Two choices for the Liberals in Opposition
The Liberals have two choices, neither of which depend on Rudd or the vagaries of fate. They can stay focused on holding Rudd to his promises, while at the same time working out what theirs should be. Or, they can pretend that all they need to do is fine-tune the message a bit and they're fine. The latter is the most likely, but the great thing about pessimism is that surprises are usually pleasant.
1. Who hesitates is lost
Like Rudd, the Liberals should get to work as soon as possible if they want to get back into government.
That means the first twelve months will consist of clearing out dead wood:
- Bill Heffernan (NSW Libs will have to choose a replacement), crazy old man, law unto himself. Now that Howard's gone there'll be nobody to make excuses for you. Piss off back to your farm.
- Nick Minchin (SA Libs will have to choose a replacement), you've led the Liberal Party here and you can't lead it out, only deeper. Your tactical stupidity is on show in SA state politics and the country has suffered enough.
- Phillip Ruddock (byelection in Berowra NSW): you've done as much as you're ever going to do.
- David Hawker (byelection in Wannon Vic): you didn't contribute anything the last time the Liberals were on office, you've had your go as Speaker and now have your pension. Goodbye.
- Bronwyn Bishop (byelection Mackellar NSW): you've also done as much as you're ever going to do, but you haven't done much.
- Tony Abbott (byelection Warringah NSW): you'll only cause trouble. Any ditching of the sort of policies that saw the second-longest-serving Prime Minister to lose his seat will be over your dead body, so stop acting as a brake to reform and just go. Getting rid of you will also diminish David Clarke.
- Alex Somlyay (byelection Fairfax Q): who? Why? Make way for Mal Brough.
- Andrew Southcott (byelection Boothby SA): get rid of yourself or the voters will. You only get one Nicole Cornes, and the SA Libs should force you out if you won't go.
- Peter Slipper (byelection Fisher Q): you've done nothing, and there's plenty more in your future. The question is, does the Liberal Party in Queensland have as much future as you do?
- Alexander Downer (byelection Mayo SA): absurd and flatulent response the morning after, you'll only be an obstacle to change and change is what's needed.
- Wilson Tuckey (byelection O'Connor WA): as much of a joke as Heffernan.
Accidents waiting to happen: Michael Johnson, Alex Hawke.
By this point, Rudd will have stuffed up enough such that people will start listening to the Liberals again. They'll show that they have learned their lessons and are starting to think about solutions so as to chart a course different to and more appealling than Rudd's.
The rapid clean-out, fast recovery and discipline are characteristics of Australia's most successful opposition, that of the Whitlam Government. Whitlam's natural tendency was to hubris and the Liberal-Country opposition kept him on his toes. Whitlam's ministers (who were mostly old duffers like Frank Crean) knew that they had to lift their game. Three years after losing office, they won the biggest margin in Australia's history. Those who remember that time have gone, or (like Phillip Ruddock) have forgotten, so study up and apply what's relevant.
The Liberals should elect Turnbull bnecause he's most likely to do this. He may drive the party into a ditch but at least he'll do so at full clip and they won't feel a thing.
2. Where fools fear to tread
Alexander Downer's star turn on Insiders tries making the case for minimal change:
Ah, look, what’s the point of going back over the last 12 months, we can't relive that. It's all over. We just, I think for the Liberal Party, it won't be doing itself much of a favour by a constant retrospective.
The one election we will never fight again is the 2007 election. So we didn't win the election, so that's fair enough. We'll leave commentators to trawl over the entrails of the 2007 election, but I think the main thing for the Liberal Party so to look to the future, to try to win the 2010 election.
And the first thing the Liberal Party should do in order to win the 2010 election is get behind Peter Costello as the new leader of the Liberal Party, because I think he will be a very formidable Leader of the Opposition and I think he will very much get Kevin Rudd's measure. So I think that is the important thing for the Liberal Party to do, not think about whether we should have said this or we should've said that.
Even if you take out the bit about Costello, what you have there is a recipe for disaster. Two years of faffing, followed by glib attempts to bat away any criticism of John Howard and reassert the same basic message that got you belted the last time.
In Parliament, Labor have the measure of Tony Abbott. He'll try his tough-guy act on Liberals who know that they have to drop and distance themselves from some aspects of Howard, demonstrating that he's not part of the solution but the problem.
This is a recipe for atrophy and bloody-mindedness out of sheer boredom, which means that the Rudd Government will face no significant opposition. This faffing and denial has led the state oppositions to where they are today.