No Right turn

Monday, 19 January 2009 

We are getting a better idea now what was on the menu for lunch between Howard and Joyce a couple of weeks ago.

Not just Joyce moving to the House of Reps. Following it, Joyce has again raised the key issue for internal coalition politics that would be most guaranteed to undermine Turnbull’s support with sections of the Liberal party – climate change. Then, just in case Turnbull thought he could ignore it, Joyce ramps it up further in his own style by likening environmentalists to Nazis. The Turnbull camp has responded by wheeling out one of its big guns, er, Chris Pyne, to argue that the party should move to the centre. This received a warm and friendly slap-down by leading member of the old guard, and Howard hatchet man, Nick Minchin, with a letter to the Herald claiming that Pyne wanted to send the party to the left.

Despite how the Liberals are posing this, it would be wrong to see what is happening here as simply a battle between the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in the party. The use of climate change by the old guard to undermine Turnbull is not a re-run of the old arguments between the ‘wets’ and the ‘drys’ during Labor’s last stint in office. Then it was about how to respond to Hawke’s economic rationalism. Howard was a keen participant then, but his involvement now is a battle over the rationale of a party that is struggling to work out what it stands for and has little to do with what the Rudd government is doing. It is why the more Rudd tones down his stance on climate change and steps back from the issue, the more leeway it gives the Liberals to set upon each other.

Posing this as an issue over whether the party should move to the left or the right, may help the Liberals avoid having to face that the issue is a more painful one of political survival, but it does get them into all sorts of tangles. An example is a direct riposte to Pyne’s speech and another shot across Turnbull’s bows by Tom Switzer who, in a piece in the SMH last week, argued that there was no need for the Liberals to move to the left.

Tom Switzer is somebody who should know what are the dynamics going on here given that he claims to be the one who advised Nelson to harden his line on climate change back in the winter. Well at least you would think he would know. In The Spectator last October he complained that when the line was changed, the media “viewed Nelson’s intentions through the prism of the never-ending leadership speculation”, which suggests he was being either naive or disingenuous, or both. Given that he was advisor to the Liberals’ least successful leader ever, you can probably guess which.

His argument in last week’s piece is simple. There is no need for the Liberals to change because the ground has not shifted, he argues, it is Rudd who has moved to the right. How then a party that stays where it is will ever win an election is not explained. But then, this is about internal faction fighting, not winning elections.

To come to the conclusion that nothing has really changed he needs to ignore two major political developments over the last eighteen months. The first is the 2007 election. Switzer basically claims the election was a non-event by repeating the media mantra that Rudd is just another Howard, self-styling himself as an ‘economic conservative’ to appeal to the same part of the electorate that Howard did.

This is basically a re-hash of the ‘fresh face’ theory of 2007, i.e. that Australians just wanted the same Howard polices, but a new face to front them. This strangely unwavering whim of the Australian electorate has been used to explain Rudd’s continual high standing in the polls and a honeymoon that just won’t end. Curiously the public’s demand for a fresh face never seemed to extend to anyone of the Liberal side of politics, where the public, just as decisively, preferred Howard’s stale old face to any of the alternatives like Costello, Turnbull, Nelson etc.

For someone who makes a living out of being right wing it is not surprising that Switzer doesn’t want to acknowledge what really happened to right wing politics last November. It was worse than being replaced by a left wing one, it was made irrelevant. Rudd’s victory was a sign that the ‘argy-bargy’, as Rudd dismissively calls the old left-right politics, has had its day. In fact while appearing similar to Howard, Rudd is in reality diametrically opposed. Whereas Howard tried making big deals out of non-issues, Rudd exposed them for what they were and defused them, whether through the apology, while keeping Howard’s intervention, or signing Kyoto, while largely keeping Howard’s ETS scheme. Whereas Howard attacked trade unions, environmentalists and land rights lobbyists, Rudd generally ignores them.

However, it is on the economy, where commentators like Switzer always use to point out Rudd’s similarity to Howard, that the real differences come out. Rudd’s tagging of Howard on the economy was not because Howard had won the economic argument, but because there was no point in making an argument out of it. The meaningless of the economic debate was not just shown by Howard’s inability to stop an interest rate rise during an election campaign. It was proven a few months ago. If the election was painful enough for Switzer, the throwing overboard of economic conservatism must be even more so, not just because Rudd could do it so easily, but that the right could so readily surrender and go along with it. No wonder there isn’t any mention of it in Switzer’s article.

For those hoping that the right will be called on if the economy turns south, here is a brutal political fact. The right has never been a strong force in Australian politics, and especially during a crisis. The conservatism of Australian politics comes not from a strong right but from the conservatism of the left, especially the Australian Labor Party. It has helped the ALP use its relationship with the unions to be called on in a crisis. While the ALP is the counter-crisis party, the federal Liberals are generally the party that likes to party on when the mess has been cleared. On one of the rare times the right was called during a lousy economy, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Fraser and his hapless Treasurer made a mess of it and had to wait for Hawke to ask his mates in the unions to put the clamp on. We are facing a new downturn and the old counter-crisis Labor party has gone and the right don’t even have control of their own party. Now what?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 19 January 2009.

