The future of political parties tends to be an all-or-nothing debate. Election losses are supposed to induce frantic introspection on the part of politicians, in order to work out where they went wrong. It’s now de rigueur for oppositions to embark on post-defeat listening tours, a combination of ritual self-abasement and publicity tour to advertise one’s recovery from that dreaded condition “out of touch”. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the political divide are all too happy to see their opponents in disarray.

Both reactions are extreme. There’s usually not much wrong with political parties that an election win wouldn’t fix. And for those who think it’s just fine that the conservative side of politics is in disarray, well, go live in NSW. Poor oppositions really do lead to poor governments.

Peter van Onselen’s Liberals and Power — with that now-famous cover of non-contributors — takes the future of the Liberals seriously indeed; the only problem is a number of his contributors don’t look up to the task.

The politicians first. Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Michael Keenan and Brett Mason are all serving MPs. Abbott offers only a lengthy hagiography of John Howard. Based on this effort, Abbott’s own book on conservatism, which he threatened to inflict on us last year, will be dire indeed. Those with long memories may recall the time when Abbott seemed to have some substance — a delusion that his antics over the last twelve months, and this chapter, have thankfully dispelled.

Julie Bishop — or Murray Hansen — provides an extraordinary essay arguing that there needs to be more labour market reform. It will most assuredly be quoted at length by Julia Gillard at the Dispatch Box in coming months. Brett Mason, impressively quoting both Arnold Toynbee and Orlando Bloom, offers a peculiar rant that seems more designed for a collection of anti-leftist bile than on the future of the Liberal Party.

Brandis, on the other hand, provides an excellent essay — a rigorous, almost elegant, analysis of John Howard’s relationship with his Party’s liberal tradition, the contradictions inherent in Howard’s ideological positions and how they could have been fruitfully resolved for his party. And Michael Keenan, the up-and-comer from Western Australia, makes a welcome call for a shift to a small-government philosophy of the kind that — although he doesn’t say in so many words — was betrayed by the Howard Government. More of that later.

Then there are the serious commentators. Greg Melleuish grapples with how to pursue genuinely liberal policies in a political environment ever more prone to populism. Andrew Norton looks at what issues the Liberals have struggled to “own” in public perception, albeit without offering much in the way of advice. Brad Lancken tenders for the role of party online strategist. Margaret Fitzherbert and Ainslie van Onselen make compelling cases for better, and more female, candidates. Van Onselen, in particular, makes an excellent argument that the Liberals need to catch up with Labor in providing female candidates.

But Robert Manne, invited to offer some alternate perspective, provides little more than a standard anti-Howard rant (complete with the tiresome error that the Coalition cut ABC funding). Philip Senior reckons the Liberals need to retain their economic credentials but broaden their focus to social issues — rather more easily said than done — and Wayne Errington offers the other keeper in the collection, an excellent analysis of the party’s relationship with federalism, and the potential of the issue to unite liberal and conservative wings of the party.

And then there are the lightweights. Tom Switzer, under his nom de plume “Brendan Nelson”, explains that the Liberal Party is the fount of all wisdom in Australian politics, but doesn’t really address the minor matter of winning elections. Janet Albrechtsen, that dimmest of bulbs in the conservative chandelier Copperart light fitting, plays marriage counsellor and tells the Liberals to connect emotionally with Australians. And David Flint provides some comic relief with his now-standard — but always hilarious — turn as the mad old reactionary. You’ve still got it, Flinty.

A persistent delusion across contributions is that Labor’s me-tooism prior to the last election is evidence that the conservative side of politics has “won” politics and the ideological battle. Conservative commentators have been comforting themselves with this argument since the election. But in case the likes of Switzer, Mason and Albrechtsen hadn’t noticed, “winning” the debate doesn’t get you any seats in Parliament. Declaring ideological victory from Opposition is like being proud that someone has liked your home so much they’ve moved in and kicked you out.

Moreover, it mistakes the natural evolution of political debate for ideological victory. “Me-tooism” has been a valid political tactic since the 19th century, when the phrase was first used, and probably much longer. Conservative Republicans used to accuse Eisenhower of it, angry that he had preserved much of the New Deal. Even John Howard reluctantly gave up his professed desire to gut Medicare in order to win in 1996, becoming, he eventually boasted, the “best friend Medicare ever had.” David Cameron, trying to end more than a decade’s electoral humiliation of his party at the hands of New Labour, has been trying to out-green the UK Labour Government on climate change.

What’s the alternative — clinging to electorally-unpalatable policies and enjoying the purity of powerlessness?

Much of the collection is focussed on the liberal-conservative tension within the Liberal party. But all parties have their left and right wings; what makes the Liberals different is their failure to formalise that structure and share power, as the ALP has done. This means the party was and is prone to damaging takeovers, usually by the Right. Talented party moderates like Bruce Baird or Christopher Pyne spent most of the Howard years in internal exile, or like Phillip Ruddock had to abandon any shred of principle to get a ministry. Structural issues, however, don’t get much of a guernsey in the collection. Instead, there’s lots of grappling with how to resolve the tension philosophically, an exercise in squaring the circle that seems to have soaked up a lot of effort for little gain.

Michael Keenan smartly skips this sort of debate and comes closest to resolving the liberal-conservative dilemma by proposing an aggressive small-government/personal responsibility program. It is refreshing to discover that someone in the Liberal Party still advocates a small government agenda after it was so shamefully abandoned in the Howard years. He acknowledges it would require will require a mammoth sales job, given it is more or less a direct attack on Australians’ addiction to government handouts. Greg Melleuish presents a more cogent, but not necessarily better, argument along similar lines.

It is here, however, that the collection suffers most in its timing vis-à-vis the financial crisis, which in discrediting market fundamentalism managed in weeks what the global Left entirely failed to do over thirty years. The days of small government are gone for the time being, however painful that may be for those of us inclined to the view that less government works better than more. The likes of Melleuish and Keenan will find the debate has shifted to issues of “market design” (one of those oxymorons that has snaked its way into political parlance) and effective regulation in areas like competition. It is here that, in policy terms, the Liberals are badly outgunned by Labor. While Chris Bowen is actively pursuing substantial competition reforms and grappling with how best to regulate infrastructure access, the Liberals are still the party of ABC Learning, a mess they’ve been furiously disowning despite the entire sorry saga happening on their watch.

In this context the GFC has been a boon for the Government. But it may yet turn out to be a disaster if unemployment heads north quickly and the voters start blaming Kevin Rudd. All this debate over the future of the Liberal Party might look awfully redundant if Malcolm Turnbull can ride a recession to victory. It’s a long shot, and it won’t happen unless the Liberals and their eccentric pals from the bush need to stay disciplined and united. For the moment, that’s challenge enough for this mob. The rest can come later.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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