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?