Armageddon: Nuclear WA Election Result Is Turnbull’s Newman Moment

ANY TALK that WA’s election result is purely due to “state factors” is, to be kind, delusional; just as Tony Abbott’s unpopularity fortified the swing against Campbell Newman in Queensland — where One Nation and “arrogance” were factors, as they were in WA — an unpopular federal government has compounded the revolt in another Liberal state. WA provides Malcolm Turnbull’s “Newman moment.” it is inconceivable he will emerge unscathed.

I am not simply taking a potshot at Malcolm Turnbull, whose claims on the leadership of the federal Liberal Party have never stacked up in my eyes; but so bad is the outcome of yesterday’s state election in Western Australia for the Liberal Party — the worst, in fact, since the ALP first contested a state election there in 1901 — that it is impossible to argue, with any credibility whatsoever, that a deeply unpopular federal Liberal government led by a deeply unpopular Prime Minister is innocent of blame for a truly dreadful result in what has traditionally been one of the best states in Australia for the forces of mainstream conservatism.

In fact, and whilst I used the metaphor of lambs engaging in the slaughter of Liberal MPs to frame my piece ahead of the WA state election yesterday, a better analogy today is that of a nuclear Armageddon that has generated millions of tons of lethal fallout: and some of this, inevitably, must fall on Canberra and poison Turnbull’s government.

With more than a third of the 47.1% of the primary vote Colin Barnett’s Liberal Party attracted at the 2013 WA election lost — along with more than half of the 31 MPs the Liberal Party won on that occasion in the 59-seat lower house — the Liberals, along with their National Party alliance partners, appear to have been able to muster less than a third of those 59 seats, if projections of 14 Liberals and 5 Nationals come to pass: easily the worst state election result for non-Labor forces in WA in more than 100 years.

This isn’t merely an embarrassment — it is an indictment.

Yesterday’s abysmal state election result in Western Australia is a wake-up call to the Liberal Party nationally; to have been completely poleaxed in what has for decades been one of its best states can’t simply be attributed to the longevity of the Barnett government (eight years and seven months) when Labor has spent more than a decade in office continuously in every other state over the past 35 years (and in Victoria and South Australia, has done so twice in that time).

It can’t simply be attributed to the huge pile of debt that has been racked up on Barnett’s watch after the end of the mining investment boom; in Queensland in 2015 and South Australia in 1997, Labor rebounded after crushing election defeats where financial mismanagement was the key factor within a single term to force minority governments; in Victoria in 1999 and Western Australia in 2001, the ALP reclaimed office after just two terms despite the scale of financial scandals that cost it office in landslide defeats dwarfing anything Barnett might be accused of today.

And it can’t just be blamed on the silly preference deal the Liberal Party struck with One Nation, whereby the Liberals foolishly preferenced the protest party above their National Party allies.

The result in WA is, to be clear, a sign of the Liberal Party’s slide from favour across the country: and more evidence of this recalibration of the national polity will follow, as sure as night follows day, unless the penny finally drops for those Liberals in a position to actually do something to reverse it.

Whilst the Barnett government was far from perfect, it did in fact have a powerful record of achievement upon which to campaign: a message which, in increasingly typical fashion for the Liberal Party everywhere, proved impossible for it to sell.

The Barnett government spent much of its second term fighting with itself, with a clear lack of succession planning forcing it to ask voters to endorse an unpopular 66-year-old figurehead for a further four years — a big ask at the best of times, let alone in the straitened economic circumstances the WA Liberals found themselves in after eight years in office.

But it reflects on a sick and increasingly inept organisation which, right across Australia, is showing signs of being incapable of winning unless it is to capitalise on the faults and shortcomings of the Labor Party, and with the resurgence of federal Labor under arguably the least suitable individual ever presented to voters as a potential Prime Minister, it is growing difficult to ascribe even that capability to the Liberal Party either.

Readers of this column know exactly what I believe are the handicaps my party faces — and these are as applicable to yesterday’s election in WA as they are anywhere else in Australia.

A basic inability to formulate and execute effective political strategies and tactics.

An utter inability to sell anything whatsoever, and a “communications” capacity that is amateurish at best and downright juvenile at worst.

A contingent of advisors, staffers and other insiders who owe their presence to parking their noses up the backsides of factional overlords, or to pandering to minor chieftains presiding over petty dunghills and fiefdoms, rather than being selected on the basis of what they can actually do to help the party: the Liberal Party, at senior levels and wherever any degree of operational expertise is required, better resembles a crony club these days than a slick, well-oiled, effective political machine.

A lack of policies (or, indeed, a lack of any coherent platform at all) that mark the party out as a beacon for the small government, low tax, pro-family, pro-business, pro-individual constituency it has traditionally represented: the Liberal Party these days is too busy eliminating points of difference with the ALP to be bothered with cogent contemporary expressions of the timeless and noble offer it is uniquely positioned to make for the benefit of all Australians.

A parliamentary cohort increasingly swelled by former staffers, factional stooges, and other worthless types: the same thing it has spent decades (rightly) pillorying Labor for.

And whilst yesterday’s election loss might have been all but unavoidable, its scale speaks to the basic inability of the party to fight effective campaigns these days: with just 14 Liberal MPs likely to emerge after a two-party swing that looks to be in the order of 15%, nobody can argue the party in any way mitigated its losses. It didn’t.

It is one thing to win elections from opposition on slogans such as “stop the boats” or “axe the tax:” it is another thing altogether to govern effectively once government has been secured and in this sense, what happened yesterday merely reflects the malaise that has infected the Liberal Party nationally.

To win — and to win the best victory in WA history in 2013 — and spend the ensuing four years descending into hubris, squabbles over the spoils of office, and exhibiting a complete contempt for the voters who put it there far transcends the difficulties imposed on the Barnett government by cyclical events like the end of a mining boom or the related fall in the state’s GST share: a modest loss might be justified, but this annihilation is at least partly self-inflicted.

But to claim that this was an election decided purely on “state factors” is fatuous; and in this sense, the malfunctioning, misfiring federal Coalition government of Malcolm Turnbull — which itself embodies every one of the problems afflicting the Liberal Party that I have listed here — has to take its share of the responsibility too.

To be sure, Turnbull now faces an odious parallel with the Queensland state election of 2015 and the role played in it by the standing of Tony Abbott and his government, but more on that in a moment.

Right now, I think the Liberal Party is facing the bleakest period of its existence since the early 1980s, when more than a decade of opposition federally (and in most of the states) loomed large; the odd triumph (NSW, 1988) was more than offset by failures that should have been successes (WA in 1989, Victoria in 1988, SA in 1989, federally in 1990 and 1993) and the gradual elimination of what “real estate” conservative forces entered that miserable period with in the first place, losing Queensland and Tasmania to Labor in 1989 and the Brisbane City Council (which at one point represented the most senior administration the party headed anywhere in Australia) in 1991.

Since the Coalition returned to office federally in 2013, state Liberal governments in Queensland, Victoria and now Western Australia have fallen; two years out from another state election in NSW, the party’s prospects look shaky there too. Liberals are unlikely to win in South Australia or Victoria next year, and the Liberal government in Tasmania is as much a hostage to that state’s proportional voting system as anything else when it comes to its prospects for winning a second term next year.

In other words — now holding office only in NSW, Tasmania and federally — there is realistic and probable scope for the Liberal Party to surrender office in all three of these jurisdictions over the next two years, and it is looking down the barrel of an even more painful period than the 1980s, and “professional, modern” Labor, began inflicting on it 35 years ago.

