The corrosive effect of political anger

The intensity of anger being exhibited by some Coalition members seems to be on the increase, culminating last week in a ‘walkout’ of several of them from the House in protest.  If you doubt that anger is simmering just below the surface ready to bubble over unpredictably, watch a replay of this past week’s Question Time in the House of Representatives.

There are cogent reasons for anger among Opposition politicians.  They lost the last election and their leader with it.  After over a decade in power, that was bound to be upsetting, especially as many probably still feel, as does Tony Abbott, that the Howard Coalition was such a ‘good government’ and did not deserve, on its record, to be thrown out of office.  Several have said, and probably more feel that John Howard let the Coalition down by not arranging a timely succession to the top job.  Resentment about this eddies below and occasionally surfaces; Peter Costello has shown us how he feels several times.  To sense that the last election result might have been so different had Howard gone sooner must evoke ‘if only’ frustration and anger.  So the election result is reason enough for anger, but that after eighteen months the anger continues unabated, suggests that the result has not been accepted by some who persist with the view that the Coalition is the natural party to govern, and that Labor is a usurper not fit for high office. [more]

Then there is the success of the Labor Government to date as evidenced by continuously good opinion polls.  Despite the condemnation heaped upon Kevin Rudd and his Government by the Opposition; despite the accusations of incompetence, bungling, fiscal recklessness, economic ineptitude, and diplomatic ineffectiveness; despite all the disparaging mantras: ‘all spin no substance’, ‘all talk, no action’, and ‘debt and deficit’, the people stubbornly show high approval of Rudd and his Government.  Add to that the signs of steady improvement in the economy and the attribution of that to the Government’s stimulus measures, measures condemned as useless by the Opposition; add in the positive comments of Treasury, the Reserve Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and a growing band of economists about the Government’s management of the economy, and the Coalition anger swells.  While it might be a trifle unfair to say that they wanted the economy to tank so as to justify their rhetoric, it is not too far-fetched to assert that a poorer economic performance and more rapidly rising unemployment would have better suited their oft-repeated assertion that Labor is incapable of managing money and is inferior to the Coalition in managing the economy.   As things continue to go pretty well for the Government, Coalition anger and frustration mounts.

Another reason for anger is the disordered state of the Coalition party room.  Costello’s unexpected withdrawal from leadership contention right after the election was destabilizing.  His continuing presence on the back bench was unnerving to the leader until the moment he finally said he was not recontesting his seat.  The surprise election of Brendan Nelson over Malcolm Turnbull by three votes saw the party somewhat divided, and the same day signalled a campaign by Turnbull to oust Nelson,  which he eventually did several months later by just four votes.  Leadership changes are destabilizing, especially if not decisive, the public is not enchanted with them, and polling reflects that.  More still for the Coalition to be angry about.

But lately it’s become even worse.  Turnbull’s disastrous attempt to bring down the PM and Treasurer over the OzCar affair and the fake email debacle has angered the party room, many of whom have expressed off-the-record adverse comments about Turnbull’s impetuousness and poor political judgement.  The anger is heightened by the lack of a suitable alternative.  Despite all the ‘we’re all behind Malcolm’ talk, they know that if there was an alternative, even a willing Costello, Turnbull would be out in an instant.  So they’re stuck with a lame leader, whom some columnists describe as ‘a dead man walking’, enough to make any party room angry.  The nerve-racking worsening of Turnbull’s satisfaction rating in the opinion polls, the consistently poor rating of the Coalition, and the prospect of losing further ground at the next election have filled the party with apprehension and resentment.

Another sign of the anger with leadership that pervades the party is the steady erosion of the authority that Turnbull is able to exercise over party members.  This began as long ago as December last, just three months after his ascension, when twice in a week there was a revolt in the Senate with Nationals and some Liberals voting against measures supported by the party room.  Frustrated members complained “He’s trying to run things too much like a business, giving out an order like a CEO and then expecting it to be followed”.  Then when more recently you had a senior backbencher in the person of Wilson Tuckey publically telling the media how angry he was that his leader has not respected party room decisions, and was arrogant and inexperienced, it was a sure sign of sliding authority.  Barnaby Joyce seems prepared to say as he pleases irrespective of what Turnbull says, and today in the Laurie Oakes interview on Channel Nine insisted that Malcolm Turnbull was not his leader, it was Warren Truss.  So that’s that.

