Where's The Talent, Julie?

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Julie Bishop has left the building. Well, not exactly — but she has stepped down as Opposition Treasury spokeswoman to head to the dusty badlands of the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

It’s a humiliating decision that surely ruins whatever slim chance she had left of leading the Liberal Party. It also answers the rather nasty question of what you do with a deputy leader who can’t perform in the portfolio of their choice.

Why did Bishop struggle as shadow treasurer? Partly, it’s the burden of opposition: being shadow anything is never easy, as it often revolves around diligent policy development that goes unnoticed by a media hungry for scandal or reliant on the drip-feed of ministerial press releases. Being shadow treasurer is even tougher: all pain (long hours poring over budget documents) and little gain (no one much listens to what you say, especially when the Opposition leader is Malcolm Turnbull).

Even so, Bishop has failed to grasp the first task of any competent shadow spokesperson, which is to keep your head down. Bishop has conspicuously failed on this count, often appearing out of her depth and regularly offering up amusing gaffes which allowed Labor to paint her a proponent of "voodoo economics".

The coup de grâce was delivered by Bishop herself in this 1 February interview in which she incoherently waffled on the global financial crisis before trying to claim that tax cuts would improve tax revenue.

Bishop argued for "broad and sweeping tax cuts that will increase the tax base and increase tax revenues", apparently because "there’s plenty of evidence across the world that permanent tax cuts do stimulate the economy, but temporary one-off injections do not". Actually, both of these propositions are deeply debatable, and indeed have been discussed quite a bit in the United States as President Obama endeavoured to pass his own stimulus bill.

But what really hurt Bishop was not just her quixotic embrace of the discredited theories of US political scientist Arthur Laffer — it was also the perception in her own party room that she had committed the cardinal sin of any politician: failing to "cut through".

Bishop’s tenure has also shown up the remarkable lack of economic literacy on the front bench of a Coalition that has apparently relied heavily on the authority and firepower of Treasury’s boffins to provide the substance for its political arguments. While Malcolm Turnbull is spinning his decision to vote against Kevin Rudd’s economic stimulus package as a prudent caution against future public debt, nearly every government in the Western world is spending up big to try and diminish the effects of one of the worst economic downturns in living memory.

Nor does the Coalition’s record on fiscal discipline and debt retirement actually look that good once examined carefully, as I explored in a previous article.

With Bishop falling on her sword, the amiable and experienced Joe Hockey moves to the front bench, while Helen Coonan gets booted over to Finance to make way for Bishop in Foreign Affairs. It’s hard to see Bishop doing any better in this shadow portfolio where she is up against the highly disciplined Stephen Smith — as well as the real Foreign Affairs minister of Australia, one Kevin Rudd.

It’s instructive that Bishop says she chose the portfolio "because of the importance of retaining the international standing and influence of Australia that was achieved under the former Coalition government", which is a statement many in the left and centre of politics will want to take issue with (see: AWB scandal; Iraq, invasion of; Kyoto Protocol, failure to ratify; Alexander Downer, the travelling circus of).

But the big problem for Malcolm Turnbull right now is the problem opposition parties always have in times of distress and crisis: how to stay relevant. With Kevin Rudd doing a good job of appearing human as he comforts Victorian fire victims, and the global financial crisis grinding on (the latest figures from Japan are downright scary), having Joe Hockey around to get stuck into Wayne Swan won’t really help that much.

The events of the weekend, in which the Senate eventually passed Labor’s economic stimulus package in return for a modest spend for the Murray Darling, have only made the risk of Coalition irrelevance more acute. The Senate deal on the stimulus shows that Labor appears to have the makings of a workable governing majority in the Senate. Indeed, Rudd may even get some bonus points from Green voters for his willingness to work with the Greens on some of their amendments.

The 2007 election and the subsequent events of 2008 suggest that the centre of gravity of Australian politics is moving gradually leftwards from its position in the Howard years (a theory that research from the Australian Election Study supports). But the Coalition, if anything, appears to be moving rightwards from the often ruthless pragmatism displayed by John Howard.

The policy rethink required of Malcolm Turnbull’s front bench remains onerous.

 

This week Australian politics also bids adieu to Dr Brendan Nelson, the former Opposition leader, minister and Australian Medical Association president.

This likeable but limited politician will perhaps best be remembered for wearing his heart on his sleeve — a rare trait in a politician. As post-election Opposition leader, Nelson inherited the most difficult job in Australian public life as he attempted to rebuild the parliamentary Liberal Party after 12 years in government. He tried hard, but was no match for the ruthless professionalism of Kevin Rudd’s Government.

Nelson’s career was diverse, even quixotic. Brought up in Tasmania in difficult, though not penurious circumstances, he enjoyed free university education to complete a medical degree and worked as a GP. Rising quickly through the ranks of the AMA, Nelson soon found himself on the front-lines of federal politics during the tumultuous 1993 election campaign, in which he notoriously announced that he had “never voted Liberal” in all his life. Despite this, Nelson would enter federal parliament just three years later as the Liberal representative for the Sydney seat of Bradfield.

In government, Nelson’s communication skills and lurking empathy brought him to the notice of John Howard, who promoted him to a series of ministerial and eventually senior cabinet posts. It didn’t hurt that Nelson’s politics under Howard seemed to morph into something more conservative than his previous public life had suggested. This apparent lack of any core political convictions would later serve him poorly as Opposition leader.

In policy terms, Nelson will not be long remembered. As Education Minister, he achieved little in the way of either lasting reform or additional funding. Instead he enforced the worst aspects of partisan conservative politics, finally introducing the VSU bill that all but destroyed Australia’s student organisations and forced universities to adopt an aggressive industrial relations approach against academic unions. His greatest lasting influence will be felt in defence, where he committed Australia to a series of ambitious military hardware acquisitions of questionable value to the nation’s security.

Nelson’s departing speech to his constituents apparently included the “trademark Nelson tears”, but Australian public life should mourn the departure of the man for his generous spirit and human emotions, rather than any towering intellect or tactical cunning. The jockeying for his safe seat among the ambitious up-and-comers of the Liberal Right now begins; former Nelson staffer and opinion page editor of The Australian Tom Switzer — a well-known climate change denialist — is tipped to throw his hat in the ring, and there is support for conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen to do the same.

In the meantime, Nelson will no doubt be looking forward to some well-deserved time off to ride his motorbike and play his guitar. Australians may find that they appreciate this quirky and in many ways admirable man much more now that he is no longer responsible for promoting a set of policies comprehensively rejected by voters at the last election.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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