Evolution: Tampa to Let them stay

MV Tampa

The plight of asylum seekers is what first piqued my interest in politics when I was a young teenager. I was eleven at the time of Tampa and Children Overboard. I did not watch the news or read the papers back then but enough of the Howard/Hanson rhetoric still filtered through to imbue me with the vague notion that asylum seekers – whatever they were – were a problem. When my father explained to me what an asylum seeker was, perhaps aged 12 or 13 I was floored. As a boy raised in the Catholic tradition it seemed to me that there was no ambiguity about it: if we were to act in accordance with the values of Christ, our saviour, than we must welcome asylum seekers and show them our generosity and good will.

Shortly after this my father, through his involvement with Saint Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of Mercy, began taking me along to Villawood detention centre where he would meet with refugees inside. The purpose of these visits was largely social, it was about providing some friendly companionship to the refugees and alerting them to the fact that they had supporters on the outside. I used to play chess with a man called Benem. Often our games would attract the attention of others and soon, instead of one-on-one, our chess games were fought between councils of four or five who would vigorously debate what our next move was.

It was during this visits that my affinity with refugees and asylum seekers was crystalized. As an idealistic young teenager everything about Villawood seemed wrong. These were good people and yet they were living in gaol. Gaol was a method of last resort for managing the behaviour of bad people, not for good people fleeing persecution. To this day I have no time for people who seek to demonize and vilify refugees and asylum seekers. The portrayal of them as threats to national security by John Howard and Tony Abbott was grotesque.

In subsequent years I became what is sometimes known as a “political junkie”. I developed passions for a wide range of issues: climate change, public education, reconciliation, the republic, same sex marriage, third world debt relief, the war in Iraq, you name it. But it was always asylum seekers first. The vilifying of the weakest and most vulnerable people on earth infuriated me. I supported the change of tone that Kevin Rudd brought with him in 2006, I supported his policy of abolishing offshore detention, temporary protection visas and detention debt. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted Bob Brown. I wanted a Prime Minister who would pledge to tear down the walls of Villawood Detention Centre just as Ronald Reagan had called upon Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. To me the walls of Villawood symbolised something much more sinister than the Berlin Wall ever would.

Then Rudd abolished offshore detention and the boats started coming. And then Christmas Island started filling up. And then the boats started sinking. And so let slip the dogs of academic war. The Liberals produced academics claiming that the boats were coming because the Pacific Solution had been abolished. Labor produced their own academics claiming that push factors were what drove the increase in arrivals. I wanted the latter to be true. I was bellicose in my denunciations of anyone who claimed the former to be true.

Internally for the first time cracks of doubt begun to emerge. I reasoned that everyone I had heard speak about the need to “stop the boats” spoke of the national security risks they posed. Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Andrew Bolt etc, they were all maliciously vilifying the asylum seekers. I therefore would not trust their occasional comments about stopping deaths at sea. I believed they were motivated by a hostility towards migrants and a jingoistic pride in the ability to control one’s own borders. I believed they wanted to open up Nauru so they could punish the asylum seekers for whom they exhibited such naked contempt. Inevitably I would conclude that offshore processing was evil and that my initial instincts as a young teenager were correct.

Time pressed on. Some months the push factors (global number of asylum applications) would go up and some months they’d go down. But the boats kept coming and the boats kept sinking and the asylum seekers kept drowning. The academic war begun drawing to a close, fewer and fewer academics maintained the line that pull factors made negligible difference. Still I could not abide this conservative rhetoric that said the boats must be stopped because the boats were a threat. I grew quiet on the issue as I grew increasingly conflicted and uncomfortable.

It struck me that others who had so proudly aligned themselves with the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees did not seem to share my conflict. No amount of deaths at sea seemed so inhibit their moral certainty. How could this be? How could you be for the refugees and be for a suite of policies that may well be killing them? I did not, and never have, doubted the sincerity of their intentions but for some time now have been unable to share their moral certainty.

In 2013 Kevin Rudd implemented the only major reform of his second Premiership. No asylum seekers who arrived by sea would be resettled in Australia. If they were found to be genuine refugees they were to be resettled in Papua New Guinea. And then the boats slowing. And the boats stopped sinking. And the asylum seekers stopped drowning.

I am not so naïve as to think that because boats stopped travelling from Indonesia to Christmas Island that the problem is fixed. Many if not all of the asylum seekers would continue to lead lives in peril, if indeed they continued living. But, after years of soul searching, I now believe that the abolition of offshore detention and the promise of permanent resettlement in Australia to asylum seekers who arrive by boat, are policies that will harm more asylum seekers than it will aid.  I desperately want to believe otherwise. I will eagerly listen to anyone who thinks they have evidence that suggests otherwise. But on the weight of evidence I have examined it is the only honest conclusion I can draw.

My affinity with the cause of aiding refugees remains. If we must detain refugees offshore and I so desperately hope we don’t but if we must than the standards in which they live must be higher than what they currently experience on Nauru and Manus Island.  Nobody has ever explained why the government cannot keep Nauru and Manus open but drastically upgrade the facilities in which the asylum seekers live. And they should not be kept secret from the public and the press.

