Off into the void

Wednesday, 20 February 2008 

The very amiability of senior Liberals on Monday’s Four Corners indicates the mess they are in.

No one had any particular axe to grind or any agenda to pursue. Nor did anyone have any strongly held reason as to why they lost, which suggests no-one has any strongly held idea how they can win. Costello pouted over the call offering him the top job that never came, and so denying the Liberals their chance of salvation. But nobody else seemed to believe it did. Abbott repeated the obvious fact that all the polling pointed to them doing even worse under the former Treasurer.

The program did at least reveal why. Costello’s hollowness was exposed when he squirmed on being asked why, after having said they should have signed Kyoto, he didn’t back Turnbull on it at the time. At least Howard could give the impression of being a conviction politician, something that was essential for an agenda-less government. The program’s general lack of interest seemed to be because its makers were intent on pushing a line that only Costello and a few other right-wing Howard haters seemed determined to pursue nowadays, that Howard was the problem.

To know that’s not true, you only have to look at the state of the party since he has gone. Maybe the Liberals decided to abandon AWAs after watching the program and learning from their former Employment Minister that AWAs made people worse off, something that apparently some of their former cabinet colleagues were unaware of at the time. Or maybe not. Making people worse off (or ‘increasing flexibility’ as it is better known on both sides of the House) was the entire point of AWAs, but most employers had Keating’s individual contracts to do that for the general workforce rather than needing to scratch around with AWAs to strip away awards for the lowly paid.

Employers didn’t need AWAs or any major IR reform after Keating sidelined the unions. AWAs were mainly launched to give the appearance of purpose to a purposeless government. The Liberals are giving up their opposition to the abolition of AWAs presumably because they no longer fulfil this role. The trouble is, as indicated by Bishop’s confusing press conference yesterday, they are dragging their feet on it because they don’t know what will take their place.

The media seems to underestimate what is at stake here and regard the Liberals’ dallying around on this as just a bit silly. Michelle Grattan sees it as merely an argument between “philosophy and “common sense politics”. If only it was that simple. AWAs may not make much practical sense from anyone’s point of view but neither does it make much “common sense” for a political party to have no purpose for its existence.

For any political party. The Labor leadership has been having a lot of fun with the Liberals’ IR problems, especially Gillard, who since transferring to the other side of the floor has become Parliament’s most devastating performer (certainly better than that ham Costello!). But then Rudd and Gillard have always enjoyed attacking the coalition’s ‘extreme laws’ since it detracts from the political difficulties which their own anti-union agenda creates with their own side.

Listening to Swan and Rudd at Question Time both unconvincingly rattle off the ‘Five Point Plan to Beat Inflation’ they give a sense of trying to pretend they have an economic policy. But given that this is the first Labor government to have no significant relationship with the unions, they don’t. The Liberals seem to be revelling in exposing Labor as economic-lite and as nothing more than consumer watchdogs on petrol and grocery prices. Fortunately for Labor, this is pretty well all any government can really do anyway.

This policy vacuum across the political scene is surely the real significance that is being missed by the media in the latest Newspoll. All the attention has been focussed on Nelson’s 9% Preferred PM rating but actually in one way the poll wasn’t that bad for him. His satisfaction rating as Opposition leader (whatever that means) of 40% was quite OK for an opposition leader after an election (Beazley got the same after the 1996 election) and the 57/43 2PP is not great but no worse than what the Libs were getting before the election.

He fell down when compared against Rudd as PM but maybe that’s the significant thing of this result. There has never been any PM so popular against the Opposition leader but nor, since Newspoll began measuring it a quarter of a century ago, has there ever been a PM so much more popular than his own party. What Rudd does better than anybody is take advantage of the parties falling into insignificance by portraying politicians as politically bankrupt, out-of-touch and undeserving of a pay-rise (even if it means he has to pay for his own child carer). As Nelson’s own party dumps their core positions and wanders around wondering what they are for, while spilling their guts to anyone who will listen, he will have to learn to do the same.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 20 February 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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