Filed under State of the parties

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8 responses to “No Right turn”

  1. Ad astra on 19th January 2009 2:00 pm

    Another great post Piping Shrike. I enjoy your insightful comments. I’m pleased your new site allows me to say so.

  2. Ricc on 20th January 2009 6:53 am

    TPS, I’m interested in your thoughts on why the media always seem to think the public only vote on the economy, when so many people in opinion polls express strong views to the contrary?

    Not just the environmental angle, but say, for example, the extreme cost of housing asylum seekers in Nauru was never held against the polichy.

    Yet journos have this funny theory that everything boils down to the money?

    It seems to me, while journos are painted as having a bias to the left, they really have a bias to all sorts of funny directions.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 20th January 2009 8:28 am

    An interesting question. I think it really only became entrenched in the media during the Howard years, especially after 2004.

    It seems to be how they understand the hollowing out of the political process, i.e. not as a result of the parties’ agendas running out but instead seeing it as the electorate simply becoming more cynical and incapable of thinking beyond the hip pocket. The parties are then merely seen by the media as just adapting to a cynical electorate. When something comes along like climate change and the public continually says they are willing to make some sacrifice, they refuse to believe it.

    I generally think there is a gap in discussion of the media’s relationship with the political class. It tends to be seen too narrowly as one of left/right bias, which I don’t think is helpful. I think the media is much more bound up with both sides of the political process than that. The media need a narrative, which Is why I think Rudd annoys them sometimes.

  4. Greeensborough Growler on 20th January 2009 1:18 pm

    For as long as I can remember, the Libs have run on economic management and leadership and it is clear from the reaction of their factions that they still believe these to be their core issues of advantage.

    Economic management is fiscal conservatism, industrial relations, tax cuts and bribes to specific interest groups just prior to an election.

    Leadership is narrowly defined as someone who wins elections. I expect they will keep scratching around till they find him or her.

    I doubt the Libs are much interested in moving anywhere.

  5. Just Me on 20th January 2009 2:09 pm

    “Another great post Piping Shrike. I enjoy your insightful comments. I’m pleased your new site allows me to say so.”


  6. DM on 20th January 2009 11:10 pm

    I think that Rudd has already failed Australia on the climate change issue with such a weak ETS proposal. He missed a golden opportunity to act strongly on climate change while the Liberal party was hopelessly divided on the issue. Now he has only succeeded in encouraging, and strengthening the right wing of the Liberal party. He will come to regret this because in the future he’s going to face a staunchly opposed Liberal party when it comes to action on climate change. Such a pity!

  7. Just Me on 21st January 2009 2:24 am

    He will come to regret this because in the future he’s going to face a staunchly opposed Liberal party when it comes to action on climate change.

    Ongoing bloody minded, irrational (and indeed hysterical) opposition by the Coalition to the increasingly solid science of climate change is not necessarily a bad thing, from the government’s point of view.

    If, as is highly likely, the next (and looming) El Nino brings another round of record temps and ice melts, etc, and there is no question left about how serious the environmental situation is that we face, then the general public will be even more firmly on board the climate change boat than they are now, and politically the Coalition will be even further out to sea in a seriously leaky dinghy, without a paddle, compass, bilge pump, or even any life jackets. (Interestingly, and somewhat amusingly for the lovers of schadenfraude, those leaks will have been self-inflicted. A textbook case of unnecessarily scuttling your own vessel.)

    In this situation the government will have a shirtload of political capital to burn, and the opposition virtually zero credibility to oppose anything. So the government’s ability to move quickly and boldly on tough CC policy could easily be very much strengthened.

    If push came to shove in a Senate where the balance of power was held by those opposing the government’s renewed stand on CC, I would not give ten cents for the Coalition’s chances in a double dissolution on this critical issue.

    We do indeed live in interesting times. The next ten years are going to be fascinating, and perhaps a little scary.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 22nd January 2009 12:28 am

    I’m suggesting there is a disconnect between the two parties on how they are tackling climate change. More for their own internal purposes than as much of a reaction to what the other is doing.

    In the Liberals case, I think they hardened up on the issue during Nelson’s time as way of keeping Turnbull at bay, and are now undermining his leadership using the same issue. In fact their original hardening up on the issue re-energised Labor at a time it was drifting a bit.

    I think on Labor’s side Rudd is acutely sensitive on the economy, which I relate to this being the first Labor government without what had normally been the core to Labor’s economic policy, its relationship with the unions. So I think he is very sensitive to any perceived economic irresponsibility on climate change, which is why I think he tends towards watering it down.

    At the end of the day, though, the government still needs some sort of moral authority and a tough stance on CC would address this. I think we have seen Labor oscillate on this before. It may do so again.

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