26 October 2009

None out of three

The next election will be called at some point within the coming year. It's becoming clear that the three issues for that election will be climate change, the economy and refugees. The Liberal Party is floundering on all three. On none of the key issues of the day can the major opposition party convince anyone but its rusted-on supporters that it has a better policy than that of the government. It has no basis to win the next election.

On climate change, Labor's policies (if you can call them that) on carbon trading and the Murray River is inferior to that shepherded by Environment Minister Turnbull to the last election. Turnbull can't normally be accused of lacking confidence in himself, but he should be more assertive on those positions. Even though they were rejected by the voters, those positions represent the kind of political groundedness (I can't think of a better word either) that a five-year blow-in just doesn't have: that kind of groundedness would be an antidote to the perceptions arising from Grech. The fact that those policies came through under Howard would have been enough to fend off disquiet from within the Liberal Party, and could yet be. Oh well.

On the economy, debt is a slow-burning issue as we saw in the 1990s. It wasn't enough to turf Labor in 1990, and it wasn't enough to prevent Labor getting back in '93, but by 1996 it was a dead weight that Labor was unable to shake. The same might happen this time: by the middle of the decade government debt might be a huge issue, but it was never enough to send Labor spiralling out of contention for the coming poll. Not yet, not enough - Whitlam had to work on his economic death-wish, as long as Rudd and Swan are perceived to be doing their best then they'll be right. Even a big infrastructure spend won't cruel Labor's poll standing if it sounds reasonably responsible.

Why has Turnbull sat on all those tax reform proposals that he sprayed Costello with in 2005? Why is he allowing Ken Henry to outflank him on tax reform - and worse, sending only dickheads like Abetz and Ronaldson to question Henry?

On refugees, anyone can "call for an inquiry" - it's the mark of a political amateur, if not a pissant, to call for an inquiry without knowing where it might lead or what it might recommend. Every other official inquiry into Australia's refugee intake, including those commissioned by the Howard government, has concluded that mandatory detention is (I paraphrase) stupid, counterproductive, barbaric and absurdly costly. It is doubtful that a Turnbull-commissioned inquiry would conclude much differently, more doubtful that they'd deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Turnbull can't convincingly turn back the clock to hardline Howard-era policies. Nor can he come out and say that refugees have the very sort of tenacity, initiative and guts that we want in this country, and that the boat/plane dichotomy is nebulous. The latter has the potential to snooker Rudd; he looked shaky on this question but the Liberals are in the business of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at the moment.

The Liberals can't create a clear difference from Labor on any of the big issues, and it's hard to see where any distinction might come from on the smaller issues - the Liberals have no Kate Lundy or Lindsay Tanner daring to grapple with big issues poorly understood. You might expect Greg Hunt to chart a different course, but he seems to be following the Peter Garrett route into docile oblivion.

Malcolm Turnbull has misled Liberal supporters with his claim that he could put them into, or within striking distance of, government at the first election after the 2007 loss. A barely competent government can only get less so in its second term, especially if rewarded with the big majority that appears likely: an incompetent opposition could stumble around indefinitely.

Even on telecommunications, a second-order issue handled supposedly by the Liberals' best policy-political brain - the party's position is a mess. A ragged defence of an indefensible status quo, championing the environment that was used as a picnic for American carpet-baggers and saying nothing about what telecommunications could be for this country - this is the worst strategic ineptitude since the rise of SA's Olsen Government. Minchin hasn't laid a glove on a vulnerable minister, and don't get me started on Abbott.

Liberals should not have accepted being put in a position where they could not put forward coherent and credible positions on the major issues of the day. They have not done the hard work in articulating what such positions might be, and how best to outwit a government that can be rattled if only it had an opposition worth the name. The quietism that led to victory remains in defeat. Because they haven't done this work, and because they've accepted less than the best (i.e. they've been conditioned by Howard to cop whatever they're bloody well given, and smile for the cameras), Liberals have nobody to blame but themselves.


  1. Greensborough Growler26/10/09 7:29 pm


    Another fine post and your passion and frustrations are palpable.

    Does anyone take any notice of you on the Liberal side?

