Liberals and Power – The Road Ahead

This book, edited by Peter van Onselen, is a mixture of good articles and several of indifferent quality.  The introduction by the editor does not indicate how the authors were selected, nor whether those selected were given an open assignment to write what they pleased or whether the titles were assigned to them.  The book reads as if the former applied, leading to a somewhat disjointed assembly of pieces that do not hang well together or form a coherent whole.

The book would have been worth reading if only to read the piece by George Brandis, which is head and shoulders above the others.  Several articles are the poorer for the partisan comments they contain.  Some authors seem unable to mount their arguments about how the Coalition might regain power without making disparaging remarks about Labor, often using weary slogans and stereotypical mantras.  Yet others are able to make their case free of these unnecessary encumbrances. [more]

Robert Manne, professor of politics at La Trobe University, opens the batting with What Went Wrong.  He portrays John Howard’s Prime Ministership as characterized by populist conservatism, and attributes his failure to this, his Iraq policy and his response to global warming.  He sees Howard as inflicting damage on the Australian political culture and on Australia’s reputation by his neo-liberal, neo-conservative reconstruction of the non-Labor tradition passed from Alfred Deakin to Malcolm Fraser via Robert Menzies. He sees his party as giving him unwavering and uncritical support and asserts that as his legacy becomes discredited, so will the reputations of his followers.  Manne believes only honest criticism of the Howard years will lead the party out of its present values void.

Tony Abbott was probably the most suited to write A Defence of the Howard Government.  In his initial paragraph he concedes that the Howard Government “badly mishandled the politics of its fourth term”, but goes on to say that its achievements are hard to ignore.  He then catalogues them, the usual ones; there’s no need to repeat them.  He lists the reforms Howard effected, the GST being one of the most noteworthy.  He explains away the matters about which Howard is so often criticized: Iraq, Tampa, the apology and climate change.  He concedes that ‘WorkChoices was a huge problem’, but puts this down to a more vigorous campaign by the unions and Labor than that mounted by the Government, rather than any inherent problem with the legislation.  He sideswipes Kevin Rudd along the way, and leaves the same impression that he has given so often in the media, that the Howard government was a good government that didn’t deserve to be thrown out, and lost for reasons other than its inherent worth.

George Brandis writes John Howard and the Australian Liberal Tradition.  He traces back the lineage of the liberal tradition in Australian politics through Menzies to Alfred Deakin.  The Deakinite tradition saw an important role for government in promoting social betterment, and state-funded social welfare that provided a social safety net, a highly regulated labour market with prescribed working conditions that guaranteed an adequate standard of living, and equal opportunity through access to education.  But although they saw themselves as social reformers, they were opposed to state ownership of industry and hostile to the collective power of unions.  Deakinite liberals differed from conservatives in that they did not share their faith in free markets or their scepticism about the use of the state in social reform.  When the liberals under Deakin merged with the NSW free trade party under Sir George Reid in opposition to the rising power of Labor, a fault line was created that persists even to today: between small-‘l’ liberals and capital ‘C’ conservatives sometimes referred to as ‘wets’ and ‘dries’.

Brandis explains: Menzies was a liberal in the Deakinite tradition.  In his earliest radio broadcast to ‘The Forgotten People’ as he called them, he said “Individual enterprise must drive us forward.  That does not mean that we are to return to the old and selfish notions of laissez-faire.  The functions of the State will be much more than keeping the ring within which the competitors fight.  Our social and industrial obligations will be increased.  There will be more law, not less; more control, not less. And later that year Menzies said “The country has great and imperative obligations to the weak, the sick, the unfortunate...To every good citizen the State owes not only a chance at life but a self-respecting life.”

Malcolm Frazer followed in Menzies’ footsteps in the belief that governments were a better judge of the public interest in economic solutions than markets.   Howard differed from the Deakin-Menzies-Frazer view.  When he became leader in September 1985, he said “I think the biggest single economic challenge over the next five to ten years is to free up the labour market and, in doing so, to alter the balance of the industrial relations system.  It does involve a winding back of certain elements of trade union power, not the destruction of the trade union movement...that is the biggest single difference that will exist in the Australian political battleground over the next few years.”

