26 July 2009

Not bouncing, crumbling

One of the animating fantasies of the Liberal Party over the last twenty years is the one-term dream. This is the idea that a defeat at the hands of Labor will be reversed and, after a single term in opposition, the Liberals (and if necessary, the Nationals can come along for the ride) will bounce back after a term in Opposition and pick up where they left off.

I saw this in NSW in 1995: had 1500 voters in certain seats voted Liberal rather than Labor, John Fahey would have been returned as Premier and Labor would probably have turned away from Carr as leader. This focus on the technical narrowness of the loss gave rise to the ghoulish Bathurst strategy, where the Liberals waited for a sick old man from the ALP to die in order to force a byelection they thought they'd win. It also prompted a vicious round of finger-pointing. As a result both of overestimating their own importance, and underestimating Carr, the Liberals lost and lost again, and got so into the losing habit that a shop-window mannequin beat them in 2007.

That same arrogance has replicated itself around the nation. If you look at Labor in the 1950s and '60s, they had the same problem; their opponents weren't much chop and normal service will be resumed as soon as we complete the current round of bloodletting.

The Federal Coalition has suffered a severe case of this since 2007, and the idea that Peter Costello was anything other than a relic on his way out was proof of this. The ETS debate within the Federal Coalition shows, however, that whatever pretence remained of this phenomenon has gone. The Coalition won't bounce back into office in 2010. They aren't serious about the hard work it takes to get back into office because it would be fed by the butchery of sacred cows.

The current leader of the Liberal Party was elected because of, or perhaps despite, his leadership on environmental issues. Peter Garrett has tried to mince away from his environmental policies and it has left him with nothing: Turnbull should take heed of that and let his damn-the-torpedoes style do some real good. There are no cashed-up foreign conglomerates eager to take over this country's ageing coal-fired power stations and I wish Turnbull would point this out more than he has.

In the event of a federal election, Turnbull would have to go around the country claiming, with a straight face, that Tuckey and all the other protected species of dead wood are better candidates for public office than anyone Labor might put up. If blanket opposition to carbon change initiatives was such good politics, then now is the time to reap the fruits of that position: the favourable polls, the big donations, the endorsements. Surely someone somewhere has noticed the howling void at the heart of the do-nothing position on carbon, the sheer absence of any coherent popular movement against do-gooder greenies, and how muddying the waters on climate does not lead automatically to quietism on this issue: how people look for leadership on this issue with a reproachful stare, and will not look away.

Turnbull should also take comfort from the fact that his opponents within the Liberal Party are not vigorous young Turks, but rebarbative old dingoes like Wilson Tuckey. However, successful political parties also have a cadre of officials - where are the head office honchos raising funds and threatening backbenchers? Most Liberal cadres are not sharks like Graham Morris or tacticians like Andrew Robb, they are gormless John Hyde Page types who do what they're told even after the sensible advice has run out, and who look absurd when they get up on their hind legs. Nobody is telling Wilson Tuckey to pull his head in because nobody has the standing to call Mr Tuckey by his given name, much less push it in if he refuses.

Labor has one the work on the economy: the debt thing will not hit before next year, but it may be an issue in 2013 or '16. Labor still don't "own" the economy as an issue: Swan is still unconvincing as a frontline politician and all you have to do is not ignore Ken Henry. Not all of Labor's marginal seat MPs are gum-chewing sluggards like Amanda Rishworth or harpies like Belinda Neal. It also has what every government needs to survive: a group of ministers who like being in government and are good at it. Tanner, Albanese, Gillard, Plibersek and Faulkner are getting on with it: by contrast, the saturnine Eric Abetz impresses nobody by his seizure of the wrong end of the stick; Minchin's shrill insistence that the Liberals shackle themselves to pointless positions should have discredited him in 2007, and should see him lynched today; Abbott is bored with his job and his only ideas come from the Middle Ages; and Julie Bishop just looks vacuous when bumped off a narrow brief. Only Joe Hockey has the hunger necessary to help the Liberals back into office (Pyne fans say he does too, but what would he wear?).

The Coalition's one-term strategy is dead. What has to replace it is the long haul of deciding what the issues will be in 2013 or '16, and tailoring policies and personnel to suit. This is hard graft and only the strong and the lucky will survive. The next Liberal government will pursue power generation from sources other than coal, and will impose real penalties on polluters - but it is not overly endowed with any group of thinkers who can take it there (like Labor, the Libs have outsourced their sources of new ideas to lobbyists).

It is amazing that there is no tax policy to speak of from the Liberals. Where are the Liberals on books, the second Sydney Airport, even the Northern Territory intervention? This is not an outfit that is bouncing back, this is an outfit that is crumbling with a weak pulse. The Nationals can be left to die but the Libs cannot: the chucking-out of dead wood has to start now, and when better than when the dead wood identifies itself by dumping on the leader?


  1. I'd like to a bidding war on governance (not just mudslinging), an issue that will get airplay in the upcoming Victorian election, where hopefully Joh (sic) Brumby's mob gets ditched: and I'd class myself a socialist.
    But transparent policy development and integrity are more important than claims of one right-wing party's now hollow claims to the loyalty of and to the left.
    And at least Turnbull's arrogance is more honest than Rudd's.
    If only I could get a Cabinet with only the likes of Tanner, McClelland, Moylan and Georgiou - and former Sen Bartlett (teetotalled).
    And your Pyne comment: delicious!

  2. Transparent governance didn't win Greiner any votes, until he abandoned it and started haemmorrhaging support.

    As to the Pyne comment, that will teach me to post while listening to The Smiths.

    Why the big rap on McClelland, Dave? He seems like a placeholder to me.

  3. Excellent post Andrew - spot on. As an ALP man, I hope no one of any note in the Liberal Party is reading.