If readers are wondering why I’m not devoting today’s article to a systematic analysis of the numbers emanating from what is tantamount to an apocalyptic, politically nuclear event, it’s simply because I think it represents just the latest instalment of a pattern of decline that will consign the Liberal Party to a decade of misery unless something drastic occurs to arrest it, but those who fret over such minutiae can keep an eye on the Wikipedia breakdown of the results here: I think the question of how many MPs the party emerges with, or where the swing against it finally settles, is that irrelevant in the wider scheme of things.

Just as the 2013 state election in WA sounded the death knell on Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership (and arguably Labor’s tenure in office federally overall), I can’t help thinking that the one held yesterday heralds a similar milestone — or millstone — for Malcolm Turnbull.

It is a seismic event of the importance of the 1974 election in Queensland, which effectively stamped the papers of the Whitlam government in Canberra.

And another state election in Queensland, two years ago, led directly to the so-called “challenge by an empty chair” which began a protracted process of removing Abbott from the Prime Ministership: the swing against Campbell Newman was almost identical to the one suffered by Barnett yesterday, and whilst the Queensland LNP retained enough seats to remain within spitting distance of reclaiming government, it started from an even stronger position in terms of votes and seats than Barnett entered yesterday’s contest defending.

Nobody can suggest that the lacklustre Turnbull government is blameless for what happened yesterday.

Nobody can claim the Prime Minister, as Abbott was in Queensland in 2015, was anything less than a direct negative that amplified the movement away from the incumbent government.

It is time for Turnbull’s colleagues to seriously consider the damage his continued presence stands to inflict upon the Liberal Party’s fortunes, federally and around the states, should he be permitted to continue as the party’s most senior — and visible — standard-bearer.

But dumping Turnbull will be pointless unless the other structural problems the party has lumbered itself with are also addressed and in this sense, those who “control” the Liberal Party — and who dish out patronage and paid employment to the useless, the inept, and the downright incompetent — ought to take a hard, critical look at themselves in the wake of yesterday’s disaster, and make brutally honest decisions about where they want the party to head: and whether, despite their cosily entrenched sinecures, their handiwork is conducive to the best interests of the party at all.

Yesterday was cataclysmic. Without extensive change at almost every level, many similar humiliations will soon follow.

Battle Stations: Newspoll’s 55-45 To Labor A Call To Arms For The Liberals

THE CEASELESS fall in Coalition support under Malcolm Turnbull over the past year has continued in the latest Newspoll; now lagging by ten points, attempts to claim Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party remains viable are dubious indeed. It makes the changes called for in this column yesterday all the more urgent, and suggests that even if they are forthcoming, Turnbull — and the Coalition’s hold on government — may be doomed anyway.

Eight down, 22 to go…

Today’s Newspoll — published in The Australian, with comment and tables accessible here and here — might not be so bad for the Turnbull government if it had used the authority from its re-election last year to introduce a painful mini-budget, or some other measure to aright the haemorrhaging federal budget, or to do something to introduce a reform program, even if that proved unpopular; the problem of course is that in the aftermath of last year’s election, the government and the PM have little to no authority anyway, and the disastrous position they confront in the polls has been arrived at with virtually nothing to show for it.

My remarks this morning will be relatively brief (I am off to Sydney for the day, and have a plane to catch) but it does seem that the discussion opened in this column yesterday — calling for a radical overhaul of the way the Coalition is conducting itself in office, and the personnel with which it is doing so — was very timely indeed and, if anything, the findings of this latest Newspoll suggest the changes I called for are more urgently required than ever.

When we last had a Newspoll to dissect three weeks ago, I suggested Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party might be doomed, and have since opined that that poll represented the point at which he (and the government) might have passed the point of no return; today’s numbers will do little to ameliorate this growing perception, and it seems only a matter of time now before conservative Liberal MPs at least countenance a leadership change.

The two-party result of 55% recorded by Labor in today’s poll is the highest lead for the ALP since 2010, shortly after Julia Gillard called that year’s election; more ominously for the government, the primary vote it is harvested from — just 34% — is the lowest Coalition primary vote recorded by Newspoll since…well, since Malcolm was leading the Liberal Party last time, when a series of bad judgements and inadvisable pronouncements led to a collapse in the Coalition’s standing and prompted speculation then-PM Kevin Rudd would call a double dissolution election.

It all seems so long ago, but it all seems so fresh in the memory.

With just 29% of Newspoll respondents approving and 59% disapproving of Turnbull’s performance, the PM is now less popular than predecessor Tony Abbott prior to his overthrow at the hands of Turnbull’s minions in 2015: hardly a ringing endorsement of the wisdom of that change.

Even Turnbull’s lead over Bill Shorten as “preferred PM” has continued to evaporate, and now stands at just 7%, and has gone from convincing, to solid, to now barely being “clear.”

There is a lot of comment (and not least in The Australian itself, which is decidedly pro-Turnbull in these matters) that the outburst last week from Tony Abbott, combined with a rise in support for One Nation, are responsible for the ongoing erosion of the government’s position, but I beg to differ: to all appearances, the Coalition isn’t behaving or acting like a government at all, and this — coupled with minor but high-impact events such as the defection of Cory Bernardi and the poor look of Turnbull’s confrontation with US President Donald Trump, no matter the spin placed upon them — are proving far more deleterious than the predictable musings of a disgruntled former PM.

In fact, just about the only bright spot for Turnbull today is the standing of opposition “leader” Shorten, whose net approval rating of -26% is barely better than Turnbull’s: yet the fact it is better at all, considering the low calibre of the opponent Turnbull faces, is an indictment in itself.

And as I have said for some time now, any move by the ALP to change leaders should be interpreted as a sign it is serious about winning the next election; with the ALP primary vote now back to 37% — the level at which Gillard was able to harvest a minority government, and its highest in some years — that time cannot be far away either.

This Newspoll also marks the point at which just one marker from Turnbull’s disastrous first stint as Liberal leader remains to be covered anew: the two-party result of 45% is a single percentage point better than the average result recorded between September 2008 and November 2009 of 44%. It is as bad now as that.

Suffice to say, it’s time for Turnbull to get his skates on if he wants to outrun a near-certain leadership challenge or, further down the track, a near-certain bloodbath at the polling stations.

The course of remedial action outlined in this column not just yesterday, but for months, is the only viable way in which Turnbull may salvage his Prime Ministership — and the only way any potential replacement may salvage the government’s standing at all.

But that would take common sense, hard work, the will to develop and fight for sweeping policy reform and, most importantly, the ability to connect with the electorate to sell it, and it is increasingly the case that none of these attributes appear evident even on a generous reading of the government’s strengths.

We are about to find out just how hungry Malcolm really is to remain Prime Minister, and just how important it is to Coalition MPs to stay in office beyond an election certain to occur by May 2019.

On the former count, I’m not convinced, but on the latter, the mutterers have been muttering now for some time. This morning, you can almost hear them sharpening their knives.

I will attempt to comment further when I get back from Sydney tonight, but if I miss, I will catch up with readers later in the week. Tomorrow and Wednesday see me on another trip — this time to Brisbane. Such is life. 🙂

Abbott, Credlin May Be Bitter, Angry, Hypocritical – But They’re Right

MUCH HAS been made this week about “interventions” by Tony Abbott in Turnbull government affairs, including criticism the former PM is bitter, wants to be a wrecker, and that he is damaging the Liberal Party; Abbott doesn’t have to damage the Liberal Party: under its current leader, it is doing that itself. Abbott and perennial sidekick Peta Credlin may be angry and bitter — rear-view mirror hypocrites, even. But like it or not, they are also right.

As I have said time and again, I really don’t like writing articles that are critical of my own party; even so, this column is predicated on candid comment — not churning out sycophantic Liberal Party propaganda — and when the party itself looks well placed to finish the job started at last year’s election, and gift government to Labor in 18 months to two years’ time, there is nothing “loyal” or “on message” about keeping quiet.

Especially when I’m horrified at the thought of what a Shorten government can and would do to Australia. Especially when I desperately want my party to clean up its act and succeed.

