Sack Ley: Not “Socialism,” Not “Sexism,” And “Sorry” Doesn’t Fix It

THE UPROAR over dubious expense claims by Health minister Sussan Ley has turned farcical, with Malcolm Turnbull standing her aside “without pay” until, presumably, an inquiry with predetermined findings “clears” her. More allegations have been made. Critics have been likened to socialists and sexists. The real issue is that MP entitlements are a barely regulated money tree, raided at will. Ley must be sacked, and the tree hacked down.

What a difference a day makes: since I posted on this subject last night, the old strategy of standing firm and going on an all-out attack has been executed to the letter by a predictable circle of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership supporters, as they closed ranks to protect one of their own in a desperate effort to shut down a scandal that threatens to be every bit as damaging to Turnbull as the absurd misuse of money on a helicopter charter by Bronwyn Bishop was to Tony Abbott.

There are a number of Coalition (or Coalition-aligned) voices that have chided me today for failing to similarly fall into line and instead calling for the dismissal of Health minister Sussan Ley in my article last night.

I say to readers — as I said to each of those people who were good enough to share their views — that as far as I am concerned, every minister (irrespective of party) caught out in a flagrant breach of the guidelines that apply to ministerial expenses (as Sussan Ley has already admitted to) and/or relying on semantic representations of highly questionable claims (as Ley also has, for example, with her justification for spending consecutive New Year’s Eves on the Gold Coast at taxpayers’ expense) to get their arse out of the sling ought to be fired without compunction.

For backbench MPs caught doing the same thing, the penalty should be a mandatory hearing before the relevant disciplinary committee of the party in question, with the penalty of disendorsement the sanction for consideration: the party that protects a rorter will be judged accordingly, as will the party that upholds standards by tossing such a character overboard.

There are those who suggest I (and anyone who agrees with my position on this issue) are somehow neolithic troglodytes who should be marginalised, ostracised, and kept quiet. Apparently, we don’t “get it.” Apparently, we are “not part of the team.”

They are entitled to that view.

But there seems to be a dearth of good sense when it comes to the misuse of parliamentary entitlements on all sides of politics: in recent years, we have seen a Liberal Speaker in Canberra who hired a helicopter to avoid a 45-minute drive. Here in Victoria, a Labor minister repeatedly chartered a chauffeured car for his dogs. Now, we have a Liberal minister who thinks more than 20 taxpayer-funded trips to the Gold Coast in three years, many of them also featuring taxpayer-funded spousal travel, are somehow acceptable because in each case there was a component of “official business” (however spurious) attached to it.

With those observations in mind, here are a few of the things the Sussan Ley scandal is not about.

It is not about whether Sussan Ley is fundamentally a good or decent person.

It is not about whether Sussan Ley is an intelligent lady, a very hard worker, or even a good minister.

It is not about “socialism,” which disgraced former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop tried to claim this afternoon in an idiotic outburst (that raises the point that with friends like Bronwyn, Sussan Ley hardly needs enemies).

It is not about “sexism,” either, despite some, Bishop included, hitting the airwaves to suggest it is: money is, to put it most deliciously, gender-neutral when it comes to the misuse of the stuff.

And it isn’t about whether Sussan Ley is “a crook.” Clearly, she is not.

Conversely, here are a few of the things this scandal is very much about.

It is about the fact that by Ley’s own admission, several of her expense claims breached ministerial guidelines.

It is about the fact that as those guidelines are universally acknowledged (even if from behind some people’s hands) as being as watertight as a sieve, ministerial entitlements are open to virtually any degree of misappropriation imaginable — provided, of course, there is the fig leaf of “official business” attached somewhere that is either not elaborated (on the convenient grounds of “confidentiality”) or dragged out in an embarrassing media circus (like Ms Ley subjected Brisbane businesswoman and Liberal Party donor Sarina Russo to earlier today).

It is about the fact that simple common sense outweighs the “guidelines” far too easily. Reasonable, fair-minded people can tell the difference between legitimate expenses and taking the piss.

And it is about the fact that if the more questionable of the outstanding claims by Ms Ley do, indeed, comply with the guidelines, then the guidelines must be junked — and replaced by a more independent system of administration.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — confronted with the surprisingly candid admission by Ms Ley that some of her claims did not meet his own ministerial code of conduct — has yet again exhibited a complete lack of leadership (to say nothing of any backbone) by failing to dismiss the minister from his Cabinet.

This comes as no surprise; Turnbull has conceded a big bag of scalps to the government’s opponents since jumping Tony Abbott in a leadership coup 16 months ago, and will no doubt concede more. The litany of botched reshuffles that have occurred on Malcolm’s watch, and the proliferation of Turnbull-supporting dead extinct wood that remains in the ministry, are testament to this.

The formulation that Ley would “stand aside without pay” is a just-too-clever construct that only an idiot could fail to see through. The “rigorous” investigation that will occur, conducted by Turnbull’s private office, will clear Ley — he can’t afford the risk of Ley going feral in a leadership ballot like Bronwyn Bishop did to Abbott — after which Ley will resume her duties, be back-paid whatever monies she temporarily forewent, and life will carry on.

As I said yesterday, Ley’s mea culpa seemed more designed to salvage her political career than based in any genuine sense of remorse.

Nobody will have properly accepted responsibility — or made any recompense — whatsoever. In repaying a few of the most abjectly inappropriate amounts, Ley will merely have coughed up for what she should have paid from her own pocket in the first place, rather than charging it to the taxpayer.

The problem with all this is that voters are not idiots; not only can the man on the street see through such a sham, but people across the country are absolutely fed up with what they (rightly) see as the political class making fast and loose — and living a life on clover — literally at their expense.

I talk a lot about standards in politics (or the lack of them these days), and I mean it: and to be political for a moment, it disturbs me greatly that for all the hype that “we’re not Labor” and predictable claims that we don’t do in the Liberal Party as the ALP does, blind tribal loyalty merely cloaks the fact that in round terms, our lot is not much better than their lot: if at all.

We execute leaders in coups.* We’ve always done it in state-based Liberal parties; now we do it to Prime Ministers. Our MPs get caught up in the same kind of expenses rorts as Labor’s do. Because our (limp-wristed and lily-livered) political “strategists” abhor risk and are terrified of offending anyone, our governments end up singing mere variations of the same claptrap Labor’s do. And as I have said before, when the political divide in Australia boils down simply to an argument over whether the “competent” side or the “compassionate” side should prevail (with a depressingly diminishing store of evidence to back the bona fides of either side in this regard), mainstream politics in this country is in a pretty dismal place.

Meanwhile, minor parties are surging. You really have to wonder what it will take for the penny to drop.

The bottom line is that ministerial and parliamentary entitlements are little more than a barely regulated money tree; it is able to be raided almost at will, provided the footprints of the perpetrator are covered in bullshit.

The only way to stop the practice is to take an axe to it, and to chop down the tree once and for all.

The entitlements, allowances and other benefits that apply to members of Parliament should be regulated, administered and overseen by an independent commission: the guidelines that govern them should be exponentially tightened, the provisions for spousal travel all but abolished, and the penalties for breaches increased — up to and including disqualification from Parliament in extreme cases, which should be prosecuted directly rather than first dealt with by a committee comprised of (surprise, surprise) members of Parliament.

Politicians are not business executives. Minor officials (such as backbenchers and junior ministers) are not patronage-dispensing tycoons to be feted with a generous array of travel benefits that can easily be personalised to confer discretionary benefit. Senior ministers and leaders are not rock stars. They are all servants of the people, and it is high time they started to behave like it.

Tomorrow, Malcolm Turnbull must forget about the numbers in hypothetical leadership contests, forget about ridiculous factional loyalties, forget about the fact Sussan Ley is (by every objective assessment) a decent, smart, highly likeable, hard-working woman, and sack her for repeatedly breaching ministerial guidelines.

If he doesn’t, this episode will further degrade his already tarnished government’s standing in the eyes of a majority of voters; and if he doesn’t, he will rightly be perceived to have driven one more nail into the coffin of his leadership of the Liberal Party — an inadvisable misadventure in any event whose time, with inevitable certainty, is fast running out.

Either way, ordinary voters are disgusted. Turnbull will ignore this fact at his peril.

*No, I don’t like leadership coups in government — and yes, I have called for the replacement of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal Party leader — but the point is that the genie (assassinating sitting Prime Ministers) should never have been let out of the bottle in the first place. 

Ley Down Your Guns: Health Minister Must Resign

AFTER WEIGHING public interest, the political interests of the Liberal Party, and justifications offered by Health minister Sussan Ley for “errors of judgement” that see her seek to reimburse a raft of expense claims in order to save her political career, this column believes the minister has offered too little, too late to atone for actions that should never have occurred. In the interests of probity and the integrity of the political process, she must resign.

Note: since this article was published just after 8pm on 8 January, additional allegations of travel entitlement misuse against minister Ley have been raised in the mainstream press; I will keep an eye on these, and may post again in the next day or so. – YS

At a time in which Commonwealth finances sit at a tipping point — with the haemorrhaging federal budget unlikely to be brought into surplus by piecemeal fiddles announced by Treasurer Scott Morrison, and with Commonwealth debt now beyond the half-trillion dollar mark and continuing to soar — to say nothing of the prospect of a downgrade to Australia’s international credit rating later this year, the self-indulgent and gratuitous abuse of public monies, by political figures on all sides, simply must be terminated.

I have spent the past week observing the growing fracas around Health minister Sussan Ley and the apparent misuse of parliamentary travel entitlements that has been uncovered in relation to the “impulse purchase” of a $795,000 penthouse apartment on Queensland’s Gold Coast, and was very close to calling for the minister to resign or be sacked in this column late last night.

However, in light of a statement from Ms Ley issued this afternoon (and you can read that here) — I am now satisfied that the minister’s mea culpa is insufficient to atone for her cavalier misuse of taxpayers’ monies, and that it has been offered primarily in an attempt to salvage her political career rather than from any genuine sense of regret.

In this sense, if Ms Ley’s commitment to standards and decency in public office is as authentic as she claims, then tomorrow must bring her resignation from Malcolm Turnbull’s government.

Readers may access a selection of the mainstream media coverage of this issue here, here and here; these detail a slew of Comcar, air travel and accommodation-related expenses claimed by Ms Ley over the past couple of years totalling several thousand dollars, including a charter flight from Canberra to the Gold Coast — which her statement today fails to mention altogether — that cost some $12,000, and which she claimed was booked because commercial flights were “not suitable.”

And just to complicate things even further, the Nine Network is reporting tonight that Ms Ley last year billed taxpayers more than $76,000 for a seven-day trip to the United States: needless to say, this claim elicited no mention from Ley today either, and the quantum of the amounts involved suggest that at the very least, literally no expense whatsoever was spared on a trip that cost more than $11,000 per day — including $40,000 for flights, which is obscene.

Whichever way you cut it, this entire episode stinks: and in all honesty, the lipservice paid by the minister today to quaint notions of accountability and value for the taxpayer dollar raises more questions than it answers.

This column has consistently demanded more emphasis be placed on lifting standards in Australian politics, and whilst I have been derided by Labor types for applying the blowtorch to ALP miscreants as and when indicated, the desire for better accountability and less of a sense of entitlement at the expense of the taxpayer applies equally to all parties.

