There seems to be a mild outbreak of post-election speculation in the commentary with an imaginative article by Shaun Carney in Saturday’s Age on how the Liberal party would treat Howard like a hero if he took them to a fifth victory. This appears to be for the same reason that Senator Allison would be regarded as the new political Messiah if she took the Democrats to power – its improbability. He even argues that this would put to rest any Costello challenge, as though we haven’t been educated on the reality of that in the last few weeks. Having said that, the assumptions behind the article are similar to the ones that take a more realistic view on the outcome of the election, but still imagine the Liberals will do a smooth, rational transition of power to someone like Turnbull. In this blog’s view, both scenarios underestimate the crisis in the Liberal party.

The usual response to any talk of Liberal crisis on defeat is to remind that similar talk went on in the 1990s that was proved wrong by Howard coming to power. Yet the Howard government has shown exactly what this discussion was about. It has truly been government by default. A leader that only got recalled when the Liberals had run out of alternatives, to head a government that came to power with no programme, which some regarded as a tactic, but actually reflected the reality that there was nothing left for the Liberals to propose after the reforms of the Hawke/ Keating years.

Here was a leader so desperate to fill the policy vacuum that he revived an unpopular tax just to give the impression they stood for something. Howard in a quote previously used by this blog, so well describes this problem in his own words:

I think the GST was a net plus in terms of the reputation of the government, that’s my view. A lot of people don’t agree with that; they think we would have done better in ‘98 if we didn’t have a GST. I’m not sure about that. We always do better when we are advocating something because we are seen to be standing for something.

Two things saved Howard, neither which was due to the Liberals. First, he had an opposition that had lost its historical role (personalised as Beazley’s lack of ‘ticker‘). This helped Howard just scrape through in 1998, when he would have been the first non-Labor leader since Joseph Cook to be a one term wonder. Secondly he was saved from the abyss in 2001 by the international situation, which allowed Howard to claim he was a ’conviction’ politician, something he repeats at every opportunity ever since. The end of that, and Rudd pulling together an alternative programme on the international agenda, has exposed what was there all along, a gaping policy hole.

In a nutshell the Liberals’ problem is that after the marginalisation of the unions and the left internationally, there is nothing to be against. It is a problem that goes to the heart of why the Liberal party was set up in 1944 and is why such a difficult appraisal for the party lies ahead. To get an idea of what is coming, you only have to look at the current bewilderment of government ministers as to why it is behind in the polls. This is not a political tactic; it is genuine (Howard is even refusing to give an explanation these days). If the government cannot comprehend why it is on the way to defeat, why will it be any clearer and rational when it actually happens?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 27 August 2007.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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