Political Flashback: Straight Answers To Straight Questions

IT WAS THE FEISTIEST and bitterest rivalry in conservative politics in Australia, and on 5 September 1985 it seemed that John Howard had prevailed over Andrew Peacock after a botched attempt to replace Howard as deputy Liberal leader resulted in his ascension to the top job. Of course, this episode simply raised the curtain on several years of simmering, seething hostility. But in defeat, Peacock exhibited a candour that few politicians deploy today.

I must apologise for yet another of my little stints on walkabout; my world has had me preoccupied with other matters this week, and these have kept me from finding time to post. Indeed, with just such time available tonight I’ve spent it snooping around YouTube looking for old curios, and having found “something interesting” thought I’d publish some comment on it whilst working out, over the next day or so, where we’ll pick the present day conversation back up.

I did one of these flashback pieces once before, talking about the surprisingly gracious speech former Prime Minister Paul Keating made upon conceding defeat back in 1996; it got a lot of reader attention at the time (and still has “bursts” of topicality, based on the metrics I can see as the administrator of the blog), so I will be very keen to see what people make of this. If there is demand for the “flashback” idea I’m happy to do them, but only once in the proverbial blue moon: too many would turn the column into a history book rather than a discussion forum providing comment and analysis on what’s going on in the world of politics.

But my little hunting trip tonight (or, to be more exact, this morning 🙂  ) took me to the press conference given by former Liberal leader Andrew Peacock in the aftermath of his resignation on 5 September 1985 and the subsequent elevation of his deputy, John Howard, to the leadership on the same day.

The reason I have decided to share this and talk about it (and readers can access the clip here) stems from the candid, fluent and direct approach Peacock deployed in the face of heavy questioning by journalists, and the rather ironic fact that subsequent events showed the sincerity of some of that candour to be…well, a little less sincere than his emphatic statements might otherwise have suggested.

The thing that I find worth revisiting in the context of an ongoing discussion of Australian politics, some 30 years later — and in some ways like the Keating piece — is the degree of directness in Peacock’s remarks, and the contrast it provides with the sort of thing we might expect from senior politicians (of all political stripes) today.

There is no obfuscation, or a hiding spot constructed from the repetition of idiot-simple phrases that make little sense; Peacock takes each question and — as can be best expected of a politician at all — answers them, and answers them meaningfully.

If we were to reflect, with total honesty, how many of the current crop of MPs in senior roles would do so as eloquently?

Younger readers might not recall Mr Peacock — the so-called “Colt from Kooyong” — acknowledged by friends as a polished political performer, and by critics as a one-trick show pony; either way, this media conference is an accomplished performance, and whatever Peacock’s shortfalls might have been when it came to questions of substance over style, credibility in the harsh glare of a press pack was never one of them.

Personally — despite his status as a Liberal moderate — I liked Peacock enormously, and supported him over John Howard throughout their rivalry; the Howard who eventually became Prime Minister in 1996 was of course a vastly different (and changed) entity to the awkward, sometimes tentative and downright unpopular Liberal leader who battled through the mid to late 1980s. “Mr 18%,” the now-defunct Bulletin magazine once headlined him, with the mocking subtext “Why on Earth does this man bother?” in reference to the abysmal personal approval ratings Howard routinely recorded.

The emphatic, persistent and genuine-seeming declarations of support Peacock pledged for Howard, that Thursday afternoon in Canberra, were exactly the right noises to make, and struck all the right notes; Peacock’s unconditional public offer to serve Howard was accepted, with the latter appointing him shadow minister for Foreign Affairs: a portfolio he held in government under Malcolm Fraser, and a role that to this day evokes memories of the affair he once had with American actress Shirley MacLaine, who famously declared that she would give the then-Foreign Affairs minister “a foreign affair he would never forget.”

Even so — and despite the commanding farewell performance as leader in 1985 — politics is politics; and the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course, as time wore on it became clear that the rivalry with Howard was far from resolved despite the suggestions of Peacock that day; in fact, shortly before the 1987 federal election Australians had a graphic glimpse of what Peacock really thought of Howard, and readers can reminisce about that, too, by clicking here. (Just don’t play this second clip with small children — or prudes or wowsers — in earshot).

And on 9 May 1989 that rivalry boiled over again, as Peacock and his lieutenants executed a snap coup against Howard to return to the Liberal leadership: the man of style — the “great campaigner,” who had run the Hawke government surprisingly close at the 1984 election, just 21 months after the Fraser government has been tossed out — was deemed likelier than his colleagues to lead them back into office than the man of substance.

