Queensland State Election: We Conditionally Endorse The LNP

LESS THAN THREE YEARS after scoring the biggest election win in Australian political history, Queensland’s conservative LNP government arrives at today’s state election facing a huge swing against it and contemplating defeat. The Red And The Blue nonetheless endorses the LNP for a second term, but that endorsement is qualified, and looms as a larger test of the LNP’s political maturity than the election poses to its survival in office.

The political career of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman is set to end today, as voters in the inner-city electorate of Ashgrove exercise their prerogative to select a local member to represent them and eject him from state Parliament; Newman is unlikely to resurface in any official capacity in George Street once the dust from today’s election has cleared, and there seems no realistic prospect of him returning by way of an orchestrated by-election for reasons we covered at length yesterday.

As Newman departs the political scene in Queensland, with him should go the abrasive, confrontational and at times downright noxious manner in which his government has gone about its business; it is ironic that a highly competent government that has done exactly the job it was elected to do, and which was expected of it, should have alienated so many of its subjects through poor communication, an endless procession of scandals, and belligerent political methods.

Three years ago — in my hotel room on Brisbane’s North Quay — I wrote a mostly glittering recommendation for a vote for the LNP during an hour I had spare between two business meetings I had flown to Brisbane to attend; from the contemporary perspective of that time it was an apt and noble aspiration for a belated return to conservative government in Queensland.

Three years later, it is difficult to provide such a fulsome or compelling case for the re-election of the LNP, which — despite making the changes in Queensland that circumstance demanded of it — has frittered its public goodwill away through a bizarre combination of iron-fisted brutality and torpid organisational mediocrity.

The simultaneous attraction of a reprimand from Tony Fitzgerald QC (who should have had the good grace to decline to interfere in party politics) over a supposed lack of probity whilst needing three attempts to disendorse a sitting MP provides a good idea of the farcical contrasts to which I allude.

To be sure, the LNP came to power in Queensland facing a huge challenge of governance that required tough and urgent solutions to grave problems that were the sorry consequence of 14 unbroken years of Labor government — the state’s shameful $80 billion debt bill chief among them — and it was, perhaps, inevitable that some of the tough medicine required and doled out would ostracise and even enrage some people in some sections of the electorate, and especially those who had benefited personally from the largesse and excesses of the ALP.

Yet even so, I can only think of one instance, ever, of a government being elected in such an avalanche and squandering both a massive majority and the goodwill and patience of its constituents in a single term in office, and the story of the 1993 and 1997 state elections in South Australia provide an object lesson in how not to operate in office.

In some respects, the parallels between South Australia in the 1990s and Queensland now are breathtaking: both featured conservative state governments elected upon the near-annihilation of their Labor opponents, were led into the subsequent elections by deeply unpopular Premiers who were disliked and/or distrusted by the voting public, and even the ever-present issue of electricity privatisation features in both cases.

In the case of the SA Liberals, the 1997 election saw it return to office as a minority administration before losing to Labor four years later; with the average of all the major opinion polls (including final surveys) showing a swing to Labor after preferences of some 11.5%, the LNP faces voters today at the very real risk of suffering a similar fate: with an inherent bias toward Labor of somewhere between 2% and 4% in Queensland’s electoral boundaries, the 51.8% of the two-party vote these numbers represent would, if reflected in tonight’s results, leave the LNP at the mercy of how its vote is distributed across particular electorates to stand a chance of retaining majority government.

(As an aside, I should note that no incumbent government since World War 2, state or federal, forced into minority at one election has ever won the subsequent election; the SA Liberals, beaten in early 2002, remain in opposition today: a salutary warning to Queensland’s LNP, perhaps, but I digress).

On the plus side, the LNP has trimmed Queensland’s bloated public service, restored the state budget to balance, reined in the explosive spending growth bequeathed to it by the ALP, and set in train measures to deal with the $80 billion debt pile that stands today as a continuing damnation of Queensland Labor.

On the flipside, it has treated the Queensland public to a smorgasbord of crises, scandals, public embarrassments and own goals — Michael Caltabiano, Bruce Flegg, Scott Driscoll, fights with lawyers, fights with doctors, Peter Dowling, Ros Bates, Bruce Flegg (again) — alongside the noisome opprobrium it has generated by its handling of initiatives such as the VLAD laws and the combative style of its soon-to-depart leader.

And Labor, to put not so fine a point on it, has scarcely done anything to warrant the trust of Queensland voters.

Led by an affable enough but ineffectual mediocrity, Labor has offered no plans of substance to govern Queensland (its plan to rip dividends out of state-owned corporations as a “debt reduction” measure notwithstanding), preferring instead to recycle a gaggle of failed and beaten ex-ministers from the last Labor government who are jointly responsible, in part, for the mess the state was left in to begin with.

One of those ex-ministers — Kate Jones — will return to George Street after today, expediting Newman’s departure; no world beater, Jones has been feted with generous (and undeserved) press coverage in Brisbane, casting her as a “young mum” seeking to “do something for her community” when she was as much a hack and a failure as a minister as many of her colleagues, and who has failed to even produce the ministerial diaries she solemnly declares left her offices in 2012 to be appropriately transported to the state archives, which never received them.

It’s impossible to believe this cock-and-bull story — just as it is difficult to believe very much of what anyone from Labor has to say at all.

But the ALP has been content to try to slither back into office on the back of a disgustingly personal and abusive campaign to smear and damage opponents personally, and distastefully enough, it could very well succeed if the final round of polling is accurate or, worse still, understates Labor support as Queenslanders go to the polls today.

We do not suggest the LNP is perfect; we do not claim its record in office is without blemish; and we do not deny that there is scope for the party, if re-elected today, to improve substantially on its performance over the past three years.

Yet in considering everything that was wrong with the decrepit Labor administration it replaced and especially in light of the complete absence of any meaningful ALP agenda, presented for the consideration of voters, to now govern at all, this column provides its endorsement to the LNP for a second term in office in Queensland: and should it secure that privilege, a wish that the mistakes of its first term be in no way repeated in the second.

If the 51.8% aggregate of its support proves accurate, it may or may not receive that opportunity: time will tell, and I will be watching tonight’s count with great interest.

But I place one important caveat on my endorsement of the LNP, and it is this: should it form government, its first order of business will be to elect a leader to replace Campbell Newman as Premier.

