A whiff of political decay

Tuesday, 6 May 2008 

There are a couple of features of Troy Buswell’s farcical tribulations that highlight the state of decay of both major parties, but especially the Liberals.

The first is that we are hearing about it. It could be just possible that political leaders are becoming sleazier. However, it is more likely that the party cohesion that would have recognised that publicising embarrassing details about leading individuals would do more harm to the party (and the standing of politicians in general) than any benefit it would give to any faction or ambitious individual, is starting to break down. Even if loyalty was not valued by all, there would at least be an internal disciplinary process that would make sure the lesson was learnt. That now seems to be missing.

It seems that even the most intimate party event is now not safe from having its details publicised such as the one Alan Carpenter was also being questioned about on The 7.30 Report. Remember that this is a state Labor party that managed to condone and keep quiet about systematic corruption at the highest level for years. Now its leader can’t even keep the antics of an ALP Karaoke night under wraps.

This is not just a WA thing, of course. It seems to have been forgotten but even the Prime Minister came to power leading a party that was leaking politically embarrassing details about his wife’s business and brother’s political affiliations behind his back and with union leaders in his own state claiming they had a ‘shit sheet’ and threatening more to come. Despite all the mouthing off about a coalition dirt unit, it was his own side that caused more problems for Rudd last year on personal attacks.

The second striking thing is the Liberals’ response. It is understandable that a party in crisis would prefer to see it as a problem of its leaders, than the party itself, and go through a merry-go-round of leaders as the WA Liberal party has done in the last three years. There was no electoral reason for the merry-go-round to have stopped yesterday. Even before the chair-sniffing episode broke, Buswell’s polling performance was little better than his dumped predecessors and his handling of the story was pathetic. It was no wonder that were hardly any senior Liberals who were willing to unequivocally stand by him yesterday. They now have a leader who will be a liability all the way up to the next election.

So why did he survive? One reason seems to be a new factor that is creeping into the Liberals’ leadership calculations that was first seen in Queensland at the end of last year over the farcical removal of Bruce Flegg. The party is reaching a point where the main consideration for replacing a leader is not who is best to win, nor even internal factional considerations but how to avoid appearing like a joke.

What is politely being discussed as the party’s ‘brand’ is not really about whether the party is small-l liberal or conservative, despite Nelson’s best attempts to make it so, it is about the party’s viability as a party of government. It is a question that can be avoided while leaders are changed but sooner or later it must reach a point where they are damned if they do get rid of the leader and damned if they don’t. It is unsurprising that the WA Liberals were in despair yesterday. They have now reached the point where they cannot avoid being reminded of their unfitness to govern every time their leader stands up to speak.

The federal Liberals are on their way down the same path. They started on it even before they lost government, on 12 September to be exact, when they crossed over the line to a point where internal considerations became more important than electoral ones and Howard announced his plans to retire. The election of Nelson, not for his own merits but for what he was not, represented another step down this path. Their fretting over whether they should do something about Nelson’s standing in Newspoll’s fairly meaningless poll on preferred PM, which slipped back into single digits yesterday, is a sign that they are worried the next stage in the descent is coming.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 6 May 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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