Every minority needs a symbolic gesture in Parliament and the Liberals seem determined to get theirs.

Their plan to block Labor’s abolition of AWAs has little practical significance of course. Even Julie Bishop on Lateline the other night admitted that after a decade of Howard trying to flog them, they were still only 8% of employment contracts (higher than some other estimates). With individual contracts well entrenched and unions permanently in decline, such contracts were an irrelevance. To make it not seem so, Bishop had to pretend that Gillard was rolling back the industrial landscape when she knows full well that Gillard is doing no such thing.

However, such practicalities are not the issue of a party struggling to find a purpose for its existence. Anything will do, even something redundant as AWAs, if it can help the party to come together when it seems that every issue divides the party into different positions and they have a leader who thinks leadership is about taking up each of those positions one after the other.

However, the crisis in the Liberals goes beyond the trouble of the party itself. It is one thing to write before the election about the coming crisis of the Liberals and the coming anti-politics coup by Rudd but to see it in action is something else.

The media are just starting to wake up to what an affront it is to both political parties for Rudd to call a Summit to Parliament House of 1,000 Australian people to make policy, a job normally expected to be the preserve of political parties, especially the one that may have been under the delusion that it has just come to power. Where has been the disquiet from the ALP over what role these unelected experts, chosen by Rudd and the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, will have over government policy and how this will sit with the platform passed at last year’s National Conference? There has barely been a word.

No doubt within the party it is being seen as a populist stunt and that Rudd will have the final word anyway and since they put Rudd in they can replace him. But what they miss is that by calling the Summit, the Prime Minister is saying to the world that he thinks the ALP is politically bankrupt. He thanked them for bringing him to power on election night (as though they hadn’t come to power too), but now their role seems to be over.

It shows that Rudd’s me-tooism last year was not just a tactic but reflected the real state of the ALP. It is a party that over the last decade, starting in the states, has become largely a technocratic organisation that may not be that great at running services but at least is better than the other mob. This depoliticising of the ALP may not have been a smooth road at the state level, with the collapse of state banks etc., but if there were any ideological rows on the way down this blogger missed them. With not a word of concern that Rudd will not be pursuing reconciliation in the wider community and is in no hurry for the Republic, it seems even Keating’s agenda has died in the ALP. As can now be clearly heard by the rattling of Gerard Henderson’s empty can after the election, those right-wing warriors conducting their ‘cultural wars’ over the last decade have been largely fighting their own shadow.

In fact if the cultural war seems to be happening anywhere now it is within the Liberal party. It is as though the entire political spectrum has imploded and now resides just between the different groupings in the Liberal party. However, with no government role to bind them and no agenda on the other side to oppose, the Liberals are becoming just a collection of individuals whose personal views predominate. So Ruddock, the A-G of anti-terrorism laws and mandatory detention, turns into a nice guy on the apology. And their views are subject to fluctuations, like anyone’s. Not just their leader but even former ideologues like Abbott go through a metamorphosis on the same issue in a matter of days.

The apology is a nightmare for the Liberals in this state, because there is no issue that can be so personally emotive but politically critical over what stance to take to what past governments did to indigenous people. It is not surprising given the feelings involved that there was initially a suggestion of a conscience vote. However, the political importance of the issue makes it impossible. The Liberals’ compromise has been to vote together ‘in principle’ but allow everyone the right to give individual speeches on the day which may very well reveal that the unified vote, even if it happens, was a sham. The apology debate goes to the heart of how the political class defines itself and if a political party cannot adhere to a line on this it will suffer credibility. If the Liberals come across as a bunch of individuals on such a fundamental issue, their views will have no more validity than the 1,000 other individuals coming to replace them and the ALP in a few months time.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 9 February 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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