Anyone seeing a pattern in Australian politics?  It’s the end of another year and here we are reflecting on the how the conservative side of Australian politics has been unable to resolve its leadership problems, and how it has been unable to work out what to do about climate change.

A lot like 2008.  And 2007.  Only, this year it has been far, far worse.

Kevin Rudd may occasionally think otherwise, but surely one of the key reasons for his extended popularity and the dominance of the ALP in polling since 2006 is that the Liberal Party has been an absolute shemozzle since around the time he became leader.

At some point the Liberals will find a savvy leader behind whom conservatives and moderates can unite, and who will attract voters interested in an alternative to Labor.  And at some point they will settle upon an intellectually coherent set of beliefs to guide their approach to policy.

But until then we’ll be putting up with more of the rubbish we’ve seen since 2007, with the Liberals in effect telling voters that they’ll only get around to doing their job once they can get their act together.

So the end-of-year review perforce begins with the Opposition, rather than the government.

Snapshot 1

The catastrophic bushfires of February 7-8 claim 173 lives.  The Prime Minister goes to Victoria to visit the affected areas.  Survivors hug him and weep on his shoulder.  Rudd himself comes close to tears during a television interview. In Parliament, starting only its second week of the year, normal partisanship suddenly seems not merely unnecessary but offensive, and question time is cancelled for the week. Instead, Julia Gillard rises in the chamber and, in an unadorned but deeply moving speech, talks of some of the victims and some of the survivors.  Malcolm Turnbull does the same and ,like Gillard, is barely able to keep his emotions in check.  Later, Russell Broadbent and Fran Bailey, two of the members with electorates most affected by the catastrophe, movingly recount their own experiences and those of their constituents, many of whom died.

For a while, at least, our elected representatives not merely show themselves decent human beings, but make us actually proud of them.

One of the criticisms of the coalition that most bugs me is people saying they haven’t worked out they lost in 2007. Being Opposition, every single minute of it, is a constant, pointed reminder of loss.

But there are still many Liberal MPs of all persuasions who don’t understand how they lost.  You can hear it whenever a coalition MP says that Workchoices hurt them because of a union scare campaign, or that people are starting to work out that Rudd is a fraud.  It’s the sense that 2007, for all that it hurt, was a fault of presentation.  If only they’d sold Workchoices better.  If only they’d slotted Peter Costello in instead of John Howard.  If only they’d hit Rudd harder and earlier.

In fact, they lost because they walked away from where most voters were camped, or sat and watched as voters moved away from them, and did nothing, partly because they were so preoccupied with their own internal politics.  They abandoned mainstream voters on industrial relations and on climate change, leaving a huge gap for Rudd to exploit, virtually uncontested.  When Howard realised the enormity of his strategic errors, he moved quickly and smartly to fix them, but too late.  Workchoices was etched into voters’ minds, with or without the no-disadvantage test, and the coalition was seen as the party of climate change denialism, even as Howard promised the world’s most comprehensive emissions trading scheme.

Now there are plenty of commentators, otherwise sensible commentators, who believe that Tony Abbott’s expressed intention to repeat that fiasco next year is some brilliant new strategy.  “Game on!” they cry.

Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull continued Howard’s task of trying to shift to where mainstream Australia had moved.  Nelson convinced his party to back the Stolen Generations Apology and bury Workchoices.  For Turnbull, the challenge was to do the same on climate change.  2009 became all about his struggle with his own party.  He will likely go down in political history as a loser, but the fact that he came within a single vote of pulling off the feat of dragging his party to supporting an amended version of the government’s CPRS says much for a bloke who had only been in politics five years.

What should rankle with Turnbull much more than it probably does is that he would have pulled off that feat, and remained leader, but for the fact that he is simply awful at dealing with people, even people on his own side — indeed, particularly people on his own side, whom he would casually demolish with full Turnbullian force over the slightest disagreement, and then expect them to continue to enthusiastically support him.

And then there was his inability to curb a lifelong tendency to act instinctively.  His two biggest errors this year involved a rush to judgement, or more correctly to misjudgement. They meant that when he had to take on his party’s conservatives, he did so from a position in the polls, and in the minds of even his own supporters, of weakness.

The first error was in February, when he decided to oppose the second stimulus package.  That his decision was warmly welcomed by his party, eager for a blue with Labor, did nothing to improve it.  That decision wrecked the coalition’s economic credentials as, slowly at first, and then with gathering pace, the data showed that the government had done exactly the right thing.

