How deeply has Howard shafted his own party? Some true believers are pointing to the 1969 period of six months or so when the Libs had a full house. They conveniently ignore the fact that this came at the end of a Liberal reign, with Labor looking like the coming thing.
The Libs face years before anything can be regained – and they may even lose their pitiful redoubt, the city of Brisbane, in 2008, in which case they cease to exist as a party exercising government. Their
problem becomes not merely critical, but existential. In terms of new leaders, they face only bad and worse choices.
Go with a conservative leader like Tony Abbott and it’ll be worse, in spades – the party will be deeply alienated from the baseline values of contemporary Australia, socially liberal, pro-trade union and arbitration, environmental etc. Support will nosedive.
But put in an MOR leader like Turnbull, willing to make a change and an aura of new direction might be even more disastrous – since the act of changing the party would be done in its period of damnation, and
forever be associated with it, making the public more cynical further down the line.
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Futhermore, the Liberals are faced with absolute exhaustion of any principles they were founded on, in a non-ideological period. Freedom and individual liberty? People clamour for restrictions on these, from good stuff like arbitration and work protection to the bad stuff like CCTVs anti-social behaviour orders etc (one reason why the UK Tories haven’t reinvented themselves as a freedom party).
National tradition, patriotism etc? Impossible to tar Labor with a lack of that, now that the internationalist idea of socialism is long gone. Globalisation – films, foods, travel etc – make the idea of national traditions something that people feel through general symbols as part of a global symbols ‘buffet’ , whether it’s an Olympics opening ceremony or a Gangagang song. Labor is better able to tap into that feeling than the Libs are, even if Kylie led them.
They got nothing, nothing. And not much to survive on in the meantime. Labor is held together through its dark ages by the ideal of fairness, however much in the breach that is honoured. The Liberals are so bereft that they don’t even have much worth splitting over.
Fairness never goes away. Most of what Tony Abbott, Alex Hawke, Sophie Mirabella and others believe in, in their hearts, is actually not part of the Australian political tradition at all. It is either European conservatism (Abbott), US Christian neoconservatism (Alex Hawke) or student-union contrarian Toryism (Mirabella). Australians find the ideas and their advocates creepy and disturbing.
So what should your average MOR Liberal do? Try and grab hold of the party, in the hope that Labor will be hit with a global recession, doubled by their own inexperience, and getting back in six or even three years will be possible? Or give the hard Right more than enough rope, so that the moderates can then stage a retrieval of the party, rebrand it, and leapfrog Labor on key issues?
David Cameron has done it for the UK Tories. But it took him a decade. Do the Liberals have that long to live? And can we watch?