By Mungo MacCallum
Well, there goes the jewel in the crown, as Robert Menzies used to describe, rather smugly, the Victorian Liberal Party.
His smugness was justified: the Libs held power in the cabbage patch state from 1955 until 1982 – 27 years, even longer than the seemingly endless federal regime inaugurated by Ming the Merciless himself.
But since then, Victoria has come down to earth, and last weekend with a resounding thud. Denis Napthine, the less than one term premier, has joined the elite ranks of the leaders who have never won an election.
His had been a fraught administration – a change of premiers, the looming demise of the car industry and the soapie shemozzle of Geoff Shaw, which led to minority government.
But for all that, it was not widely disliked or resented and his Labor opponent was somewhere between undistinguished and anonymous. In the normal course of events he could have looked forward to a second term with at least a measure of confidence. But everything changed in May, when his own generally praised state budget was overwhelmed by the avalanche from Canberra.
Napthine himself has been too tactful to sheet the entire blame for his demise on Tony Abbott, but his defeated colleagues and their supporters have not been so restrained. Almost from the start they saw that Abbott was electoral poison, and then it got worse.
The campaign itself was largely absent from the prime minister in person, but he featured prominently in the advertising – the Labor advertising, of course, not from those endorsed by his party but desperately shunning any mention of it and from him.
And when the polls had made it clear that the voters had made up their minds and the change was inevitable, Abbott announced that if they exercised their democratic right he would rip some $1.5 billion from their infrastructure spending as a condign punishment. It looked petulant and spiteful, and will do nothing to mollify Victorians as they prepare to wait for the next federal election. If they have to make a choice between Abbott and the CFMEU, there is no doubt which they see as the lesser of two evils.
So Victoria has been well and truly scraped off: but this was presumably not one of the barnacles Abbott was referring to when he told the troops he was going to do a bit of careening before Christmas. Then, just what were they?
Not, it appears, the much loathed $7 GP co-payment, the increases in university fees, or the cancelling of the dole for the young unemployed; after some obfuscation and confusion, all have finally confirmed as unwavering commitments. And not the raft of under-performing ministers, long overdue for reshuffling: even the widely ridiculed defence minister, David Johnston, has Abbott’s full confidence. Which brings us, or at least it should bring us, to the prime minister himself, and his weirdly dysfunctional office.
It is not that the problem is new, or that it has not attracted widespread comment. In the past fortnight, Abbott’s most desperate supporters have bombarded him with advice, much of it contradictory: be more flexible, be more adamant – be both; be more aggressive, more conciliatory; return to your model in opposition, remake yourself in government; explain your policies in more detail, keep them simple and concise; go back to the speedos, buy more blue ties.
And of course, do something about the office. But within that sanctum, there is one barnacle that dare not speak its name: the paramount limpet, She Who Must Be Obeyed, Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin.
The timid and deafening silence about naming Credlin comes only from the Abbott acolytes: his critics and opponents have been rather more vocal. Credlin has been accused of all kinds of offences, some of them improbable, many even scurrilous. But one thing is agreed: Credlin is the immovable, implacable, barrier between the prime minister and the outside world.
She demands subservience not only to backbenchers and ordinary functionaries, but to ministers and to the heads of the public service – even, some say, to Abbott himself. She is authoritarian, obsessive and remorseless; no detail escapes her, no peccadillo remains unpunished.
Those with long memories recall the days of Juni Morosi in the office of Labor treasurer Jim Cairns and even further back to Liberal prime minister John Gorton’s factotum Ainsley Gotto. One common element is sexism, misogyny even, but a more important one was that all three were outsiders: none had spent much previous time or experience in the culture of parliament house and all were resented by those who had.
And as a result they became zealously protective gatekeepers, installing their own apparatchiks as loyal and obedient guard dogs and shielding their respective bosses from any influences that might disrupt their cabals. The inevitable outcome was a pre-emption of eccentric and unworkable policies, a total lack of frank and fruitful advice, a breakdown of communication, confusion, resentment and chaos. And in the end – and they were pretty brief ends — the first two political masters they dominated crashed spectacularly.
Those government supporters intent on reform rather than simple vengeance are genuinely concerned that their own leader may suffer the same fate. But so far Abbott seemed determined to stand firm: he is, he has said, quoting his mentor Margaret Thatcher, not for turning.
It might work; he might still muddle through for another two years, turn the polls around and prevail over an uninspiring opposition and its leader. But barnacles, if not attended to, can eventually sink the boat altogether. I recall a wonderful cartoon from the dying days of the government of Billy McMahon, when Bruce Patty drew the hapless prime minster clinging to a piece of smouldering wreckage.
The caption, adapted from the poem Casabianca by Felicia Hemans, read: The boy stood on the burning deck/ Whence all but he had fled./ And a staggering piece of insight/ Kept going around in his head./ When the flame of truth hits the ship of state/ And the tides of time are turning/ They tend to bucket the captain/ When the ship is what is burning.
Is history repeating?