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Dead in the middle

August 16, 2018 - 22:19 -- Admin

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky ... Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.- Ernest Hemingway For whom the bell tolls

Turnbull is giving his all for a shemozzle of a compromise which will benefit nobody but him and Josh Frydenberg, and not very much even then. His predicament reminds me of the final days of centrist former NSW Labor Premier Morris Iemma a decade ago. Sillier press gallery observers claim that the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) puts Turnbull's fate in his own hands once more, but the opposite is true. Why the NEG is a shemozzlePeople who study this sort of thing agree that it is designed to give the appearance of solidity to a desperately unstable status quo. A national plan for a national problem that pleases nobody. The end result of a long and stupid process that put the one thing government can't deliver - lower power bills - at the centre of the debate. It will have no impact on carbon emissions. It is not worth doing, except as a political exercise, and the very emptiness of the political exercise has experienced commentators slavering when they should be sneering.Iemma then ...Morris Iemma succeeded Bob Carr as NSW Premier in 2005. He saw off two internal challengers in Craig Knowles and Carl Scully, and led Labor to victory in the 2007 election over a Liberal Party convulsed by a Christianist insurgency. Then it all went wrong, first gradually and then suddenly. Iemma made the politically fatal error of departing from Carr's proven model for success: manage the daily spin cycle and forget big, long-term issues. Increased public patronage of public transport strained aging infrastructure. You might think Labor would be good at public transport, and maybe in other jurisdictions they are, but not in NSW:

  • Jack Lang built one fucking bridge, and that was initiated by the conservatives (see below).
  • All those Labor Premiers from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s who look like they're sculpted from mashed potato bought some buses but did little else infrastructure-wise. One of them, Joe Cahill, actually used to work at the Eveleigh rail yards but is better known for his expressway and opera house.
  • Wran put colleagues he hated into that portfolio. He took credit for the risibly inadequate eastern suburbs rail line (including spiking the Woollahra station near his home) and blamed the Liberals for the Granville disaster. Even Bramstonian Labor history sucks admit transport was never a strong issue for him.
  • Carr excused his lack of action on transport on immigration. Insofar as laborism is a thing, anti-immigration is one of its worst aspects. Sydney-based journalists treat Carr as something of a sage, but on immigration and infrastructure he is pretty much Fraser Anning with some Proust shoved up his arse.
  • Right now, the NSW Opposition is furtively engaged in balancing its two historic imperatives in this area: doing absolutely nothing about what has not been done, and fucking up what has. It has a third, constant imperative, namely fooling the state's particularly dreadful press gallery (worse than the feds!). Whatever Labor takes to the March 2019 election in this area, it will be worse than what the Coalition is doing and offering. Labor voters will have to hold their noses when it comes to public transport; they have no right to hope for anything more than the completion of projects initiated by the incumbents.