Brandis says that “For Howard, labour-market reform was about more than internationalizing the economy or taking on the power of the trade unions.  His vision of an industrial relations system that promoted individual contracts above collective bargaining was based on the essential liberal values of individual freedom and personal responsibility... When Howard adopted the agenda of the ‘dries’ in the meant embracing free market championed by Milton Friedman and Keith Joseph and adopted successfully by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher...Years later...Howard would suggest that the  free-market fundamentalism had gone too far....Nevertheless, the break from the legacy of Deakin, which had guided the Liberal Party for most of the century, was permanent.”   Brandis sees this as “Howard’s most important contribution to the development of Australian liberalism.”

Brandis describes the ‘Howard paradox’, “by attempting to blend economic liberalism with social conservatism, he was seeking to reconcile values and attitudes that are sometimes irreconcilable...His commitment to the rights of the individual was strong in the workplace and the marketplace, but in other areas of policy, his conservatism meant a disposition to favour the attitudes and prejudices of the majority (the ‘mainstream’), which were sometimes at odds with the rights of individuals and communities.”

In making this assessment of the contradictions in Howard’s position, he nevertheless gives him the accolade of “the most important Liberal politician of his generation.”

His piece is balanced and well worth the read.

Janet Albrechtsen in writing Romanticising Australian Conservatism dismisses the notions, following the Coalition’s electoral defeat, that on the one hand conservatism and its policies are dead, and that on the other there is no basis for rethinking the agenda of the Liberal party.  She declares both are wrong.  She attributes Rudd’s success to his appropriating conservative policies (Mee-tooism) but adding a critical extra – the emotional dimension the voters craved.

She advocates a Liberal Party “that understands the significance of emotion, the power of symbols and of language, while maintaining the traditional strength of conservative policy...”   She concedes that conservatism needs to refashion itself – “Liberals cannot keep fighting the same old battles, when the other side, by and large, has conceded defeat [by adopting Liberal ideas]... That is why the leader Howard eventually turned from a cultural warrior to an albatross around the neck of the Liberal Party.”

She sees the conservatives as losing the emotional argument in two critical areas, industrial relations and climate change, and concludes that for the Liberal Party “The most important task is to pitch a message to voters that tackles the full gamut of human responses, from the rational to the emotional.”

Brett Mason, a Liberal Senator from Queensland in a arrogantly partisan piece Did You Ever See a Liberal Dream Walking writes under the subheading Labor: from Maoism to Me-tooism: The fact that Australia today would be for the most part be unrecognizable to our very own Bazza Van Winkle, woken up after three decades of sleep, is largely the consequence of the fact that the left has not only lost the battle of ideas, but also accepts that it has lost.  The converse of this is that the right has largely won the battle of ideas.  We, the Liberal Party, and the broader liberal-conservative movement, have won it because for the past three decades, whether in opposition or in government, we have been driving the debate on reform, to change Australia from the ‘Lucky Country’ to a country that makes its own luck.  We did it by transforming Australia’s economy and changing the way Australia sees itself.”

He concludes: ”Liberalism is, after all, the Enlightenment’s most authentic political creation.  As legatees, while it continues to be important to win elections, it is even more important that we keep faith with the great Western experiment.”

So that’s it.  Not much balance there.

David Flint, past dean of law and a monarchist, in A Successful Conservative Party Ready to Rebuild writes in the same boring arrogant manner that he speaks.  His view of Labor is as out-of-date as he is himself.  He sees the power bases of Labor as the unions, the ‘elites’ [presumably the chattering classes], those parts of big business that have entered into 'interdependent relationships' with it, and ‘the welfare-dependent class’.

He concludes: ”The values of the Liberal Party are those of the mainstream.  The Liberals are not engaged, as Labor is, in trading money, power, influence and votes with its internal factions and outside power bases.  Nor are they mesmerized, as a significant part of Labor is, by a bewildering succession of fashionable neo-socialists postmodern ideologies.” 

So it’s up to the Liberals.

Greg Melleuish, an associate professor in the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong in Understanding the Past to Help Shape the Future focuses on the evils of populist politics and its sequel, magic pudding politics, of which he accuses Rudd.  He attributes Rudd’s electoral win to populist politics.  He concludes that the obvious way to electoral success is “ bring together liberal and democratic ideals so that Australians come to recognize that the liberal way is the Australian way.”   Simple.