That leader must come from Brisbane or, at the very least, the conurbation of the south-east: and this means the Treasurer, Tim Nicholls, is the candidate this column advocates as the new Premier.

Ironically, the only real alternative is the man pushed out of the leadership to make way for Newman, former leader John-Paul Langbroek. Nicholls is the better bet.

And naturally, if the LNP loses then all bets are off, although I think the 46-49 seat range I predicted yesterday is probably the point at which a mauling at the hands of angry voters is likely to be survived — just.

But should the LNP return to the tired and obsolete practice of selecting leaders from west of the Great Divide, today’s endorsement of the LNP should be regarded as void; three-time election loser Lawrence Springborg is a fantastic bloke with no electoral appeal in Brisbane, whilst Jeff Seeney is an unmitigated liability in the south-east wherever any requirement to garner voter support is concerned.

Neither of these gentlemen are therefore suitable candidates to be Premier of Queensland, and if elevating either to that position is what the LNP chooses to do in its leadership ballot, ex-Liberals would be better served in the long run by leaving the LNP and reforming the Queensland division of their own party. Without a leader from the south-east, Queensland conservatives will not win another state election, and the experience of the past 15 years or so proves it.

Star candidate or not, Newman would not have won in 2012 had he not been from Brisbane. The days of the cow cocky and the country bumpkin giving gerrymandered providence to city slickers in Brisbane are over. And if it determines to test that theory, the LNP will again learn the hard way that Queensland is no longer the Bjelke-Petersen state when it next faces voters in three years’ time.

 

Queensland: Newman Gone In Possible LNP Election Loss

THE STATE ELECTION on Saturday — even if the LNP wins — is likely to prove a torrid affair for Queensland’s conservative forces, with Premier Campbell Newman now virtually certain to lose his seat of Ashgrove, and the LNP government as a whole facing the potentially existential threat of a double-digit swing after preferences to Labor. As unbelievable as it may yet prove improbable, a change of government is a distinct possibility.

Before we get started, I’d like to address the growing number of Liberal-aligned readers (and it’s in double digits, in case anyone thinks I am singling them out) who have taken issue with me privately for “damaging the government” or “harming Liberal Party interests” or similar by calling issues as I see them; can I just remind everyone that whilst I am a rusted-on political conservative and this column presents itself as “conservative comments,” it isn’t a sycophantic propaganda exercise: where I want to advocate or promote things being done by the Liberals at various levels I will, and if I see error, or make a call on foreseeable adverse consequences as I perceive them, I’ll do that too: and whilst the odd call made in this column may go awry, the overwhelming majority of them actually come to pass.

Whilst I try to keep the tone suitable for everyday people whose knowledge of or interest in politics isn’t as intricate as that of some readers or myself, at the bottom line this is an analysis and comment forum, not a campaign cheer squad. And whilst I’m reluctant to blow my own trumpet, I’ve been on the money in this column far too often not to be justified in backing my political instincts and judgement.

Moving on…

I would like nothing more, at about 11pm on Saturday night, to sit back down at the computer in my office with a red face (and a bottle of good red wine) and write an article proclaiming that I got it wrong, that Queensland’s LNP government had been re-elected by a healthy margin, and that Premier Campbell Newman had held off the challenge in Ashgrove from former Labor MP Kate Jones.

But as things stand, Saturday night will be a long evening indeed for LNP insiders, as they contemplate the defeat of Newman in his own seat, heavy losses across the state, and — quite possibly — a return to opposition just three years (and a single term) after winning the largest victory in Australian political history.

I would have liked to spend more time on the state election campaign in Queensland, short as it has been; but between being otherwise occupied for portions of it — as I’ve let readers know — and most of the time otherwise available for posting comment taken up by the foibles of the federal government, there have only been a few articles I have been able to post.

Even so, little has changed in the course of a snap election campaign. Campbell Newman’s federal colleagues would be well advised to heed the signs if they crystallise into a debacle on Saturday in Queensland.

Dealing with the electorate of Ashgrove first, long-term readers know I have been certain the Premier faces the loss of his own seat for at least the past year; the subject has arisen many times in our contemplation of the seat of Moggill and what the LNP ought to do with the incumbent there, who was finally (and belatedly) disendorsed once and for all late in 2014.

I have always thought — even after the kerfuffle Flegg kicked up three years ago, claiming he was offered “inducements” to vacate this bluest of blue-ribbon electorates in Brisbane’s west — that some way had to be found to get Newman transplanted into Moggill for the simple reason there was no way he was going to hold onto Ashgrove.

But that opportunity (hard earned as it was) has been and gone, and whilst the new candidate in Moggill is excellently credentialled, it left the problem that the insecurely seated Newman was always going to be pushing “it” uphill to stay in Parliament even in the event his government won re-election.

In addition to talking to LNP insiders, talking to a number of diverse contacts I maintain in the electorate, and sifting through the seat polling for Ashgrove — such as it is — it does rather seem that barring a miracle, the 7-8% swing to Labor that looked likely in Ashgrove to begin with has barely altered, and it appears certain now that Campbell Newman will not be returning to Parliament after Saturday. The vote shares for individual candidates might vary a bit, but I think the 54-46 finding in Jones’ favour published by ReachTel on Wednesday is probably on the money.

There has been some talk — should the LNP win the state election, but Newman lose in Ashgrove — of a by-election being engineered in a “safe” LNP electorate to parachute the Premier back into Parliament; I say such a scenario will not eventuate, and should the LNP attempt it under those circumstances, it could result in the loss of another seat to the ALP.

The reason, very simply, is that as fat as the margins of LNP electorates might appear on paper the day before an election, after tomorrow these are going to look like someone has embarked on a slashing spree with a machete; many of the “safe” LNP electorates today will be marginal Labor seats tomorrow night, and those that remain in the LNP column will not appear anywhere near as impregnable as they might seem now.

It will be untenable to try to put Newman into a seat outside the south-east corner of the state; the Premier’s underlying claim to legitimacy as Premier, brutally distilled, is his record as Lord Mayor of Brisbane. For the same reason, a seat on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts is probably out of the question as well.

Which leaves, of course, Brisbane itself; and in considering pushing someone over the cliff to create a by-election vacancy for Newman to contest, it bears remembering that with the exception of Moggill, every seat in Brisbane has been held by the ALP at some point in the past 10 years.