This week, after WA Liberal Barry Haase was suspended from Question Time for constant interjections, Tuckey approached him to congratulate him on his stand, all the time ignoring Turnbull.  Then the next day there was the bizarre situation when West Australian MPs walked out of Question Time en masse in an apparent fit of pique over the $50billion Gorgon gas export deal, for which they said the Government was claiming credit when they believed the Howard government and the Liberal state government of Colin Barnett deserved credit.   They returned as bizarrely soon after.  Turnbull’s leadership authority has virtually collapsed.  Strong feelings of anger in the party room are a natural sequel.

The media too have added to the anger by regularly targeting Turnbull for criticism, and all this week the Government has ramped up its attack on Turnbull as lacking political judgement which has effectively blunted Turnbull’s attempts to pin on the Government his accusation that it is about to raise ‘capital gains tax on the family home’.  And today Glenn Milne has resurrected an old story about Turnbull once having canvassed becoming a Labor party member, with first page headlines ‘Turncoat’ and ‘Malcolm’s Mates’.  All this must boil simmering anger over into outrage.

Apart from the incidents described above, who else is exhibiting this political anger?  In the House the one who is on his feet most often making points of order is Manager of Coalition Business, Christopher Pyne.  Keen to keep his job in the face of a promised reshuffle of the front bench, which seems not to have yet occurred, incensed by Government tactics to make use of every question to lampoon Turnbull and the Opposition, he has angrily argued from the rule book that the replies lack relevance, only to be sat down repeatedly by the Speaker.  Pyne’s anger and frustration is palpable. 

Another very angry person is Julie Bishop.  Last week she heavily criticized Rudd for his handling of relationships with China but in the process has dug herself into a hole, seeming to suggest that the Rebiya Kadeer visa was a mistake, leaving Rudd to echo one of Howard’s most memorable sayings: “We will decide who comes to this country...”  Her venom was on display in the House, at doorstops and in her written statement.  Judging from the media commentary that followed, her anger is seen as causing her to make a fool of herself over China.  Of course she’s got other reasons to be angry.  She was hit early by plagiarism charges, performed so poorly in the post of Shadow Treasurer that she was forced to relinquish it, and performs just as poorly in Shadow Foreign Affairs where she has made almost no impact.  Her policy review group has produced little or nothing to date, and as Deputy Opposition Leader she is almost invisible.  Her namesake Bronwyn too is prone to indignantly argue points of order, quoting at length from the rule book, always unsuccessfully.

Peter Dutton is an angry young man who rises occasionally on a point of order with an offended look on his face only to be asked to resume his seat, which he does reluctantly.  Joe Hockey often exhibits anger when asking questions or rising on points of order, but does not always seem to have his heart in it.  He seems to be just going through the motions to comply with party strategy.  He often sits on the front bench wagging his head with a bemused look on his jovial face.  Of course Wilson Tuckey, and recently Barry Haase, have had their bouts of anger and have been ejected from the chamber.

Curiously the ones who exhibit least anger are Turnbull, Abbott, Truss and Andrew Robb.  Turnbull, for his part, prefers the cold, calculating, legalistic attack-dog approach of the barrister.

So there’s plenty of reason for the Coalition to be angry, very angry, and for individual members to be livid.  But what good is it doing?  The public doesn’t approve, the media doesn’t, and the Government is making capital of it, while the intensity of feeling among Opposition members continues to rise.  Anger, resentment, frustration and disunity have a corrosive effect on the individuals who exhibit it, on their colleagues, on the party, on the party organization and on the party’s supporters.

Although it’s easier said than done, the sooner anger is replaced by positive thinking, thoughtful ideological discussion (what they stand for), constructive policy formulation and their much anticipated ‘narrative', and until they begin to exhibit collaborative legislative behaviour, they will continue to languish in the polls, few will listen, and the credibility of the party and its leader will remain close to zero.  That is bad for our democracy.

But is the Coalition capable of change?  When anger and resentment reach a critical level, recovery is almost impossible.  Only a soul-searching review of its electoral failure as urged by Costello, a radical purge of these corrosive sentiments, and a fresh start with a new leader and new policies offers any hope.

What do you think?


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23/08/2009You can watch them and see the pH of their digestions inexorably decline. It used to be an unkind gibe of Laborites to call them the Rabble. Now it is a valid technical description. Of course, the Liberals will climb out of this hole, and eventually return to Govt. But from this depth the journey will have to be accomplished in stages. It's going to take two years for them just to scrape the mud out of their eyes and look around. Like a small child's rage, only exhaustion will end this. Then there is the question of a final national merger with the Nationals. It should really have already happened. The Nats might be terminal, but at the moment how could they be expected to go into THAT party room? I suppose the important questions will be: How many younger Liberals of talent are parked in marginal seats that may be lost in the next election? How many useless members in safer seats can be induced not to contest preselection next time? Next time? They'll be fighting Gillard's successor by the time they're fit for Govt again...

