Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tough Job For A Hard Nutt

BIG TED Baillieu's consigliere Michael Kapel is departing Spring Street for San Francisco. Good. If he were to take with him our premier's other best friend (and Michelle Grattan pin-up boy), Petro Georgiou, that would be even better.

In years to come -- most particularly two years to come, when Victoria votes -- this could be the moment hindsight recognises as the pivot on which the Baillieu government's future turned. Alleged conservatives have been in charge of Spring Street for more than a year, but it must by now be obvious they have yet to shrug off the legacy of their wilderness years in opposition. It is an attitude thing, and it continues to lay them low at almost every turn.

Consider the lot of a typical opposition member, for whom frustration is the order of every day. There are few perks, no chance of legislative coups, no opportunities to advance agendas except via the press, which in Victoria means the Age and Herald Sun. The former has become a lair and refuge for those who might have made careers in social work or primary-school teaching if those disciplines' tertiary entrance scores were not so demanding. As for the Herald Sun, the sport section is still worth reading.

So human nature being what it is, and political nature being even worse, what happens? As governments govern, oppositions turn on themselves. When Henry Kissinger observed that academia's feuds are beyond vicious because the spoils are so scant* he might have been talking about Team Ted's years in exile. The plotting and scheming for petty advantage, the jockeying for safe seats and the failure to find strong candidates for marginal ones, the lust for the few extra pennies attached to a shadow portfolio -- they became the collective faults and fixations. An opposition will always seem united at Question Time, but that chorus of co-ordinated catcalls is deceptive. Out of the Speaker's eye, oppositions with weak leaders eat their own.

The perverse hope before the last election was that what was deemed a near-certain Coalition defeat would be a blessing in disguise.  The thinking went that defeat would give people like Michael Kroger and his acolytes the upper hand, spur the push to lop dead wood and bring in a new generation of firebrands -- people with both a taste for Labor blood and a far more cohesive committment to conservative principles. Instead, to the astonishment of many, Team Ted carried the day -- and all the vices of a divided and unfocused opposition where transplated to the other side of the chamber.

Team Ted remains a government with an opposition mentality. The gossip its members trade remains toxic, their knives still honed for the backs of allies, not for ripping and slashing the silvertailed public school boys and soft-handed union legal officers who represent the essence of the modern ALP.

Even more damaging are the outdated fixations that dominate Team Ted's thinking. In opposition, his crew made much of Labor's spin machine, which generated weekly photo ops by the score. In government they have stuck to the same script. Every week The Age and ABC air "scandals", most confected, and every week many of those stink bombs go unanswered by the ministers concerned.

Why would that be? Because that old opposition factionalism has denied many ministers their own press reps and savvy staffers.The Coalition decried Labor's media manipulations and it has stuck to its guns in declining to do the same thing. Big mistake. Team Ted need not embrace the full panoply of flashbulb pantomimes which characterised the Bracks and Brumby years, but a government which will not defend itself does not deserve to be a government.

Kapel's replacement is Tony Nott, a key player in John Howard's back room and a lifelong political operator. He has many things to fix.

*ALERT: Reader Rubber Duck has checked the provenance of that purported Kissinger quote and it appears never to have passed his lips. See comments for more.


  1. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.January 24, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    What's that old football wisdom? Get your retalliation in first. Time to play.

  2. That line from Henry Kissinger re academic feuds and scant spoils - Wikiquote says it's a misattribution, Henry never said it. We all know the internet can't be wrong, so now we have the inconceivable situation of two websites with a different take on the facts. If I'm not careful, my faith in the internet will be shattered.


    The reason that university politics is so vicious is that the stakes are so small.
    This remark was first attributed to Kissinger, among others, in the 1970s. The Quote Verifier (2006) attributes it to political scientist Paul Sayre, but notes earlier similar remarks by Woodrow Wilson. Clyde J. Wingfield referred to it as a familiar joke in The American University (1970)
    Unattributed variants:
    Somebody once said that one of the reasons academic infighting is so vicious is that the stakes are so small. There's so little at stake and they are so nasty about it.
    The Craft of Crime : Conversations with Crime Writers (1983) by John C. Carr
    The reason that academic politics is so vicious is that the stakes are so small.
    Mentioned as an "old saw" in Teachers for Our Nation's Schools (1990) by John I. Goodlad