The fact that I now grudgingly concede some merit in offshore processing should not be taken to mean an unqualified support for the government’s policies. I consider it a disgrace bordering upon corruption that the only journalist which has been allowed to inspect the detention facilities is the belligerent hard right columnist and TV presenter Chris Kenny. The extortionate price of a press pass with no guarantee of success is contemptible and every minister who accepted collective cabinet responsibility for the policy is likewise worth of contempt.

And of course, the catchcry of Labor ever since the failed attempt at the Malaysia Solution is absolutely true. The best thing we can do by refugees and asylum seekers is to increase the humanitarian intake. At present it’s not nearly enough.  The Greens nominate a figure of 30,000 per year as an appropriate number, I’m more than happy to adopt that as my own.

There are those who would read this and say that despite all I have just said, the suffering caused by offshore detention is still too great. And I would respect that. But I would ask them what they would propose be done to stop the drownings at sea. If they have nothing to say on this matter they have nothing of any worth to say on the on the broader issue of waterborne asylum seekers.

The sheer quantity of evidence is now difficult to ignore. People smugglers do follow Australian politics and they do look for some evidence that the Australian government is prepared to soften its stance on asylum seekers. Malcolm Turnbull’s reputation is, at present, weak. There is a prevailing view that he lacks the unyielding harshness of his predecessor and people smugglers are scrutinising him closely, hoping to detect some sign that they would be about to transport asylum seekers to Australia where they would receive residency. It is against this backdrop that the Prime Minister is faced with the decision of whether or not to deport 267 asylum seekers, 37 of whom were born in Australia, to Nauru.

Turnbull has no stomach for these things. What does he gain by deporting them? This is the sort of circumstance in which the government might quietly have granted them residency with minimal fanfare. As Phil Coorey said on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday, if the government can divert attention away from the issue they will allow the asylum seekers to stay here. The problem now is that with such a sensational public campaign, any such action will be bugled back to Indonesia and distorted into evidence that the Australian government is once again allowing boat arrivals to settle as permanent residents in Australia.

Perhaps I, and Philip Coorey and Laura Tingle are wrong. Perhaps the government is driven by motives of punishment and malice and the asylum seekers will be sent to Nauru come what may.  None of us can truly know what goes on in Malcolm Turnbull’s head except Malcolm. What is clear however given the government’s actions so far is that an attempt to bludgeon them into a back down with big rallies, with open letter stunts from state Premiers and the like will in no way benefit the asylum seekers currently facing deportation.  It is for these reasons I have until now said little on Let Them Stay. I have silently hoped that the issue would die down and away from the public gaze, away from the range of the people smugglers the government would quietly resettle the refugees in Australia.

It has been 15 years since Tampa.  One of these days refugee advocates are going to need to become more strategic and less histrionic. But at present their hubristic stunts are doing a disservice to the very people they purport to help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2015: The Party Thieves Rise Again

 

The Party Thieves

Both Turnbull and Rudd had stolen their parties. In Turnbull’s case because of a manic desire to get his own way and because of his refusal to compromise…Rudd had done so through his authoritarian approach: the more his popularity soared the more he ruled alone, taking only sycophantic advice and being answerable to no one.

Barrie Cassidy, The Party Thieves

 

Many Labor voters are very disillusioned with the influence of the factions and unions. Many Liberal voters are disappointed with the influence of big business and the far right wing. Why don’t you two join and establish a new party that can open a new chapter in politics in Australia?

Saeed Fasse, QandA.

 

As Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull sat glumly on the backbenches in 2010 two quintessential members of the Labor establishment gleefully claimed victory for Australia’s traditional political power structures. Five years on, the traditionalists have surrendered: beaten and humiliated.

Union Boss Paul Howes and Hawke Press Secretary turned journalist Barrie Cassidy, rejoiced at the annihilation of what Cassidy termed “the party thieves”. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, outsiders who had bypassed decades of factional schmoozing by appealing directly to public opinion, were thieves who according to Cassidy and Howes had crashed and burned.  The narrative, stylishly finessed, was that having not done the long, hard years of preparation like Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, neither had established a loyal party support network. Both failed due to elementary errors which someone of a more traditional leadership pedigree might have avoided. The conclusion: experiments with Party Thieves should be avoided in the future.

Under the Howard government and its predecessors, voters were prepared to tolerate governments kowtowing to internal powerbrokers –in no small part because they had experienced little else. This all changed after the Rudd experience saw a mainstream political leader treat the political old boys clubs with naked contempt.

Rudd’s much maligned presidential style was instrumental in delivering the stratospheric popularity that he enjoyed for most of his career. It enabled him to centralise the image of the government in himself and blot out the unpopular factional entities that lurked beneath the surface. His public conflict with the traditional political machine reached its crescendo in 2009 when Paul Keating, former Prime Minister and iconic member of the NSW Right cantankerously called Rudd a “Goodie two-shoes” for his refusal to reward Labor loyalists with plum jobs.