Keryl Egan

24/08/2009I remember the same outraged refusal to accept electoral defeat when Whitlam was elected. Essentially the Liberals' sense of entitlement to office seems to be the nature of the beast. Not only does this seem to be a betrayal of democratic values but, as your article points out, it also distracts them from their central task and limits Liberal party effectiveness over the long term.

Bushfire Bill

24/08/2009The Liberals and Nationals are now in permanent tantrum mode. Kersebleptes' description was apt. The only option is first exhaustion, and then a gradual growing up. But they're also like a jilted boyfriend, who can't accept that the ex - in this case the electorate - has found a new bloke. The new boyfriend is calmer, smarter, and successful. He doesn't beat her up, shout at her, patronize her by telling her that he's all she's got. Maybe he's not better in bed (although we don't know that for sure), but that was always something she could take or leave. She's moved on from the passion-is-everything phase of life and wants a stable home, maybe kids down the track. Meanwhile, the jilted one reminds her of the good times. How they used to go out clubbing, how he used to ridicule the very bloke she's now with. What a nerd the new boyfriend is. Once she settles down for five minutes and has a good think, she'll come back to him. In the meantime he sees no need to change his behavior. It worked on her once, should do the trick again. He knows she needs a little slapping around, likes it a bit rough. She forgave him his extracurricular pecadilloes and deceptions, like the time he paid Saddam $300 million, or when he foisted Work Choices on her. Hey, he only wanted what was best for her (and him, and his mates). OK, so it was her money he used to pay for the jewellry he gave her, and the holidays in exotic places like Iraq, or the apartment in Kirribilli. She was a little disappointed when she found out, but she forgave him. But now the ungrateful bitch doesn't want him anymore. After all he's done for her; after all he's shown her how to grow up and be a woman of the world. After all the important friends - George, Tony and all the others - he's introduced her to. What's this new guy Kevin got that he doesn't have, and more? Now he's starting to get angry. She doesn't return his calls. At first she cried a little, was conciliatory, said it wasn't just him, that there was no-one else, she just wanted to "discover herself". Ha! That was crap wasn't it! All the time Mr. Toxic Bore, the nerdy guy, the KRudd with the quiet voice and the oh-so-reasonable temperament was hanging around like a bad smell. He keeps fooling her into thinking he's God's Gift To Voters. He even orders Chinese dinners in Mandarin! What a wanker! Well, he'll show her. He can still pull a few strings. He knows people who can make a fool of this new upstart, like he made a fool of those other would-be's - Kim and Simon and whatsisname, Mark. He can make sure Kevin's plans don't all come out the way he promised her they would. His mates are all behind him in this. They think Kevin's a phoney too. When Widdle Kevvy trips up a few time, then she'll realise. Kevin's all talk, no substance. He doesn't move in the same circles, never has. He's not connected. OK, so he's had a few lucky breaks, hasn't completely dropped the ball... what am I saying? The guy's a total write-off! She'll see this eventually. Just bide your time, keep reminding her how good it was, how wonderful she thought he was, how exciting the ride was, all the parties. Meanwhile, no need to change himself one iota. Hey, he is what he is. She fell in love with that once. She'll do it again. Anyway, she hasn't answered his final letter. The one that said she had one chance to get him back. The ultimatum: come back to me by next election or you'll regret it for the rest of your life. That'll focus her attention. She'll have to say she was wrong. Yeah, until then, just be your old obnoxious self, even ramp it up a bit to press the point. Keep reminding her that nothing needs to change, that she liked you making all her decisions for her. But only give her that one last chance. Anything more than that and she'll think you're weak, won't stand up for what you believe in, what [i]she[/i] used to believe in once. She'll come crawling back, for sure. Until then, stay cranky, keep her worried you might go away for good. That always used to work before. All this palaver about how much she loves the upstart, that's just because she's scared of the passion she has for you. She's trying to cover it up, run away from it. She even changed her phone number, but the more she says "Just go away!", that's a sure sign she loves me. One thing's for sure: no more cat after we get back together. She was far too fond of that bloody moggy. Maybe I can arrange an "accident" for him? Then she can devote all her time to me. After all, I was born to be with her, and she with me. That's right, it's destiny. She'll see that eventually.


