I spent some of our recent cold snap culling overloaded bookshelves. As I weighed up what was to be sent to the opp shop, I stumbled on the definitive history of Richard Nixon’s flawed presidency The Arrogance of Power by Anthony Summers.
The arrogance of power also describes the disarray in the Liberal Party, federally and in Victoria. The party’s plight can be embodied in the tale of two Tims – Wilson and Smith.
Tim WIlson, with husband Ryan Bolger, conceded defeat in Goldstein on May 22.Credit:AFR
Both Tim W & S have considerable ability, energy and political nous. They were each pre-selected instead of women due to Liberal circles believing the men had more to offer. They leave their respective parliaments prematurely – disappointing their sponsors and personally soured – after being seduced by the trappings of office.
Politicians are surrounded by forelock-tuggers and door openers. Long-term survival requires a healthy disregard for such nonsense. But both Tims succumbed to hubris, losing the capacity for self-doubt and believing their own b-s. This affliction is not unique to the Liberals, but it is generously rewarded within the party’s internal culture. It is how the party has defined success, enabled by a Murdoch media cheer squad that celebrates bluff, bluster and bullying.
In the early 2000s, ABC senior management directed me to “find more conservative voices” to put to air on my morning radio show. With my then producer Chris Uhlmann, we offered the secretive arch-conservative Institute of Public Affairs a regular spot on the “Friday Wrap”, where talkback callers could exchange banter with guests from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
John Roskam, the IPA boss, was our initial right-wing champion, and would faithfully deliver his combative contributions to a typically hostile reception from the ABC audience. After a few years, a battle-weary Roskam dropped off as he said it was personally counter-productive, hindering his attempts at pre-selection. He recommended his then-unknown sidekick, Tim Wilson, to replace him.
Tim Wilson was charming, smart and unafraid. We invested a lot of time training him and giving feedback, despite his IPA view that the ABC was a waste of public money. As his confidence grew, and he became sought after by other media, he developed his own political brand. The then attorney-general George Brandis soon offered him a job at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission as a “freedom commissioner”, notwithstanding the IPA advocating for the abolition of the organisation.
Despite arguing that the Liberals needed more women in parliament, in 2016 he successfully contested preselection for Goldstein against Georgina Downer. Now, after two terms, his career has been derailed by his enthusiastic participation in the Liberal Party’s capitulation to what some have described as the Trumpian instincts of Scott Morrison.
The voters of Goldstein showed no sentimentality for Wilson as they and voters in Kooyong and elsewhere emphatically voted to end sleaze, introduce an integrity commission and demand more climate action. Wilson was roadkill under ScoMo’s bulldozer.
Tim Smith entered state politics after cutting his teeth in local government. Elected to the City of Stonnington as a precocious 25-year-old, he was mayor at 26 and milked every opportunity for publicity. Quick with snappy one-liners, we offered him a regular gig on ABC Melbourne and he seized the opportunity to develop his brand.
Tim Smith faces the media after crashing his car while drunk.Credit:Justin McManus
In 2014, he won preselection for the safe state seat of Kew, defeating former minister Mary Wooldridge in her quest to move from the upper to the lower house. He soon became a shadow minister, and until drunkenly crashing his new Jaguar last October was viewed by some as a prospective leader.
Tim Smith’s regular appearances on Sydney commercial radio during Victoria’s extended and tortuous lockdowns lent him a façade of political gravitas, but it was an illusion. Instead of doing the hard work developing policies and winning the contest of ideas, Tim Smith presented as if he believed that government office would inevitably be his.
Politicians are like radio talk show hosts – it is the ideal career for unattractive people with short attention spans and a highly developed sense of their own importance. Tims both federal and state, once in parliament, made rapid transformations into aggressive pugilists, adopting the swagger, belligerence and sense of entitlement that infects so many in public life.
Tim Wilson’s elevation to a junior ministry showed his loyalty to the PM was more important to him than listening to his electorate. The grassroots revolt in Goldstein – like that in Kooyong – seemed to confound and ambush him, only confirming he had lost touch with his community.
Not all Victorian Liberals experienced the same grassroots revolt. Several Victorian Coalition MPs had swings towards them – Darren Chester [Gippsland], an outspoken critic of Barnaby, Joyce was rewarded by his community, as was Jason Wood in La Trobe.
There is much being said about the future direction of the Coalition parties. Some protagonists present these as debates about women, national security, the culture wars or climate. It is all of those things and none of them. The failure in conservative politics is fundamentally about respect. Does the Coalition welcome and respect a diversity of views, or have they become a curiosity, a nostalgic, monocultural relic of spruikers for narrow commercial interests wrapped in the guise of a political party?
The state election is less than six months away. Some extravagant claims have been made about a second “teal” wave decimating the major parties. But even if it eventuates, it is unlikely to be well funded or organised, and is unlikely to have much impact. The grievances that shaped the teals – the Morrison factor, integrity, sleaze and climate inaction – will be absent from the state poll in November.
Victoria’s election, as always, will be about the economy and leadership. But both Daniel Andrews and Matthew Guy would do well to learn the lesson of the two Tims.
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