Iemma, bless him, wanted to depart from all that. This put him offside with public transport unions, generally more militant than the state's right-wing, accommodationist union tradition. He thought he could fund public transport upgrades by selling the state's electricity network. This had become a long-festering sore in NSW Labor: Carr had repeatedly made tentative moves in this area, only to realise that he couldn't solve it quickly, backed off, then repeated the whole thing a few news-cycles later. The state president of the Electrical Trades Union was also the party's state president, who with the secretary of the NSW Labor Council (now Unions NSW), John Robertson, led internal opposition to electricity privatisation. By the time Iemma faced the issue he could only either eschew it for all time or make it happen. Following their loss in 2007 Barry O'Farrell had become leader of the Liberal Party, managing the implosion of the Christianists and uniting the party on the state level as the Howard government declined and fell. O'Farrell had, as previous Liberal leaders had, pledged to privatise the electricity network; Iemma saw in him a man with whom he could do business. In April 2008, the world economy melted down but Morris Iemma was still seen as a man who could cut a big and complex deal in NSW.When O'Farrell declined to support Iemma's privatisation proposals, the premier was exposed and so was his party. Iemma could not deliver on that issue nor unite it on any other. On 3 May the NSW ALP voted seven to one against electricity privatisation, a personal triumph for Robertson. Two days later Iemma was gone, and so were his electricity privatisation proposals. Later that year Robertson replaced Iemma's (and Carr's) Treasurer, Michael Egan, in state parliament: Paul Keating's letter of non-congratulation rings through the ages both as a summary of the politics of the time and as prescience for Robertson's career (and, potentially, that of current NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley).… and Turnbull nowThose who ignore the lessons of history seem to have quite a nice time of it, breezing through life's ups and downs in all their apparent novelty. Those of us who have studied history become exasperated and the ignorance and lack of preparation, and whether we gently disagree or screech in protest we become part of the scenery past which the blithe and ignorant insouciantly glide.Turnbull faces a united opposition under Bill Shorten, the significance of which is underestimated by a press gallery acutely alert to its absence. Turnbull's main internal opponent, Tony Abbott, has both the swashbuckling daring and sooky resentment of John Robertson, a potential leader who comes pre-tainted with strengths vastly overestimated by only the keenest partisans. NEG has no significance as a policy. Nobody will invest a single dollar on the basis of its flimsy assumptions and unsustainable conclusions. It doesn't matter, and those in the press gallery who confused its passage through the party room with a real achievement should know better, and ought not be in the press gallery in the first place. It can safely be cut down or amended beyond recognition, with no loss to anyone but Turnbull and Frydenberg (and the latter will more likely survive than the former). It makes sense only as a talisman for Turnbull. Shorten's support for the NEG is lukewarm and conditional, as we have seen from Labor leaders in other jurisdictions. He may have Labor vote to pass it now and amend it later. It is entirely possible that he would vote against NEG at the last minute - a protest if nobody from the Coalition votes with him, but a game-changer if they do.At the 2016 election, the Liberal right actively undermined Turnbull. A decisive victory would have set them back and redefined what a Liberal government meant, departing from the template established by Howard. It could have forced old stagers like Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews from the parliament. Abetz masterminded a duff campaign in Tasmania that lost the Liberals a senator and three seats in the House. In the 2015 NSW election, former MP Jackie Kelly split the Liberal vote in the marginal seat of Penrith (within Lindsay) and preferenced Labor's Emma Husar. If Abbott and his Sancho Panza, Craig Kelly, were to cross the floor against NEG and meet a jubilant Labor caucus on the other side, it would represent a massive escalation of Liberal internal tensions for years to come. Labor has an anti-mythology for those who betrayed their party to the point where it lost office, those for whom "rat" is inadequate, but the Liberals don't.Such a move would leave Turnbull stranded without being able to deliver on electricity policy and without much time to craft a new and credible alternative. It would leave him exposed as a leader who couldn't unite the party on anything else either, just as he is about to hit the median term of service as Prime Minister (15th out of 29), with few policy achievements to show for it. Tony Abbott had three choices after he lost the Prime Ministership in 2015. He could have:

  • Retired; or
  • Shut up and joined the team, like Turnbull had during the 2010-13 term; Turnbull's loyalty helped cement the unity that was absent in Labor at the time, which in turn helped make the case for Coalition victory in 2013; or
  • Challenged Turnbull.