The unsatisfactory mentality that appears to have developed around travel entitlements since guidelines were changed by the Abbott government in response to a slew of travel expense scandals of its own — that offending MPs can refund the improperly claimed expenses in addition to paying a penalty, and otherwise get off scot-free — makes the kind of incident that now surrounds Ms Ley likely to become a more frequent event, as ministers caught out pay up on discovery, with a small punitive premium being the cost of retaining their plum appointments.

What happens to those whose “inadvertent” wrong claims are never uncovered? Nothing whatsoever, of course. And the fact Cabinet ministers, earning well over $300,000 per year, see fit to bill the tax-paying public for $1,000 here and $1,000 there is an indecency that few ordinary voters — even the highly politically literate — will have ease in accepting or condoning.

By contrast, ordinary wage and salary earners who make fast and loose with $1,000 of their employer’s money for personal travel purposes could confidently expect to be fired if discovered: and this is precisely the fate that must now befall Ms Ley if she refuses to depart the ministry of her own volition.

Her statement conveniently makes no mention of the fact that her partner owns a business within a short distance of the apartment the duo purchased during the Gold Coast visit in question; this fact — along with the reality Ms Ley is also refunding other travel and accommodation-related claims pertaining to Gold Coast travel with her partner on other occasions — tips the balance away from simple oversight and in the direction of a reasonable conclusion that repeated misuse of entitlements that are disturbingly similar in nature are not “inadvertent oversights” at all.

And in fact, just about the only aspect of this grubby episode this column is prepared to defend Ms Ley over is the thinly veiled and grotesque insinuation made by mainstream media outlets and the ALP that a purchase of an apartment from a donor to the Queensland LNP is somehow corrupt: if we start placing restrictions on whom members of Parliament are able to purchase goods and services from with their own money, we risk debasing the standard of politicians and politics itself in this country even further.

That small point aside, Ms Ley has given a noble account of herself couched in lofty rhetoric that nevertheless fails to either meet appropriate standards of ministerial accountability or to satisfactorily answer legitimate questions of propriety in these matters, and she must resign.

Nobody denies Sussan Ley is an impressive individual; in many respects she is one of the most intelligent occupants  of a seat in any Australian House of Parliament today, but this is scarcely the point.

And even though Health is a notoriously difficult portfolio at the best of times — and especially for a Liberal Health minister, perennially faced with gratuitous thuggery by healthcare unions and hostile ALP state governments causing trouble for the sake of it, as Liberals in her role too often are forced to confront — it isn’t as if her performance in the portfolio has been Earth-shattering (although she has run rings around her predecessor, Peter Dutton, who as Health minister bordered on being hopeless).

In a portfolio crying out for reform — thorough, root-and-branch reform, not a piecemeal cut-and-tuck approach to chisel out a few miserly dollars in budget savings at enormous political cost — Ley has proven as unwilling as the rest of her recent predecessors to grasp the bull by the horns, as federal-state duplication, militant union politicking, ALP intransigence and a refusal to take on vested interests means Australia’s burgeoning, bloated public health sector continues to grow increasingly unsustainable.

It was on Ley’s watch that Labor, rightly or wrongly, was able to mount the ridiculous but reprehensible “Mediscare” that the Turnbull government planned to sell off the public healthcare system: something for which some modicum of responsibility must be accepted by Ms Ley.

And when it is remembered that increases to private health insurance premiums approved on Ley’s watch now mean working families on middle incomes are shelling out some $3,000 per year — after the health insurance rebate and over and above the Medicare levy — it is little wonder that private health fund membership, with high excesses and ballooning exclusions lists, is now falling: placing even more strain on a public health system that is at breaking point.

In other words, whatever little merit there may have been in Ms Ley’s thoroughly defective apology today is quickly erased by the flaws in her ministerial track record.

Australians, quite rightly, are fed up with the largesse their politicians dole out to themselves where matters of “entitlement” are concerned.

It is indisputable that the job of an MP (and especially of a minister) is dour, arduous, time-consuming, and a hefty strain on personal relationships.

It may seem unfair to call for Sussan Ley’s head where others, ostensibly guilty of greater sins, have escaped, and Ms Ley’s “errors of judgement” do not, when considered in context, exceed the outrage committed by former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop in 2015.

Yet the more of these “errors of judgement” the Australian public is instructed to tolerate by politicians pretending to be contrite, the less inclined it grows to do so, and in this sense, Ms Ley’s resignation or dismissal should also serve as a warning to others once it has been obtained.

Australian parliamentarians, despite the exacting nature of their roles, are reasonably remunerated; they earn base salaries starting at some $200,000 per annum, in addition to other allowances and entitlements, and despite the reform of the parliamentary superannuation scheme by the Howard government in 2001 nevertheless enjoy employer-funded superannuation that is more generous than most private sector organisations are able to offer to their own employees.

When it is remembered that every conceivable reasonable expense incurred in the course of politicians discharging their duties is paid by taxpayers, the demand for probity and transparency is not only justified, but to be expected.

It is not good enough for the Liberal Party — with a cocked finger pointed across the aisle at the ALP — to simply claim that “we’re not as bad as they are” and to attempt to sweep matters such as those involving Ms Ley under the carpet.

Whilst perhaps indelicate to say so, it is not in the Liberal Party’s interests, at a time the party languishes in reputable opinion polling and holding office by its fingernails, to accrue and retain a contingent of ministers with legitimate and insufficiently answered question marks hanging over their use — or misuse — of ministerial entitlements.

The Australian public deserves better: and this in itself warrants the call for Ms Ley to go.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott — a proven Howard government Health minister — would be a ready-made replacement, with the additional political carrot of extending an olive branch to the conservative wing of Turnbull’s party; alternatively, the vacancy could be used to promote a Christian Porter, a Josh Frydenberg, or an Angus Taylor — giving one of the party’s likely future leaders greater experience in a solid, heavy domestic portfolio that is integral to the success of any future government.

Last — but by no means least — if Ms Ley refuses to resign, then it becomes incumbent upon Malcolm Turnbull to exhibit the requisite degree of leadership, and dismiss her.

Yet that would require Turnbull the behave like a leader in the first place: and for a Prime Minister whose sole priority appears to simply be Prime Minister — aside from throwing potential future leadership rivals like Frydenberg and Treasurer Scott Morrison under a bus — that is a different matter entirely, and one we have no faith in his ability or inclination to answer.

Ordinary Australians are disgusted by the revelations surrounding Ms Ley’s travel arrangements, and I know many rank-and-file Liberals who are seething that yet another of Malcolm Turnbull’s star lieutenants and leadership supporters has created yet more embarrassment and damage to the party and to the government.

The ball is in Turnbull’s court. If Ley refuses to go quietly, she must be sacked.

Actions And Consequences: NSW Liberals Could Destroy The Party

THE APPARENT PUSH by so-called Liberal moderates in NSW to engage in a wholesale purge of conservative MPs before this year’s election could destroy the Liberal Party; it stinks of a desperate, opportunistic attempt to shore up a leader whose support lacks depth across the national rank-and-file. A parade of conservative casualties in a party whose membership leans more Right than Centre could set off a reaction that shatters it as a viable force.

If there’s one line I have heard more than any other during membership of the Liberal Party spanning more than 25 years, it’s that “the Liberal Party is not a conservative party:” it’s a line that is only ever offered up by members of its so-called “moderate,” small-l liberal (or “wet”) faction, and whilst there is an argument the party was more centrist in its early decades than it is today (despite its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, being a conservative in everything but name), that argument ignores the fact that Australian society as a whole has shifted to the right in the past 30 years — and so, quite decisively, has the Liberal Party itself.

Plenty of extra material for readers’ perusal today, which curiously enough comes from the Murdoch press — see here, here, here, and The Australian‘s editorialisation early in the week of the problem at hand here — about the endgame in an aggregation of events, both historical and most recent, that have conspired to see an apparently orchestrated move by moderates in the NSW division of the party to seize upon an electoral redistribution of lower house electorates in that state as a pretext to get rid of sitting MPs from the conservative wing of the party that tellingly extends to both Senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Without being melodramatic about it, I think that if the moderates succeed in administering the boot to at least half a dozen incumbent MPs, the reverberations could well prove the catalyst for a split that taken to its logical conclusion could see the existing Liberal Party rendered irrelevant in the shadow of a broad-based and truly conservative party, and whilst I identify as a conservative Liberal and have no enthusiasm whatsoever for Malcolm Turnbull as the leader of the party, the last thing I want to see is the party ripped to pieces by the deluded, cynical and it must be said outrageous ambitions of a few finger-in-the-wind glory seekers north of the Murray River.

Yet this is a situation born of truly labyrinthine origins, and as much as the finger needs to be pointed at the moderates for creating the potential for disunity and ructions ahead of an election that just a few months appeared certain to bring defeat, the Right must shoulder some of the blame for allowing it to eventuate at all.

20 years ago, Australia stood on the cusp of electing a shiny new Coalition government after 13 years of ALP rule; back in 1996, the standard bearers of the Liberal Right formed a formidable list from an impressively diverse range of backgrounds. John Howard. Peter Costello. Peter Reith. Alexander Downer. David Kemp. Nick Minchin. The list went on: forming the heart and soul of the Howard government, real intellectual and political finesse devolved from this nucleus, underwriting in large part the success of what I believe has been the best government in Australia’s history over 12 years.

Today, after almost three years in government, the list of the Right’s leaders looks rather different. Tony Abbott. Andrew Robb. Eric Abetz. Kevin Andrews. Peter Dutton. Bronwyn Bishop. Some would add the fair-weather friends George Brandis and Christopher Pyne, who have shown more loyalty in recent years to likely winners of leadership votes than to any consistent philosophical underpinnings. With the clear exception of Robb (and perhaps Abbott, before he allowed the idiots he surrounded himself with to permanently infect his government with incompetence on every level), none of them has covered themselves in any glory. Most have brought embarrassment to the Liberal Party. And once again, with the exception of Robb, none of them are worthy of an additional term in safe parliamentary seats based on either merit or on the (dubious) calibre of their performances, jointly and severally, in office.

Not all of those names, of course, are from NSW, and not all of those NSW MPs facing preselection challenges from moderate forces could be said to include “leading lights” of the conservative faction (the list includes Senator Bill Heffernan, for goodness’ sake). But the allusion goes to a point I have repeatedly argued in this column, namely that the conservative group in the party has failed to identify, groom, and preselect a generation of “tomorrow’s leaders” to comprehensively replace those who engineered the successes of the Howard era.

And whilst the finger is being pointed in the direction of the Liberal Right, it bears remembering what those torch bearers of the Liberal conservative wing did with the election victory they secured in September 2013: I have copped a lot of flak for the article published in this column a fortnight ago, in which I argued that the Abbott government dishonoured the conservative cause in Australia.