24/08/2009Oh bb how poetic, I think of her (the electorate) as viewed by prof Henry Higgins "A hymn to a him", she is so ungrateful, so I lie and cheat but that’s what is expected of a liberal why the govnor(JWH)was a past master at it and look how successful he was. Why should I change, indeed, when will she learn. I will just deny any of it happened she will come to her senses soon 2016/2019 someday,maybe. Damm where is a hero when you need one.


24/08/2009I certainly appreciate your piece, Ad Astra. B.B., the domestic violence metaphor is deeply disturbing and spookily too close to how it goes. Eww. Do not want.


24/08/2009Well, I'm glad I got in at the start. No-one would have noticed my comment if they had seen Bushfire Bill's first. monica, I see what you mean- and you're right. But cutting things to the bone (and beyond) is what Bushfire Bill does- and he's right, too...


24/08/2009It's just an impression, but I don't recall the Opposition during the Whitlam Government seeming quite as sour as this lot do. I watched a lot of Parliament in those days, and while the politics was played tough, it wasn't nearly as vulgar and discourteous as things seem today. And there really wasn't such an ideological split in the Liberal Party then: it managed to accommodate people as diverse as Don Chipp and George Hannan (until he lost his preselection) in at least reasonable harmony. This may be one of John Howard's enduring legacies. Mr Whitlam knew that to win he needed to get the crazy left out of the ALP, especially in Victoria, whereas Mr Howard, faced with the Hanson threat in the late 90s, welcomed the crazy right back in. Now they are inside the tent pissing in, and life in the tent isn't all that pleasant.


25/08/2009Kersebleptes, BB always manges to hit the nail on the head and is able to articulate his opinions so much more clearly than most of us. However, all the comments above are spot on. The Opposition will eventually get the message, climb out of the cavern of despair and look like a credible alternative government but it's going to take a long stint in opposition before they're able to find their way off Howard's path and onto the main road. They will, hopefully, learn the lesson that playing dirty and being destructive is not acceptable to the electorate. Pedant, I've always been of the opinion that Labor fight cleaner than the Coalition.

Ad astra reply

25/08/2009Kersebleptes You’re right, the Coalition will eventually climb out of the hole they are in, but when? Dennis Shanahan’s take on today’s [i]Newspoll[/i] is that Malcolm Turnbull has stopped the bleeding, but frankly I wouldn’t like to have such a haemorrhagic condition. The bleeding might be stemmed a little, but it’s the condition that needs attention, and that is worsening. The weekend events that have even more starkly exposed the divisions and Turnbull’s loss of authority, are more telling than regular poll numbers. When [i]Essential Research[/i] asked [quote]“ Some people say that the Liberal Party is so divided and without direction at the moment that regardless of what you think of the Rudd Labor Government, the Liberals are just not prepared at the moment to take on the difficult task of governing Australia. Do you agree a lot, a little or disagree a lot or a little with this statement?”[/quote] 66% agreed (which must include many Coalition supporters) and only 21% disagreed. So while the bleeding may have eased marginally, the malady affecting the Coalition continues untreated, the condition continues to deteriorate, and most significantly, the people are aware of it. The other problem you mention, the paucity of younger candidates and the dogged clinging to safe seats by older parliamentarians leaves the party under-serviced by talented newcomers, which the party needs to regenerate itself. It would probably be best for the Coalition to accept that they cannot win the next election, discard the deadwood, and bring in bright young people, especially women, so that the electorate can give them credit for rebuilding for the following election. That might stem the bleeding of seats that the polls suggest will happen next time the voters have a say. Your comments are always welcome and noticed. Keryl Egan Welcome to [i]The Political Sword[/i]. The ‘Liberals' sense of entitlement’ has been commented on for years, but especially since the last election. The ‘born to rule’ attitude seems as entrenched as is the mantra that ‘Labor can’t manage money or the economy’. Yet both are manifestly incorrect. Politicians from all sides are now well-educated and talented. No side has a premium on ability. The differences between sides now should derive from the ideology, the vision and the unified ‘narrative’ they have for building a stronger, a more equitable and peaceful society, and a flourishing economic base to support it. It is the Coalition’s contemporary lack of these that leaves them in such a parlous state. BB, What a superb piece of satire. If you ever decide to run your own blog site, you’d get lots of visitors. You carry the allegory skilfully through to the deluded conclusion the Coalition has embraced, that eventually [quote]“she'll come crawling back, for sure"[/quote]. Well she won’t. The electorate does not come crawling back. It returns to the other side only when that side offers a better prospect than the present. You cat analogy gave your piece a marvellously stylish finish, and a reminder of the much publicized but strenuously denied ‘Turnbull and the cat’ yarn. Thank you for yet another impressive contribution to [i]The Political Sword[/i] Bilko The image of the electorate as a ‘she’ is alluring – a prize to be wooed by political suitors. But the experience of Henry Higgins is telling - he takes credit for Eliza's success, but she realizes that she can now be independent and does not need him. Which is just what the Coalition has to come to grips with, but which it has not done so far. Only then can the relationship be restored. monica The analogy of political persuasion as domestic violence is frightening. Tony Abbott believes, starting well before the election, that the electorate is ‘sleepwalking’ and will eventually wake up and re-embrace the Coalition, the party it should never have left in the first place. I wonder if is there’s an unstated sentiment there that a good shaking, domestic style, would do the trick. pedant Welcome to [i]The Political Sword[/i]. Howard’s ‘legacies’ continue to accumulate threateningly. They emerge with each new book about the Howard era. That this man was lauded as the best PM since Bob Menzies, the smartest politician of the modern era, shows how shallow much of the political commentary has been over the last decade. Yet the Liberals, especially the conservatives, seem hell-bent on preserving his legacy. Of course he can rightly take credit for many good policies, but with writers now feeling free to say what they please as they unearth more about him, the Liberals might be better to wait a while before trying to extol him. History might be kinder to him in the long term. janice You’re right, as usual. The Opposition will take a long time to recover; it is lost, divided, without the holy grail of ‘a narrative’, has an unsuitable leader, and is still prone to dirty tricks – a recent example being the registering of as a National Party domain. Malcolm Turnbull may take heart from his higher (by four percentage points) satisfaction rating in today’s [i]Newspoll[/i], but as Possum points out this is mostly due to a few ‘undecideds’ moving to the satisfaction column. His dissatisfaction rating has barely moved. The Coalition needs a new leader, an new narrative and positive policies. They’ve a long way to go.

