It’s a funny old world, though less so if you’re bobbing around it on a leaky boat.

The government’s current problems with the Oceanic Viking stem entirely from its being too-clever-by-half – it’s of a piece with Ruddism, the idea that a series of brilliant technical decisions can serve as policy.

They might have got away with it, had the boat in question been a Greek tanker under a Panamanian flag with a Finnish captain.

The government could dismiss it, the public forget about it.

But it’s an Australian customs vessel, a little floating piece of us, lodged in the throat of the Indonesia archipelago — a very Ruddesque Tampa, built not of sadism and racism, but of a combination of general moralising and the quick fix.

The Rudd government now has what it didn’t want, a push from the Left, with Paul Howes, of the AWU — the AWU! — talking about the basic solidarity with the vulnerable.

Had Rudd and co pushed harder to normalise the process of mainland transfer, while still using Christmas Island as a shopfront, they could have kept control of this issue. Opening the valve, rather than let it become a bottleneck would have kept the issue from becoming a potential boiler-blower.

Meanwhile the Opposition are gaining no traction because, whatever differences there are over emphasis within the Rudd government, the Liberal Party has yet another split on this matter, one following the basic rupture between conservatism and liberalism within the parties.

One side has gone public on this, with George Brandis’s recent lecture on the nature of the Liberal party as a liberal party. Brandis is in many ways a man of liberal instincts, though he will forever be remembered as the man who made an extensive comparison of the Green Party with the Nazis under cowards’ castle privilege.

At the time, the Greens probably had the highest proportion of Jewish members of any political party — and at least one member who still wore the tattooed numbers on the inside of his arm.

His argument in the lecture was that the Liberal party has always had its gravitational centre within liberalism — and that the social conservatism of the Howard era, was a quick fix for strange times.

Maybe, maybe not (and Andrew Norton has an interesting rebuttal) but it’s certainly putting the harder-right strand of the party on notice. And after a bizarre 48 hours in which the Libs’ strategy was to attack the government for its lack of humanity in refugee matters, the hard right has swung back with a fresh attack on “Muslim enclaves”.

Everything fail about right-wing Catholicism is contained within Andrews — he’s something from the lower-depths of both his religion and his politics, whether it’s demonising Somalis, or trying once again to turn local problems and issues of integration and co-existence into an epic clash of civilisations.

Which at least gives Clive Hamilton a leaflet for Higgins, for the high streets and antique stores. This is the party you’ve been supporting. Still feel like doing so?

Howard’s political skills held this soc con — liberal mix together for a decade, but the event through which he did it pushed it to breaking point.

Now with Liberalism as a political movement lying in pieces, the party is going to have to decide what it will be. Because it covers territory that in the US stretch across into the Democratic party, and then back out to the outer reaches of the Right, it is covering too wide a waterfront.

John Howard’s lip service to a multi-ethnic society, while continuously re-invoking the ghost of nativism (in his mad history curriculum, e.g.) only worked in the aftermath of Keating’s urging everyone to the next stage. Any country boldly trumpeting free trade is, as Greg Barns noted, putting free movement, and globalisation on the agenda.

But it is also about how different classes relate to modernity. For the voters of Higgins and Bradfield and other places, climate change scepticism is simply off the chart, an insanity. For rural voters, it’s ‘common sense’ that the weather goes in cycles, that we had a big dry in ’56 etc etc.

In other words, the Liberal constituency is working off two different systems of thought – one is urban, globally oriented, used to abstract reasoning and comfortable with it. They are in many ways closer to the Green party than to the Nationals.

The other constituency is rural, traditional, lives off knowledge that is more personal, anecdotal, local. That split in world-views is far greater — is categorically greater — than any the non-Labor movement has to deal with in its history. Fusing old Country party agrarian socialism with a pro-business attitude in the cities was a doddle compared to this.

Which is why they’re a storm-tossed boat with regard to refugees — rolling one way, then rolling that. They have a leader who, when faced with being a politician or a human being, took the latter course – Turnbull’s response to Tuckey’s stuff about terrorists being aboard.

There probably are Tamil Tigers aboard, so what? Thousands of men who arrived at Station Pier in the 40s and 50s had done unspeakable things on both sides of the war. Amazingly, they didn’t continue the partisan struggle against the Republic of Salo in Moorabbin.

Indeed, the worst thing some of them did was create the “Uglies” faction off the Liberal Party.

But Howard, of course he would have lapped it up. “Wilson’s colourful as ever,” he would have said “but I think that ordinary Australians have a right to be concerned about who’s coming into their country, and I don’t think a few lawyers and activists are going to change that.”

Fifteen years of writing satire of Howard, and I can now write what we would say straight. If that’s not a workplace-related injury, nothing is.

Turnbull couldn’t go there. In the current climate it may not have worked even if he did. But he hasn’t been able to impose his vaguely more decent vision on the party either. Push the ship to take the full tide, and it may split down the middle.

In other words they aren’t being led by a politician, which is a grievous position for a party to be in.

The Libs might have thought that this new crisis was their ship coming in. In fact they did a Jesse Watson — teenagers asleep at the helm, they banged into the side of a much larger vessel.

Government, from the Latin, gubernator, ship’s rudderman. If both sides of politics ever needed not a Rudd-man, but a gubernator, it’s now.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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