The more obscure, but equally damaging, aspect of that decision was that it started sending the Liberals backward philosophically.  Labor had the advantage that the GFC played to its tradition and its philosophical strengths.  The Liberals have yet to work out how they would have responded to the crisis had they been in office.  There’s a plausible argument that a Howard government would have reacted little differently to the Rudd government.  But the party’s opposition to the stimulus package, the views of  Costello, who suggested that monetary policy and automatic stabilisers would have been sufficient, and the ongoing criticism of the stimulus packages by key conservative commentators all undermine this argument.  Instead, like several right-wing economists, the Liberals have been left rummaging through the pre-GFC toolbox for a response, eventually settling on demonisation of deficits.

It is a cover for the fact that, like climate change, the GFC left the Liberals intellectually directionless.  And the right-wing coup at the end of the year, in installing an ideologically confused conservative with big-government instincts as leader and a 1930s-style populist as de facto economics spokesman, won’t give them any direction; in fact it will have the effect of spinning them until they’re dizzy.  As the increasingly impressive Chris Bowen nicely pointed out last week, Barnaby Joyce is interventionist on everything but climate change.

Getting their bearings is a task the Liberals will eventually have to undertake, no matter how long it is delayed, and if Turnbull can reflect that he nearly got his party to safety on climate change, he was the one who did the most damage on economics.

Snapshot 2

At 7.15 on the evening of Godwin Grech’s Senate committee evidence, the Prime Minister calls a press conference.  He declares that the email does not exist, produces evidence from PM&C and Treasury that it doesn’t, and says he has called in the Auditor-General.  He is calm, even cold, and deliberate.  But on the way out of the press conference, he jovially responds to a Glenn Milne question that he has had a cyst on his back removed that day.  “It’s about this big apparently,” he says, holding up his fingers.  It’s a telling sign that, far from feeling pressure, he is utterly confident.

The following day, at 3.15, he holds another press conference, where he announces the AFP has been called in.  The day after, outside St John’s Church with his wife looking grim-faced beside him, Rudd ratchets up the pressure, demanding Turnbull resign.

Just over 24 hours later, the email is revealed as a fraud.  Within weeks, the ANAO clears the Treasurer of any misconduct. Turnbull is humiliated.

Turnbull’s second misjudgement was, of course, in leading the charge on the Godwin Grech business.  Grech claimed to have solid evidence of dubious, if not actually inappropriate, conduct by the Prime Minister and Treasurer, and Turnbull’s line that they wouldn’t have been much of an Opposition if they didn’t pursue it is entirely correct.  Even so, to lead the attack himself when he had plenty of cannon fodder to throw into the battle was of a piece with his personal history in other careers.

The result was disaster — disaster in full view of voters, who abandoned their customary lack of interest in politics to focus deeply on what was going on.

Yet peculiarly, despite the repeated demonstrations of his poor temperament and lack of political judgement, Turnbull remains a compelling figure.  He was savaged from within Liberal ranks for that Laurie Oakes interview before the final leadership spill.  And he was mocked when he launched a fierce attack on his successor’s lunatic idea of a cost-free approach to serious emissions reductions.  Yes, you could object to Turnbull’s language and his timing and his unwillingness to accept defeat gracefully and everything else, but he was telling the truth, and telling it in an engrossing way, something we hardly ever see from  Rudd, and I hark back to a point I laboured throughout the year, that Turnbull had a terrible problem with treating interviews as opportunities for genuine debate and exchange of ideas, whereas Rudd simply used them as a platform for enunciating his talking points.

For all his many and large faults, Turnbull is real, real in a way this confected anti-politician Tony Abbott, with his apparently involuntary use of “bullsh-t”, is not.  Real in a way Barnaby Joyce, who purports to be the authentic voice of rural Australia but is in fact a narrow-minded, economically illiterate product of elite private school education, can never be.  And real in a way the Prime Minister, who has effaced just about all characteristics of the actual human being whose body he occupies, can only be in his own nightmares.

Snapshot 3

Journalists are clustered outside the Liberal Senate party room in the early evening of November  26. The resignations of Tony Abbott and a string of conservative frontbenchers appear to have sent Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership into a death spiral.  As we wait, an email alert arrives for a Turnbull press conference.  Nick Minchin emerges from the party room and marches silently down the corridor, surrounded by yelling journalists.  Some of us sprint to the Turnbull press conference. The assumption of some is that Turnbull, faced with the collapse of his shadow ministry and a conservative revolt, will step aside.