  2. Rough justice from you again, Andrew.

    Another good piece. But surely the times will once again come to suit the Libs on the economy. That cannot be said for climate change, where they're on the wrong side of history.

    Do you see climate change as a long term structural problem for the right? I am yet to see an effective solution anywhere in the world that suits the politics of the right.

    It seems to be that the party will need to be remade more in the mold of a Turnbull for the party to have anything valid to say on climate change. And that would require a purge of the old.


  3. derrida derider27/10/09 12:21 pm

    First term oppositions after a long period in government are always a complete mess. In focusing on them you are grossly underestimating the political savvy of Rudd. He's proving as formidable a tactician as Howard.

    I'm not going to argue about the policy effectiveness on the issues you've listed above (I completely disagree with you on climate change and on our debt level, f'rinstance), but I would point out that Rudd has played the wedge on climate change just beautifully.

    Once Rudd started doing hardball politics with that issue, rather than helping to save the bloody planet as he should, the coalition was always gonna be dead meat.

  4. Hey good post esp re liberal policy. I've started reading this blog recently - please keep posting!

  5. Growler,

    If you ask them: no, none, Andrew who? I can point to no action by any Liberal that was prompted by any blogpost of mine.

    Some of the sadder members among them will, however, make small talk with one another by discussing this blog: how awful it is, what an appalling person I am etc. Then again, these are people who read Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne without flinching, or laughing.

    You've got to have a hobby, and I'm glad that I was never any one of the different flavours of Marxist; not even when drunk, not even as a joke, not even to impress a girl.

  6. Kymbos,

    Nothing will save Labour in the UK, and conservatives aren't looking too bad elsewhere in Europe or New Zealand. There, they'll look on it as a risk management exercise, with a tax grab here and some handouts there (esp. nuclear power companies).

    Elsewhere, including Australia, I think the right are facing the sort of challenge from climate change that the left faced from communism in the third quarter of the last century: they have to accommodate it, but it will be difficult. You show me a Liberal who clings to CC denialism and I'll show you a Labor figure from the '50s who couldn't bear to shop a commo to the tories, and we'll see more similarities than differences.

    You might be surprised how quickly things can change. Five years from now, Wilson Tuckey and Dennis Jensen will be gone, David Cameron will probably be UK PM and people like Greg Hunt, Joe Hockey and others will have taken the Liberal Party to a different place than it is in today. It will be no more possible to tag these guys with CC denialism than it was to red-bait Whitlam or Hawke (or LBJ or Wilson, etc.).

  7. DD,

    1. Perhaps I'm guilty of taking Rudd as given.

    2. I'm frustrated that there is no coverage of this government that doesn't come from a press release or some other official channel. If he's such a master tactician he can bloody well come up with some sensible policy, or dare to do something unpopular.

    3. I freely confess to being unable to do much of my own analysis on climate change data, taking on trust the seemingly overwhelming scientific evidence in favour of it. I have always thought that sending pollution up the spout was a travesty and support measures that improve efficiency and reduce emissions, and if climate change is a spur for this then let's hear it for climate change. I have no patience with the soft drizzle of denialism that seeks to extinguish any action against the status quo, or that can't distinguish a fad from a seismic shift.

    4. On debt, I raise you: I'm sure it's causing all sorts of distortions in the economy that are yet to manifest themselves, but that's the point. No case can yet be made that the economy would be better off if we had a government that radically reduced debt to the exclusion of other programs such as infrastructure (I live in Sydney, please don't rhapsodise about PPPs).

    No case can yet be made that the economy would be better off if you and I and enough voters to return a majority in the House vote Liberal, then we will get a government that hacks into debt while also (consequently?) leading the country back to prosperity.

  8. An anonymous poster said:

    I think in general there's too much focus on personal performance of ministers etc - ie 'this ones got talent' 'this one doesnt' etc etc.

    Really what matters are the policies, not the personal style of the minister. The press gallery feed this attitude with their focus on personalities and trivia. ""

    True enough, but here at the Politically Homeless Institute we focus on performance, not talent. I'm old enough to remember when duds like Jenny Macklin and Stephen Conroy would have been sacked.