Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gerard Henderson, Malcolm Turnbull, team sports, and what if ...

(Above: Malcolm Turnbull plays spin the chair, badly).

The stars have shifted in the firmaments a little, galaxies have trembled, and the natural order of things has been disturbed.

You might think all is well with the world. As usual, Gerard Henderson has mentioned John Howard, former PM, in dispatches, which is to say his column New blood will revive Coalition.

But to the shock and consternation of the world, there's a whiff of cordite, a dash of criticism, a tad of remorse, a soupcon of unhappiness:

Nor is any present Liberal primarily responsible for the party's discontent. Rudd is a very able politician who leads a strong front bench. Moreover, Howard failed as prime minister to do what he said he would do - oversee an orderly transition of leadership in the way the Liberal Party founder, Robert Menzies, did in 1966.

If Howard had stepped down in early 2006 he would have been succeeded by Costello, when Labor was led by Kim Beazley. The ALP may or may not have replaced Beazley with Rudd. If Costello happened to win in 2007, there would be no problem now. If he lost, Costello could have stayed in Opposition until the emergence of a new leader - which might have been a more experienced Turnbull.

Lordy, lordy, lah di dah, it's a dash of alternate history, or 'what if' science fiction writing. As my mammy used to say, if only saying it made it so.

It's a bit like a NSW selector looking through the range of choices available to the Blues rugby league team, and wondering just how to turn things around after being thrashed around the park.

Henderson is of course on about the recent polls that buffeted the Liberals, and isn't above a little Turnbull bashing, as well as Howard rebuking, even if from an eccentric position:

Few doubt Turnbull's talent. Success in politics, however, turns more on political judgment, and this is usually acquired over time. The evidence suggests that Turnbull, who entered Parliament at the October 2004 election, believed that leading the Liberal Party in opposition would be relatively easy. That's why he fought so hard to win the top job.

Well actually if Turnbulll thought leading in opposition would be relatively easy, he is beyond delusional, and surely should never lead the nation. And it's a peculiar diminution of what drives Turnbull, who hasn't in the past demonstrated a zealous desire for a cushy job - so he can lounge on the cushions up the back of the class and have a good time. Or take a rest in the back pocket.

Bull at a gate, or restless puppy with too much energy and not enough eye tail co-ordination maybe, but hardly a man searching for a relatively easy gig.

But while undercutting Turnbull in such a quaint fashion, Henderson is at a loss when he looks around for a new team captain:

There are no quick solutions evident to the Liberal Party's present problems. Likewise, there is no evidence that a leadership change would make any difference to its predicament. Costello has announced his intention of quitting politics, Hockey is not ready for the job and Abbott would not have the numbers in the Liberal party room.

He doesn't get much joy when he looks through the rest of the team - there are only a few Liberals who possess the skills required for opposition. Henderson has to get down into the feeder clubs and preselection candidates, and even then the situation is bleak.

Without an influx of young MPs, there is little chance of reviving the party within a decade.

A decade! A couple of weeks ago it was all swagger, and death or glory as the team charged the guns of the Laborites.

By golly, there's a touch of the depressive in the Liberal cheer squad. A decade of Chairman Rudd, or if he falls on his sword for some reason, a decade of Rudd and Chairmistress Gillard?

Surely this is reverse psychology at work, because nobody could contemplate that without quivering and quailing. Why it's like imagining the cane toads will go on winning another six series!

Right now, Henderson sounds like an old stager who just wants the hitting to stop and the flowing blood to be staunched:

An experienced political team should be able to stop providing Labor with the rationale for an early election. It is in the Coalition's interest that the Rudd Government brings down a budget next May.

So the budget can stuff the economy and ruin Australia, so the Liberals can win? Well there's caring and sharing for you. Instead of bring it on, it's duck and weave and feint and dodge. Tragic.

Henderson wants the team to get back on to policy, but he doesn't tackle the issue of the useless hard men who surround Turnbull (come on down Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz), or the aspirational hard men who have all the charm to the electorate of  battered bruisers poking out the right jab (George Brandis, Andrew Robb, Tony Abbott), or the useless deadwood now cluttering the benches (Bronwyn Bishop, Wilson Tuckey, Philip Ruddock).

Where, you have to wonder, was the likes of Eric Abetz when sanity had to be offered up to Turnbull rather than a get rich quick strategy revolving around a fake email? In the Senate, dishing it up like he was the master chef ...

Yet Abetz has been around since 1994, while Henderson takes the easy way out by sniping at Jackie Kelly - long gone - and her leaflet folly, and using the work of Annabel Crabb to claim that the Liberals who entered Parliament in 1996 were non-political politicians who had little political experience and scant understanding of the Liberal Party.

Which doesn't explain when you come to contemplate the actual dates of those in the inner circle that he mentions - like  Malcolm Turnbull (2004),Tony Abbott (1994), George Brandis (2000), Andrew Robb (2004), Julie Bishop (1998), Nick Minchin (1993), Tony Smith (2001), and Christopher Pyne (1993). 

Oh wait, I get it, it's all Joe Hockey's fault (1996), as he comes on like a used car salesman, just wants to be loved, and did his best to take some of the heat of the utegate affair.

Well Henderson wants the Liberals to get back to policy matters, especially the economy and unemployment, but even that advice rather misses the point. The Labor party currently has an imperfect response to global warming in legislative train, and if the Liberals had bothered to get their act together, they could have looked statesmanlike in offering up alternative suggestions. But of course the climate sceptics don't want to know about it in any shape, and the schizophrenic response has fractured Turnbull's capacity to move and instead of catching Labor out with a better plan, it has produced an extraordinary negativity and ennui.

Ditto the grocery watch debacle, which saw Labor fall to the power of Woollies and the others in the retail cartel. It's like having a free kick five yards from goal, but of course the Liberals naturally side with Woollies and are uncomfortable with any talk of helping the consumer. So all they can do is gloat about the demise, which from the perspective of someone being ripped on a weekly basis by a cosy duopoly isn't that much comfort.

Turnbull's natural tendency - like many Liberals - is to be knee capping in pursuit of his own ambitions and in satiating his lust for power, but to actually be quite soft and fuzzy about matters of social policy (which he's shown in a variety of ways, from when he was a republican to when he was minister for the environment). After all, he's cashed up, now all he wants is love and respect and admiration for being a generous and caring monarch. 

The hard men in the Liberal party fear this natural tendency and want him to toughen up. But if the Liberals hare off in the direction of hardness and a kind of hard right attitude, as the Republicans have done in the United States, then they will keep generating schizophrenic responses, looking for the easy fix and the easy kill, and keep hobbling Turnbull from his natural game.

That's right, instead of blaming the 1996'ers, how about looking at the old hard men, still playing the game as John Howard played it, and as Peter Costello wouldn't have played it. What worked well for Howard won't work now, because it's working for Rudd, who ripped everything he could from Howard. 

Which suggests that when it comes to policy matters, the commentariat need to do a better SWOT job on their proposed policies, as well as on their current team. Time for a new game plan. Instead of waiting around for a decade for new blood, how about old dogs learning some new tricks?

One thing's for sure. If you make a gloomy prediction about being out of power for a decade, it won't work as reverse psychology, so much as a self-fulfilling wish.

If you don't believe you can do the job, then surely you won't get the chance.

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