Liberal leadership shenanigans are such fun to watch. They tend combine lethal intent with a heady dose of farce. New platforms, new strategies, even an alternate candidate – none are necessary when the Liberals plot. Indeed, in this week’s episode of ‘Stalk the Leader – Liberal Edition’ the stench of befuddlement wafting from the pores of the Party’s most senior Leaders, clueless about the PM’s ineluctable un-electability, has made this show compulsory viewing. The casus-belli being proffered for the deadly push against the Prime Minister is tales of woe about a Chief of Staff who we are told has been both ruthlessly controlling, yet simultaneously ineffective in preventing nightmares like knighthoods for royals.
So what was this attempted act of regicide meant to achieve? For the key hardheads in the Liberal Party it is as simple as installing a leader who isn’t going to be catastrophically shredded by Newspoll each fortnight.
Perhaps the reason the Liberal Party hasn’t been exactly brimming with other reasons for their dramatic attempt to unseat a first term Prime Minister is because the Liberal Party is not a Party prone to introspection. Unlike leftwing politicians, nurtured on a regular retinue of existential crisis, rightwing politicians are raised to recognise a leader’s pre-eminence. All crises are to be solved with a strong dose of a leader’s authority. If the leader has no authority, if their authority has atrophied, or if they have ‘poor judgment,’ then the answer is simple: change leaders.
Tony Abbott milked that mood when he seized the Crown. He seized the Liberal leadership after adroitly exploiting his party’s allergic reaction to progress. In 2009, two years after the destruction of the Howard Government and during a severe crisis of Conservative confidence, the Liberal Party was forced to choose between modernisation or more of the same. Abbott won on an explicit promise: more of the same.
He pledged no surrender on climate change, but – more importantly – he promised no introspection, let alone contemplation. No consideration of the reasons why the Liberal Party lost the 2007 election. Or how the party’s next government would have to be different from the last.
Abbott’s preference was to indulge the fervent and outlandish demands of his hard rightwing fringe. Rather than confront them with the realities of electoral politics, or the practicalities of government, he let them believe that they were on quest to create Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. Shock horror: it now turns out Australia isn’t exactly rushing to join them.
The Liberal Opposition may have saved time and energy by not reflecting on the new conditions of Australian politics, but it means they now have had to spend that time in government, doing it on the fly. What Abbott denied his party was time to ponder the massive leap from the pre-GFC politics of prosperity – which John Howard so comprehensively mastered – to the far trickier post-GFC politics of austerity.
Prosperity politics revolves around the distribution of benefit. Austerity politics is about the distribution of burden. Austerity politics requires governments to mesh morals with spreadsheets. The right combination of structural cost savings and political calculation must be struck for the overall strategy to receive pubic sanction. Governments have to carefully decide which groups can absorb cuts and also whether asking them to make sacrifices passes muster in the public’s eyes. Get that calculation wrong and you can look forward to experiencing all the acclaim and popularity Joe Hockey is currently experiencing after his disastrous first, and possibly only, federal budget.
Should the Liberal’s opt for new leadership before the next election, the temptation will be to redesign the government’s ‘narrative.’ Better communications instead of better policies – this is always the choice made by a party unwilling to face its problems. The better choice would be for the new leader to embrace the project Abbott has conspicuously rejected: Tory Modernisation. The new leader will have a narrow window to gracefully retreat on the GP Tax and $100,000 degrees – but he or she should go further still.
The new leader should propose a conservative rationale for action on climate change. A conservative case for marriage equality. A conservative crackdown on tax avoidance. And a conservative embrace of pluralism and immigration. Four policies that signal the end of the era of conservative reaction. Four principles that herald the arrival of the conservative reformers.
For Labor, the job is simple: be merciless. Ignore all the chatter about the ‘end of the reform era’. Force the new leader to confront the contradictions between the claims of his hard rightwing supporters, and the wishes of the Australian people. The Right must come to accept the settlement struck in the last century over universal healthcare, balanced industrial-relations, and affordable tertiary education. Until then, neither the Left nor the Right can effectively engage over conflicts like Australia’s stop-start economic growth or its growing income inequality.
By lashing the Tories for their far-Right frolics, Labor would be doing Australia a favor. It’s almost perfect: the Party’s political interest is also, overwhelmingly, the national interest.