Nelson – the policy challenge

From today’s Crikey email:

Despite some expressing pre-election scepticism, there was no night of the long knives for senior public servants from the Rudd government, now embarked on its project of “restoring Westminster”.

But Kevin Rudd hasn’t renounced all the tactics he observed in Queensland state politics all those years ago. He’d remember well, as a former chief of staff to an opposition leader, that one way Joh Bjelke-Petersen reinforced his dominance was to deny resources to his opponents. The Labor opposition, and the Liberals after the Coalition split of 1983, had to make do with a handful of staff, and office space a long way from the centre of political action in Parliament House. Although Wayne Goss redressed the imbalance somewhat, it’s fair to say that a tight rein was held on staffing for the opposition parties under his government.

Under the guise of its laudable agenda of saving public money, the Rudd government has slashed the complement of ministerial advisers by 30%. Of course, that doesn’t do the Labor party much harm as the cut is a percentage of the staff numbers Ministers had under the old Howard government. But it does mean that Brendan Nelson’s opposition will have to make do with around 70 staff.

Staffers, as well as massaging the administrative machine and providing political and media advice, also have a key role in policy generation. In her book on Ministerial staffers, Power Without Responsibility, Griffith Uni political scientist Anne Tiernan cites interviewees as perceiving a decline in the quality and energy of policy advice as the Howard government aged.

Policy formation in opposition, of course, isn’t impeded by the weight of advice from Departments, and that’s also part of the problem the Coalition will confront. With the prospects of government now so remote, it would be easy to let policy formation slide, as the reduced number of staff will have urgent political problems with which to wrestle.

But it would be a fatal mistake. State oppositions in New South Wales and Queensland stumbled fatally when transport and health policies respectively were concocted on the back of an envelope during election campaigns. State Liberal MPs across the board have often been criticised from within their own party for spending more time on branch stacking, jostling for position and in some cases, long lunches, rather than policy work.

The end result of this is further electoral oblivion and even the farcical situation in the Queensland Liberal parliamentary party, where incidentally a “lucky dip” leadership contest wasn’t avoided by Nelson’s intervention but by the refusal of Nationals leader Jeff Seeney to maintain coalition ties with a party that would elect “Toss up Tim” Nicholls by drawing his name from a hat.

Nor will the Libs, in straightened financial circumstances, be able to commission economic and policy consultancy and right wing thinktanks will have little electorally appealling to suggest. The business groups’ policy agenda follows power, and will be directed at influencing the Labor government, not at giving the Coalition a hand.

Nelson’s new frontbench haven’t got off to a flying start with Julie Bishop resurrecting the “Unions. Boo!” approach. Part of the problem is that the Opposition still doesn’t know what it stands for, with a leader who rather injudiciously suggests his record of party flip-flopping might attract swinging voters, and the ongoing tug of war between progressives and the defenders of the Howard legacy. “Putting Australia first” is a meaningless slogan when it comes to guidance for the hard work of policy formation.

Nelson has rewarded many former Costello supporters, most of whom haven’t made much impact on policy debate to date. The onus will now be on them, and the old stagers, to do the hard yards on policy. They’d better perform, because they won’t be getting much help.

Posted in history, politics
33 comments on “Nelson – the policy challenge
  1. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    “political scientist Anne Tiernan cites interviewees as perceiving a decline in the quality and energy of policy advice as the Howard government aged.”

    I have two words in response: Grahame Morris.

  2. mbahnisch says:

    Care to give us more than those two words, Sir Henry?

  3. Paul Burns says:

    “Putting Australia First” is a very stupid slogan.
    Australia First was a Fascist (in the true sense of the word) organisation which flourished during World War 2, and ended up being interned because they were apparently, Japanese collaborationists.
    As for the difficulties they will face. Tough! They deserve it after what they’ve done to our beautiful country under Howard’s leadership.
    And never forget, Howard is going to still be there, offering advice to Brendan from his Wollstonecraft cottage. Despite having convincingly lost an election, and being turfed out of the Parliament by his own electorate.

