Monday, 16 March 2009
There is a weary sense of déjà vu about the reporting of the federal Liberals over the past week. Just as in the last months of the Howard government, a leadership implosion in the Liberals is being seen as a leadership threat from Costello.
For the past few months, there has been a steady campaign of undermining the current party leadership, most of it conducted through complaints about the deputy’s performance as economic spokesman, but implicitly aimed at Turnbull. It reached a crescendo with Bishop’s removal from the shadow Treasury role a month ago.
But from then the tempo has changed. It is not as though Turnbull’s position has since improved, as Milne likes to think. Any leader that at least a third of the party room is willing to tell journalists they want to see dumped is hardly looking secure. Rather, the sniping that broke out when Bishop was pushed out highlighted the potential for fragmentation in a party that has nowhere to go.
The media’s refusal to see the depths of the Liberals’ political problems is why they keep getting the leadership dynamics wrong, just as they did during 2007. Turnbull’s winning of the leadership back in September was mis-read as simply the party replacing an unpopular leader with a popular one. It was why there was almost universal over-estimation by the media of the impact Turnbull would have on coalition polling. Dennis Shanahan, for example, recently talking about the party’s loss of faith in its leader noted the growing disappointment in the party after his strong start to the leadership.
Strong start? For those who missed it, Dennis explains:
The early gains and promise after replacing Brendan Nelson as Opposition Leader are gone and the Coalition primary vote is now flat-lining at levels below what it was when Nelson was dumped.
Readers might want to look at Newspoll for those ‘early gains’ in the primary vote after Turnbull took the leadership last September. From a starting primary vote of 38%, under Turnbull’s leadership it soared to, er, 39% before coming back down to 36% now. This ‘strong start’ was only ever in the media’s head.
Turnbull‘s rise was less a tactical move by the party leadership than the loss of its control. Despite their attempts to recover it over the last few months, the political weakness of those who are supposed to be defending Liberals values have become more profound as the economic crisis has intensified. Enter Costello.
As usual, the right, aching for a conservative revival and a return to the phoney cultural wars of the last decade, continue to see the leadership wrangles through that prism. Gerard Henderson, on Insiders yesterday claimed that the difference between the two was that Costello was keener to defend the record of the Howard government on climate change and workplace relations.
On climate change? Isn’t this the same Costello who told everyone who listened after the last election how much he disagreed with Howard’s refusal to sign Kyoto? If Costello is doing anything on climate change he is probably trying to make sense of a Liberal position that is being put as more green than Labor by the leader and regarded as less so by nearly everyone else in the party.
But as usual, it is IR that shows the really phoniness of this Turnbull-Costello ‘clash’. According to The Australian, party-room discussion about the response to the government’s Fair Work Bill led to a ‘face off’ between Turnbull and Costello. Readers will probably need to read the report carefully several times before they can work out what exactly the ‘face off’ was about. After some mouthing off from the back of the party-room, it seemed Costello wanted to do little more than propose an amendment, just like Turnbull, leading to this vigorous exchange between the two political titans:
Mr Turnbull said, “I’m pleased you agree with the shadow cabinet”, to which Mr Costello replied, “I’m glad they agree with me”.
You tell ‘em, Cozzie!
The fact is, IR provides no base for a political challenge for the national leadership. If the Liberals’ IR agenda was an irrelevance during Howard’s time that business had little interest in, it is certainly less politically palatable now, because the economic slowdown has significantly changed the terms of the debate. Gillard missed it when talking about the Fair Work Bill last week when she answered the Liberals’ criticisms with the arguments of 2007. But over the week in Parliament the Labor leadership finally worked it out: adding to job insecurity is political death in the face of a downturn.
Henderson was oblivious to this rather important problem with the right’s argument yesterday when he said that now was not the time to put a disincentive for small businesses to employ people in the current crisis. For those struggling to follow the right’s logic on how making it easier to sack people would be better for employment, the argument is supposed to be that small business owners would be less inclined to employ people if they couldn’t get rid of them later on. This barely made sense when times were good but certainly doesn’t in the face of a downturn when obviously right now small businesses are more interested in finding ways to get rid of people than take them on. Anyone who doesn’t make a living out of being right-wing would work that out.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 16 March 2009.Filed under Media analysis