A few remarks on Liberal policy weakness

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.

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2022 years ago

“This means that there is a much smaller ‘base’ of ideas and people to draw on to build a sound policy platform, . . ”

I don’t think the status quo of mainstream politics have much interest in new ideas. New ideas are seen as threatening and are strongly resisted.

John Howard and his Ministers spent the first 6 -7 years of government ending every single statement or retort made in question time with a derogatory barb aimed at the ALP and its incompetence. It was so boringly predictable and consistent, that it had to be some sort of tactic.

It would be a better to completely ignore your opposition, to really demonstrate contempt for them, or from time to time, deign to agree with them on small stuff.

2022 years ago

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.

Don’t you mean an indispensable feature of powerful political parties? I fail to see how it’s in the interests of democracy to have a wide variety of viewpoints conflated into one.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Yeah, fair point Dan. It is in the best interest of a party that wishes to form government which was the point I was trying to make. Sorry bout confusing the readers.

2022 years ago

We’re less than one week into a six week campaign – of course neither party is going to release any major policies at this point. You can decry it all you want, but it is the nature of the modern political campaign.

What major economic policy has Labor released again? An interest rate “guarantee”?

Tee hee.

Many (if not the majority) of swinging voters in marginal seats won’t really focus on the election, much less turn their minds to who they’re going to vote for, until later in the campaign.

That is when the parties will start to have something to say – when those voters are starting to take an interest.

And, given this post is about the Liberals specifically, why wouldn’t the government bash Labor over its record on economic management, especially when the contrast with the Government’s performance is so great?

It isn’t like Labor under Paul Keating ever engaged in derogatory comments aimed at the Opposition’s policies and record…oh, wait.

Yes they did.

As to the “wet/dry” issue, how would you define the difference between the groups? On economic policy? I would say that there are next to no (public) economic irrationalists/protectionists in the parliamentary Liberal Party these days. And thank goodness for that.

In fact, the whole “wet/dry” debate has always been something of a misnomer, given that the distinction was one first applied to the British Conservative Party under Thatcher and imported into Australia by journalists who didn’t understand the differences between the Tories and the Australian Liberals.

Liberal Party “groupings” have always been more based on personalities than any real policy differences – see Patrick O’Brien’s book “The Liberals – Factions, Feuds and Fancies” for more.

On social issues, there would be a division between the more socially libertarian and the more socially conservative within the Liberal Party, but that would the main cleavage.

While accepting that any government sometimes implements bad policy for good political reasons, if you want real, heartfelt economic irrationalism, you need to look to the Left of the ALP, the Queensland National Party, the Greens, Democrats or One Nation – they all share a philosophical suspicion of free trade, free markets and small government.

And as to narrowing the base of ideas…how broad is the ALP parliamentary party? Can you name more than a handful of ALP MPs or Senators who were not either:

(a) a trade union official;
(b) a political staffer or
(c) a labour lawyer

– prior to entering Parliament?

How’s that for narrow?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yarraside, Patrick O’Brien’s book is showing its age now. If you want to see formal factions in the Liberal come to Queensland (or observe the dysfunctions of its factional system spilling over into the campaign with the Brandis allegations). I think Scott has summed things up extremely well. Gone are the days when an Ian McPhee fitted into the Liberal Party, but equally gone are the days when anyone with a consistently liberal position both socially and economically fitted in. There’s a bigger story to be written, I suspect, about the parallels between the British Tories, the US Republicans and the Australian Liberals. If you want to see the future prospects of a narrowing of the “broad church” of the centre-right party, I suggest you cast your eye on that other party led by an honourable gentleman surnamed Howard. In the meantime, I think Scott’s analysis of the underlying dynamics of the transformation of the Libs – above and beyond the ephemeral events of this election – is superbly done.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I like SCott’s evaluation too. But it (and more especially Mark Bahnisch) seems implicitly to assume that there were some halcyon days when the Liberal Party exemplified pure classical liberal social and economic values. I’m not aware of any such times. Certainly not under Menzies, who was just as much of an economic pragmatist as Howard, though somewhat more socially liberal (especially for those times).

I think your argument is that Howard has forced out the classical liberals, leaving only socially conservative, economically pragmatic (or confused) toadies. It’s certainly true that some social liberals (McPhee, Mackellar etc) voted with their feet or were forced out, although the only economic liberal purist I can recall who has gone is Hewson (but that was more because of his political naivety than anything else).

However, there are still quite a lot of social and economic classical liberals within the party. They’re just lying low and waiting until Howard retires. As far as I can see Costello is a classical liberal, and so are many/most of his supporters (possibly including George Brandis). And so are are some other Cabinet Ministers like Robert Hill, Amanda Vanstone and even Phillip Ruddock. Cabinet solidarity and political pragmatism require them to keep their mouths shut while Howard is still running the joint, but they’ll assert themselves once he retires. Like most things, it’s cyclical.

