Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Liberal Party woes

The Liberal Party seems to be hell-bent on self-destruction at present. Incompetent and corrupt Labor Governments in Western Australia and NSW have remained in power while a Liberal Party leader in WA sniffs the seat of a female employee and the leader in NSW tries to sit on the fence in relation to electricity privatisationseventually he 'swings around'. Federally we have Brendon Nelson trying to cut taxes on alco-pops in the face of a clear binge drinking problem among youth that induces horrific externalities (for example via road deaths) and also seeking to reduce the excise tax on petrol in the face of higher international energy prices and the prospect of climate change problems. The policy confusion is obvious – there seems to be little respect for Liberal policy principles and instead an obvious and almost embarrassing populism that seeks to regain leadership by offering only superficially attractive policies.

In this setting treachery within the Liberal Party is almost predictable. The Victorian Liberal leadership has been viciously attacked in a blog apparently organised by employees at state Liberal Headquarters – incidentally the blog can still be viewed. Now Brendon Nelson claims that the Shadow Treasurer has leaked an email that showed he did not support the cut in excise on petrol. It is a fiasco for a Party presenting itself as an alternative government!

The problems of inept policy and of intra-Liberal Party treachery are linked. It is imperative for the Party to speak with one voice on policy positions that are democratically agreed to. It is also imperative that the battle for political power within the Party remain within the Party. To accept a position where insiders can attack the Party leadership in the public arena is to accept permanent opposition and permanent political irrelevance. But this unity will be much easier to maintain if the leadership espouse policy positions based on Liberal Party principles rather than opportunism and cheap populism.

There is a broader dimension to this issue as well. The Labor Party is composed very largely of power hungry incompetents whose devotion to symbolism and the glib response will damage Australia. They need to be held to account for their political position when they get it wrong and they deserve support when they get it right. Democracy does not work without effective political opposition and currently the Liberal Party is behaving like a bad joke – not an effective opposition.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I feel a bit sorry for Brendan Nelson (or at least as much as one can for a politician) -- aside from the fighting, he takes the blame for all these aweful policies and lack of good ideas, but this is hardly his fault -- it's either that good ideas within the party are being suppressed, or there is simply no-one to generate them. The same might said of some of the state premiers -- is there really no one left that can generate some good policy ideas? If not it seems to me that we might end up with 3 parties like the UK (i.e., social democrats -- which I guess the Greens could fill if they got a bit less reactionary), where a party to the left of Labor starts making more inroads.

Anonymous said...

The Liberal Party has always been hopeless at opposition. It's just not something that they are temperamentally suited to do well.

Why is this? First, because of their still extant born to rule mentality. They think opposition is an anomaly which will be rectified in due course - the natural order will return - without any need for them to actually do anything.

Second, because the Liberal Party is not a party of ideas, as conservative commentators like Gerard Henderson have pointed out ad nauseum. The Liberal party has ideas they way the local newsagent has ideas, as a collection of entrenched prejudices rather than things that are conclusions following a period of thought. But opposition is about engaging the public and convincing them to toss out the government. This takes ideas and thought.

The one thing the Liberal party has been good at is digging up dirt on the labor Party in government, spreading fear and exploiting corruption and incompetence (Fraser v Whitlam, Kennett v Kirner). But they're not even good at that anymore.

Slim said...

Was that meant to read "The Liberal Party is composed very largely of power hungry incompetents whose devotion to symbolism and the glib response has damaged Australia"?

For that would characterise well the last two terms of the Howard Government. The Liberals became so complacent and arrogant (more than the born-to-rule normal). Apart from looking after the big end of town, pretty much all their policies were about symbolism, knee-jerk reactions and electoral bribery.

The resources boom made it easy for Howard to be a policy free zone, certainly as far as addressing issues facing the future of our nation and its well-being. Apart from tinkering with GST, being mean to refugees, engaging in foolish military adventurism, and trying to reduce the cost of labour forever through WorkChoices , the Howardians really didn't have a lot of ideas or actually did that much thinking. The vision didn't go much further than 'let the good times roll' – and even that was mostly for the investment class.

It’s hardly surprising then that they haven't a collective clue in opposition. Alcopops and prestige cars for chrissakes! They need to ditch the Old Guard ASAP. Turnbull is as useless and transparently ambitious as Nelson, and as we have seen, if you rub them both together they still haven't half a clue. Julie Bishop is waiting in the wings, ready to be Australia's answer to Lady Thatcher, but that's sooo last century. The game has changed and the Liberals aren't even at the right ground, let alone the right match.

As I've said before, it's going to be a long time on the wilderness. You just can’t rebuild an effective political party overnight. I still reckon they’ve got a decade’s work in from of them. The successful leaders probably aren’t even in parliament yet.

I do agree with you 'though on the need for effective opposition!

derrida derider said...

Yep, the Libs really do need to get rid of those Howard hangers-on. The price they pay for having been a one-man show in government is that they promoted people for loyalty to that man. When the one-man show ended they were stuck.

Turnbull will probably get the leadership eventually but unless he can get rid of that reactionary old guard it will do him no good.

But I wouldn't despair yet Harry - a lot can happen between now and the next election, and the federal ALP was arguably in worse straits a few years ago.

Slim said...

Yes, a lot can happen between now and the next election.

Current indications are that the electorate will be more than comfortable with Rudd's government. He's politically shrewd and a cautious manager - the electorate will be forgiving of his shortcomings and appreciate that improving our services and infrastructure after 12 years of profligate neglect will take some time - say ten years.

In two years time the Liberals will still not be able to present a coherent narrative and policy foundation for their vision of Australia's future and the electorate, with long memories and lingering anger, will not buy whatever populist snake oil they'll no doubt be offering in its place.

The next war will not be won by the strategies of the last, especially when the defeated still don't really believe that they have been. It's only a flesh wound.

Mercurius Aulicus said...

The only place where the Liberals have something of a future is Queensland - when with luck the 3000 members of the Liberals will merge with the 10,000 members of the Nationals to form a new Conservative Party.

Gummo Trotsky said...

It is also imperative that the battle for political power within the Party remain within the Party. To accept a position where insiders can attack the Party leadership in the public arena is to accept permanent opposition and permanent political irrelevance.

That's long been held up (by Liberals) as the advantage the Liberal Party has over the ALP, which does most of its faction fighting in public. Odd then, that the ALP was able to take power federally.

I'd suggest that it's time for Liberals to let go of the "what happens in the party stays in the party" mentality. While it persists, the Liberals will continue to be seen by many inside and outside the party not as a vehicle for developing policy and putting it into practice, but a vehicle for advancing personal ambition, either by becoming leader, or getting behind one.

And no, I'm not suggesting that the ALP is perfect in this regard. It's just that if you want your political party to be seen as a 'party of ideas' it's better to engage in robust public debate about what those ideas are going to be.