Ever-decreasing circles: The Neolibs

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Has today's Liberal lost the ability to forage for ideas parodying the Ooslum Bird flying round in ever-decreasing circles till it eventually disappears 'up its own exhaust pipe'? Andrew Elder reports.

We were full of beans
But we were dying like flies
And those big black birds, they were circling in the sky
And you know what they say, yeah, nobody deserves to die

- Hunters and Collectors Holy grail

IT IS ONE of the most interesting developments in modern Australian political journalism that the best interviews are not conducted by members of the press gallery. They are not conducted by "serious journalists" on Sky or the ABC. 

They are conducted on breakfast television. Lisa Wilkinson, Karl Stefanovic, and David Koch put Tony Abbott through his paces far more than David Speers or Emma Alberici ever did. Breakfast presenters get out of bed when late-night presenters get into theirs, but even with a full day of research and preparation it's the early-birds who get the political worms. Samantha Armytage sold herself short when she said that she joined breakfast television because she'd given up on serious journalism. 

It was Wilkinson, not Leigh Sales or Laurie Oakes, who got Turnbull to admit he consults only a very small circle of people when it comes to things like the Budget. Turnbull has been a small-circle guy all his life. He didn't get where he is by cultivating a heaving mass of people. The nearest he got to a mass movement was the republic, and even then he cultivated an inner core of celebrities rather than a broader constituency. 

For much of 2015, Australia's savviest political insiders not only insisted that Joe Hockey should leave the Treasury and be replaced by Scott Morrison. Nobody in the press gallery questioned that Morrison, like John Kerin a generation earlier, would effortlessly make the transition to Treasurer (indeed, many of them had been in the gallery when Kerin was Treasurer). They should have known better.

None of them looked at the decisions Turnbull made, either. In his first Cabinet, Turnbull took the unprecedented step of bringing the Assistant Treasurer (basically Minister for Revenue) into Cabinet. Kelly O'Dwyer was on Costello's staff and has been the closest thing Australian politics gets To The Treasury Born; Christian Porter is similar: a second-generation politician who succeeded (if that's the word) Troy Buswell as WA Treasurer, but who got out ahead of the mess that's since been left to that ninny from the IPA. Both O'Dwyer and Porter are reserve Treasurers. 

Turnbull could have chosen anyone as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet; he chose the former head of Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, who has spent his career putting Budgets together. If you fought your way through the Narrative, you'd hear some of the better press gallery journalists noting that Parkinson was playing a more prominent role in putting the Budget together than DPMC heads before him. As if Costello would have tolerated that from Max Moore-Wilton or Peter Shergold. As if Wayne Swan would have tolerated that from Rudd's office or Gillard's.

As if Scott Morrison has a choice. Morrison's life isn't about mass movements either, or even small circles. Morrison is about boiling complex issues down to snappy slogans. Keating could do snappy slogans too, but only after he had demonstrated to the press gallery that he was across the complex economics of the budget. Keating's slogans projected his understandings onto an issue; Morrison's slogans succeed when they deflect attention away from himself, which they rarely do because there is no understanding on which to project. 

Morrison has spent his life sucking up to Howard and others with patronage. His preselection was secured after a head-office intervention against a well-organised rightwinger, and even now the Liberal factions in Cook could squash Morrison like a bug if they so chose. Turnbull doesn't need Morrison to suck up to him.

Turnbull doesn't have a political base in the Liberal Party, and Morrison hasn't got one to offer him. Morrison has inhabited that shadowy, ill-defined world in the Liberal Party, which is neither moderate, nor economic-rationalist right (more a Vic thing than NSW), nor the brimstone-and-sodomy religious right. Like Labor's Centre-Left, this constituency shrinks when examined or tested in actual ballots. Morrison could have been their champion if he was any good, but he isn't. He's not much help to Turnbull, and if he turned on the Prime Minister Morrison would become a joke.

Perhaps Morrison could have impressed Turnbull sufficiently to have his head. He could have leapt into the role of Treasurer, rendering O'Dwyer and Porter or any other pretenders as irrelevant as Chris "Anthems" Whittaker was to the Wallabies under George Gregan. He could have quietly mastered his brief, like McMahon or Hayden or Howard or Ralph Willis or Swan. Too late for that now.

It's one thing to play that Canberra game of getting Turnbull to express confidence in Morrison, but fuck that shit. What is worse: for Turnbull to persist with the slander that Morrison really is the best Treasurer we could have, or to admit that the real fiscal and economic decisions are made by people other than the titular Treasurer? Turnbull might as well read out the Budget himself, Morrison is just the spokesperson. 

When Morrison speaks of blockchain it isn't just that he's out of his depth: John Gorton might have had opinions on the Rolling Stones, but it doesn't matter what they were. Morrison is planting a tree under the shade of which he will never sit, with all the pathos that goes to that. He won't be Treasurer after this coming election. I doubt he'll be a candidate for the following one.

The Howard years narrowed the Liberal Party, leaving them nowhere to go after 2007. They lost the ability to forage for ideas, abilities Menzies and Howard developed in opposition when their fortunes were so dire nobody would come and talk to them. The small circles of the BCA and the IPA had ideas frozen, shrink-wrapped and ready to go, and the Liberals were only too ready to take them; they didn't heed the warnings that they were selling the unsellable, because there were no such warnings. 

Journos didn't examine Liberal ideas too closely. Nobody pondered the implications of the Nats taking money from miners assuming there was no conflict with farming communities.

All that experience watching governments come and go, a quarter century observing Abbott up close, counted for diddly-squat when it came time for them to help us decide our governments. The BCA and IPA played the Liberal Party; they got the windfalls and the credit if the Liberals somehow got the public to swallow their ideas, and if they didn't the ideas remained but the Liberals were trashed.

The Liberals faced no critics within or without, just inchoate whingers who were fobbed off with Abbott's sheep-clothing routine ("no cuts ..."). They became small circle jerks, both scornful and fearful of the public they yearn to reach, but who seem to shrink beyond their reach regardless of how well polled, monitored, or commented-upon we are.

After 2007 the Coalition needed to rethink. They needed those years where nobody would talk to them in order to forage for ideas. Turnbull hasn't used his time in the wilderness to good effect, buggering the NBN and leaving the commercial media without any hope from change in their regulatory environment (no matter how the regulatory environment changes, those who run commercial media will screw it up). He is like Churchill after the disasters of Crete and Dieppe, but without the stirring rhetoric or any hope for some D-Day master plan. Yet, plenty of press gallery still insist that if only they can somehow make it into those inner circles they can report what it's like. They can't admit to themselves there's no there there: not in terms of Turnbull, not in terms of press gallery journalism itself.

Labor have been abandoned by spivs and rentseekers. They have used their time well, listening to pointyheads rather than dismissing them for being unable to compete with them in politics. 

They probably won't make a convincing case this time, and their backroom operators are being defensive and silly with the Greens. Mind you, Turnbull isn't that convincing either. It's why 2010 is the new norm: major-party operators and press gallery journalists who don't like it can just lump it.

You know I, I been searching for an easy way
To escape this cold light of day
I been high and I been low
But I got nowhere else to go

There's nowhere else to go ...

This article was originally published on 23 March 2016 and is republished with permission. You can follow Andrew Elder on his blog Press Gallery Reform or on Twitter @awelder.

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Editor's note: After the IPA were caught out trying to distance themselves from the new Liberal Senator James Paterson by removing his name as co-author of the IPA's (75 point) Manifesto, they had no choice but to restore his name. Typical of the tricky footwork we can expect from the Institute of Poppycock and Agitprop!

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