  4. mbahnisch says:

    Do you reckon? Nelson would be a big fool to listen to anything Howard says… but hey…

  5. derrida derider says:

    What the public service really provides in the policy development process is getting the detail right. Which politically is not at all a small thing – most policy that embarrasses it proponents ultimately does so through some overlooked detail (What, you mean it’ll cost four times as much? And there’ll be a bunch of well-represented people we didn’t know about who’ll be disadvantaged by it?).

    Cut off from those resources and near-broke (which, as you note, limits access to alternatives), the opposition can be expected to produce a string of policy proposals over the next few years which will be easily taken apart. They’re in a world of pain.

  6. Paul Burns says:

    In one of his first public statements Nelson said he was going to call on Howard for guidance. It was the first or second day after his election as leader. I couldn’t believe my ears and started shouting at the TV for the first time since the Labor victory.
    Labor victory. Just thought I’d write that again, I enjoyed writing it so much the first time. Its the glow, you know.

  7. mbahnisch says:

    Paul, that’s incredible. But I believe you! Ah well, it all adds to the glow. I’m still enjoying phrases like “Treasurer Wayne Swan” and “the Labor government”…

    DD, it will certainly be a test of whether any of the frontbenchers genuinely have “new ideas” as Nelson claims.

  8. David Rubie says:

    derrida derider wrote:

    the opposition can be expected to produce a string of policy proposals over the next few years which will be easily taken apart. They’re in a world of pain.

    Not necessarily. They don’t need policies for another two years at least. All they need to do is pick holes and wait for scandals in the meantime.

    The real issue is how credible are Nelson and his front bench going to be in jumping on scandals: few of shadow ministry are new and most have got enough baggage to make their attacks fall flat for the first year at least, while Rudd happily spins out the stories of previous government incompetence.

  9. Paul Burns says:

    And “The Prime Minister” – I’m still in shock seeing Rudd instead of Howard.And Howard not being in the titles of the 7,30 Report.
    The first time I went up town here in Armidale after the election, I told people I’d flown back into Australia about 10 pm on Election night. I’d been living in this strange country for the previous 11 years and I didn’t know where it was but it wasn’t Australia.
    Oh! the damage we have to repair. To keep it on thread, hopefully now the Libs are well and truly neutered, and will syay that way for years.But I’m always careful of what I wish for, in case the wish comes true.That might be a bit enigmatic, but still …

  10. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Apparently, there’s been a bit of jockeying for Howard’s ear post Sinodinos, who, incidentally, resigned a year ago today.

    It must be said that think-tankistas and spin doctors who ply their unsavoury trade out on the open market need, for credibility’s sake, a transfusion near the source of real power.

    Hence Grahame’s return to the role of Cardinal Richelieu. Watching Morris on Lateline (when he was, ahem, a free agent/comentator), and then seeing in tres amusement the mixed-all-over-the-place messages coming from the Howard camp, I was amazed (but not alarmed) though the penny dropped when I learned that Grahame was again helping Mr Howard to craft his message.

    Grahame’s temporary return to the inner sanctum must have miffed somewhat the hitherto faithful Gerry, who wasted no time in venting his spleen on Insiders on post-election morning. Oh how, Sir Henry laughed.

  11. mbahnisch says:

    I was still asleep at that point, I think!

    David, up to a point. But they need something to fall back on that isn’t the Howard position – ie if they want to criticise Labor’s IR position without defending WorkChoices holus bolus. It’s also very important, as both Beazley and state opposition experience suggests, to avoid looking like a purely negative opposition – it’s an impression that sticks in the minds of voters. And if you don’t start doing something positive on policy early on, you can’t effectively sell it and sometimes it’s just some nonsense made up during the campaign. Howard was right to say that “you can’t fatten the pig on market day” and I believe the comment was made in the context of the failure of state Liberal parties to advance and sell a policy agenda from day one.

  12. bilko says:

    Maybe Sinodinos departed because his advice to Howard (if given) to step done fell on deaf ears

  13. David Rubie says:

    Howard was right to say that “you can’t fatten the pig on market day” and I believe the comment was made in the context of the failure of state Liberal parties to advance and sell a policy agenda from day one.