Coupled with the diminished calibre of Right-leaning Liberal MPs that has evolved over the past ten years or so, the failures of the Abbott government invited some kind of boilover from the moderate wing that transcended merely tipping Abbott off the cart and getting rid of some of his trustiest cronies. I stand by that article, and I point out to those fellow conservatives still in the party that however painful it might be, some honesty and a grounding in fact are critical if any evaluation of why Abbott failed is to be worth a pinch of the proverbial. I didn’t support Malcolm Turnbull, and had a decent candidate emerged from the Right as a replacement for Abbott I would have backed whoever it was against Turnbull. The point is that Malcolm is now Prime Minister: and in the context of today’s discussion, that reality only feeds into the febrile climate just waiting on a spark to ignite an explosion.

Really, on the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, there are three groups of people: one, those who have noisily stomped out of the party in disgust or who remain in the fold purely to cause trouble, and who are sniping at Turnbull from the sidelines and/or taking up with imbeciles who believe Abbott’s departure opened up opportunities for personal glorification they could disguise as expressing fidelity with the conservative cause.

These people are no loss to the Liberal Party and most — not all, most — would be of little value to any other mass-based political party, conservative or otherwise. These are the people for whom nothing less than the destruction of the Coalition will suffice (Bill Shorten, unbelievably, being preferable to them as Prime Minister than Malcolm) and who spend time on Twitter claiming to be planning “something big” to “get their elected Prime Minister back” in a popular uprising they cannot be told has insufficient public support to make it worth bothering.

Spare us all, and let’s move on.

Two, those who take the pragmatic view that Malcolm won’t be around forever; that his historic flaws and shortcomings will quickly resurface, and that he will prove over time to be a poor Prime Minister; and who accept a longer-term view that his presence merely allows the opportunity for conservatives to quickly identify succession planning and reinvigorate their parliamentary representation by moving on longstanding and/or ineffectual MPs from the Right.

And three, those who take the apposite pragmatic view that Malcolm offers electoral victory where Abbott had, by dint of his own stupidity and that of those hand-picked fools around him, condemned himself to certain defeat, and who believe that a Coalition government led by an undesirable figurehead is preferable under any and all circumstances to a return to Labor — and to a Labor Party “led” by an insidious specimen like Shorten to boot.

My personal position is probably an amalgam of options #2 and #3.

But with all that said, on the moderate wing of the party in NSW — emboldened by the ascension of one of their brethren to the Liberal leadership for the first time since Andrew Peacock in 1989 — the big push seems to be on to get rid of a swathe of long-serving conservatives, plus one of their own in Philip Ruddock, whose 43-year career in the House of Representatives should, on any measure, come to an end: Ruddock isn’t a face of the future, and isn’t going to return to the ministry now, and safe seats with 20% margins should be used to find and draft the ministers and leaders of tomorrow — however much a hero the incumbent might be.

Yet looking around what is happening in NSW, there isn’t so much common sense being shown as that.

I have opined that Tony Abbott should quit Parliament (and he should) but strangely enough, he’s being left unchallenged in Warringah: based on the way his government played out and the prohibitive opportunity costs of making any attempt to further harness his skills, there is as little justification for him to remain as there is for Ruddock.

And this is where it gets complicated, for as difficult as it is insuperable, the propensity for Abbott’s ongoing presence to galvanise the aggrieved and more shortsightedly reckless elements in the Liberal Right does in fact need to be excised: just as aged 30-year veteran and undisputed political liability Bronwyn Bishop must be removed, and just as the laudable but 70-something Ruddock must also go.

These are three very, very safe seats there that can all be used to bring fresh talent to the NSW Liberals’ federal ranks; it is an indictment on the NSW Right (and a perfect illustration of part of the central point) that in all three cases it has failed to have clear replacements ready and the numbers to assure their preselections guaranteed.

But the moderate faction isn’t content with just clearing out deadwood and people past their prime, and the redistribution of federal boundaries in NSW appears to have been seized upon merely as a pretext to wreak as much havoc as politically possible — with scant regard for the consequences.

Make no mistake, if it all goes pear-shaped, these goings-on have the potential to slice the Liberal Party down the middle.

On one level, the push by moderates to dispense with as many Right-aligned MPs as it can is understandable; the Liberal Party leadership has been controlled by the Right for decades. Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension must seem better than Christmas for these people, and not just because of the poll boost he has, for now, delivered.

But a simple fact that is barely disputed, and indeed tacitly acknowledged on all sides of the party, is that the Liberals’ grass roots membership is far more philosophically conservative than Turnbull, and its residual inclinations more in the Howard/Abbott mould — even if Abbott made a botch of it.

During the week, Turnbull intervened to provide support for all six MPs in the gun and facing challenges from moderate-aligned forces — Ruddock, Bishop, Angus Taylor in Hume, Heffernan, his Senate colleague Connie Fierravanti-Wells, and Hughes MP Craig Kelly — and it is telling that in spite of this move, the machinations against the six continue apace.

This early indication of the true limits of Turnbull’s authority over his own party — and an inability to control what, nominally at least, are his stablemates in the moderate faction — will be ignored to the enduring detriment of the party, and should send a shiver down the spine of any Liberal around the country who remains inclined to see the Coalition stay in power in the medium to long term, irrespective of their position on the moderate/conservative spectrum or their disposition toward Turnbull as leader.

As recently as Thursday, a deal was said to be on the table to save Taylor — facing preselection challenge from moderate-backed MP Russell Matheson, whose electorate of Macarthur has been made highly marginal as the redistribution moved half his voters (and many of his branches) into Taylor’s seat — and Fierravanti-Wells, and reported as likely to hold.

The National Party has already said it would offer Taylor preselection in Hume if Matheson were to obtain endorsement for the seat; Taylor is keeping his powder dry publicly, of course, and the Nationals are salivating at getting their hands on a candidate that good: with more experience, and discounting the present stoush over who contests which seat, Taylor will be a senior Coalition leader one day, and perhaps even a Liberal leader.

But Matheson seems more interested in simply having a safe seat than in retaining his existing (redrawn) electorate, and just as Taylor seems a lock on a senior role in the not-so-distant future, Matheson has proven an excellent marginal seat campaigner. For Taylor to be deselected (and especially if he were to jump ship to the Nationals) would potentially cost the Liberals both. It is incredibly shortsighted, to say nothing of downright dumb.

But Kelly, in Hughes, seems to be the true potential trigger point for a split.

Unlike Taylor, Kelly faces a challenge not from an MP who has a case (of sorts) that part of his electorate has been redistributed away, but from a moderate, an ALP turncoat at that, who isn’t even in Parliament; the move against Kelly in Hughes appears to be one of those things the moderates in NSW are hellbent on doing just because they can — often the worst reason for doing anything — and despite Turnbull’s intervention and the swirling attempts to otherwise do deals to protect sitting MPs, the challenge from party vice-president Kent Johns appears to be very much a certainty.

Like Taylor in Hughes, it also seems certain to succeed if it goes ahead.

Like Taylor, Kelly is keeping mum about whether he would stand as either an Independent or as a National if disendorsed as a Liberal, but as The Australian reports today, dumping him has the potential to split the Liberal Party statewide in NSW: and as is the way of these things, such a rupture would be impossible to contain between the Tweed and Murray Rivers.

It’s an imperfect parallel, of course, but the lunatic putsch in 1987 by Queensland Nationals to somehow install Joh Bjelke-Petersen as Prime Minister that year — despite never getting very far outside Queensland — managed to derail the federal Coalition’s bid to win an election that was arguably there for the taking; the contagion from that event cruelled the ability of Liberals to win enough votes in enough marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne to provide the impetus for victory, and cost them seats in Queensland, even though the Nationals’ vote held up across the country and the Coalition outpolled the ALP on primary votes.

In some respects, the tinder box in NSW represents a far graver threat to the Liberal Party than Bjelke-Petersen did 30 years ago; unlike the former Queensland Premier, none of the protagonists from the moderate faction are perceptibly mired in a delusional geriatric haze. They know what they are doing.

All of this could come to nothing, of course, and aside from dispatching Ruddock and/or Bishop — Abbott, it seems, is likely to stay where he is — the sitting MPs in the gun could emerge chastened, but with their endorsements intact.

But for a man who rightly elicited ridicule when he asserted that “factions do not control the Liberal Party” three months ago, Malcolm Turnbull has mates who could inflict far more grievous harm on the party than just knocking off a few factional adversaries at the preselection table.

And the problem with playing Russian roulette, as the NSW moderates appear determined to do with the wider interests of the Liberal Party by their behaviour, is the fact it’s impossible to know which squeeze of the trigger will inflict a fatal shot.

We have already seen an ominous portent of this behaviour in North Sydney — Joe Hockey’s old seat — at Turnbull’s first electoral test: after a preselection brawl that saw a candidate on the party’s far moderate left emerge, heavy by-election swings against the Liberals were recorded on primary votes and after preferences notwithstanding the candidate, Trent Zimmerman, being elected: this without an ALP candidate, in one of the party’s safest Sydney seats, and in the supposed blush of Turnbull’s “honeymoon” and the burst of support it was said to have generated.

If the mischief the moderate NSW Liberals are engaging in does in fact fire the bullet at the wrong target, the consequences could be dire: and by dire, I mean the effects of the fatal shot could ricochet across Australia, crippling the Liberal Party nationally, and conceivably terminating its relevance as an electoral force.

Such a self-inflicted blow could make anything Bjelke-Petersen managed to inflict look like child’s play.

Long-term readers will have heard me say many times that I believe the Australian electorate, distilled to a basic level, wants a choice between a genuine conservative party and a genuinely social democratic party: it’s a potential realignment that hasn’t gone away in recent years. Events like the embarrassing revelations of the Trade Union Royal Commission for the ALP,  the emergence of a socially left-leaning Prime Minister on the Liberal side of politics, and a consequent enraged core of conservative grassroots Liberal Party members — combined with a National Party ally that is ambivalent at best about Turnbull — all contrive to bring it nearer.

I’m not definitively saying it will happen, but an amalgamation of the Liberal Right, the National Party, less extreme conservative outposts like Family First, and even a reaching out to the likes of Katter forces — with conservative policies that at least cater to regional interests, if not capitulating to their outdated dreams of a return to a protectionist past — could, if an emphasis on developing a truly national, mainstream conservative agenda was pursued with the explicit aim of bringing mass popular support in behind it — leave the rump moderate Liberals with nowhere else to turn except the unpalatable choices of the ALP or the crossbenches.

Yes, such suggestions are hypothetical, and hypotheticals are just that.

But the ambit clearing out of factional rivals in NSW — just because they can — in the face of the fact that whatever internal power the moderates may temporarily wield, the broader party and a majority of the electorate remains a step further to the Right, is an exercise that could quite conceivably unleash consequences none of the key players on the moderate side appear to have thought through sufficiently, if they even care about them at all.

Any war can start with a single, isolated event. In 1914 it was a political assassination in Serbia. In 1939 it was the issue of an Allied ultimatum that was ignored by Germany. As I said at the outset, there is no desire to be unduly melodramatic, but in terms of the medium-term future of the Liberal Party, the NSW moderates are playing with fire.

It may be that the NSW moderates collect all of the scalps they seek; that the House of Representative MPs and Senators they are stalking are jettisoned; and that within their own NSW dunghill at least, the trendy wet Liberals emerge all-powerful — for now at least.

Yet just as the wets in NSW might win a series of battles during the current round of preselections, the wider war for the heart and soul of the non-Labor side of Australian politics remains very much unresolved.

