The last thing they need are ideas

Wednesday, 29 October 2008 

Peter Van Onselen is clearly miffed that not only could Julie Bishop not be bothered writing an essay for his collection “Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead”, but neither could the staffer she dumped the job onto, who ended up copying it from a NZ businessman. It may surprise some given Bishop’s call earlier this year for a ‘battle of ideas’ but in this blogger’s experience, those who bang on about the importance of battling with ideas are usually the least likely to have any.

Van Onselen appears to be especially peeved as he is hoping for the book to launch an intellectual revival in the party as the start of the Liberals reappraising their policies to regain power.

All of this is complete silliness of course. The Liberals’ problem is not that they don’t have a platform. It is that they don’t represent anyone who would tell them what it is. Business has lost interest in the Liberal party to the point that when they persisted with Workchoices after the election, business told them to put it away. This is the Liberals central problem; they are stuck with the natural response to a political party trying to work out what it is about is, why bother? Why not just disband?

Making those specific interests appear as universal as possible is the art of politics. Nowadays, with political parties not really representing any section of society but still hanging around, politics has become more about trying to make the universal specific to somebody. So we have Rudd’s working families and Nelson’s Commodore parents (Turnbull so far seems to have produced no-one). In the US we have the Republicans almost running an entire election campaign around some plumber named Joe.

This lack of agenda is not that new either. Howard hardly came back to power on a wave of ideas in 1996. In fact, everyone but Howard knows that he won on not having any ideas but instead posing as a safe pair of hands against Keating’s agenda. Not standing for anything in particular was the one lesson they decided to learn from Hewson’s defeat in 1993.

For the record, it might also be added that the ALP was not exactly an intellectual salon while in opposition over the last decade. In fact, after the 1996 loss, intellectual life in Labor pretty well imploded (and took much of the left-liberal commentary with it). There were some important speeches, for example, by Gillard, but mostly they were about dumping the past than setting out anything new for the future. Howard came to power on no ideas and spent a decade trying to pretend he had some (it fooled a few). But if there is any government that has been explicit from day one of not having any preconceived ideas, but rather leaving it to reviews and summits run by the great and good, it is the one we have now. Despite how much difficulty the media has with this, it has so far proved extremely popular.

The reason why we have the most popular government for at least a quarter of a century is that Rudd has adopted to the political reality that such narratives are not possible and to break from a decade of phoney cultural wars and contrived political agendas from both left and right made out of thin air. If Turnbull has one political attribute, is that he doesn’t seem to have an agenda either. No surprise that he didn’t contribute to Van Onselen’s book.

The problem Turnbull has is that the party behind him is not as comfortable with that fact. The majority still like to think the last government stood for something, even if it is recognised as unpopular and can only be talked in polite company as ‘sound economic management’. Unfortunately, two weeks ago they gave the game away and since then have been trying to claim it back (look at Janet Albrechtsen having a go at all those pro-statists coming to the surface in Europe. At least they had a banking crisis. Two weeks ago Albrechtsen was cheering the world’s most complete government bank bail-out in a country that didn’t even have one). For Turnbull’ an insecure party will be a major barrier to him making a pragmatic response to anything. Unfortunately for us, it will probably mean more empty calls for ideas, more tedious books from politicians with nothing to say and more academics like Van Onselen telling them how to do their jobs.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 29 October 2008.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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