Thursday, January 30, 2014

I see your Schwartz is smaller than mine

Big media news day today. Lucky we've still got some media left to report it. Graeme Wood has boned The Global Mail, with the obvious link between its demise and the rise late last year of The Guardian Australia, which Wood has also funded, easy to make.
The Global Mail example shows that it is entirely possible for ex-mainstream journos to be completely unsuited to the rigours and pressures of startup life [...]
That's the problem with the Global Mail experience: it's folly to pretend that the commercial imperative doesn't matter to journalism. The commercial imperative draws you closer to your audience. Of course there has to be a wall between advertising and editorial, but the two sides are both trying to connect with consumers of their content. Journos at the Global Mail were guilty of the sin of creating a job which fulfilled all their needs, not necessarily the needs of the audience. I'm sure that's not what Graeme intended, but the lack of urgency which his obligation-free funding encouraged has led to the evident problems. Journalism startups are just like any other startup, they will fail if they are not instantly responsive to user feedback. So there won't be any journalism - investigative, pure, or otherwise - if there is a disconnect between journalist and audience.
No, that analysis wasn't from today, but me about a year ago on my Tinfinger blog. TGM was not a startup native. Its overheads were massive, its design was not responsive, its business model was non-existent, its ownership structure was not sustainable. It was a valiant attempt, but wrong-headed. Hopefully it will be a signature lesson for all those ex-MSM journos staring at pink slips not to expect to parachute into a sinecure lifestyle at a startup.

Meanwhile, Schwartz Media has picked a fight with News Corp and Fairfax causing an intra-industry stoush, all in the cheerful attempt to drum up buzz for the launch of the Saturday Paper to compete with the broadsheet cash cows. One wonders whether oxygen in specialist media would be as sweet as in the regular press, but those cows are bleeding so the jackals were always going to circle.
Fairfax editorial boss Garry Linnell rejected comments by Schwartz Media’s CEO Rebecca Costello who yesterday told Mumbrella that circulation falls were the result of a decline in the "quality of the content" of Australia’s other weekend newspapers.
"Costello must be living in another reality to the rest of us. What is this so called decline in quality?" said Linnell, the director of news media at Fairfax.
"The last time I looked we’d won a record number of Walkley awards for breaking news and stylish writing. Our journalism has never been more courageous and willing to expose wrongs and stand up for our audience."
Walkleys are not a valid metric. There are a fixed number of these that are awarded each year. They have to be awarded to somebody. It is entirely possible that the slashing of journalist numbers at broadsheets (or soon to be ex-broadsheets) has lowered quality across the board, which is what the Schwartz mob are saying. And if what Linnell was saying is true: why did they employ so many more journos in the past, if they didn't improve quality?

Mind you, the Saturday Paper is also most likely doomed before it starts. Sure, Fairfax and News rags have dropped in quality as they shed staff, but their skeleton newsrooms will still produce better copy than a startup at this stage. There's just not much meat left on those bones.

Craig Thomson case craters

The collapse of the Craig Thomson case is no surprise.
Mr Rozencwajg said instead of alleging a deception of the Health Services Union, the charges alleged a deception of the Commonwealth Bank and Diners Club, the lending institutions that issued the cards at the centre of the alleged offending.
But he said he couldn't see how either institution had been defrauded.
Any alleged fraud, Mr Rozencwajg said, would have been committed on the Health Services Union.
Obviously, the object of the case was never to actually convict Thomson, since this flaw in the charges should have been plain to all before it got underway. The surprise was that it ever got to court. That was the win condition for the prosecution, since the whole point of the case was solely to produce media coverage like the Daily Telegraph front cover this week shouting I HAD SEX WITH CRAIG THOMSON. Smear was the game, not justice.

One has to ask why it is that the Health Services Union didn't bring a civil case, as the magistrate suggested. The answer no doubt lies in Thomson's successor Kathy Jackson, who doesn't want the publicity because she's a far greater example of the kind of financial behaviour that got Thomson into hot water.