And Peacock might have become Prime Minister in 1990, too, had a handful of his mates opted not to appear on the ABC’s Four Corners programme shortly after the 1989 coup to brag, admitting to the treachery and outright lying they had engaged in to terminate Howard’s leadership. The episode left a permanent taint on Peacock’s second stint as Liberal leader, and probably destroyed much of the momentum he might otherwise have generated heading into the first of three “unloseable” elections fought by the Liberal Party in the early 1990s.

In any case, this performance — the dignified, direct and graceful performance after relinquishing his position to a detested political foe — is, to me, an illustration of the finery and sophistication that once characterised our polity, and is nowhere to be found today.

What do readers think: is there room for this kind of thing, or is the use of simple slogans as battering rams a crude but much more effective way to operate? And with the benefit of three decades since the event, was Peacock worth the hype, despite his two election defeats, or was the Colt from Kooyong simply a prancing show pony with nothing more to recommend him?

I’ll be interested to see your thoughts. And later today, I’ll be back with something on retail issues pertaining to current events.


Hawke Elected, 5 March 1983: 30 Years Ago Today

SPARE a thought: it’s 30 years since Bob Hawke led the ALP into office, just seven and a half years after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government and the shattering electoral defeat of 1975; 1983 heralded change in Australia, and its impact on politics could never have been foreseen.

It was the election Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser should never have called; popular mythology had it that Fraser was simply too slow off the mark on the morning of 3 February, when Labor leader Bill Hayden resigned in favour of former ACTU president Bob Hawke a couple of hours before Fraser was granted his double dissolution election.

But the truth is that Fraser had wanted to go to the polls in December 1982 and was talked out of it by his cabinet colleagues. Had he done so, he would likely have been re-elected.

The Liberal Party retained a key marginal seat  (Flinders) in a difficult by-election that was held the day Fraser had wanted to go to an election.

This imbued Fraser and the Liberals with false confidence, as the result in Flinders also made certain a leadership change in the ALP; its unpopular leader Bill Hayden had already survived, narrowly, one leadership challenge from Hawke.

The Flinders by-election virtually guaranteed any subsequent challenge would succeed.

So Fraser — thinking he was locking Hayden in — called an election, and was soundly beaten by Hawke; it was the beginning of 13 years of Labor government, and Hawke’s would be just the second Labor government (after Whitlam’s) to see a Labor Prime Minister elected twice to office.

Labor bequeathed Australia a clutch of enduring reforms, such as the floating currency, financial deregulation and the dismantling of tariff barriers; it is questionable whether their primary architect — Treasurer Paul Keating — fully understood the far-reaching nature of these reforms, but this was lasting legacy of the Hawke government, and remains today.

These reforms, of course, were consolidated and built upon by the Howard government, in areas such as industrial relations, taxation, and prudential regulation.

It is reasonable to assert the Hawke/Keating years represent a zenith for the ALP which it will never revisit: the government’s reforms, so diametrically opposed to traditional Labor policy, have fundamentally changed the politics of the Left in this country.

We can see the results of this change today: the splintering of the ALP Left, which has sustained and grown first the Australian Democrats, and lately the Communist Party Greens; Labor has returned to its interventionist, tax-and-spend past, untroubled by economic rigour, and a preference for “social justice” at the cost of fiscal responsibility.

The Liberal Party, too, was changed by the 1983 result: descending first into a protracted period marked by leadership ructions and coalition infighting as it grappled with the reformulation of its economic policies, it emerged — finally — in 1996 to reclaim government a stronger, more resilient and arguably more durable entity than it had been since the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies 30 years earlier.

(If anyone doubts this, compare the 1974 and 1984 election results to that of 2010: nobody could seriously argue that the Liberals of 1974 or 1984 had commenced an inexorable march toward regaining government, whereas in 2010 I believe they did; indeed, had the Senate numbers in 1974 not been so favourable to Fraser, history may have played out very differently indeed).

As I said at the outset, I believe Fraser would have won an election in December 1982 against the hapless Hayden; but by the same token, just three months later I think Hayden would have beaten Fraser — he was probably right when he memorably proclaimed, after his resignation, that a “drover’s dog” could have won office against Fraser by that time.

The campaign is of historical note for a couple of things; the Ash Wednesday bushfires in the country’s south that wrought such destruction and misery — at the midpoint of the campaign — did nothing whatsoever to augment the fortunes of the Fraser government; indeed, the disaster probably hardened the resolve of voters in these areas against it.

