Friday, July 13, 2012


People may enter politics for altruistic reasons, but personal and political ambition is always there.

This post considers the conflicts that will be worked out over the ensuing months until parliament resumes again: Gillard vs her party; Abbott vs Turnbull; Labor vs Greens.

This is somewhat different from the piece that appeared in the Canberra Times on Tuesday . . . 


And so it begins again. Squabbling over leadership. Fighting over the spoils – victory, or defeat, it doesn’t really matter. People are innately ambitious, and the ruthlessly self-centred types that become politicians (or opinion columnists) are perhaps the most personally obsessed of all. The current show’s a double-bout, specially selected for your edification and entertainment! Witness a battle for policy direction and leadership at the same time. The first shots were fired last weekend, but there’ll be many more skirmishes to come before the battle’s resolved. Greens vs Labor; Rudd vs Gillard; Turnbull vs Abbott – and that’s before the election campaign even begins.

By that time the only issue likely to stimulate our political interest is likely to be the ultimate size of the coalition majority. So let’s use this (inevitable) premise as a starting point. The politicians know where the ship’s heading so it’s time to squabble over who’ll be captain and how to avoid the shoals. First, the urgent question that all, personally ambitious, politicians ask: ‘what’s in it for me’.

Let’s start with Labor. The government has so few options their calculations can be summarised with brevity. No matter what they say publically, not a single Labor MP genuinely believes Julia Gillard will be able to turn the polls around. Ever. The only questions remaining are (a) can she be persuaded to step down and (b) is there a replacement willing to put their head in the noose simply so they can appear in future text-books as one of the country’s shortest-serving Prime Ministers.

Kevin Rudd’s willing. How do we know? Well, take the long, feature-length interview with his wife Therese Rein in the paper over the weekend? It was three-quarters of the way through the interview before the journalist asked a question about the possibility of a Rudd comeback, but that was the lead in the story when it was printed. Just as it was intended to be.

He’d love the personal vindication, of course, coupled with the ability to strut the national stage again, however briefly. It’s all about historical legacy. Rudd would seize any opportunity to re-define his period at the helm, sticking it to everyone from his own party who jumped on his grave when he was down. He’d sack Wayne Swan (whispering softly as he sinks the knife deep, “sorry, mate, but it’s for the good of the party”), Stephen Conroy (“incompetent”) and Nicola Roxon (“not up to the job”), preen his plumage with perfect promises, and rush to an election before anything else fell apart. When Labor lost he could quite accurately claim he didn’t have enough time to turn public perceptions around and depart, his reputation exonerated.

This might be enough to save a couple of seats, but if he challenged the party would rip itself apart. So if Rudd is scratched, who else might take over? Nobody has the numbers unless Gillard hands over voluntarily. She certainly won’t do this until at least 14th September, the second anniversary of her swearing-in, but who’d take it anyway? The chalice of leadership is poisoned. Why would leading the party into the wilderness appear attractive to anyone who had even a sliver of political competency?

Across the dispatch-box the complexion is very different. Whomsoever takes the Liberals to the next election will enjoy the prospect of a decade at the helm. They’ll also choose who’s first mate and who scrapes out the bilge for a long while to come. There’s a lot at stake.

That’s why Malcolm Turnbull’s warning shot – the article about gay marriage – takes on such significance. What made his contribution so unusual, so very remarkable, is that it was about principle. Ideas. Policy. In other words, it’s as direct a challenge for the leadership as can be manufactured without actually stating; “your personal-approval ratings are abysmal, nyah, nyah, nyah”.

Tony Abbott has two problems – balanced by one, possibly overwhelming, advantage. The major difficulty he faces is his own personal brand of conservatism coupled with his relentless negativity. Turnbull’s article addressed this directly. He is presenting the possibilities of a (small-l) liberal path to the future. Pregnant within this option is the opportunity to garner votes from people who think Abbott’s sailing too close to the rocks and storms of a Howard-era past; a destination many hoped had been left behind. Turnbull’s promising clear skies and a sunny, all-embracing future.

Abbott’s second problem is the instability amongst his current crew. He can’t sack the under-performers because that would create enemies with vendettas. With numbers so finely balanced any trimming of the sails risks unbalancing the ship. Yet ironically, it’s this dodgy crew that makes up his protective guard. They’re sleeping around his cabin at night because they know that any change would see them – not all, but some – left as cast-aways. It takes the work of less than a moment to work out who’d be relegated to the far-reaches of the backbench.

Trouble is, this is also a problem for Turnbull. Before he can plot a path back to the leadership he’s got to hint at how he’d divide the spoils. Unfortunately, there’s not enough treasure for everyone. They have their own ambitions to consider. For some, taking a step back under Abbott today may open up new prospects in the future. This is particularly so unless they can be convinced that Malcolm has ‘changed’ and turned over a new leaf to become a genuinely consultative leader.

These squabbles have left the great mass of Australians wondering which ship to board, which is where the Labor/Green stoush fits in. When Bob Brown was leader he was usually careful to send a message that, at the last moment, the party would negotiate. He recognised that the representatives of 15 per cent of voters shouldn’t attempt to wedge the other 85. Today that’s changed. By nominating asylum-seekers as a critical issue the Greens are laying down a critical marker. They’re not for turning.

Unfortunately this means the next government’s likely to attempt to implement even harsher, draconian policies. Unless, of course, Turnbull’s the leader . . .

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