The Liberal Party is digging up enough dirt for everybody
It’s a strange time of year in Canberra.
Millions of bogong moths descend upon Parliament House’s Capital Hill during their annual migration. Accompanying them are hundreds of big black birds against a grey sky: crows, magpies and currawongs flooding Parliament’s many courtyards to feast on the clueless prey lying in around the building.
Walking through this bleak scene I was thankful for the fact that I at least wasn’t a Coalition MP looking out my window at huge crows devouring dying and confused helpless moths – it would’ve all been a bit too close to home.
Bagging out the current state of the Opposition, particularly the Liberals, is so easy at the moment that it’s become quite an intellectually lazy exercise.
It’s a theme that is regularly expanded on by some readers on The Punch who question why it is the opposition is the perpetually in the headlights for criticism when it is the Rudd Government and its policy responsible for running the nation. Tony Abbott made a similar point last week.
The problem with this argument is that Government’s first response to any policy to debate is: so what’s your policy buster?
The emergence of an internal email in The Australian advising Liberal Party press secretaries helpfully entitled “digging dirt” is not only self-evidently embarrassing for its content but also because it actually reflects the current Liberal strategy.
“You don’t get news stories by trying to change perceptions, you get them by reinforcing stereotypes.
“While policy discussions are nice, the simple fact is that in opposition, the majority of our successful news stories are going to be ones which are a little quirky and which draw the attention of journos.”
This is evidence of what has been obvious since the Coalition found themselves in Opposition: they have almost no policy alternatives to the Government and bizzarely using this as a kind of primary strategy.
Malcolm Turnbull’s office was quick to distance itself from the email, authored by Peter Phelps, media advisor to cabinet secretary Senator Michael Ronaldson.
Phelps has a record for doing some pretty wacky things, such as comparing then Labor candidate for Eden-Monaro to a Nazi concentration camp guard during a public meeting in the 2007 election campaign.
Nonetheless Phelps is still a go to man for a lot of Liberal MPs and his advice is treated with a great deal of authority by many in the party. Phelps is also associated with some rather tough, to put it lightly, politicking within the NSW right of the Liberal Party.
Yesterday’s question time exposed the paucity of this strategy with Deputy Leader Julie Bishop attempting to hammer the Government on asylum seekers.
While the crux of the Opposition’s attack thus far has been that the softer stance has encouraged more arrivals, yesterday Bishop demanded a guarantee that children wouldn’t be held behind bars.
The Prime Minister was quick to point out this was pretty rich coming from a the party who formally had a policy of putting women and children behind razor wire, the broader issue is that the attack was confused because the Opposition has no corresponding policy.
Is the Government going soft and laying out the welcome mat to boat people or is it responsible for locking up little children? The Opposition leader won’t directly endorse a policy of reintroduction of TPAs or Pacific Solution but wants to call Kevin Rudd soft.
This is not to excuse the Government’s hypocrisy on asylum seekers, but it’s pretty hard to label the policy a shambles if you can’t propose any solution.
One area in which the Opposition have produced its own policy alternatives, the CPRS, was a torturous affair which only gives Malcolm Turnbull the right to sit down with the Government. Focussing on the Opposition in this debate is not only justified, it’s essential, as it is the Coalition that will decide on final changes to the ETS.
Any policy decision on the scheme has to go back to the party room for approval and is anything but a foregone conclusion.
To underscore the dire situation of the Opposition yesterday there was a briefing by Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane, who warned that the party should be prepared for an early election and things don’t look pretty.
Some Liberal MPs are concerned that their colleagues aren’t taking the threat of an election seriously enough, knowing they could easily lose 20 seats at the next election.
Every Coalition MP you talk says Christmas just can’t come quick enough hoping that the New Year will offer up some relief. Morale is at the lowest since the electon among Liberal staffers.
But they should realise, and many do, that by sticking to the Phelps strategy they will continue to get gobbled up by hungry crows who don’t even have to hunt them down, just find them already dead after becoming lost and confused in Parliament’s corridors.
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