20 May 2008

In the short term

When (If?) wondering what the Liberals are up to, never mind Brendan Nelson. He is the symptom of a wider malaise, not the cause and definitely not the cure.

The Budget handed down last week was the sort of muddle you'd expect from the middle of a third term from an exhausted government. It was the opposite of a bold declaration of intent, and no momentum can be created from it to carry all the trooby levers through the dull, cold Canberra nights to come, year in, year out. People wanted lamb, and were served mutton - its only redeeming feature was that it was dressed as mutton.

Both the Opposition Leader and the Shadow Treasurer come from Sydney. Rudd and Swan made an enormous error in claiming that a household income of $150k is a national benchmark of wealth, one that both Nelson and Turnbull should have hammered home in the following electorates:

  • Lindsay (NSW)

  • Robertson (NSW)

  • Dobell (NSW)

  • Bennelong (NSW)

  • Bonner (Q)

  • Brisbane (Q)

  • Longman (Q)

  • Petrie (Q)

  • Hasluck (WA)

  • Adelaide (SA)

  • Kingston (SA)

  • Melbourne Ports (V)

All of those electorates are, or should be, on the Liberals' list of seats to win back next time. All of them regard $150k as a bare minimum for entry to those communities, let alone sustainability. Building a Liberal message in those areas required a clear and consistent message, on something more substantial than whether their bundy and coke costs too much. Too late now.

5c a litre saving on a 60-litre tank = $3. No sandwich, no milkshake, no thanks to Nelson and the federal Libs. It didn't even work for Fielding First - if Nelson starts being photographed with his shirt off then never mind Peter Hartcher, it will be time for him to go straight away.

It would be interesting to see which ex-Coalition staffers have popped up as lobbyists for the alcopop makers. The good news for them is that a major party will go into bat for them, the bad news is that nobody will vote against $3b worth of revenue - essentially voluntary taxation - and the alcopop makers have no chance whatsoever of getting this impost lifted. Well done at picking the low-hanging fruit and finding the grubs have gotten to it first.

The trouble is that the geniuses who come up with this stuff are the same ones who wanted to bask in the fading glow of Howard rather than build a new day for themselves, the ones who don't know whether Alexander Downer is coming or going. The reason why Malcolm Colless' latest is such crap is because it fails to answer the question: hold to what, exactly? You can't just cling to policies that have not only been rejected but are being erased and/or surpassed before your very eyes. For the Liberals, some Howard government legacies just aren't viable while others are - pretending 2007 never happened won't help individual Liberal politicians nor that party as a whole in regaining office.

Pieces like this imply that debate is open-ended and may lead to outcomes that are not yet clear (in this case, it also reinforces a natural but unrealised affinity between social and economic libertarians, but that's by-the-by). When someone like Minchin or Julie Bishop says they're "happy to have a debate", what they mean is a Howard-style debate, where a decision is presented as a fait accompli and you can talk about it as much as you like but it's going ahead whether you like it or not. People like Malcolm Colless go weak at the knees about this kind of "decisiveness", but it suffers from the problem identified by Popper that the lack of corrective feedback leads ultimately to system failure. Disunity is not always death and there are surer, faster routes to political death than the luxury of re-examination from the freedom of opposition.

All policy ideas from clowns like Abbott, Minchin et al are going to be piecemeal and short-term, that's all they've ever been. The exhaustion of American conservatism augurs poorly for their capacity to take the Liberal Party forward.
The strangest section of Nelson's speech was his tour d'horizon of the nation's economy going back to the Keating years, which framed the period under John Howard as a flawless golden era. Defending the legacy is a necessity for every vanquished government, but Nelson took it too far. In the end, he veered close to scolding the public for kicking out the Coalition.

Hardly strange, Carney: here the Liberals are saying in clear English that they can't and won't differentiate between baby and bathwater in the ejection of a Liberal government, and thus can offer no reason why voters should reverse their verdict.

Yes, I said a Liberal government - when have the Country/National Party contributed so little to the Coalition as they have since Sinclair's day?

The best indications of Liberal challenges to the government are pieces like this, which dare to take on Rudd in an area where he's perceived to be strong. To take on Rudd you'd have to do your homework, and clearly Trood has: a few failings by foreign missions could wear down Stephen Smith and go to the heart of Rudd's agenda, do that enough times and you've got him rattled. The people close to Nelson, Turnbull and Minchin don't even think stuff like this is important, when it actually both undermines the foundations of the status quo and charts out what might replace it: too hard for the "hard". Sure, foreign policy wins no votes but this sort of quality analysis across other areas of government do make for a coherent platform not only for opposition - but for government. If you can't do it, get out of the way.


  1. "Melbourne Ports (V)

    All of those electorates are, or should be, on the Liberals' list of seats to win back next time. All of them regard $150k as a bare minimum for entry to those communities, "

    Win back? Melbourne Ports? When have the libs ever held Melbourne Ports?

    And yeah, sure it's gentrifying, but that process has been going on for 25 years (at least), and they still can't win it.

    Have you ever visited that electorate? It's a lot more diverse than you might think, and now that Acland St. is going down with Fitzroy St to follow (and the triangle development nearly guaranteed to bring back the riff raff), I think you might find that the riff raff are going to win.

  2. Fair point, you can't win back a seat you've never held.

    All of those seats are "more diverse than you might think", and I think I made the point that gentrification doesn't necessarily mean greater likelihood to vote Liberal. It is true, however, that playing class warfare with people who don't identify with class baggage could backfire - particularly if you got a Liberal secretariat cleansed of effete idiots who complain about Jews.