A staged implosion – an update

Monday, 26 November 2007 

Well that was quick.

Costello’s refusal of the leadership has undermined the brief stability given by the Liberals holding up reasonably well in their blue ribbon metropolitan seats. In doing so he paid back the party that had refused to give him the leadership on a plate a year ago.

The obvious barb in Costello’s press conference was the attack on the NSW Liberal Party, blaming them for the Lindsay fiasco. He probably had a point. The issue wouldn’t have been the message that Labor is soft on Bali bombers, given that only a few months ago Howard was trying to argue McClelland’s opposition to the death penalty for the Bali bombers was just expressing party policy. As Costello said, it took up airtime and ‘sucking the oxygen’ out of the last few days. But it did that because the Liberals could not clamp down on it. Jackie Kelly should never have been allowed to get on the air and say it was a joke. The leadership’s inability to say who had been expelled was to cover up the fact that they could not expel who they wanted because the branch was out of control.

It is the lack of alternatives behind the party’s fragmentation that Costello touched on in his press conference. The clue was Costello’s references to ‘generational change’. Generational change has been a loaded euphemism for the coalition this year, firstly to console themselves on Labor’s lead, by implying Rudd was just a younger Howard. Costello also used it for his challenge to Howard. Mainly this concealed that Costello didn’t really have an alternative to Howard than his age. However, it was also a way of obliquely referring to the differences that he did have, but would struggle to overtly campaign on in the party, the republic, saying sorry for the stolen generation, liberal family values etc.

This gets to the problem of Costello’s challenge. His main points of differences with Howard are not really the core values of the Liberals. In fact, these days they are not really the core values of Rudd very much either, who is unlikely to oppose them but unlikely to make it the core of his political project. While Costello was incapable of challenging Howard this never really came out and Howard could use Costello as a pretend challenger to manage the party’s dilemma in wanting an alternative but not knowing what it is.

That strategy has now collapsed and the dilemma has now come out in what to do about Malcolm Turnbull. This former leader of the Republican movement and humiliator of Thatcher is hardly a mainstream ‘conservative’ (expect to hear this word more in the coming battles). He faces strong opposition in the party and certainly did from the former leadership, which is probably why yesterday Costello was talking about another generational change and looking to the next generation after him (it is certain that Howard was grooming Brough for the same reason). Costello call to the next generation is implying that for now there is no palatable alternative for the Liberals after his departure. Which is probably true, otherwise Howard would not have been able to use Costello like he did.

However, Turnbull has three main advantages that make him hard to brush off. First, he is one of the few with the confidence in an alternative agenda from which he can challenge, which is why he was the first to put his hat in the ring. Secondly, his agenda has a constituency in core metropolitan Liberal supporters, as shown by his fairly good hold-out in Wentworth. However, in the election Turnbull’s social agenda was combined with party themes of anti-union, tax cuts and fear of wall-to wall Labor governments, all of which are becoming increasingly irrelevant as Rudd consolidates power. The popularity of Turnbull’s agenda reminds the Liberals that their core support in the metropolitan seats nowadays supports much that they don’t agree with. Finally, to many media commentators, Turnbull looks more in tune with the times. The trouble is the times are just not the Liberals’.

[A look at Labor after the election has been postponed until tomorrow.]

[Update: Sad news on the death of one of the most perceptive political commentators in the country, Matt Price.]

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 26 November 2007.

Filed under Political figures

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