I’m in a position that, depending on your outlook, could be seen as either an opportunity or highly compromised; on the one hand, and whilst unaligned within the Liberal Party, my natural inclination is toward the conservative side of the party: not the “far Right,” where people are obsessed with prosecuting anyone connected with abortions, or vilifying even law-abiding moderate Muslims in a campaign to run the whole lot of them out of Australia in order to remove extreme elements who should never have been allowed to enter in the first place, but the mainstream conservative Right — a position reflected over years of successful government and typified by the likes of John Howard, Peter Reith, Alexander Downer, to some extent Peter Costello, and (with an eye to his performance as a minister) Tony Abbott.

But on the other, there are increasing numbers of Turnbull people — moderate Liberals — entering my orbit; they passionately argue that leaving the present Prime Minister in his role is critical, and that he and the people surrounding him — be they ministers, senior advisors, or staff — are “good people,” or “top quality people,” and once again, certainly on a personal basis and with a couple of exceptions, that is also correct.

The problem derives from the fact that not only did Malcolm Turnbull — not really a creature of the Liberal Party at all, weighed against both the complexion of the rank and file membership and the philosophical and policy settings of its 12 successful years in office under Howard — plot and scheme to knife the predecessor who both returned the party to office in a landslide and frittered away the authority of that mandate through misdirected priorities, loyalties, and a policy program aimed squarely at hurting its own constituency, but he has in the 18 months since that event presided over his own government that has been mediocre, timid, and incapable of advocating a cogent comprehensive policy blueprint or exhibiting the bottle to implement one (or virtually anything else).

There is an article appearing today in The Spectator Australia that reads like a carefully detailed itinerary of everything that is wrong with the federal government under Turnbull; it is a surgical — and virtually unrebuttable — itemisation of “75 weeks” of what to the outsider gives every appearance of an almost deliberate strategy to throw away the authority of government (and government itself) through inaction, torpor, mediocrity, directionless, and plain old-fashioned gutlessness.

It echoes the utterances of Abbott himself during the week — which provoked a shitstorm of enraged media activity from the Turnbull loyalists, as well as from conservatives like Matthias Cormann — in which he proclaimed that the Turnbull government risked “drifting to defeat” and observed that attacking Bill Shorten was one thing, but that defeat would inevitably come unless we got “our own policies right:” precisely the sentiment articulated in this column a week ago.

And we now have former Abbott Chief of Staff Peta Credlin (who was demoted from the same role by Turnbull as opposition leader) — continuing to use her media platforms at Sky News and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph to try to rehabilitate her own image before a public audience — arguing that the Liberal Party is “in deep trouble” and that Abbott’s interventions amount to nothing more than “trying to help.”

Are Abbott’s renewed outbursts against his successor a case of sniping, undermining and exacting a measure of vengeance? Probably.

Are Abbott’s policy prescriptions — abandoning the Renewable Energy Target, abolishing S18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and a raft of other measures he failed to tackle as Prime Minister — hypocritical when judged against his own performance as leader? Quite possibly.

And is Credlin — seething over Turnbull’s ascension, and driven by a need for retribution at the same time she tries to hoodwink the men and women on the street into believing she was the greatest thing the Coalition under Abbott had going for it — motivated more by vanity and sour grapes than truly accepting her mistakes? Almost certainly.

Yet it is one of those uncomfortable realities that even if you subscribe to all three of those contentions, Abbott and Credlin are also — incredibly — absolutely correct.

When discussing the performance of the Turnbull government (or, particularly, what is wrong with it) it does seem we cover the same ground in almost the same terms; there is a good reason for that — the problems are glaringly obvious, as they were under Abbott himself, albeit for different reasons — and it is a source of tremendous frustration to watch Turnbull and his minions apparently determined to piss away the opportunity to build a lasting, competent administration that might eventually boast some kind of record of achievement.

Columns like mine — and others like them, up to and including some of the mass-circulation regulars in metropolitan dailies — are too easily dismissed as being published by crackpots advancing personal agendas that are “off message” with the official party line: they can be as “off message” as they want to be in my view, for the Liberal Party’s message during this incarnation in government (and it’s a criticism readers know I often levelled at Abbott and Credlin, too) is the wrong message altogether.

If Australian people want commitments to high renewable energy targets, carbon taxes (of whatever description), fealty with climate change alarmism that can’t conclusively prove whether the “change” is cyclical or man-made, international conventions to cut emissions, unquestioning tolerance of Muslim immigration (with a head-up-the-arse denial of the creeping effects of militant Islam), a refusal to abolish 18c, a refusal to make meaningful attempts at achieving widespread economic reform, smaller government or lower overall taxes, they can and will vote for the ALP or the Communist Party Greens.

This we know as fact: the ALP under Bill Shorten campaigned unapologetically on all of those things, and more, and the overall vote for the Left rose by a couple of percentage points at last year’s election as a result.

But what we also know as fact is that a considerable majority of the Australian public do not actually want these things at all; the overwhelming movement away from the Liberal Party at last year’s election was to the assortment of fringe parties springing up to its Right, not to Labor or the Greens: the so-called “million lost votes” that went directly to One Nation, the ALA, the Liberal Democrats, Family First and others, which might next time partially flow to Cory Bernardi’s hard Right outfit, and which transferred almost as a bloc to Labor on preferences — not from any willingness or inclination to endorse Shorten, but from a total refusal to endorse Turnbull in any way, shape or form, and to attempt to ensure he lost the election as “punishment” for his overthrow of Abbott.

This distinction sits at the very heart of what is wrong with the government in its current configuration, and is why Turnbull is spectacularly and singularly unsuited to leading it: his initial burst of public support in reputable opinion polls was only ever going to translate into votes and seats if he went to an election immediately, before the hardened lefties who spent the Abbott years cheering him on woke up to themselves, remembered they’d prefer to vote for Labor or the Greens than a caricature-like imitation hailing from Point Piper and armed with tens of millions of dollars — and jumped off the Turnbull cart as enthusiastically as they had leapt upon it as a way of “sticking it” to Abbott.

Whenever I say to any of the Turnbull adherents in my midst that I have a high personal opinion of Malcolm, I’m met with deep scepticism and doubt: if I truly believed that, the story goes, I’d be enthusiastically rooting for his success.

Which I periodically do of course, the rare times he kicks a goal, or lands a blow against the repellant Shorten: regular readers know I give credit where it is due. In Turnbull’s case, it is warranted all too infrequently.

But just as I like some Labor figures personally (Joel Fitzgibbon and Mark McGowan spring quickly to mind), I’d never vote for them in a pink fit: the principle is identical.

And if Turnbull really is the greatest Liberal leader of all time, but has simply failed to hit his straps and carry the country with him, what does that say about the hand-picked cabal of people guiding, advising and strategising for him?

That’s not a question any of them want to answer. At such a juncture, it all becomes the fault of Abbott, Credlin, and the press.

Of course it is.

And of people like me who refuse to blindly toe the line, or get “on message,” or refuse to parrot the propaganda of a ship that is sailing on a one-way ticket to nowhere.

Of course it is.

Whether Turnbull’s group likes it or not, or admits it or not, the vast bulk of the electorate (to say nothing of a probable majority of the Liberal rank and file) despise Turnbull, and it doesn’t matter what those who have worked with him, or those of us who have otherwise had dealings with him and like him, think otherwise: Malcolm is a widely disliked figure who most people do not want as their Prime Minister.

This is no endorsement of Shorten (who, with more than a single IQ point, would ever give one of those?) and it does not automatically follow that such a position is a call for Abbott to be restored as Prime Minister.

Indeed, I have never advocated an Abbott return either publicly or in private, and it would take more than a few accurate comments in the press on his (or Credlin’s) behalf to convince me otherwise.

