Bodies on the track

Wednesday, 9 July 2008 

Australia has got a train coming down the track that’s got Mr Rudd’s face on it.

B Nelson

Yes Brendan, and you are right in the way.

Back in the days when Patrick Cook was funny, he used to run Murdochian headlines of ‘Labor split looms’ to mock one of the proprietor’s favourite themes. We now have the latest variant. Rudd’s stepping up of the climate change agenda has Costa fighting rearguard action from the last union-influenced Labor government in the country and the WA government fulfilling its historical role as a lobby platform for mining. Such reports are fair enough, there will inevitably be some ructions as Rudd finishes the transformation of the ALP to the technocratic organisation it is elsewhere in the country. But if Labor has bumps on the road to becoming a party of bureaucrats, climate change surely has the potential to be even more troubling for the coalition.

Didn’t the Liberal party just lose a branch recently? The agreement of the Queensland Liberals to merge with the Nationals effectively dissolves the party’s organisation and removes it from the political scene of the country’s third largest state. One of the joys of the merger has been to watch the coalition try to give an electoral reason for something that was done for purely internal, and largely negative, reasons. One National MP had a go a week ago, using everyone’s current favourite sign of a conservative revival:

It’s all very encouraging I’ve got to say and I think conservative politics in Queensland are certainly on the edge of a new era. I think following the by-election in Victoria in Gippsland on Saturday, people realise that we’ve got to have a strong united conservative force and I think Queensland is leading the way.

Of course, you might just as easily say that a by-election where the coalition’s vote was helped by the Liberals running a candidate against the Nationals for the first time in more than two decades proves the exact opposite. Never mind. It helps avoid the awkward fact that the real reason the Liberals merged was that it was becoming so dysfunctional that burying itself into the Nationals outweighed any negative electoral impact, such as that pointed out by an unhappy former state Liberal president:

I can’t see us now winning seats in and around Brisbane. These people are more likely to vote for the Greens than a party that lurches to the Right.

Bob Carroll touches on a couple of interesting points about what is happening to conservative politics. First he highlights the underlying fissure between the Liberals voting base in the city and what is seen as a more conservative social agenda by the Nationals. It is also interesting that he appears to suggest the Greens as a more likely destination than the ALP. It highlights the importance of social/environmental issues but also reiterates the one thing about the ALP that would have deterred any switching coalition voter, its relationship with the unions.

The supposed divide between the Nationals and the Liberals is really just the Nationals in their long struggle to find an ideological role after their real one had ended. It helps the Liberals present an organisational collapse of one of their state branches as a political move (if only the WA Nationals could be such a haven!). However, it has also helped the federal Liberal leader to represent a more fundamental political problem as an organisational one. The dislocation between many Liberals supporters and the party’s agenda (the ‘doctors’ wives’ syndrome) has often been noted and usually over-stated. This is mainly because commentators fail to recognise what are critical issues and what are not. Voters may disagree with the party about its social and environmental stances, for example, but these can be outweighed by more core considerations.

For traditional coalition supporters there were two key issues that bound them together. The first was opposition to the unions and government spending, an issue that began losing its resonance with the last Labor government, revived by the Liberals before the election, but since then must surely have lost its effectiveness for good. The second was foreign policy. With Australian foreign policy geared to ally itself to whoever was the great power of the day, the right in Australia would always position themselves as the most loyal. With Howard’s IR policy an unwanted flop during his government, the US’s War on Terror at least gave his supporters something on which they could agree.

However, this time it went wrong. As seen with the G8 Summit in Japan this week, climate change, the agenda of the US’s rivals, is the now the focus of global diplomacy not Bush’s War on Terror and even Bush was forced to tag along. Following US foreign policy down the neo-con cul-de-sac has left the Liberal leadership on the wrong side of global politics and it has been struggling to keep up. Howard was so caught out by the US re-think last year that he ended up calling one US politician a friend of terrorism twelve months before he became the front-runner for the US presidency. At APEC he tried to jump on the climate change bandwagon by trying to drum up a ‘new Kyoto’ with Bush to not only to keep up with the international mood but also with his core voters in blue ribbon metropolitan seats. However, both Bush and Howard had too much baggage and personnel changes were needed for a real turn. When Howard lost in November, the Liberals switched sharply on climate change and their spokeman Greg Hunt positioned himself as the most hard-line on the issue claiming Rudd had gone ‘soft’.

Unfortunately this ran into trouble. Firstly, because Labor had climate change sown up. Like the media, the Liberals under-estimated Rudd’s commitment to the issue. Secondly, without being able to mark out a clear position on the number one foreign policy issue and with IR now a busted flush, the Liberals have nothing to distinguish themselves on. This ‘brand’ problem is behind the Liberals’ lurch back that now appears underway.

But how sustainable can this be? It not only puts Australia’s traditional ruling party on the wrong side of the global agenda, but after November, probably the US one as well. Furthermore it puts itself on the wrong side of many of core supporters at a time when it has no other compelling issue to hold them. Gippsland was a product of a political era now passing with a government that hadn’t yet found its core theme but with a kick from traditional Labor supporters who had an idea of what is coming. It will be interesting to see whether Labor wants to make the next by-election in Mayo more revealing of the new political landscape we are entering.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 9 July 2008.

Filed under State and federal politics, State of the parties

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