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The problem with “clever politics”

Abbott and Turnbull are tying themselves in knots

“Clever politics” is one of those compliments a politician should always be wary of receiving. When you spend your life engaged in political battle it is hard to resist such flattery, offered, as it usually is, by others who spend their lives engaged in that battle. Bestowed by one’s peers, it can feel like the highest honour. But “clever” too often, and very quickly, comes to mean “too clever by half”.

That was a lesson Malcolm Turnbull learned on 2 July, when he got an election result far more nail-biting than anyone had believed possible, after the breathtakingly clever politics of his audacious move to recall parliament and push on to an early election.

Which is not to say “clever politics” are themselves the problem. I still reckon Turnbull’s original move back in March was sharp. But he failed to adequately plan for the next steps – which has been a common mistake of this government. And so we come to the actual problem: too often politicians are so blinded by the short-term brilliance of their manoeuvres that they fail to look another step down the road, or to consider whether anybody else might see things differently.

Two examples today.

Tony Abbott has managed to get himself tangled in an argument that is too clever by far more than a half. He looks ridiculous, when his intent is the opposite. His friend Catherine McGregor has penned a column [paywall] in the Daily Telegraph today in which she outlines Abbott’s beliefs, imparted to her in conversation, which Abbott knew would be turned into a newspaper piece. McGregor is not to blame for any of this.

The first of these Abbott positions is wallpaper: he is committed to the re-election of the government. The second is directed at killing Turnbull’s hopes of an easy escape from current troubles: Abbott says he will stay in the parliament for a long, long time to come. But the third is where we get to the bit that is so clever it winds up being stupid.  

Abbott believes that only Turnbull can restore their relationship. He is the leader. He alone can ensure that Abbott is accorded the status and workload, which befits a former Prime Minister. Being pragmatic, Abbott actually believes that the solidarity imposed upon him by cabinet is the best insurance against his being deemed a wrecker. Despite the damage done to both men by last week’s fiasco Abbott does not concede that he must merely sit on the backbench and say nothing, nor accept the numerous speaking engagements that he is offered. What the media likes to portray as destabilisation, and what Abbott sees as his legitimate duty as a senior national figure are the same thing. Only the discipline of the cabinet can completely align Abbott with his own avowed mission, the re-election of this government.

To simplify, Abbott is saying that he supports the government – but the only way of guaranteeing that Abbott will actually support the government is to force him to support the government.

This is not just a grown man we are talking about. Not that long ago this grown man was prime minister.

I’m not being even remotely unfair. All of that is in that final sentence. “Only the discipline of the cabinet can completely align Abbott with his own avowed mission, the re-election of this government.” It’s like something Joseph Heller would have dreamed up.

This is an amazing admission from Abbott. It’s a threat, yes, but it’s more than that. I am so ill-disciplined, he tells the world, that only by imposing binding rules on me can anyone expect that I would actually do what I say I want to do.

If Abbott genuinely wants to support the government, he shouldn’t need cabinet solidarity to bind him. He needs only the basic willpower applied by most members of the Coalition every day. If he does not have that willpower, then God only knows why anybody should think about appointing him a cabinet minister.

Of course, the answer to this riddle is simple. He has the willpower, but not the will itself. In other words, he doesn’t really support Malcolm Turnbull’s government. Which is precisely why Turnbull doesn’t want him in the cabinet.

Second, to Malcolm Turnbull and wedge politics.

The government is being “clever” in not explaining the purpose of its new asylum seeker policy. No doubt it cannot announce resettlement arrangements that are not concluded yet, but it has still made the decision to make this announcement – that asylum seekers who come by boat to Australia will never in fact set foot in Australia, by force of law – first.

As I wrote yesterday, “if Labor does not accept the legislation, stripped of its context, then the government gets to loudly bellow, in a few days’ time, that Labor are stopping those poor souls on island hellholes from going free”.

This is classic Clever Politics. 

Reflecting further today, I realised that the problem with an argument like this is it can be immediately turned around.

If a resettlement deal is announced, Labor can just as easily argue that the Coalition is being insanely pigheaded, standing in the way of their own resettlement deal just to ensure that a handful of asylum seekers will never even visit Australia. Really? Bill Shorten will say. You’re not going to move these poor people off the islands just in case they want to see the Opera House in 20 years’ time?

And it’s not just rhetoric, either. Having struck a deal with a third country, and announced it, will the government really tie itself up in the rhetorical knots necessary to justify not going ahead with its plan? Surely Turnbull has learned by now the first rule of prime ministerial politics: everything that goes wrong is your fault.

When John Howard was finally voted out, Kevin Rudd was still hollering praise after him: Mr Howard was, if nothing else, a very clever politician. This is one compliment that never ends well.

 

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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