29/07/2015 - 14:10

Tough atop the political tree

29/07/2015 - 14:10


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Politics is a ruthless business, where poor performers are quickly found out and (more often than not) moved on.

HOLDING ON: Tony Abbot is still behind in the polls five months after surviving a party room vote. Photo: iStockphoto

A little-noticed difference between the federal Labor and Liberal parties is that the former ties itself in knots over whether or not to dispatch a leader who’s on the nose with voters.

Not so the Liberals, who seem more adroit at moving against a leader who’s clearly not performing to the expectations of his party.

I say ‘his’ because such a termination has not yet comprehensively happened to a woman.

The woman at one time thought most likely to lead the current Liberal team is deputy leader Julie Bishop; yet she too has suffered the ignominy of a very public demotion. Ms Bishop became opposition treasury spokesperson in September 2008, yet it was soon clear she was not up to the job and she was relieved of that post in February 2009, though not from the deputy leadership.

Her foreign affairs role is far less arduous, since there’s more room to express often-meaningless platitudes, along with opportunities for photo-ops with international figures, some with dubious political pasts.

But back to treatment of major parties’ leaders.

Those who viewed the ABC’s The Killing Season undoubtedly noted just what tortuous ordeals Labor went through in ridding itself, firstly, of Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard.

Both Byzantine affairs took so long to unfold the show’s producers understandably dubbed their three-part series a ‘season’.

In opposition, particularly, the Liberals have shown their hand early when a leader is not performing.

Alexander Downer lasted just eight months from 1994-95, Brendan Nelson lasted just a month longer through to September 2008, and Malcolm Turnbull was leader for 15 months until he was rolled by one vote in a stoush with supporters of Tony Abbott over climate change policy.

As prime minister, Mr Abbott was left in no doubt he needed to lift his game last February when he narrowly avoided a leadership spill by 61 votes to 39, despite the lack of a declared contender.

In the Liberal realm it’s shape up or ship out.

Without wishing to appear cold-blooded, that’s how it should be.

One, just one, reason Israeli’s Defence Force is so outstanding is because it has embraced the practice of ‘Up or Out’; if officers aren’t promoted along the upward pathway, they move on, making room for those below who can and do offer what’s required.

That’s a sensible practice.

Where the Liberals are truly deplorable is thwarting desperately needed talent at candidate pre-selection level.

Non-performing MPs are allowed to stay on far too long.

That’s especially noticeable at state level, where one outcome has been that the under-performing Colin Barnett has been allowed to stay on as premier.

I sometimes ask state Liberal backbenchers why they’ve sat on their hands and allowed him to boost Western Australia’s debt from $3.6 billion left by Labor to the projected $36 billion, while royalties as a share of revenue tripled from 7.2 per cent in 2005-06 to 21.6 per cent in 2013-14.

None can give a convincing explanation for tolerating that 10-fold debt increase.

Interestingly those conversations often end with MPs saying, “Yeah, but who else have we got?”

What they’re revealing is that they believe none within their ranks is up to chairing cabinet and party room meetings, an absolutely deplorable state of affairs.

How has this come about?

The Liberal Party, like its Labor counterpart, can’t be described as an open entity, an organisation where the best and smartest invariably emerge.

Branches are very much creatures of local MPs, meaning such individuals carefully ensure they’re stacked with relatives, close pals, and dependent associates, to ensure MPs remain incumbents until they’re ready to retire from parliament.

After that, a process often comes into play whereby successors emerge from the ranks of the predecessors’ long-time support group.

The last thing given serious consideration is ensuring potential candidates possess the appropriate aptitudes and abilities to initiate and oversee farsighted governance, which we’re lacking.

Things have been so for decades, which helps explain why those few MPs I’ve spoken to claim there’s no-one in their ranks to displace debt-creating Mr Barnett.

Is Labor any better?

That’s rather tougher to answer.

I’d certainly have preferred Mark McGowan as premier, with Ben Wyatt treasurer, Peter Tinley in a ministerial oversight role, and Maylands MLA Lisa Baker in a senior spot.

Even so, Labor at federal level especially, but state also, persists in failing to fill its ranks with talented and courageous men and women for the serious tasks ahead.

The one who best described Labor’s modus operandi was visiting American political scientist to Flinders University, Burdett Loomis, of the University of Kansas.

While at Flinders during 2013, he closely watched Labor’s many strange mores.

“The one thing that has overwhelmed me about Australia and its politics is how cosy everything is,” Professor Loomis said.

“Despite its vast physical expanse, the country’s political life seems remarkably inbred.

“Party cliques determine candidate selection in mysterious ways, highly reminiscent of tightly held 19th century machine politics in the US.”

So true, sadly, so true.


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