Rudd’s swift annihilation of John Howard and Brendan Nelson quickly persuaded a reluctant Liberal Party of the need to respond in kind and so the outsider Turnbull was promoted to their leadership. But Turnbull’s timing was all wrong. The electorate still had enormous good will towards Rudd and Turnbull floundered.

In a series of aggressive manoeuvres a cabal of former Howard government ministers, led by Nick Minchin torpedoed Turbull’s leadership and installed one of their own. They chose to dismiss popular opinion and impose upon the electorate an opposition they expressly did not want. It could only ever end in humiliation. Bit-by-bit the more politically savvy Liberal MPs and Senators would chip away at the dinosaurs that had foolishly retaken the leadership but for a more pressing concern: the dinosaurs were about to take control of the government.

In June 2010 a despondent and alienated group of Labor powerbrokers saw a series of subpar opinion polls and an unpopular opposition leader as their final chance to wrest back internal party influence from its presidential leader.  In a rushed and reckless coup that gave little thought to the long term: they removed a first time Prime Minister from the party leadership.

The coup was not difficult to arrange. The view of most Labor parliamentarians was that removing Rudd would be a relatively risk free exercise had the potential to yield enormous rewards. Their calculations in this respect were fatally inaccurate.

Seizing power was simple. Maintaining it proved far beyond the new leadership group’s capabilities. Fear of being cannibalised just as they had cannibalised Rudd drove Gillard and Swan to fete unpopular union bosses like Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes which in turn only entrenched the electorate’s antipathy towards the political animals that now occupied the most senior positions in government.

While voters may have a lukewarm tolerance for factional careerists in opposition, the vision of them sitting on the treasury bench is so grotesque as to render it intolerable. Consequently the public tolerated Tony Abbott in his demolition of Gillard,  just as they would later embrace Bill Shorten in his demolition of Abbott.

Initially, fear of simply losing government was insufficient to persuade these old Labor warriors to restore Rudd. Yet as the election drew near the so called faceless men, politicians who had spent decades horse trading their way into what were supposed to unlosable seats, were faced with the prospect of having to leave parliament altogether. Eventually, through gritted their teeth, they supported a Rudd challenge.

The return of Rudd was, in the end, an incomplete repudiation of the first coup. The second time round Rudd was unable to ride the 2007 election wave past his internal party challenges. He didn’t have a majority in the House of Representatives either. His position was precarious and he was forced to do that which he had used to destroy so many political foes before: He rewarded allies.

 

Sam Dastyari

Who’s the boss? The Prime Minister, or the convener of the NSW Right?

With the parliament precariously split 76-74 Rudd could afford no defections. He returned the power to choose the frontbench to the factions. He became the collegial Kevin that his colleagues demanded, and that the public had never asked for.  The site of Rudd being constantly flanked by NSW Right convenor Sam Dastyari as he implemented his Labor Party leadership reforms was damaging. Dastyari and his comrades in the NSW Right had house trained the would be Messiah.  For Turnbull, who had sparred with Rudd in his prime, the site of his old rival reduced to this pathetic and craven figure would be instructive for his future.

When Abbott defeated Rudd in 2013 he behaved like a Prime Minister of old and then some. His loyalists were rewarded, Tim Wilson, Janet Albrechtsen, Maurice Newman, Kevin Donnelly, David Kemp and Peter Coleman were all given attractive jobs within a year of Abbott’s victory. His ministerial appointments reflected the old style cronyism that the public found so distasteful. Bronwyn Bishop, a twice failed minister from the Howard government was appointed speaker. She proceeded to make a farce of the position yet Abbott would not remove her until it was too late.  If appearances are everything in politics: The Office of Prime Minister was made to appear as though it was running a protection racquet for the dangerously incompetent.

Finally there was Abbott’s political agenda. Expending political capital on questioning the patriotism of the ABC and a doomed-to-fail quest to amend the Racial Discrimination Act was degrading. All the more so for being a transparent attempt to placate its more bellicose supporters in the News Corp press and the Institute of Public Affairs.

Against this backdrop Australia returned to an all too familiar situation. With an unpopular opposition leader steadily advancing towards the lodge off the back of the public’s distaste for a nepotistic government, an anti-establishment former leader was resurrected to save his colleagues from annihilation. Turnbull however had learned from the mistakes of the Rudd revival.

In 2013 a magnanimous sounding Rudd told reporters that there would be no recriminations and no bloodletting. He welcomed all of Julia Gillard’s former Ministers to join his cabinet. Turnbull wisely made no such undertakings. In his first week as Prime Minister we played witness to Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews giving desperate speeches pleading their case to be retained as ministers. Turnbull was unmoved.