    I can see the logic in that Mark, but the cupboard is pretty bare if they volte face on all the Howard policies that weren’t popular. I saw the Howard quote as a kind of backhander to the hapless state apparatus of the Liberal party – as a way of avoiding criticism and taking no responsibility for the successive state election losses. I don’t think they needed policy at the last NSW election for example, just somebody who wasn’t quite as strangely perceived as Debnam (speedos do not help, must send some to Doc Nelson for christmas 🙂 ). The policy (and competence) free zone of Iemma and buddies didn’t seem to hurt their re-election.

  14. CK says:

    “Nelson’s new frontbench haven’t got off to a flying start with Julie Bishop resurrecting the “Unions. Boo!” approach.”

    Thoroughly agree Mark. La Jules is a true featherweight whose major claim to fame is being lusted after by divorced, middle-aged, golfers around Subiaco – a major demographic hereabouts.

    They absolutely haven’t got it on WorkChoices and, given their nonsensical rhetoric about unfair dismissals, the easiest thing the gummint could do is to limit the application of unfair dismissal laws to companies with more than 20 employees.

    Yes. Precisely the same policy the Libs promised the electorate in 2004.

    You know, before the Senate majority, and before JHo’s ideological wet-dream.

  15. philiptravers says:

    I use to know a Young Lib member who was my boss on a apple orchard,and one of the most decent people I have met in my life..and I actually miss people like that.He did achieve some sense of power as a Local councillor,and honestly I hope is still alive and doing well.But I guess it maybe a bit too late to try from the other side,if there are sides when it comes to some basic characteristics, to encourage decent young people wherever and however you find them.And they will then learn when its their time to stick their neck out for the sake of people like them across the pathways of life and experience.And as a factual error has occured about the Ex-Prime Ministers a fast chicken place I think,seemingly blogs can make errors like the Editor of the now ex-Rupertian, or the Jamesian .

  16. mbahnisch says:

    CK, I’m also not sure that Bishop running around the shop promising to be the “voice of business” is what the former Howard battlers want to here, however many lovely lunches in fine restaurants it buys her… oh, and the chance to step on Turnbull’s toes.

    The policy (and competence) free zone of Iemma and buddies didn’t seem to hurt their re-election.

    Well, they had things like a state strategic plan, whatever that was. And Debnam admitting that he didn’t have a transport policy certainly contributed to the air of total unelectability. Oppositions have a higher bar on these things than governments – even with tired old governments you can be sure they’ll basically keep doing the same things (Howard’s argument) but oppositions need to propose rather than just oppose or they’re open to having the policy vacuum and their image filled in by the other mob.

  17. Paul Burns says:

    Lateline was intriguing. Bruce Baird looked like the cat that got the cream. The Moderates telling the Howardistas “I tolde you so.” But they ain’t that happy with Nelson’s new line up. Appears moderates eg Pyne (a moderate???)are still on the outer in the old look/new look Liberal Party.Predict mild nasty shenanigans, with the Howardistas still asserting their power.
    Graham Morris was responsible for the idea of continuous campaigning was he? Not that it did a lot of good. After a while Ratty just ended up looking rattled.
    One more indulgence of my Scorepio moon.The shadow Minister for the Environment, whose name utterly escapes me, looked weak and puny mumbling about stopping global deforestation.As if Rudd doesn’t realise that, after the shocking ABARE report. Perhaps he could start with shutting down Gunn’s pulp mill and stopping deforestation in Tasmania?
    But back to the Libs. How puny, how unscary, how non-threatening these once powerful ogres now appear.It delights me. I feel the glow coming on. But let us not forget, these despicable Howardistas are still there. They will gtow in strength eventually, and we must be alert and alarmed and do all we can to stop that from happening.

  18. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    It’s slowly dawning on me that Howard had to strongly brand the Libs as “the party of business” in order to carpetbag the funds for its war chest. Grahame Morris said that they had to compete with the money coming from the unions for Labor. In order to differentiate the brand and convince captains of industry that, honestly, Liberal Party were the one, the true, the natural party for them, they asked: ‘is there something we can do that will convince you?’

