The Howard government now looks like it created a golden age of prosperity which is lost ... Our task, to which we are wholly and solely dedicated, is to recreate those great days for our country and we will.Zombies have made a resurgence in popular culture, and economists such as John Quiggin and Jessica Irvine have titled their books to catch the prevailing pop-culture winds. Also interesting are the political zombies that stagger through Australian politics; the Coalition seem more beset with them than Labor.
- Tony Abbott, address to the South Australian Division of the Liberal Party, 18 August 2012
Liberals believe that John Howard had found the political El Dorado of a political constituency that represents a majority of Australian voters in a majority of electorates that is sustainable over time. The last two elections seem to put the lie to that, but they can be explained away by a) Liberal exhaustion and b) the comforting notion that Rudd was like a rejuvenated Howard (2007), or lies (2010). Nobody blames Abbott's missteps in both campaigns for them being out of office now. I think this interpretation of history is bullshit and that they are kidding themselves, but to be a Liberal is to believe this; or at the very least, to maintain the facade. A loss in 2013 (made all the more bitter by the evaporation of all those if-an-election-was-held-today wallopings, like holding a heap of scrip in a stock that has soared and crashed) would shatter the myth of that the Howard Restoration was possible or even desirable.
Abbott has been all about the restoration of the Howard government as fully as possible. This has required the Liberals to crack down hard on any dissent.
Firstly, this is what Howard did; the habit is so ingrained they could not imagine doing politics any other way. Howard paid lip-service to the idea that Liberals were free to speak their minds, but MPs who did so were ostracised (e.g. Petro Georgiou). It was John Howard who preached "disunity is death", practicing it as fervently as any lifelong rank-and-file trade unionist.
Secondly, it was the price that Liberals paid for not having to rethink what it means to govern Australia from first principles. The Liberals spent more than a decade doing that, squabbling among themselves until the intellectual direction of the party was taken away from the parliamentarians; initially within the organisational ranks, where enforcers like Michael Kroger and Nick Minchin removed Liberal preselection from troublesome free-thinkers. This was then outsourced to wide-boys like Grahame Morris and Mark Textor, who bluffed many into thinking they were better at the thinking-and-perspective business than MPs, whose role was reduced to relaying pre-packaged and simplistic messages, bums-on-seats and fundraising.
The reward for all this self-censorship (and putting up with unelected drill-sergeants like Peta Credlin) is political success. Clearly, the mirage of polling will satisfy many but actual electoral victory trumps all and soothes all. No leader can maintain strict discipline in the face of declining polling, and as polls plunge the leader will demand line-toeing and loyalty all the more, and get it all the less.
John Howard knew this. He went through low polls and high ones, not despairing at the depths nor getting carried away at the heights. He isn't a candidate for the 2013 election, but for many Liberals a non-Howard election is unthinkable. What he wants is vindication, and the Liberal Party wants badly to give it to him. However, it is starting to bristle at the price to be paid for handing its strategic direction over to history.
What John Howard wants from the 2013 election is vindication. If he had gone to the election without having introduced Workchoices, would he have won? Would he have beaten Rudd in 2007 and then outflanked an inexperienced Gillard in 2010, beating Menzies' record and chewing through a generation of Labor leaders? We will never know, but an old man may be forgiven his dreams.
Howard worked hard to overcome both his race-based conception of Australian identity and Queensland-based rural protectionism. Like Peter Costello he was not going to see his legacy trashed by a bunch of yokels dragging the Coalition up a known dead end. If you're going to return to The John Howard Way, then nobody should be surprised that John Howard will tolerate no deviation from it. You cannot have Falstaff and have him thin.
Abbott has no choice but to accept Howard's admonitions and amend Coalition policy accordingly. It is unsustainable for him to claim that there is no going back, that Howard was two PMs and three Liberal leaders ago; Malcolm Turnbull might have swept Howard aside like that, so might Hockey have, but never Abbott. For Abbott to repudiate Howard, however gently, would be a breach of public perceptions about him as great as Rudd squibbing "the greatest moral challenge of our time".
By cleaving to the certainties of the past, Abbott avoids the thorny questions of the future. The absence of such questions makes for the kind of calm assuredness that conservatives, and journalists, crave. By departing from those certainties you open up a whole lot of questions that have no clear, vote-winning answers. You also accept that some of the measures that Rudd and Gillard put in place are irreversible, anathema to people who still can't accept they were ever in government at all (and that they are there at their expense).
If you're going to depart from The John Howard Way on Chinese investment and workplace relations, where does it end? Abbott has saved the Liberals considerable heartache by mandating that any disputes are to be settled in favour of whatever the Howard government did. He has, however, made a rod for his own back; one he had borne proudly until recently.
Tony Abbott was the most moderate of Howard's four Workplace Relations Ministers. I actually believe him when he says he wants to make minimal changes to the relevant legislation. I do not believe, however, that he is strong enough to beat off Abetz and the other gimlet-eyed fanatics who believe that Workchoices didn't go far enough in nailing the unions.