As became clear from evidence during the trial, the amount of money at stake here - less than $30,000 across five years - is dwarfed by the amount of money which is drawn out on HSU credit cards in cash by Jackson on an annual basis with no accountability. In addition to the $100,000 in cash she now withdraws every year no questions asked, she went on a $22,000 ski trip with her husband to Mt Hotham on union coin in 2005.

When the right talks about this case and are presented with these facts, their attack normally turns to accountability for union spending, as if this case will be the moral catalyst for the dissolution of all left wing unions. However, what Thomson and Jackson have been doing is no worse than what happens in a lot of Burnsian corporate environments. All of the sins of the corporatised union movement were learned from the gorilla-vested original sinners in Martin Place and Collins St. The money at stake here is pocket change compared to the vast amounts of shareholder funds wasted on executive benefits in Australia every day.

That is not to condone this waste; both types of greed are distasteful. It would be disingenuous to bring the opprobrium only on unions for hosting venal graspers like Jackson, Williamson and Thomson. The problem is the lack of accountability for all elites. Pretending that it is a union-only problem will not solve it.

UPDATE: This article has been tweaked slightly and reposted at Independent Australia, after they asked nicely.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Abbott Disappointment Syndrome: Indigenous Crusade

In what will be an ongoing feature on this blog, I shall chronicle the right's growing and ongoing disappointment with Tony Abbott. They groomed him, they championed him, they elected him, now they get to discover just how directionless, incompetent and dim his leadership really is. Abbott Disappointment Syndrome is the disease that they refused the vaccination for. Their mouths shall hang open, like Otto's in A Fish Called Wanda, apoplectic in rage that their cunning plans were for nought. Don't call them stupid!

While some early adopters (aborters?) have already jumped off the Abbott Caboose due purely to polling numbers of which today's ReachTEL 47:53 is only the most stark, more are now choosing his "national crusade" to change the constitution to recognise indigenous peoples as the hill they are going to die on in opposition to the World's Greatest Opposition Leader. Andrew Bolt is one of many who are crying foul over any breath that our "founders" were anything less than worthy members of the #straya pantheon.
Tony Abbott says this "crusade" is about the heart - and claims Australia's founders lacked it::
"If we had known in 1901 what we know now, if our hearts had been as big then as now, we would have acknowledged indigenous people in the constitution back then," he told reporters at Australia Day celebrations in Canberra.
This is utter nonsense. Australia's founders no more lacked heart than do people today.
The difference is that they were inspired by the creed that all citizens are as one before the law. They were right and Abbott and his fellow travelers on the Left are very, very wrong.
To criticise his opponents in this debate as simply lacking heart is just another form of the Left's grim cry of "racist" to shut down debate. It is unworthy and suggests Abbott is not confident in the strength of his argument.
There are few things that will rile up true-believing fundamentalist conservatives than an attack on the constitution and the souls of the old white blokes who wrote it, so if Abbott wanted to destabilise his own leadership with his base he couldn't have picked a more inflammatory subject. The usual weak-kneed suspects - who panicked when Rudd reappeared and pined for Turnbull - are now crying out for Scott Morrison to parachute into the leadership. Morrison, however, is just another religious wet.

This is the real legacy of John Howard: a Liberal Party in which a libertarian or small government conservative will look around and not find any decent leadership prospect whose deeds satisfy their standards. The Coalition caucus has been populated by Howard installations who support his social conservatism, and share his mendacity when it comes to speaking platitudes about small government but doing the opposite once in office. That conservatism on social issues, of which asylum seekers is most prominent at the moment, often has religious underpinnings with Liberal MPs, as in Morrison's case of a boy brought up in the Uniting Church but who has converted to the evangelical Pentecostal church of Shirelive.

