Serial dud Kevin Andrews as Prime Minister? No way, press gallery!

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(Image via @jarrapin)

Kevin Andrews, the serial dud, as prime minister? Give us a break. The piping roar of a frightened, toothless old lion from a non-marginal seat in the 'burbs should not have been infused with the importance given it by the press gallery, says Andrew Elder.

THIS WEEK gave us several great examples of why the press gallery's insistence on a narrative – and cramming everything that may happen into it – produces such terrible journalism. 

Kevin Andrews is not going to be Prime Minister. He's not even the next Liberal Opposition Leader. The framing of this is just such bullshit. It's designed to feed into a narrative that Turnbull is so "beleaguered" that a low-flier like Kevin Andrews might seriously fancy his chances.

Let's do instead what press gallery journalists can't, despite their much-vaunted experience and all that oak-vatted savvy from which they draw so deeply. Let's piece together real things that actually happened and see if they indicate a pattern.

When Turnbull was Opposition Leader in 2009, Kevin Andrews challenged him and did better than expected. This brought on the later challenge by Abbott and Hockey which succeeded in knocking Turnbull off. 

He was no closer to becoming PM then than he is now. Andrews is trying to make out that he has a future, that he's a player, and that he deserves yet another term in Parliament.

Kevin Andrews has been in Parliament since 1991. His one big success came in the late 1990s when he built bridges between Coalition conservatives and Labor conservatives (led by the young Tony Burke) to vote down Northern Territory legislation allowing for euthanasia. 

That vote put the lie to the idea – still dearly beloved by the press gallery – that anything on which Labor and the Coalition agree must be "centre ground", reasonable and moderate and all good things about Australian politics. 

Since then he's been a dud:

  • He was the Immigration Minister who made a scapegoat of Dr Haneef, and didn't even get that right;
  • He was the Workplace Relations Minister who could neither sell WorkChoices nor dismantle it;
  • He was the Social Security Minister who couldn't curb his nanny-state impulses for the sake of the Budget; and
  • As Defence Minister he was nothing more than a seat-warmer. He failed to understand that warships are blunt instruments in combatting militant Islam, yet had the gall to insist (unchallenged, but for social-media sniggers) that his removal from the portfolio represented a threat to national security.

Some Liberal preselections have been held, while others will be decided within the next few weeks. Menzies is the safest Liberal seat in the greater Melbourne area. Other Liberals holding safe seats there (Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O'Dwyer) may argue they deserve a little longer yet, while Tim Wilson is yet to get his feet under the desk. 

Ambitious Victorian Liberals must look upon Andrews and conclude reasonably that he's had a fair go. To give a now-obscure example, Conrad Xanthos is ten years less inexperienced than he was the last time he posed a preselection threat to Andrews.

When Andrews proclaims himself a real chance of keeping the Prime Minister on his toes, he is trying to frighten off would-be challengers. The chestnut hair dye, the grey air of calm reassurance sliced with the occasional lightning-flash of defiance, all reveal a determination that many (including experienced observers) have underestimated for too long. Mere months ago, the then Prime Minister allowed speculation Andrews might give way to said PM's chief-of-staff; with a snarl he put paid to that. 

We've all seen what happened to Dennis Jensen — a spring chicken compared to Andrews. Nobody wants to go out like that. Jensen also believed his talents shouldn't have been wasted on the backbenches, but so what? 

Andrews says he has more to offer. Not even the vast journalistic resources of the Manningham Leader (nor those of any other traditional media outlet, really) are sufficient to explore what that might be.

Conservative men like Andrews constantly complain that they are on the defensive, that they are underdog defenders of mainstream values, even when they occupy positions of power and implement policies not supported by anything like a majority of Australians. 

Andrews was in word and deed the "Captain Catholic" Abbott only ever talked about. The greatest churchman of their generation, George Pell, is depleted of moral authority when his titular authority should be absolute. Abbott came and went with nothing to show conservatives what might be done with political power. Apart from maybe Burke or Bowen (and even they have disavowed Church tenets like heterosexual reproduction-only marriage), no other Australian politician can show conservatives what might be possible. Andrews is doing his yeoman best but it just isn't good enough.