But with unemployment, interest rates and inflation all rising as Australia was hit by the world recession of 1982-83, the final blow to Fraser’s credibility was self-inflicted; his remark that voters would be best served hiding their money under the bed if Labor won was devastatingly answered by Hawke, who simply quipped that people couldn’t hide their money under the bed — because that’s where the “Commies” (Reds, or Communists) were.

Subsequent events showed Fraser’s claim mightn’t have been as ridiculous as it seemed, given the assortment of state Labor governments that presided over the catastrophic collapses of financial institutions toward the end of the 1980s, John Cain’s in Victoria and John Bannon’s in South Australia especially. But at the time, the damage was done.

Victoria and South Australia were, ironically, the best-performed states for Labor in 1983, providing almost half of Labor’s 75 lower house seats between them.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, Tasmania not only stood by Fraser, but swung heavily to the Liberals as popular sentiment favouring Liberal Premier Robin Gray’s plan to dam the Franklin River saw Fraser government MPs widen their margins over Labor in all five Tasmanian electorates.

Malcolm Fraser today is a virtual pariah within the Liberal Party, roundly (and I believe correctly) dismissed as a left-wing bleeding heart whose views are totally out of touch with modern mainstream sentiment in Australia.

Hawke is a revered elder statesman in the Labor Party; his Treasurer and one-time friend, one-time foe Paul Keating succeeded him as Prime Minister and stayed there for five years before losing in a landslide in 1996.

Of course, Fraser’s Treasurer, John Howard — sarcastically dubbed “Honest John” by Keating — ultimately became PM too, but it took two attempts and more than ten years.

After a decade of rivalry with Andrew Peacock that culminated in him losing his leadership for six years in 1989 (and the Liberal Party going through three different leaders in those six years), Howard’s return in 1995 and his triumph in 1996 surely marked the closing of a circle in conservative politics that began to be drawn in March 1983.

Readers shouldn’t interpret my remarks tonight through the paradigm of serious analysis; I simply think that 30 years on from what was unmistakably a turning point in Australian polity and society, it is fitting to mark the occasion with some recollections and thoughts.

These are mine. If anyone would like to add to them, please feel free to comment.


Liberal Party Bunfight: Kroger, Costello, It’s Time To Let It Go

Two days ago, this column outlined why Peter Costello would never return to Parliament; today I am going to outline why he and his buddy, Michael Kroger, need to knock it off. The public fracas they are engaging in is unedifying to both and, simply put, is an embarrassment.

I would like to predicate my remarks by pointing out that I don’t know either of these gentlemen well; Michael Kroger I briefly met for the first and only time outside St Paul’s Cathedral at former Liberal Premier Lindsay Thompson’s state funeral in 2008.

Peter Costello I have had more to do with, crossing paths with him at several Liberal Party functions since moving to Melbourne in 1998; but I doubt he’d even be aware that the brash and arrogant 21-year-old who applied for the role as his Chief of Staff on his ascension to the deputy leadership of the Liberal Party — all the way back in 1994 — and myself are one and the same person.

So I would entreat readers to take my comments at face value; they are not born of loyalty to one side o’er the other or from any intrigue; I simply intend to say what I think.

And that, in short, is that Michael Kroger and Peter Costello should pull their heads in.

It is a shame that it could come to this; that two of the Liberal Party’s most influential figures of yesteryear, friends and allies since adolescence, and who shared in so many triumphs together, should find an acrimonious and highly public spat signals the seemingly irretrievable end of a friendship.

The story initially circulated — that Costello’s planned comeback to politics was thwarted by Kroger, in retaliation by the latter over Costello’s purported refusal to intervene in a Senate preselection to advantage Kroger’s ex-wife, Helen — was messy enough, although the “case” for a return to Parliament was fairly easily shot down — and we did precisely that in this column on Wednesday.

Today, the country was treated to the singularly despicable spectacle of Michael Kroger doing a series of interviews on Melbourne morning radio. Tipping the bucket on Costello, he didn’t hold back — saying that he no longer went to lunch with Costello because he “can’t stand it any more;” he described lunches with Costello as two hours of sitting listening to Costello slinging off at real and/or perceived enemies, listing — for clarity — John Howard, Alexander Downer, Alan Stockdale, Shane Stone, the Kemp Brothers, Robert Doyle, Andrew Peacock, John Hewson, with the special qualifier for good measure that Costello “despised” Malcolm Turnbull.

