01 February 2009

The centre ground

The centre ground is where you win elections in this country. Always has been, always will be.
  • In 2007, John Howard and his supporters sneered at Kevin Rudd's "me-tooism" in the lead-up to the election. Even now, some of the sillier conservatives take comfort from this (see Tom Switzer below) - it's like grieving over a recently-ended of a relationship, but at least you're ex's new flame resembles you in some way.

  • In 1995-96, Paul Keating sneered at Howard for his me-tooism on Keating government economic policies. Howard explicitly offered olive-branches to moderate liberals. Keating's main beef with Howard was that he was being insincere, and he's since been proven right; however, Howard was very sincere in wanting to be Prime Minister, and knew that he had to track to the centre in order to get there. Howard criticised Fraser's performance in one or two areas but not the general thrust of government per se. Labor people who claimed Howard was not some middle-of-the-road politician but a dangerous radical just looked silly.

  • In 1983, Bob Hawke was busy playing down his differences with the Fraser government - he certainly wasn't promising to privatise and deregulate, much less to send union membership down the gurgler or to take Australia from one recession to another - Hawke was very sincere in wanting to become Prime Minister, and as such he was very sincere in capturing the centre ground, criticising Fraser's performance in one or two areas but not the general thrust of government per se. Coalition people who claimed Hawke was not some middle-of-the-road politician but a dangerous radical just looked silly.

  • Even in 1972, Gough Whitlam was promising to be a middle-of-the-road politician, and Coalition claims that he wasn't one sounded shrill and querulous. Three years later, Whitlam would have stolen a march on the Coalition had he pointed out that Fraser would retain non-fault divorce, land rights legislation, and even the 1975-76 Budget - Fraser's main complaint against Whitlam was that he wasn't the MOTR politician he'd made out three years earlier, and it seemed to work.

The next Liberal Prime Minister will cleave to the middle of the road, picking a few points of difference with the Rudd(/Gillard?/Shorten?) government but otherwise playing down any differences, while the incumbents go apoplectic about "me-tooism". That's how you can tell the difference between a genuine threat to the incumbent as opposed to Federal Highway roadkill.

This is why Norman Abjorensen is kidding himself. The Liberal Party might develop a secure position for insecure people by staying conservative, but it will never win government until it cleaves to the centre.
A century after Deakin’s social liberals meekly succumbed to Reid’s conservatives to combat a rising Labor Party, the social liberal dream continues to flicker sporadically among modern day Liberal supporters.

Abjorensen then goes onto define Deakinite liberalism as being concerned with tariffs and high taxation. Talk about a straw man - I knew a good many people accused of being small-l liberal Liberals personally, and none of them were calling for Gladstonian economic policies like that.
Turnbull might well try to soften the party’s more hardline policies (in the face of staunch opposition from staunch conservatives such as Abbott and Minchin), but any hopes that this heralds the start of a Deakinite revival are entirely misplaced.

If Abbott and Minchin were as staunchly staunch as Abjorensen would have them, Turnbull would never have become leader at all. Liberals can choose between vote-winning MOTR policies or they can choose the sort of nonsense that keep them out of office and demonstrate to voters that they just don't get it. Freedom of choice is big in the Liberal Party, and I'll not claim that they'll choose wisely. However, when they do get sick of opposition they will cleave to the middle of the road, regardless of whether Turnbull, Abbott or Minchin hang around.

Abbott and Minchin got their power from being Prime Ministerial henchmen. With Howard gone, and the threats and inducements of office with him, Nick'n'Tony can only be judged on their performance. Minchin is unimpressive against the one-dimensional Conroy and Abbott is a flake.
Sure, there are the disgruntled social liberals still in or close to the Liberal Party, the former Democrats without a home and fragments of an uncommitted middle class. But this is a small and probably shrinking constituency, as the Australian Democrats discovered to their peril.

