No resurrection

Tuesday, 18 April 2017    

David Rowe AFR

Let’s get something clear from the outset. What is going on in the Liberals right now is not a re-run of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. This is worse. Much worse.

The core of the tussle between Rudd and Gillard was institutional, between the party’s traditional power bases behind Gillard, and the “reformers” behind Rudd who wanted to reduce their influence. It had intensity because both sides had something going for them: Gillard had the factional leadership and almost all the unions, Rudd had electoral reality through his popularity ratings.

Turnbull and Abbott have neither. Indeed, the Liberals have already been through their Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years through the Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull tussle of 2009-2015. Whereas Labor’s was institutional, the Liberals’ was ideological. Rudd was dumped because he was threatening the power of the factions, Turnbull was dumped because he was see as ideologically caving in on climate change and damaging the Liberal “brand”. Labor’s turmoil ended with no resolution, leaving it in a political coma ever since. The Liberals’ is still on-going and is now flashing danger signs.

The first is that no potential candidate has any solution to the Liberals’ electoral woes. And certainly not the one who is getting most of the publicity right now, Tony Abbott.

Even worse, Abbott is offering the “battle of ideas”. This promise of giving the Liberals an ideological backbone would seem a repeat of what he did when he took the leadership in 2009. But that would involve a serious mis-reading of what happened back then and certainly what is happening now. That it is having any traction at all is a serious health warning for a governing party.

As the name implies, the strength of the Liberal party since its formation in 1944 has always been its ideological flexibility. This is sensible. The right in Australia has never had the type of institutions as elsewhere that would give political conservatism social authority and coherence. Instead the Australian right has always had to look for that overseas in the UK/US alliances that gives them a significance which is often under-estimated.

What had always allowed that ideological flexibility was having something to be against, the union/socialist agenda at home, or clear polarisation overseas such as the Cold War or the War on Terror. The three periods of Liberal dominance of federal politics; Menzies, Fraser’s early years following Whitlam, and Howard after 9/11, relied on one or the other or both.

Since then, with the unions no longer socially significant, and Labor’s historical project largely wound up, the Liberals have struggled to find something to be against. In a sense, the Coalition government since its return in 2013, has picked up where Howard left off with the malaise both before 9/11 and as the effect of the War on Terror faded after 2005. Under Abbott this was seen in his inability to cohere public support behind a conservative agenda, most notably in the 2014 Budget flop. Under Turnbull the situation has become even worse.

The Liberals have never had the internal structures of Labor and are prone to “micro-factions” around key individuals (although this is now being seen in Labor as well). With nothing to cohere them, this has meant almost every policy initiative becomes regarded not on its own merits but wholly through the prism of internal positioning. This is most clearly seen with the hapless Treasurer who, being seen as a leadership contender, now finds any proposal of his being knocked down by those who don’t want him taking over.

The result of all this is that the Turnbull government is paralysed and unable to bring in anything that strays beyond the most fundamental things a Coalition government could agree on – like a tax cut for small businesses, normally seen as no big event, but hailed by the press gallery as a major victory.

Into this paralysis, bringing some ideological coherence might seem on the surface to make sense. But it is likely to make things worse. With hindsight, the success of Abbott in 2009 rested on him calling the high point of the technocrat period symbolised by the climate change agenda, the rise of China, the coherence of the EU, all underpinned by a technocrat in the Lodge and the White House. Brexit and the Trump victory has well and truly brought that period to an end. Abbott’s return to prominence symbolises a confusion as to what is replacing it.

Through the culture war morality play by which politics is constantly seen in Australia now, both domestically and overseas, Brexit and Trump are seen as what is predominantly a right-wing anti-immigrant upsurge – despite the consistent polling that shows the economy and trade being much more important than immigration for supporters of both.

This was not just on the left. Right-wing commentators have also latched on to what is happening overseas to imply that their time has finally come and Abbott’s failed Prime Ministership only suffered from being just a bit too early.

Yet even a cursory look at both events would reveal the humiliation of the traditional right parties: Trump’s hostile take-over of the Republicans against both the moderate and conservative wings, and in the UK, not only the collapse of the Conservative leadership after calling a referendum they didn’t expect to lose, but the inability of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives to put a viable candidate in its place. In both cases, the weaknesses of the traditional right were disguised by the weaknesses of their traditional opponents: the inept Clinton campaign, and in the UK, a Labour party led by an ideological candidate that may please the party faithful against the “sell-outs” of the past but is an electoral stinker.

Sound familiar? If the Liberals decide to take back Abbott as their own Jeremy Corbyn, they could follow the same fate. While he may attack the detachment of the left’s culture war from pressing social issues, his Daily Telegraph piece and 2GB interview show he has little to offer than an opposing culture war from the right. This can even lead to incoherence. Not only did he pretend to be unaware of the roll-out of Safe Schools under his watch, but he couldn’t seem to decide whether he wanted to disband the HRC or extend its role to look at Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical Islamists. He decried “political correctness” and then proudly cited his own politically correct initiative to ban calling for genocide (phew!).