    – Yeah, WorkChoices, here’s the script, John.
    – No problem. I can deliver for you, as I always have.

    Now, being a party of big business is not much use if the party is not in power. Baird admitted on Lateline last night that fundraising is going to be tough. I wonder when did reality and Liberal Party apparatchiks go their separate ways?

  19. Paul Burns says:

    Sir Henry,
    Just a thought, inspired by your comment, and probably a pretty self-evident one.
    Workchoices was a plot by the Libs to destroy the union movement, not because they hate unions, (though obviously many Libs do, somewhat pathologically, which leads me to diverge into the thought that the world has frequently been governed by sick and mad old men). [I know that’s not a sentence but if I kept on going it would get too confusing.] Repeat – a plot to destroy the union movement because Howard wanted to destroy the ALP’s financial base, and thus destroy the ALP by making in unable to function.I’m sure this observation is not original and has probably neen made by many before me.
    Given the Midget Bishop’s boo-hoo unions, this is still probably their undemocratic aim. The irony is that Howard’s Macbethian ambition looks like it has more likely destroyed the Libs.Just a thought.

  20. mbahnisch says:

    Yep, I’m inclined to agree with Paul. While there are IR zealots in business, I think a lot of the motivation was Howard’s political objectives and his own screwed up values.

    I couldn’t believe that Morris said the Coalition lost because they were governing not playing politics. Hello?

    Someone should tell Virginia that John Howard is no longer referred to as “the Prime Minister”.

  21. CK says:

    Entirely agree. Thoroughly consistent with VSU, which, stripped of the ideological clothing, was a clear attempt to put the kibosh on a traditional Labor training ground.

  22. clarencegirl says:

    I’m thoroughly enjoying the thought of the shock to the system for Libs and Nats facing staffing cuts and reduced allowances.
    But listening to Nelson, Bishop and Truss is a mixed blessing because although their responses are weak and all over the shop, it is clear that they have learnt little from the recent Coalition electoral defeat.
    I spend the day smiling because the Howard Government is no more and lie awake at night worrying that those little fascists might return some day! 🙂

  23. Paul Burns says:

    Not for a while, clarencegirl. I think we can look forward to several years, perhaps even a decade or more, of the Libs eating themselves alive. As the reality sinks in I expect more anger against Howard from his left-overs. Much as I despise our misnamed Liberal Party, it was hard to mistake a little bit of gloating from Bruce Baird last night.
    The problem is, of course, that we have no way of knowing how far those moderates will shift to the ultra-right once they get back in power.
    I’m not privy to the machinations of the Liberal Party, but I do know the only decent Liberal I know in Armidale left the party in disgust at JWH.I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Split in the next few years that will make the Great Labor Split of the 1950s look like a minor political ruction. I suspect the damage Howard and his ilk have done to the party runs that deep. It will be worsened in a time of financial stringency and this new Labor Ascendancy. So sleep easy.

  24. mbahnisch says:

    I think we can look forward to several years, perhaps even a decade or more, of the Libs eating themselves alive.

    Indeed. Consider these stories from today’s papers:

    Turnbull alleged that the leadership election was rigged:,25197,22889363-601,00.html

    Nelson apologies for lies:,25197,22889501-5014046,00.html

    Downer blames Costello for election loss:,25197,22889503-5014046,00.html

  25. Paul Burns says:

    Am in the middle of writing a review of a rather large book, and working hard to get to the essence of it, so LP posts provide great entertainment when my brain gets a little tired. As to those reports in the Oz. Oh, the tyranny of history. They know we turn to microfilms of newspapers when we come to write about their diverse doings, but these guys are tying themselves in knots. Dolly tries to preserve the reputation of the Great Leader, who, undoubtedly is right now, if he has moved out of Kirribilli, sitting in the Wollstonecraft Cottage writing Australia’s Mein Kampf.Meanwhile, the Howardistas, unable any longer to lie to and deceive the Australian public, instead lie to and deceive each other. Even when they’re playing at their hardest, the Labor back-room boys have never cheated like this. Stacking branches, rigging branch ballots, sure, but never a party leadership ballot. Not even Jack Lang would sink this far.And believe me, I know my Labor history -and Liberal Party history too. How low can they sink.While Howard undoubtedly nods in approval, Menzies, who generally was not an unprincipled old bugger, just an adept a political trickery, which, incidentally he learnt from watching that clever old fox, John Curtin, would be turning in his grave.
    And Brendan, whose main qualifications for leading the Libs seem to be he was a Labor Rat – well, I reckon he would have got his first angry phone call from Howard by now – lack of humanity, lack of sopcial conscience. What do you think I am Brendan? A sociopath?
    I wonder what Brendan’s answer would be. He is an M.D. after all.