I'd suggest that the Democrats abandoned small-l liberalism, in favour of the hill of beans Meg Lees got for the GST and the sudden lurch to the plastic-shoes-and-mungbeans left that followed - and that this explains the Democrats' peril. As to the remainder, it is examined more thoroughly by Possum:
I often bang on incessantly about the dubious sustainability of the twin support bases of the Coalition – the social conservative, big government demographic on the one hand and the socially progressive, smallish government demographic on the other. While neither of these two groups are particularly large in the broader electoral scheme of things, they not only make up the financial and membership base of the Coalition, but the two groups have more to disagree about on politics than they have in common.

Only when they go into opposition, Possum. In government these demographics work together to cover a fair swathe of the community. In opposition they are estranged and, in latter years, bent on mutual destruction through the creation of a landscape so unappealling (if not barren) that it is populated only by belligerent freaks.
Over the last few elections, whenever Howard ramped up the culture war rhetoric for his regional and outer suburban constituency – a bit of race and refo baiting here, a bit of poofter bashing there - his inner city base often went a bit feral. But any attempt to then appease those small L liberals and get them back on side, simply had the effect of making the social conservatives all shirty.

The trouble for the Coalition was and remains trying to balance these opposing bases when it’s really a bit of a no win game.

I'd suggest the Howard government was a four-win game for the Liberal Party as a whole. The trick was that the moderates gave the conservatives pretty much everything and got pretty much nothing in return, yet regarded themselves as winners provided you defined the term very, very narrowly.
[The safe Liberal seats selected by Possum] essentially contain a very educated, very modern industrial and employment profile hooked in to a very globalised world.

It’s hardly surprising then, that they haven’t taken kindly to culture war nonsense that not only requires nuance and complexity to be left at the door, but generally revolves around the peddling of stereotypes that aren’t compatible with the observable reality of the world they experience on a daily basis.

Couldn't agree more. It's the mark of a hack who distrusts direct experience in favour of the refracted image of pollsters. People voted against Howard because he seemed to be running a different country to the one in which the rest of us live and work (which can be said of any government that loses office, really). It will happen to Rudd Labor by and by, but this will require a Liberal Party that cleaves to the centre.

Interesting that Possum didn't include Warringah, a demographically-similar seat that continues to elect as its representative an old culture-warrior who is not particularly representative of that community; tertiary educated perhaps, but a bit more Manichean than the republic-voting burghers of Sydney's lower north shore.
The Liberals are slowly losing their inner city base - where those wealthy, socially progressive, modern, globalised citizens that for so long have been the financial and leadership foundation of the Liberal Party itself, are slowly deserting them.

Apart from "globalised", this phenomenon has been happening in Victoria for some time. The home of Menzies, Bolte and Hamer is now less inclined to vote Liberal than ever, and that party is now basically a personality cult for a leader who can't and won't lead - Peter Costello, more Bonnie Prince Charlie than Robert the Bruce.
But if the Coalition continues to play to conservative ‘values voters’ and miscellaneous bigots, as they’ve done since 1998, they will put in danger this bag of blue ribbon seats that has historically provided more financial power and leadership development for the Liberal Party than has nearly all of their outer suburban seats combined.

What do you mean, "if"? Joe Hockey is the only reason the Liberal Party holds North Sydney. The hard right are quite content withholding Mitchell and possibly Greenway and Berowra, thank you very much, and the rest of the state can vote as it pleases. The hard right are, like the neo-cons of Washington seven or so years ago, in it for the long haul. Only a good reality-based mugging can save them from electoral suicide, and nobody in the NSW Liberals today has the wit or the numbers to give it to them.
But while this inner metro demographic needs its socially progressive view of the world accommodated, the consequences of doing that are equally dire for the Coalition in the regions – not only in terms of vote trend to Labor, but also to Independents.

This is only true so long as you regard politics as a zero-sum game, forgivable in a psephologist but still a mistake. When a party, like a ship, makes its way across the stormy seas of opposition and can smell the prospects of government berths, the game changes to one of all-things-to-everyone.

