What a political crisis looks like – an update

Wednesday, 12 December 2007 

Is Gerard Henderson the new Dennis Shanahan?

Just as The Australian’s Chief Political Correspondent summed up the political fallacies in the run up to the election, Gerard seems to have taken over the lead after it.

His latest piece on the state of the Liberal party argues that talk of it being in crisis is overdone and that they will probably pull through. Yet his article suffers from a very basic flaw – he confuses a political crisis for its resolution. The Liberal party probably will survive until the next election, but that is precisely their problem, they have no alternative from which to create a new party. Just as the lack of alternative before the election became a leadership implosion instead of a challenge, it is quite likely that the party will continue to fragment into individuals rather than reform to a new party.

The Liberal party resembles a car that has gone over a cliff but is suspended on a ledge above the abyss. It sits precariously in an unstable stability because the next move will be even worse. This is the secret of Nelson’s leadership. When a political party becomes redundant it either has a leader that stands for what the party believes in but is unelectable (Abbott) or a leader who is more electable but doesn’t agree with his party (Turnbull). As neither are palatable alternatives, the party has ended up with one who is neither especially electable nor especially able to remember why he joined the party.

This is not a very stable position, but perhaps more so than commentators are arguing, especially if they are expecting Turnbull to take over soon. There is a strange under-estimating of the problems of a Turnbull regime that led to most commentators thinking he would be a shoe-in in the leadership ballot. They see his failure as down to technicalities, like campaigning openly through the ABC rather than what he was actually saying to Fran Kelly. The problem of a leader that sounds more like Keating than anyone from the Liberal party may not be obvious to even right-wing commentators like Pearson but would be to those in the leadership who know the importance of having something distinctive to stand for when facing their opponents in the electorate.

It was why Abbott withdrew from the leadership as a move to make sure it was Anyone But Turnbull. Who it did end up being is probably not that palatable to the senior Liberal hierarchy either, but will do until Turnbull’s support can be undermined, which is probably the ‘mentoring’ role that the old leadership is conducting in the party right now (a notable exception is Downer who seemed to be the only senior Liberal who backed Turnbull, which may have done for his chances at the President post). At a guess, it is probably the party’s right, rather than Turnbull, that Nelson needs to worry about – keep an eye on Julie Bishop.

The Liberals were helped by an election campaign that enabled them to reverse what had been unsettling the party during the year, Rudd’s dramatic inroads into their core supporter base. As a result of their focus on the party’s traditional core themes, and Labor stupidly banging on about theirs, the Liberals made sure that Labor achieved a lot of its swings in its own seats rather than the Liberal heartland. However, as Rudd re-takes control, talk of industrial relations and Workchoices has evaporated and the message is back on the core Rudd themes such as climate change that will help him regain the momentum he was making before Tim Gartrell’s really brilliant campaign lost it. As he does so, he will expose the real problem for the non-Labor parties, there is no longer a Labor party to be against.

It is the ongoing erosion of the Liberal heartland that will determine where the party goes from here. Tony Wright is probably correct that the Liberals face a potential nightmare in by-elections in the safe seats held by Costello, Ruddock et al and this could increase as Rudd reassures Liberal voters just how mis-leading Labor’s old-style election campaign really was. Poor by-election results would potentially destabilise the Nelson’s leadership and, the best fun of all, the timing is largely in the old leadership’s hands.

The problem of the Liberals’ heartland is really what the problem of Turnbull is about. While the Liberals held onto their urban heartland banging on about core values, Turnbull did even better distancing himself from them, especially on Kyoto and social issues. When Liberals look at Turnbull they see the heartland they have already lost, the ‘heart’ that Howard broke in the Republican referendum by doing no more than campaigning for a core position of the party that Menzies founded. For the Liberals to accept Turnbull as leader, it would be to openly admit that that party is over and to step off the ledge into the abyss.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 12 December 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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