Defending the prime tourist

The new Federal Opposition Leader’s opening gambit on the populist rhetoric front has been to attack the Prime Minister over his decision to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. For my money it is a cheap and uncompelling shot, for all except perhaps the Liberal Party’s most sour-faced and envious supporters. Rudd has reportedly been on eight foreign trips over the past nine months, which to this taxpayer at least, does not seem excessive. Unlike the comparatively unilateralist era that was ushered in by the previous government, Australia under Federal Labor is once again interested in engaging the world with open arms, lead by a man who understands global politics arguably better than anyone who has ever held the position. It would be a waste for Rudd not to use his not inconsiderable diplomatic talents and experience on the global stage as much as possible; indeed it would arguably be contravening Australia’s national interest not to in most circumstances.

In any case, Rudd himself responded more than adequately, methinks, to this related question from Kieran Gilbert of Sky News:

GILBERT: You’re heading off to New York this afternoon. You’re going to miss the rest of the week in parliament. Why do you need to go?

PM: Well, this week in New York the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly will have heads of government from 122 countries around the world including the heads of government from 13 of the world’s 15 major economies.

There’ll be one subject, one core subject on people’s mind, and that is the global response to the global financial crisis.

And there are two schools of thought here. Either you can go down the populist road, the opportunistic populist road, which is what various people in politics are championing at the moment and not go, or you can act in the national interest. My judgment is that my responsibility as Prime Minister is to act in the national interest, which means working through with other heads of government the best response to this global financial crisis.

Australia has to have a seat at the table, not just sort of hang out to one side an expect everyone else to kind of solve it. That’s not how it works.

Apparently Malcolm Turnbull would prefer to bury his head in the sand and let the rest of the world discuss these sorts of pertinent problems without his, or Australia’s input.

Will Malcolm Turnbull be a stable leader of the Liberal Party?

As I have previously commented, I don’t think too many people are surprised that Malcolm Turnbull has succeeded Brendan Nelson as the leader of the Liberal Party. There has been no real indication throughout 2008 that Doctor Nelson was eventually going to cut through and threaten Kevin Rudd as a genuine alternative Prime Minister of this country. It is not so much that Brendan Nelson has a divisive personae for the Liberals, but rather just that he failed to threaten the government to a significant enough extent. There was little question that the Rudd Labor Government would secure a second term in office in 2010 if Nelson was left holding the reins.

The interesting thing about Malcolm Turnbull, of course, is that he does have a divisive personae for the Liberal Party. In a political sense he is well to the soft left of the vast majority of the Liberal parliamentary caucus, and one would imagine that he has little time for the agrarian socialism of the National Party. He came to the party late and reportedly only after being denied a position in the Senate for the Labor Party during the 1980’s. In this respect, there are no doubt quite a few members of the Liberal caucus who resent the fact that Turnbull has swept in from the wings to the leadership of the party without having to go through the day-to-day political grind that they had to endure.

It’s worth considering for a moment the results of the leadership spill vote. For starters, Turnbull only was victorious by a margin of 4; if three caucus members had decided to instead plump for Nelson, than Turnbull would have failed to secure the leadership again, and his immediate future prospects would have been reasonably assumed to be in tatters. Ironically, it appears that several conservative members of the caucus may have delivered the vote to Turnbull. Tony Abbott, Alex Hawke, Bronwyn Bishop and Louise Markus all voted for Turnbull; presumably not because they agreed with his political views or indeed particularly like him, but rather because they wanted someone who they thought would be a little more effective in the leadership role.

This is of course a very Howardian way of thinking. The substance of Malcolm Turnbull in a political or policy sense was not what has elevated him to the top job; what has elevated him to the top job is his charisma, eloquence and marketability. If Turnbull does a reasonable enough job of competing with the government and doesn’t try to be too progressive, this won’t be a problem for the Liberals. As it was with the Howard years from about 2000 onwards, if the electorate warm to Turnbull then the Liberal caucus will undoubtedly warm to him, even if they don’t actually agree with him. It’s the poll figures, not the policy, stupid.