Even Indooroopilly. Even Clayfield. Even if only for a little while, as was the case in Aspley and Clayfield, and even if Labor should never have won them in the first place let alone held them for several terms (Mount Ommaney, Mansfield). Nowhere in Brisbane is really safe from a savage lurch to Labor if the underlying conditions are conducive to it.

And right now, those conditions seem very propitious indeed. If Newman loses Ashgrove — as expected — we won’t see him in George Street again. Moggill aside, there isn’t one seat in Brisbane from which a freshly re-elected member could be pushed out of Parliament to make way for him with any confidence that the ensuing by-election would not be won by Labor.

It brings me to the question of the wider election result; losing Newman is one thing, but the permutations for the statewide outcome could still be anything.

I think the likeliest result is that the LNP will just fall across the line, with somewhere between 46 and 49 of the 89 seats in state Parliament; it could be 50 or so, or the LNP could end up in the nether zone of being a couple of seats short of a majority.

If the LNP goes into minority with less than 43 seats (the two Katter MPs, if re-elected, the only Independents likely to support it), then Labor will form government one way or the other.

Some weeks ago we looked at what a 10% swing against the LNP might look like, and I think a 10% swing — leaving the LNP with a shade under 53% of the vote after preferences — is about right; the average of available opinion polling during the campaign puts the LNP at 52%, although a late survey yesterday from Essential put the ALP in front, 51-49.

I don’t think the campaign as a whole has done all that much to alter the eventual result, and to the extent it has, it has probably helped the ALP. We will have to wait on Newspoll (and any other final polls) to see whether Essential is an outlier or whether these final few days have indeed seen an acceleration of the movement away from Newman’s government.

If those late polls do show the LNP bleeding more support than most believe, the making of election promises conditional on individual MPs being re-elected to mostly marginal or at-risk seats is the likeliest culprit: this is as good as blackmail, and the LNP was and is wrong to have explicitly targeted its commitments this way. People do not like to feel bullied, and by making such a silly campaign error it merely reinforces the stereotype Labor has tried to create of a Premier who is a bully and a thug.

But if we split the middle and call it 51-49 to the LNP, people need to keep in mind that a disproportionate number of those conservative votes are going to be locked away in a swag of country seats (and a tiny handful on the coasts) that are almost always won with huge margins by conservative parties irrespective of whether they hold government, and excepting historic Labor landslides like 2001 that dislodge some of them.

And if I guesstimate this factor to apply to, say, 20 LNP electorates — mostly in the bush, plus places like Moggill, Surfers Paradise and Kawana — it means the other three-quarters of the seats in the state would record a result that favoured Labor by (I’m guessing) about 51.5-48.5%, give or take a few tenths of a point.

It’s this factor that enabled Labor to win a one-seat majority (later overturned in the Court of Disputed Returns) in 1995 with just 46.4% of the statewide two-party vote, and whilst it all comes down to where the votes fall in individual seats (after all, voting patterns in no two electorates are the same), you’d expect Labor to get closer than the 37 seats a 49% statewide result would produce on a uniform swing.

Whilst the campaign itself mightn’t have changed much, there have been plenty of factors influencing the likely behaviour of Queensland voters for some time.

The obvious one is the Abbott government and its goings-on, and whilst I’m not heading down that track again today, the effect — whilst unquantifiable — is undeniable, and this particular campaign period has been bookended by the humiliating contortions over Medicare at one end, and the embarrassment of “Prince Sir Philip” at the other.

The LNP’s problems with preselections, endorsements and walkouts, which see it enter this campaign with five fewer seats than it carried away in 2012, and with two disendorsed candidates in Bruce Flegg and Peter Dowling (Redlands) who have both caused the party enormous embarrassment and bad press, albeit for vastly divergent reasons.

The wildly irresponsible and dishonest rhetoric of the ALP — a phenomenon apparently now a permanent feature at Australian elections — replete with denials of any real debt crisis in Queensland at all, despite $80 billion in red ink added to the books on its watch prior to 2012.

The snarling, obsessive hatred of Campbell Newman personally that has been propagated by the wider Left and which, for the gullible, the unthinking and the stupid, has enabled common-or-garden simpletons to take a firm stand on political matters that just happens to advance the ALP cause with neither the understanding nor the conviction of what it is they’ve allowed themselves to get so wound up about.

The wild, noisy, abusive campaign of opposition to the Newman government’s legislative program that has more than amply set the backdrop for a massive movement against the LNP, and the government’s failure (and this too seems to have become a familiar story at election time) to adequately communicate and sell its achievements to reap the electoral dividend it deserves.

Supposedly impartial figures like Tony Fitzgerald QC wading into the election campaign to directly accuse the government of inadequate standards of probity.

The asset leaseback issue, which seems to have been a mild positive for Labor: people seem to have grown immune to big gestures to repay government debt — even if it keeps taxes down by doing so — and the ALP is to blame for that. But perception is half the battle, and Labor’s “plan” to rip dividends out of government-owned enterprises as an alternative to the $25 billion lump sum debt retirement earmarked by the LNP from privatisation proceeds seems to have neutralised whatever advantage the government proposal might have given it at the ballot box.

The flinging of defamation actions like confetti: Alan Jones is being sued by multiple LNP MPs, his legal bills to be funded by federal MP and political wrecker Clive Palmer, who is not only sworn to destroy the Queensland Premier personally and his government at all costs — and who has defamation proceedings of his own on foot against Newman — but who has also announced he’ll sue Lawrence Springborg after the election too, although over exactly what remains unknown.

People don’t like the look of politicians suing each other and fighting and bickering in court; not coincidentally — with Palmer in the middle of all of it — this is only occurring on the conservative side of the ledger. One way or the other, Palmer is determined to bring the LNP to its knees and to that end, all I would say of the abundance of libel actions emanating from George Street is that every bit helps.

The collapse of voter support for Palmer’s Party and the Katter crowd, at face value, would seem to favour the LNP.

A big recovery in the ALP primary vote and a much tighter arrangement on preferences with the Communist Party Greens, however, would seem to favour Labor.

