13 June 2007

After the smoke clears

What would happen to the Federal Liberal and National Parties in the twelve months or so after the defeat of the Howard-Vaile Government in 2007? Assuming they do lose of course - Howard fans and lefty pessimists can take heart, I've been wrong before. This post describes the fault lines that continued electoral success both covers and deepens.


The moderates would be first out of the bunker, but so what? You could be forgiven for assuming that there are no moderates left in the Liberal Party, but they do exist and can be divided into two groups:

  • the old and bold, those who have largely given up on career advancement and can thus speak out against the worst excesses of the Howard government: Petro Georgiou, Judi Moylan, Bruce Baird.

  • the relatively younger moderates prepared to temper their public comments for the sake of longevity and career advancement: Joe Hockey, Chris Pyne, George Brandis. You don't get anywhere by rocking the boat, but by being so determined never to make a splash you get nowhere else.

They have been long ignored and their grievances are significant. Moderates would form the core of any Costello challenge. The fact that Costello has not moved against Howard is due in part to them refusing to go over the parapet for him, and partly also because the fact that moderates as a bloc are so keen on Costello as the Antihoward makes it hard for him to also get support from those who are quite conservative and happy with the way Howard has gone. They have been extraordinarily disciplined: the current problems facing the government cannot be put down to moderate white-anting.

That said, the moderates have been so relentlessly buggered for so long that it is hard to know what they stand for when for much of the Howard years they seem largely to have stood by. Whither the stirring defences of civil liberties, the boosting of arts and education, the concern for the underprivileged - especially Aborigines and new migrants? I don't know either, that's why I left the Liberal Party. If there was any action on these fronts there has been precious little progress.

Where are the achievements of the Howard government of which moderate liberals can be proud? Phillip Ruddock gave up on being a moderate when it became clear Hewson was a loser. Amanda Vanstone gave it away on cutting unis and being turfed from Cabinet anyway. Robert Hill bent over backwards to get concessions for Australia in negotiations for the Kyoto Agreement, but when it became clear that the Yanks weren't going to sign it Howard pulled Australia out of the agreement too. Hill should have resigned, he would have been the liberal icon his friends claimed he was. Now all that's happened is that moderate liberalism is a contradiction in terms, and Hill's just another gravy-train passenger with an expired ticket.

It's back to first principles, and there are too few of them to do it. Baird is retiring. Marise Payne is in the death-seat, third on a Coalition ticket in NSW where only two - Helen Coonan and a bloke named Wacka - can win. She'll go down with the Howard government, which is ironic if you overlook the fact that she was re-elected in 2001 after Tampa, the post-September 11 security scares, and other campaign tactics of which liberals ought not be proud. Brandis and Pyne are not the type of guys to build wide popular appeal. Georgiou and Moylan are in their seventh decade, and while they mightn't be frail they are not going to put in the hard yards rebuilding the Liberal Party for government. No thinkers, nobody to quietly and patiently plug away for liberalism in the sheer face of a cocly Labor government and carry it forward into office.

All hope for the moderates depends on Joe Hockey, having to defend WorkChoices (and who will have to try the Nuremberg defence afterwards to those who'll vote for Rudd because of WorkChoices). It's too much to ask, just as it was for his contemporary John Brogden. Still, Hockey will be a standard-bearer and will be going forward, and the newly resurgent ALP will well and truly have his measure.

Howard battlers

By definition, these people will be gone if Howard loses. Jackie Kelly has piked the only fight that wasn't stacked in her favour. Many other MPs from outer metropolitan seats will not return to Parliament if the Rudd juggernaut rolls over them. They will, however, regard Howard as the default of all Liberal activity and any departure from that as a travesty and a cause of Liberal defeat, which is why they will resent any resurgence by the moderates.

Conservative protectionists

Many of these, like Bill Heffernan and Wilson Tuckey, are exhausted volcanoes and will not want to stick around in Opposition. They will, however, give the moderates plenty of gyp and blame the defeat on them. They will then distinguish themselves by making sexist remarks about new Labor ministers or otherwise demonstrate that they are so out of touch with the changed times. they will slink off into retirement, but not before bringing in proteges who are much like them. These people dominate the safe seats, so they won't just shrivel up and wither away.