That Andrews, Joe Hockey, Michael Ronaldson, Bruce Billson and even Ian Macfarlane should be sacked is unremarkably consistent with Turnbull’s attempts to be seen as renewing. But the sacking of Abetz cannot be spun by the Labor Party as anything but a powerful assertion of Turnbull’s authority over his party. Abetz was the government leader in the Senate, he was elected to that position by his colleagues in theory he did not serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister like other ministers but theoretics count for naught under Malcolm II. Turnbull similarly did not demur in removing iconic culture warrior Maurice Newman from his position as the Chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.

Turnbull is making a concerted attempt to have meritorious appointments and sackings regarded as hallmarks of his premiership  along with the abandonment of some of Abbott’s foolish ideological crusades. The attacks on Islam and the ABC have been discontinued while there appears to be no interest in reviving the ugly fight to amend the Racial Discrimination Act. The initial responses have been euphoric for Turnbull and Bill Shorten now finds himself in a similar position to Brendan Nelson some eight years earlier. Yet Turnbull walks a fine line.

Despite purging the government of its worst excesses, the resurrection of Turnbull has not come without a cronyism of its own. Turnbull’s key backers with the exception of Peter Hendy, are all touched by scandal and were all rewarded handsomely by the new Prime Minister.

Nevertheless with an archetypal union boss career politician for a leader Labor have proven unable to inflict any real damage on Turnbull. Not that they should contemplate removing Shorten. The electorates delight at having a Prime Minister who does not appear to be shackled down by political machine players like Abbott and Gillard is palpable. There is likely nobody in Labor’s ranks that could deliver them a victory in 2016.

As a year 2015 marked the latest in a series of decisive victories for the anti-politics populists over the traditional political power brokers.  The desperate last ditch attempt of the factions to reassert themselves over both major parties has finally reached its inevitable, humiliating demise. By rallying behind a relatively uninhibited Turnbull, the Liberal Party have embraced their extant antidote to the public’s dissatisfaction with the political classes. Labor meanwhile ambles towards near certain annihilation with no clear solution in place. Perhaps Labor should take some comfort in the fact that, at age 61, the days in which unpopular Liberals can cower behind Malcolm are well and truly finite.

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Brave New Star Wars

lucas abrams

The best thing you could say about the Force Awakens is that it will please fans of the original Star Wars Trilogy. Possibly the worst thing you can say about it is exactly the same. The Force Awakens removes creative control from the more impulsive hands of founding father George Lucas and transfers it to the more conventional and structured direction of JJ Abrams. The result feels less like a work of creative art and more like a film designed by the results of a focus group.

 

The Force Awakens treats loyal fans of the original franchise to no end of subtle and not-so-subtle homages to the original trilogy.  A droid being entrusted with vital information, a mad man-hunt for said droid, a quest to destroy a gigantic long range laser canon, a return of the Millennium Falcon, a mask wearing villain/anti-hero and a pointless yet harmless return of Admiral Akbar.

 

Similarly there is a studious aversion to any plot elements first introduced in the much maligned prequels. Despite assurances that the prequels would not be airbrushed out of existence, there is certainly no acknowledgement that they ever existed. A cursory mention of “The Old Jedi Temple” is the closest we get and this speaks to Abrams approach to the sequels.

 

Its cuts a razor sharp contrast with The Phantom Menace. The latter represented something highly audacious. It injected fresh and ambitious concepts into the old franchise, overhauling many preconceptions fans had about it. For this it was widely jeered and scorned, Lucas had transformed something the fans liked. He had, in their minds, proverbially fixed the fully functioning apparatus, for which they will never forgive him.

 

Abrams and The Force Awakens take a more conservative approach. It peppers the film with hammy nods to nostalgia and purges away all the bad memories. The film is enjoyable enough, the plot reliable, the special effects impressive and the acting is solid but there is something unsatisfying about watching a   film so craftily designed to hit key performance indicators. It feels a bit like something out of Brave New World, one of Hemholtz’s masterly creations.

All in all I was entertained for the duration of the film, but I left feeling a little despondent. Did this “test tube” film signify what the future would be like for Cinema? Conservative attempts to evoke nostalgia over old favourites? I’m not so naïve not to realise that this has been going on for some time now, decades even. But in The Force Awakens there was something altogether naked and shameless about it, and as the immediate successor to such risk taking audacious cinematography as the much maligned prequels, it was just a little depressing.   Did I prefer the prequels? Yousa mightn’ be saying dat.

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Sir Joh and Sir John

Gough and Joh

 

The Dismissal of the Whitlam Government is now 40 years old and in this tediously stable democracy of ours it remains the most exciting thing to have occurred since the indignity of the Rum Rebellion in 1808. And so it came to pass that in these recent weeks our stuffiest old historians and columnists revisited their favourite subject and the results have been predictably beige.

There are no new facts left to discover about the Dismissal. The exciting new revelations by Paul Kelly or Jenny Hocking about the colour of Lady Kerr’s wallpaper were ignored by more sensible historians as the pointless trivialities that they are. All there really is left to discuss is the hopelessly subjective question: Who was in the right and who was in the wrong. And in this bloggers opinion the views expressed by paid commentators on this matter are without exception, wrong.

