One of the disorienting features of the Liberals’ crisis is the disconnect between the media and what politicians are actually saying. According to the media, Turnbull was supposed to have resigned today, yesterday and maybe next week. Maybe he will, but he does sound as though he’s going to fight it out.

Certainly, it would be convenient for the right section of the press (and the delusions of the more left-leaning press) if Turnbull did resign. For despite his political limitations, there is probably no one in a better position at the moment than Turnbull to clarify the most important point that is being missed. All the outrage and flood of e-mails from voters who are curiously shy when it comes to talking to the nation’s pollsters, cannot disguise the tell-tale signs that the old guard is in a far weaker position than they look:

1) The strange case of the disappearing sceptics

One of the most intriguing interviews during this stoush was Cory Bernardi’s with Leigh Sales on Thursday night’s Lateline. Leigh made what seems to be a common mistake these days, implying Bernardi was a climate change sceptic. Bernardi helpfully put her right:

I support action on climate change, I support sustainable environmental policy.

Hang on a sec. So who was that Senator with the Bob Hawke hairdo on 4 Corners the week before? You know, the one who was saying:

The earth is not actually warming, we have still rainfall falling. We have crops still growing. We can go outside and we won’t cook.

Sound familiar Cory?

By parading themselves on 4 Corners the sceptics exposed their weakness. Abbott himself had explained the reason why it was better for Turnbull’s opponents to carry on the Howard trick of talking pro-action publicly but being a sceptic internally. It concealed the degree to which sections of the Liberal party, and the old guard, were becoming detached from mainstream opinion.

The trouble is that the conditions that allowed such a fudge no longer exist and so the sceptics were drawn out. Combined with the hubris from a decade of self delusion about why they had been in power, it resulted in the recklessness on display on 4 Corners. It left a major party powerbroker like Minchin sounding like a nobody like Fielding walking around parliament with his cardboard graphs, and the usually canny Tony Abbott twittering on about Roman grape vines.

Revealing their isolation from mainstream public opinion is not helpful and so we have had sly back-tracking from their sceptic position, from Bernardi, as well as Minchin last night. However, the damage has been done. It is quite easy to portray and isolate the sceptics as Labor has been doing in Parliament for some time. Turnbull is cautiously starting to do it himself.

2) Resigning

Never complain, never explain, never resign.

J Lang

Resigning is a tricky move. It is usually successfully done by challengers who are being clearly isolated from power and who need to polarise the debate at a time when trends are moving their way. Since the two don’t often happen at the same time, there often needs to be an unsuccessful challenge before a successful one. Politics requires renewal and an open challenge is usually a necessary means of bringing it about. It is why those leaders who come to power without a challenge often don’t last long.

The ones who resigned the last week, however, were already nominally in power. They represented the old guard from the Howard era still clinging to their old influence. Although Turnbull’s election showed their loss of control, his political naivety meant they still could pull him back as they had Nelson. In doing so, they passed on to these leaders their main failing that had prevented themselves from openly coming forward, their electoral unpopularity.

Resigning has been forced on them because having stuck their head out as sceptics, they were starting to be isolated after being over-ridden on the ETS and losing the spill, i.e. because events were moving away from them not towards them. This would have been clear if only one or two had gone, but has been obscured for now by the disruption caused by resigning en masse.

3) Focus on the ‘core’

One way that the old guard has diverted attention from their primary failing, their electoral unpopularity, has been to talk about the importance of the ‘core’. Leaving aside that this is tantamount to throwing away elections for the foreseeable future, it has some resonance because it taps into the concerns on both sides of the political fence about who their core base really is.

In reality, however, this fretting about core and their ‘values’ is simply political parties looking at their problems upside down. The Menzies project was not ultimately about a set of values as such, but to represent business interests (low taxes, anti-unions) and to translate that to a platform with the broadest possible appeal, traditionally a coalition of big and small business, the professional middle class and some inroads into the working class, primarily in rural regions.

The Liberals’ problem is not a loss of values as such but that with no union power, and business’s heavy reliance on state support, there is no need to have a political party against either. What we have is a convergence between the two former political sides to a general pro-state, yet internationalist, agenda typified by climate change. Those still hankering to keep the political parties on their old terms set themselves against this (whether from the left or right) and start dreaming up an audience to justify it. From the right it has brought into vogue this fuss about a ‘conservative’ agenda and it is no surprise that it is the National Party, the first to experience this loss of purpose, that bangs on most about it. For a mainstream political organisation like the Liberal Party, this can often mean tapping into an anti-establishment audience with potentially disastrous consequences.

However, the final irony is that so overwhelming is public opinion opposed to the old guard’s stance that it would devastate the Liberals even in their core seats with Newspoll showing this certainly applies to Coalition supporters in blue-ribbon Liberal metropolitan seats. There might be more of a case in rural regions, but then it would be necessary to ignore former Nationals like Windsor and Oakeshott holding formerly safe National seats on a stance in favour of climate change action.

4) Discomfort with the past

Of course to make such a ‘conservative’ agenda feasible, it is first necessary to pretend that there is a successful precedent. So we have the re-writing of the Howard years into a time of great principle and ideological purpose. This has naturally been assisted by the deluded old man himself as he tries to refashion his legacy into something more principled than the aimless pointless regime it actually was.

Naturally it is necessary to rewrite history, especially the last year, when Howard was faced with the cover of the War on Terror fading and started desperately back-flipping to stave off defeat. Most notably he did it on climate change. Unfortunately for Howard, in protecting his legacy by trashing Rudd, and pointing out that he is doing no more than passing the Coalition’s ETS scheme, he gave a weapon to his even bigger enemy, Turnbull, who can now ask quite rightly what the fuss from old guard is actually about and why they can’t be as politically expedient as Howard was.

