Their last and best chance

Tuesday, 16 September 2008 

An underlying assumption of the continual speculation around Nelson is that the Liberals would do better with the electorate under Costello or Turnbull. The reasons are not immediately obvious.

Costello’s electoral prospects are fairly easy to deal with. He would make things worse. The Liberals could not bring themselves to dump Howard for Costello last year because every poll confirmed that Costello was less popular than Howard. He would be just as unhelpful now. Even at the height of The Australian’s campaign to draft Costello to take over from Nelson this year, it was forced to report a Newspoll that the paper may have trumpeted as showing Costello was more popular than Nelson, but only by ignoring who with. Costello scored much higher with Liberal voters but would have taken the party backwards with the non-Liberal voters they need to win over. Presumably for the same reason, he was the one most associated with the Howard government for which Liberal supporters may be understandably nostalgic but for everyone else, was a government they had just happily got rid of.

Turnbull is a more difficult matter. Turnbull’s nimble feet before the last election helped him to be one of few coalition MPs to improve his vote at the last election. But Turnbull’s flexibility is also his problem both electorally and internally in the party. Before the election, Turnbull was positioning himself to be identified with the social issues that more suited his electorate than the party. It is that conflict which Turnbull has been negotiating ever since. The trouble that Turnbull has faced since the election is that conflict has become more acute and he has not managed it well.

There is a basic misconception journalists have about political parties, especially those on the right, that they are about nothing more than winning office. As though all of the millions that have been pumped into the Liberal party over the years was to give its 100 or so in its parliamentary party something to do. Those millions of course were so that it could carry out a program to support the interests of its backers over questions like industrial relations and government spending against the union movement and their political representatives in the ALP. With such issues no longer seriously dividing the two parties, the Liberals are left with the fundamental question of what they are for that, since the November defeat, is overwhelming electoral concerns.

It is that blindness to the internal dynamics of political parties that make much of what is going on in Australian politics at the moment incomprehensible to the media. Just as the shenanigans of the NSW Labor look increasingly bizarre so they mis-read the meaning of the leadership tussles in the federal Liberals. For a start they underestimate the problem of Turnbull, and how his flexibility on core Liberal values so annoyed significant sections of the party at the first leadership contest just after the election and how the party’s struggle to redefine those values since has made him the man sections of the party have lined up against.

Yet while Turnbull could be contained, the old leadership could not fully regain control so soon after the election it lost. The result was Abbott’s withdrawal in favour of Nelson and Nelson’s leadership has rested on that stalemate ever since. Gradually, the old leadership has recovered to try and reassert those core values leading to the lurch back of the party from the accommodation with Labor’s agenda in the early months, especially on climate change. Never mind that such a lurch back has probably accounted for the reversing of the downwards drift in the government’s polling and re-energised it, to the Liberals their internal needs are more important.

It was also why Costello was drafted back. Even though probably few Liberals (unlike some journalists) believed he really was a serious contender for the leadership and that he was electorally unpopular, his presence was a way of reconfirming something roughly like the core values that the Howard government was supposed to represent. It was also a way of holding a threat over Turnbull’s head to keep him at bay. With that ruse having just about run its course with the publication of his memoirs, Costello is now performing a similar service by, according to Dennis Shanahan, helping Nelson rally support for the vote.

It is noticeable that the old leadership appears to have stood back and allowed it to be between Nelson and Turnbull (although Abbott appears to be sniffing around Turnbull in case he gets up). Nelson’s pitch is calculated to undercut Turnbull on social issues on same sex couples but isolate him and reassert core values of the old leadership on the politically critical issue of climate change. Furthermore, Nelson is indicating to the party that the stalemate is coming to an end with a purge of Turnbull supporters. Turnbull’s concessions over the last few months, especially his fudge on climate change a few weeks ago, has undermined his credibility as an alternative in the party (and appears to have eroded his one advantage, his electoral standing) without winning the trust of the old leadership. Nelson’s spill is probably his, and the old leadership’s, last and best chance to use Costello and the credibility of the Howard legacy to deal with the Turnbull threat.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 16 September 2008.

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