Tuesday, 10 February 2015
I believe the team of Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard is the best leadership team for the Liberal Party and therefore part of the best leadership team of the Coalition for the country.
Kevin Andrews nails it
Consider this. In 1971, when Gorton was challenged for the leadership, Fraser had resigned as Defence Minister and openly attacked Gorton on the floor of the House as “not fit” for the PM’s office. The result was a leadership vote, a tie and Gorton resigning. In 1981, Fraser was the target this time with Peacock resigning as IR Minister over Fraser’s industrial relations policy and (something we’re not supposed to talk about these days) his refusal to withdraw recognition from Pol Pot. Peacock again used the floor of the House to openly attack Fraser in a speech accusing him of eroding the Cabinet system. The result was almost a year of open hostilities, finally ending when Fraser called a leadership vote and saw Peacock off.
Then we had what was supposed to be the third challenge to a sitting Liberal PM yesterday. This time there was no ministerial resignations, no open attack on the Prime Minister from the floor of the House, in fact no challenge at all. Nothing. Not a peep.
The only thing that came close to a challenge was Lucy’s wry smile as Turnbull made his “Captain’s call” jibe, which for the media was considered enough of a challenge to allow us all to settle back and pretend it was business (sort of) as usual.
Having come away with a third of the party voting no confidence in the Prime Minister, Abbott is seen as mortally wounded and Turnbull is now appearing like a master tactician for doing nothing – as opposed to all the other silly billies of recorded political history who actually made a fuss.
In reality, however, Turnbull was constrained from making an open challenge by exactly the same factors that are causing problems for Abbott right now. Turnbull’s lack of challenge suggests he has no solution either.
With Labor’s instability having now spread to the Liberals, it is prompting a lot of thoughtful pieces about how the electorate is more fickle, volatile, etc. added with some stuff about 24-hour news cycles and social media to make it seem terribly new thinking.
Most of it’s rubbish. The issue’s not with the electorate. It wasn’t NT voters who decided to dump a Chief Minster one day and reinstate him the next. Any significant changes in the electorate’s relationship with politics happened years ago, with the erosion of organised labour’s ties with the ALP. And even that wasn’t that big a deal as far as the electorate is concerned.
But it is as far as the political system is concerned, given that’s what it was based on. And it’s the inability to avoid this any longer that is the real source of the political crisis going on today. The rise and fall of Rudd was a major catalyst for the parties being forced to grapple with their reason for existence, first the Liberals, and later Labor. For Labor, the Rudd years showed that this grappling centred on the role of unions and the power brokers in the ALP now that they have lost their social relevance.
But for the Liberals this grappling with what they’re about is likely to be more difficult because the problem is almost purely political. As Norman Abjorensen summed it up nicely in a piece last year, the Liberals have really only ever existed to oppose another political party. It means that while Labor sees its problems as an institutional one of unions having too much power relative to their diminished social role (or unions going out to campaign to showing that they should have that power), for the Liberals it is presented as almost wholly a political problem both ideological and organisationally. How difficult this makes it for the Liberals to understand what is going on was evident yesterday.
Abbott took over the party leadership when the dilemma between the party’s political agenda and its lack of electoral appeal had blown wide open. His election was a sign that the party was willing to forfeit the next election to maintain its brand. What this meant for a party that whose whole purpose was gaining power to stop Labor was obscured as the turmoil in Labor saw it kow-towing to the Liberals’ agenda and making it seem electorally relevant.
Gillard and Rudd Mark II made Abbott into a credible opposition leader and gave him a cover that was removed when he took office. This explains why such a supposedly brilliant opposition leader that can apparently tap into the electorate, can so singularly fail to do so once in government. In government Abbott did all the things that both Labor and the Liberals thought were supposed to work: stop the boats, make “economically responsible” cuts, talk up terrorism, send troops off, strut around world forums – all things that were supposed to work for Howard – but none of them did for Abbott.
It would have been thought that the failure of Gillard and Rudd Mark II, having done similar, would have given some warning signs. But it’s clear yesterday that the way that the Liberals understand the failure of Labor is not the policies, but the instability. This is despite the only time Abbott came under pressure and the Coalition lost its lead in the last two years of Labor was when it went through its worst period of instability on the return of Rudd.
The irony is that in balancing two sides of the party, it has created an unstable situation for Abbott. He really has no use for either side of the party, neither a right that is electorally unviable, or a left that is indistinguishable from Labor – hence the detachment from the party and an autocratic style that emulates Rudd with a similar relationship to his party.
But neither do either side of the party really have any use for Abbott. As Chris Berg noted, what has been forgotten is that this instability was not started by Turnbull but by those that would normally most oppose him taking the leadership, the conservative columnists and climate change sceptics like Jensen and Simpkins, disappointed with his failure to implement their agenda. As someone who came in to protect the brand, Abbott was now under pressure for failure to do so.
This points to not only the hollowness of support for Abbott, but the difficulty of Turnbull challenging him. If Turnbull had an electorally winning platform, he would antagonise the right even more than he has up to now. If he gave into the right, it would undermine the one attribute he had, his popularity. Turnbull’s waiting until he is drafted really comes from him having no other choice.
It’s natural that, given all this, Abbott’s practically sole concern is to rebuild his base in the party. Hence the only really new things he had to say yesterday were all about his relationship to the party and how he can rebuild his support. As to what to do about the dire standing with the electorate, well there’s nothing really he can do.
So what next? It would be tempting to wonder if the right, having instigated this instability, then suddenly going quiet, with those like Howard and Bernardi appearing only at the last minute, had shifted its priority from replacing Abbott to just stopping Turnbull in his tracks. The talk was that Morrison, probably their preferred choice, was not yet experienced enough in senior portfolios to take over. This sounds phoney, probably the numbers weren’t there yet. If so, it would suggest that Turnbull might have just missed the best chance he had to regain the leadership.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 10 February 2015.Filed under State of the parties, Tactics