Trebucheting Morrison into the big chair would not change the party's trajectory. He would be Abbott minus the party unity that has been the hallmark of this era - though that unity is fast eroding. I will have plenty more opportunities to post that picture of Otto.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Apolitical technocrats need staplers

I note (belatedly) that the Piping Shrike has blogged about what he is calling the apolitical technocrat style of government as emblemised by the Abbott administration, which sounds a fair bit like my concept of the statification of federal politics. In both formulations, the party abandons leadership and vision in favour of actuarial competency - or at least the appearance of the latter.

Not that the two ideas are interchangeable. Actually, I think he's got this one wrong in the emphasis he chooses. His characterisation of Abbott's rabble as a "smooth" technocratic machine, even if only in design, is not supported by the apparent facts. Technocrats needs public servants, after all, and Abbott has spent years terrorising them. Who in the Liberal Party actually is a technocrat... Peta Credlin? She's a head kicker, not a spreadsheet specialist. The Shrike also mentions technocracy as concentration on providing services, which doesn't quite fit with a federal system in which most services are delivered by states, with the feds merely disgorging TPS reports by the Canberra-sized buildingful. As for "apolitical"... that dog won't hunt. This government is inherently political.

The Shrike is positive about technocracy, which is why he was a Rudd supporter as Rudd was the ultimate wonk whose destiny was supposed to be remaking Labor to follow the Third/New Way, like Tony Blair in Britain last decade. That didn't work out, for Rudd or the Piping One. Undaunted, the Shrike is trying to retrofit his pretty theory that political parties are dead, Jim, dead and the Liberal Party is the last remaining such to the uglier reality that the Coalition is actually less competent than the outgoing Labor shambles, and its cohesion is dissolving before our eyes.

I put the picture of Milton from Office Space above not because I think it represents the Shrike, but because Milton is a symbol of this new autistic version of anti-leadership, where there is no vision outside the cubicle of limited government. Whatever it's called, I don't like it and think it should be lampooned.

UPDATE: After some Twittering with the Shrike, it appears I misunderstood his intent, and we share more of a wavelength than I had thought. He was not trying to say that Abbott set out to be technocratic, or had achieved such, but that his emphasis on "good governance" was Abbott's faux version of undemocratic technocracy, which is not working so all we're left with is undemocratic incompetence. So we are in violent agreement on that one.

Stagflation: hothouse of hype inflation

Further to the stagflation scare, David Bassanese of the Fin has waved his wand of conjuration, an indiscretion for which Stephen Koukoulas has threatened excommunication from the guild of economist wizards.

Those who are predicting stagflation hope to win the same argument that Milton Friedman won against the Keynesians over the 1960-70s stagflation episode, as John Quiggin notes in passing. However, that episode coincided with a savage supply shock in the form of oil crises. The current situation is quite the opposite: the US is now a net exporter of oil due to the shale oil boom, while Australia is tipped to be the next big beneficiary of this phenomenon, if only it can rid itself of agrarian socialists who would rather farm arable land than drill under it.

As the Kouk pointed out yesterday in the middle of his sugar rush from the latest inflation figures - headline figure well within the RBA-favoured band of 2-3% but the second half of 2013 running at an annualised 4% - there is all the room in the world for the RBA to lift rates and cool down the overheated sectors of the Australian economy.

Speaking as someone who just shouldered not one but two mortgages at the same time, and having gone through a year-long process of finding, bidding for and buying a new house, I can vouch for the fact that the real estate agents on the ground have been pushing low interest rates like Rob Ford's crack dealer pushes crack to Rob Ford. Having watched it closely for more than a year, it does not surprise me at all that the housing market is growing at double digit rates. 12 months ago I was watching Elwood as a target suburb but this time last year every house went up by about quarter of a million dollars, as prices there started equalising with neighbouring St Kilda and Brighton. Similarly, this summer I looked hard at Newport which bordered Williamstown but was relatively sanely priced... until I attended an auction where the house went for $126,000 over the listed maximum, as part of a recordsetting day where much the same effect happened overnight in Newport as had occurred in Elwood.