As someone who has worked on contract for the better part of 20 years you can imagine my surprise at Peter Reith's assertion that there is no legal framework for individual employment contracts. Abbott might be fooling the more gullible members of the press gallery about the purity of his heart on this issue, but nobody with an appreciation for red-in-tooth-and-claw power will give his mewlings the time of day. All Abbott's talk about forming a committee or whatever is just buying time; he hasn't given workplace relations any in-depth thought at all and resents being pressed on any matter that isn't his Issue Of The Day.
Howard is not the only political zombie reaching out to Abbott, in order to hold him back rather than help his quest for government. Peter Reith and Amanda Vanstone have each stuck their oar in; each has their beef with Abbott. Abbott promised Reith his support for Federal Presidency of the Liberal Party (a role that would enable him to hobnob once more with the big end of town, which is not available to underemployed consultants) and then went back on him. Abbott was junior minister to Vanstone early in the Howard government; he went over her head to Howard and she was dumped from Cabinet. They don't want to tear Abbott down (or be seen doing so) but they want him to feel the heat that the media have spared him.
What do Reith and Vanstone want? Vindication is part of it. Like all ex-pollies they assumed there would be this raft of board positions and other honoraria following their years in politics, and like all but a handful this hasn't happened for them. They keep seeking publicity even though they have run out of things to say. Part of their problem is a failure of the model of younger, machine-made politicians, who end up in middle age becalmed and not much use to anyone: look upon these people, Josh Frydenberg and Tony Smith and Laura Smyth and Jason Clare and Sarah Hanson-Young, and see your future.
Nick Minchin rises from is crypt whenever the far right are feeling rattled. Since 2007 there has never bee a time when Minchin and Abbott disagreed on something, and Abbott prevailed. Minchin just wants to be the Australian Cheney, freed from accountability while making the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party accountable to him.
Grahame Morris (the only one named here not to stumble through life with the prefix "The Honourable ...") was one of the wise heads in Howard's office who tempered the enthusiasms of people like Abbott, now he's a strategist. After calling for the Prime Minister to be kicked to death, and confusing a capable interviewer with a cow, there is serious doubt over the value of this man's strategic advice: you can read equal or better on Twitter, or on the walls of public toilets, for free. He is like Barry Humphries' Les Patterson, and shows that such a character could never be elected today. A man his age should have the feet up, but Morris has teenage children to put through school and no other talents to draw upon. One can understand how flattered he feels when media producers seek his time.
The mistake that Malcolm Turnbull made as leader was to assume that the 2007 election result really was a repudiation of Howard, and to start the process of rethinking what it meant to govern Australia in order to it (us?) to embrace the challenges of the future. At first the Liberals wen along with this, hoping a Turnbull victory would vindicate and ameliorate all and give a corner of public policy that they could shape in their own way. When Turnbull could not credibly promise victory in 2010, they bristled at the repudiation and replaced the man who was Howard in all but name.
Today, Turnbull is not crafting the big visions but stuck selling a zombie policy, crafted in the 1990s with technology that has since been superceded; as though it might be good enough for an ambitious people, as though the NBN was not a superior solution.
Chris Pyne's response to Gonski on schools funding is more zombie policy. It reads like one of his On Dit screeds from the late 1980s, or the stale farts of a shock-jock (even Alan Jones avoids this topic these days, as it only brings up his own teaching career and turns listeners away). It does not even address actual issues like the imminent mass retirements of teachers or the needs to embrace technology, mathematics, personal health and Asian languages within the curriculum at all, let alone show evidence of grappling with solutions.
Abbott will almost certainly survive as leader until the next election, even though his heart is increasingly not in it (Pyne and Julie Bishop have taken on the attack-dog roles in Parliament that seem to bore Abbott these days. For the government, this must be like the experience of encountering a couple of pampered yappy dogs while doorknocking). His leadership would only become untenable under either/both of these circumstances:
- His lack of popularity, as I've said before, is a prophylactic against the election of a Coalition government. Gillard's popularity only has to rise to about 40% and he's in trouble.
- He explodes, and reveals some aspect of his character that just confirms people's worst suspicions about the guy.
Labor has its old hands but they tend to stay out of the way. Hawke and Keating seem largely content both to let Gillard chart a path they would never have charted (but which builds on their legacies to some degree), and to recognise that the impending passing of Whitlam will overshadow them both for a time. Kristina Keneally is doing her time in community service and Anna Bligh is spending time with her family, and even "Media Mike" Rann is keeping his head down. Peter Walsh and Bill Hayden have retreated to vast acres. Richo is the exception that proves the rule.
It is Coalition figures, with political standing but no political future, who won't return to give Abbott such old-time magic as they have and nor will they shut up and leave him to get on with it. Abbott doesn't have a program and he doesn't have the substance or the temperament to develop one; but the zombies don't have sufficient substance to fill the void, either. Abbott has assumed that everyone enjoyed the Howard government as much as he did, without realising that you can enjoy a memory while also accepting that it's over.
The honourable zombies show that using the Howard government as your platform is not the bed of roses it might have appeared to Abbott and his supporters, and that there isn't really an alternative as far as dealing with our country's future is concerned. The next election is about the following three years, not the last ten, and people will vote accordingly.