What a political crisis looks like

Monday, 17 September 2007 

The crisis in the Liberal party is not shown by the questions about Howard’s leadership. That is the normal reaction of a party that by all indications is heading for a historic defeat. The crisis is shown by the fact that they can’t act on it. This is why the current problems of the Liberals are of a completely different order to the hellish leadership merry-ground of the Hawke/Keating years or the post-Menzies period before Fraser. Last week saw the crisis that has been bubbling under throughout this year finally come to the surface. Three features of the events of the last week show how deep it is.

1) There is no alternative
The inability of the party to put together a challenge to Howard by now is the clearest sign of the Liberals’ crisis. This blog has made much of the sham challenge of Costello and the way Howard has used Costello’s inability to grab the leadership as a way of managing the party. However, this tactic would not be viable if there was a real challenge waiting in the wings, but there isn’t. Turnbull, arguably the most likely to offer an alternative, illustrated how serious was his threat in front of his own party on Wednesday by his farcical toing-and-froing in front of the despatch box when questioned on his support for Howard.

2) Collapse of confidence at the top
The media have been consistently mistaking the crisis for a leadership challenge, despite the clear signs we have had that Costello was incapable of turning his moaning about Howard behind his back to an up-front challenge. But they were truly caught out on Tuesday when what appeared like a challenge was actually the top Liberal leadership having a collapse of confidence (Bolt’s apparent delusion that party was acting on his call for Howard to be replaced was especially amusing). This collapse of confidence appeared to originate from the very top if Peter Hartcher’s fascinating account of that meeting of the ministers is right.

3) Self-absorption
The government has not really run a strategy focussed on marginals all year. Scare campaigns over union power and wall-to-wall Labor governments are less aimed at swinging voters than consolidating its own supporter base. Last week’s decision by Howard to talk about his retirement crossed the line into being wholly about holding onto the leadership of the party rather than his electoral position. Just how much his own party standing was weighing on his mind was his comment that he was more popular than the party, an observation totally about arguing his position with his own party (raising questions over his sincerity to share it with a less popular figure) rather than the voters. Howard’s retirement move not only has little appeal to the broader electorate but also now threatens to even erode his support with core supporters, indicated by Howard’s need to go back to his own electorate and undo some of the damage by committing to a full term.

The effect of what is happening to the Liberals goes beyond just the party. What we are seeing is a realignment in Australian politics that will impact the Nationals, the Greens and speed up the transformation of the ALP. The grounds for this have been present for a decade but have been suspended for the last six years by the international situation. The waning of the impact of the War on Terror on Australian politics has now brought it out to the surface. The main reason this blog was started in March was frustration at how this was being missed by political commentators most notably with the constant dismissing of Labor’s huge lead. The fact that it has been building up over years means that it won’t waste any time as the electorate starts to get its message across. The events of the last week show that the changes are now starting to directly impact the political order. Here we go.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 17 September 2007.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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