But the Coalition right now is beset, in no particular order, with a leader who will never win another election; a “policy” program (for want of any better description) that is very thin, very narrow, and hardly a comprehensive template for governance; is saddled with a Turnbull/Labor/Greens formulation on social issues and climate change that is complete anathema to voters who would ordinarily incline to vote Liberal; exhibits no idea, inclination or ability to contemplate broad-brush, sweeping reforms that are desperately overdue (for example, a company tax cut — whilst necessary to stimulate employment — is not “tax reform,” and is just another band-aid to look like it stands for anything at all).

It is lumbered with people responsible for mass communications, political strategy and parliamentary tactics who are clearly completely and utterly clueless: for if they weren’t, and especially with the likes of Shorten to contend with as an opponent, the government would be 10-15 points ahead of the ALP in the polls and generating a deep reservoir of public goodwill for itself.

It isn’t.

Even this week’s decision by the Fair Work Commission — an ALP-created entity stacked with Labor appointees — to modestly cut Sunday penalty rates has been squandered as an opportunity to ram home the benefits to the Coalition’s core small business constituency, and to hang Shorten out to dry for opposing them as a union puppet who would prefer to see jobs destroyed rather than created.

To Credlin, I say that whilst my trenchant opposition to her as Chief of Staff may have softened, a better approach might be to gather those like-minded, able folk who are desperate for the Liberal Party to succeed (be they inside or outside the Canberra bubble) to forge and set out comprehensive plans for government, a comprehensive strategy to implement them, and a realistic strategy to get rid of Turnbull and replace him with someone who might be up to delivering on it: to this extent, my door is open.

To the Turnbullites, my suggestion would be to forget about trying to drive conservatives out of the party — for what that is doing is already destroying it — and to rule a line under 18 wasted months by moving to incorporate the same solutions in office as those any putative replacement might be inclined to enact if they are able to dislodge Malcolm and again, my door is open.

There are plenty of good, astute people in and around the Liberal Party who simply want it to succeed; they want it fixed, they want it to function, and (distinctions about conservatives or moderates aside) they don’t really care who does it, so long as the job is done. Those people are largely shut out of the party’s inner sanctums — often for petty, adolescent, and/or ancient reasons that defy common sense and sanity today.

But to ignore the reality of the predicament Turnbull and his mates have spent 18 months steering the Coalition into is every bit as destructive as their increasingly strident denunciations of the man he replaced — the merits or otherwise of that action aside — and one thing that can be stated with brutal, and deadly, candour is that if left merrily to their own devices, Turnbull and his crowd will engineer the mother of all election defeats that will hit the Liberal Party like an atom bomb when next it ventures out to face the people.

It will make 2007 look like a blip. It will make 1983 look mild.

And the most damning aspect of that is that most of the carnage will have been inflicted not through an embrace of Shorten and Labor, but by fucked-off Coalition voters determined to punish Turnbull heavily by the only means available to them: the ballot box.

The motives of Abbott and Credlin this week may be dubious, questionable, their arguments hypocritical, and their actions selfish in the extreme.

Like it or not, for once both of them are absolutely right.

It remains to be seen how those positioned to do something about the problems they have identified respond: whether this takes the form of the Right manoeuvring to replace Turnbull, or the Turnbull crowd finally waking up to itself and realising it has almost pissed the entire game away.

But the clock is ticking, and with almost a third of what was always going to be a truncated parliamentary term gone, the time for any of them to do something concrete to fix the problem has almost passed: if, that is, Turnbull hasn’t already pushed the Coalition beyond the point of no return in the estimation of the voting public and, most importantly, the Liberal-inclined voters without whom the government is finished.

Time will tell. It always does.

The only certainty is that if nothing changes, defeat at the next election is guaranteed. On that count at least, Abbott is dead right.

Italian Job: Abbott Partly Right On Senate Reform Call

THERE IS great merit in the call by Tony Abbott — reported in The Australian today — for a proper, multifaceted overhaul of the Senate to remove the parliamentary gridlock into which Australian government is sliding; Abbott is right to conclude that the upper house is no longer a “house of review,” much less a “States’ House.” But the measures he advocates are yet another Band-Aid approach where radical surgery is in fact warranted.

The problem of Australia’s entrenched, anti-democratic and unrepresentative Senate is one we have periodically contemplated in this column, and something that is the fault of both the ALP and the Coalition parties for creating; it is Labor’s fault for the electoral “fiddles” — in 1948 and, particularly, in 1984 — that enabled the enduring mess in the upper house to even be possible, and it is the Coalition’s fault for lacking the backbone, ideas and the communications skills with which to persuasively argue for and implement a solution to it.

The “reform” of the Senate electoral system enacted by the Turnbull government last year should be dismissed with contempt as ineffectual, infinitesimal, and proof of the Coalition’s current dearth of nous or will where advocacy for significant and meaningful reform is concerned.

I have been reading Paul Kelly’s piece in The Weekend Australian today — a preview of a speech “to be delivered in the next few days” by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott that will call for “resolute action” to break the gridlock in Australian politics that the Senate, rigged, gamed and hijacked as a battering ram, imposes — with more than a little interest; the state of the Senate is an ugly stain on Australian democracy, and anyone who claims my arguments on this subject are born purely of political self-interest need only compare the architecture of the upper house today to what was created by Australia’s founders in 1901. There is almost no resemblance between the two whatsoever.

And the reason this is such an indictment on the national polity is that the two rounds of change that are most responsible for this mess were never endorsed by voters at a referendum at all.

Labor’s 1948 changes — which increased the size of the House of Representatives from 74 to 121 seats, and the Senate from 36 to 60 — were, on one level, entirely justified due to population growth.

Its 1984 changes — expanding the lower house from 125 to 148 seats, and the Senate from 64 to 76 — were similarly justified on the same grounds.

But the introduction of proportional representation to the Senate by Labor in 1948 opened a Pandora’s box that the ALP revisited in 1984 with no better rationale than attempting to permanently destroy the ability of its opponents to control the upper house; it is true that the first past the post system that applied to the Senate prior to the 1949 election — with each state voting “as a single electorate,” as the Constitution puts it — routinely produced lopsided electoral results that gave one side or the other an iron grip on the Senate: and as the non-Labor parties were arguably the natural parties of government until 1983, this more often than not meant the ALP was rendered toothless in the upper house.

The primary driver for the 1984 changes, of course, derived from the events of November 1975 — when the Malcolm Fraser-led opposition used an upper house majority to engineer the dismissal of the Whitlam government — and Labor’s determination to never again permit the Coalition to achieve control of the Senate; reforms involving the introduction of proportional representation have been imposed by Labor on upper houses in every state Parliament that has one over the past few decades as well, with varying degrees of success in stopping the Coalition controlling them.

I have published previously on this issue; in November 2014, in a piece readers can access here, which was in turn a development of an earlier piece from October 2013, which can be viewed here.

I have suggested more than once in the past that the House of Representatives — with each MP responsible for some 110,000 electors, as opposed to 60,000-ish in 1984 — needs to be increased in size again, to 180 or even 200 seats; this is hardly a surprise, given Australia’s population has grown from 14 million to 25 million in the same period.

The UK’s 45 million registered voters (or roughly triple the number of voters in Australia), to offer a comparison, are served by 650 members of the House of Commons (or 600 once a pending reduction of the size of the Commons is completed).

But I am insistent that the Senate should not be increased in size; the further its numbers are increased on the current electoral system, the greater the scope for tiny parties to “win” seats on a sliver of a fraction of the primary vote becomes: such is the impact of “preference gaming” that has arisen over the past decade, completing and compounding the effects of Labor’s 1984 changes, and which is the final component of the anti-democratic mess the Senate is today.

