Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is steaming slowly into port for a period in dry dock after skirmishes in open waters not far from the coast. Hopes were high that routine maintenance would be all that was needed, but several recent encounters with the good ship Her Majesty’s Government have left the crew wondering why things have gone so badly just when it was looking forward to brief respite from the bruising encounters of the last twelve months. After a change of captain ten weeks ago, hopes were high that salvos from HM Opposition would blow a few holes in the hull of HM Government, and slow its steady progress. But the reverse seems to be the case.
2008 hasn’t been a good period of deployment for HM Opposition. It started badly when the captain that was appointed turned out to be not the one that was anticipated. Despite his good intent and earnest endeavour, he made tactical mistakes, often failed to hit the target, was never highly regarded by the on-shore crowd and naval commentators, eventually lost the support of his crew and was replaced by a much-vaunted captain who, having been rejected initially, now embraced with eagerness his destiny as the leader who would bring resounding success, Captain Malcolm Turnbull. The on-shore crowd applauded and the naval critics exuded enthusiastic approval.
After initially making a tiny and temporary dent in HM Government commander Captain Kevin Rudd’s best-captain approval rating, Captain Turnbull has steadily gone downhill. Today’s maritime poll, Newspoll, shows that Captain Rudd now holds the same massive 47 point lead over Captain Turnbull as he held over Captain Nelson just ten weeks ago.
The failure of HM Opposition to damage HM Government, even at close quarters, started the naval commentators wondering why. Some felt the strategies employed were too limited, even outdated, even more queried the tactics, and still more the frequent sudden and unexpected changes of tactic, which sometimes amounted to going into reverse or doing a complete about-turn. Concerns about Captain Turnbull’s judgement began to surface. It wasn’t as if he didn’t sound convincing, standing as he did in full regalia making high-sounding pronouncements. But his crew continued to show confidence in him until this last week, when the port was in sight and a long-awaited rest just ahead. Then, with the final exchanges taking place, confusion among the crew lead them to run around the ship in different directions, despatch salvos towards the wrong target, and in the process inflict damage on the ship and several of the crew. There was open mutiny by some despite Captain Turnbull repeatedly shouting orders, albeit somewhat confusing. This was made worse by Sub-Lieutenant Minchin, who finding himself caught short at the head and in need of a caffeine fix from the mess, was absent just when Captain Turnbull’s orders should have been passed on. He argued that he didn’t have to obey orders when the matter was ‘Mickey Mouse’. So a couple of his sailors ran one way, four another way, while he stood still, stunned. [more]
Yet even as HM Opposition wallowed in choppy swell towards shore with smoke billowing amidships and sailors running hither and thither, Captain Turnbull (aka Rainmaker), megaphone in hand, was mouthing a broadside at Captain Rudd over his economic stimulus package to get the on-shore crowd to spend like drunken sailors. Although he had supported it initially without quibble, he was now insisting a better strategy would have been a tax break, and that if Rudd’s package did not produce the result he expected it would be a yet another ‘failure’. He was joined by Midshipman Abbott who expressed concern that some of the on-shore recipients, particularly in ‘some areas’, may use the money on gambling or booze, Sub-Lieutenant Joyce, who likes to wear an admiral’s hat just to look different, said the package would probably end up being sprayed on a wall, and a sailor, who goes by the name of Xenophon, came alongside in a fast-moving inflatable and shouted ‘They’ll give it all to the pokies’. What these salts hoped to achieve by their utterances defies explanation.
With the naval poll in hand, the naval critics came to the fore to savage the crew of HM Opposition. One, named Shanahan, who can usually find at least some skerrick of joy in any poll, struggled with this one, expressing his exasperation at HM Opposition’s lack of success in two stinging pieces: Voters dump Coalition as Newspoll rewards Kevin Rudd and As if Nelson never got booted. The day before the poll, a well-known naval cynic, wrote a delightfully satirical piece: Mungo: Malcolm's parliamentary shemozzle in Crikey, and The Piping Shrike wrote his typically insightful comments in a piece An irrelevant and useful distraction – an update. Possum added Newspoll to an analysis of all recent polls in Ouchpoll on Pollytics on Crickey.
So what is the problem? HM Opposition is a vessel capable of good service, and the crew, although somewhat behind the times and still enamoured of outdated ideas about naval strategy and tactics, includes some reliable and experienced sailors. The deputy, Lieutenant Commander Bishop, who asserted her right as second-in-command to take a top tactical job, has been found wanting and repeatedly outmanoeuvred by her opponents. But one can scarcely lay all the blame at her feet. After all, the captain is in charge. So is the captain the problem? He has not been in the navy all that long, and is seemingly unfamiliar with naval traditions. His background in the army as tank commander shooting opponents at close quarters, and his subsequent air force experience as an administrator in a high-flying heavily-armed squadron, seem to be inappropriate training for a ship’s captain. More worrisome is what looks for all the world like lack of strength of character and personal resolve. Not only does he seem to be unsure of his overarching strategy and his tactical moves, he seems to lack the authority and power to have his orders obeyed. A combination of lack of purpose, weakness of character, insufficient muscle and diminishing authority, and an ego-centric certainty of the correctness of his own position coupled with an unwillingness to listen, is lethal in a leader. How long can he last before the murmurings among his crew and the critics begin to further erode his position? Shanahan’s article aligning Captain Turnbull with Captain Nelson may be the beginning, although he hasn’t quite been able to bring himself to the point of suggesting Captain Turnbull’s commission might be near its end.
Meanwhile Sub-Lieutenant Hockey shines through as the most plausible, personable, articulate and effective crew member, one who would make a good captain. With youth on his side, with a mind open to contemporary thinking about strategy and tactics, he might be the answer to the HM Opposition’s yearning for a return to naval power.