Even if they veer away, and choose someone else, or grimly hang on to Turnbull, the Liberals’ indulgence of one of Australia’s least popular politicians and his revived phoney ideological crusade is not a good sign. If the return of a non-party like One Nation is a sign of the morbid state of the current political arrangement, the resurrection of Abbott shows it is now coming to the heart of what had been Australia’s most successful governing party.


A morbid symptom

Monday, 13 March 2017    

In the run up to the WA election, with the focus on One Nation, several vox pop pieces came out to explain its support. They were presented as empirical evidence from which political conclusions could be drawn but in reality they were the reverse Read more …



Tuesday, 17 January 2017    

David Rowe: AFR

The age of entitlement is over. The age of personal responsibility has begun.

Joe Hockey, 2 February 2014

Four discussions are going on right now that tells a lot about the current state of play between Australian government and society: means testing on pensions, the Centrelink fiasco, MPs expenses and the implementation of income management through the BasicsCard.

Actually, tell a lie. Read more …


2016: The fracturing

Friday, 30 December 2016    

One of the fascinating things about Australian politics is its sensitivity to global politics, a sensitivity that is often disguised unconvincingly by politicians and those with an interest in pretending that it all emanates from the security compound on Capital Hill – even though much of the public is fairly wise to the fact that it doesn’t. It has been useful looking at Australian politics over the last decade because it gives some details on a period in global politics that is now coming to an end. Read more …


A mini Menzies ice age

Tuesday, 27 December 2016    


Howard’s attempt to rehabilitate Menzies this year on telly may have been unconvincing, but its timing wasn’t too bad, since right now Australia is going through a late Menzies period – politically paralysed in the face of international change. Read more …

1 comment


Friday, 18 November 2016    

That other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.

It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

– The empathy bit in Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech

There is a persistent confusion in most political commentary, and the election of Trump shows that this had better be sorted out, and quick. This confusion rests on the relationship between politics and society, and especially an increasingly common habit of projecting what is going on politically directly on to society. Read more …


Equality – an update

Wednesday, 19 October 2016    

On the issue of marriage, I think the reality is there is a cultural, religious and historical view around that which we have to respect. I do respect the fact that’s how people view the institution.

Penny Wong 2010

I do find myself on the conservative side in this question. I think that there are some important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future. If I was in a different walk of life, if I’d continued in the law and was partner of a law firm now, I would express the same view, that I think for our culture, for our heritage, the Marriage Act and marriage being between a man and a woman has a special status.

Now, I know people might look at me and think that’s something that they wouldn’t necessarily expect me to say, but that is what I believe.

Julia Gillard 2011

Personally speaking, I’m completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite. I’d be wary of trying to use a referendum and a constitutional mechanism to start tampering with the Marriage Act. But in terms of a plebiscite — I would rather the people of Australia could make their view clear on this than leaving this issue to 150 people.

Bill Shorten 2013

Questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament. Referendums are held in this country where there’s a proposal to change the constitution. I don’t think anyone is suggesting the constitution needs to be changed in this respect.

Tony Abbott 2015

Marriage is primarily a social institution rather than a legal or political one. If some whacky law was passed tomorrow annulling all marriages, they would of course continue to be recognised by society, both by those in them and everyone else. Society is constantly evolving and so naturally does its view of marriage and its relation to the family. Decades ago, divorce had a social stigma and children born out of marriage were considered illegitimate. These days, every social attitude survey and opinion polls indicates that society recognises marriage between same sex couples and so you’d think the law would be changed to reflect that.

You’d think. Read more …


Failing state

Monday, 1 August 2016    

Isn't that what elections are for?

Isn’t that what elections are for?

When Howard announced the intervention into Northern Territory indigenous communities in the run up to the 2007 election, it was widely seen as a political masterstroke, comparable to the storming of the Tampa that was supposed to have won the 2001 election (so mis-reading both elections).

At the time this blog suggested that the invasion of Iraq might be a better comparison. Read more …

1 comment

Locked in – an update

Sunday, 3 July 2016    

A newly installed Prime Minister goes to the first election and claims a mandate that doesn’t exist while an opposition leader claimed a victory that he never won. The eerie mirroring of the 2010 result shows that Australian politics still hasn’t left the deadlock it’s been in since then. Read more …


The confusions of anti-politics: Brexit – an update

Monday, 27 June 2016    

The French can be cruel.

The French can be cruel.


It was hard not to escape the conclusion from the reaction to the shock Brexit vote that this was an internal Conservative leadership contest that had somehow spun out of control. Read more …


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