Far from a stagflation scenario, the current situation is merely a normal overheating from a strongly performing economy, for which Glenn Stevens knows exactly the levers to pull and can pull them without fear or favour. Joe Hockey might squeal, and no doubt Bill Shorten will make some hay about interest rates being at their lowest under Labor, in the face of John Howard's famous claim to the contrary, but it's standard operating procedure for a reserve bank in current conditions. The only reason for GDP growth stagnation would be if the federal government went on an APS pogrom for ideological reasons, as Campbell Newman did recently by slashing public servant numbers in Queensland causing a near-recession in that state. Hmm, what are the chances of that...

Climate denier Mark Steyn turns law denier

Fellow Catallaxy Files exile Steve from Brisbane has had his Opinion Dominion blog linked by Yank Canuck wingnut footsoldier Mark Steyn for an article mentioning the fact that Steyn has fired his lawyers from his defamation defence against Michael Mann over comments surrounding climate change and the IPCC. Steyn supporters have flooded in to the comments to prosecute the case on his behalf, without a single invocation of the inoculatory abbreviation IANAL.
Patty Villanova said...
If you will read the motion that Mark Steyn recently submitted to the court on his own behalf, you will readily see the reason he dumped his lawyers- he is by far a more brilliant writer than anyone on his team. His understanding of the legal principles and his ability to convey the essence of the case is worthy of any legal scholar. He doesn't need the attorneys, he's doing a better job on his own.
Steyn thus joins such noted legal minds as Fort Hood gunman Nidal Malik Hasan, DC sniper John Allen Muhammad, 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, cult leader Charles Manson, serial killer Ted Bundy and Jack "Dr Death" Kevorkian in representing himself in American courts. Things didn't turn out so good for those guys. Like Moussaoui, Steyn doesn't care about procedures and process and just wants his day in court, so he's given up on preventing the case going to trial.

Steyn has a history of hating on lawyers, having once put the sword to the legal team behind a lost case of his friend Conrad Black. Like local clone Andrew Bolt in the infamous s18C case on articles published in News Corporation papers about so-called white-skinned Aboriginals, Steyn's current case has been complicated by the efforts of his employer National Review, which Steyn accuses of wasting half a million dollars of fiat currency already for no result. Unlike Bolt, if Steyn loses this case then he's going to be up a for a motzah. One wonders if his decision to ditch the silks is money related, in part. All Bolt had to put up with was a public humiliation; Mann could put Steyn out of business.

From one ranga to another: best of luck Mark, you're going to need it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Abbott?

To the astonishment only of credulous fools, Indonesia's politicians have reacted angrily to being bypassed by Australia's politicians on the asylum seeker issue by rattling sabres from across the Timor Sea. Anyone with half a brain could have predicted this development, after Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison authorised the head of the Australian military to negotiate directly with the head of the Indonesian military on a boat turn-back scheme without involving Indonesian politicians in the process.

It's as if we're China and Japan squabbling over a few godforsaken rocks. Those two giants of the Asian Century have some serious ordnance behind both their navies, however, whereas Indonesia's leaky rabble could be defeated by the starting fleet of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

This military imbalance does not mean that Australia can or should embarrass Indonesia into submission to get its way on asylum seeker policy. Indonesia's strengths are economic and diplomatic. Sending their political class into apoplexy doesn't seem very diplomatic, and will probably lead to a trade war if not an actual Konfrontasi, not to mention ruining much chance Abbott might have had of achieving anything in the rest of Asia. Just another day in Abbott's Jakarta-focused foreign policy.

The differing reactions to foreign minister Scott Morrison on both sides are instructive: the right wants him to replace Abbott as PM if not Francis as Pope, while Andrew Elder is on a campaign to sack him. He is but an instrument of conservative policy, however. Replacing him would not change anything, unless it was part of a broader capitulation and humiliation. Facts, not figureheads, are what will decide this one. I am still of the opinion that the Coalition's policy is brave but ultimately won't work. The more they try, the closer they get to the end game, which is another SIEV-X level disaster. I do not welcome it, but I think it is bound to happen.

