Review of 2008 – The Liberals

Monday, 22 December 2008 

If there has been one key development driving the federal Liberals over 2008, it has been the faltering grip of the old leadership.

Imploding in the run up to the loss last November, the last minute withdrawal of Abbott’s candidacy and the fumbled attempt to reassert itself under Nelson in the winter this year, the Liberals are left at the end of 2008 in a vacuum with a leader that has no real base of support in the party but with the old guard yet unable to get rid of him.

No doubt the media assessment of Nelson’s brief tenure in the end-of-year round-ups will not be glowing. But Nelson probably did the best in a dire situation. He had two problems. The first was the presence of the old guard that made clear he owed their victory to them, while no doubt being less clear why their own man couldn’t get the chance to use his people skills. The old leadership have influence because they are the only ones that can convincingly assert party values at a time it need to be told what it stands for. As Howard sat in his suite at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, just down the corridor from Nelson’s, he could ring around the party and call Nelson in to remind him what the party stood for and keep him on the right track.

The one small problem with what Howard would have had to say, however, was that it no longer won elections. No-one in the party seems to want to admit it publicly but they had just lost the election under his leadership and his policies. It wasn’t even that they were that unpopular, more irrelevant to even the party’s own business backers.

This would have been bad enough to handle but the political environment made it even worse. Rudd had come into power on the fact that neither major party had anything especially relevant to say to Australia in 2008 and so we had the New Sensitivity; bipartisanship, avoiding political ‘argy-bargy’ and feeling everyone’s pain. While this touchy-feely was anathema to an old guard trying to assert itself, Nelson actually didn’t do a bad job given the pressures on his back.

Nelson’s compromise was to do Sensitive, but go in ‘hard’ at the same time. Probably his most memorable performance was during the height of the petrol kerfuffle. The Liberals never sounded that convincing even when some of them were trying to chip in with any mid-market car models they could think of (Julie Bishop helpfully came up with a Tarago).

This and ‘every mother loves her baby’ may be excruciating to watch, but such Sensitive gestures prevented Rudd getting a grip on Nelson even if it made him a figure of mockery for the media. So Labor’s lead drifted away during the winter, but it left Nelson a political laughing stock.

The damage to the ‘brand’, as senior Liberals cutely called the party’s rationale, became too much to swallow and by June there were clear attempts to push Nelson to a more distinct position. That had to centre on the one thing where they still felt to have an advantage, the economy, and that was the basis on which they pushed a harder line on climate change. The argument was that there would soon be electoral resistance against climate change action as it hit the hip-pocket. Something you could see resonated in the right wing press until they had to confront the shocking polling evidence that the public thought no such thing.

The return of a more open climate change scepticism may have made the party feel good, but also reinvigorated a drifting government. Anyone listening to Parliament during June would have heard the way the government suddenly came back to life after being bogged down in petrol price tedium.

Such a move was obviously a challenge to Turnbull and he had to respond. With Nelson losing his grip, the old leadership needed to draft in the ghost of a Costello leadership challenge to keep Turnbull in place and we saw the return of that pantomime a full six months before Christmas. Stuck in the middle, Nelson had no choice but to respond and bring things to a head. Despite the backing of most of the old leadership, he narrowly lost.

Turnbull’s arrival represented the old guard’s defeat rather than the arrival of a new order. That is why he has had no impact on policy despite telling anyone who listened that he would start doing so by the year end. In fact if anything, his side of the party seems to have gone backwards (anyone heard from Greg Hunt lately?).

In reality Turnbull faced the same problems as Nelson, but even more acute. He still faced the New Sensitivity rules of play, and like the hard luck stories he gave on arriving to the leadership he was only a bit less awkward at doing it than Nelson. He still faced the Master of the Game on the opposite side. Despite the media claiming the ‘game is back on’, if anything the government’s drift reversed from the day he took over.

He also has the old guard to deal with. Their setback with Nelson’s loss may have brought on a temporary respite that might have looked like unity to some, but the problem for them is getting even more pronounced after the right fell over themselves to support the bail-out. The last few months have seen a scramble right across the party to recover what they lost in the October panic.

There are now little signs that this will mean the old guard are getting ready to dispose of their second leader. Being Liberals, they do things less directly. The first way they begin targeting the current leadership is through its weakest point, the deputy. While Bishop is unaligned with Turnbull internally, mutterings about Bishop are an indirect way of complaining about the leadership performance as a whole. Now we have the rebellion in the Senate, where while all the focus has been on what the Nats did, the real challenge came from what senior Libs like Nick Minchin did. Maybe the media is right after all, it does look as the game is back on.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 22 December 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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