So it’s that time of year again. The only Robert Burns poem most folks would know, Auld Lang Syne, is croaked out. As is the sparkling white, with champagne flowing far less freely if the global financial crisis is anything to go by. At the close of the first full year of federal Coalition Opposition since 1995, and with all those new year resolutions about to be made, the time is ripe for considering the top five political heroes and zeroes of 2008.
1. Global Financial Crisis. Why is it a hero? Be you Liberal, Labor, or otherwise – if the latter, you’re probably not in the right place – it was a truly Herculean feat to be able to focus Rudd’s intellect and energies squarely at dealing with one problem, rather than attempting to solve the dozens of problems or issues he faces daily as Prime Minister. It essentially forced him to come up with a narrative along the lines of times are tough, but we’re doing all that we possibly can to remove as much sh*t as possible from this sh*t sandwich. Despite the fact that the effects of this ‘crisis’ are in many respects yet to be felt or fully felt, it will force discipline in decision-making and spending in a way that even a dogged determination to cling to the labeling life raft of ‘fiscal conservative’ could not achieve, even if the stimulus package is unfortunately Howardesque in its scattergun pork barreling. An example of policy got right that could easily have been wrong in a different climate was the cautious and reasonable approach taken to the ETS. Labor must be very excited at the prospect that Greg Hunt’s marshmallow Liberals try to out-Green and out-carbon-tax the government.
2. Stephen Smith. A hero for being able to perform in an arguably hamstrung role as Foreign Minister without much complaint, and with a dignity that was sorely lacking in the conduct of the previous Labor occupant of that post, The Hon. Projectile (Ashtray) Evans. For Smith, perhaps with Rudd and Turnbull one of the three brightest Parliamentarians, to be able to acquit his role competently and without constant public reports of disputes over FM/PM overlap is all the more impressive when one considers his not unjustifiable ambitions.
3. Malcolm Turnbull. That this man could become leader of the Liberal Party after, as it has been suggested in media reports, leaking cabinet documents and/or causing even more political damage through disclosing the internal Cabinet runctions over Howard’s abortive plans to stand down post-APEC, is truly astonishing. It is a measure of how lacking in spine the Liberal Party is that he has never really been taken to task internally for any of those appalling breaches of confidence. Whether or not he has been ‘allowed’ to be Leader, like Nelson, as a fall guy ahead of another candidate being given the mantle at a more opportune time, remains to be seen. But a heroic effort all the same to muscle his way into the Leadership.
4. Joel Fitzgibbon, for simply being the first Defence Minister in more than a decade not dogged within a year or so with some major scandal or obvious cock-up (to any Brendan Nelson devotees, see eg Super Hornet).
5. Stephen Conroy. Some might say this is an odd choice. For me it’s quite simple. The Communications portfolio has, like Defence, gotten the better of the bulk of its Ministers in the past decade. Conroy’s predecessor, now Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Helen Coonan (a wonderful choice for Labor- she’s in the Senate, Robb had been getting traction, and she’s about as successful at getting media attention as Ted Baillieu), looked entirely out of sorts in the role. Conroy has already cut Telstra down to size, the quasi-monopoly telco having attempted to bully Conroy in the same way it had Coonan. The NBN and the internet-filter initiative are both very sensitive issues, and whatever dissatisfaction might exist with Conroy either publicly or within the Cabinet, there are few that would grapple with these challenges better. I envisage the man working at the CPO, late in the evening, sipping a cup of tea and working at a standing desk like Donald Rumsfeld, with Tom Petty’s ‘I won’t back down’ playing in the background. It’s obvious that the internet-filter idea is something that has been foisted upon him. He continues to make the best of a situation where he’s trying to sell a fairly average policy, however well-intentioned, to the electorate.
Honourable Mentions: John Brumby for defying the trend of State Labor’s generally declining fortunes. Kevin Rudd for continuing to walk on water despite what some might argue has been a largely unimpressive year. Colin Barnett for once more teaching politicos the lesson that there all elections are winnable or losable. Julia Gillard for her entertaining Parliamentary performances. Sophie Mirabella for her continued devotion to Wang, and to her attaining the lofty post of Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare, Status of Women and Youth.
1. Ted Baillieu. ‘Nuff said.
2. Penny Wong and, to a lesser extent, Peter Garrett, for their continued average performances in their respective portfolios. The only reason they’re able to survive is the generally poor performance of the Liberals. Wong’s office is renowned for its odd focus on collective decision-making, while Garrett’s office remains renowned for not much. If Greg Hunt wasn’t so obviously focused on self-promotion rather than attacking the Government, things might be a little bit different.
3. Julie Bishop. A more profligate plagiarist than most journalists at The Age- though not quite yet at the terminal, Alan Ramsey stage of ‘lifting’- Bishop is entirely out of her depth in her current portfolio. She may well value add for the party as Deputy but she is doing far worse than Wayne Swan ever did as Shadow Treasurer. It’s a little unfair to entirely attribute Swan’s greatly increased confidence, if not swagger to Bishop’s poor performances; he was looking better on his feet towards the end of the Nelson months, when Turnbull was still trying to skewer him. What would suit her instead? Something that isn’t too difficult but still has some substance, perhaps Foreign Affairs, where she’d be fine so long as she delivered the few non-plagiarised lines she’d be given. Education wouldn’t be the best idea, as she was known at the Department as a ‘good Minister’- most unsound.
4. Nicola Roxon. From the entirely bungled alcopop announcement, to appointing Tim Mathieson and some decidedly inappropriate gents to boards without any due diligence, Ni-Cola hasn’t had the best of years. Granted, Health is a portfolio replete with political risk. But her reputation in Canberra as a bright, hard-working lottery winner as Member for Gellibrand is quickly being replaced by that of an image of a clearly hard-working Minister who is out of her depth and hasn’t quite the attention to detail and good luck her job requires. Many think she exhausted her supply of good luck in the 2007 campaign when she was repeatedly made to look good by an imploding Tony Abbott.
5. The New South Wales Labor Government. By declining to go early, they’re going to cost federal Labor seats in 2010, preventing them from having any chance of consolidating the 2007 win. A stunning feat, considering most Libs I know don’t necessarily think of ’07 as an ALP high-water mark, particularly if anything in the ballpark of the current polling figures is the Lib level of support come the next election.
Dishonourable mentions: Another possible number one was Evan Thornley, for his utterly surreal decision to turn
down a Cabinet Post he’d flown from the South of France to, well, accept. One doesn’t know what goes on inside the head of a squillionarie on a long transhemispheric journey in First, but whatever did go on, you’ve got to hope he’s got medication for it. Charlie Donnelly, for putting my Victorian Labor Right Mates through Groundhog Day with the NUW behaving just as badly on the re-run. Peter Costello – take the hint and leave. Kim Carr, for wearing vests all the time- you’re a bad, bad man- where’s your fob watch and Ben Chifley hat? And last but not least, Steve Ciobo’s wife, for being with Ciobo. What a waste.
Happy new year.