07 April 2012

How poor history leads to poor analysis

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

- George Santayana (1863-1952)
This article shows how those who misrepresent the lessons of history will end up without a clue about what's going on.

Abjorensen's spelling and punctuation are sound, but his very first sentence contains the conundrum that engulfs his whole argument. By the time we have waded through his lazy attempt at an overview of Liberal history we can have no confidence in his postulations on that party's present:
After Holt’s untimely death in 1967, his successor, John Gorton, enjoyed markedly less emulation, if only because he was an erratic leader unmindful of such Liberal sacred cows as states’ rights.
Gorton was the last Liberal leader thus afflicted. Menzies had left the states alone; he would never have invoked the corporations power for fear of the private sector getting ahead of themselves public-policy wise, and after failing to ban the Communist Party he was war of constitutional reform. Holt left the states alone too. By the time Gorton made relatively modest calls for national co-ordination in certain areas, premiers like Bolte and Askin had gotten used to acting on their own and lashed out; every successive prime minister had no hesitation in jerking the states' fiscal lead. In 1968 Joh Bjelke-Petersen was beginning his long reign as premier of Queensland - how different would that have been if he had been taught early on that Canberra can and does act as a check on his power, and that if he wasn't that interested in health or education or transport then state politics just wasn't for him.

Was John Gorton really more erratic policy-wise (leaving aside late-night grog sessions) than Fraser or Howard or Abbott? Really?
When Gorton was deposed in 1971, both government and party were tired and seemingly inured to looming defeat, and few took Billy McMahon’s leadership sufficiently seriously to think much about him.
Really? Why didn't McMahon just give up and/or just faff around the edges, like Jay Weatherall is doing in SA or as Kristina Keneally did in NSW? Why was Whitlam elected and re-elected with single-digit majorities, with a Coalition government back in office just three short years after McMahon lost office (and headed by a McMahon government minister)? Yes yes, I realise this is received wisdom/groupthink from the press gallery at the time, but it's equally clear that is inadequate as an explanation of history.
In opposition after 1972, the hapless Billy Snedden mostly failed to inspire ...
Well yes, until you realise that he was the Tony Abbott of his day. This is the man who described organisers of a protest march as "political bikies pack-raping democracy", of a piece with any of Abbott's top-of-the-head offerings. In 1974, he refused to concede that he had lost the election but had merely failed to win it, as Abbott did in 2010 (the difference is that the entire Liberal Party is under the same delusion as the leader, and that the press gallery fail to regard the Liberal leader as a laughing stock).
Fraser ... stamped his seal on the Liberal Party even more forcefully than Menzies ever had and, like its founder, was not only the public face of the party, but its mind, body and soul.
What a fatuous statement that is. Its fatuity is established by Abjorensen's very next paragraph:
Nothing more exemplified Fraser’s dominance than the abrupt and unannounced policy shift after the Liberals’ 1983 election loss. When Fraser quit as leader, his party’s tough stand on the minority white regime in South Africa – an abiding passion of his that chafed against the views of those within the party who supported apartheid – simply vanished from the radar.
It's proof of his lack of dominance, actually. After Fraser lost office in 1983 Liberals distanced themselves from him and much of what his government did; none more so than Fraser's Treasurer, John Howard. It wasn't just foreign policy but pretty much every aspect of Fraser's social and economic policy that came under question, if not derision, throughout the 1980s and '90s.

In terms of Fraser having been the "mind, body and soul" of the Liberal Party during the period 1975-83, I bet Charles Court or Dick Hamer would be fascinated at that idea. I bet John Carrick would have allowed himself a wry grin, considering his control over the party in NSW which was inversely successful electorally to the old man's degree of control over it; similarly John Moore in Queensland. If you're going to go John Gorton over his relations with premiers, then state-level figures during Fraser's time deserve the examination that Abjorensen fails to offer.
... with the arrival of the circuit-breaker, John Hewson, after a fourth successive election defeat in 1990, the party miraculously converted en masse to the new leader’s brand of aggressive liberalism.
Well, not quite. I can still remember John Howard shirtfronting Hewson in the final week of the 1993 election campaign. I can also remember that nobody was across Fightback! but Hewson himself, and that the party was cool with it so long as Hawke floundered in the face of it and was subsequently cut down. Once Keating began to climb all over it - and, by extension, all over Hewson and the Liberal Party - the Liberal Party expected Hewson to change tack and do Keating over as he had done Hawke. That didn't happen; Hewson always said Keating had a glass jaw but it was Hewson who hit the canvas first. Hewson couldn't even do Keating over once the L-A-W tax cuts were abandoned.
Ironically, the same party blamed Hewson and his Fightback! doctrine for the failure to win the 1993 election ...
Yes - the Liberal Party has tended to be good at learning from election defeats, which is the main reason for its electoral success. A manifesto born from one man's head could be vindicated only by electoral victory. Absent victory it was just another manifesto to be used as political mulch for the next government - as it proved.
Howard was very much a creature not just of the Liberal Party, but also of the party’s distinctive NSW division, with its old free trade tradition, in contradistinction to Victoria’s social liberal and protectionist tradition.
The latter tradition had pretty much been stamped out at the federal level by the lead-up to the 1990 election, and by the time Jeff Kennett finished with it the tradition was non-existent.