5) Hockey as an option

The final and most stark example of the old guard’s weakness is that after all the hoo-hah, they seem to be countenancing the ascendancy of Hockey, someone who agrees with pretty well everything Turnbull does. Indeed if reports are true, Abbott would be willing to be Hockey’s treasurer. Anything, other than taking the full electoral consequences of leading the party.

What they would claim is that Hockey would better listen to the party than Turnbull. What they mean, is that with Hockey they will have a better chance of resuming their old position, behind the leader’s back, forcing them into electorally unpopular decisions and then blaming them and trashing them when their unpopularity makes them useless. They did it once, maybe next week they will have done it again. But for now they are exposed and out in the open.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 28 November 2009.

Filed under Tactics

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12 responses to “Five signs the old guard are weaker than they look”

  1. Riccardo on 28th November 2009 6:35 am

    Truism about the threat of power being more powerful than the wielding of power. Minchin et al prove this. So much reverence in the media for the supposed power of these guys, when push comes to shove, they look as powerful as the guy selling Green Left Weekly on the street corner. Conspiracy theories, resigning when they don’t get there way (but no Chipp these guys, no new party with a grassroots rightwing base), making the leader the issue.

    I can’t see a way back for them. If Turnbull does survive, they won’t be able to rally behind him, their cover is blown. We may yet end up with a rightwing split, something like the ACT party in NZ where the feral rightwingers can go, and get 1% of the vote.

    I think genuine US Republican-style conservativism doesn’t happen in Australia. Anti-abortionists are generally just religious cranks, libertarians might populate a few university clubs, there’s no real consituency for guns (Tingle ain’t the NRA), and Howard has successfully trained the Right to be at least as Tax and Spend as the Left (or more so!)

  2. Riccardo on 28th November 2009 6:45 am

    And Miranda

    preferring a slimmed down, ideologically pure Liberal Party under Abbott to Hockey who might be vaguely electable.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 28th November 2009 8:45 am

    It’ll be slimmed down alright.

  4. Chris on 28th November 2009 9:50 am

    point (1) was previously handled by Howard’s deft use of the infamous dog whistle. You could say anything with a sly wink to your reactionary base. Without this device, the right feel like they have to reveal themselves to keep face.

  5. Cavitation on 28th November 2009 10:39 am

    You have to wonder if the actual reason for all this chaos just comes down to personalities. Malcolm Turnbull has a talent for pissing people off. Can his colleagues just detest him so much that they will do just about anything to have jack of him? While Labor had a similar difficult leader in Mark Latham, they at least let him do one election before ditching him. Latham was similarly deluded about his own leadership skills. Turnbull seems to be a functional boss, but an impossible leader, tho I would never want to work for him. It is clear that the Liberals are hopeless at removing their own leaders, but perhaps Turnbull has driven them all just too far, and that they will put up with however much damage that this will do to themselves just to have an end to it.

  6. The Spillists – Pollytics on 28th November 2009 1:21 pm

    […] (deep breath): The Stump, Pollbludger (comments), Larvatus Prodeo, Christopher Joye, Piping Shrike, Andrew Elder, John Quiggin, Jack the Insider, Political Sword, The Tally Room Comments (8) | […]

  7. paul walter on 28th November 2009 1:34 pm

    Am getting bored with people like Cavitation throwing up this hornswoggle about King Kong Turncow’s nasty domestic violence issues as to the good wives of the party room, shrinking violets like Tuckey, Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop.

  8. Rocket on 28th November 2009 4:06 pm

    Thank you for this analysis – it pretty well sums up the Nationals’ obsession to outflank “One Nation” types, and reiterates that whatever one thinks of JH, he was pretty cunning at herding the “cats” that are the disparate groups in the Coalition.

    I wondered after 2007 whether JH might be the last “Liberal” PM – that the next decade could see a transition to a new party, like the Nationalist to UAP to Liberal “changes”. Maybe it will be an LNP like Qld, maybe a “Conservative Party” – still a possibility.

  9. al pal on 28th November 2009 4:19 pm

    Howard was not a “Liberal” PM. He was a Tory.Another point: havn’t seen much analysis on the role/future of the Nats federally.Barnaby seems to be their leader. A Hockey/Joyce Government would be a little ripper, wouldn’t it? World class.

  10. Rocket on 28th November 2009 5:07 pm

    I meant liberal in the sense that he would the LAST Prime Minister of this current incarnation of the “Liberal Party” not in terms of his politics.

    By the way, it is worth checking out the Liberal Party Home Page at the moment. Clearly the webwriters are not in the Minchin-Abbott camp, as they have an update from Turnbull from today!! Though I do remember two years ago it took them several weeks to realise that JH wasn’t PM any more in their “our history” section!

  11. The Piping Shrike on 28th November 2009 7:33 pm

    My view is that Joyce is being given his head by Truss, but letting him take the cop if it goes wrong, which is very possible.

    By the way, can I detect the tiniest hint of a change of heart in the Murdoch press to Turnbull? The coverage on the Weekend Australian seems much more sympathetic. I think they are finally reading what is going on.

  12. kymbos on 28th November 2009 8:11 pm

    Your point about the redundancy of a contemporary anti-union, small state party is profound. Especially since every government taxes and spends more than the last without fail.

    Have been consistently impressed with your recent work. You’ve outdone yourself with this. Congrats.

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