Clearly the jury will be out for some time and Turnbull has a lot of convincing to do. While you have traditionally Liberal-affiliated groups like Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy sobbing into their English Breakfast tea, and leading conservative columnists like Miranda Devine still hopelessly longing for an utterly implausible return of the Liberal Party’s great woulda-coulda-shoulda ex-Treasurer, you just know that there will be a few more twists in the tale of this story yet.

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.

How to state the obvious

Greg Sheridan certainly has a breakthrough piece of commentary in The Australian today:

Key Liberal powerbrokers who backed Brendan Nelson as Opposition Leader have switched their allegiance to Malcolm Turnbull.

The shift, combined with a general sense of despair at Dr Nelson’s recent performance, means a leadership spill is likely within months.

Actually, I think that probably happened in the first day or two after Nelson won the leadership. In other breaking news, I’ve just heard on the grapevine that the Howard Government lost the federal election.

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.

The Coalition in policy-free nudist colony conundrum?

Well apologies, but this uncharacteristically provocative opening salvo from Age press gallery stalwart Michelle Grattan has me puzzling about where her head is at in relation to Canberra’s parliamentary “hot property”:

Parties that have lost elections quickly find themselves shivering in the changeroom, policy clothes stripped off and wondering how much of their philosophical underwear has also become unwearable.

Ooh, er. Despite the quizzical opening, Grattan’s latest column is one of the best from her I have read in some time. The point that she makes is not a particularly profound one, but does a fine job of rounding up all the recent evidence we have to consider about the Federal Opposition, arguing in a compelling fashion that they have lost the plot policy-wise. At the moment, we have no idea what the Federal Coalition stands for. Having taken the opportunity to rubbish at virtually every juncture the policy position of the previous government (e.g. Kyoto, WorkChoices, “saying sorry”, tomorrow will no doubt bring more), one could be forgiven for thinking that Kevin Rudd might be the best person to ask what the Coalition stands for on any given issue. At the moment, the Coalition seems to stand for whatever Kevin Rudd stands for with a twist; a twist that they generally are not prepared to fight for with any great determination in parliament anyway. The government is bringing the liqueurs and fruit juices to this particular parliamentary cocktail party, and Nelson’s Opposition appears to have gallantly taken responsibility for supplying the matchstick parasols.

In short, the Opposition is floundering, in desperate need of some policy directions to galvanise them, and a strong leader to take them forwards. Mindlessly chipping away at the government in parliament won’t achieve very much if nobody really knows what they themselves stand for. Turnbull’s cute but somewhat petty NAIRU bombing of Treasurer Wayne Swan may have resulted in some embarrassment for the Queenslander, but if the Opposition’s most useful line of attack on the government relates to the definition of a slightly obscure economic term, it says a lot about their own situation. Apparently lacking any substantive lines of attack on economic policy, they appear to have settled for the time being on pursuing the trivial.

On that ultimately meaningless political front, I wish them the best of luck.

The alpha and the omega… but how long will it last?

Despite a pointless pursuit of Kevin Rudd by the media on his relationship with Brian Burke, the Prime Minister is currently riding high with the highest preferred Prime Minister ratings in Newspoll’s twenty year history of such polls. The Coalition has already sensed that Rudd is top dog, and are instead concentrating their attacks on Treasurer Wayne Swan. Swan clearly needs to pick up the confidence levels and assertiveness quick smart if he is going to retain his job in the long-term.

Personally it is greatly reassuring to me that so soon after the government’s supposedly contentious delivery of a formal apology to the stolen generations, Rudd’s political standing remains not only rock solid but at record-breaking levels. Arguably it reinforces the point that although there is still a bit of anti-apology (and we may as well say “anti-compassion”) sentiment out there in the electorate, this sentiment is decidedly in the minority. From a progressive, dare I say left-wing point of view, this provides a not insubstantial dose of hope that the country will now finally cease to stagnate on issues of great social import.

