UK Reshuffle: When A Conservative PM Promotes Women

A MINISTERIAL RESHUFFLE in the British government has seen the promotion of capable, relatively young and politically upcoming female Tory MPs to Cabinet, and whilst the personnel changes are admirable, the reaction in some surprising quarters has been ridiculous. British Labour, like the Australian Left, has lampooned the Tories as unrepresentative. I shudder to think of the reaction to Tony Abbott undertaking a similar reshuffle here.

I think most readers know that their Anglophile columnist is more or less obsessed with British politics, although I restrain myself from posting on it too often; I’m painfully aware that the vast majority of my readers aren’t junkies for UK politics like I am, and that flogging this particular hobby horse too frequently isn’t going to offer material that is of interest to most.

Even so, a major development overnight (Melbourne time) has been undertaken in Britain’s coalition government, which is led by the Conservative Party, and I’m horrified by the reaction an obviously astute exercise in party and personnel management has already elicited in quarters that usually would — and should — be staunchly supportive.

And I hate to say it, those on the Left will be cock-a-hoop.

I’ll keep as much of the detail out of the article as I can today; as I’ve already alluded, I don’t expect the names and issues involved to be as familiar to most readers as they are to me (but for those who share the interest in British politics — here, here, here, here and here are a few articles and comment pieces on the changes that have occurred on a tumultuous day in Westminster).

In any case, a picture tells a thousand words, so let’s get right to the point.

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Under Britain’s electoral system, general elections for the House of Commons must be held “at least every five years;” nine months out from the next of these falling due, Prime Minister David Cameron has undertaken a major reshuffle: some ministers, such as Foreign secretary William Hague and veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke are retiring; some ministers have been sacked; and some fresh blood — including several well-regarded female Conservative MPs — have either been appointed for the first time, or elevated through Cameron’s ministry.

The Conservative Party, much like the Liberal Party, has in recent years begun to attract talented women in greater numbers to its ranks; now, in the runup to next year’s poll, Cameron has promoted several of them as he strengthens his ministry, tries to smoothen out the inevitable few rough spots for his government, and replaces those who will not form part of his government beyond the election.

Speaking specifically of those newly promoted female MPs, they have “done their time” learning the ropes at Westminster; the advancement each of them has been rewarded with is well-deserved.

Or is it?

Don’t get me wrong, I think (as I always have) that the best candidate for a preselection, a ministry or a leadership role should be appointed; I have observed in the past that politics disproportionately attracts men, and that simply appointing those women who enter the field for the sole reason they are female is tokenistic, tacky, and is an approach that hardly conspires to render quality outcomes of governance.

In this case, I don’t think anyone could seriously suggest that the female MPs whom Cameron has promoted are undeserving; some — like newly-minted Environment secretary Liz Truss — are seriously spoken of in Westminster as potential future party leaders; others (such as a favourite of mine, Essex MP Priti Patel) in many ways represent the modern face of the Tory Party in modern, vibrant Britain.

Yet the picture I have included with this article is from the influential conservative magazine The Spectator, which ordinarily could be expected to be supportive of the changes Cameron has announced; the fact it isn’t (and, indeed, the cover has been rushed out today in advance of next week’s issue) should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who takes women in government seriously, or acknowledges that — just as I could say of men — that the right women have an enormously valuable role to play in the corridors of power.

The Spectator isn’t the only Tory-friendly voice raising its apprehension over the inclusion of more women in Cameron’s government, either.

If this is what the Conservatives’ friends are saying, what need do they have for enemies?

I wanted to post about this, e’er briefly, because the day will surely come when our own Prime Minister reshuffles his ministry, and when he does, talented, newish female Liberal MPs who have accrued some parliamentary experience — such as Kelly O’Dwyer and Sarah Henderson — will be in the mix, along with others (like former WA Treasurer Christian Porter) who warrant ministries on merit but, like the talented backbench women, have had to wait their turn as well.

When that time arrives, what reaction will Abbott elicit for promoting them? Will Labor and the Greens pillory him on the basis the male/female ratio remains skewed toward the men, or will they give the credit that is due for promoting women who deserve to be promoted?

More to the point, will the government’s friends in the media voice their approval, or will they take the path The Spectator has apparently chosen to walk, demeaning some very well-credentialled appointments as “token women?” Will Abbott be accused of “soft misogyny,” as Cameron is? And will those female MPs be given a clear run at their jobs when they are appointed to them, or will they be hassled, harassed and tokenised further?

If there are ten vacancies and the ten best-qualified candidates consist of seven men and three women, for example, then seven men and three women should be appointed. I have no time for quotas or the like, and in matters of governance find the idea that anyone should be invested with responsibility on the basis of gender rather than competence to be repugnant.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard is a classic case in point: it was great to see a woman could be Prime Minister. The problem is that it was her. There are plenty of women already in politics in Australia, on both sides of the divide, with the ability and potential to make admirable Prime Ministers if the opportunity ever presents itself to them. Gillard, to be brutal, was never such a candidate.

