By-elections in Mayo and Henley

It would seem that in our modern, heavily tactical form of democracy that voters are only given a right to vote for the party of their choice when that party decides it is politically worthwhile running a candidate. As Phillip Coorey reports for the SMH, it is looking like Federal Labor is not going to run a candidate (or else only half-run one) in the Mayo by-election forced by the resignation of Alexander Downer. This strikes me as little more than political cowardice from the government, coming as it does a mere eight months after its thumping general election victory. While it may be a foregone conclusion that the Coalition will retain the seat (it is a safe Liberal seat, of course), one wonders why Federal Labor is avoiding the opportunity to try and make this by-election a referendum on Brendan Nelson’s leadership. A few months ago, Kevin Rudd seemed pretty much indefatigable in his role as Prime Minister and Brendan Nelson had all the pressure on his shoulders, his senior peers walking around with sharpened knives at the ready. Does the government really fear that this has changed and that any opportunity to further pressure the Opposition has been lost? Does it want to look to the punters like it is running scared?

The decision to only pursue the by-election halfheartedly seems to be centred around a desire to starve the Coalition of any potential political oxygen. It goes without saying that by far the most likely outcome in Mayo is a victory for the Opposition, and that therefore some positive news coverage for Nelson would eventuate if Labor field a candidate and lose convincingly. From a purely political standpoint, this rationale is not without credence, and certainly we have here in the UK an excellent recent reference point for Labor in the recent Henley by-election in Oxfordshire. There are some telling similarities. In Henley, like Mayo, the by-election was forced by the resignation of a popular, high-profile conservative figure (Boris Johnson, now London mayor), in a safely held seat. Labour decided to field a candidate in the Henley, but did not put very much effort into the campaign, producing a truly abysmal result; fifth place behind the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the British National Party. Embarrassingly, the combined primary vote for the UK Independence Party’s Chris Adams and Bananaman Owen of the Monster Raving Looney Party superceded that of Labour’s Richard McKenzie.

In the Henley case, then, fielding a candidate and running a half-hearted campaign was indeed a disaster. There is little chance that Labor stand a chance of doing quite so badly in Mayo. Crucially, Labour’s Gordon Brown is polling at subterranean levels currently, whereas by comparison, Kevin Rudd and Federal Labor enjoy a comfortable lead in the polls, and have done so for the past eight months. In this sense, we are really comparing apples and oranges with these by-elections.

I really don’t think that this is the right time for Federal Labor to give into political convenience and go on the defensive by steering clear of Mayo. The Rudd Opposition was successful in the general election last November in part because of its aggression, exemplified by the gambit of fielding Maxine McKew in John Howard’s once blue-ribbon Liberal seat. Federal Labor also won support by taking a noble line on issues like electoral reform and transparency in government (hat lift: Senator John Faulkner) in stark contrast to the grubby politics that the Howard Government accustomed itself to. It may not strictly speaking be the most politically expedient course of action, but fielding a candidate in Mayo and putting some energy and resources into the campaign is both the smart and the right thing for Federal Labor to do here.

Time to go Alexei (finally?)

While I have less than a glowing view of Alexander Downer’s performance as a parliamentary representative and indeed as a Foreign Minister, I feel I should echo Senator Penny Wong’s comments on Downer’s imminent resignation from parliament today. Downer has been a member of parliament for almost 25 years; since 1984 to be precise. Assuming a basic level of faith in democracy, one would have to think that if the voters of Mayo have deigned to endorse a candidate at the polls on so many consecutive occasions, the candidate must be doing a fairly good job of representing them. I may not agree with that endorsement, but I can certainly respect it.

What I don’t really respect, on the other hand, is Downer’s fairly drawn-out loitering on the parliamentary backbenches over the past eight months, as he evidently waited for some suitably plum job opportunities to come along. It was always assumed after the election that he would leave parliament rather than stay to fight on until 2010, and Downer has certainly foreshadowed his departure quite often in recent months. I am sure that at least in part Downer has sought to shield the fragile Nelson leadership from a by-election by his hanging around, but I am afraid that really isn’t a good enough reason for him to sit around on the taxpayer’s coin like so much dead lumber waiting to be carted off on a truck somewhere.

I would like at some stage to write a more ruminative piece on Alexander Downer’s contributions to public life over the last quarter of a century; a figure of his prominence deserves as much. For the time being though, I wish him well in his new mooted role, am pleased that he is leaving Canberra, and very much glad that the foreign policy of the Commonwealth of Australia is no longer in his hands.

ELSEWHERE: Janet Albrechtsen and Jamie Walker have a bit of an up-beat political obituary of Downer in The Australian. The soon to be former Member of Mayo does seem to be leaving the door ajar for a possible future tilt at South Australian politics, and manages to make himself sound like an ass with respect to smoking laws. What part of “cancer-causing second-hand smoke” do you not get Alex?

Progressophobia and foreign policy

I have to confess I am a bit bewildered by Greg Sheridan’s column in The Australian today and his likening of Kevin Rudd’s foreign policy style to that of former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad. Paul Keating might have publicly expressed his disapproval in relation to Rudd’s Asian union proposal this week, but I hardly think that he would view Australia’s Prime Minister in the same light as he did Mahathir.

The following synopsis contains the gist of Sheridan’s argument:

Kevin Rudd is in danger of turning what should be his greatest strength into a serious weakness. I refer to his weird and increasingly ratty habit of announcing foreign policy initiatives of soaring ambition and utterly amorphous content on the run, half baked, with nodetail and no credible prospect of success.

If you announce twice a week that you’re going to save the world and you manifestly lack the means to give the slightest effect to your pronouncements, the world soon loses interest. The chief casualty is your credibility.

I don’t think anybody is seriously anticipating that Kevin Rudd is single-handedly going to “save the world” by throwing these proposals out there, or is even remotely attempting to. Being an international political superhero is clearly not the intention of the government in being expansive; realistically, the intention of the government is to make hay while the sun shines and try a few things that might actually serve to improve the global political scene and Australia’s corner of it. I have little doubt that some of these proposals will not actually result in meaningful improvements to the current situation that Australia finds itself in. I also have little doubt that some actually will.

In writing this column, methinks Greg Sheridan must be suffering from some form of foreign policy initiative starvation syndrome, no doubt a symptom of the hopelessly uncreative and unadventurous Howard/Downer years. Over its decade in office, the previous administration increasingly lost interest in trying bold new things and trying to “seize the day” in its policy pursuits. Comfy stagnation was rejoiced in by the government and in the mainstream media. A certain thematic routine with respect to foreign relations was established and adhered to, evolving gradually into a wholly uninspiring policy norm.

In trying to play catch-up for the last decade over the past few months, the Rudd Government can hardly be blamed for being expansive and throwing some ideas out there. With respect to foreign affairs, there are certainly a number of norms out there that the previous government established that deserve to be smashed. The progressophobia that Sheridan seems to be lamenting the loss of in his column today is one of them.