Relevance-deprivation tragics

I reckon Chris Pyne will go into this category, as will others who will be bereft when the Comcar does not pull up to go somewhere important to do important stuff. Helen Coonan probably will too, but will get over it and knuckle down. These people will not only have an aching void to fill, they will have to renounce some of that important stuff they had been doing - and what if you renounce the wrong stuff?

Kim Beazley was one of these. He was only just starting to get it when Rudd knocked him off. Simon Crean is still there. If Costello and Minchin fail to land nice jobs (see below) they'll end up here.

The All Right Jacks

As in: stuff you, I'm all right Jack! These will be the people the private sector decides are quality people without being too tainted as to attract the displeasure of the new government. Peter Costello and Nick Minchin might get nice jobs with banks provided they leave quickly after the election, and maybe a few junior ministers might get jobs with companies in areas they used to regulate like Larry Anthony did (Rudd will bring in legislation to stop this happening, or at least enforce a prohibition period between leaving government and going to the private sector, to avoid giving his people ideas and to make the Coalition look squalid).

Half the National Party will expect their mates at Qantas to come through for them, and they will be disappointed. There are only so many impressive-sounding do-nothing jobs at a lean mean organisation, and you don't get where Qantas is by irritating the government of the day and stacking it full of its political opponents.

These people will sneer at those who stay in and work the night shift, with a clear but false implication that they could do better. This will serve to make the Labor Government view them and their new employers with a roseate nostalgia rather than the fear and loathing due to feared opponents.

The Wilderness Trekkers

These will be the leadership contenders: Abbott and Nelson, Turnbull if he survives, Costello if no nice jobs come through, Brough as the "spare" to these heirs. Downer might also want the job back for old time's sake, but he'd be easy meat for Rudd. They will use the chaos to stamp their image on the Liberal Party with a view to dragging it back into government. Their loneliness of command will be heightened by all those they've pissed off over the years, and will be leavened by newbies who are just working with the boss and have no pre-existing enmities. They'll quite enjoy Opposition and voters will be reluctant to disturb them from it.

Julie Bishop will do this in WA but it would take her more than one term to turn the local yokels into a fit government. She might not stick at it. Peter Dutton would be better off in Queensland politics if he can stand up to the Nats.

The landscape

The most senior Coalition politician in the country this Christmas will be the Lord Mayor of Brisbane.

Ted Baillieu and Barry O'Farrell will be the next Liberal Premiers but they will do it tough against a tough, smart and entrenched Labor bloc. There will probably be less centralisation as the Feds will be quite happy with the states' role as service providers, rather than silly duplications as with TAFE.

A handful of former Liberal MPs will end up going into State politics. Those who aren't defeated in 2007 deserve credit for real fortitude and commitment to the public good to leaven the cynicism of their not being able to give up the gravy train, or the pity of being hopeless political junkies looking for the next fix.

The generation of Liberals including Chris Pyne and Greg Hunt will spend their best years in Opposition, and run the risk of crowning their careers in Cabinet with too little too late, just like Robert Hill did.

It'll be three years to the next Federal election, three years of Labor gloating under the magnifying glass showing up all the patched-over, she'll-be-right sins of omission and commission. Good people will falter and scumbags rise. Three years of Labor government getting credit for stealing the Coalition's better clothes. Three years of no Comcars and having to hire Young Liberals with no policy-development skill, whose media skills fail them as journos pass them by, and the best of whom will be out to win seats at the expense of sitting ducks for whom three years is such a long time. Barren, yes, but deliberately? Depends if you have someone to blame.


  1. I think that is a fairly accurate analysis. I've being telling a particular libertarian that "apart from on economics that there are no liberals in the Liberal party under the intended classical liberal definition. Strictly speaking thats not true with the likes of Georgiou but given he is powerless like the rest of the liberals in the Liberal party. They may as well call the Liberal party, the Conservative party as the liberals cannot effect any change."

  2. The moderates don't have the perspective or the numbers to effect far-reaching change, or even the kind of balance in Menzies' (or even Fraser's) day.

    Depends what you define as a "classical liberal", really. John Stuart Mill is silent on Guantanamo Bay and the internet, and hardly railed against British colonialist exploitation of India whilst he made his livelihood from it. I don't think there is much "classical" about the archophobic Austrians who like their government "lean and mean" (read: emaciated and cranky). These are all big questions best made outside the organisation.