There is no doubt that the Prime Minister is in some political difficulty and is struggling to gain the initiative in the first week of the campaign. The essential Mumble website suggests that the ALP has a small but constant edge in the opinion polls, and entering the campaign, they must feel that they have a good chance of winning.
I would not imagine that anything that has happened in the first week of the campaign so far would have increased the Coalition’s chances. The Prime Minister is off to Queensland to sort out the dysfunctional Queensland branch of his party, and there have been attacks on the Greens of all people, as well as more traditional barbs at the ALP.
I am not sure why this would be the Liberal strategy. I could not sell a lifejacket to a drowning man, and even I know that when you are selling something, you work more at promoting how great your product is, and you do not mention the competition at all, if at all possible. Telstra work like this and that is why they sell so much of their patently inferior product.
Ideally, and there is no reason why an incumbent government should not be in an ideal position, a political party should be campaigning on its fresh new policies, getting out and selling the policies, and giving voters a reason why they should be voting for a party. A political party that has to rely on bashing the opposition is in trouble- it is valid for questions to be raised about ALP competence and policy directions, but that should be the gravy on top, rather then the meat and potatoes. In an ideal election campaign, the focus should be on optimism, new policies and a bright future. When uncommitted voters ask ‘what’s in it for me’, you need to have an answer.
I may be surprised, but it would seem so far that the Coalition does not in fact have the policy depth to use such a strategy. There was very little in the way of policy in the 2001 campaign, but the general tenor of the times suited the Coalition, and it succeeded with a negative campaign.
It seems to me that the way modern politics works, the Prime Minister of the day is very reliant on his ministers and backbench for policy support. The general run of day to day politics keeps Prime Ministers busy and not always able to spend the time necessary to do actual policy generation themselves; instead, the Prime Minister should exercise an overseeing role while the ministers and backbenchers, and their army of assistants do the hard yards. It would appear that the Coalition lacks the depth to do this sort of work. Also hindering it is the lack of a serious reshuffle; Tony Abbott has been used as a ‘fireman’ to keep the lid on each policy crisis as they emerge, but the value of a serious cabinet reshuffle is that it livens up the troops and prevents staleness.
One reason why the Coalition now lacks this policy depth is that the ‘base’ of the Liberal Party has reduced quite substantially in the last ten years. There used to be serious divisions in the Liberal Party between a ‘wet’ and a ‘dry’ faction, and also between ‘Classical’ Liberals of a John Hewsen mould, and more social conservative John Howard types. What is clear is that the ‘dry’ faction has succeeded in dominating the party to the point where ‘wets’ and ‘classical’ Liberals have little or no role in the Party at all. I rather doubt whether a ‘classical’ liberal like myself would be at all welcome in the Liberal party. My views on free enterprise, hostility to government funding of a range of areas, and general social liberalism would all go against the ethos of the Party as it now stands.
This means that there is a much smaller ‘base’ of ideas and people to draw on to build a sound policy platform, (as well as campaigning and other issues) and there is a much smaller ‘base’ in the wider community of people that would class themselves as ‘natural’ Liberal voters. The victory of the ‘drys’ in the Liberal party is complete, but the cost of their victory is such as to make it Pyrrhic indeed.
The same process seems to be now happening to the US Republicans too.
This has happened before, to the ALP in the 1950’s, when the Left/Protestant half of the Party in effect drove the Right/Catholic part of the ALP out, who formed the DLP. This worked to keep the ALP out of power for decades, and it was a lesson that Bob Hawke learned well enough. The modern ALP has a very formalised faction system, which carries its own weaknesses, but has the very great strength of keeping as many people as possible within the one party; an indispensible feature of any democracy.
It is no accident that Bob Hawke’s government in its early years, with its obsessive drive for ‘consensus’ and ‘summits’ was the most popular seen in living memory. Hawke worked hard to bring as many sections of the community as he could into supporting his government, and while he did that, the ALP was unbeatable; just as noteworthy was that as that government got older and Hawke gave way to Keating, the ALP become more pre-occupied with vested and special interests. As a result, the ALP became very electorally vulnerable, and was lucky to escape defeat in 1990 and 1993 before its final 1996 demise.
John Howard’s weakness is that for selfish internal political reasons, he has weakened the natural supporter base both within his party, and in the wider electorate as a whole. By doing so, he has left his party almost bankrupt on the policy front, and vulnerable on the electoral front. He will have no one to blame but himself if he is defeated at the polls.