the performing arts world, comedy and magic, skilful politics depends on getting the timing right.

A deftly timed word or action makes the world of difference between a clanger and a killer punch-line; a fumble and a feat of prestidigitation; or a partisan howler and an act of political brilliance.

And so it has been on the national political stage in recent weeks that the Labor Opposition’s performance has suffered from poor judgements of timing.

First there was Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek’s call in late April for Labor MPs to be required to vote in accordance with party policy, which is to support marriage equality.

Taken in isolation, Plibersek’s demand for the party to stop having a bet each way on the issue was an admirable one. But she did so at the same time the Bali Nine ringleaders were counting down the last hours to their execution, and the media was providing blanket coverage of their plight. As a result, Plibersek’s declaration during the death-watch seemed more a desperate ploy to steal some of the limelight from the Abbott Government, which was getting plaudits at the time for trying to save the condemned men.

In fact, Plibersek’s poor timing not only reflected badly on her, but also on her faction and her leader. Plibersek’s call for a binding vote, which was made while Bill Shorten was overseas and she was acting Labor leader, divided the Labor left faction and was perceived as leadership positioning. It also ensured a stoush on the issue will take place at the upcoming ALP national conference that Shorten has no hope of resolving and could well do without.

Which brings us to the second – and related – case of Labor’s bad political timing: Bill Shorten’s private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage.

The proposed legislation must have seemed to the Labor Leader’s brains trust like a clever solution; it would mop up Plibersek’s mess by resolving the issue before the national conference, and force the Prime Minister to allow a conscience vote for Coalition MPs. But it won’t and it can’t.

Once Shorten introduces his bill to the Parliament today, it will be the Government’s prerogative to bring on the debate – or not. Shorten’s bill will languish on the books along with other private member’s bills, probably including the one to be introduced today by Clive Palmer relating to the Bali Nine on Foreign Death Penalty Offences.

Without the numbers in the House of Representatives, a proposal to legalise same-sex marriage will never get the opportunity to be considered in the Senate, and vice versa.

Nor would the Liberal party room defy the Prime Minister by flouting the conditions he’s set for having a conscience vote on the matter, namely that the proposed legislation must be “owned by the Parliament, and not by any particular party“. What Abbott really means is that he won’t abide any other party or politician getting the kudos for the legislation when it is finally passed.

Meantime, Shorten and Plibersek’s timing on the issue – pursuing a controversial social justice change when they should be hammering the budget – suggests they’re either terribly naïve or supremely cynical. Naïve enough to think they can force a vote with the private member’s bill, or cynical enough to value the political capital gained from putting up a proposal that is sure to fail more than giving in to Abbott’s demands and taking the multi-party approach to actually achieving marriage equality.

Like comedy and magic, the deft delivery of politics not only takes skill but the wisdom and instinct that comes from many years of practice, often with the guidance of wiser heads who have come before.

Labor continues to suffer from a dearth of such guidance, following the exodus of learned parliamentarians from Labor ranks during and after the Rudd-Gillard years. One of the ALP’s best tacticians, Anthony Albanese, is still in the Parliament but is no longer part of the parliamentary tactics group since Tony Burke became Manager of Opposition Business.

While Albo might not have been able to prevent his Left faction colleague Plibersek from going rogue on same-sex marriage, he may have at least counselled Shorten to carefully think through the merits and risks of a quixotic private member’s bill. It’s also possible he would have counselled against politicising how a letter sent by the Sydney Siege gunman was handed by the Abbott Government.

An expert sense of timing is what sets skilled performers apart from the rank amateurs – be they politicians, comedians or magicians – and yet it doesn’t take an expert audience to pick the difference.

The Opposition is making a habit of getting the timing wrong on their political tactics, and Australian voters are starting to get impatient. If Labor doesn’t become more proficient, or bring in some expert advice, its poor timing could lead to the party being unceremoniously howled off the political stage at the next federal election.