Their antics, and their list of targets on the Right, stink of a push to shore up a leader in Turnbull whose support within the ranks of the Liberals’ membership is very thin indeed; Turnbull might be travelling well in the polls for now, and this may well embolden his followers. But once the political tide turns — or once Turnbull reverts to form, and begins making the sort of mistakes that cost him his leadership of the Liberal Party in 2009 in the first place — the justification for what they are up to will evaporate.

Now is a time for sober, reasonable, and prudent action in the NSW Liberal Party, not the reckless pursuit of factional adversaries and the settling of long-dead scores.

Regrettably, it seems the latter it the higher imperative. It remains to be seen where the pieces fall as a result of the mad free-for-all the moderates are determined to pursue, and at exactly what cost.

As the poet John Dryden observed, even victors, are by victories, undone: and today’s expedient, self-gratifying hatchet job by the NSW moderates could tomorrow sound their death knell.

 

Tony Abbott And His Cohorts Dishonoured Australian Conservatism

AS 2016 takes early steps toward post-silly season normality, a ministerial reshuffle looms as the first task of the Turnbull government; far from finding a portfolio for Tony Abbott — who really ought to leave Parliament — those on the Liberal Right must accept their deposed leader, and the coterie assembled by him on their behalf, dishonoured Australian conservatism at a time this country most needed sound, orthodox Tory governance.

Today, I’m not interested in the ghastly (and to some degree, self-inflicted) problems Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faces when he returns from his Christmas holiday; if Jamie Briggs can’t keep his hands to himself on a work’s outing, or if the risk of appointing Mal Brough to Cabinet whilst under federal police investigation has blown up in Turnbull’s face, or if Peter Dutton continues to substantiate the error of leaving him in Cabinet, those matters are ones that will sort themselves out in the fullness of time.

And of course, there’s no need to talk about Turnbull’s defective political judgement. Not today, at least.

This morning’s essay is lengthy; partly to atone for going walkabout these past few days, but also because it’s high time we covered this subject thoroughly.

I remain as committed as ever to the principles of reasonable, moderate, mainstream Conservatism, and believe passionately and without reserve that these offer the very best model for government in a liberal democratic society, ensuring all boats are lifted as the tide rises, and providing a bulwark against its inevitable ebb and flow.

But the tremendous opportunity that was delivered on 7 September 2013 was summarily squandered, in a thousand steps before and after, in a pantomime and a farce that could hardly be described as conservative, and which brought great dishonour to the conservative cause. It will be many years before such an opportunity again presents itself.

I was reading an article from Brisbane’s Courier Mail yesterday, and it behoves me to opine just what a failure and a disappointment the Abbott government was; all but the most recent readers of this column will know I was a staunch advocate of Tony Abbott for 20 years before he became Prime Minister, and for much of his subsequent ill-fated tenure in that post.

But the Abbott government — to paraphrase former Liberal Party member and fellow online columnist Andrew Elder — was a fuck-up, and far from finding Abbott a portfolio in Malcolm Turnbull’s Cabinet now a couple of foreseeable accidents have come to fruition, I think that not only should those of us on the mainstream Right call time on Abbott’s career, but that those among us who refuse to see the reality should also recognise that the path he led Australian Conservatism down was destined to end in disaster.

That’s not a prescient judgement on the likely fortunes of the government under Turnbull — although those, too, could well end in catastrophe — but had Turnbull not overthrown Abbott, the likelihood of electoral defeat this year was very high indeed.

I have little time for the quasi-socialist politics of Malcolm Turnbull, but I’m pragmatic enough to accept that — provided he gets his finger out and battles off to Government House in the next few weeks — his opinion poll numbers are likely to translate into a sizeable election victory, the question of what might follow notwithstanding.

Yet when possibly the most inappropriate candidate for the Prime Ministership since Doc Evatt 60 years ago can spend 18 months maintaining election-winning leads in every reputable opinion poll — the average of which, at 54% for the ALP, represents a 7.6% swing and 90 seats in the House of Representatives, a 35-seat gain — the truth, however unpalatable, of the utter failure of what was meant to be a conservative government simply cannot be ignored or glossed over.

To be sure, the fault for this was simultaneously Abbott’s alone and the fault of many people around him; Abbott personally must carry the can in terms of responsibility for the truncation of his political career, but many others are equally, if not more, to blame than he is, albeit not invested with the Prime Ministerial imprimatur that rested in Abbott himself.

The conservative model of low taxes, small government, strong national defences, low government spending, less government intrusion into ordinary people’s lives, more choice, national pride and a tight ship encompasses proven values that work; one look at the booming British economy (which, after nearly six years of Tory government, is outperforming almost every other OECD country, including Australia) is enough to appreciate the fruits these principles can bear if soundly implemented.

In many respects, the circumstances in which the Conservative Party took office in the UK in 2010 are reflected in those that prevailed when Abbott won office here in 2013.

Both faced rocketing public debt and recurrent spending obligations bequeathed them by Labour/Labor predecessors. Both faced collapsing revenue bases, the British government thanks to the Global Financial Crisis, which knocked the stuffing out of its economy; the Abbott government on account of the progressive (and now near-total) collapse of record commodity prices. Both inherited burgeoning, ballooning welfare bills that extended largesse and profligacy on the clear but deadly assumption that the requisite “boom times” to pay for them would never end. And both governments inherited budgets that were haemorrhaging red ink, meaning the only way to pay for Labour’s/Labor’s “civilised” social spending was to borrow the cash: mostly from the Arabs, in the case of the UK, and from China, here in Australia.

I don’t intend to continue the comparison with Britain throughout this article, although by way of summary it should be pointed out that the British economy — now growing at an annualised rate of 3% and set to accelerate this year — is generating hundreds of thousands of jobs per year; the budget deficit the Cameron government inherited (far worse than anything we’ve seen in this country) has been cut by two-thirds, and will be eliminated altogether by 2018; income and business taxes are being cut; welfare spending has been reined in, streamlined into a single universal benefit payment, and capped at payments per household of 80% of the average annual British wage (£21,000 per year, or $43,000); business has been incentivised not just to hire people, but to invest within Britain and in opportunities abroad that can generate revenue and other benefits for the UK; and the damage 13 years of Labour government inflicted in the form of defence cuts and downsizing (at a time of heightened international instability, and not least where Europe, NATO and Russia are concerned) is beginning to be undone. The British national debt pile of £1.5 trillion ($3.3 trillion) will begin to be repaid from 2020: not according to fanciful “estimates” that extend four years and are constantly revised into the never-never, but on account of substantiable economies in government outlays that will return the UK to surplus within the next three years.

It’s an impressive achievement.

But just as the Abbott government had the (exceedingly hostile) Senate to contend with, the Cameron government arguably faced even greater obstacles: a left-leaning coalition partner of necessity until May last year in the form of the Liberal Democrats, for one thing, whose chief effect was to impede the reinvigoration of the British economy with no better objection than the rate of change. An intellectually dishonest separatist movement in Scotland, led by a man whose hatred of the English borders on the pathological, and which would have bankrupted Scotland and caused great upheaval throughout what was left of the UK. European Union “partners” who have spent decades making it abundantly clear they do not regard Britain as “European,” but whose hands eagerly pocket more than £2bn every year in payments from the UK to fund the swollen EU bureaucracy and its insidious, slithering intrusion into all aspects of the governance and societies of its constituent countries. And last but by no means least, the basket case status of many of Britain’s neighbours — not least its nearest, Ireland, which continues to teeter on bankruptcy — means that the UK has hardly been operating in the most propitious economic circumstances (or trading environment) in its own region for the duration to date of the Conservative government.

The reason I relate all of this, before moving to the thrust of my argument today, is to illustrate just how divergent two Centre-Right governments taking office in very similar situations can be; David Cameron’s government isn’t perfect, and I don’t think British Conservatives would claim as much. But the enviable record it is able to boast is one that should shame the Right in this country. It had one obstacle: the Senate. Yet with just about everything else stacked in its favour, it was (as Elder has often reiterated) a monumental fuck-up during its tenure in office.

It is easy to point the finger at wrecker and troublemaker Clive Palmer: after all, the three Senate spots his stupid grudge party won in 2013 in WA, Tasmania and Queensland would all have likely been won by the Liberal Party (or the Nationals) had Palmer not stomped out of the Coalition tent because he couldn’t control Queensland’s LNP government; had it won them, the Coalition would have been two seats shy of a Senate majority, with at least one friendly crossbencher (Family First’s Bob Day) putting it halfway toward passing whatever bills it liked provided it accommodated Day’s concerns.

Yet the fact it didn’t points to the defective “brains” trust at the Liberals’ federal secretariat — and, to varying degrees, their counterparts in state divisions of the party across the country — who were loyal to Abbott and the party’s Right, but who proved completely inept at running an election campaign for the Senate that mitigated against the onslaught of the bellicose tyrant Palmer. The Coalition has paid for this ineptitude ever since.

At a time of rising public sector debt, collapsing revenues and increased recurrent spending that will continue to increase exponentially as the National Disability Insurance Scheme soon adds $24bn to the annual pile of outgoings, it is clear this country blundered badly into trouble by electing a Labor government at all in 2007.

Far from substantiating the solemn assurances of fiscal “conservatism” pledged by Kevin Rudd, as he sought to sell himself as “John Howard lite,” the ALP quickly embarked on a tax, borrow and spend binge that cannot be justified or explained away by glibly pointing at the Global Financial Crisis — irrespective of whatever vapid claims to competence are uttered by Rudd, his useless Treasurer Wayne Swan, or their replacements in Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen.

But that’s history; the Abbott-led Liberal Party had three years to make comprehensive plans for a return to office after the stunning near-miss it achieved against Gillard in 2010, or nearly four years if you instead start the clock from the day Abbott succeeded Turnbull as Liberal leader in 2009: arguably the day Labor’s defeat became a matter of “when,” not “if.”

Armed with idiot-simple slogans and an apparatus for destroying an uber-popular government ahead of time, Abbott and his coterie duly set forth.

There were big targets, and big hits were landed — think the “great big new (carbon) tax” that Julia Gillard explicitly promised not to introduce but went ahead and legislated anyway, in a sop to the Communist Party Greens (who were a big liability to Labor in their own right), and Wayne Swan’s botched mining tax, which unbelievably raised no revenue — to say nothing of the permanent state of warfare over the ALP leadership and thus the Prime Ministership.

There were controversies, such as the “Ditch the Witch” fiasco and Julia Gillard’s reprehensibly dishonest “misogyny” speech, which even now very few people realise was a defence of then-Speaker Peter Slipper after the latter had been found out for sending filthy text messages about female genitalia.

There were also colossal campaign mistakes that, in hindsight, offered a very large pointer to the dysfunction likely to beset an Abbott government if it materialised, like the shopping list of things Abbott explicitly guaranteed would be immune from spending cuts if he won the election. Yes, the silly statement was offset by a catch-all that followed, elaborating that if “things are worse than we believe they are” once the Coalition took office then all bets were off. But the first statement was the one that resonated. It was a gaffe that should never have been made.