Having led us through a wasteland of historical crap, Abjorensen stumbles across an oasis of reliable fact:
Howard’s own political fetishes – labour market deregulation and the primacy of the small business ethos – quickly became Liberal orthodoxy. He also tightened his control over the entire party in a way that neither Fraser nor Menzies had, effectively taking personal charge of the once staunchly independent, and nominally autonomous, state divisions through a centripetal shift of resources to the federal secretariat and a de facto veto over appointments of state officials. It was Howard’s party in a far more proprietorial sense than it had ever been Menzies’s: the party was Howard and Howard was the party, in very much the same sense that Louis XIV could say, reputedly, l’état, c’est moi.
OK, so the Louis XIV non-quote is facile and pretentious. Here are three verified quotes from him that are more applicable to Howard:
  • He said to his successor: "Do not follow the bad example which I have set you; I have often undertaken war too lightly and have sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me, but be a peaceful prince, and may you apply yourself principally to the alleviation of the burdens of your subjects".
  • Saint-Simon said of Louis XIV: "There was nothing he liked so much as flattery, or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it". Nobody who has seen a bunch of mouth-breathing bullet-headed right-wing stack-fodder hail him as saviour of the party and the nation, and seen Howard return the favour by declaring them to be the very essence of what it means to be Australian, will dispute the parallel.
  • On his deathbed he said: "Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours." ("I depart, but the State shall always remain.")
(These quotes come from from Wikipedia, a far more reliable historical source than Norman Abjorensen.)
We saw the [Liberal Party] ... without Fraser instantly forgetting about apartheid.
That's an exaggeration: Howard muddied the waters but succeeded in downgrading it as an issue for Liberals. It meant that Australian foreign policy was caught unawares when the de Klerk-Mandela rapprochement began to seal the end of apartheid. Even though we are a major migration destination for thousands of South Africa expats, Australia did not keep sufficient tabs on developments in South Africa to play a leading role in that country's political transition, internally or as a global intermediary, mainly because Foreign Ministers Evans and Downer and the entire foreign policy establishment of this country botched it. But anyway, that's for another time.
But losing both office and Howard in 2007, and with Peter Costello declining the proffered crown, the party had an immediate and unexpected identity crisis: it was an orchestra without a conductor.
This is the last bit of valid analysis in the whole article.
The challenge was to protect the Howard legacy – essentially the existential core of the present-day Liberal Party – and start planning a comeback, while at the same time healing the wounds and avoiding the kind of damaging public recriminations that were aired in 1972 and 1983.
The number one priority of the Liberal Party, when it finds itself in opposition, is to get back into government. The airing of recriminations is an inextricable part of "healing the wounds". Those that occurred in 1972 were clearly forgotten within three years, and while those from 1983 lasted longer they were the result of a party that had failed to take the lead in debates about the economic future of the country. Labor's years in the political wilderness during the 1950s resulted from the same political carelessness; in a major party you are at the forefront of economic and social policy debate, or you are nowhere.

The Liberal Party failed to lead debate about how the Australian economy is changing in two important respects. First, with the rise of China and its demand for our mineral resources. It was happy to give away the surpluses but did not trust them enough to engage in infrastructure spending. Second, the Workplace Relations Act needed revision in light of an increasingly casualised workforce (as did notions of family values in light of working arrangements that increasingly could not sustain stable family life); WorkChoices was not the revision it needed. Those failures are why Peter Costello's longevity as Treasurer does not translate to greatness in that role; and no, a bit of tinkering with sales tax does not vault him into the first rank.

