In which, oh no, some Liberals know a dirty word


”We have to move forward,” said Hockey. ”Clearly this issue has done us incredible damage and I hope the Australian people forgive us for having this very public display. But I say to the Australian people: we are a progressive party.

With all the turmoil and intrigue of the Coalition’s civil war, it’s been easy to miss some of the little details. Far more interesting than theorizing over a Liberal Party disintegration that isn’t going to happen is this important piece of rhetoric from the man who might be their leader as soon as next week.

Australian politics, though not to the extent of its American counterpart, has shied away from overt expressions of left wing ideology in recent decade. Even Keating, with his heartfelt embrace of reconciliation, the republic, an improved relationship with Asia, and other such small-l liberal causes, he was still an economic rationalist who had little time for old Labor socialism. John Howard proudly proclaimed his conservatism, as did his fellow party-members. Such was the benefit of being associated with the right wing that Kevin Rudd, as a new Opposition Leader, invented a reputation for himself as “an economic conservative.” The last thing any self respecting member of mainstream Australian politics wished to claim was an affiliation with the greenie, latte-sipping, chardonnay-swilling, inner-city left. In fact, the only time in recent years that being seen to be a conservative was a problem was for the NSW Liberals in 2007, and that’s because no one in the state could quite believe anyone could be to the right of NSW Labor. (Barry O’Farrell won’t make the mistake Peter Debnam did; that’s why he’s clamping down on the hardline conservatives in his party causing troubles with Hitler parodies.)

But all of a sudden, thanks to the 2007 election, the unpleasant aftertaste of 11 years of John Howard, and issues that resonate within the electorate like climate change, being a leftie ain’t that bad anymore. Look at Uncle Joe up there!

Excuse his blatant falsehood; whatever stance the Liberals should form on climate change, they are not a progressive party. Not even Petro Georgiou is anything more than a moderate conservative who knows how to act like a human being around refugees. The Liberals have long liked to call themselves a, well, liberal party, but after a half-century of conservative policies, it’s hard to believe them.

This, though, is different[1]. Hockey is adopting a tag usually associated with students, Greens voters and other assorted ratbags: progressive. Liberals are never progressive. They can be “wet,” or “moderate” or “centrist,” but never “progressive”; unlike the Labor party with its right wing, their centrists aren’t described as lefties. But here Hockey sees a political benefit for his party in the public perceiving them as more left-wing than they actually are. It’s the same mechanism Rudd used with his social-conservative schtick; the public didn’t trust his party to be economically responsible, so he claimed the opposing ideology for it.

And you can see why Hockey’s doing it, even though a big chunk of his party is determined to convince the country they’re anything but progressive. The Australian political center is definitely to the left of the Coalition on this issue. They don’t support an ETS as strongly as they used to, but they still greatly approve of doing something about climate change. The Coalition is simply not progressive enough on this issue, and in the words of Ian Macfarlane, “Malcolm Turnbull is modernising the parliamentary Liberal Party … He is bringing the party into the 21st century and there are some people who want to keep the party in the ’60s.”

On this issue, being progressive is, for once, not a dirty word. In fact doing what the Liberal Party is doing, as Turnbull says, is ”irresponsible from an environmental point of view and it is completely and utterly self-destructive from a political point of view.”

[1] I think adopting “progressive” and “liberal” are different things, because liberal is not only the name of their party, it has suggestions of classical liberalism about it. Progressive is just calling yourself a pot-smoking vegetarian friend-of-the-ABC.


In which Joe Hockey loves it when you call him Big Poppa

At the HeraldPeter Hartcher looks at Joe Hockey’s probable rise to the Liberal leadership next week:

If Joe Hockey wants to be the next leader of the Liberal Party the job is his – for a price. It’s very expensive. He will spend this weekend agonising over whether he wants to pay it.

It has three instalments. First, he has to be prepared to sacrifice his family life. This is standard for any political leader, but Hockey’s circumstances are particularly delicate.

He has three children under the age of five, one of them a newborn. Xavier is 4, Adelaide 2, and the new arrival, Ignatius, is just five weeks old.