Instead, Turnbull is confident, even ebullient, as though he is revelling in the conflict.  He insists he will continue to lead the party.  Within hours conservative Liberals are anonymously suggesting Turnbull is suffering from mental problems.  One MP, who has been in Parliament for decades without achieving anything, compares Turnbull to Robert Mugabe.  Many in the gallery take up the theme, comparing Turnbull’s confidence to the last days of Hitler.  After he goes further on Sunday and suggests Joe Hockey would be a puppet of Nick Minchin, the consensus is that, regardless of what Turnbull does, he has so alienated his party he will barely reach double figures in the leadership ballot.

The following Tuesday, he comes within a single vote of retaining the leadership.

Annabel Crabb famously christened the Prime Minister the Ruddbot, and it’s a great line, but I think a little unfair.  It glosses over what must be a truly mind-numbing and soul-destroying self-discipline on the part of Rudd, a powerfully intelligent and privately witty man who has decided he will never open his mouth in public without forcing his words like meat into a grinder that produces only the most flavourless and carefully targeted fare. In the manner of an elite athlete, who subordinates his or her entire life to the goal of competing and achieving at the highest level, Rudd is a high-performance politician.  Every waking second — and there are rather more of those for Rudd than for most of us — is aimed at the practice of politics.

The suspicion remains, however, that all that high performance is dedicated to entrenching Labor in power, and only secondarily to achieving real reform. Consider for a moment what the Rudd record would be without the recession.

A renewable energy target, passed with support of the coalition, but a complex, polluter-friendly and ineffectual emissions trading scheme primarily aimed at ripping the conservative side of politics apart.

A painfully slow COAG reform process, with wins in important areas such as regulatory harmonisation but a virtual defeat on water.

A retreat to protectionism in areas important (automotive manufacturing) and less important (books).

An historic commitment to a national broadband network and reforms to undo the mistakes of past Labor and Liberal governments in telecommunications — but bizarrely ruined by the political stunt of imposing internet censorship.

An excellent outcome in entrenching the G20 as a significant international body, with distractions such as the Asia-Pacific Community proposal and an over-dependence on Indonesia to halt the flow of asylum-seekers.

A rollback of the worst of the Howard government’s IR laws that went too far and erased individual contracts, a legitimate part of the IR landscape.

And on fiscal policy, a solid start on removing the middle-class welfare that keeps us in structural deficit, but no more than that after two Budgets.

It’s a patchy record, even if you’re a Labor traditionalist.  It’s the record compiled by a government so risk-averse that any and all opposition is taken seriously.  Rudd is not yet a bold reformer such as Hawke, Keating or Howard in his first two terms.  He is more like a Civil War general, convinced his enemies are far stronger than they really are, and unwilling to suffer casualties to achieve his goals.

But the government’s handling of the recession is the weight that will tip the scales in its favour for years to come.  Yes, deciding to hand out vast amounts of money isn’t exactly up there with the big, painful reforms of the 1980s, but the money was targeted well and its implementation remarkably rapid.  Along with a quick response from the Reserve Bank (particularly compared to the early 1990s), it provided a critical prop to consumer and business confidence when we could easily have collectively slipped into our bunkers and decided to wait it out — and waited, and waited.

Snapshot 4

Amid a seemingly endless torrent of disastrous economic data from across the globe, including a 4% contraction in the US economy, speculation mounts at the end of January that the government is preparing another stimulus package.  On February 3, in the first week of the Parliamentary year, the Prime Minister and Treasurer stage a mini-Budget lock-up, complete with backdrops and glossy handouts, to announce a massive $42 billion stimulus package of cash handouts, tax breaks and infrastructure funding.

Within 24 hours, Malcolm Turnbull does what will come to define his brief stint as Opposition leader — defy all wisdom and take a huge gamble in opposing the package.  Both parties have pinned their political hopes to the performance of the Australian economy.

One is loath to accuse of malice economists opposed to the stimulus package.  But the weight of evidence really does suggest that anyone who continues to believe the stimulus package was unnecessary or ineffective or that it should have been substantially smaller is willfully ignorant of just how socially and economically costly mass unemployment is, and just what utter misery it can inflict on people.  That Australia reached — and is still within sight — of low unemployment is a precious gift bequeathed us by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, and key members of their cabinets such as Peter Walsh and Peter Costello.  Yes, we had the immense good fortune of enjoying a resources boom that hoovered excess capacity out of the economy for several years this decade.  But the reason we were able to capitalise on it — even squander much of the revenue from it — was because of the mostly high-quality reforms achieved by a generation of Australian politicians, aided by key policymakers.

