Liberal Party knives out on asylum seekers

The Coalition has been sticking its knives into the Rudd Government in recent months on asylum seekers, and a lot of the knives have been sticking. It is undoubtedly the case that significant push factors have been in play in recent years that haven’t been there previously, but I think its equally fair to say that the government has done a poor job of managing its communications on immigration issues. In its efforts to sell the humanity of its policies to progressive voters locally, Federal Labor has probably not done enough to present a relatively firm (but fair) line to the international community. On this score, tomorrow’s episode of Insight on SBS should prove interesting:

This week an alleged people smuggler speaks exclusively to Insight about why he thinks more boats are arriving. And his comments are explosive.

“People see Australia as easy. After three or four months it’s done.  The important thing is we definitely get citizenship.  We will become Australian citizens immediately.”

Meanwhile, Malcolm Turnbull has emerged from the backbench to remind Tony Abbott he is still around, sticking in a few knives into his own team for good measure:

Referring to the Coalition’s announcement on boatpeople, Mr Turnbull said “ideally” new policies should go to the partyroom. He said push factors played an enormous role.

“There are literally millions and millions of people who have refugee status or would if they arrived in Australia and sought refugee status be granted it under the UN rules,” Mr Turnbull said. ” So the push factor is gigantic.”

The Federal Government needs to get on top of this issue, or it stands the possibility of copping a real pasting as the election draws near. It needs to come up with a fundamentally new approach that retains the essential humanity that the centre-left want from Labor, whilst making it quite clear beyond our borders that we can only accept genuine claims for asylum, and we can only accept so many.

The government’s current approach is, unfortunately, dysfunctional.

The very name of Malcolm Turnbull’s albatross

Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir of his participation in the Australian Republican Movement’s campaign for a republic, Fighting for the Republic, was published in 1999. I wonder, when he was writing the words below, whether he had even the slightest inkling of what the coming years would bring (p.4):

When we launched the ARM, the monarchists quickly retaliated by forming a group called Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM). Its chairman was Lloyd Waddy, a Sydney barrister, and a number of well-known conservatives were among its founders, including Dame Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of Sydney University, and, more improbably, Michael Kirby, very much a small-‘l’ liberal and President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal.

The ACM was pretty ineffective until it hired Tony Abbott as its executive director in 1993. Abbott had been a speechwriter for Liberal leader John Hewson and was an energetic, if somewhat erratic, advocate of the status quo.

And there is this (p.26):

The monarchist campaign was largely directed by Tony Abbott, who had now left his job with the ACM to take up a seat in Parliament. One of the strategy documents prepared by Abbott encouraged the monarchists to attack me personally. ‘As their public face Turnbull is arrogant, rude and obnoxious – a filthy rich merchant banker, out of touch with real Australians. He is the Gordon Gekko of Australian politics.’

Strong words. I wonder how both parties view their interactions during the late 1990’s now? Certainly Abbott would likely view them with a healthy dose of triumphalism. It seems that the life and times of Malcolm Turnbull for the past fifteen years or so have been bookended by two quite separate and quite personal defeats by the Federal Member for Warringah.

LOSTNEARFOSSILCREEK

It seems as though the entire Opposition has managed to get itself lost near Fossil Creek. At the end of last week, they were riding high on the home insulation scandal, delighting in the prospect of blaming the Environment Minister and the Prime Minister for deaths caused by dodgy insulation start-ups. The “oppose everything” routine was going great guns. The poll numbers for Tony Abbott were looking bad for Labor, and the Prime Minister felt the need to indulge in some extraordinary self-flagellation on Insiders last Sunday.

What a difference a week makes. This week, the Rudd Government has come out playing ball in election mode, announcing major initiatives in education and health. It is looking like Labor’s health reform plan will form the cornerstone of its re-election campaign. Despite some general public reservations about whether this plan was a process that should have already been well underway, people know that big changes need to be made to the way in which health services are provided in this country. When push comes to shove, health as an issue trumps most other issues out there, and the government’s plan is going to prove difficult to counter; unless, of course, the states and territories don’t play nice.

The timing of Tony Abbott’s barmy disappearance into Central Australia could not really have been worse. I’m not sure if his trip was planned significantly in advance or not, but it should have been gently postponed given the political developments of last week. In his absence, the government has had a free-hit, launching policies and looking positive, while Abbott scratches about in the outback, looking unkempt and managing to make an arse of himself by getting lost. His “oppose everything” schtick is starting to wear a bit thin, especially when it is phoned in from no-man’s land and he is offering no serious policy alternative.

I don’t doubt that the Opposition Leader could learn a lot from engaging more closely with Aboriginal communities, but it was very, very questionable politics to do so while he had the government looking like it might collapse on the canvas after a tough week. Federal Labor has now regained control of the news cycle, and I would not be surprised if the polls in the next couple of weeks reflect that.

Barnaby Joyce, policy whacko esquire

Despite the resumption of parliament, political debate has been muted this week; with the news dominated by a few unfortunate seconds of video footage of a Macquarie Bank worker and a legal case featuring one (or is that two?) of Australia’s favourite national songs. Such is the flippant, transitory and ultimately tabloid nature of modern news.

