It's a cold and bleak dawn on Saturday 21 July, 2007. From where I sit high on a hill in North Sydney, everything appears as varying shades of gun metal grey this morning. Good morning and welcome to the Liberal's winter of discontent. My high rise abode is perched in downtown North Sydney, the home of the Minister for Industrial Relations, Joe Hockey. I face southeast and have 270 degree views. I look directly down to Kiribilli where John Howard lives. To the immediate west of here is his electorate of Bennelong. Just next door to the east is Tony Abbott's electorate of Warringah. Immediately to the north is Brendan Nelson's electorate of Bradfield. West of that is Ruddockland, far, far from Villawood. Just over the harbour I can see right into Malcolm Turnbull's home turf of Wentworth. I can see North Head from here and of course a bit north of there is where Mackellar starts, eternal hang-out of Bronwyn Bishop.
Everywhere I look I see electorates that represent the epitome of LIberal power in this country. It's extraordinary to think that a country can have 21 million people spread over 7 million square kilometres and yet I am within no more than ten minutes drive of most of the key players in Australia's federal government. I barely have to turn my head or get off my couch to see all these key electorates with my own eyes.
On a fine day, the view is sparkling, colourful and uplifting. On this day though, the fog, the mist and the clouds rob any chance of clarity. It has been like this all winter. From time to time gale force wind gusts blow over my outdoor furniture and shake the barbie as if it were some bizarre space craft about to launch itself into oblivion. In the Liberal's winter of discontent there is a similar lack of clarity. Cold and unexpected wind gusts are also buffeting the Liberal Party. Is the Liberal Party's shuddering and shaking a prelude to a blast off to oblivion?
This week we're doing a reprise performance of the Liberal Party's internal history wars. It's an election year and we're doing that again. Peter Costello doesn't think much of John Howard record as Treasurer under Howard. Who does? I've never heard about that era spoken of in positive terms. No matter, we're going to do the whole thing again courtesy of Peter Costello's revelations in a book about to be published.
It is reported that Costello has never been invited to the Lodge for dinner and muses on whether or not it's a "Sydney thing". That's an interesting comment. From where I sit right now, Australia looks very much like Sydney or the bush. If you're not here, you're not where it's happening - you're in the bush. It is easy to forget interstate rivalries when you barely realise the other states exist. Costello referring to a "Sydney thing" is a reminder that the view of the country depends on where you sit.
The concentration of Liberal power in Sydney has long been the glittering jewel of the government. Could it be developing into an achilles heel? Kevin Rudd says he's from Queensland and he's here to help. No doubt Rudd's status as a Queenslander will help Labor in a state where so many Coalition held marginal electorates are up for grabs. The top level Labor line-up is more geographically diverse.
Costello's remarks about Sydney remind us that Liberal power in history though has been more bi-polar. It was once a Sydney and Melbourne thing. Way back it was more Melbourne. Then it became more Sydney. It's the progression from a Menzies era to a Howard one. To make it exciting, Queensland, invariably the maverick, has always tossed in hand grenades. Think Joh, think Hanson, think lots of things. The Queensland grenades send all and sundry scurrying. The Queensland grenades toss the schizo factor into bi-polar and make us all giddy.
Whether it be the Queensland grenades or the bi-polar Sydney-Melbourne problem these issues end up in disunity and cost votes. John Howard and Andrew Peacock fought out the bi-polar Sydney - Melbourne thing in the 1980s and kept the Liberals out of power. When Howard said that for him to return to the leadership would be like Lazarus with a triple bypass, he meant it. He knew that together with Peacock the bitter rivalry and poison they created had been the greatest gift they ever could have bestowed on Labor. They Sydney-Melbourne rivalry in the Liberal Party was so immensely damaging.
So in this Liberal winter of discontent, when Costello refers to a "Sydney thing" we are reminded of the historical context. We are also reminded how damaging the "Sydney thing" can be. This is an arrogant and in your face city. It annoys people from other states. Howard was recently shown on the front page of the Daily Telegraph walking through the wintry Habourside gloom. The headline was Sydney walks away from Howard.
That is the other Sydney thing. The real jewell in the Liberal crown in the Howard era has not been here on the North Shore. It has been out in Western Sydney. Part of Howard's success around Australia has been that he does not match the cheap caricatures other Australian's place on Sydneysiders. If he really was the epitome of the North Shore he would not have attracted people around Australia or in Western Sydney.
This winter, Western Sydney seats are up for grabs. Bennelong is up for grabs. Wentworth is up for grabs. The Sydney thing and the Queensland grenade. We don't know what the Queensland grenade is yet but it's coming.
I don't remember when Melbourne was last considered central at a Federal election. It doesn't have enough marginal seats. Sydney things and Queensland things matter. Melbourne only seems to matter when it causes internal problems for the Liberal Party.
Tony Abbott said on Lateline that "shit happens". Indeed it does. The shit is usually thrown from the south.
With shit being tossed from the south and a grenade about to be tossed from the north, it's no wonder Howard is looking an embattled leader. I'm just wondering how much more shit there will be and what form the Queensland grenade will take. Maybe the Queensland grenade will simply be the size of the swing in the Sunshine State. I'm not sure though. I expect something else as well.
If all Liberals could be like my local member, Joe Hockey, none of this would be happening! That said, I think Joe is a Costello supporter. Then again, so am I. Only problem is that for Costello to become PM, Howard needs to be re-elected. It seemed obvious a year ago that it would be best to keep Howard in place. Now it doesn't. It's too late now of course to change anything. The course is set and if the Liberal Party is to go down, it will go down with Howard at the wheel. No doubt this will please the Howard haters as I am sure they could think of no better person to sink the whole thing.
I was about to say the sun is coming out but now I think it is clouding over again. Whatever spring brings, it surely has to be better than this.