Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Bastardry sems to be the term most applied by commentators to the machinations currently going on inside the Liberal Party. Christine Wallace* has applied the term to describe Peter Costello's moves, indicating that Costello had twelve years to watch the master.

Christine does a nice line in analysing the trials of opposition and advances what she calls the peloton theory of leadership, that you let someone else make the early breaks and wear themselves out before breaking from the pack late. She refers to this as the approach used by Rudd, Howard, Hawke and Fraser and suggests only Whitlam did the hard yards.

It is useful, but misses some facts. Rudd wasn't the organiser of the peloton in opposition, that was Swan, Smith and others. Howard was a spent early leader who taught Costello the "wait till they beg" strategy. And Hawke really had no earlier opportunity.

Meanwhile Dennis Shanahan in the Oz gets stuck into Malcolm for turning his attention to the structures of his party.

The indignation apparently prompted one Liberal to say "This party was founded by Robert Menzies and any attempts to turn it into a personal fiefdom will be resisted", which is stunning in its incomprehension. What is the relevance of Menzies? Is it that it was his personal feifdom and can never be any other's? Is Menzies to be elevated to the same level as Marx - the Liberals are no longer liberal nor conservative but "Menzieists"?

Has this poor sod reflected on how little the Liberal Party of the late 40s looks like that of today? Think federal structure, think reforming after disaster, think of the need to distance the party from the control of big business that bedevilled the UAP. If that is not enough think that the opponents were all true socialists (and included a fair number of communists) none of whom questioned that their mission was the "socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange".

As Shanahan goes on "they also fear jostling for the meagre benefits in Opposition may unleash a damaging series of recriminations and factional fights, which paralysed the Liberals in the 1980s." He could have pointed out that this was also the ALP approach from 1996 to 2001.

One prize is the seat of Bradfield to be vactaed by Brendon Nelson. Imre Salusinszky, also in the Oz, has written about the array of candidates for the seat ranging from right-wing ideologues to faithful party servants. He includes Janet Albrechtsen in his list, but says she is not a member of the party and is not interested.

Interestingly Albrechtsen doesn't mention this in her own column, despite otherwise trawling through the list provided by her colleague. She gives a little run through of the history of the seat including two long-serving bench-warmers. Her call is that the seat calls out for a future leader, and that in making the choice;

the party should not make the mistake of confusing commitment to principles with commitment to party. Commitment is not necessarily about being a long-standing member of the party. On the contrary, the best political warriors may be among those who have worked outside the party and politics demonstrating a history of believing in the principles that underpin the Liberal Party as the dominant conservative force in Australia. John Howard may have left the political stage, but many of the principles he pursued during his long career have prevailed. On the battlefields of welfare reform, indigenous politics, history, economics, citizenship, national sovereignty and values generally, conservative ideas have proven remarkably resilient. The Liberal Party cannot lose sight of that as it pursues renewal.

Sounds like JA would meet those criteria admirably!

However, in her history of the seat she left out the very first member for Bradfield, for one term, the one and only W.M.Hughes, Labor rat, thorn in the side for librals ever after. That means 50% of the members for this safest of conservative seats were once members of the ALP. Will that be the position for the next member?

While the Liberals continue their turmoil, it is worthwhile reflecting on what really is going on here. Governments once elected are usually very hard to unseat. The vigorous internal competition in opposition is a selection process that continually refines and strengthens the opposition. It is this combat, not planned leader based strategy, that eventually presents a convincing "alternative government" to the people. It was one of Brendon Nelson's mistakes to think that because he was the leader of the opposition he was the leader of the alternative government - the one does not automatically follow the other. The latter title has to be earned. It is not earned merely by "policy formulation" though that helps, it is also earned by developing character and presenting more than just "the leader".

The difficulty for analysts and pundits alike is that these aspects of character are not easy to measure in standard opinion polls. John Howard went from being strong and resolute to tricky and distrustful. He and Mal Brough could never understand why the NT intervention did not give them the poll lift they expected - it was simply because it played into the tricky and distrustful mindset rather than strong and resolute. It had been first identified in the Shane Stone memo, gained strength in the "Not Happy John" era and turned into a tide by 2007.

Politics is a lot more complex than most commentators will admit.

* While I'm at it I should give a plug to Christine's really useful morning news service called Brakfast Politics. My only suggestion would be that she develops the morning e-mail to actually be an HTML e-mail that contains the updated home page.

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