One intervention into the headlines worthy of debate was made by Shadow Finance Minister Barnaby Joyce. Appearing at the National Press Club for the first time as a seriously senior member of the Opposition, Joyce delivered a performance that undoubtedly left Liberal Party members across the country scratching their heads and squirming in their seats. Michelle Grattan reports on Joyce’s most questionable comments in The Age:

”We are giving $150 million to the World Bank. Fair enough. $50 million of that is to deal with the food inflationary aspects in the Third World. Well, why doesn’t Kevin Rudd deal with the food inflationary aspects in this world, you know? That would be handy,” he said.


Senator Joyce said: ”We’ve got to be cautious when we’re borrowing money from overseas to send back to overseas … because we’ve got to pay the money back.”

Putting our Macquarie Bank staffer to shame, in a matter of seconds, Tony Abbott’s right-hand man dropped a whole swag full of clunkers right there. For starters – Joyce’s rant rode roughshod over official Coalition policy on foreign aid, forcing the Opposition Leader and his Deputy to issue terse “corrections” on his behalf. It also raised serious questions about his ability to be the senior spokesperson for such a broad, sensitive policy portfolio. To compare the problems that Australia has with access to food to the problems that countries in the Third World have with access to food is quite simply, outrageous. That Joyce saw fit to raise the prospect of abandoning or reducing Australia’s small obligations to the international needy smacks of narrow, parochial self-interest, reflecting quite poorly indeed upon his character.

The Shadow Finance Minister’s financial credentials also warrant some serious questioning. Particularly in the wake of the financial crisis experienced over the last couple of years, national governments across the world have surged into debt. Some national governments are worse off than others, but what is readily apparent is that Australia’s net financial position, considering our projected ability to repay outstanding debt, is superior to just about any other nation out there. It is not strange, wrong or inadvisable for Australia to be in debt; certainly not any more the case than it is for Harvey Norman or Woolworths to borrow money, or for you or I to take out a mortgage to purchase property, at home or abroad.

Joyce seems to be suggesting that it may be inadvisable to borrow money “overseas” if the money is to be spent “overseas”, ostensibly on people who are not Australians. What sort of short-sighted, hermit kingdom mentality does that betray? What miniscule price does Joyce put on the lives of people that Australia’s aid assists, let alone Australia’s international reputation and renown as the land of the “fair go”?

Frankly, it was a Sarah Palin-esque moment, with a dash of Pauline on the side. As this year’s federal election looms large, Tony Abbott is likely going to come to rue the day that he decided that he wanted Barnaby Joyce to serve as one of his right-hand men. If, as Palin famously suggested, she can see Russia from Alaska, then this week’s events have proven (for any still in doubt) that Barnaby Joyce can really, truly, indubitably see the Third World from rural Queensland.

Evidently, if Australia is in debt, it can all rot.

ELSEWHERE: It’s hard to go past Damien Kingsbury’s surgical dissection of Joyce’s folly folly, also in The Age. To summarise:

Without any prompting, Joyce appears to have wandered off into policy whacko-land.

Just what is Malcolm Turnbull playing at?

As a Labor supporter, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, I prefer Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott as the leader of the Federal Opposition. This is not just because Turnbull agrees with the Labor Party on climate change, and it’s certainly not because Malcolm Turnbull laid bare the ideological chasm between the liberal and conservative wings of his party – a divided and ineffective opposition is in nobody’s interests. However Turnbull, at least on some issues (e.g. climate change, the republic), offered the electorate a glimmer of hope that concrete bipartisan progress was not impossible, and that the nation is capable of moving beyond the one-eyed partisan bickering that characterises our political system, even if just for a moment or two. Turnbull showed promising signs of understanding that the job of an Opposition is not always to oppose; it is to present an alternative vision for the nation and to back that vision up with policy. Sometimes it is better to be constructive. This is a lesson that Kevin Rudd adopted in Opposition to mighty effect, cherry-picking policy from the government whilst magnifying points of differentiation in other areas. Abbott, in contrast, appears to be set on the “oppose for opposition’s sake” approach. Perhaps he should have a bit of a chat to his mate Peter Debnam on that topic.

Despite all this, I am still a bit shocked at how Malcolm Turnbull has behaved since he was defeated in the leadership ballot last week. Immediately after the ballot, Turnbull asserted the following, as Ben Packham reports in the Herald Sun:

“I am not going to run a commentary on Tony Abbott. Lots of people ran commentaries on me when I was leader but I’m going to be more measured in my backbench remarks,” Mr Turnbull said yesterday.

I guess it all depends on what one considers “more measured” to mean, but a week has been proven once again to be a very long time in politics. Today, less than a week after those remarks, Turnbull posted a strident attack on his leader’s position on climate change on his blog, which quite frankly has to be read to be believed:

While a shadow minister, Tony Abbott was never afraid of speaking bluntly in a manner that was at odds with Coalition policy.

So as I am a humble backbencher I am sure he won’t complain if I tell a few home truths about the farce that the Coalition’s policy, or lack of policy, on climate change has descended into.