The Howard legacy is the default option for the Liberal Party. All Liberals agree that he ran a great government, whatever they might want for policy going forward. Nelson and Turnbull failed to recognise that going back to Howard was always an option for the contemporary Liberal Party; it was the only option that hushed dissent. Abbott knows this and it is why his policy ventures beyond a simple Howard Restoration have been timid. Claiming that a policy that made Howard popular in 2003 is necessarily right for Australia in 2013 is questionable, and Labor should be able to highlight it as proof that the Coalition can't cope with the challenges before us now, let alone plan for the future.
A decisive break with the past was offered by Malcolm Turnbull, but the party preferred the anodyne Brendan Nelson, essentially a stop-gap, with whom the Howard legacy was safe.

Nelson struggled for nine months to make any headway against a popular Kevin Rudd, eventually falling to Turnbull’s challenge.
Rudd had made the case to the Australian people that Howard's capacity to take the country forward had been exhausted. Turnbull took it as a given; the rest of the Liberal Party did not, and Turnbull's leadership then as now depends upon his ability to develop a narrative that moves on from Howard's legacy without either breaking from it or embracing it. For all his intellect, Turnbull hasn't thought deeply about where this country is going and what it needs from government; there are fits and starts of insight into particular issues but these are more like the brilliant essays of a student rather than the parts-of-the-whole musings that come from the reflections of a leader.

By contrast, Abbott carries around the Howard Restoration like a hermit crab carries the shell of another creature that has vacated it to hide his own squishy bits rather than necessarily presenting a strong front to the world.
Howard, it needs to be remembered, grew up in a state that, for the first quarter century of his life, was governed by Labor in an unbroken stretch from 1941 to 1965. The patronage the NSW Labor Party built up over that time extended into every area of civil society; Howard, imbued with the small business and Protestant ethos of his family, always saw Labor and its union base as the collectivist enemy of the dominant values of his self-reliant and individualistic world.

This world view – clannish, suburban and narrow – permeated the Howard era.
Why would a political ethos that had failed for a generation succeed in an era (and in the national context, including but also beyond NSW) that was markedly different to that of 1941-65? Howard's opponents inside the Liberal Party and out simply portrayed him as a man of the 1950s, underestimated him as a result, and fell by the wayside when defeated by someone who was clearly so much more than that. Was Howard really more narrow than Hewson, or Simon Crean?
It was – and conservatives bristle at this – a revival of class war, usually associated with the left, but class war with a difference: while Howard wanted to crush Labor by destroying its union base, he also sought to woo, with some success, traditional Labor voters by means of a cultural offensive.
This is so wrong that it is wrong on multiple levels.

First, conservatives don't bristle at the idea of class war by other means. Starting with William F. Buckley in the United States and Keith Joseph in Britain, conservatives have sought to demonise intellectuals in academia, public broadcasting and government as the most dire threats to our way of life, so that they might be forgiven for ignoring other more pressing threats such as losses of secure jobs, and the managerial skill necessary to create new jobs out of opportunities that are not yet apparent. Conservatives to not bristle at culture war, they perpetrate it, even though they lack the ammunition with which to pursue such a conflict (for example: Miranda Devine is an opponent of, but not an alternative to, Tim Flannery). Every edition of Quadrant contains the phrase trahison des clercs, invoking it enough to give it a currency, a substance and a potency that the notion lacks utterly.