Andrew Norton, a researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies carefully documents the importance of issues in polling, giving an account of who owns what issues and how ownership has changed over time from, for example, the Coalition owning the economy and national security until recently when Labor has improved its position.  He opines that “...scandals and shortcomings will inevitably hit the Rudd government... and that greenhouse gas reduction and global economic instability are likely to reactivate issues on which the Liberals have high credibility – the economy and tax.”  He urges the Opposition to make itself a credible alternative for a time when the political environment changes.

Brad Lancken, an investment professional in a private equity firm, writes a good piece The Imperative of Online Campaigning that is worth reading.  He points out that Labor was well ahead of the Coalition in online campaigning and points to how the Coalition might catch up.

Margaret Fitzherbert, an advisor to the Howard government, and concerned with women in politics, in Credible Candidates Win Marginal Seats, insists that candidates must be selected for their status with the local electorate, pointing out that those who are respected by the voters will pull the votes better than party apparatchiks.

Ainslie van Onselen writes a balanced, non-partisan piece It’s Time: Women and Affirmative Action in the Liberal Party in which she recommends that the Liberal Party adopt the Labor Party decision to introduce quotas on gender representation to overcome the gross underrepresentation of females in the parliamentary Liberal Party.

Brendan Nelson, when he was Leader of the Opposition wrote Future Directions for the Liberal Party.  He starts with a telling quote from Robert Menzies: “I found that Opposition provided not only a great and enthralling opportunity to create a new and cohesive national party, but also an obligation to rethink policies, to look forward, to devise a body of ideas at once sound and progressive, a political philosophy founded upon the encouragement of private enterprise as the driving and creative element in the economics of society, and at the same time the imposing upon that enterprise of social and industrial obligations appropriate to a modern and civilized community.”

Nelson urges Liberals to “...never stop fighting the good fight in the battle of ideas: championing individual choice, rewarding hard work and self sacrifice, and embracing a competitive as well as compassionate outlook.”

He attempts to preserve the Howard legacy, suggests Labor succeeded only by echoing Liberal policy, Rudd’s me-tooism.

He ends by restating the oft-quoted advice of Lord Derby for oppositions: “oppose everything and propose nothing”, which left the Tories in opposition for thirty years, and goes onto refute this advice by quoting Menzies: “The duty of Opposition, if it has no ambition to be permanently on the left-hand side of the Speaker, is not to oppose for Opposition’s sake, but to oppose selectively.  No Government is always wrong on everything, whatever the critics may say.  The Opposition must choose the ground on which it is to attack.  To attack indiscriminately is to risk public opinion, which has a reserve of fairness not always understood.”  Sage advice for the current Opposition.

Philip Senior is a management consultant and author of Howard’s End. The Unravelling of Government.  He writes about Liberal Party Policy Changes, emphasizing the need for the Coalition to re-establish its economic and national security credentials, but also to develop credibility in the areas of health, education, climate change and such issues as paid parental leave, and restore the Coalition’s ‘compassionate face’..  He stresses the need to counter Labor efforts to discredit the Howard Government.

We know that a Julie Bishop staffer wrote The Debate over Industrial Relations.  No doubt she read and approved the piece, so some of the attitudes expressed in the piece are her own.  While acknowledging the role of WorkChoices in the Coalition’s defeat, the piece defends the legislation, and predicts that the Labor IR legislation will take the nation backwards.  She concludes that “It will be the lack of belief in the policies it now pretends to adopt that will be the central characteristic of the Rudd government.  Over time, the Labor government will be defined by cynicism: it does not care whether a policy is good or bad but only whether it can be packaged and sold in a five-minute grab complete with clichéd slogan.  If the Rudd government continues down its current path, it will be seen to be without conscience, values or consistency, which in the end can bring only disillusionment and contempt.”

With that attitude from the Deputy Leader, there seems little hope of a change of approach of the Coalition to IR, or for that matter anything else the Government proposes to do.

Michael Keenan, appointed assistant shadow treasurer after the defeat of the Howard Government, writes an uninspiring piece Political and Economic Freedoms: Two Sides of the Same Coin. He advocates smaller government, a simpler flatter tax system, less regulation, personal and institutional responsibility, a ‘real federation’, improved workplace participation and immigration, and a new narrative.  He believes that “We will reach our full potential if we can stem the tide of government and allow Australians to take responsibility for their own lives and local institutions.”