In fact, I see no need whatsoever for 76 Senators in Australia at all: the USA, with 320 million people, has 100. Australia is the most overgoverned country in the world, and whilst I am open to abolishing the states in favour of a two-tiered system based on a Commonwealth government devolving spending and service delivery to localised regional authorities, that’s an argument for another time.

But the size of the Senate isn’t, and there is no reason — aside from the stipulation of Section 24 of the Constitution, which dictates the House must be as nearly as practicable twice the size of the Senate — why its numbers cannot be cut to the 64 spots that applied to it prior to 1984.

It is here that I begin to find fault with the Abbott argument.

The former PM (as reported by Kelly) makes no mention of a referendum question to break the nexus S24 imposes in relation to the size of the Houses of Parliament; on a particularly minimalist interpretation of constitutional change, the easiest way to give effect to the solution Abbott seeks is to abolish S24 or modify it significantly, increase the size of the lower house, and cut the number of Senators.

But this would leave in place the proportional system that Abbott rightly fingers as the culprit responsible for decades of political instability and chaos in Italy, where unsteady governments are cobbled together based on inconclusive proportional election results, and which fall on average every 12-18 months on account of their inability to effectively govern.

As readers will see from the past articles I have linked to today’s piece, I have outlined previously an alternative solution: upper house districts, akin to the system that applied in Victoria prior to 2002 when the ALP junked it and replaced it with a token proportional voting system, that return one Senator at half-Senate elections, and two at full Senate elections, based on a preferential voting system.

In some respects, the point here is that a plethora of alternative models exist for overhauling the Senate; I suggest that the “solution” implemented by the Turnbull government last year — an “optional preferential” approach to proportional voting — was just a Band-Aid to avoid tackling, head-on, the much greater problem that the Senate voting system itself needed overhauling rather than tinkering around the edges.

But even if we work with an assumption that proportional voting stays — a prospect that is anathema to anyone who believes democratic government should reflect the will of the majority rather than pandering to minorities — there are still changes that could be made that would give effect to some of what Abbott, others like him, and myself have been agitating for.

Placing a threshold on the percentage of primary votes required to qualify for election to the Senate is the obvious one; those who oppose such a measure (overwhelmingly, people from the political Left) are wont to rhetorically ask why, if a candidate or party gets 10% of the vote, they shouldn’t get 10% of the seats?

In isolation, it’s a fair argument, and one answered by the fact that at a half-Senate election in each state, one-sixth of the six Senate berths up for grabs equates to 16% of the available seats; at a double dissolution, one-twelfth equates to about 8% of the available seats. It would be just as fair to say that 16% (or 8% at a double dissolution) was a reasonable ask in terms of electoral performance to qualify for election to office.

There goes the argument that Ricky Muir, on 0.5% of the primary vote in Victoria in 2013, deserved to be elected; there, too, goes the argument that any or all of the candidates who have polled less than 8% at any election deserve to be elected either (and in the past few decades, this ensnares dozens of independent and minor party candidates, including — regularly in some states — the Communist Party Greens).

A further justification these people offer up is that a party winning 8% of the national Senate vote should be rewarded with 8% of the Senate spots (which, to the nearest whole number, is 6 Senators). But Senate elections are in fact conducted on a state-by-state basis, and such an argument is thus a fallacy.

I make these points because I have argued in the past that a primary vote threshold of 5% to qualify for election (with the threshold to qualify for public election funding lifted from 4% to 5% to align the two benchmarks) is not only reasonable, but it would actually represent a discount to the number of votes proportionally required to justify election at all, and frankly — with an eye to the myriad of single-issue minorities who think they are entitled to a seat in Parliament in the first place — if 5% of the vote in any given state is too much for them to achieve, then they shouldn’t be elected at all.

Seats in Parliament are not some divine right, legitimised by arcane preference-harvesting deals: they can and should actually require a reasonable level of direct actual public support.

These are considerations, based on Kelly’s reportage of the Abbott position, that appear to have been overlooked.

I agree with Abbott completely when he speaks of the disenchantment of Australians with the political process; a government that can deliver either nothing at all, or merely some lowest-common denominator fix that clears the Senate but in practice pleases nobody, is a government few will  be satisfied with — and rightly so.

I am also, as regular readers well know, a proponent of the notion that governments should be allowed to implement their agenda in full, and then subject to the verdict of voters at the ballot box, and the present system in the Senate, now operating at its logical conclusion thanks to increased quotas and preference harvesting arrangements (irrespective of what Turnbull did to it last year), makes such a quaintly democratic objective impossible to give effect to.

The disgusting spectacle between 2013 and 2016 of the Senate going on disgraceful witch hunts to destroy state governments and to openly seek to destroy the government in the lower house, contrived by Labor, the Greens, and Clive Palmer’s mad little outfit, is another foreseeable consequence of the 1984 Senate changes that should never have been permitted to occur.

It was the final proof — if more was required — that the Senate is not a “States’ House,” nor a “house of review,” but a political instrument that could be used to batter governments to death: even governments well beyond Canberra and the direct remit of the Senate itself.

I disagree with the Abbott idea of regular joint sittings of Parliament to clear deadlocked legislation; in practice, we would be having joint sittings all the time, so to speak, as the Senate would dig in even deeper if it is hostile to a government in the lower house on the hope some additional votes could be rounded up from lower house MPs to counter the majority of the government of the day.

The Turnbull government, for example, would be lucky to pass legislation at such a sitting at all, which is why no joint sitting was convened after last year’s double dissolution election: the government’s grip. not just on office but on Parliament itself, is metaphorically held by the fingernails on one hand, and is insecure to say the least.

Including change in any constitutional reform referendum to enable a new Senate to be convened immediately after an election and at the same time as a freshly elected House of Representatives, however, would be something well worth exploring — and Abbott apparently has failed to explore that avenue as well.

But broadly, I think Tony Abbott is on the right track here: the current arrangements for electing the Senate are undemocratic, unrepresentative and unstable, and better befit some third world country experimenting with a fumbling move toward democracy than a first world western country with a tradition of democratic process stretching back more than 100 years.

And in a final nod to accusations of political self-interest, I should note that like any cynical fix — just as Labor’s 1984 changes now work to its, and the Greens,’ seemingly permanent advantage, as they were intended to — they can also bite their proponents on the arse, as occurred in 2004 when the Howard government unexpectedly managed to win a narrow Senate majority.

Any doubt about the bona fides of “democratic” ALP electoral reform should be dispelled with one glance north of the Tweed River, where the optional preferential voting system introduced by the Goss government (as part of Fitzgerald-directed anti-corruption reforms, no less) has been cynically junked by the current Labor state government to a) force Greens voters to allocate preferences, which can confidently be expected to break the ALP’s way by an 80-20 margin, and b) capitalise on emerging splits in the non-Labor vote.

What goes around comes around, which is why — with the basic premise that the Senate is broken, and must be fixed, beyond reasonable dispute — a solution that eliminates all of these anomalies and dysfunctionalities, and produces a democratic and representative upper house, is well past due.

Such an enterprise requires radical surgery, not a Band-Aid. In this sense Abbott’s ideas are a step in the right direction, but he still has some way to go to find the solution.

This effort will be viciously opposed on the Left by a self-interested ALP and others, who bleat about excluding voices from government and a “less diverse” Parliament, and rendered almost useless by a Coalition whose “tactical” and “strategic” prowess has been shown, over the past four years, to be as good as non-existent.

Abbott has his work cut out for him. We wish him well.

 

A Policy Agenda — Not Hubris — Key To Holding Government

IF YOU DO the same things the same way, the same result is inevitable; yet this truism of life, love, politics (and virtually anything else) seems too complicated for the parliamentary class — and, topically, Malcolm Turnbull and his government — to comprehend. The current PM is the latest in a long line of leaders who will fall on the sword of abject stupidity this year. More will follow. But an agenda, not slogans and hubris, could be his salvation.