Second, Howard did not destroy Labor's union base with WorkChoices, he energised it. This fact must be taken into consideration when it comes to "protecting the Howard legacy": either Labor's union base isn't that significant and should be left alone, or it must be destroyed by some means other than one which actually drives non-unionised workers into the arms of unions in order to protect them from threats far more real than those featured in the "culture war".
The Liberal Party’s dislike of Labor under Howard went from the political to the visceral; not a single appointment under Howard had the slightest tinge of bipartisanship about it ...
The only contra-example I can think of was when Nelson Mandela visited Australia and was gushed over by John Howard. Mandela received his award with barely contained disgust, from a man who was more than comfortable both with his bogus conviction and with the idea of him rotting on Robben Island for the term of his natural life. Apart from that, Abjorensen's claim holds.
The recent unprecedented interjection in parliament directed at the prime minister from the advisers’ boxes by Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, is simply a manifestation of the new Liberal tribalism; it is anger, resentment and frustration all rolled into one, underpinned by an intense loathing, verging on hatred.
Peta Credlin is not an authentic product of the Liberal Party in the way that Howard was. Howard sat through thousands of branch meetings, steadily building support, while Credlin has almost certainly never done so unless she were waiting for one of her bosses. She is a creature of a staffer system that is bipartisan; her skills are absolutely transferable to the offices of Gillard or Swan or any other leading politician. Her outburst should be seen as a lack of confidence in Abbott to get across the message she crafted for him, the control-freak's frustration of "do I have to do it all myself?". She does not have the sort of confidence in Abbott that a facile reading of polling data might suggest the Liberals ought to enjoy.
As one veteran Liberal MP lamented, “We are constantly exhorted now to see Labor not as a political adversary but as a hated enemy. That does not go down well in the electorate.”
You bet it doesn't. Any fool can create more heat than light. If you don't have any solutions - an Abbott doesn't - then it's incumbent upon you to shut your face. Maybe Turnbull is developing solutions, maybe he isn't. Gillard definitely is developing solutions, but how well they're accepted is more of an open question than commentators would expect.
Of course, Australia and the Liberal Party are not alone in bringing a virulent tribalism into the once placid waters of conservative politics. The trials of the contemporary Republican Party in the United States also represent a new-found conservative tribalism that brooks no compromise and sneers at the concept of the middle ground, and for which any hint of bipartisanship is akin to treason.
Abjorensen is confusing correlation with causation. The US Republicans took the lead and the Liberal Party of Australia takes its lead from Republican consultants who have gone further down that road than Australian Liberals have. The different dynamics of US politics, where mobilising a small but virulent base is easier and cheaper than appealing to a majority of adult citizens, is crucially overlooked. It's why Abbott's repulsion to many voters not rusted onto Labor is laughed off by Liberals who are otherwise sensible of and concerned about political risks to their party.
Malcolm Turnbull, it has to be said, does not fit this picture; he is a man out of time, out of place and, barring a political disaster for Abbott, all but out of contention to return to the leadership of what is still essentially Howard’s party.
It is foolish to claim that such a 'disaster' is unforeseeable. Abbott cannot lift above simple gainsaying and nor can he curb his adolescent tendency to the nasty and the snide, qualities that do not help in resolving intractable problems or focusing attention on might yet be.

The 'disaster' Abjorensen refers to is the realisation that the Howard legacy is insufficient in dealing with the problems and opportunities facing Australia, and insufficient to persuading people that they should be governed by the Liberal Party into the future. This will involve a bit of dissent, and will involve situations where many who are now senior Liberals become private citizens. However uncomfortable this might be for individuals - including Abjorensen - it need not be disastrous for the party or the nation. As a hack, Abjorensen can't see that, but it's true nonetheless.
While Turnbull’s style will always ruffle feathers (and there is more than a touch of Rudd in this regard), it was not so much his style that cost him the leadership after just fifteen months as his willingness to trade with the enemy over the doomed emissions trading scheme.
Ruffling feathers is neither here nor there: none of the leaders Abjorensen praises can be claimed to have eschewed this practice. It doesn't even bear mentioning. Turnbull's horsetrading over the ETS was so condemned by Liberals because it succeeded in making Rudd look good. Turnbull should have managed it in such a way that he looked like the winner, not Rudd; the Liberals would have stuck by him had he pulled something out that enhanced his position at Rudd's expense. To do that, Turnbull would have needed more political skill than he has.
Almost as bad was his tacit acceptance of the reality of climate change in the first place, when many, perhaps even most, of his colleagues agreed with former minister Nick Minchin that climate change was nothing but a leftist plot to de­industrialise the Western world.
The Western world is being deindustrialised due to many factors, of which climate change policy is a minor part. Even in Adelaide this is obvious, so much so that Tiberius-with-a-telephone Minchin cannot escape this reality and cannot persuade anyone with a brain that climate change policies can or should be resisted indefinitely.

Turnbull needs to go back to first principles and treat Liberals as though they are as intelligent as he is, all without damaging his credibility any more than he has already; no mean task but not impossible. Australia has a government; the Liberal Party needs to convince the country that it offers better government than the incumbents, and if it can't do that it's the party's problem, not the country's. The Liberal Party has a leader; if Turnbull wants to replace that leader and become Prime Minister he needs to do more of a persuasion job than he has already.

Where Abjorensen and other detractors are wrong is that Turnbull operates from within the Liberal Party, not outside it. He has bent over backwards to demonstrate his loyalty to a party that was almost entirely united against him in the late 1990s. He was a member of Howard's cabinet as much, if not for as long, as Abbott was. Articles like this show that Turnbull's political enemies are those of the Liberal Party. Turnbull hasn't done a great job at persuasion not because he lacks drive or commitment to the Liberal Party, he just hasn't thought things through as well as he might, and just waiting won't be enough. The thinking and the persuasion lies ahead of Turnbull, and it will come within the context of the Liberal Party, which cannot win the next election with a warmed-over Howardism without Howard or Costello.

