Like shy rodents emerging from their burrows after hibernation, like snakes uncoiling from their torpor as they prepare to hunt again, like insects taking a first, timid look at the world through a crack in their chrysalis, the Liberals are awakening to the new reality.

And a bleak one it is – so bleak that the former Dear Leader, having been revived by strict regimen of chicken soup and Milo administered by his beloved Hyacinth is about to leave for America, where they still appreciate him.

Indeed, the Neocons regard John Winston Howard as a figure of historical importance: the most servile and unquestioning of their followers in the Coalition of the Willing, and therefore to be held up as a paragon when they rewrite the history of the times as a moral fable for their grandchildren. In the meantime they are assembling crowds of like-mindless unteachables to listen to his maunderings, for which he will be paid an absurd amount.

Not as much, though as figures in the fantasies of his former deputy, the Prime Minister Who Never Was. Peter Costello is reported to have been offered a position by the Macquarie Bank, which, given his demonstrable contempt for any post-ministerial code of ethics, he will probably take. It is not clear what the position is – it may be no more than demonstrating a new range of mattresses in the foyer. But it obviously involves sh-tloads of money for very little effort, Costello’s long-cherished ideal. At least it will keep him out of the media.

Not so but far otherwise for the former room temperature Foreign Minister, who is now setting himself up as some sort of Elder Statesman of Conservatism, a role so pompous and silly it could have been designed for him. In an article in The Bulletin (which promptly folded, although insiders deny any connection) ex-Lord Downer proclaimed the need to retain the ancient principles laid down in the doctrine of WorkChoices, if not all the detail; feudalism should be kept as an ideal, but the use of the stocks and the dunking stool need not be spelled out in policy.

However, one innovation was desirable: in the words of the loony Lady Margaret Thatcher, the Tories should get passionate about the environment. Rapturous, even – totally carried away. However, just what this would mean in practice, neither he nor anyone else could say.

His fellow South Australian reactionary Nick Minchin also has ideas, the most sensible of which is to abandon Howard’s thought-up-in-the-bath creed of Aspirational Nationalism. Bring back states rights and the blame game, he told the oxymoronic (or in some cases just plain moronic) Young Liberals last week. And while we’re at it, amalgamate with the Nationals. After which we will square the circle and invent perpetual motion before getting on to something really difficult.

But these are surely yesterday’s men, the rejected dregs from the Howard years. Where, I hear you cry, is the fresh, dynamic, new generation of leadership poised to resuscitate the moribund Liberal Party?

Well, Malcolm Turnbull is always available to say the new government needs to pull its socks up, and it is rumoured that Brendan Nelson had a new year’s message, although no-one knows what it was. But apart from that it has been left to the state and territory leaders to make the running.

It is a measure of the fluid nature of Liberal politics that while Nelson has held his position for just two months, there are no less than three Liberal parliamentary leaders with even less time in the job: those in Queensland, Western Australia and the ACT. Not one of the nine has completed two years: Will Hodgman in Tasmania is the most senior, having just passed 22 months. We know the need to keep abreast of rapidly changing times, but this is ridiculous.

Last week, in an effort to put a temporary brake on the revolving door, Victoria’s Ted Baillieu (himself reported to be near termination) called a meeting of his state and territory counterparts. Nelson was not invited, but was said to be supportive. And Western Australia’s Troy Buswell, who had been party leader for just one working day, felt it wiser to stay home and cement his position.

He was, however, kept in the loop by phone, and was in complete accord with the meeting’s momentous outcome: a decision to “form a Council of Australian State and Territory Liberal and Country Liberal Leaders which would meet regularly to discuss and co-ordinate matters of state and territory importance.”

And if that was not enough to capture the imagination of millions of wavering voters, CASTLCLL (snappy acronym! Think of the logo!) will also “work together to end wall-to-wall Labor governments around the country” and “ensure a revival of the fortunes of the Liberal and Country Liberal parties at a state and territory level which will lay the foundations of future national success.” Nelson must be vastly relieved.

It is easy to make fun of such pretensions (and damn good sport, too) but at least they’re doing something; which is better than lying curled in a foetal position in a darkened room crying, the principal occupation of the feds since 24 November. The political wheel will turn, eventually; it always does. And it is the soul-searing time in opposition that sorts out those who are fit for government from those who aren’t – just ask John Howard.

This doesn’t make it any less painful, but it does give it a kind of purpose. It is time for the Libs to come back to the real world.

Footnote: The new edition of my book Poll Dancing – the story of the 2007 election is now in the shops. Don’t miss out again – I need the money.

Peter Fray

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