The issue of who might replace Campbell Newman if the LNP wins and he loses Ashgrove: and this one, perhaps more than anything else, will hurt the LNP badly tomorrow; it now looks like it will indeed need a new leader, and should the party retain enough seats, that leader will be Premier. But Lawrence Springborg is a three-time loser, Scott Emerson and Ian Walker are not ready, and the prospect of “Premier” Jeff Seeney is probably worth an extra couple of percentage points for Labor in its own right.

Logic, electoral geography and political reality dictate Treasurer Tim Nicholls is the only suitable replacement. But the LNP has flatly refused to expend so much as a syllable in contemplation of the subject. The direct result of this is that some Queenslanders, expecting Newman to lose Ashgrove but the LNP to win overall, will probably vote Labor when some kind of so-called “plan B” might have persuaded them to keep their allegiance with the conservatives.

Of course, there are so many things we haven’t talked about: how Far North Queensland votes; how heavily Brisbane swings to Labor; how strongly the coasts hold up for the LNP; whether Labor can steal a couple of unlikely regional gains in Toowoomba, on the Gold Coast…

Even if this Saturday’s result is confined to the realm of a 10% pro-Labor swing, the loss of some 30-odd seats from 2012 and its Premier with them will fulfil my predictions of “a belting” for the LNP, although the scope for it to lose altogether is certainly there.

It has existed since just a few months after the 2012 election, when the first signs of real trouble broke out around then-minister Bruce Flegg and his dismissal of a long-serving LNP adviser.

Queensland will certainly have a new Premier next week; it may or may not have a new government. Either way, it’s going to be a damned close-run thing.

As recently as Wednesday, I was receiving suggestions from within the LNP that it was telling anyone in the organisation who cared to listen that the government was on track to win as many as 65 seats — its huge majority barely suffering a dent — and with Newman beating off Jones in Ashgrove.

If that’s what LNP hardheads are saying, then tell ’em they’re dreaming…

I will be back again this evening — perhaps on the Queensland election again — but if not tonight, then I will be posting on the subject again tomorrow.

Unlike 2012 I am not heading to Brisbane this time; a little “pizza party” with Antony Green on ABC24 Online, along with a fully charged (and probably well-used) mobile phone, will keep me in the midst of developments as they happen this time from my home office in Melbourne.

Unlike 2012, this election will not be resolved by 6.45pm Queensland time.

And unlike 2012, the winner — in more ways than one — is far from being a certainty.

 

Moving Credlin On Not About Dishonour

THE PUSH for the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to either resign or be sacked is gathering pace, with unnamed senior figures within the Coalition and prominent identities outside it noting the Prime Minister’s Office is disproportionately responsible for the political problems faced by the Abbott government. Whilst this column agrees an overhaul of the PMO is crucial, removing Credlin need not be an acrimonious exercise.

A very brief comment this morning — and then tonight, perhaps, we will be able to turn our attention north of the Tweed to the state election campaign in Queensland.

In recent months and particularly over the last week, we have talked at length about the need for the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to be moved on, and typically enough the Fairfax press has leapt into the fray today with a conspiratorial slant on whether Credlin stays or goes.

The added voice of News Limited supremo Rupert Murdoch to those arguing for her removal has provided an empty boon to those whose brand of conspiracy theory includes the idiotic idea Murdoch runs the Coalition, when in this case at least Murdoch’s sentiments merely echo those of an increasing number connected to the Liberal Party who recognise the dysfunction of the Prime Minister’s Office under Ms Credlin’s stewardship, and that failure to resolve it will probably cost the Coalition government at the next election.

If, indeed, it isn’t already too late to avoid such an outcome.

I simply say that if Ms Credlin is forced to move on, it wouldn’t be the first time that a senior adviser charged with the top-level political co-ordination of a major party who was indisputably brilliant in opposition — and through the process of winning office at an election — proved unsuited to the rigours of government once the transition from opposition had been made.

We have detailed at length everything that is wrong with the Abbott government — policy, media strategy, parliamentary tactics, an inability to communicate with either government minions or the wider public, the ridiculous centralised staff recruitment veto (akin to the CEO of McDonald’s personally vetting applicants for dishwashing positions) and the near-total disconnect between what is done by the government, vetted and authorised and checked off by the PMO, and the real-world, actual reality of attitudes and expectations and circumstances in the broader electorate.

It is true that the regime of iron-fisted micromanagement established under Ms Credlin’s leadership underpins most of these failings.

I have opined in the past that Tony Abbott’s loyalty to Ms Credlin — nay, the expressions of gratitude for her contribution in bringing the Coalition out of opposition, including observations made by some of those who defend her on the basis the Coalition wouldn’t have won without her — is admirable, and shows an attachment to principle in this regard that is increasingly rare in political life.

But as I have also said, even those of the most scrupulously unimpeachable integrity know that loyalty, taken too far, can become blind.

Should Ms Credlin be forced to move on, it would provide the government with a real opportunity to reset itself, as opposed to rhetoric about barnacle scrapes and similar rubbish that have to date been followed by more ham-fisted politics from the government, more bungling, and more of the same flaccid tactics over issues such as Medicare and the dreadful 2014 budget the government is unwisely clinging to as its hope for salvation.

And it would do so (to answer a question from one perturbed reader and Liberal voter I encountered yesterday afternoon) by enabling the overhaul of structures, reporting lines and channels of communication in and out of the PMO — and through the whole of government generally — without such changes being interpreted as a slap in the face to either the Prime Minister, Credlin herself, or both.

It is clear this government is not working, in the ordinary sense; and it is clear that the problem derives from the very instrument of government that ought to be the spearhead of the attack: the PMO.

In this regard, as chief of staff, Credlin is the responsible official, and she should shoulder the responsibility: half way through a term of Parliament and with re-election beginning to look a seriously bleak proposition, taking that responsibility means a resignation.

She should not, in the decent course of events, force Abbott to dismiss her.

Yet this does not need to be about dishonour, failure, or tearing someone down.

I concur — despite is affecting me adversely — that for all the fault that is able to be found, Ms Credlin has nonetheless done a lot of good for the Coalition, the government, and the Prime Minister himself.

And it is not incompatible to concur that whilst we “couldn’t have got there without her,” we equally can’t afford for her to continue in her present role.

Rather than clamouring for Credlin to be fired, sent home from Canberra in ignominy and made an example of, perhaps it would be better to frame such considerations in a different light.