Is it too late for Malcolm Turnbull to “remake” his government, salvage his Prime Ministership, provide leadership to his country, and forge a meaningful, valuable legacy by which future generations might regard his tenure with a bit of respect?

I think it is; others will disagree. But since publication yesterday of the piece I promised last week — a stocktake at the top of the year of how it is likely to unfold, and what it holds in store for Turnbull — there are a couple of items that have appeared in the media that fit the theme, and this morning I want to make some remarks about them.

An article by Peter van Onselen — which, admittedly, I have sat on for a few days — makes the cogent case about policy that could almost have been penned as a parallel piece to the political analysis offered in this column yesterday, for the itinerary of policy abrogation van Onselen offers is deadly in its clarity, and galling in scope.

If you are a liberal or a conservative, there is nothing for you at the Turnbull government, as things stand.

Economic reform, smaller government, industrial relations reform, tax reform, budget repair, education reform, media law reform…this list, by no means extreme or (to use the ridiculous taunt of the Left, eagerly parroted by the left-leaning press pack) “far Right,” reads like some line-by-line itemisation of the Howard government. Until Howard inadvisedly sprang WorkChoices on the Australian public without taking the package to the 2004 election, and doubled down on that folly by placing serial bungler and conservative disappointment Kevin Andrews in charge of implementing it, the Howard government derived vast electoral and political success from its stature as a reformist administration of the mainstream Right.

Readers well know I am far less a liberal than a conservative, despite a sprinkling of liberal positions across an otherwise rational conservative outlook, so when van Onselen nominates things like reform to asylum seeker policies — which I take implies some watering down of policies that have been abandoned once before, by Labor (in cahoots with the Communist Party Greens) in 2008, to disastrous effect and at the cost of well over a thousand lives — I bristle.

But let’s take the suggestion at its word: this is exactly the kind of issue the fawning elites of the liberal Left, who adored Malcolm but were never going to vote for him, nonetheless believed he would champion if elevated to the Prime Ministership in Tony Abbott’s stead; it isn’t just the conservative flank of the Liberal Party Turnbull has thumbed his nose at (or more precisely, extended the metaphorical one-fingered salute to wherever practicable), but the left wing contingent in the inner cities whose social agenda has always — whether he likes it or not — been Malcolm’s natural constituency.

A free vote on marriage equality? Even this issue, historically beloved of Turnbull (even if not on my own wish list), is a nugget of classical liberalism that the Prime Minister is too timid to countenance. The notion of being “hamstrung” by the conservative flank of the Liberal Party be damned: such alleged constraints didn’t stop him from signing the Paris Agreement on climate change — vehemently opposed by conservative liberals, and by anyone in the Australian community with any brains at all — and the truth is that he simply doesn’t have the bottle (or actual leadership skills) to act.

The fiction that Turnbull is a hostage to the conservative wing of the Liberal Party is just that — a fiction — and the notion that allegedly draconian policies like the current arrangements for processing asylum seekers has been maintained because Turnbull “dare not” overturn them somehow derives from the threat of leadership destruction doesn’t hold water. These policies work (like it or not) and even were Turnbull inclined to be rid of them, he has failed to articulate any alternative vision whatsoever let alone attempt to implement one.

And in any case, Turnbull has had no qualms over almost 18 months about ignoring everything else the conservative flank of the party is interested in; the list of areas that are ripe for reform presented by van Onselen (and lamented in this column regularly) is proof of it.

The fact, as van Onselen notes with deadly accuracy, is that “Do-nothing Turnbull” now rules for the sake of retaining power: it is not satisfactory, it will achieve nothing, and it will almost certainly lead to electoral defeat whenever the next election occurs unless a drastic recalibration of the government takes place.

The practice of government by spin, slogans, stunts, “smart answers,” and smug hubris has worn more than a little thin in the decade since Kevin Rudd pioneered it as a nihilistic strategy to win power for the ALP after almost 12 years in the political wilderness.

In the years since, both parties (and incorporating a slew of governments across the states, as well as at the federal level) have increasingly perpetuated the same narrow agenda whose key pillars are political correctness, risk aversion, facile rhetoric, and a slavering pursuit of policies to “deal with” climate change (about which Australia, with less than 1% of world emissions, can make exactly no difference to global outcomes whatsoever — and even that is if you accept climate change is man-made, rather than part of a natural long-term cycle).

Those critical of this view from the harder Right will counter that the Abbott government tried, and failed, to implement a substantive policy agenda.

But even that was hard to describe as “liberal” or “conservative,” beyond stopping the flow of asylum seeker boats and getting rid of the carbon tax; those items aside, the Abbott government was a big-spending, big-taxing outfit whose program of budget repair was predicated on steep tax hikes aimed at its own natural constituency rather than slashing the unaffordable spending on expensive social measures and thousands of unnecessary bureaucrats gleefully locked into place by the Gillard government.

The Abbott government abolished the carbon tax, but left the compensation measures in place. It agitated, vainly, for more expensive social spending in the form of its paid parental leave scheme, funded by more tax hikes on the business community. It sought to get rid of the mining tax (which raised virtually no money) but through timidity and appalling tactical ineptitude did a deal with Clive Palmer that left billions of dollars in related spending in place to get the measure through the Senate.

Many times, I was asked by people why I supported the “far Right” Abbott government: in all cases, I responded (correctly) that it wasn’t “far Right” — but it wasn’t liberal, it wasn’t conservative, it was simply an assortment of disparate measures that defied classification at all. And once the agenda was largely abandoned, Abbott became yet another proponent of the same mishmash of prevailing left-leaning rubbish that all the other governments around the country have been guilty of pursuing.

Unaware that there is a rock band (or a rock song? I’m showing my age 🙂 ) by the same name, I have referred to this as a “turgid miasma:” and such a confluence of political posturing isn’t a substitute for a proper suite of policy objectives either.

There are some who watch former Abbott Chief of Staff Peta Credlin on Sky News, or read her missives in the Daily Telegraph, and who have started to lament that Credlin should be “our first female Liberal Prime Minister.” These people have absolutely no insight whatsoever into the role Credlin played in the dysfunction of the Abbott government or its avoidable downfall, and have been hoodwinked by the exercise in image rehabilitation her media activities constitute. They can’t be told about her appalling management style, or the fact that she had oversight and final veto over everything Abbott’s government did, or that she was the “mastermind” (for want of any more suitable term) of its parliamentary tactics, which were abjectly pathetic and ran completely counter to delivering outcomes based on sound governance.

This is why I cannot support a return to the Liberal leadership by Tony Abbott, despite my well-known view that Malcolm Turnbull’s position as PM is untenable (not that it should ever have commenced in the first place): you get Abbott, you get Credlin. If she is not restored to her old office in Parliament House, you get her at the end of a phone line. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, pointless making Abbott PM again, for not only was the agenda he pursued questionable, but the strategies and tactics used to prosecute it — Credlin’s department — were utterly useless.

With all this in mind, it came as some surprise this morning to see Mark Kenny — writing in the Fairfax press — arguing (with an apparent straight face) that a forthcoming speech by Malcolm Turnbull to the National Press Club offers an opportunity to reassert “his brand, his authority.”

Through his own actions (and it has been a case of action, not inaction: witness the farce of the embarrassing tax reform “debate” he allowed to play out last year ago, crippling the authority of his Treasurer in the process as a case in point), Turnbull has already comprehensively trashed his own brand — be it with liberals, conservatives, or the socialists who once noisily barracked for him) and squandered whatever authority he might have wielded.

