The lurch

Monday, 28 July 2008 

Liberals head to Canberra for the party meetings this week with the salutary lesson from what has just happened in Queensland.

The media likes to call it a merger but in fact it was a political collapse. A dysfunctional branch, no longer able to survive on its own, has had to find shelter elsewhere. The Liberals tried to make it a merger by insisting on the presidency or leadership post of the new entity but the Nationals were having none of it. This resulted in the farcical 11th hour scramble by the Liberal State Council to pull back and call the whole thing off to try and hold onto its organisation. But with the bulk of MPs and members already on their way over, it was too late. While Brough went off in a huff, Liberal President Alan Stockdale was running around trying to put a brave face on something that he was opposing only the day before.

The only sign of a merger is that the Liberals got their name at the front of the new organisation. Queensland Nationals leader Lawrence Springborg may like to say the LNP is a new conservative force, but they’re basically just the same old Queensland Nats. From that it is hard to see how they are now better placed to take on Bligh’s government. The creation of the LNP has come at the expense of that wing of the coalition that was more acceptable in Brisbane, the Liberals, so it would seem to leave Labor in a better position than before. The whole thing was really the Nationals doing what they have been trying for decades to do in Queensland, take over the Liberals.

They succeeded this time because the Liberals are in a political crisis. While the presence of a larger conservative organisation made the Queensland situation unusual, the Liberals’ loss of control of its branch in the country’s third largest and fastest growing state will be felt right across the national party. Basically the Queensland Liberals lost the justification to be an independent political force. It is to deal with this fundamental crisis of identity in the national party that will be the purpose of senior Liberals when they come together in Canberra this week.

Climate change is the issue used to do it. There are particular reasons why the Liberals are using this issue to rally the party, but they all amount to the same thing; the climate change agenda sums up the new political order that the old leadership of the Liberals cannot see their place in. So they are trying to deny it is happening and hope that sooner or later, some hip-pocket backlash will occur and it will all seem like a bad dream.

If climate change is the issue to reassert control, destroying Turnbull’s political career will be the means to bring it about. Turnbull sums up the identity crisis of the Liberals as he has been one of the most adaptable to where the party’s core support base is moving, which underpinned his success in Wentworth at the last election. It is easier for the old leadership to focus against Turnbull than saying what it stands for, especially after it was discredited by the November loss.

If Nelson has done what he is reported to have done, neutralising Turnbull as a political force, then he has performed his biggest service to the old leadership. After a three-minute challenge, Turnbull looks as though he is now toeing the old leadership line. He clearly does not have the numbers, but he should have positioned himself now for a more propitious time, even at the expense of a front bench job. Even if this week is presented as a compromise, it is not an issue where one is possible. Turnbull will have become a sceptic.

Turnbull has apparently justified any compromise to The Australian’s Glenn Milne as a means of waiting until business puts pressure on Nelson to revert to a position that provides more certainty. The trouble with this strategy is that it presumes that this is wholly about climate change. It is about the identity of the party, and even if they water down the sceptic line, Turnbull is still in the way. Turnbull is missing the internal dynamic of what is happening in the Liberals.

He is probably reading too many newspapers. Readers of this blog cannot say they are being surprised by the current shift in the leadership, not only when it first broke to the surface a month ago but from even before Nelson was elected. Yet the media seem curiously blind to the internal dynamics of a party that some of them spend so much time hanging around. There is a one dimension view of the Liberals as though all they are about is getting votes. They are certainly going to struggle with what is happening now because the old leadership is leading the party up a political cul-de-sac.

There is nothing electorally positive for the Liberals where the old leadership is getting ready to take it. It is not just that they are going to be re-losing the 2007 election all over again. Since November, the Rudd government has deliberately exposed the debate to what has been going on overseas and changed the assumptions behind it. As shown by even the Liberals’ difficulties over whether to wait for China and India, Rudd has taken Howard’s old orthodoxy outside the political mainstream. The Liberals’ lurch has also clearly revitalised the Rudd government, which has started to resume the campaigning that it never should have stopped. This may not be very Prime Ministerial but the days when a PM assumed power on a firm basis to govern are gone. As Howard discovered in his first and last term, to just govern is to invite malaise.

Rudd’s line does still need sharpening. He should talk more about the Liberals’ scepticism being for short term political gain than a product of their internal problems. For a start, those internal problems may not always be around. Once Turnbull is diminished as a threat to the leadership the old guard has less need for Nelson. As soon as Nelson finishes digging Turnbull’s political grave, he can probably start on his own.

Talking about the Liberals’ leadership problems also distracts from their greatest vulnerability, which is being called their ‘populism’. That this highly unpopular position is seen as ‘populism’ is made possible because is still seen as such by the media. Journos like Glenn Milne see it like that because their political analysis is stuck in the same past as where the old leadership wants to take the Liberals. For what other reason could he give credence to what someone said to Nelson at a Sydney shopping centre over all the polls taken on this issue? For Rudd, the Liberals’ lurch has not only given his government a high moral purpose but also the weapon that we know he can use most effectively, but is rarely given to a government to use against an opposition, anti-politics. After all what can be worse than trying to make political gain at the expense of the planet’s future?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 28 July 2008.

Filed under Tactics

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