In and amongst those instances of bad judgement on the part of Turnbull we’re not going to discuss, one notably shining exception stands out: the decision to remove Peta Credlin as his Chief of Staff, replacing her with journalist Chris Kenny a year before he lost the Liberal leadership; as subsequent events would show, this one action — irrespective of the errors and misfortunes that persisted within Turnbull’s office — was the only opportunity that would be open to the Liberal Party for almost seven years to get rid of an ingrained problem.

That the demotion was reversed when Abbott won the leadership, and Credlin restored as Chief of Staff to the opposition leader, sowed the seeds of the pitiful failure of the Conservatism Australian electors would vote overwhelmingly in favour of in September 2013.

Abbott — in his various defences of his deeply divisive and rightly loathed adviser — memorably described Credlin as “the smartest and fiercest political warrior (he’s) known,” and perhaps in some respects she was, and is. But political warriors fight political fights. Governance of a country like Australia is an altogether different task than fighting the petty political blood feuds prosecuted by an ascendant opposition.

There is a school of thought that says Abbott — who was initially confronted by a new-ish Labor government sitting on well above 55% of the two-party vote in opinion polls, and who tore that government down in two reasonable anti-Labor swings totalling 6.3% — was the most effective opposition leader this country has ever produced.

Certainly, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd outfit had been so comprehensively trashed by the time the 2013 election rolled around that it was deeply panicked about “saving furniture.” But how much of the dysfunction within the ALP was self-inflicted and how much the result of Abbott and Credlin’s efforts is a matter for conjecture, especially as Labor today remains a deeply defective political outfit under the “leadership” of an ex-union grub who makes the likes of Evatt and another former Labor leader, Mark Latham, appear positively sane and rational by contrast.

Whatever the means, the end result is that Abbott arrived as Prime Minister with a huge task ahead of his government to restore public finances to a sustainable footing, as well as (famously) to stop the flow of asylum seeker boats, get rid of Labor’s hated carbon tax, repeal the pointless and investment-destroying mining tax, and to wind back the profligate waste and unrestrained spending spree Labor, under Swan, had imprudently embarked upon.

Right from the outset, the Senate was an impediment that might have been avoided: in another glimpse into the future, the federal Liberals had fought a campaign that whilst delivering government, had singularly failed to deal with the rising menace of Clive Palmer: little (or no) attempt was made in the runup to polling day to confront the Palmer United Party head-on, and this failure underscores a methodology that was repeatedly revisited in the aftermath of the election.

Sometimes, in democratic politics, it is necessary to confront rivals and opponents directly; one of the criticisms I have repeatedly made of my own party in the past few years is that it houses far too many insiders and apparatchiks who think they’re Francis Urquhart. The notion that “the worst humiliation is not to be taken seriously” is well and good, but in failing to attack Palmer or to deal with the threat he posed, the Liberals ceded three Senate berths to his God-forsaken rabble that would otherwise have been their own.

Where Senate elections are concerned, red herrings like Clive Palmer only have to be relevant for the metaphoric five minutes of an election campaign to encumber the country — and the government — for six years. The three Senators elected on the Palmer ticket may have fragmented, but two remain almost implacably opposed to the government’s agenda whilst the third is at best unpredictable. All three form a potent political pretext for a double dissolution election to at least try to improve the government’s Senate position and prematurely terminate their six-year tenures.

Early on, the Abbott government showed some promise; the consolidation of revenue arrangements and the recapitalisation of the Reserve Bank that were undertaken by Joe Hockey as treasurer were a good start.

Yet another necessary move by Hockey — abolishing the debt ceiling to accommodate the unstoppable ballooning of debt that was a direct consequence of years of Labor mismanagement — was allowed, by the Coalition, to be framed unchallenged as an “increase in debt” by the ALP under its insidious new leader. It was yet another pointer to the likelihood that when the real business of governing moved into full swing, the Abbott outfit would prove ineffectual at best at either implementing its agenda adroitly or, tellingly, at selling it.

A Commission of Audit report, which (as expected) found the state of the country’s books was far worse than anything Swan or Rudd or Gillard had had the honesty or integrity to admit, was finalised and delivered by January 2014; for reasons that were never explained and which are beyond belief anyway, Hockey sat on this report until a matter of days prior to his first budget, instead of using it — as Peter Costello had done 18 years earlier — to comprehensively shred whatever remnants of perceived competence the ALP still retained publicly.

This failure to fully expose the disastrous misadventure in economic stewardship that had been six years of abysmal Labor government is a fundamental mistake that still hobbles the government today, even after Abbott and Hockey have been dispatched from their positions of authority.

But look around what was the Abbott ministry: there were plenty of wanton duds occupying plenty of the blue-ribbon seats.

There was Hockey, delivering a budget that increased taxes and spending; to the extent it cut spending at all — and with an eye to the Senate, it wasn’t by much — Hockey’s abysmal 2014 effort broke every rule in the political book by targeting floating voters in marginal Coalition-held constituencies.

There was Kevin Andrews, in Social Services, who seemed to turn not just every welfare-addicted handout recipient against the government (without actually doing much to hurt them) but also every fair-minded person in the country who listened to the vacuous diatribes of the ALP and who had real compassion for people worse off than themselves whose lot they were convinced was set to be made much harder.

Perhaps Andrews’ free marriage counselling voucher program was designed for couples whose marriages were pushed to breaking point by his welfare and family services changes.

There was Peter Dutton — lucky in my view, as readers might have guessed, to be in Cabinet under Turnbull at all — who managed to take a straightforward $5 co-payment for GP visits (which, anecdotal evidence early in 2014 suggested, would be tolerated in the community) and to turn it into an oddly figured, compounding $7 charge that would apply to GP visits, and radiology, and pathology services, and heaven knows what else. It was complicated, confusing, and was said to be destined to fund a $20 billion medical research trust that defied the notion of paying down government debt in the first place.

There was “Industry Assistance” minister Ian Macfarlane — so sure of his own adequacy and value to a conservative government that he tried to jump the fence to the Nationals just weeks after finalising his preselection for the Liberal Party — whose idea of industry policy was to stand shoulder to shoulder with unions as an advocate for bottomless, endless buckets of cash to prop up in perpetuity an inefficient and internationally uncompetitive manufacturing industry that swallowed billions of dollars every year with nothing to show except jobs that were bought by government from the companies that provided them, rather than jobs that were sustainable.

Macfarlane followed that effort up, of course, by advocating more millions to be poured into a small, loss-making division of a conglomerate that cumulatively generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits the previous year.

There was Eric Abetz in Workplace Relations Employment, promising a minimalist approach to labour market reform so as not to awaken the sleeping WorkChoices scare campaign of the ALP and the unions (which would have been trundled out irrespective), who — when the promised Productivity Commission report that he solemnly swore the government would adopt the recommendations of materialised — disappeared to hide in the toilet the instant blathering Bill Shorten began whining about “fairness” and “cruelty” over the suggested minor changes contained in that report.

There was Attorney-General George Brandis, who once questions around travel allowances and library entitlements were cleared up, proved spectacularly unable to articulate clearly, simply and concisely a) what metadata was, b) what the government’s approach to it actually meant, and c) how the provisions it legislated to collect/store/monitor metadata were consistent with a government championing freedom, personal choice and the rolling back of state intrusion from people’s lives.

There was Christopher Pyne in Education, whose moderate education reforms were screamed down by students on campuses across Australia, backed — incongruously and ridiculously — by demonstrating construction workers from militant unions whose connection to the reforms was unclear, but who nonetheless brought capital city CBD areas to a halt for several hours at a time in “solidarity” with the students.

There was a heavy-handed (but justified) get-square crusade against anti-Coalition bias at the ABC, which can’t even bring itself to provide equal numbers of representatives from the Left and Right on its loathsome “adventure in democracy” panel programme, QandA: and there was Malcolm Turnbull as Communications minister who singularly failed to rein the ABC in, which instead engaged known sympathisers of the Left to conduct a review that concluded the Left, itself, had in fact been discriminated against. Christ alive!

There was David Johnston in Defence, who helpfully pointed out that the South Australian shipbuilding industry couldn’t build “a canoe.”

Then there was Kevin Andrews — again — in Defence, after Johnston was forced to walk the plank; not content with effecting one reprise of his botched performance in charge of WorkChoices under Howard, this time he set about performing a second, with the letting of a contract to build replacements for the accident-ridden Collins class submarines all but turned into an international debacle.

And sitting in the Speaker’s chair was Bronwyn Bishop (and I cringe every time I recall jumping enthusiastically on the “Bronwyn for PM” bandwagon in 1994, like most otherwise sane Liberals around the place did at that time, only to jump back off just as enthusiastically shortly thereafter) whose idea of small government clearly did not extend to exercising any sense of frugality where “official” travel arrangements were concerned.

If I’ve offended anyone by leaving them out, I’m very sorry. (If your name is Andrew Robb — one of the finest ministers of the Crown to ever hold office in this country — then you are summarily excused from this assessment).

But someone had to carry the can for all these “accomplishments,” and that someone is Tony Abbott; for a Rhodes scholar with degrees in Law and Economics, an excellent pedigree of ministerial service under John Howard, and solid credentials as a conservative thinker, Abbott — for all the promise he showed — was a great big disappointment.

People can point the finger at Credlin all they like (and I’ve been wont to do it often enough); amateurish, micromanaging to an obsession and completely out of her depth, Credlin — and the structures she was given the authority and the freedom to erect around Abbott and the government — bears a disproportionate share of the responsibility for the failure of the Abbott government.

Ministers were berated just out of sight of cameras if they didn’t accurately parrot the lines she gave them. Their staff were more or less hand-picked by her, with more of an emphasis on pliability and obedience than on actual competence in doing their jobs. Credlin seemed to think she was of Cabinet rank (she wasn’t) and was stoutly defended for too long by Abbott against (wholly appropriate) objections from Cabinet ministers over her presence in the Cabinet room. Advisers responsible for media management, communication, and the sales and marketing functions of the government — assembled on her authority — were completely incompetent, for as defective as the activities of the Abbott government mostly were, there were nevertheless enough saleable points to mount a case for them.

Monitoring opinion polls over an 18-month period consistently reflected the utter uselessness of such efforts. If, some days, it even appeared any effort had been made at all.

All of these things, and much more, were within Credlin’s remit; all of them were monumental fuck-ups. As I have said before, Credlin was given both the most senior non-elected job in Australian politics and the freedom and authority with which to carry it out. The resulting Armageddon is one for which she can only blame herself: nothing to do with “sexism” or “misogyny” or whether her name is spelt “P-E-T-E-R.” Credlin was an utter failure, and the ultimate responsibility for her lay with Abbott himself.

I knew it was all over for Abbott just weeks after he survived the “challenge without a candidate” (and said so at the time — the article has a date on it, you see). By the time his involuntary demise rolled around almost seven months later, I was resolute that he — and the “support” axis of Credlin and her husband, federal Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane, and those closest to them — had to go.

My only reticence was the likely victor in any contest to replace him — the current Prime Minister — and whilst I did not support Turnbull, just about any other candidate who stood in his place would probably have received a ringing endorsement from this column.

Time will tell if my historic critique of Turnbull rings true or not: loyalty to the Liberal Party dictates that I give him a fair hearing with a clean slate. I think there are some ominous signs that the “old” Turnbull has learned nothing; that he never really went away. But for now at least, Turnbull’s performance sees his overall tally at just the right side of the balance sheet.

