Trying to do a Latham

Wednesday, 10 March 2010 

Voluntary paid maternity leave: yes; compulsory paid maternity leave: over this Government’s dead body, frankly. It just won’t happen.

T Abbott 22 July 2002

Whoops. When Abbott was blocking the possibility of paid maternity leave in 2002, he was doing no more than articulating the interests of business. That used to be the role of the Liberal party – to articulate the needs of business in as popular a way as possible. To be frank, Abbott never used to be that good at it. He may have known what the needs of business were all right, but dressing it up to make it palatable was never his style. Gerard Henderson seems to think Abbott’s reputation for lousy people skills was a figment of left wing journalists’ collective imagination, but they didn’t dream up Abbott’s historically rotten poll ratings. Taking the side of big business so far as to attack someone dying from asbestos-related illness like Bernie Banton, was the sort of thing that drove them.

That was then, of course. From being the keeper of the right’s flame, now we have Tony the populist – kind of. He’s still not getting anywhere near the level of support that Turnbull got at a similar stage, but it’s enough to get Henderson excited. What Abbott is doing, of course, is trying to wrap a revival of traditional conservative values around what is really anti-political attack on the government. So far he has got away with it as the government has become more vulnerable after Copenhagen. But trying to revive an establishment party of big business on the back of anti-establishment sentiment is a tricky business and sooner or later it will come unstuck. Especially as the government has recovered its poise somewhat with an anti-political agenda of its own.

It could be argued that Abbott’s paid parental leave is trying to detract attention away from Rudd’s hospital plan and is in line with a traditional conservative upholding of family values. But the whole point of the right’s ‘family values’ is to make sure the family (women) take the strain and not put it onto business. Making business pay for parental leave rather misses the point.

Abbott’s policy on the run has been compared to Latham’s but the reasons are quite different. Latham’s style was possible because, despite all the moaning in his diaries, he, like Rudd, faced a party too exhausted to assert its own agenda and happy to let them get on with it if it delivered power. The Liberals are not at that stage yet. Latham and Rudd may have not needed to consult their party, Abbott didn’t dare consult his. He has only got where he is on the promise to restore the brand. Yet as we have already seen with what Joyce has done to the coalition’s economic credentials, and now with this latest manoeuvre, trying to be populist is likely to only undermine it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 10 March 2010.

Filed under Tactics

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12 responses to “Trying to do a Latham”

  1. James on 10th March 2010 9:53 am

    It begs belief that Abbott didn’t consult with his party room about such a divisive issue, considering a so-called lack of consultation is what the Right used against Turnbull to do him in. I wonder if Abbott didn’t consult because he has no intention of ever implementing the maternity leave policy. I suspect the policy is a patsy, designed to attract swinging voters who don’t have time to read the broadsheets’ analysis of the failings of the policy.

  2. Cavitation on 10th March 2010 11:14 am

    I suspect the main game within the Liberal party is still the battle between the Howardite reactionaries and the modernist reformers. Most mainstream commentators continue to insist that Malcolm Turnbull is defeated and looking to depart the political arena. This may be true, as I have no knowledge of what is actually going on with him. But this surmise is at odds with Turnbull’s character, as well as the fact that Tony Abbott is only leader because of one single vote in the party room. My memory is long enough to remember the interminable jockeying for control between John Howard and Andrew Peacock, and the same forces that caused that fight to continue for years are still in play. I suspect that the media takes this line only because the mainstream commentators peddling it are being fed the story by the conservative wing of the party, whose media connections are impeccable.

    It was always mentioned that one of Turnbulls prime skills as a Liberal party grandee was as a conduit for money into the Liberal party from generous benefactors. Since his eclipse by the right wing Howardistas party finances must have become somewhat fragile, especially as the party has hardly any state governments on which to rely so as to employ its operatives (causing it to rely on amateurs such as Godwin Gretch). This explains the fury that the party room exhibited over Abbott’s new policy of making big business pay for extending maternity leave provisions. The same big business who are presumably Malcolm Turnbull’s best supporters. I expect that some business types are wondering if they need to build better bridges with Abbott’s groupers to avoid the risk of being disadvantaged should an Abbott led government ever eventuate. But I expect that Turnbull’s supporters will now be even more exasperated by Abbott’s attempt at payback. And Liberal party finances will not be improving any time soon.

  3. Ricc on 10th March 2010 11:41 am

    Good point Cavitation

    I was particularly struck that on the back of 13 years of office, they relied on Grech when you think they would be able to rely on their own coterie of former Ministers, staff and public servants on their side who had retired.

    They shouldn’t have needed a compromised current officer.

    And this was Erica Betz with the running – supposedly a fixer and seasoned operative – not some wet-behind-the-ears ‘leader’

  4. kymbos on 10th March 2010 1:09 pm

    What are the implications of our two main political parties trading blows on anti-politics? Are we in danger of falling into some sort of irony black hole?

  5. Mr Denmore on 10th March 2010 1:27 pm

    I find it hard to reconcile the Abbott-led coalition’s upward march in the polls with the lack of substance of his “policies” and the transparently populist and on-the-run nature of his pitch. Surely, people are not that stupid??