Contrary to popular opinion the three main actors in the Dismissal all acted in a broadly conventional way. Both Whitlam and Fraser behaved in a typically partisan and uncompromising fashion, the kind of which we’ve come to expect from Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders. On the rare occasion one our major party leaders put down their weapons and engage in a bit of bipartisanship, like, say, Malcolm Turnbull attempting to martial support for Kevin Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme, they are eviscerated by their own side.

What made 1975 exceptional was that Fraser was an atypically powerful opposition leader. He commanded an absolute majority in one of our parliamentary chambers from opposition. Only Brendan Nelson in 2007/08 could claim the same but unlike Nelson, Fraser was facing a Prime Minister with depleted political capital. If Nelson had attempted to be an obstructionist opposition leader he would have presented an unassailably popular Prime Minister with a double dissolution trigger. Whitlam on the other hand could not afford to take his case to the Australian people.

It is difficult to imagine a modern opposition leader in command of a senate majority pitted against an unpopular and scandal ridden government using those numbers in any way other than to frustrate the Prime Minister. Think of John Howard circa 1995, Beazley circa 1999, Abbott in 2012 and Shorten in 2014. Each and every one of these men would have blockaded the legislature and in lieu of a Prime Minister being prepared to call an early election there would probably have had to have been a vice regal intervention, which brings us to the third main player in The Dismissal.

With regard to the actions of Sir John Kerr it is beyond dispute that he behaved imperfectly, but not, I would contend, improperly. The reason that Westminster democracies have an executive power, divorced from the legislature, is to resolve complications that prevent the parliament functioning properly. And one such situation is plainly in occurrence when two diametrically opposed forces wrest control of a legislative chamber each and refuse to compromise in any significant way.

To be sure, the governor general ought to pursue a satisfactory resolution while acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister but if the Prime Minister demonstrates no capacity or intent to resolve the paralysis it is wholly appropriate for the governor general to withdraw their commission, indeed it is their duty to do so. Where Kerr erred however was in his decision to conceal his intentions from Whitlam. It was well within Kerr’s remit to issue Whitlam with an ultimatum but to ambush the Prime Minister was a failure of judgement.

The received wisdom that is offered to account for Kerr’s subterfuge is that Kerr feared that if he issued Whitlam an ultimatum, the Prime Minister would sack him and appoint a weaker governor general. It makes no difference, this was not Kerr’s decision to make. He served at the pleasure of the Prime Minister it was not for him to deceive Whitlam whatever his motives. If Whitlam made a habit of removing governors general for doing their job it was the role of the palace to intervene, not Kerr.

Nevertheless Kerr is perhaps the greatest Australian victim of what is sometimes metaphorically referred to as “ivory tower criticism.” Kerr’s errors of judgement were not altogether unreasonably behaviour in the context in which they were made. Constitutional crises are by their nature difficult to resolve. Whatever his faults, Kerr resolved the crisis quickly and efficiently. The business of government resumed shortly thereafter, no blood was spilled.  Despite Paul Kelly’s pompous histrionics about the constitution being “pushed to its limit,” the Dismissal demonstrated the strength of the constitution to resolve parliamentary deadlocks , affirmed in a gloriously robust way. It did not, as Paul Keating contends, constitute a “completely undemocratic act”, but a resounding victory for the institution of constitutional democracy.

There was a clear villain in the constitutional crisis however and that was the Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. So often is the fact that Fraser commanded a majority in the Senate raised, far too seldom are the circumstances by which he came by this majority explained.

In 1975 Labor Senator Bert Milliner tragically and suddenly passed away. It therefore fell to the Queensland government, effectively Premier Bjelke-Petersen to appoint a senator to fill the vacancy. Rather than appoint Whitlam’s recommendation of Mal Colston in accordance with convention, Bjelke-Petersen appointed nominal Labor member but Whitlam critic Albert Field. Field had publicly declared his intention to vote against supply and the consequence of Sir Joh’s manipulations was to appoint an opposition senator to fill the vacancy created by the death of a government senator.

Throughout the constitutional crisis of 1975 many players acted imperfectly, but none  acted grossly unethically except Premier Bjelke-Petersen. With a legacy of corruption, racism and gerrymandering to his name, Sir Joh emerges from the Dismissal in the worst light imaginable. He was an opportunist and a cheat, embodying all the suspicions and misgivings ordinary people have about politicians. There is no redeeming Bjelke-Petersen, he was the pantomime villain historians so desperately want and that the Australian people never deserved.

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What Might Have Been

joe

Few politicians have lost as much as Joseph Benedict Hockey. In 2009 with Malcolm Turnbull crashing as leader it seemed the youthful Hockey was his party’s great hope for the future. Peter Costello had just left parliament Julie Bishop was held in low regard after a disastrous spell as shadow treasurer, Scott Morrison was then a little known entity and Tony Abbott was widely perceived as “too right wing.” Joe on the other hand was soaring. At this point he had been soaring for going on three years.