I certainly don’t agree with yarraside that Liberal Party groupings are solely based on personalities, although it’s equally true that the faction system (except in Queensland) isn’t anywhere near as formalised as in the ALP. Nevertheless, they are certainly ideologically based, although personalities are also relevant. But the same is true of the ALP.

yarraside is no doubt correct that there aren’t any old-fashioned protectionists in the modern Liberal Party, but that isn’t the point. Costello and many of his supporters are classical economic liberals, and interested in ongoing market-oriented economic reform in a similar sense to what Paul Keating was in government. Howard and his core group, on the other hand, are very much economic pragmatists with little or no interest in neoliberal or any other principles. Their sole interest is maintaining power, and pursuit of policies that will favour that. Hence Howard’s evolved strategy of running down the surplus towards the end of each electoral cycle to prevent the ALP from making major promises without being labelled “irresponsible”, even though Howard’s practice itself is economically irresponsible (as former Reserve Bank head Bernie Fraser pointed out yesterday). Howard’s faction focuses on social conservatism rather than any particular economic philosophy, but it’s no less ideological for that.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

I think Costello and his faction are more ‘wet’ then ‘classical’ Liberals, more like old fashioned Tory Paternalists.

Ken is certainly right to say there’s never been a ‘golden’ age of Liberalism, but then despite the name the party was never founded as such. Probably the only time there was a ‘golden age’ of Classical Liberalism in the Australian Parliament when there was the ‘Free-trade’ party, which was forced to merge with the ‘protectionist’ party to meet the rising ALP challenge.

I would say that the bulk of the modern Liberal Party would not actually understand ‘Classical’ liberalism- people in the corridors of power get used to exercising that power, and the notion of delegating that power to the individual becomes anaethema.

I was talking to my cousin and her partner last month, and we got onto debating television policy. My idea of opening up the spectrum to anyone that wanted a licence got a pretty cool reception, and we are talking about rock solid Liberal voters here.

Yarraside made a point about how narrow the ALP base is, and he’s correct, but missing the point. What the ALP does or does not do is not pertinent to the fate of the Liberal Party.

2022 years ago

May I suggest the following (from the CIS periodical Policy):

A Broad but Not Infinite Church. The Meanings of Liberalism
Gregory Melleuish and Imre Salusinszky shed light on the misuse and slippery labelling of the word ‘liberal’, and how it encompasses a broad depth of definition, but is not a label to be bandied about, as its critics do.

2022 years ago

Ken, I would suggest that old style “wets” (if you wish to call them that) like Ian McPhee lost preselection because they became more renowned for opposing colleagues within the Liberal Party than they were for taking the battle up to Labor.

My observation has been that the Liberals will give significant latitude to its MPs on policy matters so long as they are causing grief and angst to their political opponents.

How else would you explain Robert Hill, a SA moderate and bitter factional opponent of Howard-backer Nick Minchin, being made Leader of the Government in the Senate – a position which is selected by the PM, not elected by the party room?

Hill is a well-respected and effective Minister. Does he agree with Howard on many social issues? No. But that hasn’t stopped him from succeeding in a leadership role in the Howard government.

I take Mark and Ken’s points re: Queensland Liberals, but I think that example supports my thesis – that is, the ‘factions’ (or groups, or tendencies, or whatever you want to call them) in the Liberals are personality based, not policy based.

Do Brett Mason and George Brandis have a significant policy dispute with their rival Qld Liberal Senator Santo Santoro? No.

Their dispute is about power and personality, not policy. For better or worse, that is how the Libs tend to operate.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yarraside, yes – the Qld liberals do pathological factional politics well, but there is actually an ideological difference with the ‘Western Suburbs’ faction being more moderate than the Santoro mob. The Qld liberal party used to have quite a noble small ‘l’ tradition, with the “ginger group” in the 70s for instance often voting against Joh in parliament, but they disappeared in the general wreck of the Qld liberals post 1983 (when Joh manoevred them out of the Coalition and subsequently governed in his own right).

Ken, no, I’m not harking back to some sort of halcyon days of the Liberal Party. Rather, I agree with Scott that the spectrum of views in the Liberals has narrowed very considerably, and I don’t think that’s just because the socially conservative Howard has imposed a rigid discipline – Fraser was also conservative and a disciplinarian and there was certainly both more inter-party debate and more Libs crossing the floor from time to time when he was PM. In a party that prides itself on supporting individual freedom, even if I don’t support them electorally, I think that’s a sad thing.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

ps – good luck to Howard in sorting out the mess that is the Qld Liberal Party. He sqibbed it in a fit of complacency after the 2001 election win, and he is now reaping the consequences of his inaction.

2022 years ago

Fear, loathing, etc #4

Traditionally, elections are narrated in weekly chapters. Early calls are now being filed. Scott Wickenstein has a bid posted up over at Troppo, where he is categorised as “moderate right”. It’s an orthodox reading, that finds badly for the caretaker…