The Liberals when in opposition have always had a Messiah complex – a desperate search for anyone even remotely resembling a leader. (And just how desperate they were is evidenced by the fact that even Alexander Downer was once anointed).

Now – and please stop laughing, this is serious – with a stop gap mediocrity heading the parliamentary party, they are looking for an organisational Messiah, and if the answer is Richard Alston, it must have been a very silly question indeed.

On the plus side, Alston is a Victorian (and as Tony Wright wrote in The Age today this is the southern state’s only chance for a piece of the leadership action).

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Also in Alston’s favour is the fact that he is a former Victorian party president and has considerable political experience as a Senator and Howard Cabinet minister, not to mention the diplomatic skills he has presumably acquired in his London sinecure as High Commissioner. He is also charming and intelligent.

But what do the Liberals expect of him? All the talk is about changing the party constitution to allow brutal federal intervention in the state divisions and federal control over pre-selection instead of leaving it in the hands of the festering and squabbling little fiefdoms that now constitute this risible Balkan political peninsula called the Liberal Party.

These people remember nothing. The last truly interventionist federal president was – wait for it – John Elliott, and he left carnage in his rampaging wake which was all about fuelling his own unrealised ambitions to get to Canberra. Organisationally, he achieved nothing, and probably in net result set the party back.

Alston of course would not be another Elliott. Nobody could be. But is this really the man that the party wants as its public face? He carries a great deal of baggage, the sum total of which far outweighs his superficial appeal.

As Communications Minister, his handling of the ABC was a disgrace (though much applauded by the chinless conservative cheer squad). He was rightly characterised by Ken Inglis as “the first minister to behave as if the ABC is a government department.”

His tenure in the communications portfolio saw him wrestle with the media ownership rules – all aimed at giving more to those who already had. His attempts to frame policy for digital television were all aimed at ingratiating himself with the media moguls – the public be damned.

Then there were his appointments of sympathisers to the ABC board in the hope of bending its will, and his ongoing attempts to intimidate the ABC into self-censorship.

And on the question of political competence, serious questions loom. His clumsy attempt to make laws to censor the internet back in 1999 even brought derision from his own side. Arguably the most right-leaning member of the shrill Institute of Public Affairs, Michael Warby, wrote that Alston’s bill — the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 — “displays a conjunction of technological incompetence, commercial destruction and political short-sightedness that has rarely been equalled.”

Nor is he Mr Squeaky Clean. There was, of course, the matter of the undeclared indefinite loan of a $20,000 plasma television set from Telstra, and the overlooked family trust possession of Telstra shares.

There was also the blow-out of the cost of setting up his department’s website from $600,000 to $4.26 million. (And this from a man who called the ABC wasteful and inefficient!)

Then on leaving politics there was the shabby affair of moving straight from his portfolio to two jobs in the communications industry – something the new government has now banned – before his diplomatic junket was finalised.

This is today’s Liberal Party, and Robert Menzies would not be pleased.

His great achievement was to build some social camouflage over the party’s real purpose – but now that’s all been torn away, and even the proverbial sightless Fred can see that it’s simply a political front for money-making at anything that pays.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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