Ever since John Howard made Hockey the Minister for Workplace Relations he had successfully cast himself as the warm and cuddly face of Liberal Conservatism. His warm, jovial demeanour cut a sharp contrast with his predecessor Kevin Andrews under whom Workchoices had been rolled out. Hockey’s big break came as Kevin Rudd’s sparing partner on the Sunrise program where he held his own against Labor’s unstoppable juggernaut. But in 2007 Joe became far more than merely Rudd’s Sunrise opposite. He was everywhere: the genial, witty, moderate, pro apology republican was practically the poster child of a government desperate to prove its enduring relevance.

The Coalition lost the 2007 election but Joe just kept on rising. Like lambs to the slaughter senior Liberals attempted to knock Rudd down a peg with aggression and brutality and were rendered ridiculous. Only Joe had the tactical instincts to fight folksiness with folksiness. While Labor Ministers right across the spectrum became media darlings to a country besotted by Rudd’s honeymoon popularity, Hockey was the only in demand member of the Coalition. Light entertainment and hard news programs booked him night after night, he was the only member of the Liberals who seemed able to adjust to the shift in tone in national politics spearheaded by Joe’s old mate Kevin.

It was against this backdrop that Joe firmed as the favourite to take over the Liberal leadership from the struggling Turnbull.  Six short years later he has left parliament as a failure.

The poison chalice for Joe appears to have been the Treasury portfolio. Under the more restrained leadership of Turnbull, Hockey proved to be reasonably effective at prosecuting Labor’s record on debt and deficit but the Abbott approach to opposition crushed his credibility. Hockey tried to foreshadow the need for budget cuts if the Coalition was going to deliver a surplus but he was trampled over by his “shoot first, ask questions later” leader. Abbott promised to tax nothing, fund everything and deliver budget surpluses.  Hockey was given the unenviable job of reconciling these irreconcilable contradictions and was held responsible when he failed to do the impossible.

When the Coalition came to government and the time came good to make good of their commitment to return the budget to surpluses, individual ministers became economic NIMBYs. Of course, they agreed, cuts needed to be made, but none of them in their own departments. Only Christopher Pyne made a sincere effort to find savings in his department but the diplomatic ineptitude of senate leader Eric Abetz sees these savings remain suspended in the senate till this day.  Hockey meanwhile endures the blame for his leader’s dishonesty, and his leader’s alienation of the senate crossbench, and yet this only accounts for half the story.

Hockey’s public demeanour changed dramatically over his time as shadow treasurer. Prior to 2010 Joe was frequently identified as a voice of decency within the Liberal ranks. He wasn’t a ruthless, cut throat political animal like Howard of Costello, he was a jolly man who simply believed in individual enterprise and wanted to make it easier for small businesses to operate by cutting red tape and shrinking their tax burden. Like Turnbull, he appeared to have more in common with Kevin Rudd than he did with John Howard or Tony Abbott. In politics however every strength will be distorted into a weakness and soon Labor (although notably not Rudd) honed in on Hockey’s lack of venom as evidence of a lack of strength. “He’s a nice guy, but you wouldn’t trust him to run anything” said the then Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner and the attack stuck. Soon ambitious colleagues coveting Hockey’s treasury portfolio like Andrew Robb began using this same attack to try and blast him out.

Butted and buffeted, Hockey returned from the Christmas break in 2012 with a new found aggressive streak. Gone was the jocular Joe, the new figure was snarling and unsympathetic. Instead of presenting himself as understanding and gentle as he had done with such aplomb in 06-07, Joe told the voters to suck it up and take their medicine. It was out of character and unconvincing, it didn’t come across as tough love, it came across as nasty. He started saying things like poor people don’t drive cars and homeless people just needed to get good jobs. These were derided as gaffes but in all probability they were deliberate but poorly judged. They were intended to woo the economic dries and the hard right, but Joe just couldn’t pull it off.

Hockey threw away a politically effective media persona to curry favour with the Abbott/Abetz hard right bloc that then controlled the Liberal Party and it destroyed him. He was hectored and scorned by his Liberal colleagues for being too genial towards Labor when instead they should have urged him to cultivate and utilize this ability to transcend the partisan divide. Hockey could have been a national unifying figure,  occupying the centre, transcending the political divide  and making government more inclusive, instead he retires a failed partisan warrior: aggressive, forceful and defeated.

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The End Of The Accidental Prime Minister

Your Prime Minister

In 2009 there were at most half a dozen members of the Liberal National Coalition who believed Tony Abbott was the best placed candidate to defeat Kevin Rudd in a general election. But morale was low and egos bruised, for three years they had been told by successive leaders that they had to compromise to be competitive and for three years Rudd had humiliated them at every turn and they’d had enough. If they were going to lose anyway, they were going to lose fighting for what they believed in.