Yet whether Turnbull succeeds in the longer run or not, his peculiar blend of social democracy and small “l” liberalism does not equal a conservative government, and nor will it deliver one. Ironically, however, if Turnbull delivers a moderate liberal programme, he will have exhibited fidelity to his beliefs. The same cannot be said of Abbott and his coterie.

It has been fashionable on the Left (and among others elsewhere who don’t know any better) to deride the Abbott government as a “far Right” government: it was nothing of the sort. It implemented big increases in taxes and social spending. It targeted families. It proposed burdening business to pay for yet more social spending. It did nothing to roll back the march of Big Brother into the lives of ordinary, decent folk, nor to roll back the creeping, insidious slither of socialism through every facet of Australian society. Like most points of principle, it botched what should have been an obvious and praiseworthy position on free speech — not least because Brandis effectively gave licence to the government’s opponents to smear it as bigoted. And to the extent any cuts (real, perceived, or imaginatively engineered by Labor despite failing to legislate certain items of “funding” in the first place) could possibly be characterised as right-wing, they weren’t adequately explained or even convincingly positioned as budget savings measures.

For those readers who missed it at the top of my piece today, here’s the article from the Courier Mail again: aside from the fact its author apparently affords a modicum of respect to the ghastly Senator Sarah “Accidents Happen” Hanson-Young, I find it difficult to argue with any of the points she has made.

As the clamour among some conservative Liberals for Abbott to be given a frontbench spot in Turnbull’s impending reshuffle grows, certain realities need to be accepted, however unpalatable they might seem and no matter how regretfully such conclusions are drawn.

Abbott is a good man, a decent man, and has been outrageously accused of all kinds of things that simply aren’t and never were true. People like Julia Gillard and her “handbag hit squad” should be ashamed of themselves, but this is scarcely the point: whether you like him or detest him for whatever reason, Abbott is human too.

In the most immediate sense, Abbott being restored to the ministry would almost certainly see the return of Credlin to the ministerial wing: an opportunity cost in harnessing the former PM’s experience that is simply too high to countenance in view of what has transpired over the past couple of years.

I offer no opinion on whether there would be “undermining” going on or not. After the precedent set by Gillard and Rudd, however, and with passions on the Liberal Right still simmering explosively four months after his dumping, the best thing for all concerned — Abbott included — would be to avoid the situation altogether.

And just as the men and women who served — dismally — under Abbott are good and decent people, the unrestrained anger of none of them is a suitable pretext to revisit that situation.

Blame the Senate? Fine, but the astute approach would have been to systematically stockpile double dissolution triggers from the moment the government took office, “just in case;” there should be enough of them in hand to throw them like confetti at the Governor-General along with advice of an election for both Houses of Parliament. Instead, it did deals with anyone prepared to cut them — often Palmer — that delivered in some instances worse outcomes in terms of the budget than if there had been no deal at all. There is now only a few months remaining for a double dissolution to be called, if there is to be one. To date, the Coalition has accrued just two potential triggers — the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Registered Organisations bill — and of those, the validity of the former isn’t even clear, rejected as it was once by the pre-July 2014 Senate, and once by the Senate that sat from 1 July of that year.

So blaming the Senate only cuts so much ice when in reality, it was tactically and strategically mishandled from the start.

Abbott has a handful of achievements to be rightly proud of, and to point to, but the tragic reality is that two years of governance in his name left Australia — already in desperate need of sound, decisive, astute conservative leadership — in a worse state than when he took charge.

Painful as it is to admit it, the Abbott government dishonoured the conservative vision and badly damaged its image in the eyes of an already sceptical, jaded electorate.

News reports at the weekend suggested another of the Abbott-Credlin-Loughnane junta — Loughnane’s deputy at the Liberal federal secretariat and its former assistant federal director, Julian Sheezel — has got it into his head that he should occupy the number one position on the Liberals’ Senate ticket for Victoria at this year’s election.

I’ve known Julian for more than 25 years, and when I say I’m ambivalent, I mean it: but for those Liberals already looking for an avenue to make some kind of protest against the manner of Abbott’s dumping but wishing to keep it in-house, Sheezel at the top of the Coalition’s joint Senate ticket in Victoria would offer an almost irresistible argument to vote for the National Party candidates on the ticket, to number all the squares — however tedious — and to place Sheezel last.

After all, a clean break should be just that: and just as Abbott and Credlin and Loughnane had to go, so too should those of their most senior lieutenants behind the scenes whose opportunities to serve arguably should have ended with Abbott’s commission as Prime Minister.

Sheezel accepted a job as chief of staff to new minister Kelly O’Dwyer just two months ago, and took a leave of absence from it just as retiring Senator Michael Ronaldson (and number one position holder on the Senate ticket) announced he was quitting.

Aside from the breathtaking arrogance it suggests and the failure to make any attempt whatsoever to disguise the naked ambition that accompanies it, if that doesn’t sound like a repeat of the same defective methods that have turned Conservatism into a dirty word in this country — and by one of their practitioners, no less — then I don’t know what is.

 

Perks Rort: Forget The Politics, And Just Fix It

A FREE-FOR-ALL appears to have broken out following Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation between Liberal MPs pursuing ALP MP Tony Burke and bent on vengeance, and Labor MPs attempting to pin the “entitlements” scandal on the Liberal Party by “revealing” other government MPs who’ve made dubious claims. The warring groups should grow up, set politics aside, and enact a fix to ensure this kind of thing can never occur again.

It may be indelicate (or even old-fashioned) to point this out, but the tit-for-tat brawling that is going on over politicians’ entitlements in the aftermath of Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation as Speaker is, at root, a fight over the “right” to waste taxpayers’ money: and it is an indictment on members of Parliament on all sides that such a cavalier attitude remains glaringly evident even after the first few unapologetic miscreants — and their indulgent misuse of public monies — have been outed.

And both within the ALP and among its knuckle-dragging operatives out in social media land and the wider community, what is being peddled as what they think is a cleverly, finely nuanced distinction to bury Liberals beneath a pile of steaming effluent — that Bronwyn Bishop breached parliamentary rules governing the use of travel entitlements whereas Labor’s Tony Burke, they claim, did not — is a hypocritical position indeed, and the fact any of them seek to justify, defend or legitimise what Burke has been doing marks them out as filthy specimens indeed.

Indeed, the distinction Labor types make in seeking to crucify Bishop and salvage Burke is nothing more than the difference between complete bullshit and absolute bullshit. Whichever way you cut it, it’s all shit. Only the buckets it’s served up in are different.

The simple fact is that some of the claims that have been aerated over the past month (and where there are some, there are invariably others) have, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott observed in relation to Bishop, fallen within parliamentary guidelines but outside community standards; one might have hoped this factual assessment on Abbott’s part signalled the intention to clean up parliamentary entitlements once and for all, but his stout defence of Bishop right up to the point he was threatened with a revolt by government MPs summarily dashed that hope.

On Labor’s part, the fact all the questionable claims relating to its own MPs are apparently OK whilst the Liberals should be hung, drawn and quartered for their transgressions shows the ALP is even further divorced from reality and community sentiment than Abbott is.

Let’s be clear: it is no more acceptable to the tax-paying public for Tony Burke to book a first-class airline cabin for him and his mistress (irrespective of whether she is also his staffer) whilst his other staff “slum” it in business class than it is for Bronwyn Bishop to spend $5,227 on a helicopter flight from Melbourne to Geelong when a 55-minute trip in a ComCar at a fraction of the cost would have sufficed.

It is no more acceptable to the tax-paying public for Tony Burke to have spent thousands of dollars taking his family to Ayers Rock on the pretext he was “working” than it is for Bronwyn Bishop to spend $6,000 on a charter flight from Sydney to Nowra instead of taking a two hour trip by car.

It should be clear I am going to allude anecdotally to Bishop and Burke only, in the interests of simplicity; and for the benefit of any reader who might be inclined to itemise out the alleged sins of other MPs — Coalition or Labor — I would appreciate any comments being kept to the issue at hand, rather than taking the opportunity to sink the boot into some MP from the party you vote against just to be trivial.

And unbridled outrages like all of the allegations against both Bishop and Burke — even if they actually fall within official guidelines, as most or all of them do — merely illustrate why those guidelines must be overhauled once and for all, for they do not comply with mainstream community thought in any way, shape, or form, so I don’t want to hear anything by way of spirited defence of your favourite MPs either.

Nobody expects their elected representatives to slum around in two-star hotels, or to fly on the likes of Tigerair or Jetstar, or to be conveyed in the filthy taxis driven around major Australian cities by newly arrived immigrants who have no clue where they are going without recourse to a street directory, although I’m beginning to wonder whether such a prescription of tough love is exactly what is indicated.

Either way, those we send to Canberra (and, to be clear, to Spring Street, Macquarie Street, North Terrace and all the other state and territory legislatures) are not royalty, they are not rock stars, they are not celebrity figures — and they neither merit nor warrant treatment as such.

I’ve said before that I am perfectly happy to defend MPs travelling to Canberra, for example, on business class airfares; common sense dictates that putting them down the back of aircraft in economy is going to make them targets, and even the most popular and/or competent politician is liable to encounter some surly drunk spoiling for a fight with “a damned politician.”

It follows, therefore, that their staff should fly business class as well: after all, at least some of their time flying together should be made productive by getting some work done, and especially if taxpayers are footing the bill.

But if an MP is going to be away for a few nights, should taxpayers also foot the bill for a spouse and kids to tag along? I think not.

Should an MP staying in Canberra be allowed to claim the “away from home” allowance if they are staying in a dwelling they (or their partners) own? I think not.

A certain former Speaker used to fly to Canberra using two flights in each direction even when direct options existed because it doubled the quantity of QANTAS frequent flyer points he was able to accrue. Is this acceptable, and should it be permitted? No, and no.

But it’s all OK in the end, it seems, because Burke saw fit to repay the $90 he incurred in ComCar charges to ferry himself to a rock concert: frankly, the fact he did so, whilst he and everyone around him fight to defend his more profligate but equally unacceptable indulgences upon the taxpayer, is a poke in the eye to anyone concerned with standards of behaviour from elected representatives, or probity where their entitlements are concerned. $90 is a piddling drop in a bucket. Burke may as well have not bothered. The repayment was incendiary for its blithe disregard for more serious abuses he stands accused of.

Janet Albrechtsen, writing in The Australian, nails part of the point when she says the system as it currently stands encourages MPs to rort the system because so much of its guidelines are etched in grey; vague to the point of misleading — perhaps deliberately so — the regulations governing politicians’ entitlements effectively green light the kind of extravagance and luxury most people can only dream of. It is only when ridiculous stories of helicopter flights, family holidays for MPs at taxpayer expense and the like surface that anyone really seems to care. And that, in short, isn’t right.

Albrechtsen is also right when she states, bluntly, that the system stinks. It does. Bishop had to resign or be replaced. So must Burke.

