It’s hard to argue with Paul Kelly’s assessment yesterday that “Much of [the Liberal Party’s] post-election debate looms as an exercise in surrealism and denial.”
Yesterday’s federal executive and shadow ministry meetings both exuded an air of “business as usual”. Nothing shows that more than the continued credence being given to the idea – initially dismissed by some as a rather tasteless joke – of electing Alexander Downer to the party’s federal presidency. With masterly understatement, John Wiseman reported on Tuesday that “Mr Downer was being seen as linked to the past and ‘might not be the answer’.”
It’s important to understand that this sort of denial – the refusal to take the past seriously – has become central to the Liberal Party’s makeup. In government, it influenced its approach to issues such as climate change, Iraq, and Aboriginal reconciliation; in each case, people were told not to dwell on the past, but to move on with practical measures for the future.
But the past matters, not least because a failure to face up to past mistakes undermines your credibility for the future. John Howard’s climate change policy for the last year, for example, depended on just ignoring the previous decade of official denial, so people reasonably assumed that his change of front was less than fully sincere.
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Similarly with Iraq: the attempt to debate the future course of the war without reference to who started it in the first place was always unconvincing. When ministers still refused to admit it was wrong to go to war, no-one was likely to believe anything else they said on the topic.
Now there are plenty of voices urging the same strategy in opposition.
In yesterday’s Age, Josh Frydenberg assured Liberals that “There is no need to panic”, and that the party can return to office without any serious re-examination of its record or what it stands for.
As Nick Minchin explains today, after the party’s last loss of office, in 1983, the Valder committee produced a comprehensive diagnosis of the party’s ills. It was then ignored. By 1996, the party was pretty much the same ramshackle construction it had been in 1983, but it won a landslide anyway.
The moral that Frydenberg and others take from Howard’s victories is that no change is necessary. But even if the party could be so lucky again, do they really want to go through another 13 years in the wilderness first?
Santayana’s line is hackneyed but inescapable: “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”