If Credlin were to candidly admit that opposition and government are too far apart, and that her approach in the former case is too different to that in the latter — and resign — she could become one of this government’s heroes for a selfless placement of the wider team good (and the country’s good) ahead of her own.

Credlin will encounter little trouble finding rewarding employment beyond the confines of Parliament House; she is a talented individual whose experience will simply add to the demand in which she would find herself.

Yet the change at the PMO must be made — and I think the more time that passes in which it isn’t, the clearer the need to do precisely that will become as more and more figures speak out about it: anonymously, of course, so as to avoid retribution if the present regime at the PMO stays in place.

This doesn’t have to be about dishonour. It doesn’t have to be acrimonious. Nonetheless, it does need to happen.

Fallout From Abbott Gaffes Hits On Many Fronts

AS THE DUST SETTLES from Tony Abbott’s Australia Day own goal and the so-called “Prince Sir Philip” fiasco, the fallout is being felt in some unexpected places — to say nothing of support for Abbott himself. Today we provide some context on where the Prime Minister finds himself at the start of a pivotal year for the government, and how snafus of the kind that took place on Monday are a luxury he, and the Liberal Party nationally, cannot afford.

What a day it was, yesterday, to be a high-profile Liberal Party member and supporter in Melbourne; after the ridiculous and self-indulgent decision by Tony Abbott to basically derail Australia Day by awarding Prince Philip a knighthood under the Order of Australia, my phone rang hot with angry, disgruntled and/or bewildered Coalition voters in my circle calling to vent their frustrations, express their disbelief, or both.

The interesting thing is that not one was prepared to defend the Prime Minister’s leadership of the Liberal Party — in contrast to some of his federal colleagues, some of whom were no doubt motivated by a sense of obligation rather than enthusiastic endorsement — and, equally, the unanimity with which the sentiment was expressed that not only was it time for Abbott to be dumped as PM but that Foreign minister Julie Bishop should replace him.

For clarity, these calls amounted to perhaps 20 personal contacts (many of them with varying degrees of grassroots involvement in the Liberal Party across the country) and none on this occasion were elected representatives.

But as an exercising in gauging the mood of the Coalition base, it was instructive — and it says to me, weighted against the outpouring of opinion expressed in media outlets around Australia yesterday, that Tony Abbott now has a major problem to deal with: and one mostly of his, and his office’s, own making.

I should just point out that contrary to appearance, I have not — yet — withdrawn my support for Tony Abbott as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister.

Readers (especially those who have been with me since I started this column almost four years ago) will know that I have been supporting Abbott since it was deeply unfashionable to do so, well before he became Prime Minister, and I remain of the view that viewed in isolation he represents an excellent candidate to hold the highest office in political life in Australia.

But I am close — an indication with thumb and forefinger will quantify the distance — to doing so, and whilst the knighthood handed to Philip might seem innocuous on one level, it crystallises every reservation held against Abbott in his party and the broader electorate around his judgement, political smarts, and sense for what the Australian public is prepared to stomach.

I don’t believe federal factors were decisive in the defeat of a first-term Coalition state government in Victoria in November; far from it.

Yet they scarcely helped, either, with fuel indexation reintroduced in the first week of a state election campaign (and before the bottom fell out of world oil prices).

If federal factors were worth, say, 1% of the two-party vote, the Coalition could well have retained an extra two or three seats: putting new Labor Premier in the same numerically excruciating position endured by his Liberal forebears in Parliament, beholden to a single-seat majority (or worse, minority) and powerless for four years to control anything that lobbed at him from left field (Geoff Shaw, an obvious case in point).

But Abbott’s — and the federal government’s — standing is arguably lower now than it was even a few months ago, and it is harder to argue that any odium emanating from Canberra cannot influence the fortunes of the next Coalition state government to face voters: Queensland’s LNP, which goes to the polls this Saturday.

Especially given Queensland is, after Western Australia, the federal Coalition’s strongest state — and the one which provides fully a quarter of the Abbott government’s lower house representation.

As I have argued in this column previously, a poor result (or loss) in Queensland will rebound savagely on Abbott — perhaps taking out his leadership in the process.

The short LNP campaign in Queensland (bookended by the Abbott government’s Medicare fiasco on one hand, and the “Prince Sir Philip” debacle this week) has enough ranged against it, courtesy of the LNP’s own handiwork and political misadventures, without being caught in the friendly crossfire from a fellow conservative government.

Yet so defective has the strategic and communicative mindset of Abbott’s government been that state elections featuring conservative governments almost seem to have been an open invitation for some of Canberra’s wilder and more outlandish excesses and errors of political judgement.

It remains to be seen what lies in store for Mike Baird’s government in New South Wales, which goes to the polls in March: and which, for now at least, seems assured of re-election by a comfortable margin.

I still maintain that by gutting the Prime Minister’s Office and starting again that Abbott can reset his political fortunes, and that of his government, but the time for doing so — quite clearly — is running out.

Errors of policy, strategy, political tactics and effective communication all arguably derive from this crucial unit of governance, and as admirable as Abbott’s loyalty to his Chief of Staff (and in turn, to the hand-picked foot soldiers who answer to her) might be, it is misplaced.

That misplacement of loyalty now threatens to terminate his political career.

One storyline goes that with a rearrangement of the government behind the scenes and a sound 2015 budget, and an effective sell job to back it, the Coalition can yet restore is position with the electorate ahead of an election now just over 18 months away at most: time, on yet another front — this time the electoral cycle — is beginning to run short.

But I am increasingly of the view that this simply won’t happen because the change that matters most — fixing his office — is the one Abbott refuses, bar cosmetic changes, to undertake.

The clamour for his head — unthinkable just a month or two ago even in spite of the growing litany of errors and misjudgements — is growing.

Almost anyone who cares to name names is united in the view that Bishop should replace him, and that seems to be a constant whether encountered in my personal contact circle, the mainstream press, or (from what I understand) in the rumblings going on within the inner sanctums of the federal Liberal Party itself.

The most critical month of Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership to date kicked off in spectacularly underwhelming style on Australia Day this year.

It beggars belief that his colleagues will allow this to drag on for much longer — at the risk it poses to some of their own careers — if nothing changes, and quickly at that.