And Hockey’s wife, Melissa Babbage, is committed to a demanding job of her own. As the head of foreign exchange trading at Deutsche Bank in Sydney, she is responsible for an $800-million-a-year business.

It’s not an ideal moment to move to an all-consuming, travel-heavy, sleep-destroying job with towering expectations and minimal resources.

That this is a consideration at all for a male politician is a small but fairly significant step. In the old days, it would have been a no-brainer for Hockey to place his career over his family and take the top job. (Disregarding the other factors Hartcher mentions: that it would require sacrificing his support for an ETS, and place him in the leadership at a time he’s unlikely to succeed.) A man in Hockey’s position would once have assumed he could leave the child-raising to his wife, while he got on with the serious man-business of politics.

It’s to Hockey’s credit that he considers the business of raising his family to be, at least in part, his responsibility, and that he’s willing to share the burden of doing so with his partner, Melissa Babbage. The challenge women face of balancing a career and a family can’t be easy for Babbage, particularly considering the size of her career and the size and youth of her family. That challenge is eased if it’s a challenge that belongs to her husband as well. That Australia appears to accept this is a reasonable consideration for a prospective leader to make is an undoubted good thing.

Of course, I suspect Hockey would have an easier time deciding to go for the leadership than if the roles were reversed and Babbage was weighing whether to sacrifice her family life for her career, she would have a slightly tougher time convincing the public that this was OK. Though we should be, I’m not sure we would be as comfortable with a mother of young children tilting at the leadership as we are with a father in the same position.

Then again, perhaps not. In the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, Sarah Palin ran for Vice-President with five children, including a new-born. Despite all manner of other criticism directed at her, there was a little in the way of discussion as to whether it was appropriate for her to take on a position of such responsibility while acting as mother to a large family. And nor should there have been; as with Hockey, that was a decision for her and her partner.

In which the north shore doesn’t parking lot pimp, it politics

I don’t need to sift through the Lan Choo dregs to tell you guys this: In November former Optus executive Paul Fletcher is going to be elected as the new Member for the North Shore seat of Bradfield. He’ll replace the departing Brendan Nelson, and either help the Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull by handing him a healthy winning margin, or trouble him with a closer scrape than a high profile Liberal in an ultra- safe seat should experience. That’s not very interesting.

What is more interesting is the process by which Fletcher received his party’s nomination, which the Sydney Morning Herald’s Phillip Coorey outlined last Friday:

There are 17 candidates vying for Liberal preselection for the safe north shore seat, vacated by the resignation of Brendan Nelson. Their winner will be chosen by 120 party members, of whom 72 are local members and the remainder party officials.

[Fletcher and another competitive candidate, David Coleman] are from south of the Harbour Bridge and tried for preselection for the Sutherland Shire seat of Cook in 2007.

The influence of factions is limited in Bradfield but the left, which has about 35 votes, is broadly lining up behind Mr Fletcher. It will support Mr Coleman as a second option.

The right, which is estimated to have about 30 votes, is scattered among local candidates including Julian Leeser, Tom Switzer, Sophie York, Simon Berger and John Hart, who is considered the dark horse.

There are around 90 000 voters in Bradfield, and their next Federal member was subject to the scrutiny of just 120 of them. Sure, he will have to face the electorate at a full election, but a north shore seat like this one is only going to vote for a Liberal, and this is the Liberal the party has told them they will vote for. Fletcher won this enviable position with a mere 60 votes, his closest challenger being local boy Julian Leeser, who received 51.

That’s not all bad. The Liberals, particularly in New South Wales, need an injection of new talent, and it is in the interests of voters in and outside of Bradfield to have talented politicians working in Parliament. But we should also remember the purpose of our representative system of government, and it isn’t to restock the ranks of the Liberal Party with people who don’t have to worry too hard about being re-elected. Fletcher’s job, first and foremost, will be to go to Canberra to represent the interests and concerns of the people of Bradfield — a place in which, currently, he does not even live. It would be nice if a few more than three twentieths of one per cent of the people he wishes to represent had a real say in whether he should do so.

Erin Riley over at Naysayers has a suggestion: Open Primaries!

