On the Liberal Party, schisms, and curious steampunk machines

In considering how events have played out with respect to the leadership of the Liberal Party, a certain image springs to mind for me. For just a moment, picture the federal party-room of the Liberal Party in your mind’s eye as an elaborate, archaic, steampunk-ish contraption giving off heat and billowing steam, emitting all manner of clanking and wheezing sounds. There’s brass, there’s rust, there’s lint, there’s probably even some asbestos in there somewhere. It is an engine that has survived beyond its time and in some dubious way evolved, with strange, artificial improvements bolted higgledy-piggledy around the exterior. If you squint you might just make out what appears suspiciously to be microchips “growing” under a moist alcove, or what could well be a miniature LED screen replaying the tumultuous events of the last week or so over and over again, on silent repeat. Needless to say, despite the odd snatch of modern bling, this is a machine that doesn’t hum like your new home computer; it sounds kinda like a Datsun that hasn’t been serviced since 1982.

This curious machine has taken all the ingredients generated by the ructions of the last week and spat out a response to the leadership question, but it is the wrong response. A 42-41 decision is hardly a decision, particularly given that three likely Hockey/Turnbull supporters could not vote (Kelly O’Dwyer, Paul Fletcher, Fran Bailey). It doesn’t seem to be the response a majority of the party-room actually wanted. It doesn’t seem to be the response the eventual victor expected. It is, practically speaking, an non-sensical result. I am not sure that it really matters if the Liberal Party primarily blames Turnbull’s virtuoso but unconsultative approach to the CPRS for what they have now, or Hockey’s bizarrely principled vacillation on the precipice of his triumph. Oddly enough, both men proved their mettle and that they were worthy leaders since late last week, but still failed. What matters in the wash-up is that the moderate, liberal arm of the Liberal Party was holding all the cards over the conservatives and indeed had done so for most of the period since November 2007, but in a collective brainfart of truly epic proportions, they’ve managed to trade in all their aces for zippo, in one fell swoop.

The climate change issue has proven to be the most sublime wedge issue imaginable for the Rudd Government. Numbers-wise, the Coalition has been riven effectively right down the centre by the government’s CPRS, with the liberals and conservatives who played so nicely together during the Howard years now at each other’s throats. The marriage of convenience that holds the Coalition together has been ruthlessly exposed by the government as the shemozzle it really is. There is no effective consensus position for the Liberal Party on climate change, and no successful leader to call the shots first and sticky-tape the party together later, like there was during the Howard Government years. Dennis Glover does a fine job in today’s The Australian of spelling out why this issue so lethal for the Coalition, and why the Abbott Opposition needs to work out a credible position on climate change, and fast:

The evening news reports of the retreat of Greenland’s ice caps and the advance of solar power projects across the deserts of California will have far greater electoral effect than any theories Nick Minchin or Andrew Bolt try to sell on Lateline or Insiders.

Even cautious politicians such as Kevin Rudd are helping voters join the dots when the temperature gets above 40C.

For the coming months, a few predictions. I am extremely doubtful that we will see a double dissolution election. The Prime Minister, already sensing he has been gifted the upper hand by the Coalition’s bungling and the public’s goodwill, will not risk the ire of the electorate by pushing for an early climate change election. The Nationals and the Minchinites, having surprisingly emerged victorious with their candidate, are now perhaps just a little unsettled. Their “Anybody But Turnbull” approach has yielded the cut-through candidate that most gels with their own political philosophy, but has arguably as much capacity to polarise the electorate as anyone in the party. I sincerely doubt the Liberal Party pollsters are thrilled by the collected wisdom of the party-room. The first “post-spill” polls that emerge will be very interesting.

The moderates within the Liberal Party, having fielded two not unpopular candidates in the spill but still managed to lose, are now too enfeebled to challenge the leadership result or pursue the matter further. They will not speak up in support of the government’s CPRS. They will have to grit their teeth and mumble the Howard-era lines that they don’t actually believe in until the leadership changes again. Some may even decide to walk away from the party at the 2011 election. The rest of them will be hoping, of course, that their junk-tech party-room machine can, with a hiss and a puff of brackish smoke, spit out the right candidate for a modern Liberal Party the next time that the opportunity presents.

Which, in all likelihood, will be after Tony Abbott loses the next election.

The initial politics of the “non-war” war cabinet

The so-called “war cabinet” or “joint policy commission” on indigenous affairs formally announced by Kevin Rudd in his wonderful address to parliament on Tuesday poses some interesting challenges for the government, moving forwards. Our modern democratic system of government is predicated on the existence of a somewhat antagonistic duopoly, consisting of the holders of government and the remainder of parliament. Effectively inviting the Leader of the Opposition to the policy-making table raises some interesting questions about how policy will be formulated. How will responsibility (and potentially, blame) be divided between the participants? Will indigenous policy henceforth be based on a consensus of what the major parties think, or will Rudd as Prime Minister still hold a firm whip hand and dictate the policy approach? If the latter is true and the commission is not going to be consensus-based, what does Doctor Nelson gain from being a part of the process?

It’s these sorts of questions that Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister Tony Abbott is asking about the proposed commission, as reported in today’s Age:

“If this committee really is a genuine attempt at partnership … if it’s going to be a genuine bipartisan committee co-chaired by the Prime Minister and (Opposition Leader) Brendan Nelson, then it has to be a body where the Opposition have real authority and real power,” Mr Abbott told The Age.

“Real authority” and “real power” seems to be quite strongly-phrased – almost as if Abbott wants the Coalition to have equal input to the commission as the government will have. I am not sure this is quite what Rudd had in mind, considering, after all, who is really in government and who is not. This proposal from the Opposition Leader also seems to be trying to take the war cabinet a step too far:

Dr Nelson, who first heard about the proposal during the speech and subsequently backed it, wrote to him [Rudd] yesterday seeking more details and asking that former indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough be considered to join the commission.

History will record that Mal Brough was a somewhat divisive figure during his time as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and lost his seat at the election after his controversial control of the portfolio commenced. I therefore think it is a bit unreasonable for Nelson to request that Brough, so recently disendorsed by his electorate, be invited to once again play a strong role in indigenous affairs at the highest levels of government. If Brough was still in parliament, I think it would be a fair cop for Nelson to request Rudd that Brough be involved, but inviting him to participate so soon after effectively being fired by the people he represents is, to use a Ruddian term of phrase, something of a bridge too far.

If the Opposition wants someone of its ideological streak on board for the commission, I think somebody like Noel Pearson would be a better bet – although perhaps controversial in other ways.