 

Without Change, The Karma Bus Will Come For Abbott

AFTER YET ANOTHER self-inflicted political strike that will do the government far more damage than a mere sick joke, the aggregation of own goals, mistakes, snafus and staggering displays of bad judgement raise an inevitable question: when does this reach critical mass, the tipping point at which political survival becomes a greater imperative than the presentation of unity? Without change, the #69 bus will call on Tony Abbott soon enough.

First there was the election, won in a landslide.

Won in the wake of senseless promises that should not have been made.

Then came the staff: hand-picked to obey, not to perform; not to contribute, but to enact.

And the Prime Minister’s Office, the supposed flagship of the government fleet, in oversight of them.

Next came Gonski, in a preview of trouble, and a test of the senseless promises.

For the first time, not the last time, the government was forced to back down.

The cuts it promised, foolishly, it would not make had been scuppered.

Just a month after winning, its numbers collapsed; its fortunes early in the slide.

But worse was to come.

The budget — the great opportunity for reform — was squandered.

Spending cuts botched, taxes hiked, its initiatives senseless, this budget targeted the government’s own supporters.

For almost a year, the government persisted, wasting political capital and breeding public resentment.

And a Prime Minister’s Office wielding a deliberative veto over it all.

And all the while, uproar: travel entitlements, botched policies, abandoned promises, ministers justifying bigotry.

A total lack of tangible acumen around political smarts, tactics, strategy or communication.

An inability to bring a hostile Senate to heel, and a refusal to frame dealings with it in advantageous terms.

The political strength and authority of a mugging featuring a wet sock.

And the Prime Minister’s Office giving sanction to it all.

All the sacred cows have been attacked — Medicare first and foremost — along with those promised to be left alone.

The Abbott government is a disappointment to its supporters and a red rag to its opponents.

Yet still the unbelievable fuck-ups come fast and thick.

A “reset” to divest the government of “barnacles” that seems instead to have left it wallowing in excrement.

A ministerial reshuffle that squibbed most of the hardest — and most crucial — changes.

Abuse of critics of the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, who must be sexist or misogynistic.

A refusal to heed constructive feedback, listen to the public, or show it recognises mistakes.

Rumblings of serious disquiet from government ranks over the head of the Prime Minister’s Office.

And the Prime Minister’s Office, true to form, retaining control over the government with an iron fist.

A new year and a new approach, with Tony Abbott pledging consultation and inclusion.

A stated persistence with the budget that may well prove the harbinger of the government’s electoral doom.

A “fix” to its Medicare policy, conceived by the Prime Minister’s Office, hastily dumped in the glare of public hostility.

Calls to backbenchers framed publicly as an exercise in shoring up the Abbott leadership.

Pledges to sail into treacherous waters — IR and the GST — without the requisite political navigational skills.

The ridiculous charade of the investiture of Prince Sir Philip of Australia, on Australia Day.

And the Prime Minister’s Office remaining smugly in the thick of the action.

The mutterers are muttering, and the whispering has commenced.

Among the contenders — and the pretenders — is a ready-made potential replacement.

Someone acceptable to both the liberal and conservative wings of the Liberal Party.

Someone public opinion has revealed to be acceptable to the Australian public as Prime Minister.

Someone — almost (but not quite) alone of her ministerial peers — who has been an unqualified and standout.

Someone known to have little time for the methods of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Someone who could be expected to fashion a competent outfit that might salvage the Liberals in office.

Across the country, people know that if Abbott falls under the bus, Julie Bishop is the best option to replace him.

Today Australia returns to work, and Abbott — and the Prime Minister’s Office — resume the task of governing.

We hope the new week turns a page; but for every fresh start to date, a fresh disaster has ensued.

And the capacity of the Prime Minister’s Office to fashion and approve political ineptitude seems endless.

The snafus may continue and the damage to the Coalition may compound, but it will not drag on to an election.

At some point (it may have been yesterday) a call will be made by key Liberal Party figures: enough is enough.

At that point, the numbers will be worked and the calls will be made.

At that point, the proverbial karma bus will pay the Prime Minister a visit.

Tony Abbott is almost out of opportunities to fix his government.

A good candidate as Prime Minister risks squandering it on misplaced loyalty and an aversion to hard calls.

Another good candidate awaits.

And this column, if push should regrettably come to shove, will back Julie Bishop to the hilt.

 

 

Arise, Prince Sir Philip Of Australia: Even Monarchists Have Limits

THE BIZARRE DECISION to confer a knighthood upon Prince Philip is one of the most ridiculous acts of indulgence by any government in many years where official honours are concerned; this column believes fervently in constitutional monarchy, and welcomed the restoration of so-called “knights and dames” under the Order of Australia. There is a place for elite honours in Australia. The award to their newest recipient, however, is a farce.

It’s hard to know what’s worse: a Prime Minister making a mockery of what had hitherto been a creditable and worthy attempt to restore knighthoods at the apex of Australia’s honours system in the face of spirited republican opposition, or the ageing idiot on whom he has chosen to squander the credibility of the entire enterprise.

Make no mistake, the decision to bestow an Australian knighthood upon Prince Philip is a ridiculous and truly bizarre act of sycophancy that lends credence to Tony Abbott’s detractors where the honours system is concerned and threatens to render the entire category of honours untenable.

I have always been staunchly and resolutely a constitutional monarchist — not through any particular affection for the royal family per se, mind — and whilst I do not intend to open the debate over the monarchy or a move to a republican model of state today, I reiterate (to underline the point) that I believe a system of parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy is far and away the very best system of governance available to this country.

Even monarchists, however, have limits.

When so-called “knights and dames” were reintroduced last year, Abbott got the tone exactly right simply on account of who was included in the first batch of recipients: new Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, his predecessor Quentin Bryce, and former NSW Governor Marie Bashir.

The award made to Air Chief Marshall and former Defence chief Angus Houston today (now Sir Angus) also constitutes an appropriate acknowledgement of fine service to Australia given over a period of decades.

But a knighthood for Prince Philip?

The appointment is understandable only when considered against the backdrop of a tradition of heads of state being appointed to all the top classes of honours that apply within their realm.

But Prince Philip, whilst consort to the Queen, is not a head of state: he is an embarrassment, to the UK and to Australia, to the royal family and now, it seems, to Abbott.

Were he not married to Queen Elizabeth it is debatable as to whether Philip would find himself in demand at all; and to underline the point, British newspaper The Independent has helpfully published a chronicle of the errant Prince’s gaffes over a period of decades.

