23 August 2010

Three reasons why the Liberals can't form government

The Liberals can't form government because the party that dominated Australian politics in the 20th century hasn't made the transition to the 21st. The Liberal Party can't form federal government in 2010 for much the same reasons that it came so close to forming state governments in SA and Tasmania, with one extra:
  1. Nick Minchin
  2. Eric Abetz
  3. Tony Abbott
Yeah, they're all hate figures among the centre-left, what American bloggers call RWDBs (Right Wing Death Beasts). With regard to 'the centre ground' (I might be politically homeless but it doesn't mean I'm alone here), and with regard to established and growing movements such as rural independents and Greens, these guys are impediments to government. They are holding the Liberals back. Winning government will not be possible until they, and what they stand for, are removed from the Liberal Party's offerings.

People who never vote Liberal are every bit as focused on these guys as their fans are. They jeer at them while regarding them as inseparable from the modern Liberal Party. Those who do want to see a Liberal Government will be disappointed this time, but there's only so much disappointment you can handle before you start questioning whether it has to be like this. The only choice for Liberals is either to give up, as I have, or to remove the impediments blocking your party from government. It won't be easy: these guys and their followers are among the few active members the Liberal Party have. Their record is baked into the party's DNA: only time and a new tide of members can consign them to the scrapheap.

Eric Abetz. Abetz has isolated and picked off the moderates in the Tasmanian Liberals one by one. He is now doing the same to the Christian fundamentalists who helped him gain and cement his power, which is why Guy Barnett is bleating about his loss: Barnett isn't big enough to hope Abetz enjoys his thirty pieces of silver.

Abetz is the reason why Tasmania has no Members of the House of Representatives; part of demonstrating one's fealty to Abetz is that those ranted his endorsement must not be more active, more intelligent, more innovative or more charismatic than he is. This is enormously difficult, but it means that the Liberal candidate in the seat which encompasses his state's capital came fourth behind a Labor scion, a Green, and an ex-Greenie who is either a traitor or a moral giant, and who didn't even live in Tasmania ten years ago (and who used to be a member of the Liberal Party).

Abetz is the reason why Tasmania does not have a Liberal state government. After the state's elections last year Will Hodgman was well placed to form a coalition, or some other form of understanding, with the Greens. An overwhelming majority of Tasmanians had voted against the return of a complacent Labor government, but good old Eric would rather have the Liberals out and Labor in than try and work with a political force that must be accommodated to some extent by any party wanting to govern in this century.

Abetz was Workplace Relations spokesman even though he has never hired anyone outside his own parliamentary staff, and what miserable mice they must be. When Tony Abbott was trying to bury WorkChoices, good old Eric was applying the calipers and making it jump. If John Howard had been directly rebutted over a key policy like that (having done exactly that to every Liberal leader who led him), Howard would have flown to Tassie and strangled Abetz with his bare hands. Taking the attitude that he made Abbott and could do what he liked, Abetz ensured that swinging voters in marginal seats wrung their hands over a Liberal vote, and that the Liberal message was obscured in the vital first week of the campaign because Eric wanted to play silly-buggers over an issue he didn't really understand, except in culture-war terms.

Eric Abetz is in total control of the Liberal Party in Tasmania, but it is not clear why Tasmanians put up with him. I have visions of him addressing a Liberal conference in Tassie somewhere, the crowd starts slow-clapping him, they don't stop ... and then there's a series of events that leaves Eric and his loyal retainers running for their lives, like the Ceausescus or the travelling companions of Alexander Pearce.

It's foolish to wait until he retires. The guy won't give up and power like that can only be taken, so rise up liberal Tasmanians and drop him cold. If the Tassie Libs had contributed just one seat to the national total, Labor would be gone. They couldn't because loyalty to Abetz made the party repellent to the state it was established to serve.

Nick Minchin. Hey Minchin, I thought your boy was ill - why aren't you in Adelaide changing bandages, remodelling your house to accommodate a disabled resident, and doing all those things a whittled-down health system can no longer do?

The Liberals had to win this campaign to maintain any semblance of a Minchin legacy. Failure to win this time means the review and at least partial erasure of his legacy. There he was on election night, with that cold smile of a man whose only humour is sarcasm, but as days pass he must know that more than three decades of backroom politics haven't prepared him for the situation before us today.

Minchin's legacy is this: he could have effected a structural separation of Australian telecommunications that would have made for a vibrant and competitive industry, not only within the telcoMinchin, and our economy today is retarded as a result of this lack of vision.

Minchin believed that a large and widespread class of Telstra shareholders would form a political constituency biased toward maximising that company's returns and against public-sector solutions generally. He still believes it, and has encouraged a large chunk of the politico-media complex (e.g. political staffers, lobbyists, journalists) that it is so - but there is no evidence that anyone anywhere votes Liberal on account of their $500 holding in Telstra. It's a phantom class of people, like all those unwed mothers in the '60s who happily gave their illegitimate children away and gave them no further thought: the fact that powerful people held fast to this belief, and scorned those who doubted it, does not make this phantom class any more real.