NB: I don't see the torture story as being credible, save for one point: isn't this the same Navy that bastardises its own recruits in hazing rituals? The boaties should count themselves lucky they didn't get subjected to a broomstick lathered in vaseline.

On trolling and Catallaxy Files

Re my last post on my stoush with Sinclair Davidson over his stagflation call of 2011, Sinc has now decided to permanently ban me from the Catallaxy Files blog. His stated reasoning follows:
So yesterday I placed m0nty in auto-moderation so he couldn't continue to derail an otherwise interesting thread while I was out and about. During that time he posted this:
... where I spend a bit of time trolling the various Christianists, libertarians and other wingnut denizens. While admittedly I get away with a lot ...
making it clear that he doesn’t come here to argue and/or debate but rather simply to troll and derail threads. I can think of no good reason why someone who has no intention of making any sort of useful contribution should participate in our discussions. As such I have moved him from auto-moderation to the banned list.
No doubt like others (Bird, Homer and TonyN) he will continue to follow the threads but he will only be able to participate in discussions by writing at his own blog.
Of course Sinc has the right to ban me, the Cat is a private blog. This is not a freedom of speech issue, since I am perfectly free to post here and elsewhere. I ban people from my own site on a regular basis when they are consistently anti-social.

Where I will push back, however, is this notion he is pushing that the reasoning behind the ban is purely because he does not want trolls at the Cat, due to some noble goal of engendering useful discussion. The Cat is full of trolls! The Cat has a page about trolls! It states:
It all boils down to this: every so often you have to shoot a troll, the better to encourage the others. It’s fun!
Sinclair banned me not for some higher motivation, but purely because I had him by the short and curlies on his stupid stagflation call. I could call him names over this, but I'm more interested in the consequences of his actions on the Cat. The effect of his policy will be that the remaining trolls on his site will all be on his side, all agreeing with each other, in a boring echo chamber. I had thought the Cat was a more interesting site than that.

The last word belongs to Steve from Brisbane:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Freshwater economics gone stagnant

RMIT economics professor Sinclair Davidson runs the blog Catallaxy Files - self-styled as "Australia's leading libertarian and centre-right blog" - where I spend a bit of time trolling the various Christianists, libertarians and other wingnut denizens. While admittedly I get away with a lot, I am currently in moderation over there for taking up an old battle with him. I am not so much posting this entry to whinge, but to set it all down somewhere while I'm remembering, and for future reference once this topic inevitably resurfaces.

In 2011, Sinclair posted an article at The Drum entitled 'Stagflation' looms for Australia's economy predicting a rise in inflation to dangerous levels concurrent with a precipitous stall in growth, with an attendant Cat thread and then a follow-up thread a fortnight later (presenting a Zero Hedge graph of questionable construction).

Since that point, and contrary to Sinclair's predictions, growth in Australia has recovered to historical trend levels, while inflation has plumbed new depths - the latter so much so that there is now talk of deflation, which occasioned not just one Deflation risk thread on the Cat but a sequel as well. As is my wont, I immediately waded into Sinclair in the comments with hard economic numbers, plus a reference to Art Laffer's recent capitulation in the face of economic data which refuted his previous pronouncements on inflation. By the time the sequel thread came around the stoush was in full session, leading to the moderation. As Homer Paxton points out, it's hard to fathom why Sinclair can not admit he got it wrong, when the facts are staring at him in the face.

Denial is a distinguishing feature of many economists of the freshwater school, which is one of the many reanimations of right-wing supply side economic thought in the last century or so. Paul Krugman is the best prosecutor of the case against neoclassical economics - led by Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago -  after it failed to predict the Global Financial Crisis. Sinclair is part of an even older, less creditable sect: that of the classical economists. Classicists were embarrassed out of the profession, for the most part, by the Great Depression in the 1930s which saw the rise of Keynesianism as voters in recently enfranchised demographics realised they didn't like mass poverty and long-term unemployment. Empirical data which scientists did not expect tends to shake up scientific theory, or at least should do if said scientists are actually using the scientific method.