Pre-selection battles typically involve a very small number of voters.  Consequently, you have to very much toe the party line to be chosen to run in an election.  Open up the process, and you may well find a broader range of candidates.  Plus, it would go a long way toward discouraging some of the nepotism in Australian politics, and might convince political candidates to engage with a broader range of people.

There was a bit of chatter about this sort of thing last year amidst the excitement of the American Democratic primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from Australians wishing for a homegrown version of the spectacle, not realising that kind of high profile leadership contest would be impossible in a Parliamentary system. But there’s no reason we couldn’t implement the less glamorous but more practical system of subjecting party candidates to the wider electorate, rather than the kind of highly-exclusive cabals that threw up Paul Fletcher for the people of Bradfield to rubber stamp.

Australians tend to be disengaged from our politics; as long our members aren’t doing anything egregiously noxious, we prefer not to think of them. That’s partly a result of our culture, but it’s also a result of a system that discourages us as much as possible from becoming involved.

Our experience is a marked contrast to the United States. Take a look at this New York Times article from the weekend, about the U.S. Republican Party choosing candidates for next year’s midterm elections.

“In New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado and other states, the push by Washington Republicans to identify preferred Senate candidates has stirred resentment and prompted competition from those not impressed by the Washington seal of approval.”

The problem in these states is not that the voters want a say in who is their candidate for the next election — they get that. These voters are upset that the national Republican organisation has favoured one candidate before the voters have even got a look, and as a result, many grassroots opponents are receiving a boost in support. These voters are troubled by a mere show of support from the Federal party; imagine how they would react if, like in Bradfield, they didn’t even get a say.  And unlike Fletcher, the interloper is not a non-local high flyer the party has flown in to benefit its national organisation; all the candidates involved are locals.

The most striking example, for my money, is that of Charlie Crist, the well-liked Governor of Florida who hopes to stand for the Senate. Crist is local and popular, yet the quick seal of approval the National Republican Senatorial Committee gave him was enough to stir up some of the locals and force Crist to compete against Florida’s former House speaker Marco Rubio for the nomination. Crist is probably the better candidate, but it’s healthy to see voters engaged enough in their government that they see it as their right, and not select officials in the Republican Party, as to who gets to stand in an election.

Could we see a similar level of passion in Australia? Last month, the Victorian Premier John Brumby proposed the ALP adopt a primary system to select its candidates — within Victoria, anyway. He is candid about the difficulties of implementing the system, but he also understands the benefits:

Mr Brumby said the system would be complicated to implement because the party would need to identify regular ALP voters, whereas in the US they were registered to a party.

He said the system could be trialled before next year’s election, with preselections yet to take place in most of the opposition-held seats.

“It’s something that I think the party should examine. It’s really based on the US system and that is where registered voters for political parties can help pre-select the candidate,” Mr Brumby said.

“At the moment in our party you need to be a paid-up party member to participate in a preselection process and it’s normally a combination of people in the branches and people on the central office selection panel.”

This kind of thing is encouraging to see, and we should hope Victoria — and the rest of the country — does indeed implement a primary system, open or otherwise. It wouldn’t prevent candidates like Paul Fletcher receiving the nomination for their party, but it would require them to convince a few more than 60 voters that they’re up to the job.

In which the Liberal Party has a climate change policy. Really.

Peter Hartcher’s column in Saturday’s Herald was filled with a few morsels of mildly juicy sniping by ex-Coalition leader and current parliamentry piker Brendan Nelson at the party’s current leader Malcolm Turnbull, but the really interesting bit was buried in two paragraphs about a third of the way in:

Brendan the benevolent, however, accepts that he made mistakes. He volunteers that his fatal policy stumble, on climate change, was entirely his own work.

When he announced that the Opposition would not support the Government on an emissions trading system until the results of the Copenhagen conference on carbon emissions were clear, he had no idea that he was changing Coalition policy: “I didn’t know, I didn’t realise that we were committed to an emissions trading system no matter what.”

Nelson was a member of cabinet in 2007, campaigning for his Government’s re-election, and he had no idea what its environmental policy was? Is it any wonder the Libs lost the election?