Liberals fighting a Labor Party which doesn’t exist
Whether the recent federal Liberal party showdown over the now rejected Emissions Trading Scheme develops into a thoroughgoing schism only time will tell. Malcolm Turnbull’s robust description of new federal leader Tony Abbot’s climate change thinking is a crude reminder to those Liberals celebrating the weekend’s by-election results in Bradfield and Higgins: environmental politics is here to stay and cannot be swept under the carpet by short-term circuit-breakers.
As I argued in The Australian during August, the current schism between so-called ‘moderates’, small ‘l’ liberals gathered around Turnbull and Joe Hockey, and the conservatives of Abbot and Nick Minchin’s ilk has many of the hallmarks of the 1950s ALP split over communism which spawned the Democratic Labor Party and kept Labor from office for some two decades.
Most accounts of the farcical goings on in the federal Liberal’s party room over the past few weeks have highlighted this underlying ideological conflict. The conservative coup d’état against Turnbull resulted from a fundamental policy divide over climate change dovetailing with opposition to Turnbull’s divisive crash or crash through personality.
The Abbott-led Liberals are likely to learn the hard way that a party which values ideology over centrist, pragmatic politics is doomed to repeated failure. As with the now extinct hard Left elements centred in the Victorian branch of the Labor Party during the 1960s and 70s (think Bill Hartley), right-wing Liberals seem intent on condemning their party to perpetual opposition in the name of ideological purity.
But Abbott’s wrong-headed strategy of shifting his party to the right reflects a deeper malaise in Liberal thought. As Abbott’s first press conference as leader revealed the Liberals still believe they are confronting the 1970s ALP headed up by Gough Whitlam, if not an earlier incarnation.
Abbott’s grand plan to lead the Liberals back into government at the first opportunity and thus overturn 80 years of received electoral wisdom will rest upon a scare campaign to portray Kevin Rudd as a Whitlamite fiscal anarchist whose climate change ‘tax’ will destroy the Australian economy. Courtesy of yesterday’s frontbench reshuffle, old schoolers Kevin Andrews, Philip Ruddock and Bronwyn Bishop will lend a helping hand.
Likewise, Abbott intends to oppose Rudd’s replacement of Work Choices by defending the Howard government’s former policy as having gone only “a little too far”. Abbott contends that Rudd has rolled back the Paul Keating initiated workplace reforms of the past two decades to the 1970s status quo.
Clearly the ALP should not underestimate Abbott and hubris is an ever present worry. Though fighting under the wrong strategic banner Abbott is a much wilier political tactician than Turnbull. And overly personal attacks labelling Abbott an out of touch conservative relic or sneering derision of his staunch Catholicism will only prove counterproductive.
However Abbott’s electoral strategy is doomed for two reasons. Firstly, Whitlam hasn’t led the ALP for over three decades. Much of the electorate wasn’t born when he was PM. For better or worse, they couldn’t give a fig about a long-forgotten Labor hero who governed an Australia totally foreign to their high-tech world of twitter and youtube.
Rather, they want to hear about issues which matter to them in the 21st century. Climate change is front and centre. As The Australian’s George Megalogenis insists, Generation Y voters, especially young women and most notably mothers, are exactly the sort of electors the Coalition needs to woo to win back office.
Given this assumption, a shift to the right, whereby climate change action is downplayed and policies such as Work Choices are retrieved from the dustbin of political history is sheer electoral folly. (In any case, Rudd’s workplace regime is the antithesis of the highly centralised wages system of the ‘70s; enterprise bargaining is its watchword).
Second, Abbott’s appraisal of the Whitlamite legacy of big government is erroneous. Whilst Bob Hawke and Paul Keating get the credit for modernising the ALP, embracing market-driven public policy, and driving the top-down reform of the Australian economy, it was Whitlam who began the process by cutting tariffs across the board by 25% and abolishing the tariff board in 1973.
More importantly, Whitlam took on the hardline elements in his party, opening up the ALP to non-working class members, reversing paleo-Laborite policies and reforming the party’s moribund decision-making structures. In short he liberalised and modernised the party.
The electoral harvest reaped by the ALP since Whitlam is stunning. After 1972 federal Labor has held office roughly half the time, a ratio that will undoubtedly improve under Rudd and Gillard, and which compares favourably with the previous 70 years when the working-class dominated, socialist aiming party governed for just 17.
Since the early 1970s, the ALP also rules the roost in the states. By the next state elections due over the next two years NSW Labor, despite its current dysfunction, will have governed 80% of the time; the South Australians for some 70%; the formally unelectable Victorians well over half; the Queenslanders will achieve likewise in ostensibly conservative heartland; and WA and Tasmanian Labor have each occupied the treasury benches for a majority of this period.
In short, despite the long federal reign of John Howard and the notable Victorian Liberal administration of Jeff Kennett during the 1990s, by virtue of claiming the pragmatic, middle ground the ALP has arguably become the natural party of government in the states and perhaps federally too.
Claims that the modern ALP dominates electorallly because it is the master of spin simply won’t wash. This claim implies that the electorate is stupid and repeats the lazy analysis of the so-called Howard haters of the Left during the previous government. As much it might irk them the current Libs can learn from Gough. It’s time: modernise or perish.
- Nick Dyrenfurth is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sydney and co-editor of Confusion: the Making of the Australian Two-Party System (Melbourne University Publishing).
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