Despite several such fact-based setbacks to supply side economics, Catallaxy Files is the gathering point of a self-styled "Australian school" of economics, which takes its cues from the Austrian school headed by Ludwig von Mises. Chief hunter of the classicists is John Quiggin, economics professor at the University of Queensland. His characterisation of classicists as zombies in his popular book defined the battle.

Economists like Sinclair now sit in fetid, dried up billabongs, not having changed since the time of the dinosaurs, like freshwater crocodiles in a drought. The climate has changed for freshwater proponents, and they are not able to evolve to adapt to the new environment. This is why Sinclair can not accept reality. He will continue to bare his teeth and wallow in the dust, until the dry wind comes to pick his bones clean.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Great Interregnum: Hillary and the mountain of gold

Perhaps I'm alone on this one, but hear me out on a theory. We are not living in the most interesting times imaginable. Things were more exciting and vibrant in the past, and will be so again. We are currently waiting out in an interregnum, a middle ages, like the movie Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - the second film of a manufactured trilogy which didn't have enough going on to merit three separate stories.

Every such narrative trilogy begins with an origin story. From an economic point of view, the current interregnum started with governments in America under George W. Bush and Australia under Howard instituting massive tax cuts for the wealthy. This created a structural deficit in the public books, which was hidden for a time by economic bubbles: America with their housing bubble that catalysed the Global Financial Crisis, and Australia with the resources bubble mainly caused by China's historic government stimulus. America has been able to recover somewhat due to currency devaluation and temporary nationalisation of strategic firms which allowed their manufacturing and financial sectors to survive, albeit their recovery is still hamstrung by fiscal austerity imposed by Republicans in Congress. Australia was saved from any recession at all due to fiscal stimulus, but saw its currency gain value to the point where every industry except resources came under massive export pressure, which is only now easing slightly. 

The structural deficit is now exposed in both countries, as both are back to something like historical trend GDP growth, but tax revenue does not cover government expenses. As a percentage of GDP, it is revenue which is lagging on historical measures, not expenses. The right's agenda is, as always, to dismantle the welfare state, but government spending levels had been perfectly affordable before Bush and Howard had slashed taxes, and would be again now if those tax cuts were all rolled back.

Inequality has risen across many Western countries (including Australia) since the advent of Reaganomics in the 1980s. It has risen so alarmingly now that the richest 1% are becoming a factor in the weakness of economic recovery, in that their income is saved more often than that of the poor, thus representing yet another reason why demand is depressed. 

The 1% are the dragon Smaug in this scenario; the ancient evil sitting on top of the mountain of gold and guarding it with fiery jealousy, while the poor folk of the countryside suffer with mere memories of how good things used to be. They are the apotheosis of the baby boomer generation, the demographic bulge passing ever so slowly on to the other side, soaking up wealth through its bloated power sources as it has done all its life.

What is their weakness, the chink in their armour, whose discovery will allow the third part of our story to begin, so that the golden mountain can be redistributed to kickstart demand once again and this interregnum can finally be done with? If anyone knows, it is the person who is most likely to play Bard the Bowman in our tale: Hillary Clinton. She looms as the hero of the third act of this morality play, if not the entire Third Age. What better candidate to conquer a mountain than a Hillary? Her accession to the US presidency in 2016 seems assured, as the Republicans flounder about like beached whales, bro. The rest of the Democratic Party seems like supporting characters in her own personal return-of-the-queen destiny. With husband Bill running economic policy - hopefully you remember how good that was the first time around - the Hillary administration could be the climax to the lull we are currently experiencing.