Obviously, there is little to recommend the award on a personal basis.

Maybe this honour was rationalised on the basis that at 93 years of age, the Prince wouldn’t be around long enough for the hullaballoo to linger; or perhaps Abbott — renowned as a devout monarchist, which in many respects I have no quarrel with — has simply taken too licentious and indulgent an approach to this particular conviction, and made an appointment that offers nothing to merit it.

Once again, questions need to be asked about the role of the Prime Minister’s Office and how this appointment was allowed to stand; at best, Abbott has made a “captain’s pick” that will generate more controversy around his Prime Ministership at a time he can ill afford it, and at worst it shines the spotlight on his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, whose oversight of the operation of the Abbott government has won her no plaudits with a huge chunk of the Liberal Party, and on whose behalf Abbott has gone to extraordinary lengths to shield from the fallout from what can only be described as spectacular mismanagement on a spectacular scale.

After all, the government has proven incapable of communicating a message, incapable of selling its initiatives, and those initiatives (more usually than not) sit completely at odds with the best interests of the country, what might reasonably be regarded as tough but politically saleable, or both.

In that sense, the knighthood given to Prince Philip is entirely understandable. And that, of course, is an indictment.

I don’t think today’s announcement will do much to breathe life into the republican movement — it’s more likely to go down at Australia Day barbecues around the country as a sad joke, no more — but it comes as little surprise to note that Labor “leader” Bill Shorten has leapt on the republican bandwagon very publicly in the past 24 hours, and he no doubt sees Prince Philip as the revolting new spearhead of the Left’s renewed assault on the monarchy and on Australia’s very institutions of governance.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating first championed a transition to a republic in the early 1990s at a time the ALP had absolutely nothing of substance whatsoever to offer the Australian public — and in this regard Shorten is merely emulating Keating’s lead: the difference, of course, it that Keating was a substantial and formidable figure in his own right. Shorten is nothing of the sort. But that’s a story for another day.

Be all of that as it may, however, the real problem with giving Philip a knighthood is that it’s a symptom of what is wrong with the Abbott government and, specifically, how decisions are made and “sold.”

Once again, Credlin comes into the frame; the micromanagement and control she is known to exercise over government decisions, communications, media activity and personnel issues is universally known, and so too is the resentment and anger it is generating inside and outside the parliamentary ranks of the government.

It is neither acceptable nor tenable to wield the degree of power and control over the government that she does on the one hand, and refuse to accept responsibility for the consequences that flow from it on the other; at the very, very least, Credlin — if worth a pinch of the proverbial as an adviser — should have prevailed upon her boss not to make such a ridiculous, bizarre, and downright embarrassing appointment as the knighthood handed out to Prince Philip this morning.

It underlines the uneasy but developing reality that Abbott — loyal to Credlin to the point of accusing those who criticise her of sexism and misogyny, doing himself no favours in the process — is far less secure in his leadership of the Liberal Party than he might think and than some might like, and that the dysfunctional PMO has yet again served him very poorly: this time by failing to act as a brake on one of his more wildly buccaneering but ultimately counter-intuitive flights of fancy.

I think we’re nearing the point where either Credlin goes and her rubbish — the malfunctioning administrative and political structures she has overseen — is thrown out with her, or Abbott has to go to enable her removal; there is a Newspoll due out soon, and if its message for the government is poor, then the pressure on Abbott and his chief of staff will ratchet up that little bit further.

Still, it is Australia Day, and Abbott has the newly-minted knight of his choice to present within his realm.

Arise, Prince Sir Philip of Australia!

It would be hilarious if it weren’t so damned cringeworthy.

What a farce.

 

Bali Nine Condemned Deserve No Sympathy Or Leniency

THE FAILURE of condemned Bali Nine drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran to receive clemency from new Indonesian President Joko Widodo may outrage some, particularly in Australia; but “rehabilitated” as their supporters might claim, the risks of recidivism and the countless lives wrecked or terminated by the evil they peddled cannot be ameliorated. The capital penalty set down under Indonesian law should stand.

There is a certain irony that 50 years after the death of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — who, as Home Secretary in the early 1900s and motivated by a desire to accord humane treatment to prisoners, is credited with initiating a prison reform process that has ultimately seen many Western countries eschew the death penalty — a debate is raging over the plight of two Australians condemned to death in Indonesia and whether, or how, their lives can or indeed should be spared by Indonesian authorities.

Readers know that I am in favour of the death penalty, for certain crimes and particularly in circumstances where recidivism is a factor (the case of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher, who was raped and murdered by an evil creature with a long history of sexual violence against women, is a case in point). But in many respects, one’s support or otherwise for capital punishment in this case is a moot point.

I don’t intend to rehash the whole story of the Bali Nine and its highly evolved plot to smuggle some 8kg of heroin from Bali to Australia in 2005; I think most Australians will be familiar enough with the broad history of the case by virtue of its prominent coverage in mainstream media, although a quick refresher — courtesy of Wikipedia — can be found here.

Rather, I want to talk about the campaign to “save” the lives of Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from the perspective that it is an indecent misuse of Australian government resources; is in itself an outrage of sorts, reflecting as it does the increasing propensity in this country to mitigate and overlook heinous acts of criminal misconduct; and walks the dangerously illegitimate path or trying to tell other countries how to operate their legal systems when our own, arguably, fails to uphold the values and expectations of the community it purports to serve.

It is well and good that those who are opposed to the use of the death penalty (which includes, incidentally, the Australian government and various entities on all side of politics) take whatever steps they are able to in petitioning Indonesia to commute the capital punishments awaiting Chan and Sukumaran to life prison sentences, and those so inclined are as free to do so as others who believe the sentences handed out should stand.

But in this vein, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was right to note that in doing so Australia would in no way jeopardise its broader relationship with Indonesia, and nor should it.

This matter has been on foot now for a decade, and it would seem that with the rejection of pleas for clemency by Indonesian President Joko Widoko the avenues to overturn the death sentences of Chan and Sukumaran have now been exhausted: in the absence of presidential intervention, no higher jurisdiction exists in Indonesia for those associated with the condemned to appeal, and I cannot accept that wasting Australian government resources on any further attempts to influence their fates is anything other than a pointless enterprise.

