Opposition parties that have been in government for a long time often take just as long to realise that they are no longer in government and to start behaving accordingly. It happened to Labor under Kim Beazely, and it is now happening to the Liberals under Malcolm Turnbull.
While Liberals sing from John Howard’s hymn book, they forget that Howard, though successful as a political strategist in his time, was not only defeated but humiliated by losing his own seat at the last federal election. It was not merely WorkChoices that undid his government — it was the raft of catchwords from Iraq to Wheat for Weapons to Children Overboard that, over time, seeped into popular culture and poisoned the trust that Liberals momentarily enjoyed with “mainstream” Australia.
The audience to whom the Liberals are now playing by contrast is a small and diminishing one. Their rhetoric is aimed primarily at each other in the internal culture war for the heart and soul of the Liberal Party as a very small number of liberals seek to move on from the Howard years against a tide of Howard nostalgia embodied by the likes of Tony Abbott. The government on the other hand, is free to play to a far broader audience and speak to today rather than yesterday.
The series of polls that show Liberal support falling to the dismal 30s just as the asylum seeker issue has been rising should be enough to show the Liberals the tactical stupidity of their position. However, it is perhaps more likely to make them shriller with desperation as they grasp for the things that worked in 2001, when they were in government.
Governments enjoy natural advantages over oppositions, none more apparent than when it comes to issues framed in terms of national security. The genius of Howard during the Tampa crisis was to combine fear-mongering with fear alleviation. Having convinced Australians that they faced a dire problem in asylum seekers, he could simultaneously promise the solution, wrapped up in the mantra “we decide who comes here and the manner in which they come”. The Liberals today are ringing the same alarm bells, but this time their hands are tied in the same way Labor was crippled in 2001 — without power they cannot deliver an alternative solution.
The Liberals’ one hope, because they cannot win government in their current fractured state, is that Labor will fall apart under the pressure. It is the same modus operandi that saw the Liberals oppose the government’s economic stimulus measures in the hope that a Great Depression-style crisis would sweep them back into office. That piece of rank and misdirected opportunism failed. Then the OzCar egg exploded. Now Malcolm Turnbull looks set to misfire all over again rather than do what all erstwhile Liberal supporters were hoping for from him — that is to come up with something new and different. That is, after all, what voters expect of oppositions before they elect them to government.
Dr Aron Paul is an Associate Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University.
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