At first sight, yesterday’s Japanese election result is a lesson — albeit a couple of years late — for John Howard. A 68-year-old leader, widely seen to be out of touch, facing new opposition leader who holds a commanding lead in the opinion polls. Observers said it was a foregone conclusion, and in both cases they were right. The ruling party should have dropped the old guy while they still had a chance.

But, of course, it’s a lesson for Malcolm Turnbull as well, because the Liberal Party is still recognisably the same beast it was in Howard’s day: a party with a proud and successful record but now increasingly sclerotic and anachronistic, whose long-term decline has been masked by one leader’s success and by the weakness of its opponents. Just like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and facing the same sort of electoral extinction.

If Turnbull were allowed to follow his own instincts, he would probably look for inspiration to yesterday’s victor, the Democratic Party of Japan. The DPJ is a progressive, anti-establishment, anti-statist party. For Australia’s commentariat, who assume that being on the progressive side of the spectrum necessarily means supporting bigger and more powerful government, the DPJ’s very existence is an anomaly. Its electoral success must be mind-blowing.

As a quick look through the DPJ’s website reveals, it targets “bureaucracy-led protectionism and conformity” as the source of Japan’s problems, and calls for the restructuring of government in the interests of “those who work hard and pay taxes”. It aims to “devolve the centralised government powers to citizens, markets, and to local governments” — a prescription that Australia’s economy needs almost as much as Japan’s.

But if the DPJ’s success shows the way forward that Turnbull could theoretically take, it also shows how practically impossible it is for him to take it. The DPJ is a party of outsiders, formed only in 1998 by a merger of several small liberal and centre-left parties. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, is above all else the party of the establishment, with deeply vested interests in the existing social and economic order. Radical attitudes, to put it mildly, do not come naturally to it.

For Turnbull to even have a chance of emulating the DPJ model, the Liberal Party would first have to plumb much greater depths: either to be so desperate for office that it would try almost anything, or to shatter into fragments that could be collected and rearranged into a quite different shape. Neither is impossible — John Hewson and Robert Menzies respectively are witnesses to that — but the chance of Turnbull still being around when they happen is remote.

Peter Fray

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