With an intact finance sector, we may not have seen the levels of unemployment America has now reached and will endure for some considerable time to come; nor might it have taken as long to come back down as it did in the late 1990s.  But the government’s efforts to stave off a serious rise in joblessness will yield long-term benefits socially and economically and preserves one of the greatest benefits of the hard work of the ’80s and ’90s.

However, the government only gets to own that achievement if it picks up the pace of reform: dealing with an ageing population, driving a transition to a lower-carbon economy, moving the Budget to long-term balance, minimising strategic shortages in areas such as skills and housing and negating the worst effects of federalism.

Other reforms, such as in health and schools, might attract more media attention but don’t offer long-term economic benefits because they’re political problems rather than genuinely pressing national issues.  Unfortunately, in 2010, health is likely to consume far more time than it should given how effective our health system is.  Worse, the debate will be all about spending more money on healthy urban Australians, not in areas such as indigenous health, rural or mental health where there is room for significant improvement.

The government’s reform task should be made simpler, not more difficult, by the right-wing takeover of the Liberal Party that will make the coalition even less electable in 2010.  There is concern within government ranks of the potential for the coalition to strike a chord with blue-collar and regional voters with a populist, xenophobic campaign centred on asylum seekers, climate change denialism and economic irrationalism.  The only worry should be that the defeat of the coalition will be so comprehensive that the conservatives are discredited for the rest of the decade, enabling party moderates to drag the Liberal Party back to electability in advance of 2013.

The only uncertainty in all this is Malcolm Turnbull, the exiled prince plotting the destruction of his enemies, armed only with a blog and Twitter.

It was fitting, by the way, that the downfall of this early adopter and online enthusiast was the first major political event covered in Australia on Twitter, a technology that takes empowerment of media consumers a full step forward and accelerates the transformation of news into a free, instantaneous good.  The use of Twitter by journalists is still evolving.  In particular, you’ll be less likely to see journalists breaking stories on Twitter in the future compared with what we saw during the Liberal leadership crisis, instead using it to drive traffic to their sites where stories are broken.

But it is yet another serious threat to the mainstream media, enabling users to construct their own media feeds simply through selection of sources to follow; you don’t even need to check major news websites regularly if breaking news will be pushed to you, your preferred commentators will notify you when a new article by them appears, and you can discuss/snark about issues with like-minded users, all through the one interface.

How anyone makes money out of that, I’ve no idea, and I’m still worried about the “ghettos of agreement” I discussed a couple of months ago.  But I suspect we’ll all have to get used to the progressive reduction of quality political journalism available in Australia.  After all, it was earlier this year that John Hartigan spoke of his wish to shut the News Ltd press gallery bureau, not long after The Age and SMH began merging their gallery newsrooms.  Enabling the biggest consumers of political news and analysis to construct their own news sites will do nothing to slow that process.

Scene 5

I sit in a charming wooden cottage in the tiny town of Russell, up in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, writing an end-of-year summary.  Russell these days  is a splendid tourist destination but in its early days, as a whaling station and the only town in New Zealand, it was known, with perhaps less holidaymaker appeal, as “the hellhole of the Pacific”.  Every second house in the town, probably more, is for sale, often “mortgagee sale’, a product of the lingering impact of the global financial crisis on the New Zealand middle class, who invested in holiday homes and rental properties when times were good and have now done their money as the Kiwi economy struggles out of recession.  In some areas, nature is reclaiming driveways into bush blocks, with vegetation obscuring the tattered “For Sale —  opportunity of a lifetime!” placards.

The peculiarities of Australian politics, and for that matter the absurdity that has just ended in Copenhagen, all seem a long way away, and not just because being on holiday suddenly makes a lot of things seem less important.  Even in young countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there’s enough history, enough names on maps and portraits on walls, to remind us that today’s powerbroker pretensions are, relatively speaking, tomorrow’s historical footnotes, if they’re lucky.

And so I go back to those days in February, to the stunned horror of the aftermath of the bushfires, to the disbelief that so many people could have been carried away in such terrifying circumstances, and I recall our politicians standing and giving voice to our anguish and sorrow. When our descendants write their histories of this time, and most likely talk about our vast failure to act on climate change while we still could, they’ll probably ignore that. The 173 lost souls will have become just a number, as the victims of even recent conflagrations have become mere numbers to us.  But the people we choose to represent us were at their best when they became ordinary men and women charged with articulating a national grief.

Peter Fray

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