No choice

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

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16 responses to “No choice”

  1. John B on 1st December 2009 7:35 am


    Of all the palaver that’s been comitted to print in the last couple of weeks, this is by far the best, most concise summation of events I’ve read.

    The most surprising element, to me at least, is the quasi-religious fervour that supposed hard-heads like Minchin have adopted; even at the expense of their own long term interests.

    It’s no surprise lightweights like Bernadi grasp at straws and pretend they’re planks, but some experienced operators have been dragged into this debacle as well.

    When the wash-up occurs, it will be no surprise if this so-called “flood” of emails from the “base” proves to be orchestrated by very particular interest groups.

    Great work PS

  2. James on 1st December 2009 9:00 am

    Good point John – I wonder if the flood of calls and e-mails from the
    Libs’ “base” were actually from the stacks of right-wingers in the party.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 1st December 2009 9:28 am

    Be careful of what you wish for, you may find you get it!

  4. James on 1st December 2009 10:10 am

    It looks like Hockey was a patsy, used by the right as a trojan horse for Abbott.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 1st December 2009 10:25 am

    I more think they would have preferred Hockey to get up as a front but they couldn’t try the same trick a third time. I don’t think Abbott’s candidacy looked that serious.

    You can’t claim that acceptance speech was prepared!

  6. nobby on 1st December 2009 10:59 am

    and going by the look on people skills face on the abc site i reckon the informal vote may have been tony’s

  7. Cavitation on 1st December 2009 11:33 am

    The real winner was Malcolm Turnbull. He’s still the heir to the leadership; just missed out by one vote. He is back to his original plan, just not with Nelson taking the fall at the next election. While he’d be happy to have one, this is the next best thing. And the Liberal party has a rerun of the Peacock/Howard war; but this time the conservative wing has consumed its ammunition stores. Turnbull says he is still to decide if he will stand at the next election? Fat chance. He will stand, and plan to take over the leadership again after the Liberals lose the election, badly. His vote in Wentworth will improve, and he’ll get more of the Green preferences, which are important in inner city electorates, and some sympathy from Labor supporters.

    Abbott got blind sided. His wife wasn’t there to stand beside him, which is traditional for successful leadership contests. His speech certainly wasn’t prepared. He ended up agreeing with climate change, and opposing the ETS whatever international developments occur. Julie Bishop also admitted Abbott was a “personality, a character”. In other words a dingbat.

  8. James on 1st December 2009 11:46 am

    Yes, the mainstream media needs to take more notice of the 42-41 result. Despite the Right’s media blitz that Turnbull didn’t have support, he came within a vote of retaining the leadership. That gives him the stocks to sit, watch the party explode more, and try again next term.

  9. Graham on 1st December 2009 1:39 pm

    I really can’t see Turnbull sitting around on the backbench for a couple of years waiting for his chance to have another crack. He gets bored too easily. Howard did it because he had nothing else in life to do. He was a small man who wanted to achieve something in his life. For Turnbull, the Liberal Party Leadership is just another bobble to hang on the tree – he would be just as happy doing something else in life where he can get his name in lights.

    Abbott will lead the Libs to the next election, which will be a disaster for them, and Abbott will be replaced by someon3e from the next general. Hockey had his chance and he blew it – he won’t get a second.

  10. Scott on 1st December 2009 2:47 pm

    Abbott will desperately try to pour all the toxic venom in the Liberal Party onto the Rudd Government. Contrary to claims of a new beginning, an Abbott-led Coalition will go to new depths of nastiness by personalising issues against the Prime Minister like never before. Despite the political risks of a scare campaign on an ETS, I predict Abbott will go all out to create one. It fits his natural inclinations as a politician and it fits in with the toxic, irrational state the Liberals are currently in. We are in for a very nasty ride.

  11. dedalus on 1st December 2009 3:01 pm

    Agree with Graham. Labour looks like a 3-4 term government. Opposition leaders in the first term are suicide pilots. Notice all 3 so far were senior members of the front bench. Look for the next lib prime minister to be a relatively young person not allied to the climate sceptic camp and keeping the head well and truly down for the present.

  12. Rich Bowden on 1st December 2009 3:35 pm

    I notice how much of the media comment has revolved around the fact that Labor will remain in Government for another two to three terms due to the alleged schism in the Lib/Nats.

    However pundits were saying the same thing during Alexander Downer’s time as Opposition Leader. History shows Howard seizing the moment and going on to become one of the country’s most successful leaders(in elections won). Its amazing whata change of leader and a few lucky breaks can do for the confidence of a party.

  13. Rocket on 1st December 2009 4:23 pm


    Pyne, Dutton, Brough

    If I were in charge of the Liberals I would protect these three and not make them leader until at least 2012

  14. Ricc on 1st December 2009 5:26 pm

    Rich Bowden

    The downer analogy is not applicable. Keating and government were already tired, scandal (whiteboards anyone) and playing funny games with the Democrats. Alex was the last of the unelectables. JH was more like Rudd in that respect, happened to be in the right place when Keating ran out of relevance.

    Had been hanging around hoping for another go (you’da thought he would have given politics up after so much lack of success!)

    Rudd is high in the opinion polls and to imagine Abbott of all people would the one to lead them straight back to an election win is ridiculous. And he won’t survive much past the election anyway, they are still desperate for a messiah, and the guy who gets 42 vs 41 votes isn’t going to be him.

  15. john Willoughby on 1st December 2009 7:18 pm

    waiting for godwin

  16. The Piping Shrike on 1st December 2009 8:10 pm

    I must admit I have trouble seeing towards the next election let alone beyond it. I also think historic parallels are difficult as there are many things about now that are unprecedented.

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