Staring at nothing

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

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10 responses to “Staring at nothing”

  1. Alan on 16th March 2009 9:20 am

    Remarkable similarities between Libs and the Republicans which has the same hankering for cultural issues as the Libs.
    They are cheering on Limbaugh as a hero when 70 per cent of Americans think he is repellent.
    Costello last year hero of the lefties now hero of the right doesn’t this tell them something?
    And if work choices was so good and all about saving jobs how come people are losing their jobs at a rapid rate?
    They are employed under work choices only problem is the loop holes have given bosses an ability to fling workers without having to pay their entitlements.
    Ruddy must be licking his lips at the idea of a double dissolution on work choices.
    Strange days indeed

  2. James on 16th March 2009 9:50 am

    If the Liberals want to die in the electoral ditch on Workchoices again, then they are truly lost and dysfunctional and really quite loopy. Meanwhile, with the loss of power federally, it seems they have transposed the “culture wars” from a strategy to divide the community to a tool to divide themselves.

  3. Cavitation on 17th March 2009 7:23 am

    The dilemma for the Liberal Party is that they define themselves as a contrast to, and generally as a reflection of, the Labor Party. Whatever the Labor Party proposes, the Liberals generally instinctively propose the opposite. This strategy worked fine when the Labor Party was ideologically driven, to frequently adopt unpopular or unrealistic positions on issues, so that the Liberals could be pragmatic, popular and realistic in response. But this strategy is a big problem now that Labor has abandoned much of its old ideology, or to the extent that it maintains any ideology, has adopted popular ideas such as to deal with global warming, or to oppose alcohol abuse. The Liberals have found themselves instinctively adopting the opposite view, and now are proposing to ignore global warming, and to prop up the abuse of alcohol consumption, for example, from today’s headlines. They are being lazy, and are relying on the Labor people to do the thinking about these issues, assuming that Labor will adopt unrealistic responses, allowing them to oppose it, which also is the conservative default position. But Rudd is intensely pragmatic, and voters realise this. The Liberal position is consequently under suspicion from the public, as being ideological, unpopular and unrealistic. Rudd and his supporters have chased the Liberal Party from the pragmatic centre, and what is strange, the Liberal Party is cooperating with this.

  4. James on 17th March 2009 9:14 am

    The Liberal Party will remain in turmoil while its civil war about its ideological and policy future remains unresolved. After seeing Abbott on Lateline last night, it’s clear that people like Abbott, Minchin, Andrews and Costello need to leave Parliament so that the Liberals can realistically redefine themselves in the 21st Century.

  5. john on 18th March 2009 8:43 am

    What a difference a day makes for Glenn Milne!

    On page 43 of the Sunday Telegraph on 15 March Milne wrote a story headed “Fair go? Turnbull is already gone”. The heading accurately sums up the theme of Milne’s article.

    The article was generally dismissive of Turnbull and could be regarded as another shot in Milne’s long campaign to promote Costello as the saviour of the Liberal Party.

    Mllne came back the very next day in what could only be seen as a pro-Turnbull piece in The Australian, by saying that the present Opposition Leader would fight to retain his job and by praising his performance at the Federal Liberal Party conference.

    What happened to cause this reversal by Milne? He had Turnbull nearly dead and buried as Opposition Leader on Sunday, and alive and fighting fit the next day.

    Well, perhaps there is a clue near the end of his story in The Australian. The paragraph deserves quoting: “John Calvert-Jones, one of the gentlemen of the party and a member of the Murdoch family, was made vice-president. Despite being from Costello’s home state of Victoria, he’s a strong Turnbull supporter.”

  6. Scott on 18th March 2009 9:08 am

    I agree – John Calvert Jones’s appointment as Liberal vice-president is very significant. While Turnbull’s detractors will continue to use Murdoch’s media and other outlets to undermine him, the editorial tone of the Murdoch stable will be more Turnbull-friendly. Turnbull just kicked a goal in the Liberals’ factional war.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 18th March 2009 5:39 pm

    Ah that makes sense. Milne’s ‘gentlemen’ sentence stuck out like a sore thumb in an article that did as well. Clever Malcolm.

    BTW Cavitation, Michelle seems to have followed your theme.

  8. Mr Denmore on 18th March 2009 8:55 pm

    The Liberals, like the defeated Republican Party in the US, have been over-run by the right-wing uglies.

    With Uncle John no longer there to there to channel their ratbaggery in subtle, but effective, ways, the lunar right are running riot, like teenagers left at home alone.

    The sudden absence of party discipline has allowed the party’s army of prematurely fogey Young Liberals to air their stinking ideological baggage.

    Costello’s lousy political radar has convinced him he has a shot riding to power on the coat-tails of this irrational right, but he risks just taking the party even further to the depths of irrelevance.

    The right is bankrupt.

  9. Scott on 19th March 2009 11:12 am

    The problem is that even though the Liberal Party is in crisis, the mainstream media seems unwilling to report the depth of the crisis. This is because most owners of media organisations and the majority of their advertisers are Liberal supporters. They may support the Stimulus Package, because it is good for their advertisers’ coffers but their allegiances are ultimately with the Liberal Party. It would be a very different story if this crisis was within a Labor Opposition, as history has shown. Remember Channel Nine’s story about the roosters being Daleks a few years ago, complete with the “Exterinate” voice-over?

  10. DM on 20th March 2009 10:23 am

    True. We certainly don’t hear much about the turmoil inside the LP in the mainstream media, which allows the Liberals to go about conducting their dirty business while still keeping their dignity intact. Not fair!

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