It is true — as some advocates of the condemned pair have noted — that a discretionary power exists under Indonesian law, where convicted criminals can be shown to have been rehabilitated, for capital sentences to be commuted to imprisonment.

But the provision in question is precisely that — discretionary — and in any case, represents an artifice that is not within the remit of Australia, its government or its judiciary, or the families and friends of the condemned to exercise.

Nonetheless (and I say this in the broadest sense, and not necessarily in relation to Chan and Sukumaran) there have been countless “rehabilitated” criminals over the years who, once liberated, have gone on to reoffend.

During the week I had a discussion with an associate of mine that intersected with the issues of judicial leniency, rehabilitation and recidivism; as I said at that time, and of Australia at least, it increasingly seems that a good act and a convincing fairy story are all that is required to get bail and/or parole in the shadow of some of the most despicable offences imaginable; Meagher, again, is merely one recent high-profile example of this among too many: to my mind her killer should never have been on the streets in the first place.

Part of the problem is a correlating tendency to allow other people and/or other factors to be identified and held responsible as the “real” culprit for the criminal behaviour in the first place. How many evil specimens have arrived in Court, armed with testimony from psychologists, social workers and other “experts,” detailing colourful but horrific stories that blame poor parenting, school bullying, meagre economic circumstances and God alone knows what else as their villains?

Hoddle Street Massacre gunman Julian Knight (himself an individual I think ought to have been executed for the brutal slaughter he took upon himself to mete out in 1987) is, unbelievably, the latest vicious thug to attract the gaze of the perpetrators of this kind of mentality, with an article appearing in Melbourne’s Herald Sun just today oxygenating a story that, distilled to its root, essentially blames the Australian Army for what he did.

It seems the judicial culture in Australia is one that diminishes the responsibility offenders must take for their actions, with jail officially ascribed the status of a last resort and virtually endless avenues through which penalties can be reduced, bargained away, and terms of imprisonment shortened; it is no real surprise that penalties and sentences generate great outrage in the wider Australian community, inadequate as they are often perceived and as regular as re-offending — despite, no doubt, the “incontrovertible” nature of rehabilitation that is used to either release offenders without imprisonment or to shorten the tenures of their incarceration — has become.

The criminal justice system in Australia, arguably, doesn’t even satisfy they expectations of the community it purports to serve, safeguard and represent: and I say that with no reference to whether the death penalty is ever reintroduced in this country or not.

But when Australian citizens who fall foul of the law in other countries are given punishments that differ from what would apply in Australia — often more harshly, up to and including capital penalties — they and their contemporaries have no right or justification to do any more than has already been done, without success, for the likes of Chan and Sukumaran.

The risks for Australians who commit certain crimes on foreign soil are well known, and have been for decades; specifically, the dangers of trafficking illicit drugs in south-east Asia have been at the forefront of public awareness since Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers were executed for trafficking heroin in Malaysia in 1986. Many countries in the region maintain a zero-tolerance approach to drug trafficking that incorporates regimes of capital punishment. The instances of Westerners — including Australians — falling foul of these, historically, is too numerous to recount.

Members of the Bali Nine can hardly plead ignorance to the potential consequences of their actions.

And in full view of the present outpouring of compassion and advocacy and defence that Chan and Sukumaran enjoy is a total lack of consideration for the countless lives wrecked or snuffed out by the insidious contraband in which they sought to trade, and the exponential additional misery, suffering, injury and expense borne by the families, friends and other associates of heroin addicts: nobody seems to be talking about that. And in my view, it’s a consideration that carries far more weight than the fate of two drug pedlars facing death in an Asian country because they believed themselves above the law.

Have Chan and Sukumaran been “rehabilitated?” Perhaps. But plenty of Academy award-winning performances have been given in the pursuit of release from prison or other judicial favours all over the world, and the hardline legal codes in Asian countries are contrived, in part, to safeguard against them.

Were Indonesian officials tipped off by Australian authorities prior to their departure, as reports since their arrest have stated, condemning them to almost certain death by so doing? Perhaps. But if the pair were innocent tourists rather than drug traffickers, there would be no international law enforcement effort under way to apprehend them in the first place.

Much has been made of the relative youth of the duo at the time of their arrest — at 21 and 23 — and apologies offered for two young miscreants who, as the story goes, are now being punished in a fashion disproportionate to the crime they have committed.

Yet the Indonesian legal system does not care for such niceties — and nor should it — and I would add that anyone of that age should know that trafficking nearly 20lb of heroin is the wrong thing to do (and amid all the do-gooder energy expended on their behalf, the idea the pair is mentally defective in any way has never been raised).

And to those who argue that executing them would constitute the waste of two “rehabilitated” lives, I would observe that such a price pales into insignificance when weighed against the human carnage, destruction and utter misery the duo sought to foster, for profit, by the obscenity of their actions.

Chan and Sukumaran were also the ringleaders of the smuggling plot, and cannot claim to be inadvertent bystanders: a point that greatly increases their culpability.

Finally, to those who have sarcastically asked me whether I would expect the Australian government to come to my aid if I got into “trouble” whilst overseas, I simply say that I am totally disinclined to go peddling narcotics in Asia: the Australian government does sterling work on behalf of Australians abroad who find themselves in difficulty through no fault of their own. It should not be forced to make cap-in-hand representations to foreign powers on behalf of drug traffickers and other noxious varieties of insidious criminal filth.

It is a final indictment on the likes of Chan and Sukumaran that by their deeds they have obliged our government to lecture to Indonesia on their behalf when its resources could be better served building relationships with that country around trade, security co-operation, and so forth.

I’m not heartless, but in view of all of the factors that now confront Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, I don’t believe they are entitled to be shown sympathy nor leniency.

Winston Churchill was a good man, but I don’t think his praiseworthy reforms in the treatment of prisoners were ever intended to be abused in they way they increasingly have been, whether as a pretext to smack thugs on the wrist and let them go, to the potential detriment of the wider community, or — as in this case — as the basis for one country to poke its nose into the affairs and practices of another.

Whether you agree with or oppose the death penalty, the Commonwealth has made ample representations on behalf of Chan and Sukumaran. Those endeavours have now failed. It is time for the Abbott government to move on to other issues more deserving of the expenditure of taxpayer resources.

Enough is enough.