That loss, every bit as 'unexpected' as 2007, is the 'political disaster' that Abjorensen fears but cannot articulate. He's tried a long run-up through history, but it's such bad hack-history that his conclusions are only right by accident, and not right enough to be reliable. Liberals are better served by preparing for Abbott to go down in accordance with his weaknesses, and to persuade Malcolm Turnbull to get over himself. Lots of hard work in that, far more than being a complacent hack; but fortune favours the brave while the hack can only describe it (or not, in Abjorensen's case).


  1. Not wanting to absolutely disagree with the conclusions you have drawn, Andrew, might I just add to the debate that, as far as the popularity of the Coalition is concerned, with or without Abbott or Turnbull, a large part of their popularity now is due to the exquisite combination that Howard discerned and devised, which sees the demographic shift of the Baby Boomers into Middle & Old Age, and the old voting demographic a lot of them represented, that of the increasingly socially-conservative Blue Collar worker, into the Conservative camp. Combine that with the tectonic shifting of them away from the grasp of the Unions and into small businessmanship-the old 'individual values' that is the Liberal staple, and what you have is the fact that the proverbial Drover's Dog could be leading the Coalition at the moment, and they will still win the next election. I think Abbott realises that, which is why he goes from workshop to small shop around the country, to shore up that demographic and win them back from Labor & the Unions after WorkChoices destroyed what Howard had built up amongst them. Abbott may be reckless and a loose cannon, but he is not stupid.
    As far as Turnbull goes, he really needed to have had enough foresight, and a bit less ego, to have gone with the Labor Party after the Republican movement defeat. He is more akin to them as far as his social conscience goes, and, he should have realised that, post Hawke and Keating economic reforms, that the ALP would become the Liberal Party, and the 'Liberal' Party of John Howard would be an uncomfortable fit for him. Then he could have gone on to lead the Labor Party to glorious victory instead of Kevin Rudd and achieved his goal of becoming Prime Minister. And all would be right with the world. No lurch to the Right with Tony Abbott on the horizon, as Turnbull coralled all those small 'l' Liberal votes to the Labor Party.
    Still, he couldn't courageously take the country with him in the Republic debate, and he didn't have enough faith in himself to take himself off on a new path with the Labor Party. So now, a round peg in the party of squares. Ah, Such is Life.

    1. HS, always and every time demogaphic projections about politics are proven to be wrong. The Drovers' Dog thing is lazy and its provenance is to a bitter man whose relevance to his own time was tenuous. A lot of the Coalition's support comes from pollsters on minimum wage pressing their victims to pick a side for the sake of moving on to the next screen so that we don't get chewed out for missing our quota again.

      Turnbull has to lift his game our get out, he's stuck in second gear and can't keep going that way.

  2. Loved this line best "... Abbott carries around the Howard Restoration like a hermit crab carries the shell of another creature that has vacated it to hide his own squishy bits rather than necessarily presenting a strong front to the world."

  3. Great article - thanks!

  4. Andrew,
    I used the Drover's Dog metaphor, not in the sense of an historical link to the bitter Hayden, though I would add that Kevin Rudd may fill those shoes at the moment, but by way of trying to explain, to myself as much as anything else, why it is that the Coalition, with policies tailored to specific demographics(and you can't gainsay me about that!), are ahead in those polls that you scoff at.
    Yes, once the rubber hits the road in an election campaign, and if Tony Abbott has run out of rabbits to pull out of the hat, such as today's effort to mollify the voters who think he is antediluvian wrt same sex marriage, then we may see the sort of rational assessment of both alternatives for government that you seem to think will occur. Or 'the mob' may be herded into the voting pens by the Shock Jock cattle dogs and the rest of the lame tame media like the ABC, and think, like in the Queensland & NSW State elections, that they are actually voting for a superior outfit, when in all truth, they have been conned by a superior ad & election campaign, into voting for an inferior product.

    1. I think Gillard will have something to show for her efforts and Abbott will not (what do you mean, "if Tony Abbott has run out of rabbits to pull out of the hat"?). Four years is a long time for Opposition Leaders; Howard in 1989 and Hewson in '94 were twisting in the breeze and ready to be cut down. Only nice Kim Beazley, comfy as a pair of slippers and every bit as Prime Ministerial, lasted longer. The days of herding a mob are gone.

  5. You, sir, are a wanker. What are your credentials to dismiss a respected scholar with a PhD on the subject from Australia's top university?

    1. The piece stands by itself. No flanking maneuver around my credentials is available, nor even pertinent; which explains your confusion as to how to address me.