But this is the environment we now live in; criticising a female politician attracts a (mostly baseless) charge of misogyny, whilst advancing the career of female MPs through the ranks is dismissed as tokenism, even when the appointments are made on merit as they have been in Cameron’s case.

If vacancies Cameron filled in his reshuffle were allocated to women simply because they were female, I’d be absolutely slamming him right now. The rank stupidity of such a methodology is an insult to any thinking person’s intelligence.

But for Cameron to face the friendly fire he has raises the rather obvious question: is a conservative leader damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to promoting women? I thought the revamped lineup Cameron announced was perfectly suited both to the ongoing business of government and to winning next year’s election but some, it seems, simply can’t be pleased.

I suspect Abbott would receive a similar reaction to a similar undertaking in his own ranks.

Perhaps any time a male, conservative leader promotes a woman, this type of thing will be the response. It doesn’t make it right, but the mentality fostered by the likes of Emily’s List and adopted by the ALP around quotas, female-only lists and other, similarly misguided enterprises — and the resentment they foment — plays a big part in causing the problem such cabals (wrongly) claim to redress.

 

(Coincidentally, the number of women promoted in David Cameron’s reshuffle overnight is, in fact, 10: readers can access an excellent piece profiling each of them in brief through this link).

Kevin Rudd: A “Complete And Utter Fraud,” Or Just A Cretin?

WITH INCREASINGLY clear indications the honeymoon is now over for Kevin Rudd, the resurrected Prime Minister is attracting a lot of scrutiny and criticism — most of it completely justified. Is he, as The Spectator Australia rhetorically asks, a “complete and utter fraud,” or is he, simply, just a cretin?

The Spectator Australia this week carries an opinion piece on Kevin Rudd that, in my view, is very, very near the mark; it profiles beautifully the entire modus operandi of our Prime Minister, both in abstract terms and through illustration with examples of Rudd’s own behaviour in the years he has been active in public life.

I’m including this for readers tonight (ahead, hopefully, of a little more time to post this weekend) because I just wonder if the central point might be a little less obtuse than even this article makes it.

Granted, the Spectator Australia article is not a sympathetic piece; but that publication — whilst a good read of good quality journalism — is nowhere near as conservative as its influential British namesake and forbear, and could hardly be accused of anti-ALP bias.

It has become fashionable in recent years to talk about former Liberal Prime Minister Sir William McMahon; indeed, The Red And The Blue has been guilty of doing just that.

Bill McMahon isn’t anyone’s idea of a political role model, idol or an example to follow; even whilst in office he was pilloried as Australia’s most ridiculous Prime Minister (among other less flattering epithets) and his government — if summarised in a word — was mediocre.

And it’s become fashionable to talk about him now because until recently, it seemed McMahon’s title as “most ridiculous” was under threat from Julia Gillard, whose administration, politically, was a shocker; it was of course also marked by fundamental dishonesty with, and a complete disconnect from, the majority of mainstream voters it purported to represent.

But McMahon also had a reputation as a liar, a cheat, a fraud and a rogue; it was accepted that he simply couldn’t be trusted, and stories of his wheeling and dealing abound from those of his contemporaries who still survive, and in various archives in the case of those who do not.

And I must say the link in this article to a diary note by Paul Hasluck (one-time Liberal minister, future Governor-General and sworn McMahon enemy) provides an amusing yet deadly accurate parallel between McMahon and the man of the moment, Kevin Rudd.

I hope readers will click through to the Spectator article, and I would be interested in people’s thoughts.

But for all of the excellent logic and soundness of argument presented by the Speccie, I just wonder if the bottom line is simpler even than its contention Rudd is an “utter fraud.”

At the end of the day, is the Prime Minister simply an imbecile?

You have to wonder.

John Howard As Governor-General? I Don’t Think So

Nowadays, anything Godwin Grech says shouldn’t warrant mention. However, the Fairfax press and The Spectator Australia magazine have seen fit to publish an article in which Grech expatiates upon the glorious idea of G-G John Howard. This is a bad idea, on every conceivable level.

It comes as some surprise that reputable instruments of the press would give oxygen and airtime to a character like Grech, the disgraced former Treasury bureaucrat and past informer to the Liberal Party, who went several steps too far in 2009 by producing a fabricated email which “proved” that former PM Kevin Rudd was corrupt.

In what became known as the “Utegate” affair, Grech’s missive destroyed his own career, and guaranteed Malcolm Turnbull’s days as Liberal leader were numbered after Turnbull foolishly acted on the email without adequately checking its veracity.

And so, to find The Spectator Australia gifting column space to Grech for an opinion piece is grotesque; The Spectator proper — the original, UK version — is an excellent publication, and one which in view of this event might be better served abandoning its “focus” on Australia and sticking to events in Britain.

Why The Age saw fit to reprint the piece is unfathomable.

Even so, Grech’s article (the version of which The Age published can be viewed here) does contain some material I don’t necessarily disagree with, although much of it is petulant hot air from a man whose time never really was; his piece essentially boils down to a partisan rant underpinned by the thesis that the Howard government was brilliant, and that the Rudd-Gillard government is terrible.

