Tuesday, 1 December 2009
If yesterday showed anything, it was that the hope that somehow it would be possible to find a compromise between the two warring sides was an illusion. Hockey’s reported suggestion of a conscience vote is a pathetic attempt to satisfy both sides while mis-reading what both sides are about.
The reason why the situation is so fluid is that we have two strong trends countering each other, neither of which can give too much ground. On the one hand we have a party needing to accommodate to a changing world order that has a new political agenda. This is complicated by it coinciding with the party belatedly grappling with the end of the old political fault-lines of the 20th century in an even more deluded state than Labor was when in the same position in the 1990s.
For the last decade, the Australian right has been living a lie. Just over a decade ago, after having waited longer than ever before to achieve government, Howard’s Liberals staggered through a first term, barely escaping becoming the first government to not be re-elected since Scullin, and then staggered into a second term hitting record polling lows for a Coalition government. Survival against an exhausted Labor opposition involved either flip-flopping or trying to create issues out of thin air.
The solution, as ever for the Australian political class, lay overseas with the US’s last attempt to regain the global initiative with the War on Terror. But just as the War on Terror was no real solution to declining US influence as the Cold War had been, so at home was it no real replacement for the anti-union, small government agenda that the right had defined themselves for most of last century.
Except it did allow the right to pretend for a while as though nothing had changed. Howard talked small government spending, while spending more than any previous government and could carry on an anti-union campaign, like Workchoices, that business had no need for. It seemed as though Howard could keep up, and even revive, a traditional right agenda but it was not one for which its core sponsors, big business, had any real need.
This prolonging of a right agenda that had no real social base, is what was behind the rise of what is called the ‘conservative’ agenda in the US and Australia with its resulting focus on ‘values’ and a mythical ‘core audience’. What in effect this did, was to turn the traditional right’s project upside-down. Instead of trying to translate particular interests into as broad base as possible to gain a majority, the emphasis became more on trying to define a narrow set of values and the search for the ‘core voters’.
It should be noted that what gave this ‘conservative’ agenda its apparent power over the last decade was the collusion of the left, who preferred to see the right’s ascendancy more in terms of the supposed ability of Howard to ‘dog whistle’ to the electorate and tap into its deeply held values, than their own irrelevance.
Climate change was the political agenda that replaced the War on Terror, spelt the end of this pretence, and forced the right to deal with what it had avoided for a decade. So it is no surprise that it is the climate change agenda that the old guard in the Liberal party have targeted as the problem, in an attempt to keep the pretence going. In doing so, they have pitted themselves against a global political consensus supported by mainstream parties around the world of the left and right. This is what can make hard-heads like Minchin seriously call it a global left-wing conspiracy
Defying global political trends is unsustainable for a mainstream Australian political party. It is not even an option for the world’s strongest centre-right political organisation, the US Republicans, let alone one as reliant on overseas sponsorship as the Liberals. That the Nationals could indulge this view is a sign that the party is, to all intents and purpose, spent as a viable establishment political force. The Liberals are not at that stage yet.
It is becoming fashionable to compare what is happening with the Liberals to the ALP/DLP split in the 1950s. However this gives too much credence to the sceptic side. The DLP split was the impact of the Cold War on one of the developed world’s most conservative labour movements. The DLP could claim a base in the union movement and when they split, they effectively delivered Labor voters and, to a degree, the union movement, to the other side of mainstream politics, until Whitlam broke Labor from the unions in the 1970s.
The sceptics have no real social base. Especially not with the Liberals’ traditional core supporters in big business. There is no large corporation that could seriously present its corporate strategy to shareholders on the basis of Australia defying the international political order. They may not be happy with the climate change agenda, but business cannot afford to be deluded about political reality.
The core being talked about by the sceptics tend to be more those suspicious of any government and most establishment political agendas. They are occasionally mobilised by US Republicans, such as Palin tried in the last Presidential elections, but have the potential to get out of control even for them. For a weaker right, such as in Australia, it is no surprise that the history of flirting with this political sentiment can be disastrous.
The retreat of sceptics into science is a sign of a lack of real social basis in their politics, just as it is for environmentalists on the other side who have such a respect for science when it comes to global warming, because of its anti-capitalist tones, but not when applied to other fields such as nuclear power or genetically modified crops. That is why when the sceptics emerged openly during the 4 Corners program, it not only set them on a collision course with the modernisers, but also exposed their political isolation.
The sceptic’s social base may not be real, but the problem they are trying to address, the identity of a centre-right party, is real. It is because this hasn’t been answered that Turnbull can be accused of taking the party away from them by some. This is the dilemma represented by the sceptics and has been brought out as Rudd brings the global political agenda home into the Australian parliament.
The best example of this dilemma is Abbott, who has tried to maintain Howard’s right-wing project but on a basis that is electorally disastrous. On one hand, Abbott cannot have the full electoral implications of what he is proposing being exposed, but nor can he just pretend a core issue to defining the party is irrelevant. This is why we have had one of the most bizarre campaigns of a contender to the leadership of the Liberal party in its history, where on one hand he spends hardly any time campaigning, then announces he will step aside for someone who is opposed to everything he is fighting about, only to restart the campaign all over again at the 11th hour. It is doubtful how serious is Abbott’s revived challenge, but there was a limit to how far the sceptics were prepared to debase themselves in hiding behind Hockey.
At the end of the day, the sceptics cannot win. The Liberals cannot isolate themselves from a global political agenda and will inevitably have to accommodate to it. How soon this will happen might not be clear, especially if an alternative rationale for the party is not immediately apparent. But accommodate they will.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 1 December 2009.Filed under State of the parties