The Coalition telco policy, such as it was, was a homage to Minchin - and I've already had my say on that. Andrew Robb might pretend there's wriggle room in dealing with the KOWs but, frankly, there isn't; you'd have to scrap the entire policy and start again, and there's no time for that (besides any pragmatism of this sort would Look Weak). At this point Abbott would convert fibreglass batts into optic fibre if it meant he'd become PM, but you know that Abetz or Minchin would pooh-pooh that out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

Bob Katter has always said that a deregulated Telstra would be disastrous for the bush. He's complained long and loud since, and in dealing with such a man the only option is a credible statist solution: if you can bend over for Harradine to save the Liberals from opposition, you can do it for Katter.

I doubt that a privatised Telstra will feature highly on the list of donors to the Liberal Party.

Never mind that Liberal telco policy during Minchin's time and since has been lousy policy, and put the nation at a disadvantage. The contemporary Liberal Party has a long ad inglorious record (which it is perfectly capable of maintaining) in support of lousy policy if there are money and votes for the Liberal Party in it, with the most dog-in-the-manger obstinacy that Minchin, Howard and others mistook for strength and determination. That said, there's no votes in maintaining Minchin's Telstra policy, and no money either.

Why maintain the Minchin policy? Because Uncle Nick will yell at you, that's why. Call you names, say you're not really a Liberal. Eric Abetz might sool his people onto you, too. The only option for the Liberal Party is to put itself into a headspace where Nick 'n' Eric don't call the shots any more.

In Paul Fletcher the Liberals have someone who can't be bluffed by Minchin's command of detail on telco policy. If Fletcher has a free rein to develop policy for the next election, in a way that Tony Smith didn't (and couldn't have taken advantage of, even with totally free rein), then we might see a telco policy that rendered Nick Minchin as irrelevant as all those Postmasters-General who ran the portfolio under Menzies (which is what Conroy's NBNCo does anyway). He won't be as innovative as Conroy but hopefully he may add constructively to what Conroy has done.

This leaves us with one reason why the Liberal Party won't and can't form government:

Tony Abbott. It just isn't fair (you lefties! Stop laughing at once!). Here was a man who was screwed down tight, who plugged and plugged his negative lines while deflecting questions about what he might do. Frustrated by three ex-Nationals. I mean, I ask you. It's like having to scrum down three metres from your try line, there's nothing to do but puuuuuuuush, puuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuussssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh - but sometimes all that sheer grunt, shackled down and blowing smoke, just won't get you anywhere in negotiations requiring finesse and a sense of managing longterm risk.

Some people just can't be impressed by "we'll sort that out after the election" or a boyish grin, like most Liberals are. Abbott might think he's tougher than Rudd and Gillard put together, but Oakeshott would run him ragged and Katter and Windsor would twist his silly head off. He's met his match here: while Truss and Joyce weren't helpful, they aren't the reason why there won't be a Coalition government.

Abbott and co will promise the world with no intention of delivering. Gillard and co will also promise the world, but can be expected to stuff up the delivery but sort of come through. That will be good enough for the KOWs, and it's why they will give the Gillard government first go. Tony Abbott was raised in a house of girls, he would have been taught: ladies first. It might frustrate the hell out of him but there's nothing he can do.

Having squeaked in, Labor will be scrupulous/ terrified. You might even see quality performances from ministers - maybe even from Billy Shorten unless he gets too far ahead of himself. Abbott can only keep the lid on the pressure cooker for so long - by the end of 2012 people will be looking askance at him, beaten by a girl, and start asking questions about whether he's good for that final push then.

He's no good for it now, he's no good for it then, he's just no good. Bye bye, Tony Abbott. You won by one vote and you'll lose by a similar margin. You might fade away like a gay churchy loser in Forestville, or you might melt down like your brother-from-another-mother, that one-man Chernobyl Mark Latham. Either way, you'll only go to the Lodge or Kirribilli House as a guest, like Hewson or Downer, Beazley or Hayden: losers all, but better men than you.


  1. I like your use of a rugby metaphor. Perhaps you could see the Liberals' problems as a bit of a case of "forwards in the backline." In this context i can't help but compare Keating and David Campese and think Joe Hockey is not the intellect you want on the wing.

    Then there's also the white line fever, spawn from the born to rule mentality. Maybe...

  2. It's a brave man who'll make predictions on who'll form government today. Especially given we all made predictions last week that invariably were wrong, most with similar character judgements of Boat-Phone-Tone that you make above. I'd like to think you're right, but I no longer believe anyone can predict anything anymore.


  3. Man you are bitter.

    Just admit you were wrong on Tony and move on.

  4. You are so right about Abetz. I live in Tasmania and there is no way I could ever consider giving him any votes. I even put Barnet ahead of him and Abetz at the very bottom

  5. Matthew, I doubt that BTR holds much these days. Is someone like Luke Hartsuyker or Julie Bishop really more BTR than Bill Shorten? Really?

    Kymbos, this isn't punditry, it's character.

    Matt, where am I wrong? If you saw my life now compared to when I was a Liberal, you'd realise that I'm perfectly entitled to hope for better. You're bitter that what you served up wasn't swallowed whole.

  6. Andrew, an excellent analysis and as you may know I am totally with you so far as Nick Minchin is concerned.

  7. Yesss!! Have you seen this yet?


  8. This has made my week. Huzzah for Hodgman! Thanks for pointing it out Sean.