Kroger stated that Costello was on the record as labelling Tony Abbott an “economic illiterate with DLP tendencies,” or in other words, not capable or suitable of filling any role of significance within the Liberal Party.

According to Kroger, “nobody” wanted to talk about Costello’s alleged misdemeanours publicly, so he — Kroger — had decided to do so.

Kroger also accused Costello of childishness and pettiness on account of his refusal to appear “anywhere” with John Howard since the Coalition lost government in late 2007.

There have been accusations and counter-accusations about who has what influence within the Liberal Party in Victoria at the grassroots and organisational level, and who has and hasn’t exercised that influence. The unspoken imputation has been that whichever of the two had exercised such influence had done so to somehow thwart and frustrate the other.

To their credit, both men have paid some kind of tribute to each other; Kroger was emphatic that Costello had been a great Treasurer of Australia; Costello, in turn, was similarly emphatic that Kroger was an excellent president of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party.

But this whole thing stinks of childish and pettiness on both sides — the very attributes Kroger accused Costello of in a clear manifestation of the proverbial pot and the kettle.

Costello, for his part, released a press statement today; lofty in rhetoric and filled with moral righteousness, he refuted Kroger’s charges whilst seeking to position himself above the fray, saying his reply “will go to the factual matters. I will not reply to the attacks on my character, other than to say they are false.”

The statement goes on to give his own account of the Senate preselection in question, as well as to cover off on a number of related and ancillary issues that — frankly — don’t matter a can of beans.

That’s right — what both Kroger and Costello have been up to in the last 48 hours doesn’t matter two-tenths of diddlysquat.

These are yesterday’s men; Costello elected to pack up his bat and ball and walk away from active politics; Kroger may have reinvigorated the Victorian division of the Liberal Party, but that was 20, 25 years ago, and he too is no longer the relevant daily face of the party in the way he once was.

Both men have been invaluable and brilliant servants of the party; and in looking back at the contributions of each over the years it’s difficult for me to find much to criticise.

It’s true Jeff Kennett — another Liberal I hold in extremely high regard — was not exactly the favourite colleague of these gentlemen, but wherever there are groupings and gatherings of human beings, such things are inevitable from time to time.

Maybe Kroger is right — maybe Costello really is the graceless individual he describes; maybe Costello is right — perhaps Kroger really is mounting an unwarranted and unjustified attack on him.

Either way, this is essentially a personal feud that has become public in the most vituperative of ways; and frankly, it needs to be swept back under the curtains whence it came in short order.

The irony is that whilst this stoush, the combatants involved and the “issues” they appear to be fighting over has nothing to do with current politics and does not involve the present leadership of the parliamentary or organisational Liberal Party, it risks causing problems nonetheless.

I’d ask which of these two gentlemen thought it such a brilliant idea to air this particular basket of dirty linen in public view.

At a time when the federal Labor government is on the ropes and dying; when state Labor governments around Australia are falling like dominos; when Australian electors are turning off the ALP with such venom as to suggest we are witnessing a generational political change; and at a time in which conservatives seem destined to enjoy long years in government, the timing of these events is abominable.

More to the point, both Kroger and Costello are seasoned political operators who should know better; in making their bitter vendetta public, they have afforded the Labor Party a distraction from its own woes, and clear air from which to catch its breath.

And the last thing either Costello or Kroger would want is to see the Labor Party back up off the canvass.

Whatever the deep truths behind this spat, and irrespective of how Kroger and Costello really feel about each other, the general public does not need to be party to these things, and the finer dramatics of the dispute do not need to be aired on a public stage.

Costello and Kroger should grow up, shut up, and keep their disintegrating friendship behind closed doors somewhere that does not adjoin the contemporary politics of the day.

A Historical Perspective On Gillard Labor

Having for the first time been able to log in at home, I thought it worthy to talk about Julia Gillard’s government in the historical context of leadership coups and their consequences.

Previously, I described Gillard’s government as being in deep and deepening trouble. I won’t cover that in one post. However, the problem logging into my blog has had an unintended consequence: it has rendered the recent federal budget irrelevant.

And politically, irrelevant it is. The issues with Gillard’s government are identical after the budget to what they were before. Reinforced, but identical.

Looking through the history of federal government in Australia, what happened in the ALP in 2010 is an anomaly.

Since the two-party system stabilised 100 years ago, a coup attempt against a Prime Minister by a member of the same party has only ever succeeded outright once: in 1991, when Paul Keating beat Bob Hawke.

