CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Has the Liberal Party any future?
, December 8, 2007
John Howard was blind to the fundamental problem he himself had caused - his betrayal of the "Howard battler".After suffering a devastating election loss in the middle of an economic boom, the Liberal Party has two fundamental questions to ask itself. Why did it lose and can it ever win again?
The second question might appear overly-dramatic, but few if anyone in the Liberal Party prepared for the day the party would end up in opposition in Canberra and in every state and territory in the country.
The Liberal Party faces its darkest hour with its successful leadership team of Howard and Costello gone, and the prospect of years of impotency in opposition.
Firstly, why did Mr Howard lose government and suffer the ignominy of losing his own seat in the process?Staying longer
It was not that he stayed too long. There was no real reason why Mr Howard, during such good times and with good health, could not have led the party for another three years or even longer.
It was not that people were bored and looking for a change, any change - particularly when the argument was for someone (in Mr Rudd) who was in most respects offering exactly the same as the incumbent.
The problem was that John Howard spent the whole of 2007 trying to find flaws in Mr Rudd, but was blind to the fundamental problem he himself had caused - his betrayal of the "Howard battler".
The decision to adopt Work-Choices after the 2004 election, when Mr Howard won over the timber-workers and hundreds of thousands of working-class traditionally Labor-voting families, was a fundamental political miscalculation from which the Government never recovered.
Whatever the merits of the policy or their possible long-term economic benefits, the Australian public did not want to take the leap toward a US-style dog-eat-dog industrial relations system.
And they certainly did not like Mr Howard springing it on them as soon as he won power in the Senate, without ever having mentioned a word of it during the 2004 election.
The tactics of the last 11 months involved a frenetic attempt to demolish Mr Rudd and initiate policies which might split Labor, but also show that the Government had not run out of steam.
The tactics did not work, and to make matters worse the tacticians were so convinced they would, they did not have any Plan B.
The "success" of the Howard years at the federal level papered over deep, intractable problems in the party which, over time, means it will not only have to re-invent itself, but start to look at the fundamental reasons for its existence.
Barring another 1930s-style Depression or a Whitlam-like self-immolation - both of which Mr Rudd will do everything in his powers to avoid - the new Labor Government is assured of two, and more likely, three terms in office.
During that time the Liberals will be seriously in danger of tearing themselves apart.
Already Malcolm Turnbull, one of those putting himself forward to take the Liberal leadership at the time of publication, wants to take the party down the "progressive" route.
In other words, the Liberals having lost an election by losing touch with the Howard battler, Mr Turnbull sees the party's future in being far more environmentally-conscious, republican, pro-gay rights, and more sympathetic to minorities and refugees.
If he is successful in pushing the more progressive route, he may well increase the vote in his extremely affluent Sydney electorate of Wentworth, but decrease the Liberal vote everywhere else in the country.
If Mr Rudd turns out to be half the "conservative" he said he was during the campaign, we could have a complete reversal of the political landscape, with the Liberals being progressive and Rudd Labor being the more commonsense, cautious federal party.
Of course, the reality will be more complicated, and the real conservatives in the Liberal Party will fight Mr Turnbull all the way.Pragmatic
They will be pushing for Dr Brendan Nelson, who, although not in the same league as Mr Howard, will have a more pragmatic and down-to-earth attitude to politics than Mr Turnbull.
Inevitably the 2007 election loss will come not only as a shock to the Liberal Party, which has grown accustomed to a decade in power, but initiate a fundamental reappraisal of its core beliefs.
Does it support big business or small business? Is it a civil libertarian party? Does it believe in a mixed economy? Does it believe in the states or a devolution of power to the regions?
The Liberals hold power nowhere in Australia, and have no prospects of winning power anywhere in Australia, despite the mediocre performances of some state Labor governments.
The membership of the party is declining, as are corporate donations, and the party has had problems attracting talented candidates for years - particularly at a state level.
While Mr Howard was an effective prime minister in many respects, some of his policies and his dominating style of governing from the top oddly worked to damage the Liberal Party.
For example, the fact that the Howard Government was so centralist in its philosophy achieved little, other than to undermine the reason for the existence of the states.
And Mr Howard also failed to nurture future leaders. The only succession plan he put in place fell apart the day after the election when Mr Costello declared he was intending to quit politics.