No womb to go back to

Tuesday, 22 January 2008 

Let’s be blunt.

Nelson was not invited to yesterday’s meeting of Liberal state leaders because he was not wanted. But would he have wanted to go anyway? Probably not. The meeting was supposed to begin the recovery of the Liberals by rebuilding the party at the state level, where it first began over 60 years ago, but it is unlikely to have much success.

As Australia’s ruling party, Menzies’ Liberals naturally reflected the weakness of the Australian state. Authority was centred in either the states, or the Crown on the other side of the world, with not much left for Canberra in between. When Liberal leaders from Gorton onwards tried to shift authority to Canberra as part of the political class’s attempt to develop a modern national identity, it always created some antagonism in the party. The modernising project was mostly for Labor to carry out.

Ironically, it was under Howard, who opposed much of this national identity project, that the Liberal Party became most centralised in Canberra. However, it was less because of what Howard was doing rather than, as state government became depoliticised and Premiers little more than glorified hospital administrators, the role of the Liberals became redundant and one by one they dropped out of electability over the last decade.

The Melbourne meeting was proposed by SA’s Hamilton-Smith a few days after the November election. The state organisations clearly see a chance to reassert themselves over the party now that the federal Liberals have lost power. But this has only come about because what was happening in the states has now come to Canberra as the Mandarin begins sucking the politics out of federal government. The Liberals still have nothing to bring to state governments that are nowadays only about services, probably best summed up by the hapless Queensland leader who said “What we failed to do is understand what they want us to do”.

All such meetings do is to expose the dysfunctional state organisations, and the non-entities who lead them, to the mockery of journalists. However, at least it shows that the state leaders are more realistic than some commentators who expect the normal political cycle to reassert itself in state government, starting in WA next year. In fact WA is the exception that proves the rule. A Labor government that is still in contention despite having blown out half of its Ministry to corruption clearly shows the old political cycle has gone for good.

Where do the Liberals go from here? At the moment it is hard to tell. Certainly the answer is unlikely to come from what went on in Melbourne yesterday. Probably the best chance is to take advantage of the most risky thing Rudd has started doing since coming to power, opening up the domestic political scene to an international agenda. Since no Australian government will have much influence over international developments, perhaps it can change to the Liberals’ advantage. In the meantime there seems little they can do to pass the time other than keep their spirits up by holding such meetings and over-throwing their leaders every now and then.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 22 January 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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