Liberals get ready to lurch

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 

If the Liberal party is a car suspended momentarily up a cliff, there are signs that it is starting to move – and the direction is not up.

The first sign is the serious mis-step they have just made on petrol prices.

To review the petrol price issue: for weeks the Liberals (and the media) have thought that they had the government under pressure over petrol prices after Rudd commented that there was little the government could do about it. Lowering expectations about what government is capable of is core to Rudd’s agenda. However, the mistake Rudd made was to boldly state it before he had fully laid the political conditions for doing so. Not a great mistake, as he was only saying out loud what the electorate already generally thinks. But to the media and the Liberals, still catching up with this new reality, it seemed like one.

That is not to say that Nelson did not have something to play with. Putting petrol excise into the spotlight was not a bad move. After all, the surplus was supposed to be there for tough times and wouldn’t “the third great oil shock”, as Rudd likes to call it, be one of them? The problem was that this tactic could only be pushed a small distance because the reality is that there is relatively little the government can do about such a global problem and the public knows it. The Liberals could never have linked cutting excise to a broader political position.

Unfortunately internal considerations in the party forced Nelson to go in harder. Dealing with the new government requires a deft touch which is near impossible when you have the old leadership in the form of Bishop and Hockey at each elbow. Making it concrete by putting a specific 5 cent cut was daft. Attacking Labor’s anodyne scheme to allow customers to compare prices was even more dumb.

The Liberals’ mistake was to confuse a government that had made a small stumble in the process of consolidating itself for a government that had thrown in the towel in just a few months. Since making the statement, Rudd has accelerated the political arguments why there is little the government can do. He has gone out of his way to emphasise the international dimension of the oil issue; talking about Asian initiatives and applying a blow torch to OPEC. It didn’t matter that no blow torch ever materialised in Martin Ferguson’s hands while in Jeddah, it was enough that all the attention was focussed on an international summit where others were trying to do the same.

However, the most important political weapon the government has is the climate change agenda. Unlike practically every other blogger on the internet it seems, this one has no expertise in climatology. But the political implications of the agenda are clear. Already we see how state governments turn a problem of poor water infrastructure to a problem of global warming, it is a shame they can’t blame the other underfunded infrastructure such as rail and roads on climate change as well. At the federal level, climate change is not only a global issue but all about setting down constraints that governments must work under, making it an ideal issue for this one. It turns the whole petrol debate around from how can we afford using it to whether we should be at all.

The Liberals, however, have a tendency to see it upside down. For them, climate change won’t depoliticise rising petrol prices, it will aggravate it, which is why they are now raising the threat of further petrol hikes when it is included in carbon emission trading. An example of the thinking came from Andrew Bolt on Insiders when he said that support for doing something about climate change will melt away if it means higher petrol prices. However, Megalogenis was right in replying that focus groups are less concerned on prices than the lack of long term policy from government. What that means is that the climate change agenda has already been accepted, the electorate just wants government policy to come into line.

In fact the Liberals’ ‘pragmatism’ on climate change is exactly what they tried last year and it failed. Their reality actually relies on a fantasy about how the international political order is shaping up and how social issues both here and around the world are being viewed.

This u-turn on climate change shows that any lessons the Liberals have learnt about the new political order are being thrown away. It shifts the petrol debate firmly onto ground where Rudd can feel comfortable again. It also gives the media an issue through which they can finally start to understand this new government, summed up by an excruciating interview on The 7.30 Report with the Liberals’ poor climate change spokesman, forced to reverse months of trying to sell the coalition’s great back-flip on global warming from being a sceptic to the keenest on the block. A return to the failed policies of the past indicate the re-emergence of the failed leadership of the past. It suggests the second mistake the Liberals are about to make – who they will choose to replace Nelson.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 25 June 2008.

Filed under Tactics

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