Wayne Errington, lecturer in political science at ANU and co-author of John Winston Howard, concludes the book with an uninspiring piece on Federalism and Liberal Thinking.

Malcolm Turnbull was invited to contribute, but declined.

The book is a strange mix of honest non-partisan appraisal of the Howard years, the reasons for Coalition’s defeat, and what to do in response, highlighted by George Brandis’ piece, and a collection of pieces contaminated by partisan sneers and rationalizations of the defeat. 

There are still those who believe that the Howard Government did not deserve defeat, that Rudd’s success was the result of sleight of hand, spin, insincere me-tooism and media cycle manipulation.  Some, particularly Julie Bishop, believe that inherent hollowness in the Rudd Government will bring it down, with little effort from the Opposition. 

Perhaps the book is most valuable to political observers for the insight it gives into the attitude of the authors, particularly those in the Coalition, rather than the substance of their words.

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Sir Ian Crisp

12/05/2009It will be interesting hearing from Prime Minister Turnbull after he reads this book. I'm sure his opinion will not carry more weight than the opinions of others.

Ad astra reply

12/05/2009Malcolm Turnbull appears to operate mainly in reactionary mode. He offers little of his own ideas or plans as an alternative to the Government's, but has plenty to say about what the Government is doing, and it’s all bad. In fact it’s amazing that Rudd and Co seem unable to get anything right at all. So were still waiting to hear about Turnbull’s ideological position and his strategic plans for the nation. The fact that he declined to write a piece for this book raises the question of whether he has a political philosophy and a plan for restoring the Coalition to power. Until he does he has no hope of being Prime Minister Turnbull. His negative approach to opposition is off-putting to many. Take a look at a survey done by [i]Ambit Gambit[/i] (a new one to me) at which shows that Turnbull’s disapproval rating has risen from 18% last September to 56% now, with approval falling from 31% in September to only 20% now. With disapproval running at almost three times approval, in this poll at least, surely he must question the efficacy of his negative tactics. Instead of vainly believing in the correctness of his approach, he would be better advised take heed of Menzies' advice: [quote]“The duty of Opposition, if it has no ambition to be permanently on the left-hand side of the Speaker, is not to oppose for Opposition’s sake, but to oppose selectively. No Government is always wrong on everything, whatever the critics may say. The Opposition must choose the ground on which it is to attack. To attack indiscriminately is to risk public opinion, which has a reserve of fairness not always understood.” [/quote]

Sir Ian Crisp

12/05/2009Ad Astra, Turnbull could promise a Mercedes Benz in every driveway, a two week fully-paid holiday for Australian families of 4 or more spent supinely at the seaside suburb of Manly, and, botox injections for all females who have turned 40 and are feeling in need of a lift. He is the opposition leader and as such he can say and promise anything. What we really want to know is what is Mr Rude, the Bird of Paradox, Penny Wrong and the gang up to. Is there a gathering storm in the federal seat of Dobell that threatens to engulf ALP stooge Craig Thomson? Did Mr Rude and Penny Wrong throw their backs out when they did the back-flip? Even the Taipei Times trumped you on that story. Your reputation as a fearless blogger is under threat. Tonight, A Current Affair did a story on - of all subjects - eyebrows. If ACA continues along that road stories about the sad decline of political discourse at The Political Sword can't be far away. Life your game Ad Astra.


13/05/2009Sorry I can't stop myself...Sir Ian, You Sir,are a silver-tailed twit.

Sir Ian Crisp

13/05/2009Rudd’s ETS backdown is about controlling the debate by Bernard Keane Labor spineless on emissions by Clive Hamilton Australia delays emissions trading, helps big polluters Sorry Ad Astra, I forgot to include the links. Even the boys and girls over at Crikey had a bit to say about Kev the contortionist and his dashing assistant Penelope Wrong. I can’t guarantee I’ve covered every o/seas newspaper but I have done some reading and can find little or no interest in the internecine that is being played out in the Liberal Party of Australia. I am reminded of what Mark Bahnisch said: Include accessible references to support facts and assertions Be rich with hyperlinks – one of the advantages of online journalism Thanks for the 'heads up' concerning Peter van Onselen's book. I have ample supplies of toilet paper but I know where to go if I need more. Thanks once again.
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