A hard life for some

What has looked like the inevitable for the past nine months or so has finally now come to pass, with Malcolm Turnbull assuming the leadership of the Federal Liberal Party from Brendan Nelson, after a 45 – 41 party room vote. I think I will write some more about Turnbull a little later this week, but for now it’s probably worth reflecting on this opening salvo from the Member for Wentworth:

“I do not come to the position of leader of the Liberal Party from a lifetime of privilege,” he said at his first press conference.

“I know what it’s like to be very short of money. I know what it’s like to live in rented flats.

“I know what it’s like to grow up with a single parent with no support other than a devoted and loyal father.

“We know that this is a tough world and our job as Liberals is to ensure that our society is a fair one. A society of opportunity. A society where people can, like my father and I, be able to take advantage of those opportunities, to seize those opportunities and with enterprise and energy and good luck and hard work, do well.

“We are a party of opportunity and this, my friends, is a land of opportunity.”

The emphasis above is mine. Turnbull is clearly going to have to watch his millionaire mouth in check if he doesn’t want to swiftly alienate a lot of the voters he is trying to impress. To think the poor boy had to actually rent an flat! Oh,the tragedy! Oh, the humiliation! Oh, the frightening closeness to the everyday, normal reality for millions of people in Australia!

This is going to be interesting.

One last smirk for old time’s sake

Peter Costello’s memoirs were released today; it will be interesting indeed to see if Labor gets as much mileage out of them as the Coalition got out of The Latham Diaries. Naturally, being a continuously relapsing political junkie, I couldn’t resist the urge and picked up the book in Myer today at an extortionate price not far ($39.95) from the outrageous RRP of $55. I had to grit my teeth though. The nice lady who served me described Australia’s longest serving Treasurer as a “brilliant man” [cough, choke, splutter], although we did manage to agree that it would probably have been better for him and the party if he had kept his big mouth closed for the time being.

I would have to regard Peter Costello, when he was on form and not a smirking parody of himself, as one of the best political performers in parliament over the last decade. There have been innumerable occasions in recent years when I have been able to admire the man’s wit and have a chuckle without agreeing with the point of view he is expressing. On the other hand, I think there are a few aspects to his career in government that will not be regarded fondly by either his friends (if they are smart) or foes in the years to come.

Most crucially, although Costello presided as Treasurer over one of Australia’s most golden stretches of economic prosperity in living memory, recent events in global financial markets have served as a reminder that he was at worst, criminally negligent with respect to the championing of real economic reform, and at best, just plain lucky. The economists and political scientists among us will no doubt ponder over the next decade or two what opportunities to improve the economic situation of all Australians may have been squandered while the Howard Government focused on other things besides reform. Namely, milking every last drop of triumphalism out of the national economic situation, throwing tax cut bribes around glibly, and actually doing very little.

Costello, along with the man who is likely to bear the brunt of most of the dumpings in his book, must also take some share of direct personal responsibility for failing to facilitate an effective leadership transition while in government. Despite the recent election results in Western Australia, the Liberal Party still looks and smells like a car crash; what the Labor Party smells like in some states at the moment I will leave open to suggestion. Federally, however, the stench is primarily eminating from the opposition benches. Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson even announced today that he was taking the extraordinary step of instigating a leadership spill, evidently aimed at flushing out any leadership aspirants who don’t really have the numbers in caucus and rustling up some loyalty. Good luck with that one, Brendan.

I’ll aim to post an interesting short excerpt or two from Costello’s book over the coming weeks.

Introducing the all new Australian Oxymoron Party (AOP)

As a member of the Labor Party I feel that to at least some small extent, I can empathise with the frustrations that supporters of the Coalition must be feeling at the moment. After the federal election defeats that hung like rancid albatrosses around Labor’s neck over the course of the last decade, just about everybody had an opinion about what was wrong with the party, and how it needed to be fixed. The majority of the criticisms of the party aired during this time were pretty well on the money, but perhaps only a small proportion of these would have served the purpose of making the federal party actually more likely to win elections. The somewhat antiquated party infrastructure that all the major parties in Australia continue to operate with can indeed be effectively criticised from top to bottom, but the average punter assumes as a given that a political party should have its house in order (roughly) by default. For the most part, they are not interested in the internal workings of the parties they vote for. They are more interested in what a vote for each of these parties respectively means for them, their friends and families, and their local communities.

