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The political matrix

By Natasha Cica - posted Monday, 11 July 2005

Most commentators agree that the Liberal mandatory detention dissidents co-authored a critical chapter in the history wars of Australia's current ruling party. Many have fed this plot twist into the grand narrative of small “l” liberalism versus hard “c” conservatism. They've mainly looked backwards for clues, to the heydays of Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Ian McPhee and even Gerard Henderson.

Chloe Hooper's recent spread on much younger Liberals in the The Monthly suggests we should fast forward more of our focus. Hooper profiles new Young Liberal president Alex Hawke, aged 26. Hawke's agenda is American-style hard right, including on issues like homosexuality and abortion. That apparently positions him and fashionista hacks of the “far Rottweiler right” well for preselection. Similarly, many rising through the ranks of Young Labor carry the heavy scent of Opus Dei, and most quickly learn that counting and crunching take you further, faster, than asking questions. Great training to be Mini-Me to the Labor factional warrior of your choice, to grow in the political mould of those who, as John Button said in Beyond Belief, are “usually control freaks devoted to manipulation rather than thought. As public figures they're about as attractive as Hannibal Lector.”

The problem with most key up-and-comers is not so much the bipartisan rightwards shift of their stated positions. It's more that they give the impression they've sniffed the wind of the times and tacked hard right to sail ahead. For them the cart of pragmatism is put before the horse of values. Politics has always been the art of compromise, of course, but you can't trade on your bottom line if you don't actually have one. That's why contemporary Australian political developments can't be fully understood in terms of traditional ideologies.


Take Sophie Panopolous. She may dress like the pearl to Judith Troeth's twinset, but inhabits an entirely different class. Not simply because Panopolous is “conservative” and Troeth is “liberal”. Rather, because there are some places Troeth won't go or be taken - including on googlies like refugees and abortion - while Panopolous's terrorist jibe indicates she'll freely throw any bomb that looks like getting her ahead, on the ascendant wave of her party's ugly faction. Remember her maiden speech thanking Gerry Wheeler for “being there”? He's a Young Liberal, turned Howard staffer, who coined the “for all of us” wedge in 1996, lately spotted working on so-called “special projects” in the Government Members Secretariat that some call the Liberals' dirt unit.

Then there's Tony Burke, former Young Labor president, right-wing unionist and Graham Richardson staffer. Burke gave his own special twist to crossing the floor when he teamed up with Liberal Kevin Andrews and fellow travellers to engineer the passage of legislation banning voluntary euthanasia in 1997. Burke then played a key role in the (failed) republic campaign and entered the NSW upper house in 2003. In 2004 he moved to the federal House of Representatives and straight into a minor shadow ministry. That key's fast turned major. Handing him the hot shadow immigration portfolio bungled by Laurie Ferguson - incredibly, still at large - Kim Beazley called Burke “one of the brightest lights in our party”. Burke clearly has strong beliefs. But to exactly what, and whom, is his allegiance owed?

Compare the parliamentary promotional fate of Carmen Lawrence in the wake of her 2002 decision to quit the front bench over refugee policy: and in turn, of Nicola Roxon who jumped to publicly accuse Lawrence of “vandalism”. Roxon's now shadow attorney-general. Lawrence is Labor's first president elected by popular vote, but still labours on Labor's backbench. So does John Faulkner. He may have parked himself there to refill the tank, but there was nothing voluntary about his Senate ticket demotion by the hacks from hell.

As Faulkner knows, history's about building the future as much as recording the past. For Labor to have a foreseeable future, it must drop Beazley's self-saucing pudding attitude - unhealthy comfort food - and Napisan its filthy factional laundry. Pundits and punters today read “true believer” as a term of sad irony. The Liberal uglies don't stand for anything either, of course. But their players aren't deluded. They know their survival depends on the kind of lithe replication, and strategic self-reinvention, that Agent Smith displayed in The Matrix. John Howard's deal with his dissidents made it clear he's perfecting that trick.

On whatever bench they sit, the forces of good-guy gravitas across party politics need to grasp a new truth - one revealed by the respective performances recently of the Fab Four, Ferguson and Faulkner. Goodness can only win, now, by fighting neo-con with Neo. Not enough electable representatives who can play this role are preselected or duly promoted. Let's get more of them online to management positions.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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