  26. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Paul (+Mark +CK), WorkChoices may have ended up as an attempt to use a fight with the unions over it as a political wedge, but I doubt whether it was a plot – to wit, a stratagem contrived by the likes of Grahame Morris – to destroy the union movement. Rather, the idea would have come from people like Hugh Morgan.

    I would argue that it all arose out of a wishlist handed to the Libs as a quid pro quo for support by major industrialists, especially the mining companies and their bosses. It may even have started as an ambit claim that the oh-so eager Johnny Howard hubristically promised to deliver holus bolus. Howard’s instinct was always that of a very optimistic, bluffing gambler who deep down probably expected to lose.

    To sum this up, sure, there is an ideological component to Howard’s try-on, but the ideology originates with people who run big companies and their public tribunes such as the IPA or the Sydney Institute. Check this little piece by Gerard Jackson:

    The reason is obvious: WorkChoices would be instrumental in lowering the tonnage production cost over a 7-day working week and thus increase profits and even help to increase market share as there would be room to negotiate on price with the savings thus obtained. But as companies do not yet run the country (like they did Chile post-1973) so they need to participate in some sort of a political process and that is what John Howard-style Liberal Party is for.

    Even Grahame Morris when advising Johnny Howard must have suspected that there would be opposition from the unions. Indeed, such opposition is exactly their raison d’etre. The unions faced destruction if they DID NOT LAUNCH MASSIVE OPPOSITION to WorkChoices. So, in effect, the very appearance of WorkChoices on the IR radar was a shot in the arm for the unions. And that is how it panned out in the end.

    I can’t believe that the Liberals were so naïve as to expect the unions not to be energised by it. Even if the ALP lost the election, the unions could be expected to keep going on with it and grow in influence as more people would seek help to overcome unfair IR laws. Hence it is not credible to say that WorkChoices was designed to kill union influence. The only way that would have worked if the Liberals put up a levo-WorkChoices: an exact opposite – triple time on Sunday, a 22-hour week, 2-hour lunches, paid dental care, a statutory six-pack and/or a big fat joint as a settler at the end of the shift. That could have destroyed the union movement.

    I follow the hypothetical logic of trying to destroy the unions, and thus destroy ALP’s support base, but that is putting the cart before the horse. In any case, destroying the unions would be the primary objective of the Liberals’ real political masters, not the ALP.

    Anyway, ultimately, there are still the workers themselves who are also voters, a fact entirely left out of your syllogism’s minor premise, and their political power killed WorkChoices in the end.

    Now, both the ALP and the unions are stronger. The ALP will now be cashed up by the big end of town because they want to deal with the organ grinder and not the dancing monkey, a fact of political life admitted to by former Lib Party bagman Bruce Baird on Lateline last night.

    Finally, to explain Julie Bishop’s unblinking signal to block WorkChoices in the Senate. With it still in play she is able to hold on to the keys to Libs’ cashbox through her connection to the WA miner/industrialists.

    WorkChoices, let’s not complicate things here, was/is a simple moneymaking proposition for mining and industrial sweatshop bosses and not a plan to off the unions. It will remain (an overambitious) undertaking for the foreseeable future, until that is, Malcolm Turnbull taps into the old money and puts the cleaners through the arrivistes. He will then flick it off into the dustbin of history.

  27. mbahnisch says:

    Paul, Nelson seems to be doing a fine job of torpedoing his own ship!