But as she notes, Bishop went — in fact, had to go — because her continued presence as Speaker in light of the revelations of her flagrant abuse of entitlements was damaging the Prime Minister’s leadership of the Liberal Party. In reality, she should have resigned because what she has done was morally and ethically indefensible. The same can be said of Burke. But it is a telling indictment on the way our elected representatives behave that the reason for punitive action is to stem the political damage and not because somebody has done the wrong thing.

In some respects, I’m amazed at the need to even have to spell this out, and just to be clear, there are innumerable other lurks, perks, goodies and junkets I could have taken aim at here.

The point is that the system of parliamentary entitlements is rotten to its core, and whilst Labor is just as culpable as the Coalition or anyone else — and Communists Greens who think all of this is a lark should start rustling up the cash to reimburse Sarah Hanson-Young’s pompously self-important, attention-seeking, troublemaking international field trips — it is the Coalition that finds itself in office, and to whom responsibility for fixing this mess once and for all falls.

When so-called Choppergate was at its zenith, I made a call in this column for a new entity — a Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission — to be set up, at arms’ length from the government of the day, to independently oversee and scrutinise expense claims from MPs for accommodation, transportation and other items that too regularly end up at the epicentre of a scandal because someone’s fingers have been in the till, however “legitimately,” to an extent that utterly offends expectations of decency, accountability and prudence from the wider community.

I stand by that call, and whilst one reader commented to the effect that “another bloody bureaucracy” was the last thing we need — and that MPs should simply “do what business does” — the regrettable reality seems to be that MPs as a group appear incapable of exercising any other instinct than the inclination to as much largesse as they can get away with (so I’m sorry, JohnB, but as much as I share your extreme distaste for bureaucracy and whilst I’d like to agree with you, I can’t).

But at the risk of expecting too much from politicians, entitlement codes could be standardised between the states and the Commonwealth, and a single independent PTEC charged with oversight of the lot: at least it would be just one additional bureaucracy, and there would be no ambiguity whatsoever about what constitutes acceptable conduct or otherwise.

Now, Abbott says MPs’ expenses should be treated “like businesses do;” one would hope he’s talking about the ordinary employees who get the odd hotel stay or airfare reimbursed, rather than the executives on company boards who make the largesse of politicians that everyone wants to sling muck over look positively plebeian by comparison.

Even so, it’s a start: and those still trying to score cheap and petty political points out of all of this need to lay down their arms, behave like mature adults rather than kindy kids, and come up with something that fixes this mess once and for all, and which nudges what politicians can and can’t bill to the taxpayer onto a far more modest and reasonable footing.

Everyone involved should bear one thing in mind: just because it’s “legitimate” now doesn’t make it right.

Finally, and for what it’s worth, Tony Burke should quit the Labor frontbench: it’s one thing to talk of amnesties and a cessation of political hostilities, but as the chief protagonist and noisiest outrage merchant where Bishop’s activities were concerned, he has forfeited any right to be shown leniency now his own avaricious conduct has been laid bare for all to see.

 

Libs: Late In The Day, The Mutterers’ Muttering Is Pointless

SIX MONTHS after seeing off a threat to his leadership and with an election due to be called in less than a year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is again confronted by subterranean muttering over the prospect of replacing him to better the government’s standing and gain re-election. Such a move would reek of panic, with questions over potential replacements and one arguably not ready. For better or worse, the Liberals are stuck with Abbott.

It’s a matter of record that for many years — since well before I ever thought to start publishing this column — I have been a resolute supporter of Tony Abbott’s, and when he first became Liberal leader almost six years ago, mine was the only voice among my close associates who held that Abbott had the potential to make an excellent Prime Minister.

If we jump forward to the failed putsch against him earlier this year, readers will recall that I had grown so alarmed by the prospect that Abbott — excessively influenced and appallingly served by the advisers assembled around him — would lead the Coalition to an ignominious first-term defeat that I went so far as to call for him to resign.

Yet that was then, and this is now; six months can be a long time in politics, and certainly during that period this year some things have changed and some have stayed the same.

The one thing that seems to have remained the most constant about Abbott and his government has been the dreadful service given by the cabal of supposed tacticians, strategists, communications people and other alleged resources employed in the name of effective, competent, politically shrewd government. More on those later.

But it’s hard to believe that just a month ago, serious subterranean discussion was rampant about the Coalition’s prospects for calling — and winning — a snap double dissolution election against a Labor Party bereft of anything but failed, rejected and recycled policies, and “led” by an individual whose utter vacuity and opportunism was finally registering with the voting public.

To say nothing of Bill Shorten finally being revealed, unequivocally, as a liar prepared to say literally anything in furtherance of his own delusional ambitions and/or to try to cover his tracks where his treacherous handiwork is concerned.

The Abbott government, to that point, had its residual problems, to be sure; but a reasonable public reaction to its second budget, along with Shorten being seen to be at risk of imploding under the dual strains of the Royal Commission into the trade union movement and the heavy damage inflicted upon him by the ABC’s The Killing Season docudrama, made the prospect of a quick election for both Houses of Parliament — with the hapless Shorten marooned in his present position, whilst every objective indicator suggested the public simply couldn’t countenance him as their Prime Minister — seem an enticing, almost irresistible, enterprise.

Not now.

The simplistic explanation for the mutterers again muttering lies in the ungodly (and entirely self-inflicted) brouhaha the government has weathered during the past month over the fallout from Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s outrageous and unjustifiable travel expense claims being made public, and whilst this is certainly the issue that appears to have brought the whispering over Abbott’s leadership back out into the open, the seeds for this latest outburst of discontent were also arguably responsible for the last, for the fact is that very little — aside from some deserved bad weather for Shorten — has changed since February.

I want to share two articles that appeared in yesterday’s press: this piece by Phillip Coorey in the Australian Financial Review, which succinctly sums up the Coalition’s plight as it stands; and this, from veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes, who — writing in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph — makes it clear, based on his usually impeccable sources, that blame in the latest round of leadership unrest bubbling away in the Liberal Party is being sheeted home to Abbott directly, and to a stated lack of judgement that belies the fact little was learnt from his “near death” experience in the Liberal party room six months ago.

Irrespective of what has brought the Liberals to this point (and I’m not going to trawl through the various factors at great length), the time for any change to occur at all where their leadership is concerned was, in fact, when some elements in the parliamentary party sought to do precisely that back in February: it is too late now.

With a federal election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate due to be called* less than a year from now, the illusory recovery in the Abbott government’s political stocks has vanished, and whilst there has been a surprising dearth of quality opinion polling in the past fortnight, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what it would likely have found: that the government has taken a big hit with voters over the Bishop affair, and for all of the other reasons that were glossed over after the budget and off the back of Shorten’s woes, the chances of an election win any time soon (or at all) are no better than they were at the start of the year.

One of the advantages of being completely shut out of any position in the Abbott government by the junta that runs the Liberal Party behind the scenes — aside from the fact that when the electoral debacle that seems increasingly likely to befall it happens, I will be completely untainted by their shocking ineptitude — is that I can read the public mood unaffected by the disease of insiderish blindness with which Canberra seems to infect the self-important and the delusionally incompetent; the times I reference this point is certainly not from any perspective as a “victim,” for it turns out I’ve been spared the prospect of being fatally damaged, politically, by those whose careers should end if the Liberal Party falls from power after a single term.

And I raise it now because it’s not hard to see how we could be once again at this point: Shorten and his problems may very well have secured the Coalition a second term, albeit a term won through good luck more than good management; the second term may or may not materialise, but whether it does or not, it will not be the result of any astute judgement on the part of the cabal at the epicentre of the Abbott government in Parliament House or the Liberals’ federal secretariat in Canberra.

The uproar over Bishop, as I have now said repeatedly, is not some common-or-garden travel rorts scandal that will simply die off and go away; rather, it comes at a point the public at large is absolutely fed up with unjustifiable largesse and excess of MPs on the public purse, and the failure to recognise the difference is an indictment on those whose advice is relied upon and trusted by the Prime Minister.

In turn, the “simply stand firm” mantra that has once again been followed — the idea that if the hatches are battened down, the storm can be ridden out provided nobody buckles or goes weak at the knees — represents a serious misreading of the public mood that is costing votes, even after Bishop agreed to resign as Speaker.

People wanted decisive action — the removal of Bishop or, at least, the promise to do so as soon as the House of Representatives reconvened — and were instead served a terse and condescending justification of her actions by Bishop herself, followed by a clearly insincere and grudgingly offered apology, and fawning entreaties from Abbott to the effect Bishop was “contrite,” “chastened,” and appeals for her to be shown sympathy when the public mood was for her to be shown anything but. And her resignation, of course, came far too late to retrieve the government’s position, or to neutralise public anger at what had been an unforgivably indulgent waste of taxpayer cash.

In other words, the government responded to the travel rorts scandal in the most provocative fashion possible; and having poked everyday voters in the eye when they in fact wanted Bishop’s head at the earliest opportunity, its authority to pursue Labor Party figures (read: Tony Burke) for similarly unjustifiable outrages is very severely diminished.

But of course, the travel rorts fiasco merely brings the government’s other failures this year into sharp focus.

Its complete aversion (or inability) to outline a meaningful reform agenda, especially with the looming opportunity to secure an electoral mandate for properly articulated and developed policies: the Coalition gives every indication it is so frightened of pathetically populist attacks from Labor and is so incapable of any meaningful response to them that it simply declines to bother; and even the suggestion of marginal and incremental change from the Productivity Commission in the area of labour market reform has already sent government figures scuttling for cover at the first sign of the predictable — and vapid — ALP onslaught.

The budget, arguably key to the recovery in the Coalition’s political stocks, that nonetheless wasn’t sold as extensively as it should have been and which, in terms of the messages emanating from the government, has been all but forgotten.

The failure to reintroduce a swathe of measures to the Senate to acquire double dissolution triggers: right now, the only such trigger the Coalition holds is for the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (and even that is constitutionally debatable, secured as it was through initial rejection by the pre-July 2014 Senate and subsequently by the new Senate constituted on 1 July 2014).

Nowhere to be seen are measures like the Registered Organisations legislation that would enforce greater accountability on the unions, for example, and the only other measures said to be slated to engineer another trigger are Christopher Pyne’s university reform bills — the one thing guaranteed to generate virtually endless bad press for the Coalition.

Yet aside from anything else, the whole point of a double dissolution is to subsequently pass legislation that has been blocked twice by the Senate: but if the government doesn’t allow the legislation to be blocked twice at all, it can’t be passed at a Joint Sitting.

So much for the government’s “reform” program.

The debacle over the ABC’s #QandA programme, around which a sensible dialogue about the need for reform at the ABC could have been constructed, but which instead was so mishandled as to make the government look like a petulant child throwing a tantrum.

Even the decision to do an about-face and allocate a significant slice of the $89bn contract to build new submarines for the Navy smells; the idea of buying local is of course appealing, and protecting Australian jobs is a worthy objective of any government.

But when South Australian Defence shipbuilders are more expensive than foreign competitors who are able to deliver a better quality product, there is no commercial case to award them contracts; just as governments have an interest in promoting local jobs and industry, they also have an obligation to realise value for money — especially where such expensive purchases are concerned. The decades-old debacle of the Collins class submarines should have been instructive in preventing the government from falling into the trap.