Beyond that basic premise, there is little to substantiate or validate some of Grech’s more outlandish statements; this brings me to his claim that John Howard should become Governor-General when the term of incumbent Quentin Bryce expires in September next year.

Make no mistake: this is a very bad idea, and one whose momentum — if any — must be stopped in its tracks; of all the potential candidates to replace Bryce when her term expires, Howard is far from the top of the list of the most credible, feasible or sensible.

As a staunch political conservative, I realise that I might be expected to show some sympathy for this suggestion — not least as Howard led what on any objective measure was the best government, at the federal level, this country has seen in the past 50 years. As it turns out, I have no truck with the idea whatsoever.

Grech talks of Howard as potentially “a first-class head of state who would be warmly embraced by Buckingham Palace” and goes on to declare that he “would perfectly complement Tony Abbott, providing Australians with a world-class leadership team.”

It’s clear Grech has no comprehension of how a constitutional monarchy works, if he really thinks that.

The role of the Governor-General is largely ceremonial, although its holder is the Head of State; and with the exception of certain circumstances in which specific constitutional provisions provide otherwise (such as in 1975, when Sir John Kerr acted in accordance with S64 of the Constitution to dismiss the Whitlam government), the Governor-General usually acts on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The Governor-General does not act as some type of political advisor to the Prime Minister of the day, as Grech explicitly proposes.

And the Governor-General does not form part of some tag-team “leadership” team, operating in cahoots and in cohort with elected parliamentarians.

In John Howard, we see a figure who is overtly (and, in this context, overwhelmingly) political; the man was Prime Minister for nearly 12 years until fairly recently, and prior to that spent more than 30 years as a Liberal Party operative, elected member of Parliament, and political spear-thrower for the Right.

Irrespective of whether you’re on the side of the spear-thrower or not, such an openly political figure would politicise the office of Governor-General and polarise public opinion and confidence in it as a legitimate instrument of governance.

It is true that political figures have held the role in the past, and that they also discharged their duties with some distinction; Sir Paul Hasluck was a very distinguished Governor-General. Bill Hayden, more recently, was unremarkable and uncontroversial.

But Hasluck was made Governor-General in 1968 by then-PM John Gorton to get rid of a dangerous enemy from the ranks of the parliamentary Liberal Party and to remove the most serious rival he faced for the party’s leadership; Hayden’s appointment — irrespective of how it may have subsequently been presented — was payback for resigning in favour of Bob Hawke’s leadership of the ALP in early 1983.

It doesn’t matter, as Grech states, whether Howard would be “warmly embraced” at Buckingham Palace; he is simply too polarising a figure, and too overtly political, for that particular role.

Laurie Oakes also responded to Grech’s absurd arguments in the Herald-Sun today; Oakes pointed out — correctly — that Howard’s appointment to the role would be “divisive and provocative,” noting that “after several years of political turbulence and non-stop nastiness, that is the last thing Australia will need.”

As it happens, Oakes’ misgivings of the merits or otherwise of John Howard as Governor-General largely mirror my own.

But something that does niggle in the back of my mind as I write this (and we may well revisit the thought at some point) is the timing of the expiry of present Governor-General Quentin Bryce’s term, in September next year.

It suddenly occurs to me that an election is due in August; for this to occur, it would need to be called by the Prime Minister no later than about mid-July.

It also occurs to me that every Labor Party figure who has spoken publicly in the past 12-18 months on the issue of the timing of the next election has referenced “late 2013” or “toward the end of 2013” as the time such an election is “due.”

Even Julia Gillard implicitly announced the date as the last Saturday in September, until she realised it would be Grand Final day, and went on to make a fool of herself with wild predictions about the prospects of the Footscray Football Club.

Constitutionally, they are all correct; an election may well be held as late as the November/December period.

But more usually, and by loose convention, elections are held three years apart, unless they are for some reason called early, and on that basis the next one should be in August next year.

I just wonder whether the ALP plan is to go to an election later in 2013 to ensure its own nominee is appointed to the Governor-Generalship, rather than go to an election it is likely to lose in a landslide, only to gift the incoming Liberal government the right to fill the vice-regal role with its own appointee for a five-year term.

Then again, I might just be a terrible cynic…

But in terms of precisely who the next Governor-General should be, it sure as hell shouldn’t be John Howard, or any other political figure from either side of the political spectrum for that matter.

Oakes suggests the Head of the Defence Force, Angus Houston; a fine man to be sure, and somebody I think would perform the role of Governor-General admirably.

My thoughts, however, are that the best candidate is another military man: Houston’s predecessor, Peter Cosgrove, who would not only make an excellent fist of the role, but would also be the sort of unifying figure to which Oakes alludes.

Godwin Grech and his undebunked theories of the world are best left undisturbed (and unpublished) in whatever cave to which they retreated following Utegate; as for John Howard, I trust he is enjoying his retirement, and I hope he finds satisfaction in the summer of cricket — his great passion — that will soon commence.

Beyond that, the occupancy of vice-regal office will be determined in due course; a Cosgrove would be ideal, and a Houston just as good; but a Howard is, and should rightly be, completely out of the question.

What do you think?