End of an era: The Liberals

Thursday, 20 December 2007 

Paul Sheehan becomes the latest of the right-wing Howard-Haters stampeding onto the opinion pages of the nation’s broadsheets. Sheehan goes further than most in saying it was only about Howard hanging on too long, and not about any other issue such as Workchoices, climate change or interest rates.

Let’s follow the logic of this. If the Liberals’ problems are only about Howard being in charge, now that he has gone, their problems should be over, right? Well, not quite.

Indeed, as the party instinctively knows, more clearly than its acolytes in the press, his departure has only made things worse. The revelations from Downer and Paul Kelly mostly told us what we already knew, that there was no real challenge to Howard. According to Downer, Howard was going to go in 2006, apparently, but Costello was a bit rude so Howard decided not to, neatly showing the potency of that challenge. Even when Howard placed his head on the chopping block during the APEC summit, there was still no-one capable of swinging the axe, largely because there was seen to be no acceptable alternative. With Costello now out of the picture, the absence of any alternative is staring the party in the face as they look at the leader they now have.

Where do they go from here? Despite the delusions of commentators like Sheehan, the Liberals are well aware they are in a crisis. The leaked memo from a senior Victorian Liberal claiming that the Liberals stand for nothing is a sign of the depth of morale in the party. The problem is that in finding a resolution to their problems, they do not know where to start.

Strictly speaking the Liberals have never really stood for anything. In the UK, Conservatives can at least stand for the Monarchy, the Church of England and memories of Empire. US conservatives have the Revolution and military power. Against that, Australian conservatives have a military debacle and some pacifist with a donkey. They don’t really cut the mustard.

More important for the Liberals is what they are against. Since organised labour became a political force shortly after federation, non-Labor parties, in their various guises, have defined themselves against Labor’s pro-union, pro government spending agenda on behalf of those sections of society that had an interest in opposing it. The Liberals’ problem is that Labor has now dropped that agenda and, as shown by Howard’s IR flops, business has little use for them.

Howard had this problem from the first day of government but was artificially covered after 11 September 2001. The War on Terror was a mixed blessing for the Liberals, it may have solved the problem for a while but meant they were never forced to address their policy vacuum. The only sign was their dropping out, one by one, from electability in the states across the Commonwealth, where international issues had little resonance.

The Liberals’ crisis in the states gets surprisingly little mention. It seems to be regarded as the inevitable turn in the cycle that just seems to have coincidentally gone against the Liberals everywhere at the same time. As seen in the last Queensland and NSW elections commentators are still expecting the normal cycle of post-war politics to return, but there is little sign it is. For a party that had been historically state-based, the failure of the state organisations represented a hollowing out of the party that was disguised by their continuing hold on federal government. With the passing of the War on Terror and the defeat of the Howard government, the crisis in the states has now come to Canberra and suddenly exposed a crisis that is already well developed.

In resolving their problems they will get little help from their ‘intellectuals’ if contributions in the press are any guide. For the last decade writers like Henderson and Sheehan have been lazily conducting a pseudo cultural ‘war’ against an enemy that barely existed. This may have titillated their supporters, but fighting against an agenda that Labor has already abandoned has done little to prepare them against the new party that has now taken power in Canberra.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 20 December 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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