Now the Coalition has only had one federal election loss in recent history of course, but they certainly have done a good job so far of making sure it proves to be a real doozy for them. The latest largely irrelevant tangent that the media have collapsed on in a frenzy is the prospect of a merger between the Liberal and National Parties. The cause? Another spectacularly ugly public backflip from Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson, who only yesterday voiced his support for a potential merger. But within twenty-four hours, he was declaring the idea “nonsense”. With stalwarts like Michelle Grattan now calling for Nelson to stand aside, surely the Opposition Leader needs to give some thoughtful consideration towards doing the right thing by his party and leaping on the nearest available upturned sword.

What has most amused me about this latest talk of mergers has been the attempts by members of Nelson’s front bench to explain what the Coalition stands for. Joe Hockey suggests that Australians want a “clearer, more identifiable” party to represent “liberal conservative” interests. The Chaser could not have expressed it better. I am not sure this somewhat circular argument against the merger from Christopher Pyne has really helped to clarify either:

“The National Party is a conservative party,” said the justice spokesman, Christopher Pyne. “The Liberal Party has always said that we are both liberals and conservatives. We hold both the strains of non-Labor thinking within our party, and merging the Nationals and the Liberals would not be merging two like parties.”

Well, at least Pyne’s first sentence makes sense.

The conservative who liberalised the Liberal Party

Former Prime Minister John Howard has delivered his first major speech since his historic concession speech on November 24th 2007, upon receiving the annual Irving Kristol Award for 2008 from the American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative thinktank based in the United States. Characteristic of his style of public speaking, the speech itself is fairly long-winded and pedestrian in tone, and touches on a number of the touchstone themes dear to Howard’s philosophical heart. The importance of family and the institution of marriage for society are reiterated. The leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are referenced multiple times in the speech in glowing terms. Both the value of free-market economics and the robustness of the relationship between the United States and Australia are reemphasised. Reading this speech, one feels instantly transported back in time a few years. It was clearly written by someone wearing the same ideological straitjacket that the former Prime Minister forced upon the country during his time in office.

The most interesting thing about the speech was the way in which Howard elected to take a few arrogant pot-shots at the new government. Noting that the Rudd Government plans to reverse its widely criticised industrial relations changes (which the former members of his own government have also agreed to), Howard declares Labor’s industrial relations changes to be a mistake. He expresses disappointment that Australian troops will be leaving Iraq, failing, of course, to even acknowledge Defence Force Chief Angus Houston’s public assertion that it is time for Australia’s forces to depart the country. He even has the hubris to contrast Margaret Thatcher’s union-busting antics with his own thoroughly rejected anti-union reforms:

Margaret Thatcher’s transformation of Britain was, ironically enough, to be vindicated by Tony Blair’s embrace of her changes to Britain’s labour laws.

On a smaller scale, in my own country, a number of the more conservative social policies of my government have been endorsed by the new Australian government. The sincerity of its conversion will be tested by experience of office.

And so, amidst some hazy, high-level rhetoric on the foreign-policy challenges facing the West, we have a few petulant jibes from a man who, with his government, was unendorsed by the Australian people last November. Even his colleagues within his own party have sought to rapidly disassociate themselves from him, rubbishing him on television, indefinitely shelving a range of his hallmark policy initiatives, and endorsing as leader someone who has already repudiated a significant portion of Howard’s divisive social agenda. The Opposition Leader most likely to take the reins should (or rather when) the electorate has had enough of Doctor Nelson is of course John Howard’s virulent nemesis from the republican debate, and one of the most “liberal” members of the parliamentary Liberal Party. In the United States, Malcolm Turnbull would without doubt be a Democrat, not a Republican.

These cold hard facts tell the other half of the story regarding John Howard’s legacy as a Prime Minister and a conservative, and it is not looking like things are going to end well for those who want a strong, conservative Liberal Party.