Howard/Nelson/Turnbull is not the problem

Monday, 12 October 2009 

Twelve months ago saw Brendan Nelson as the problem and now they are seeing Malcolm as the problem, but Brendan wasn’t the problem then and Malcolm’s not the problem now.

Tony Abbot to The Weekend Australian

Funnily enough Tony Abbott left out Nelson’s predecessor. Perhaps he forgets what happened in 2007 when all the talk was about whether Howard should step down before the election because according to some in the media and the Liberal party, he was the barrier to the government’s recovery in the face of the Rudd Juggernaut. Maybe Abbott forgets how Howard was also seen as a problem, because it would make it harder for Abbott to argue what he thinks the real problem is – Rudd’s current popularity. Given that nobody in the Liberal party, or the media, seems to be able to explain that, Abbott is being no more enlightening than those who think Turnbull is the problem.

The Liberal Party is in a profound historical crisis. This is not the normal thing that happens when a government goes into opposition. The Liberals facing another highly popular Labor Prime Minster a quarter of a century ago didn’t get themselves into this sort of state. At no time has the party ever had its leadership calculations so openly determined by their complete loss of confidence in their ability to recover government in the foreseeable future. The source of that disorientation was the loss of the rationale for both major parties on the major questions that once divided them, especially on industrial relations. It was something that Labor faced with the defeat of Keating’s project but the Liberals avoided through the Howard years with a phoney right-wing programme and an equally phoney War on Terror aboard.

It is this profound disorientation that came to the surface in the last of year of Howard when the problem was not so much that Howard’s leadership was questioned but that there was no one to replace him in the face of certain electoral defeat. Costello never provided the political alternative that would have saved the party from defeat, something the party itself, if not the media, could see at the time in their refusal to turn to Costello.

If Liberal self-delusions about the depth of the crisis in Australia’s traditional ruling party are understandable now, the media’s delusions should be less so. Yet in a bizarre summing up of Hockey’s position in the SMH, Peter Hartcher is so blind to the depth of the crisis in the Liberals that he cannot see how ludicrous is his description of what is going on.

Hartcher asks the right question, how have we arrived at a ‘challenge with no challenger’? This should lead to the obvious answer, because a challenge without a challenger is not called a ‘challenge’, but a leadership implosion. Instead Hartcher takes the leadership issue totally at face value and claims that this is because Hockey saw what Costello did in walking away from the leadership after the 2007 defeat and did not want that to happen again, so if Turnbull fails, Hockey is prepared to fill the gap.

What on earth is this supposed to mean? Hockey is so concerned about the good of the party that he is prepared to let its electoral fortunes deteriorate to the extent that Turnbull’s leadership collapses and only then will he step in?

For those that have forgotten, this is how it used to run: politicians want to rise to the top, they take any opportunity they can. If a leader is weakening and they think they have a chance they have a go. If they fail the first time, as happened to Whitlam, Fraser, Peacock, Hawke, Keating and Howard, they have another go having staked their alternative in the first round. This is what is usually known as a ‘challenge’ in Australian politics. Even if personal ambition is not the only reason, at least for the good of the party there arrives a point where someone else thinks they can do a better job. None of this seems to apply for Hockey.

Readers will recall that for the Liberals, it was with Costello that this rule really started to break down. Costello apparently could not go through with such a grubby business because it would hurt the party he so loved, a love that has been so amply demonstrated since. Costello could not provide an alternative when Howard was in, nor did the job look that appealing when Howard was gone, for the same reason. After the end of Howard’s sham politics, there is nowhere else for the Liberals to go.

Fortunately since then, they have had Turnbull’s ambitions. Politically tone deaf as ever, Turnbull has tried to use the Liberals as a vehicle to get him to the Lodge without realising that the engine has gone. Turnbull on most issues is generally more electorally populist than the party he leads. The trouble is that the party he leads is not especially interested in electoral popularity, it is only really worried about what it stands for. It is no surprise that it is climate change, the global agenda that rivalled the War on Terror under which the Coalition had hidden for so long, that would be the issue to do it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 12 October 2009.

Filed under State of the parties

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4 responses to “Howard/Nelson/Turnbull is not the problem”

  1. fred on 12th October 2009 1:25 pm

    The problem is not the people, the COALition politicians, its the policies and the way the parties line up in that regard.

    There is far too much emphasis placed on the popularity of a few individuals rather than looking at the policy issues which should be, and probably are in the perception of the public, the driving force that separates the perceived popularity of the various leaders.
    In the past couple of years, even before the election, we have seen the ALP emphasize policy in major areas as their prime thrust.
    Climate change, education, health, water just to name a few of the more significant policy issues.
    Each of these issues has constantly been given priority by the public in numerous opinion polls and each of these issues has been ‘owned’ by the ALP.
    The ALP is responding to the needs and wants of the electorate, perhaps erratically but at least being seen to treat these concerns seriously in a manner that the majority of the public need and want.
    Whatever programmes have been discussed in the public arena have nearly always been to the general advantage of the ALP and the COALition has been on the wrong end of the stick.
    Poll after poll has shown that the public support the ALP policies taken on climate change [CPRS etc], public education, unionism and IR, the stimulus, Rudd’s role on the international stage, the Indigenous apology and so on.

    Basically the ALP is doing what the majority of the public wants and the COALition policies are not what the majority of the public wants.

    As the OO and Ltd News in general snipes from the sidelines about Rudd and various confected ‘scandals’ their criticisms are going straight over the heads of most of the public and essentially appealing only to a diminishing group of rusted ons.

    The public support, generally, what the ALP is doing.

    If Tony and Joe and Malcolm et al want to revive their polling fortunes and that of their party then they have to come up with programmes and policies that will receive the support and approval of more than that small group of rusties.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 12th October 2009 4:09 pm

    In my view I don’t think there are many policy differences between Labor and the Liberals. Rudd’s ETS is not that different from Howard’s, Rudd’s support for the intervention and ‘practical measures’ makes his indigenous policy pretty well the same, mandatory detention is still in place, although lightened a bit, and, as Gillard warned us before the election, Labor’s IR policy is more like Howard’s than Keating’s. The emphasis on schools and hospitals is different but the spending priorities, shifting as they do, are not designed to stray from Costello’s balanced budget ethos.

    I think the difference is that Rudd has avoided Howard’s politicisation of these issues, through Workchoices, refusing the Apology, pitching ‘European’ climate change action against the US’s etc. What helped him do that were the increased flexibility of his party on policy and favourable international developments. Neither of which any leader of the Liberal party would currently have.

  3. Carolyn on 13th October 2009 2:36 pm

    Maybe we should all be alowed to do something like this – – Spotted in a shop window but not such a bad idea I think…..

  4. The Piping Shrike on 13th October 2009 6:49 pm

    A dash too much Costello for my tastes.

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