Labor and Independents get votes when they have momentum and credibility. When the Liberals have these qualities, which they build through smart policy and assiduous cultivation of key interest groups, they can develop and accommodate both progressives and reactionaries. It's a difficult skill to master and you end up pissing off one or the other, but this balance - ephemeral as it is - is the very essence of electoral victory.
... what is currently happening with this demographic at the national level has already happened on a much broader scale with the Coalition in Qld at the State level - but to the point where even the outer suburbs got fed up with the political and social backwardness of the Coalition playing to their ultra conservative base.

We'll see soon enough how big that base is, and whether it is completely immune from the blandishments of Rudd, Bligh and others. We'll see if it is not suffering the intellectual exhaustion that seemingly afflicts conservatives the world over.

Until then, the best way for Liberals to govern again is to track back to the centre ground, and give the liberals something to work with other than a few tidbits from the Gorton era or Steele bloody Hall. Leave behind those who'd stick with "certainties" that are, in 2009, either uncertain or certainly invalid.


  1. " Sure, there are the disgruntled social liberals still in or close to the Liberal Party, the former Democrats without a home and fragments of an uncommitted middle class. But this is a small and probably shrinking constituency, as the Australian Democrats discovered to their peril.

    I'd suggest that the Democrats abandoned small-l liberalism, in favour of the hill of beans Meg Lees got for the GST and the sudden lurch to the plastic-shoes-and-mungbeans left that followed - and that this explains the Democrats' peril."

    Sorry - but I have to disagree. I think social progressives and small l liberals are far from a shrinking constituency - and Meg Lees never abandoned those values.

    If anything, the social liberals are a huge and massively unserved proportion of the Australian electorate. They either never joined or abandoned the Democrats because the party failed dismally to articulate what it was that they stood for - including within their party and to those who would be natural democrats supporters.

    Their demise was not caused by the shrink of their natural constituency, but rather the weak organisation and structure that allowed the party to veer sharply to the left the second they copped 2 seconds of heat for working with the then conservative government, largely because they didn't have a clear understanding within their ranks of what they actually stood for. Had the rank and file - and Stott Despoja - understood what it means to be social progressives/social liberals, and had a clear understanding of what the fundamental values of the party were - then they would have been able to stand and defend rather than destroying their own base and running for the hills.

  2. I normally don't publish anonymous responses, particularly those that begin with an insincere apology (no apology is owed for disagreeing with someone). However, I think I've been misrepresented.

    "social progressives and small l liberals are far from a shrinking constituency" - agreed. It's an indictment of Norman Abjorensen's pretensions to being a political scientst that he would make such a baseless and absurd assertion.

    "Meg Lees never abandoned those values" - was it too much to expect Lees to articulate a meaningful defence of those values? Might have helped her in not only fending off Stott Despoja but placing the Democrats at the heart of this constituency, and therefore a continuing place at the heart of Australian politics. Those of us who are politically homeless are in this position as a result of poor leadership, from Lees and from within the Liberal Party as well.

    The last paragraph of the above response alone justifies its publication.

  3. Andrew, the Liberal conservatives are troglodytes, but they are surely playing the long game.

    In both NSW and in Canberra their calculation is simply that sooner or later the goverment will be so on the nose that no swinging voters will care about the ideology of the opposition. Judging by the NSW polls, they're right.

    Of course, as you point out, the long run effects on party oganisation of alienating large slabs of your core support makes this a pretty risky approach.

  4. The idea that the troglodytes are "playing the long game" died when Karl Rove gave up on George W Bush. The reason why [insert your idea of a Bush-Cheney puppet here, e.g. Bill Frist] is not US President now is because "The Long Game" is a crock.

    The NSW Opposition has succeeded precisely because it has played down troglodytic aspects of its policies. If O'Farrell was as dumb as Springborg appears to be, he'd have caved on electricity privatisation, Iemma would still be Premier and Debnam would be stalking for another shot. The only NSW Lib MPs who do any policy work are the relatively moderate Jillian Skinner (Health) and Gladys Berejiklian (Transport) - Mick Gallacher (Police) explicitly believes that seat-of-the-pants is the only way to fly, and the rest of them are both lazy and out of their depth. O'Farrell conveys the impression that he'd actually Do Something (see above) if he became Premier, while Springborg hasn't made that transition from critic to Premier-in-waiting.