First, let’s get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money.

To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money.
Somebody has to pay.
So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, “bullshit.” Moreover he knows it.

If Turnbull continues to undermine Abbott’s position in this way, it will lay waste to the Liberal Party. This is, make no mistake, a running commentary on Tony Abbott’s leadership qualities, and it is a commentary that promises to continue well into the New Year. Abbott is already going to find it frightfully difficult to produce a policy on climate change that reduces emissions without significant costs. Even if a so-called “magic pudding” policy is found, it’s hard to imagine it being a dessert that the divided Coalition caucus is going to be happy to eat (insert “just desserts” pun here).

Seriously, how is the Coalition going to be a competitive force if its spurned leader – a media darling – feels able to fearlessly criticise his party’s policies in this way? It is, simply put, unsustainable.

On the Liberal Party, schisms, and curious steampunk machines

In considering how events have played out with respect to the leadership of the Liberal Party, a certain image springs to mind for me. For just a moment, picture the federal party-room of the Liberal Party in your mind’s eye as an elaborate, archaic, steampunk-ish contraption giving off heat and billowing steam, emitting all manner of clanking and wheezing sounds. There’s brass, there’s rust, there’s lint, there’s probably even some asbestos in there somewhere. It is an engine that has survived beyond its time and in some dubious way evolved, with strange, artificial improvements bolted higgledy-piggledy around the exterior. If you squint you might just make out what appears suspiciously to be microchips “growing” under a moist alcove, or what could well be a miniature LED screen replaying the tumultuous events of the last week or so over and over again, on silent repeat. Needless to say, despite the odd snatch of modern bling, this is a machine that doesn’t hum like your new home computer; it sounds kinda like a Datsun that hasn’t been serviced since 1982.

This curious machine has taken all the ingredients generated by the ructions of the last week and spat out a response to the leadership question, but it is the wrong response. A 42-41 decision is hardly a decision, particularly given that three likely Hockey/Turnbull supporters could not vote (Kelly O’Dwyer, Paul Fletcher, Fran Bailey). It doesn’t seem to be the response a majority of the party-room actually wanted. It doesn’t seem to be the response the eventual victor expected. It is, practically speaking, an non-sensical result. I am not sure that it really matters if the Liberal Party primarily blames Turnbull’s virtuoso but unconsultative approach to the CPRS for what they have now, or Hockey’s bizarrely principled vacillation on the precipice of his triumph. Oddly enough, both men proved their mettle and that they were worthy leaders since late last week, but still failed. What matters in the wash-up is that the moderate, liberal arm of the Liberal Party was holding all the cards over the conservatives and indeed had done so for most of the period since November 2007, but in a collective brainfart of truly epic proportions, they’ve managed to trade in all their aces for zippo, in one fell swoop.

The climate change issue has proven to be the most sublime wedge issue imaginable for the Rudd Government. Numbers-wise, the Coalition has been riven effectively right down the centre by the government’s CPRS, with the liberals and conservatives who played so nicely together during the Howard years now at each other’s throats. The marriage of convenience that holds the Coalition together has been ruthlessly exposed by the government as the shemozzle it really is. There is no effective consensus position for the Liberal Party on climate change, and no successful leader to call the shots first and sticky-tape the party together later, like there was during the Howard Government years. Dennis Glover does a fine job in today’s The Australian of spelling out why this issue so lethal for the Coalition, and why the Abbott Opposition needs to work out a credible position on climate change, and fast:

The evening news reports of the retreat of Greenland’s ice caps and the advance of solar power projects across the deserts of California will have far greater electoral effect than any theories Nick Minchin or Andrew Bolt try to sell on Lateline or Insiders.

Even cautious politicians such as Kevin Rudd are helping voters join the dots when the temperature gets above 40C.

For the coming months, a few predictions. I am extremely doubtful that we will see a double dissolution election. The Prime Minister, already sensing he has been gifted the upper hand by the Coalition’s bungling and the public’s goodwill, will not risk the ire of the electorate by pushing for an early climate change election. The Nationals and the Minchinites, having surprisingly emerged victorious with their candidate, are now perhaps just a little unsettled. Their “Anybody But Turnbull” approach has yielded the cut-through candidate that most gels with their own political philosophy, but has arguably as much capacity to polarise the electorate as anyone in the party. I sincerely doubt the Liberal Party pollsters are thrilled by the collected wisdom of the party-room. The first “post-spill” polls that emerge will be very interesting.

The moderates within the Liberal Party, having fielded two not unpopular candidates in the spill but still managed to lose, are now too enfeebled to challenge the leadership result or pursue the matter further. They will not speak up in support of the government’s CPRS. They will have to grit their teeth and mumble the Howard-era lines that they don’t actually believe in until the leadership changes again. Some may even decide to walk away from the party at the 2011 election. The rest of them will be hoping, of course, that their junk-tech party-room machine can, with a hiss and a puff of brackish smoke, spit out the right candidate for a modern Liberal Party the next time that the opportunity presents.

Which, in all likelihood, will be after Tony Abbott loses the next election.