The string of botched reshuffles, promoting leadership adherents ahead of any rational political judgement. The failure to call an election late in 2015 — on the thoroughly erroneous strategic miscalculation that he was “new” — that he would have romped home at. The said tax reform “debate.” The appalling election campaign over which he presided, and which arguably reaped a greater return than it deserved. The triumphant taunting of the Liberals’ conservatives, some of whom look likely to be silly enough to stomp out of the party, too incensed at being goaded to contemplate the damage they will do to the conservative polity in this country. On and on and on it goes. The list of examples is endless.

Can Malcolm retrieve himself? I doubt it. Yet in a surprising piece of insight, and speaking of mid-term leadership changes (with a comparative look at Gladys Berejiklian in NSW), Kenny writes that

“If there is a lesson for the incoming Gladys Berejiklian, it is to govern outwardly, rather than for cackling mob of insatiable media reactionaries and internal malcontents. Do that, and the opposition will be hemmed in – not the other way around.

“For Turnbull, who took the alternative, futile, path of appeasement, there has been compound failure: vastly lower standing with voters but with even more dissent from within – witness the outpourings of Abbott, George Christensen, and now the emergent threat of a breakaway party led by Cory Bernardi.”

In other words, not even the forthcoming National Press Club speech he trumpets so loudly is likely to resuscitate Turnbull’s fortunes.

To be sure, Turnbull isn’t the first leader to fall into the trap of the turgid miasma, and in this era of “modern” politics, he isn’t likely to be the last; the ALP and the Greens in particular, whose historic positioning on the spectrum at least mark out that awful mishmash as something they can own, will keep on playing the same game — sometimes they will fall into office for a while, and when the damage they inflict on the country becomes impossible to deny, they will get thrown back out again.

But on the conservative side of politics, where finger-shaking political correctness and “compassion” predicated on bottomless buckets of money that don’t actually exist are out of place as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking competition, talk — and the wanton flinging of money — simply won’t cut it.

If Turnbull is remotely serious about salvaging his Prime Ministership and his government, the only way forward is a comprehensive program of legislative reform designed to fundamentally overhaul all the areas of governance in which responsible and properly calibrated mainstream right-wing ideas can extract improvements in the national interest; the list of areas at the top of this article, whilst obvious places to begin, is by no means exhaustive.

At the very least, it would give the troops something to fight for — and a platform on which to fight any early election, in sharp contrast to the vacuous compassion and “fairness” blather Bill Shorten will deploy, as sure as night follows day, to win votes without actually being responsible for all that much afterwards.

“Jobs and Growth” doesn’t cut it: and in any case, six months after an election and nothing to show for it, this nauseating slogan has already been exposed as just another tired piece of rhetoric.

The Prime Minister — like the rest of Australia’s elected representatives — can talk until the cows come home, and ever weary, people will listen.

But if all the talk in the world adds up to nothing more than smug hubris and empty declarations of competence that are completely contradicted by a lack of tangible outcomes, voters are not going to be impressed.

The electorate has just about had enough. Turnbull will probably be its next victim. Many more will follow until the penny drops, whenever that might be.

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. 

Happy New Year, Prime Minister: Now Fix It

AFTER TEN years of aimless governance and the primacy of policy that is ideologically driven by the far Left or far Right and/or based in cynical, dishonest, jingoistic populism, Australia’s sins are coming home to roost: Malcolm Turnbull holds office at a time the consequences of reprehensible political ineptitude are about to crash into the Canberra firmament like a nuclear bomb. Happy New Year, Prime Minister. Your job is to fix it. We doubt you can.

It is one thing to be in office, but another matter altogether to be in power; on the cusp of a difficult political year, it would take a bold pundit indeed to suggest Malcolm Turnbull holds power at all.

This reality — and the contribution made to it by the sham of his own Prime Ministership — is likely to cost Turnbull, his party and the country very heavily indeed.

Australia has become virtually ungovernable from the Right, and impossible to protect from the Left, through a cascade of disparate yet interconnected events that are set to collide with the national polity in 2017 like an atomic bomb; a quisling would say that this is the fault of the Labor Party and the damage it inflicted upon Australia during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, and that Turnbull is merely unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But however valid any condemnation of the ALP and the Communist Party Greens might be, to say so would be to ignore the reality that the Liberal Party shares some of the burden of blame: and to whatever extent it is culpable for the crisis of governance Australia faces, the present government is disproportionately responsible for the lion’s share of that burden.

In some respects, you couldn’t invent the confluence of events that have created the political cesspool Turnbull faces if you tried: the wanton amateurism and sheer self-destructive bent he has exhibited as Prime Minister defy almost every known law of political orthodoxy.

But first, a little history.

There are those who accuse the Howard government of “squandering the resources boom,” an ALP criticism that is both unreasonable and incorrect; the Howard years saw the repayment of $110bn in debt left behind by Paul Keating, a budget billions of dollars in surplus, and billions more in the bank.

Could Howard and his Treasurer, Peter Costello, have done more? Possibly, with the wisdom of hindsight. But the reality is that whilst the $110bn spent fixing Labor’s budgetary vandalism might instead have paid for nation-building infrastructure, Australia’s debt-free, AAA-rated economic position wouldn’t exist today had Howard and Costello not acted as they did.

But from (roughly) 2004 onward, the Howard government also started to give things away in what is popularly decried by the Left as “middle class welfare:” tax cuts for middle income earners. Family benefits. Pension bonuses for self-funded retirees. These cost money. Responsible as they may have been regarded at the time, they set a precedent that was gleefully leapt upon by the ALP soon after it returned to office in 2007.

The Global Financial Crisis provided Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan the pretext upon which to start shovelling out cash: first under the guise of “stimulus spending,” but later by showering selected constituencies earmarked for electoral enslavement with hundreds of billions of dollars. Superannuation bribes for low income earners. Tens of billions of unaccountable “Gonski” education dollars. A “fully costed” National Disability Insurance Scheme that costs $22bn per annum, for which the original pot of cash is already empty. Preferential higher wages for certain unionised public sector employees, such as cleaners. Funding for “community organisations” that are no more than socialist propaganda units. The list goes on.

In other words, the advent of modest arbitrary spending under Howard was subsumed by the stimulus pursued by Rudd and Swan — with tacit support from the then Turnbull-led opposition — which in turn snowballed into an avalanche of legislated political spending the current government is welded to and unable to mitigate or repeal on account of a febrile Senate.

When the tactics of squalid Labor “leader” Bill Shorten are factored in — opposing practically everything for the sake of it, to the point of outright lies to voters — it is easy to see just how toxic the environment in which a conservative government must operate has become.

That’s the backdrop to the mess Turnbull now confronts: a budget nobody seriously believes will return to surplus despite the timid and simplistic account given of the figures by his Treasurer, Scott Morrison; a debt pile continuing to balloon and a hostile Senate that is disinclined to pass measures that might arrest that spiral; an empty agenda — let’s call that for what it is — and an apparent lack of any idea of how to develop one; and the complete lack of authority that is the inevitable by-product of winning a federal election by a single seat after a moderate to severe swing against the Coalition.

It is the compounding effects of these legacy problems — and the dire political straits in which Turnbull finds himself — that now stand to destroy the Turnbull government and with it, any prospect of sound government for the foreseeable future.

So strewn with potentially lethal incendiary devices is Malcolm’s path it is hard to know where to begin; but I think it instructive to redirect readers to the article I published two weeks ago, in which I called for Turnbull’s resignation: I urge everyone to read (or reread) this piece, for it fleshes out much that is wrong with his Prime Ministership and why, with growing inevitability, it seems destined to end in tears.

This column has never supported Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, and won’t: I was however prepared to let the farce roll on for a while before calling for its demise. The hope Malcolm might have made a decent fist — rather than a botch — of the task was a faint one, but regrettably the latter was always going to be the punchline of the “Malcolm for PM” story.