Even still these ideological martyrs did not constitute a majority of the Liberal Party.  The affable Joe Hockey was expected to replace the damaged Malcolm Turnbull. Although a moderate, Joe did not exhibit the same contempt for the party’s conservatives that Turnbull did. In a head to head ballot against either Abbott or Turnbull, Hockey, who had few enemies within the parliamentary party, would have won comfortably. Abbott and Turnbull represented polarizing and destructive hardliners, Hockey was an acceptable compromise between the two. The problem of course was neither Turnbull nor Abbott would drop out and Hockey was squeezed out in a three horse race. He never made it to the second ballot and the Liberal Party was confronted with the unenviable choice of two polarising and divisive figures.

And so it came to pass that the problem child of the Howard government became the leader of Australia’s natural party of government. He was not expected to win the election, he had only been given the opportunity because the upcoming election was thought to be a foregone conclusion. Indeed many in the parliamentary party and the rank and file consoled themselves with the idea that they would expend Abbott on an unwinnable election, then three years later when the public may have grown weary of the Rudd government, a more plausible candidate could lead them in a much closer contest.  Yet all this was predicated on the Labor government continuing to proceed with some semblance of orthodoxy, instead they imploded.

Unbeknownst to the Liberals, Labor was already making preparations for their own self-immolation at the time the Liberals were performing theirs. Labor too believed the 2010 election was a foregone conclusion and a ripe opportunity to install their leader of preference with no serious electoral consequences. Alas they underestimated the extent to which their electoral fortunes were tied to the individual they decided to destroy. With hitherto unseen brutality the traditional power structures of the labour movement deposed the Keynesian in labour clothing who just so happened to be the only person to deliver them victory since 1993. Having interwoven its image with the personality of the individual they’d banished to the backbenches Labor struggled to present a compelling argument in favour of its own re-election. After a few weeks of honeymoon polling the absence of purpose in the post Rudd government was exposed and Labor’s standing with the electorate plunged long forgotten depths.

For three year the Gillard led Labor government attempted to present a coherent agenda for government while repudiating the legacy of the Rudd era and in doing so cobbled together a confused and paradoxical message which alienated huge portions of the electorate. They were for an emissions trading scheme, then for outsourcing climate policy to a so called “Climate assembly” then for a fixed price on carbon, then for a floating price on carbon. They were going to detain asylum seekers on East Timor, then Malaysia, then Nauru and Manus Island. Against these contradictions and Abbott led Liberal Party soon became the electorate’s preference but Abbott himself was never popular. His satisfaction remained at historically low levels throughout his tenure in opposition and his lack of personal popularity gave the Labor Party hope that they could still win under Julia Gillard’s leadership.

Gillard and Abbott were mutually dependant on each other’s unpopularity. Opinion polling throughout the three year period constantly suggested that a leadership change from either party could trigger a crisis in the other. When Labor finally turned to Rudd after two years of scorched earth tactics the Labor Party apparatus was deeply damaged. Political donations were already flowing in the direction of the Liberal Party, half his cabinet had resigned and the polling deficit was ten points. Against this damaged and unpopular government Abbott was elected but in losing Julia Gillard he had lost the reference point that gave him political purpose.

As a Prime Minister who was carried into office on the back of a government’s capitulation, Abbott was unique in having never asserted himself as an intellectual heavyweight, the consequences of which became apparent with every passing Newspoll. In a long form interview with Leigh Sales or Sarah Ferguson Abbott was simply too inarticulate to persuasively make the case for his government’s policies. Whereas in opposition his policies were all hypothetical proposals, in government they were tangibly impacting upon people’s lives and it was no longer adequate to explain them with platitudes and slogans. Indeed as Malcolm Turnbll repeatedly stated in outlining his reasons to challenge Abbott for the party leadership, Abbott’s recourse to political slogans was devastating the government’s economic credentials.

But sloganeering was all Tony Abbott had ever demonstrated an ability to do. He hadn’t been made the leader of the Liberal Party because he was articulate and nimble. He was elected to be a martyr, but his executioners kept surrendering. Success after success came to Abbott but none of them were strategically won and eventually he found himself the accidental occupant of a position he had never been well equipped to serve. Some may have held out hope that he might learn on the job, instead he did the opposite. His interview with Leigh Sales, a week before being toppled encapsulated precisely why Abbott was never going to be able to revive his party’s fortunes. Here was a Prime Minister being asked a flexible, open ended question about his economic record, it was a perfect opportunity for a more articulate politician to calmly explain the mechanics underpinning some of his economic policies to a hitherto unimpressed electorate and his response was “we stopped the boats.” A slogan about an unrelated area of policy. How could the Liberal MPs and Senators be expected to believe that he would be able to articulate the case for re-election in 2016? As the events of September 14 demonstrate, they couldn’t. They had never meant for him to become Prime Minister, they had never believed he was capable of being a successful Prime Minister. Now they knew it to be true.

