Malcolm Turnbull: ideology’s latest victim
Last night Malcolm Turnbull announced his party’s support for the ETS bill with the resigned cheerfulness of a man who knows his days are numbered.
He looked more like a defeated leader at the end of a campaign thanking his supporters than someone who had just prevailed over the Opposition old guard.
It was a pyrrhic victory and nothing he said could disguise that fact.
He needed the solid support of his party room but in the end it was only the convention of cabinet solidarity that saved Turnbull from complete humiliation.
The seriousness of his predicament is demonstrated by the fact that a majority of his backbench oppose the emissions trading legislation.
With a spill motion to be decided this Thursday all eyes will be on the internal manouevering of the Liberal factions around ETS and an alternative leader.
It is by no means certain that Turnbull will even survive until the vote is finally taken in the Senate. We could see the bizarre outcome where Turnbull is rolled or resigns and the Liberals reverse their current decision to support the ETS package.
If that were to happen then the incoming Liberal leader would be confronted with the real possibility that in blocking the climate change measures the Opposition would be giving Kevin Rudd the trigger for a double dissolution election.
What Liberal leader - whether for or against the ETS bill - would want to face the likelihood of a an early election? That possibility, however unwanted, is precisely where their ideological divisions have led the Opposition.
So what could they do in such circumstances to avoid an early election? One way out of their mess would be to give a wink and a nod to seven Liberal senators crossing the floor to support the Government.
It would be a far from elegant way of avoiding a double dissolution but even a Howard style Opposition led by Tony Abbott or Kevin Andrews would want to give their leader some time to settle in.
Of course it would still allow the Government to point to the hopeless ideological split in the ranks of the Opposition.
Splits in conservative parties are few and far between but they have the potential to be just as damaging to them as they were to Labor for much of the 20th century.
Hanson’s One Nation Party was the only real ideological wedge the Liberals and Nationals have had to deal with in a century of successful if unimaginative conservatism.
The Opposition is split today for essentially the same reason that Labor suffered so much division and defeat in the past - the triumph of ideology over pragmatic politics and policy.
In essence, the Liberals and Nationals are now paying the price for Howard’s ascendancy over the small “l” Liberals in states like NSW. His politics worked for quite a while but in the end it became rootbound and stopped his party from growing.
Interestingly, a stark reminder of this failure to embrace change was Howard’s refusal - until it was far too late - to acknowledge the political reality of climate change.
In other words, whether he ever believed in man made climate change was not really the conservatives’ problem - it was Howard’s failure to see the powerful impact that climate change was having on people’s voting intentions.
Most importantly, climate change was a dramatic symbol of generational change in Australian politics - and Rudd was there to embrace that change.
That brings me to the second big decision for the Liberal Party - will they stick with a progressive leader or return to the late 20th century and consign their flirtation with centrist politics to the dust bin?
The Howard “legacy” has been there for all to see in recent weeks. When a majority of the Liberal backbench voted against the ETS measures in the party room last night it was proof positive that John Howard’s politics still holds sway among the conservative parties.
Put bluntly, if Malcolm Turnbull has been unable to unite his party around centrist policies what hope does Joe Hockey have? Turnbull tried and failed to do what Costello in his heart knew he could not achieve - take his party towards the political centre. At least Turnbull was prepared to have a go.
Given the fine balance between progressives and conservatives in the parliamentary Liberal party, this ideological division will certainly continue to plague the Opposition regardless of whether there is a change of leader from the centre to the right.
The splits which ravaged the Labor party throughout the 20th century consigned it to Opposition for an unnecessarily long time.
Big schisms plagued Labor in the 20th century - conscription in World War One, economic policy in the Depression and the Cold War fuelled ideological wars over the influence of Catholics and communists in the Labor movement in the 1950s.
Anyone who doubts the long-term damage of ideological splits need only look at the 1950s and the damage caused to Labor by the rise of the conservative Catholic controlled Democratic Labor Party.
Federally Labor was out of office for 23 years and in Queensland that devastating Labor split left them the Party in Opposition for three decades.
I am not suggesting that the problems facing the Liberals are in that league - but they do have the potential to despatch them to political irrelevance for years.
In the curious world of right wing politics climate change has somehow morphed from scientific debate into ideological battleground.
Proof of this distortion of a serious ecological debate is Senator Nick Minchin’s recent remarkable assertion that communists have high-jacked the green movement and created a myth called global warming.
If history tells us anything it is that whatever happens in the Liberal party room this week, the ideological divisions racking that party will take a long time - certainly years - to settle.
Wedge politics is damaging but when self inflicted it is devastating.
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