Andrews' generation of conservatives have cried "wolf" for so long and are being ignored. We all know what happens next in that story: even Kevin Andrews.

The prospect of same-sex marriage has been so long delayed it is a failure of democracy. That prospect looms before Christianists like Andrews, and terrifies them. It has such momentum that we face the diminution (but not quite the disappearance) of the moral suasion against homosexuality that has existed since the late nineteenth century. What is now called homophobia used to be an unspoken given; now the case against homosexual equality must be articulated publicly by its proponents, and from none of them is it convincing.

People like Andrews can't quite believe that battle against women in equal paid employment, or against legalised (and publicly funded!) abortion, are well and truly lost. Traditional dominion of men over their households has been weakened by increasing measures against domestic terrorism and funding women's refuges. Kevin Andrews' whole political career has been in fighting those sorts of measures without being seen to be hostile toward hardworking people. He still thinks he can be effective in some small way somewhere, against all evidence to the contrary.

Perpetuating those battles is the "sort of difference" Andrews is hoping to make. He wants to be the dog in the manger a little longer: a fluffy dog panting smilingly and wagging his tail, but stopping others from using it to their ends regardless. Note how he expresses his wish in the soft humble words that had worked so well to deflect hostility, as he went about the quiet busywork that made the lives of those he opposed slightly more difficult. 

Latter-day braggarts like Cory Bernardi or Ted Cruz show conservatives today need to cast off the sheep's clothing to cut through. Andrews can't do that: he is ovine in his soul. Nor can he keep up the penny-ante obstructions in an age of disclosure and selfies. The Liberals of Menzies may keep him on, or they may not; had they opted for a bright young thing after 2007, as other safe Liberal electorates did, their future might be better assured. Of all the ambitious young conservatives out there in Melbourne, very few are putting themselves forward "in the Kevin Andrews tradition". 

By contrast, Phillip Ruddock goes into retirement knowing his legacy is secure. Ruddock developed and promulgated an Australian conservatism that didn't rely so heavily on The Crown, The Anglosphere, And All Things English. He hands over to Julian Leeser and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells while Andrews has no political heir.

You can't be The Champion of Families in a job that is actively hostile to family life, and someone like Andrews won't join with the lefty feminists who would make Parliament more family-friendly. What if he had to hand over to some sodomite like that Goldstein fellow? This is another reason why Andrews wants a little more time: nobody wants his life's work carted away in a skip.

Kevin Andrews - ex-minister for almost everything says if people want to vote for the Opposition, he IS the Opposition!

This is why Gray Connolly is wrong to insist that conservatism somehow springs whole and pure from grubby encounters with reality. All political movements need exemplars. Those who would carry the torch forward need the ability to stand on the shoulders of giants while being able to see what the giants themselves could not.

Conservatives rightly sneer at marxists who think their movement(s) has/have survived successive debacles: Budapest, the Hundred Flowers, building hipster apartments from the rubble of the Berlin Wall. We have seen Australian conservatives distance themselves from Menzies, from Fraser, from Askin and the Courts, from Kennett and Hamer, and now Abbott and even Turnbull — and a fat lot of good it does them. 

Experienced press gallery journalists should have laughed at Andrews' feeble rearguard action. A political analyst who can't distinguish weakness from strength simply sucks at their job, regardless of any imperative to excrete 600 words/20 seconds of blather on command. Nobody will buy a single copy of a newspaper on the basis of Kevin Andrews keening for another go around: to quibble with that would diminish what little value there may be in experienced political journalism. 

There are many stories to be told from Canberra. Media advisors and their own herd instincts ensure the press gallery will miss almost all of them. The piping roar of a frightened, toothless old lion from a non-marginal seat in the 'burbs should not have been relayed so far. It should not have been infused with any importance it never had.

This article was originally published on 5 April 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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