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The End Of An Epic

Clarke and Cook

2011: The boy wonders destined for leadership

When Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook first faced off as captains back in 2011 they were the archetypal boy generals. Taking over the top job while still in their twenties, the energetic and limber new captains cut a sharp contrast with their crusty and deteriorating predecessors.  Both men had been earmarked for the top job about thirty seconds after making their test debut and when they swiftly rose to the top position at precociously young ages it seemed we were destined to witness a rivalry so epic as to cast a shadow over all others.

Cook and Clarke have now gone head to head as test captains some fourteen times, plus a dozen or so one day encounters. Ricky Ponting did battle with Graham Smith on nine occasions, so too Mark Taylor with Michael Atherton but neither crossed that magic ten match threshold. Cook and Clarke did not merely cross it, they have well and truly demolished it. The idea now of an Ashes test under different leadership seems a little peculiar and yet, sadly before time, we are poised to experience exactly that.

The two men that shook hands at the beginning of July were markedly different from the boy wonders that crossed swords four years earlier. Out of form and under fire with talented and dynamic young deputies breathing down their necks, the pair were grimly aware of the fact that they were not merely playing for the Ashes but their own careers.

Cook and Clarke would face off for the last time under threat from popular young deputies

Cook and Clarke would face off for the last time under threat from popular young deputies

Alastair Cook was the first captain in decades to take over an English side of comparable strength to the Australians, arguably greater. Yet his record as both a batsman and a captain has disappointed, falling short of the high standards set by Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan.  For the last four years as a batsman Cook has been lacklustre and as a side England has been volatile. An Ashes loss on their home turf would likely have spelt the end of Cook’s captaincy and potentially his place in the test side.

Clarke as we well know was an ageing, underperforming batsman leading a side in continual decline.  Under his leadership Australia was meant to arrest a persistent slide in overseas campaigns that began with the retirement of the Warne, Mcgrath, Gilchrist Troika in 2007/08. Whether by strategic genius, disciplined leadership or sheer force of his own run scoring, Clarke was supposed to reverse the decline. For a fleeting moment  he appeared to be doing just that,  off the back  of his own Bradmanesque scoring he appeared to be keeping the decline at bay, but when injuries hampered his batting prowess Australia slid right back into this severe decline from the their 97-07 high water mark. The string of disappointments had stretched too far, the Australian selectors could not abide another and so Clarke had to go.

This was the spectre under which both captains greeted each other at the beginning of the series.  Unlike many other notable cricketing rivals there was no malice or acrimony in the relationship between Clarke and Cook. They have throughout their careers maintained a dignified and professional respect for the other. There were no unedifying shouting matches on the field, no potshots in the media and no accusations of bad sportsmanship. They played hard, they played to win and they did it within the spirit of cricket. It was perhaps therefore with a touch of melancholy that they shook hands with the knowledge that at the end of the series only one of them could have a future ahead of them.

The final showdown was a yo-yoing affair but this was the how it had always been between Clarke and Cook.  In 2013 England comfortably claimed  a home victory over the Australians before being humiliated six months later in a five nil whitewash in Australia. This time round, fighting for his very survival, Cook drew first blood with a convincing win at Cardiff against a respectable Australian performance.  Clarke’s Australians fought back at Lords as they were wont to do with an imperious 400 run victory and for a moment it looked as though Cook might be the one forced to deliver a resignation speech. But wimpy batting efforts from the Australians saw England seize control at tests 3 and 4 and undisciplined bowling secured Clarke’s demise. Cook will go on to lead England perhaps for another five years, the boy captain is still only thirty years of age and despite poor form with the bat still seems athletic and hungry in the field. His Ashes triumph has bought him time. Time to regain his form, time to correct his technique. His great rival has completely run out.

remebrance day

By 2015 both captains were out of time: they needed to deliver or stand aside.

When they go head to head for the last time at The Oval for their final pas de deux, Cook will be a man with a spring in his step. The weight of a thousand pressures will be lifted from his shoulders. Clarke will be, as they say, a dead man walking. He has chosen not to fight his own demise, he has pleaded guilty and stoically prepared himself for execution.

Four years ago two promising young deputies stood in for their injured captains. They stood on equal footing, relaxed, confident and optimistic.  Four years later one is a national hero, his position in the side is unquestioned, he looks as fit and healthy as a twenty year old and appears destined to enjoy a flourishing career for years to come. The other is a humbled and broken. Frustrated by injuries and a lack of success he can but wonder what might have been had his (and perhaps Ryan Harris’) back held up.

The final encounter

The final encounter

So when the two shake hands on the 20th of August savour it. Take a moment to reflect upon the rich and exciting era of Ashes cricket under Cook and Clarke: Ashton Agar’s 98 at no11 on debut, Mitchel Johnson’s 37 wicket series in Australia, Kevin Pietersen’s dramatic sacking, Steven Smith’s double century at Lords and of course Stuart Broad’s 8/ 15 at Trent Bridge. Throughout these turbulent years Cook and Clarke remained at the helm, stoic, dignified and resilient and now it is all at an end. The game will of course go on as it always has but we have never seen and may never again see two captains go through as much together as these two and even the hardest of men must be touched with sadness at this truth.

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