He hasn't taken the first two options: it's death-or-glory time. He invokes 2013 as though everyone but him hasn't moved on from there. If he starts referring to NEG as "a bad policy" the likely demise of this government becomes a certainty, regardless of the leadership.One Coalition MP who has threatened to vote against Coalition policy is George Christensen. He has never done so, but has threatened to do so regularly. Abbott has been slightly more careful with his words but acted similarly with Christensen. If Abbott and Kelly are to vote down a signature Coalition policy, they will need at least some allies; it will be interesting to see how Christensen chooses.If Shorten tried to split the Liberal Party in this fashion (particularly after the made-for-Ellinghausen moment of Frydenberg embracing Ed Husic), he would be seen as "playing politics" and a man whose word could not be trusted, particularly by stuffed shirts like Peter Hartcher. The retort to that is obvious: not only the example of Barry O'Farrell cited above, but also that of Malcolm Fraser, who had initially promised to help pass the 1975-76 budget and, six months after changing his mind, was in the Lodge with the biggest majority at any federal election.It is possible that the Turnbull government will end in a pincer movement between Labor and Abbott-led insurgents. How likely it is takes you into a hall of mirrors and double-talk such that nobody really knows, and if the did they wouldn't tell you until after it happened.A broken right wingWhat's also at stake here is the future of the Liberal Party, which (as we have seen in right-wing meltdowns in South Africa, the US and UK) has broader implications for the operation of democratic systems. Some of you reading this might be Liberal partisans but most won't, so let me spell out why it matters from a perspective across Australia's political system.The Liberal Party presents two potential futures, both to its members and supporters, and to those equally active political opponents who have to work around it.One model for the Liberal Party is that it either bumbles along in government (unlikely), or goes into opposition hoping to form a credible alternative government (more likely but not certain). They might undergo the odd bit of relevance deprivation syndrome, even a bit of leadership ruction, but basically a Liberal-led opposition keeps a Labor government on its toes before eventually replacing it. This is the assumption underpinning the two-party system, and is based on much of our political history. The other model is that it becomes an insurgency, sniping both at Labor governments and those Liberals looking for a calm, centristbipartisan return to office. This is the preferred model of Abbott, Dutton, Craig Kelly, George Christensen, Andrew Hastie and a few others, roaming across the landscape and striking real and imagined foes much like the partisan described in the Hemingway quote at the top of this article. The government says black, they say white. The government says yes, they say no. Right-wing rather than conservative. They ignore yearning for bipartisanship and figure every gripe with the new government can be turned to their advantage.The Victorian division of the Liberal Party used to be a bulwark of the former model of the Liberal future, now it is firmly in favour of the latter. Reportage of that organisation, even by experienced commentators, is inadequate because they can only understand it as a departure from the Victorian tradition. Rarely if ever to they draw the dots to Liberal politics in NSW, Queensland or even Western Australia, from which the developments in Victoria make much more sense.Consider the senior Victorian Liberals in the federal government, in no particular order: Kelly O'Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg, Dan Tehan, Alan Tudge. All of those people (some more conservative than others) will adhere to the idea that there's a responsible way to behave in government, and that getting (back) into government is something the Liberals should aim to do. All of them will be targeted by Abbott and his gang of lost boys, and what remains of the press gallery will love it. They will be puzzled that a party wishing only to become an insurgency will skew the country's politics, but they'll go galumphing helplessly after every partisan snipe the way a dog chases a rabbit, and then insist we listen to their sober analysis of, ah, whatever is next. Unless it is released late on Friday afternoon.I used to wonder why the gallery loved Abbott's goofy stunts and hated Rudd and Gillard's wonkiness: now I realise, it's because Abbott is a moment-to-moment, no consequences operator, and so are they. Michelle Grattan was piling on Emma Husar as hard as anyone, and she's been in the gallery since before Husar was born. They are going to keep giving him fresh air and he's going to turn it into farts, those farts will puff the dandelions of their stories, he can't help it and neither can they.Malcolm Turnbull does not have what it takes to knock Abbott out of Warringah: getting Craig Kelly out of Hughes will be hard enough, he'll run as an independent and preference Labor. By contrast, Shorten has already settled Labor preselections in Victoria, where the Liberals are refusing to preselect candidates until after their state election. If the Liberals were forced to a federal election by a Shorten-Abbott no-confidence motion, they would be forced into a hasty, unconvincing campaign with few resources: what Sir John Carrick called trying to fatten the pig on market day.There should be more Queenslanders commenting on politics. Kevin Rudd, Clive Palmer, Bob Katter, Peter Dutton, and now this shithead Anning; all the seismic shocks that bamboozle federal politics come from there, and we need to hear from those who have seen these jokers coming rather than yet another theatre reviewer expressing their amazement. Politics isn't just what happens in Canberra. That's why the press gallery can't understand the significance of party preselections and their impacts on decisions made in Canberra (the assumption behind the press gallery model is that decisions made in Canberra need to be explained to those beyond it, and they don't even do that well). They have focused on the non-story of the NEG in the hope that it might pump up the non-politician who occupies the highest political position in the land. Why they do that isn't clear. I don't know why they think it constitutes compelling content, but whatever their reason it must be really (and unintentionally) funny.