Try as I might I can’t imagine any possible, even unlikely, scenario where the Coalition government in Canberra manages to get returned in the widely expected May 2019 general election. To the contrary, consistent polling results, the recent experiences of the state divisions in Victoria and New South Wales, as well as all the anecdotal evidence indicate a landslide to Bill Shorten’s Labor on a scale that Paul Keating’s Labor suffered against it in 1996. As in the run up to the Howard victory, people seem to be sitting on their verandas and front porches with baseball bats to punish the government (that’s un-Australian, by the way; it should be cricket bats). For what exactly, it’s difficult to say, since unlike Keating’s Labor, the last two terms’ Liberal Party does not seem to have done much at all to antagonise and anger the electorate. It does not seem to have done much, period. Perhaps herein lies one reason for the frustration.
And yet – Bill Shorten’s Labor… Shorten is one of the least likeable and least liked party leaders. A robot more than a human being, ostensibly on the right of the party but firmly a member of the opportunistic faction, Shorten’s probably not even the preferred prime minister of the majority of the Labor Party members and supporters. But failing the fall under the proverbial bus he will be Australia’s next prime minister; if he does fall under one, it will be Anthony Albanese or Tanya Plibersek or just about anyone else from the ALP.
Why is the Liberal Party facing such dire straits? Why has the party of John Howard and Peter Costello, the party which has won the last two elections after the circus of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era, fallen so far? There are and will be many suggested explanations before, during and after next year’s election, but let me get into line relatively early in the process and offer my three explanations for the political decline of the Liberal Party:
Liberals don’t know what they stand for anymore
The once progressive conglomeration of anti-socialist traditions (Menzies) and a party uniting the two great traditions of conservatism and liberalism (Howard) is struggling to define itself in the second decade of the 21st century – and, God help us, to even differentiate itself from Labor.
To many in the party, the answer and the way forward is that Liberals should be in an essential agreement with Labor on most of the contentious policy issues (climate change, same sex marriage, identity politics, environment, immigration and multiculturalism, and so on) while staking the claim to better economic management.
I don’t agree with this approach, but I can understand the position of “pragmatists” who want to “take the ideology out of politics” (which in practice seems to be a code for the progressive inner-city consensus, or in other words taking the conservative ideology out of politics) and instead concentrate on being better public managers. There are two problems, however: firstly, it’s very hard to get people out there in the voterland excited about having slightly lower taxes, slightly lower spending, deficit and debt, and slightly more efficient delivery of government services than the other side. And secondly, Liberals in recent years have actually proved to be not particularly good at management either. They used to be, of course; not perfect but certainly better, but that was when they seemed to genuinely care about the economy and the economic issues. The budget emergency appears to be long over (the emergency won, by the way), and a party that in a virtually wholesale manner tends to accept and adopt Labor’s behemoths and white elephants like the NBN, NDIS or Gonsky whatever point zero it is up to now cannot seriously claim to be a party of small(er) government, fiscal responsibility and good economic management. If you are a swinging voter, why accept imitations when you can instead have the people in charge who genuinely and passionately believe in a bigger, activist government, i.e. Labor?
Even if Liberals knew what they stood for, they are incapable of communicating
The political messaging and salesmanship of the Liberal Party is dismal. I cringe four times out of five when a minister or a spokesperson opens their mouth and tries to make a case for the government. This failing is of course partly due to the fact that Liberals have nothing, or at least nothing exciting, to sell (see the previous point) but that’s not the whole story. There is an almost complete inability to speak in an engaging and believable way that connects with voters. Instead, there is a stilted politicalise blabber that sounds as if it was scripted by bureaucrats who don’t really care. It appeals neither to the intellect nor to emotions. At best it sounds like an unsuccessful attempt to imitate the way people in the real world think and talk, at worst it achieves the almost impossible combination of being both insincere and incomprehensible at the same time.
The fact that more and more of our politicians come from within the political bubble arguably contributes to this problem. Staffers, advisers, semi-professional party functionaries are not necessarily all detached from everyday life, but they do inhabit a different reality that makes the overlap difficult. Secondly, if you are a sort of an apolitical, anti-ideological managerialist, by the very nature of your temperament and your interests you are unlikely to excite or engage the great majority out there who aren’t like you. The McKinseyesque wankery is not an improvement over or a substitute for values, beliefs and ideas, much less values, beliefs and ideas that resonate with average people. And so the people stop listening and tune out.
Even if Liberals knew what they stood for and knew how to communicate, the people wouldn’t buy it
I increasingly believe that the Global Financial Crisis was a watershed moment to last a generation. It didn’t seem so at the time because the economic meltdown has barely touched Australia compared to many other parts of the developed world. But in a relatively short space of two or three years we went from a country where a majority supported fiscally conservative policies (eliminating government debt, lower taxes, etc.) to a country where a majority came to support unrestrained spending and the cornucopia of government largesse. The public climate is not particularly friendly at the moment towards what used to be called “dry” ideas: lower taxes and lower spending, balanced budgets, getting the government out business and people’s lives, and so on. It all sound like broken automatons spewing out random talking points and words and phrases that were once focus group tested but now lack meaning and reach.
Politics is cyclical, and the popularity of creeds and ideas rises and falls over the years and decades. But it’s difficult to be overly optimistic when a majority – and an ever-increasing one – are the net receivers of government hand-outs, and the taxes to finance it all are coming out of the pockets of a similarly ever shrinking proportion of the population (the supposedly “rich”, or mostly the upper middle classes). We have all learned not to worry and to love debt, both private and public, or at least not to care where the money is coming from. When both of your hands are out, the government has something to grab you by, and what the state grabs it holds.
The right of the politics is also losing the culture wars, which is ironic because most people out there are neither identity politicians nor particularly supportive of identity politics, certainly not at its most extreme and ridiculous. But the cultural left is nevertheless forging ahead, partly due to the advantage of having methodically infiltrated and seized the commanding heights of the cultural production and partly due to their sheer relentless fanaticism in the pursuit of their agenda. Like beating waves that slowly but surely erode the rocky coastline, the activists are wearing down the ambivalent society and irrevocably transforming it according to their designs. People roll their eyes, scratch their heads, but the small changes in the way we live, speak and think are rarely if ever reversed and accumulate like sediments, to use another geological analogy.
It also helps, of course, that the left has always been better than the right at appealing to emotions and values. When you can marshal love, equality, fairness, fair go, compassion, even life itself into your political arsenal and use them as weapons to batter your opposition into submission, you are half way there. It’s a lesson that the right needs to learn – or re-learn – or perish.
Things will get a lot worse before they get any better. There is a lot of thinking, arguing, fighting and tearing itself apart ahead of the Liberal Party, but to do all that it must if it has any chance of resurrecting itself as a credible political force.