But even as an electoral sop to South Australia and a political salve for the Coalition there, this was a waste of time and money; there are two — perhaps three — Coalition electorates at risk in any electoral backlash in South Australia, which isn’t much to justify an $89bn pork barrel being thrown around, when the Coalition is on the nose in Western Australia (up to five seats at risk), was never fully embraced in Victoria (four seats), and has fully a quarter of its MPs seated in Queensland, which turned on the conservatives savagely at a state election in January.

I could go on. The list of reasons the Abbott government is again staring down the barrel is endless. Some of its MPs are right to be restless, and the blame for it lies squarely at the feet of Abbott and some of the advisers he is so blindly and misguidedly loyal to — Chief of Staff Peta Credlin first among many.

But I would argue that the time to do anything about it by changing leaders is gone.

This close to an election, any leadership change will be rightly viewed by a cynical electorate that the government has spent most of its tenure provoking as an act of desperation.

And in any case, the three prospective replacements — Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison — all come with potentially fatal drawbacks.

Turnbull as Prime Minister would almost certainly see the government haemorrhage votes on its conservative flank to fringe entities such as Family First, the DLP, or even Jacqui Lambie’s abhorrent outfit; whilst some might calculate those primary votes would return to the Coalition on preferences, it’s a fair bet in the current climate that many of them wouldn’t: and as we’ve discussed many times in this column, there is no case for Malcolm Turnbull to ever serve as a Liberal Prime Minister of Australia.

Bishop, whilst to my mind the best option on offer, provided she’s teamed with a deputy from the Right — my local MP Andrew Robb being the best choice, provided he isn’t sent to the US as Ambassador to make way for Credlin to enter Parliament — comes with questions over how she might perform; on the positive side is her stellar performance as Foreign minister, whilst on the negative, nobody can deny she struggled as shadow Treasurer under Turnbull when he was opposition leader. Was this indicative, or merely a stumble in her development as a top-level, senior Cabinet-quality MP? A desperate elevation to the Prime Ministership isn’t really the forum for people to find out.

Meanwhile, Morrison — perhaps the most consistent performer over the span of the Abbott government’s tenure in office, with no disrespect to Robb and Julie Bishop — still only has eight years’ experience in Parliament, and less than two as a minister; and whilst I’m certain he will make an excellent Liberal Prime Minister one day, right now I don’t think he’s ready.

In any case, were Morrison to replace Abbott now and still lead the Liberals to defeat next year, the party would have destroyed its only logical option for leadership renewal. There is nobody apart from Morrison with a long-term claim on the Liberal leadership as things stand right now, and whilst that will change (and Josh Frydenberg’s name is mentioned by some, with justification) the simple fact is that burning Morrison now will leave the Liberals with a paucity of options if they are defeated.

Whether some of its MPs like it or not, the party is stuck with Tony Abbott — at least, win or lose, until the next election is out of the way.

A better course of action would be to persuade the Prime Minister that the structural change he has thus far singularly refused to make in his government must finally be embraced: jettisoning ministerial deadwood (Kevin Andrews, Ian Macfarlane, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton); promoting the best junior ministers and/or backbench talent, increasing the number of prominent women in the process (Frydenberg, Michaelia Cash, Sarah Henderson, Christian Porter, Angus Taylor, Kelly O’Dwyer, Bridget McKenzie); moving Hockey out of Treasury to somewhere less politically sensitive; to consider restoring Mal Brough to Cabinet on the basis of his proven ability as a minister under John Howard; and getting rid of Credlin as part of an overhaul of his office that places greater emphasis on actual tactical and strategic nous and the ability to sell Coalition messages, and which abandons “loyalty” as the pretext for persisting with structures that are hastening the government along the path toward opposition.

Whilst you can never say never, it’s a fair bet Abbott won’t come to such a party any time soon.

A couple of weeks ago I had a chat to one of my contacts (who might be said to be “adjacent” to the circle of insiders I so frequently criticise, rather than a part of it) and we agreed — without argument — that after the travel rorts fiasco, the Coalition politically was back to where it was at the start of the year, and that in the context of any election this year, we were “fucked.”

There is no reason for anyone on any side of the political spectrum to think differently, and no case for government insiders to make to suggest that this brutal assessment is in any way in error.

Indeed, the government’s apparatus for communication remains so deficient that it would be unable to articulate the intention to purchase sex in a brothel. I’m sorry if that’s just too crude an analogy for some readers, but it’s true.

Short of an implosion over at the ALP, it’s hard to see the Coalition souffle rising a third time, and the government somehow falling across the line at an election late next year.

But a change in the Liberal Party leadership isn’t the way to go about achieving it: in fact, such a move would merely make defeat more likely.

Whether they like it or not, Coalition MPs are stuck with Tony Abbott now. The impetus is on those who seek change to find some way to make the present leadership arrangement work.

 

*I am well aware that constitutionally, the Abbott government could defer an election for some months beyond the 7 September anniversary of its win in 2013; political reality, however, dictates that the greater the delay beyond that point, the greater the risk of a public backlash — and the greater the message of fear and desperation, in the face of possible defeat, such a delay would communicate to the public.

The constitutional vagaries of election timing are of little interest to ordinary voters, but any delay would be leapt upon and exploited gleefully by a Labor Party unready to govern, but obsessed with power to the exclusion of all other considerations.

 

Better Late Than Never, Bronwyn Bishop Resigns

FINALLY — after 18 fraught days that have caused the Abbott government no end of grief — embattled Speaker of the House of Representatives Bronwyn Bishop has resigned, following an expenses scandal any idiot could have foreseen. Not for the first time, Bishop has shown extremely poor judgement. Her resignation — after a grudging apology that had to be extracted almost by force — will not undo the political damage her behaviour has caused.

If we fast forward by a year or so, the greatest problem with the fiasco over Bronwyn Bishop’s $5,227 helicopter flight down the Geelong road may well be that it is seen in retrospect as an emblem of the Abbott government’s fall from office, in the same way Leo McLeay’s compensation claim on the taxpayer for a bicycle accident and Ros Kelly’s whiteboard for allocating over a billion dollars of government grants remain, even today, as symbols of the decline and eventual defeat of the ALP under Paul Keating.

But the fact she has resigned — at least a fortnight too late — is to be welcomed on all sides of politics, even if it is a textbook case of “better late than never.”

I should clarify that my calls over the past few weeks for Bishop to be “sacked” — a move that would require a vote in the House of Representatives — were not made in ignorance; rather, in the interests of some brevity, I chose to use colloquial terms for dismissal that would not lose readers in talk of the minutiae of parliamentary process.

But lining up to fire Bishop is exactly what Prime Minister Tony Abbott should have been doing for more than a fortnight. The fact he did not, and indeed continually restated support and sympathy for Bishop, will linger as a black mark against both himself and his government.

Abbott’s argument that Bishop’s conduct fell within allowable guidelines but outside public standards is valid, and indeed probably true, but ranged against the unstinting support he has offered Bishop since the storm broke almost three weeks ago, it sounds like the hollow (and futile) defence it was always going to prove to be.

Bishop’s self-sacrifice (made, if media reports are to be believed, only in the face of a threatened mass revolt by Cabinet ministers and backbench Coalition MPs alike) will afford the government some breathing space, and a successor — possibly Abbott ally and controversial minister, Kevin Andrews — will be appointed to the post soon enough.

But the government will wear the stain and the opprobrium for having dug in to defend Bishop when the claim in question was indefensible; only an idiot could have taken that particular charter flight at that reported cost and remained oblivious to the near-certainty it would sooner or later detonate in the government’s collective face.

The rumoured additional $6,000 claim that we alluded to yesterday — an aeroplane charter to evade a two-hour drive from Sydney — is only marginally less reprehensible than the helicopter flight that set this scandal in motion, and was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back in persuading Bishop that her position was completely untenable.

Bronwyn Bishop is no stranger to controversy: her tenure as shadow Health minister in the 1990s ended by a declaration of unequivocal support for tobacco advertising, and her tenure as Aged care minister in the Howard government terminated by a scandal over kerosene being used as a scabies treatment in nursing homes. On each occasion, her resilience and determination to bounce back ensured she recovered.

In this case, it seems Bishop’s long political career is drawing to a close, for now aged 72 — and having found herself at the epicentre of perhaps one scandal too many — there seems little prospect of any frontbench return, and one would hope Bishop would have the grace to reconsider contesting her ultra-safe seat on Sydney’s lower North Shore at the approaching federal election.

Yet whilst Bishop will be allowed to slip quietly into retirement, the political damage she has caused will not so easily be undone; once again, the Abbott government has been found wanting where sound judgement and astute practices of governance are concerned, and the cumulative effects of these missteps could cause it real trouble when next it faces voters.

As I outlined yesterday, a prudent response — and one which should help the government reclaim the initiative, and retrieve its standing — would be to institute an immediate and rigorous overhaul of the arrangements that govern and administer travel allowances and other entitlements for MPs, with the creation of a Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission to remove arbitrary control of these items from the Speaker’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, placing them instead at arms’ length from the government of the day and under the remit of an independent Commission.

I’m convinced this is the only way lasting, meaningful reform of MP entitlements can be enacted, and it now remains to be seen — given Abbott has promised “not tinkering but real reform” — what shape this reform takes.

For the ALP and other cynical opportunists like Clive Palmer, Bishop and her helicopter have provided a significant free hit in terms of deflecting public scrutiny from their own (considerable) woes that they have milked for all it is worth, and will continue to do so.

In Labor’s case at least, its “leader,” Bill Shorten, has switched from demanding Bishop’s resignation to now stating her resignation isn’t enough because she quit on account of a sense she was obliged to rather than “to do the right thing.” It should be noted that Shorten’s hunger for accountability begins and ends at the ranks of Australia’s conservative parties, and if he wants to be taken seriously he will allow the Registered Organisations legislation to pass the Senate — and allow the rotten unions that spawned his career to be subjected to the same standards of accountability as the business community is.

Until or unless that happens, nothing Shorten has to say about accountability or probity is worth a pinch of shit, and should certainly not be taken seriously.

But Bishop has left her Prime Minister compromised by the ill-advised loyalty he has once again shown a close ally beyond the point they became a liability; she has allowed the government to appear to be greedy, punch-drunk on hubris, and on the take; she has directly lowered the (already poor) level of esteem in which politics and politicians are held; and she has made re-election for the Liberal Party a much tougher ask.

There are those who believe what Bishop has done is no different to any other travel entitlements scandal in the past that has eventually blown over; as I have maintained throughout, Bishop’s case is nothing of the sort, coming as it does at a time people are completely fed up with politicians, in the face of the most vicious opposition Australia has perhaps ever seen, and involving the most unjustifiable and flagrant abuse of funds — $5,227 for a helicopter ride that a one-hour car trip could have covered at a sliver at the cost — most people have ever heard of.

Above all, Bishop has caused damage to Parliament and thumbed her nose at standards of decency that must not be incidental to political life, but underpin it.

Still, Bishop has fallen on her sword; it is now up to Abbott and his colleagues to pick up the pieces and to rebuild public trust where it enjoys very little indeed of this commodity, whilst others seek to profit politically from Bishop’s stupidity and the continuing government’s foibles.

Bishop is gone, better late than never. Good riddance.