Is it the economy, stupid?

Saturday, 24 March 2007 

Dennis Shanahan in The Australian writes another one of those curious pieces that reads like an internal Liberal party memo.

It repeats the two familiar arguments that Howard is reported to have told the Liberal party room in the face of the bad polls:

1. They have had bad polls before from which they have gone on to win
2. The economy is still in relatively good shape and this remains the number one deciding issue

On 1., even ignoring the fact that the polls have never been as bad as they are now, this blog is not one of those that believe that Howard’s consistently very bad mid-term polls are irrelevant. They do indicate that this government has never established a significant consensus for rule. Even the victories themselves, as commentators like Mumbles never tire of correctly pointing out, are not that resounding by historical standards. What the victories do indicate is that while Howard’s political consensus is weak, the ALP has no ability to challenge it after the exhaustion of its reform programme in the early 1990s.

The ALPs policy vacuum is still there. The important point about Rudd’s broadband initiative is not just its relatively modest size, less than half the cost of the government’s water programme announced a few months ago, but that there is no reason why the Liberals could not steal the idea and do it too.

If the ALP does win power at the end of the year, it will be the first time in its federal history that it will have done so without a programme that only it could carry out.

So given this, could the ALP still win? This blog believes it could, and by a resounding margin. The important dynamic here is not between the ALP and the government but within the government itself. If the ALP programme is exhausted at least they had one while in power. Howard’s government has truly been one of default with no agenda but a sales tax and an IR reform that even business didn’t really need. Fortunately, international events, especially since 9/11, have given it the appearance of an agenda. However the 9/11 effect is now fading and the Liberal’s policy exhaustion, similar to the ALP, is now coming to the surface. This cannot be redressed by focusing on the economy, because on the economy there is no real competing agenda. Howard’s second reassurance above may not be justified.

While the policy vacuum may be similar to the ALP’s, the problem for the Liberals is that, to put it crudely, it is an organisation of members often with many ‘active’ interests outside politics compared to the collective of public sector and trade union bureaucrats and professional student politicians that still make up a large portion of the parliamentary ALP. This could make the Liberal Party without a programme vulnerable to fragmentation and it is the degree to which this starts to become evident before the election that is critical to whether it stays in power. The Santoro scandal, a result of Queensland Liberal in-fighting, is ominous. In that regard, Howard’s attempt to show his toughness on international issues like Iraq may become less focussed on the electorate but aimed internally as a means of cohering his own party.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 24 March 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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