Monday, 7 December 2009
Media reaction that the Higgins and Bradfield by-election results vindicated Abbott’s election as leader, despite the Liberals getting the lowest ever primary in both seats since the party was founded (and also in the first election where the main alternative was not standing), probably says more about the Liberals’ expectations than the results themselves. Abbott and his advisers were apparently highly nervous about the result, which seems odd given that the whole point of his leadership was supposed to be to shore up precisely these type of core voter seats. Anyway the latest poll shows that the vote is unchanged at landslide levels, as it was during the leadership ruckus (and before that), with Abbott’s preferred PM rating starting off better than Nelson’s but worse than Turnbull’s. Not exactly game on.
After the Greens’ inability to deliver a shock result and Bradfield’s Liberal candidate reporting that climate change was not a major issue for voters, there is a suggestion that climate change is not the Labor vote winner that the polls indicate it to be. But this is to mistake the role climate change is playing in the political debate. It is quite likely that climate change will be no more be an “issue” in the next election as it was in the by-elections and as it was in 2007. But just because the ads and the chat may be on other things, like the deficit, interest rates and border protection, climate change remains the defining factor that is re-shaping the political landscape because ultimately it impacts directly on the main question facing both sides of the political class – legitimacy.
There was an eerie synchronicity in Sydney and Canberra last week as the two most influential political organisations of the latter half of the 20th century, the ALP NSW Right and the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, went through remarkably similar motions. Both dumped a leader that they called “experiments”, but were actually products of their respective loss of control. But in doing so, the dumped leaders blew the gaffe on their parties that signalled that while status quo may look as though it has been restored, to all intents and purposes, the game was up and that the last vestiges of the 20th century political order were coming to an end.
The NSW is the last, and most successful, version of the business/union partnership model that defined Modern Labor Mark I, following Whitlam’s ending of the ALP’s role as merely the political wing of the union movement back in the late 1960s. Reaching its apogee in Canberra during the 1980s, this partnership exacted its price on the union movement of undermining it, so also removing business’s further need for any partnership with it. Business contacts have become reduced to the most basic kind, such as property developers seeking planning access and, with no real social justification for such business relations, suddenly become illegitimate and viewed as scandalous.
While other state Labor parties went through the death of this model while in opposition during the 1990s, the combination of the model’s success in NSW and the increasing inability of the state Liberal party there to take on the reins of government while Labor sorted themselves out, means that the convulsions there are far more severe and are all on public display in government. As usual with such things, the NSW Right first understood their growing irrelevance as a tactical necessity to withdraw. Although quite how they were to do this was unclear, and the fragmentation of the Right led to NSW’s first Premier from the Left in the post-war period.
Even in trying to get rid of Rees over the last few weeks, the NSW Right were reportedly reluctant to have their own candidate put forward and were seeking a compromise candidate, once again from outside their number, until Rees’s direct challenge to the power of the right’s faction bosses made such a compromise intolerable. Of course what made them so reluctant to come forward in the first place was the Right’s knowledge that as soon as they did so, their bankruptcy would be exposed, which has now come to pass.
Is any of this sounding familiar? Reports that Minchin did not want Abbott to win the Liberals’ leadership ballot in Canberra are quite credible. Rather the old guard was supposed to have carried on their tactic since the 2007 defeat, of having someone they can use to push their redundant agenda forward without having to take the blame. As with Rees’s outburst in Sydney, Turnbull’s exposure of what the old guard would have been up to with a Hockey “compromise” candidate put paid to all that.
The essential difference to what went on with the Liberals in Canberra, compared to Labor’s troubles in Sydney, is that at the federal level there is the international angle to consider and that is the issue of climate change. A global catastrophe that can only be dealt with by governments at the global level, the issue offers a hope for revival of purpose for the political class, as anyone who has heard Al Gore speak on this will be aware.
While the Liberals have attempted to buck this trend, as an integral part of the Australian political establishment, they cannot. This is especially a consideration for a party that is supposed to represent the establishment. This is why, electoral issue or not, despite the old guard trying to make a stand around climate change, their scepticism is evaporating as they come to the surface. In losing his leadership, Turnbull has achieved what he couldn’t while he had it, the removal of open climate change scepticism from the Coalition.
Even that self-styled “straight shooter”, Barnaby Joyce, has to fall in line. Unsophisticated readers of this blog may have been under the impression that in taking a climate change sceptic scientist like Bob Carter around Queensland rural regions, Joyce is also a climate change sceptic. Not necessarily. As he told Tony Jones on Wednesday night, he is only really doing it to keep people informed on the debate, a sort of touring Open University if you like. In fact, discussing climate change on Insiders yesterday, Joyce was sounding as though the main problem with the ETS is that it wasn’t doing enough on climate change, just like Bob Brown.
For the Liberals, you may have missed it, but they did try for a nanosecond to wiggle out of commitment to Turnbull’s emission targets, but have been forced to tag along with it, although trying to get there without an ETS or tax. In other words, from dragging their heels on climate change action, through a back flip somersault the Liberals have now ended up in the vanguard. Not only do they have more ambitious targets than the government, they will get there at lower cost and more efficiently than pretty well any other government in the world. Barnaby is doubtful that the world cares whether Australia passes an ETS or not, but the world must be waiting with bated breath to see how the Coalition will pull this trick off.
Such contortions come from a party trying to maintain its old ways while conditions are no longer permitting it. Rudd is at least aware that new means are necessary. On Insiders, Paul Kelly made the jaw-dropping claim that Rudd cannot match Abbott as a populist. Leaving aside that Abbott seems to have highly unpopular positions for a populist, it is the media themselves who are painfully aware there is no one that can bypass the traditional political forums like Rudd can. This is borne out of necessity, as those forums, like the old political parties, and the press gallery that hangs around them, are redundant. It is Abbott, trusted with the task of re-establishing the party’s “core” and who speaks about Whitlam and complains about Rudd’s performance in Parliament like the internal hatchet man he is, that is caught up in a political dialogue of the past that gives him the “oddball” factor he will struggle to get rid of.
What Kelly is alluding to, however, is that Abbott, and Joyce, can highlight the difficulty Rudd has in finding a new forum overseas. At the source of Rudd’s potential problems is not only that those international avenues can produce outcomes that are harder for an Australian Prime Minister to control, but it is also made of other governments that are all having legitimacy problems of their own, especially the superpower that is supposed to be leading them. Summits like Copenhagen have the potential to bring this paralysis out. By pitching themselves against it, the Liberals won’t solve their problems, but they may make it harder for Rudd to solve his.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 7 December 2009.Filed under State of the parties