    Sir Henry, yes, but not all of big biz are hard right ideologues on IR. The question is why Howard – who was a clever politician once – went for a policy that was bound to be electoral poison. I think the answer lies in his own politics and values and his desire not to be seen as Fraser was by the right – “wasting a Senate majority” – which would have been particularly acute because he was a signally useless minister in the Fraser government. It also had strong resonances with Thatcher’s use of employment law to try and strangle British unions as a source of funding for Labour.

    Julie Bishop is just an idiot if she thinks representing WA business interests will be electorally popular.

  28. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Last first. Julie Bishop operates on the principle that people can be bullshitted later, the money, that is the lifeblood of the party, comes first. Hence the refusal to bury the aptly acronymed WC. I am not saying that she thinks WC is popular, but perhaps she thinks she can serve it up under another guise and be sold as a new product, particularly if unemployment grows as a result of some world economic downturn. Why is she doing it? She wants to differentiate her own brand as a player, so when the chips fall she may have her own faction backed by western money. Otherwise she gets killed in the rush back to the future with Mal leading the way.

    Not all big biz are ideologues of the Hugh Morgan type. Many are pragmatists. But we do know who the ideologues are by looking up the supporters/founders of the IPA.

    In the end the ideology is for gullible politicians and the fools who work in the backrooms, distribute racist pamphlets, etc. It’s all about qui bono, isn’t it?

    Howard chanced his arm. In retrospect it was never going to be a goer, no matter how hard the sell, Grahame Morris’s ludicrous claims notwithstanding.

    Judith Brett got it right in her The Monthly piece.

    It boiled down to Howard’s hubris. He was “Danger Man” in that way and came a cropper.

  29. mbahnisch says:

    I don’t think we disagree, then, Sir Henry.

    Good piece by Brett – as always. Just read it on the bus.

  30. Paul Burns says:

    Strange goings on at the Liberal State conference. Nelson’s support of same-sex unions went down like a lead balloon.Met by sullen silence.
    Meanwhile their former Fuhrer, cheered by the conference before Nelson put the boot in, vows he’s only going to make comments in lectures overseas but otherwise will behave like a Trappist monk. (This is real, everybody.) Presumably he intends to help GWB subvert the American democratic process after having failed miserably at home. He has also taken to playing golf, not cricket.Still being shadowed by security guards. There must be a lot of hate out there.
    Reports of boxes piling up on verandah of Wollstonecraft Cottage, undoubtedly carefully noted by certain members of the lumpenproletariat who read newspapers or Google for their news.
    Please advise how to rid myself of this horrid fsascination.

  31. Graham Bell says:

    Mark, Paul Burns and my fellow culprits.

    Nelson, like Hewson before him, was the leader the Liberal Party should have had. They didn’t. So now the hard cruel world has caught up with them. Well, where do we send the flowers and condolence cards for the funeral service of the Liberal Party of Australia, 1944~2007?

    Wonder what sort of a deal Nelson cuts to stay right at the hub of power in whatever political entity replaces the Liberals? Just can’t imagine him sulking in a corner dreaming of the return of the good old days – though I think there will be some Liberal luminaries doing just that soon.

    As for Nelson saying he would listen to advice from Howard: of course he would say that. Why wouldn’t he? He’s an experienced politician, isn’t he? Why would he deliberately provoke anger and anguish in those little old dears who were already upset that the reds and the unions had just beaten their cherished leader and wonderful hero? Whether he would see a few post-election photo-opportunities with Mr J. W. Howard as helping or hindering his own political ambitions is a matter of conjecture …. and tactics.

  32. mbahnisch says:

    Please advise how to rid myself of this horrid fsascination.

    I recommend exorcism of the vengeful ghost from Wollstonecraft!

  33. Graham Bell says:

    Paul Burns [on 30]:
    Thanks for your news/historical note. I suppose we really should take a passing interest at the last full conference of the U.A.P.

    I am curious – but definitely not fascinated – by news of the movement of boxes on the verandah of a Woolstonecraft cottage. Wonder if they are coming IN from Kirribilli and The Lodge, as expected …. or are they going OUT, possibly to storage or to a shipping container. Does anyone have reliable information on this?

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