Ad astra reply

25/08/2009Apropos of purging the Liberal Party of deadwood, the editorial in [i]Crikey[/i] today is germane: [quote]"Brendan Nelson did the right thing by his party last year when he called a party room spill in an effort to end the constant speculation about his leadership. He was effective in that regard, since after that there was no Nelson leadership about which to speculate. But that’s politics, and at least he went down fighting. Quitting early and calling a by-election is a parting gift to Malcolm Turnbull, who never accepted Nelson as leader and never hid that fact. But there are plenty of other Liberals who should follow Nelson’s example and determine that, if they’re not going to make a contribution any more, they should give up their seat for someone who will. In fact there are a couple not too far away from Bradfield on Sydney’s North Shore. Bronwyn Bishop, an embarrassing relic of the early nineties, is one. Phillip Ruddock, whose entire contribution to public life since the 2007 election has been to suggest Rebiya Kadeer should not have been allowed in the country (she’s lucky he didn’t want her sent to Nauru) is another. Go further afield and there’s plenty more. Wilson Tuckey will be challenged at the next election by a National who will carry the hopes of all three major parties. Joanna Gash remains unknown after 13 years in Parliament. Julian McGauran offers nothing except the occasional injection of pastoralist cash. Pat Farmer is an almost certain loser. If the next election goes the way current polls suggests, safe seats will be crucial to preserving a base of talent within the Liberal Party that can prosper as the Rudd Government ages. Wasting them on duds like Bishop, Tuckey and Ruddock is criminal. As for Nelson, he was over-emotional and out of his depth as Opposition Leader, but he was decent and gutsy and understood that his important task was to start moving the party on from the Howard years. He served the Liberals well.[/quote]


26/08/2009A suggestion; why not make bush fire bill an article poster, then there would be two good reasons to visit this blog.


26/08/2009No, charles, definitely not! The PS would start charging for content!

Bushfire Bill

27/08/2009I used to write under another pen name at a now defunct Australian politics blog. It was quite fun, and I think it made a small contribution to Howard's defeat, but VERY tiring to have to come up with something every second day (with illustrations would you believe!). But happy to make posts here. Thanks all for the appreciation, but this is AA's blog and he does a damn fine job of it. He's one of the best political writers around (which is why I came here in the first place, after seeing his contributions at Possum's old site). Best, BB.
How many Rabbits do I have if I have 3 Oranges?