    This is all day-to-day tactics and no long-term strategy. Abbott himself, to any rational observor, is a dangerous fruitcake with medieval ideas of morality. He has surrounding himself with fossilised Howard supporters who never accepted their 2007 loss and want to keep the largely media-constructed “culture wars” raging.

    For his rise in the polls, Abbott clearly has a lot to thank the Murdoch press for. But it seems inevitable to me that the media will turn on him at some point.

    For one thing, there is NO way in the world that Labor would ever be able to get away with proposing a $2.7 billion tax on big business to fund a maternity leave scheme – particularly after Abbott slated Rudd’s ETS as a great big new tax.

    For another, the more populist and irrational he sounds, the more he must be worrying moderate urban small ‘l’ liberals – though I guess his rationale is winning back the blue collar, outer suburban, fearful and under-educated multitudes.

    Bloody depressing.

  6. Andrew Partos on 10th March 2010 5:08 pm

    Is Tony Abbott becoming a Socialist with his six months paid maternity policy, or is it just a political stunt to woo women’s vote, or as his daughters are in pregnable age, he wants wealthy taxpayers to pay for their motherhood?
    My letter published in today’s Manly Daily:” The problem with Tony Abbott was not that he was lost in the bush, but that he was found.”
    I know Tony Abbott extremely well, as I met him privately and in public meetings and I always managed to make a fool of him. He is not a Statesman, but a soapbox orator. He is foulmouthed, as his favorite words are shit, crap and bullshit. As Kevin Rudd appointed several ex Liberal MPs to suitable positions that Australia could benefit from, the ideal position for Tony Abbott would be when he retires from politics, due to his obsession with excrement, to be in charge of the toilets in Parliament House. Then he will be truly in his element.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 10th March 2010 8:33 pm

    I’m not convinced that this is a replay of Howard-Peacock. Then the battle was about how to respond to the union accord. It was possible to have clearly defined views. Now the dilemma is much more fraught: electoral relevancy or standing for something and so the lines are more fractious and fluid. After all, where would Abbott’s generous maternity leave put him, wet or dry?

    Similarly from Turnbull, I notice that up pops an article decrying government wasting billions just on the day business must be thinking the same about Abbott. What a coincidence!

  8. Daisey May on 10th March 2010 10:49 pm

    In the current climate it hardly matters what Abbott says. The only stratergy is to capture the front pages and to hog the limelight. When you have been greenlighted by the Murdoch empire you can release joke policies and they will polish that turd till it shines. I logged on to the OZ today to see if they would reflect the outrage in the business community but there was bugger all. I knew they would take a muted tone but to totally whitewash the issue really gives the game away. I have a sneaking suspicion that the people who run the Labour party media unit are copping a collective bloody nose from the old guard in order to show them who is boss. Nothing the PM can do will alter a rabid and decidedly bolshie press from waging all out war. If you reduce their profession (and I use that word advisedly) to little more than a turgidly ticking clock that needs to be managed rather than addressed then you are going to have problems. Let’s be brutally frank here. Abbott and the dinosaurs on his front bench are a ridiculous pack of washed up old has beens with no policy muscle, no strategic foresight, scant understanding of complex economic issues and a lack of empathaty for the comman man that borders on belligerence. I agree with PS that sooner or later journo’s will have to start asking harder questions not just of Abbott but his entire front bench (who are they again?) It will get to the stage when even they (yes they who vie with used car salesmen for the publics respect) will have to admit that their initial enthusiasm for “Tone” was perhaps a little misplaced. It’s not like they dont know him. He has been around for quite some time and his views on everything are quite well known. I think this is what disappoints me the most. No-one in the Canberra press gallery has come out and said “hang on a minute, this rubbish won’t wash” and for the foreseeable future it is the sort of dross the long suffering public will have to endure.

  9. Rocket on 10th March 2010 11:53 pm

    Yes, Abbott failed to put the wooden stake through the heart of his opponent, repeating Peacock’s mistake. Abbott beat Turnbull 42-41 with one “no vote” and with Fran Bailey absent sick. Add in the two Libs elected at a by-election that Saturday and Turnbull was probably already “ahead”!

    So if and when TA becomes, in his own words, “political roadkill” I think the calm and self-assured MT will come back. After all, Hockey is hardly helping his cause lately.

    By the way, is Barnaby Joyce lost in the desert or something?

  10. CP on 11th March 2010 4:03 pm

    I suspect Abbott’s move is to now say that Rudd’s maternity plan doesn’t measure to his policy and affords himself gounds to vote Rudd’s plan down in the senate. End result – there will be no maternity plan which is really Abbott’s end game and matches his expressed views from 2002 that he doesn’t believe in paid maternity leave.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 11th March 2010 7:02 pm

    That could be the effect, even if it’s not his intention. If so it’s a very risky game given Abbott’s credibility problems on this issue. He can look like playing the most cyncial political game, and the government is getting into its anti-political stride now.

  12. Rocket on 11th March 2010 9:43 pm

    Apologies to Barnaby – he has been at hs flooded property in St.George. But he’ll be back soon, and I think he doesn’t like TA’s policy!

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