Before that, though, comes a little thing called the Battle of the Five Armies, as the remaining players squabble over ownership of the monty haul. Hopefully that's not a literal analogy!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Drum and Drummer 2: Wilson & Bernardi, Menzies & Howard

During the 2013-14 silly season, the Coalition government has presented the Twitterati with two of its brethren for which to lock in the stocks and have a jolly old time pelting rotten fruit. Before Christmas it was Tim Wilson, the lilywhite knight from the Institute of Public Affairs, being appointed Australian Human Rights Commissioner. The new year has brought scrutiny on Cory Bernardi, last seen pouring oil down the slippery slope between gay marriage and bestiality, for writing a book which contained conservative views.

Unlike most of the left, I am sanguine about both of these two sagas. Wilson is a capable and seemingly decent fellow, and I wish him all the best in his new role. There is a lot of work to be done to preserve human rights in an Australia with plenty of opponents to freedom on all sides, and Wilson is a true believer in his classical liberal credo so I trust he will fulfil the role to the best of his ability. That much of his job will consist of criticising right-wing governments - as in his statement on the Queensland anti-bikie laws - only underlines the worthiness of his appointment. Who better to stand up for liberty than a libertarian? It is the job that IPA mavens should do regardless of who is in government. Making them part of the system is more likely to change them than to change society.

As for Bernardi, I suppose Christmas is a time for the religious right to shine, but it's a side show at best. I didn't hear much out of the Catholic Church this festive season, no doubt Cardinal Pell was keeping schtum for fear of the media latching onto the royal commission. Who else is there in Australian public life to prosecute the case for sectarian feudalism but Cory? No one else is seriously auditioning to be the next B.A. Santamaria or P.P. McGuiness. Bernardi himself is an acolyte of Nick "Ho Chi" Minchin, one of the faceless men who control the current Liberal Party. He is essentially harmless, notwithstanding dark murmurings about Tea Party backing.

Wilson is an example of the Menzies tradition of the Liberal Party, as outlined by current Attorney-General George Brandis in the Alfred Deakin Lecture in 2009. Menzies founded the Liberal Party primarily on freedom according to Brandis, who is himself arguably the most prominent parliamentary carrier of this particular spear. Bernardi is the current champion of the Howard tradition, and he succeeded none other than the current Prime Minister in this role. The Liberal Party is thus defined as the broad church which spans from the Menzies classical liberals like Wilson, to the Howard conservatives like Bernardi.

What these two men are doing, inadvertently, is allow Abbott as PM to have a breather while the ideologues from opposite corners of the Liberal Party fight over what it means to be in government. Is it to restart the culture wars, as Bernardi would bid and Christopher Pyne would implement? Or is it to dabble with libertarianism, end industry protectionism and finally make good on the rhetoric about small government, unlike recent Coalition performances? This battle is necessary only because Abbott has not articulated which side of the Liberal church he will align himself with. This leaves the public to conclude that he has no bloody idea what to do, and no strategy to marshal his forces like Howard used to (on this, I do agree with Andrew Elder). Different factions inside the government are waging turf wars, with no consequences for embarrassing the government in public - Abbott saw to that very early by refusing to sack those who were obviously guilty of rorting travel entitlements, as Howard did in his first months in office. The party unity that defined the Abbott opposition is fast crumbling in office.

Ah, you might say, but why do they need to fight, can't they do both conservative social policies and liberal economic policies at the same time? To some extent yes, but there are issues in which the conservative elements clash with the small-l liberals in the big-L Liberal Party. Many of these revolve around the Libs' coalition partner, and so far the National Party has had its way. The Nats wanted the Graincorp foreign takeover stopped; it stopped. The Nats wanted talk of Australia Post's privatisation nobbled; it was nobbled. The Coalition is a three-cornered contest between the pastoralists, the moralists and the individualists.

The reality, though, is that Abbott is from the Howard school and no matter how much Brandis and Wilson shout, Abbott and the other wets in Cabinet, in conjunction with the Nationals, are going to make this a solidly conservative government. Abbott's job is to create the impression that he is navigating a "sensible" centrist course between fringe figures like Wilson and Bernardi, who will be frozen out when the real business of government is transacted. They will have to enjoy their moment in the sun now.