Perhaps a touch more conclusively, it also says something about the Coalition. On the other side of the fence, sadly a very fragile hope is all that Brendan Nelson has at the moment in his position as Opposition Leader. That Nelson is currently burdened with just a 9% rating as preferred Prime Minister tells one a certain something about the current state of play with the major parties in this country. Federal Labor have succeeded (perhaps beyond their wildest expectations) in replacing John Howard with a mainstream, quasi-conservative figure, whom the “Howard battlers” can see a respectable degree of good in. That 70% of people prefer Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister sends a strong message to the Coalition that Brendan Nelson is currently not providing the leadership they require in order to be competitive. That only 9% of respondents prefer Nelson as Prime Minister more or less confirms that only rusted on supporters and party zealots (and Nelson’s friends and family) have elected to board the Nelson “I’ve never voted Liberal in my life” Express Train towards a Turnbull Opposition.

The clock must surely already be ticking. Having won the leadership and then completed a horrendously messy about-face on the apology issue, Nelson needs to be competitive or make way. One wonders if the Coalition party room, having not had the guts to do the politically intelligent thing and endorse Turnbull initially, will now have the guts to realise their error fast enough.

Frustrations of an estimable deputy

I don’t think there is anybody out there at the moment who thinks Brendan Nelson is making a good fist of it as Opposition Leader. For some reason, he has found it difficult to command the authority that one expects from a party leader in parliament. On just about every issue worth debating, the Federal Coalition have been all over the shop. The Opposition does not seem to know quite where it stands on industrial relations, besides promising to wait for the government’s legislation and deciding accordingly. It does not know quite where it stands on an apology to the stolen generations, because Nelson seemingly lacks the political capacity to forge a consensus on his own steam. Only now, shamed by the interventions of party heavyweights like Shane Stone, will Nelson’s ragged bunch of independent entities likely fall grudgingly in line behind the position of the Rudd Government.

Malcolm Turnbull must be feeling fairly frustrated right now, as he watches his party and Nelson wobble around like drunken sailors. Unfortunately, when politicians get frustrated they usually end up making mistakes or saying some fairly silly things. In this AAP report (via SMH), Turnbull takes what might have been a decent point to make about the government’s approach to inflation issues and makes a bit of a mess of it. Take for example this “red hot” analogy:

“For a treasurer to complain about economic challenges is like a fireman complaining about fires.”

“That is the job of the treasurer – to manage the economy.”

Well, if the so-called fires were lit (or at least stoked) by the Howard Government after a number of snoozy years at the wheel of the national economy, I don’t think you can really blame the firemen for getting a bit stroppy about it. Turnbull goes on to elaborate on how what Rudd and Swan’s public statements are actually the cause of all the nation’s troubles in this area:

“The problem with Mr Rudd and Mr Swan at the moment is that the language that they are using is so immoderate, so un-measured, it is actually creating economic problems for us,” Mr Turnbull told ABC Radio.

“He (Mr Rudd) is actually creating or exacerbating an inflation problem.”

Err… of course! It’s not the economy, stupid, its Rudd’s big mouth, stupid. How silly of us. Sadly for Malcolm, I wouldn’t advise anyone to hold their breath waiting for Glenn Stevens from the RBA to describe Rudd and Swan’s use of language as a major factor driving up inflation. Now on the one hand, I do think there is a good argument to be made asserting that Rudd and Swan should moderate their language in relation to inflation issues. There is certainly no need to (further) frighten the horses, although to be honest I don’t think their use of language has really gotten out of control in the way that Turnbull seems to be suggesting. However, to assert as Turnbull does that the Rudd Government is actually creating an inflation problem by making a series of high-level, generally accurate observations about the situation, is an absurdity. In short, it is a sign that the Opposition is in a real spot of bother. Presently, if there is any blame to be worn locally for the domestic economic situation, it lies squarely with the Coalition. This will change over time, of course, as the Rudd Government’s history in office grows, but for the time being at least, the government is effectively untouchable on economic issues.

When on considers the situation, what with Nelson creating chaos in the leadership, and the mouths of the Opposition gaffer-taped shut on economic issues thanks to the wastefulness of the Howard team over the last couple of terms, I’m not surprised our old friend Malcolm seems to be losing the plot.