Liberals get ready to lurch – Part 2

Thursday, 26 June 2008 

It’s just one poll, if the next couple of polls show the same thing, then I think obviously I think it starts to get significant.

T Abbott 17 June 2008

It has been surprising how little attention was given to Abbott’s response to yet another poll showing the end-of-the-honeymoon-that-never-came. It is significant. Firstly because although it has been said that it puts Nelson under notice in the future, it actually damages him right now. It undermines one key thing that leaders need to be seen to have – control over their destiny.

Secondly because it marks the re-emergence of that part of the Liberal party that does have control over Nelson’s destiny, the old leadership, whose last minute withdrawal of their candidate, a certain Tony Abbott, ensured Nelson’s win last November.

Abbott’s withdrawal was a necessity to prevent something worse for them than a Nelson leadership – a Turnbull one. Unlike how it is often discussed in the media, growing party support for Turnbull is not the main threat to Nelson, the reverse is. The less Turnbull looks like a feasible threat, the less the old leadership have a need for Nelson to fill the gap and the more likely they can move to retake control.

Abbott’s shot across Nelson’s bow is one sign that they are starting to do so. A clearer sign is this week’s highly significant tactical U-turn on climate change. Turnbull’s star already looked to be on the wane following the Budget and the climate change U-turn is now seriously undermining him. It has placed Turnbull in an impossible situation. He must either break with the party line or keep up with it. However, in changing tack he undermines his credibility as an alternative to the old leadership and its failed agenda that he had so carefully built up in the dying months of the Howard government.

Turnbull is a fascinating lesson in the art of politics if only to see how it is not done. On paper, he seems the ideal leader for the Liberals at this stage and the media naturally assume he will be. However, he is a political babe in the woods. A classic example is the focus group that he is reported to have organised, which has given the government such fun this week and finally given Swan his confidence in the House after months of agony trying to pretend he has an economic policy. Running a focus group to find out what the public thinks of him neatly sums up Turnbull’s problem. He seriously thinks that it is his electoral popularity that is the main barrier to winning the party leadership. It is actually his party colleagues and for them, electoral popularity is not the first thing on their minds.

For the factor that is forcing a move on Nelson is less his poor polling in the electorate but a much more serious problem, which is euphemistically called ‘damage to the party’s brand’ i.e. the erosion of the party’s core support base.

The irony of the Nelson leadership is that the tactic that is causing the government most problems is actually the one that causes the most problems for his own side as well. Nelson’s eager adoption of the New Sensitivity may lead to him being mocked but it has provided a difficult target for the government to get its teeth into over the last six months.

Everyone talks about Nelson having failed to land a glove on the government, but neither has the government really laid one on Nelson – until now. Nelson’s problem has tended to be that he takes his empathy too far, hence the mockery, but that is because he has pressure behind him to go in harder than he should. However, the old leadership’s impatience at what effect going along with Rudd’s position on the apology, climate change and over-turning all those other increasingly meaningless symbols of the Howard era will have on their core support base, has now forced them to act and start to undo what they see as the damage of the last six months.

It is pretty easy to make the electoral argument against this U-turn back to the old Howard agenda – it lost the coalition the election just six months ago. You only have to listen to Question Time this week to realise how the government has been re-energised by the U-turn on climate change. The opposition’s questions on petrol and climate change are so popular with the government that they are being set up from their own side as well. It has allowed the government to revive its focus on the long term agenda that helped it win power.

In fact so dramatic was the turnaround in the mood in Parliament this week (something not picked up much in the press) that it must be giving some Liberals food for thought about the new tack they have taken. But ultimately, such concerns are eventually going to have to be put aside. At the end of the day, they might have no choice.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 26 June 2008.

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