There were only three other attempts: in 1982, Andrew Peacock’s challenge was defeated by Malcolm Fraser, but the consequent blow to Fraser’s authority was one of many factors that led to his defeat the following year.

In 1969, after a swing of 7% against the government — which survived the election despite losing most of the (then) largest majority in Australian history — Bill McMahon unsuccessfully challenged John Gorton for the Liberal leadership.

Of course, McMahon succeeded on his next attempt (by virtue of Gorton’s dubious casting vote) eighteen months later, which probably put the last nail in the coffin of the ageing Coalition government and helped gift power to Gough Whitlam.

In recounting history, a pattern emerges: the voting public don’t go along with this sort of thing.

In Australia, whilst we don’t vote for a Prime Minister directly, we know what we’re signing on to when we wander into the polling booth and mark the paper. It’s the reason “preferred Prime Minister” polls exist.

People vote for a government and a leader. Whilst the relationship isn’t what, say, the Americans feel for their President, there is still a passive, unspoken consent that the elected Prime Minister is just that.

The concept of tearing down a Prime Minister mid-term, wilfully, with forethought and intent, appears not to sit well with the Australian electorate.

History will judge Billy McMahon on many criteria, but he did himself, and the Liberal Party, no favours in his naked pursuit of his ambition.

Andrew Peacock, by contrast, had reasons rooted, rightly or wrongly, in his view of the conduct of Fraser and saw it as his duty to challenge. He failed, Fraser lost the ensuing election, and Peacock later led the Liberal Party to two election defeats in 1984 and 1990. The latter was the first of two so-called “unloseable” elections.

Keating is a different. Consensus dictates Bob Hawke was finished by mid-1991. In the face of what the commentariat deemed a young and talented liberal leader in John Hewson, he was wrong-footed.

Faced with Hewson’s “Fightback!” package, Hawke was gazumped, and clueless as to how to deal with it.

Enter Keating as PM on the second attempt. He correctly assessed Hewson as a political lightweight and set about dismantling Hewson piece by piece.

It is a matter of history that Hewson imploded under the pressure. A week from the 1993 election, he spent two minutes gibbering, unable to answer an interview question from Mike Willesee about whether a cake would be cheaper under GST.

Keating won in 1993 solely because he was faced by the worst political salesman in at least 30 years to have masqueraded as a Leader of the Opposition (Mark Latham, a decade later, would claim that mantle, but I digress).

The point is, whether by Keating’s guile or Hewson’s incompetence, Keating got away with something nobody had. Of course, not six months later, his treasurer presented the most electorally dishonest budget in Australian history with tax rises, vast public sector borrowings, and contempt for the mainstream in favour of fringe interests, and at that point the 1996 landslide against him was irrevocably sealed.

And Gillard…say what you like about Kevin Rudd (I detest the guy) but he was a first-term Prime Minister who’d won a modestly comfortable victory over arguably the best Prime Minister Australia has had in nearly 50 years.

Then the polls turned sour, the magic disappeared from the numbers, and the hatchet men emerged from the shadows…

Tony Abbott was ridiculed when he coined the term “Sussex Street Death Squads.” Yet to look at the recently-dispatched ALP government in New South Wales (four Labor Premiers in five years), he was right. The same ultimately unsuccessful tactics were transferred to the federal party.

The 2010 election result has much to do with contempt for the type of leadership change, within a governing party, that was ruthlessly executed by Julia Gillard and her minders.

Everyone gets a second term, don’t they? Look at 1931 if you think that. Tony Abbott is unelectable, isn’t he? Look at the polling numbers his predecessor posted for months if you believe that.

Add 1500 votes across three electorates, and Abbott would be Prime Minister today. He achieved a 7% swing on the six-month average poll results of his predecessor. Polls on their own are meaningless, but in a bloc, over time, they are a powerful tool.

Since last year’s election, Gillard’s government has shown itself as incompetent, incapable of communicating anything meaningful, out of touch with mainstream opinion, and guilty of extreme political ineptitude.

The point — long-winded, perhaps — is that mid-term assassins don’t win in Australia.

That possibly the most reviled cabinet-level politician to ever hold office in Australia — Keating — could pull the feat off and win a subsequent election speaks more to his opponent than it does to him or the merits of his coup.

Gillard is a dead person walking; an election would finish her. She knows it, and the independents who prop her up in office know that it wouldn’t just finish her, but it would finish them also.

If the truth be told, she’s already finished.

But there is more to this…and so next time, when I can access my blog at home, we’ll look at some of the other reasons Julia Gillard is in virtually irretrievable trouble.