Never popular with the conservative Liberals who comprise roughly of 60% of the party’s grassroots membership, Turnbull’s coup against Tony Abbott means a majority of Liberal Party members do not support their leader: yes, we go out and campaign for him and yes, some of us support MPs and candidates who ultimately back Turnbull, but the reality is that more than half the party has no truck with him — an undesirable position at the best of times, let alone in turbulent weather.

Like a creature from beneath the septic tank, Pauline Hanson roared back onto the national stage at the July election, taking votes from Coalition voters disappointed by the inability of the Abbott government to deliver (thanks in large part to the Senate) and/or disgusted by Turnbull’s execution of Abbott and the government’s consequent leftward drift.

The Hanson phenomenon will grow before it eventually dies off again, and whilst John Howard might have fought her off where state Liberal leaders failed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Turnbull is hamstrung by the fact that in terms of political smarts, he isn’t a Howard bootlace.

Predictably, One Nation will leach more and more Coalition support. Turnbull will do nothing to arrest the slide because, literally, he can’t.

Hanson aside, Turnbull faces the real possibility of a reasonable chunk of the membership — plus God knows how many MPs intent on committing political seppuku — detaching itself early in 2017 to form some kind of “conservative” party headed by backbench South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi.

We examined this issue last week and observed that based on what is already known, not only would such a party not be “conservative” at all, but it would likely gift government to Labor for years: a sentiment echoed by Abbott yesterday in a newspaper opinion piece (which earned him a rebuke from Bernardi on the laughable basis it was written out of self-interest).

Should a solitary lower house MP follow Bernardi out of the Liberal Party, Turnbull will lose his tiny majority and face enormous, immediate and justified pressure to resign or call an election. Given the nature of the beast suggests he would do neither, the federal government would become a running sore that would fester all the way to an undeserved ALP triumph in 2019 and the emergence of a Labor government that really knows how to damage Australia.

Yet Turnbull doesn’t need Bernardi to inflict politically fatal blows on his government. He is quite capable of doing so himself.

Despite the blather about a “strong economic plan” to generate “jobs and growth,” the truth is that Turnbull won the July election with a very threadbare agenda.

Neither the inclination nor the capacity to craft and advocate a comprehensive blueprint from office in a “better late than never” rearguard action is evident.

In my critique of Bernardi’s putative “conservative” party, I outlined an orthodox conservative agenda that could be adopted by a major party of the mainstream Right which, incredibly, would pose few conflicts with Turnbull’s left-leaning personal instincts. To thus combat weakness with the presentation of substance would require courage, skill, and tenacity. But as his stupid “tax reform debate” earlier this year vividly showed, Turnbull has none of these attributes.

Even if nothing is actually legislated, racking up trigger after trigger for another double dissolution — with a substantial agenda upon which to subsequently campaign — would add tremendous legitimacy to the government’s claims to a “strong plan” and the obfuscation of the Senate for petty political purposes, but even this won’t motivate Turnbull to do it.

The new Senate, with its swollen crossbench, may indeed be marginally less hostile to the government, thanks principally to the eradication of Clive Palmer from the national polity.

Yet it would be a dangerous indulgence to think its realignment is in any way a reliable plus for the government: as a case in point, the bill to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission (which the July election was ostensibly fought upon) was rendered pointless by an amendment Turnbull agreed to from Derryn Hinch for a two-year lead-in period; the almost certain prospect of a Labor victory at the next election means the ABCC is already as good as dead.

In turn, this means the union movement — knowing the Coalition has persisted with measures to bring it to heel, and cock-a-hoop in the knowledge those measures will probably never apply to it — will be emboldened to cause maximum trouble for the Liberal Party before the next federal election.

Next year sees state elections in WA, SA, Tasmania, and probably Queensland. That’s a lot of opportunities for unions to send fake emergency service workers to polling booths to bully voters, and a lot of opportunities for “nurses” to hit the phones, as they did in Victoria in 2014, to frighten shitless the old, the frail, and the sick. Every Liberal electorate the unions deliver Labor is a campaign unit lost; every Liberal state government beaten or kept from office in the first place is an extra Labor voice at COAG. The existing Labor states have shown themselves to be in no mood to cause Turnbull anything other than grief.

Turnbull faces the loss of Australia’s prized AAA investment rating if the Senate refuses to play ball; at best, this would add billions to the cost of servicing existing debt — and to the already haemorrhaging budget deficit — that could lead only to higher taxes or higher debt if spending remains impossible to cut. At worst, the certain ALP onslaught would simply compound the magnitude of the Coalition’s eventual defeat. After all, selling anything — let alone persuasively arguing the merits of its position — is an area in which this government has failed spectacularly.

Bill Shorten will continue to crap on about things that are “cruel” or “unfair;” just enough gullible voters will listen to him. Labor will lie to them and many will lap it up, for human nature is to gravitate to the soft option. It matters nowt that Shorten offered $110bn in tax hikes at the last election. The current Coalition government, poorly advised and tactically and strategically inept, simply can’t puncture the contradiction.

Energy prices will rocket, because of the cross-partisan obsession with renewable energy that Turnbull personally seems fixated with. Thousands of years’ worth of cheap coal sits in the ground and could power homes and businesses for a fraction of the current cost. But Turnbull, with his infatuation with emissions trading schemes and his blindness to the silliness of Australia shackling itself to the global climate change junta (which the biggest emitters, the USA and China, thumb their noses at) seems determined to simply let that happen.

Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act sits unchanged despite irrefutable evidence it has been co-opted by the Left to cause political trouble on the feigned pretence of being “offended.” Yet this self-described “thoroughly liberal” Prime Minister lacks the fortitude to even attempt to change it to safeguard free speech.

Enraged voters — the silent majority in the suburbs and the regions — are already flirting with protest vehicles like Nick Xenophon’s party, or lunatic options like One Nation, in a desperate search for someone who might govern for them rather than for minorities, vested interests, and the electorally bribed. Coalition voters are disproportionately inflating those minor parties. Turnbull seems oblivious to the people walking away.

These people see an inner-city trendy obsessed with a republic (which will make no difference to their day-to-day welfare); climate change (over which they are fuming at being priced out of the capacity to heat and cool and light their homes); and same-sex marriage (a political football in this country for far too long, which can only be resolved by a popular vote if political posturing over it is to ever cease).

They see Malcolm having televised dinners with Muslim leaders, with scant regard for their own issues and communities: the clear message is that the great unwashed masses simply don’t count.

Their anger is already showing up in Newspolls, six of which in a row have shown Malcolm on course to lose an election badly. There is no firepower in the Coalition’s policy cupboard and the dubious record of its leader suggests the polls cannot now be turned. With the bonfire erupting around the Coalition, those polls will worsen. Turnbull must be held to account. Having used bad polls to destroy Abbott, he cannot eschew responsibility for bad polls now.

A restive public, in the absence of any compelling Coalition narrative to negate opportunistic Senators and lying Labor goons, has become conditioned by charlatans like Rudd and Shorten to think that governments announcing initiatives that make a single voter a dollar worse off ought to be run out of office — just to make things even harder.

So there it is: a Prime Minister with no authority and a fragile hold on power, mired in internal divisions and confronting the predatory spectre of One Nation on the lunar right wing, faced with a hostile Senate and a rotting budget position, approaches 2017 with little support from his party, the real possibility a chunk of it will defect, an angry electorate and an agenda — to the extent he has one — that is anathema to most voters.

If this is a clueless government led by an even more clueless figurehead, the only consolation is that Bill Shorten and Labor would be worse. That won’t stop voters electing them, however, if for no better reason than to be rid of the developing apocalypse that is the Turnbull government.

As one wag in the mainstream press noted last week, Turnbull’s greatest political achievement may ultimately prove simply to have been Prime Minister.

Happy New Year, Malcolm.