CANBERRA OBSERVED: Liberals not knowing which way to turn
News Weekly, December 22, 2007
The Liberals have a golden opportunity to think, read, re-group and bring in new talent for a return to government.
The worst possible outcome for the Liberal Party over the coming term is if Kevin Rudd turns out to be true to his word and adopts a conservative, cautious approach to his prime ministership.
As the Coalition slowly comes to terms with the magnitude of its loss and the prospect of a long period in Opposition, Mr Rudd has got quickly on with the job, choosing a solid Cabinet line-up and introducing a stricter code of conduct for ministerial behaviour.
It is early days but Mr Rudd is at least professing a desire to return to the Westminster system of ministerial accountability - an important parliamentary convention which has waned over recent decades and practically disappeared during John Howard's prime ministership.
Theoretically, ministers should resign if waste, corruption, or any other misbehaviour is found to have occurred within a ministry - even if the minister had no knowledge of the actions.
The idea is that ministers will keep their departments on their toes.
In reality, the convention has deteriorated to the point where a minister only resigns when he or she is found guilty of corruption or actually breaking the law.
Senior public servants who have presided over major scandals were even promoted to overseas postings under the previous government.
Mr Rudd, a former senior public servant with a thorough understanding of the workings of government, says he wants ministerial accountability to return. But a ministerial sacking or two over the course of the first Rudd Government will also suit Mr Rudd politically, keeping his ministers on the straight and narrow, and will allow him the opportunity of promoting new MPs with potential, including Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, Gary Gray and Maxine McKew.
Mr Rudd has also cut back on ministerial staff and kept the permanent heads, even those identified as strong Coalition supporters, as a sign of continuity.
Meanwhile, the Opposition looks on in shock and desperation.
For 12 months senior members of the Howard Government worked to find chinks in the Rudd armour with claims he lacked credibility, believability and substance. They argued that Mr Rudd was a media creation, driven by focus groups, bereft of policies and ideas and whose "me too" agenda was a rip-off of the government's.
Whatever the merits of these claims, or whether they were simply desperate sloganeering by a government on death row, is now irrelevant.
Mr Rudd and his team are in power after one of the most seamless transitions to government in memory - more seamless, in fact, than John Howard who had to sit down with his one-time enemy John Moore, the only other MP who had ministerial experience, to work out a ministry.
By contrast, Mr Rudd is fortunate to have John Faulkner, Simon Crean, Bob Debus, Duncan Kerr and Bob McMullan with memory of government. And Mr Rudd, having worked as the most senior public servant in the Queensland Goss Government, understands the inner workings of government.
As for major decisions, Mr Rudd has made just two so far - one to adopt the Kyoto Protocol, the other to initiate the purchase of thousands of new computers for schools.
The first decision - to sign off on a decade-old treaty but which runs out in 2012 - was an entirely symbolic gesture, but one which shifts Australia into the majority "good guys" camp on global-warming as the developed world rushes headlong towards taking some action, however negligible the actual effect, on turning around climate change.
A decision to actually impose short to medium-term targets on emissions and renewable energy will wait until the release of the Professor Ross Garnaut report and Treasury modelling due out in the middle of next year.
By contrast with the new Government's steady-as-she-goes approach the Opposition is already disintegrating into disunity and discord as the recriminations over the loss begin and different views on where the party should head to now emerge.
The evenly-divided leadership ballot between Dr Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull reflected a party roughly divided in two between Howard-type conservatives and liberal progressives, but lacking a leader either side of the divide who has the authority to assert himself over the party in the same way John Howard was eventually able to do.
One of Mr Howard's strengths and weaknesses was that he was a centralist Prime Minister who tended to single-handedly run the government on his own, making almost all the key decisions.
With his anointed successor Peter Costello walking away the week after the election, the party is going to be directionless and wounded for a considerable time.
Now the party faces policy confusion, ongoing leadership destabilisation, and a series of by-elections as former Howard Government ministers resign, including Costello, Philip Ruddock and possibly Alexander Downer.
The only hope for the hard-heads in the Liberal Party is if they realise that Opposition does not have to be a spectacle of blood sport, and that it also provides a golden opportunity for MPs to think, read, re-group and bring in new talent for a return to government.