Let’s get something clear from the outset. What is going on in the Liberals right now is not a re-run of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. This is worse. Much worse.
The core of the tussle between Rudd and Gillard was institutional, between the party’s traditional power bases behind Gillard, and the “reformers” behind Rudd who wanted to reduce their influence. It had intensity because both sides had something going for them: Gillard had the factional leadership and almost all the unions, Rudd had electoral reality through his popularity ratings.
Turnbull and Abbott have neither. Indeed, the Liberals have already been through their Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years through the Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull tussle of 2009-2015. Whereas Labor’s was institutional, the Liberals’ was ideological. Rudd was dumped because he was threatening the power of the factions, Turnbull was dumped because he was see as ideologically caving in on climate change and damaging the Liberal “brand”. Labor’s turmoil ended with no resolution, leaving it in a political coma ever since. The Liberals’ is still on-going and is now flashing danger signs.
The first is that no potential candidate has any solution to the Liberals’ electoral woes. And certainly not the one who is getting most of the publicity right now, Tony Abbott.
Even worse, Abbott is offering the “battle of ideas”. This promise of giving the Liberals an ideological backbone would seem a repeat of what he did when he took the leadership in 2009. But that would involve a serious mis-reading of what happened back then and certainly what is happening now. That it is having any traction at all is a serious health warning for a governing party.
As the name implies, the strength of the Liberal party since its formation in 1944 has always been its ideological flexibility. This is sensible. The right in Australia has never had the type of institutions as elsewhere that would give political conservatism social authority and coherence. Instead the Australian right has always had to look for that overseas in the UK/US alliances that gives them a significance which is often under-estimated.
What had always allowed that ideological flexibility was having something to be against, the union/socialist agenda at home, or clear polarisation overseas such as the Cold War or the War on Terror. The three periods of Liberal dominance of federal politics; Menzies, Fraser’s early years following Whitlam, and Howard after 9/11, relied on one or the other or both.
Since then, with the unions no longer socially significant, and Labor’s historical project largely wound up, the Liberals have struggled to find something to be against. In a sense, the Coalition government since its return in 2013, has picked up where Howard left off with the malaise both before 9/11 and as the effect of the War on Terror faded after 2005. Under Abbott this was seen in his inability to cohere public support behind a conservative agenda, most notably in the 2014 Budget flop. Under Turnbull the situation has become even worse.
The Liberals have never had the internal structures of Labor and are prone to “micro-factions” around key individuals (although this is now being seen in Labor as well). With nothing to cohere them, this has meant almost every policy initiative becomes regarded not on its own merits but wholly through the prism of internal positioning. This is most clearly seen with the hapless Treasurer who, being seen as a leadership contender, now finds any proposal of his being knocked down by those who don’t want him taking over.
The result of all this is that the Turnbull government is paralysed and unable to bring in anything that strays beyond the most fundamental things a Coalition government could agree on – like a tax cut for small businesses, normally seen as no big event, but hailed by the press gallery as a major victory.
Into this paralysis, bringing some ideological coherence might seem on the surface to make sense. But it is likely to make things worse. With hindsight, the success of Abbott in 2009 rested on him calling the high point of the technocrat period symbolised by the climate change agenda, the rise of China, the coherence of the EU, all underpinned by a technocrat in the Lodge and the White House. Brexit and the Trump victory has well and truly brought that period to an end. Abbott’s return to prominence symbolises a confusion as to what is replacing it.
Through the culture war morality play by which politics is constantly seen in Australia now, both domestically and overseas, Brexit and Trump are seen as what is predominantly a right-wing anti-immigrant upsurge – despite the consistent polling that shows the economy and trade being much more important than immigration for supporters of both.
This was not just on the left. Right-wing commentators have also latched on to what is happening overseas to imply that their time has finally come and Abbott’s failed Prime Ministership only suffered from being just a bit too early.
Yet even a cursory look at both events would reveal the humiliation of the traditional right parties: Trump’s hostile take-over of the Republicans against both the moderate and conservative wings, and in the UK, not only the collapse of the Conservative leadership after calling a referendum they didn’t expect to lose, but the inability of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives to put a viable candidate in its place. In both cases, the weaknesses of the traditional right were disguised by the weaknesses of their traditional opponents: the inept Clinton campaign, and in the UK, a Labour party led by an ideological candidate that may please the party faithful against the “sell-outs” of the past but is an electoral stinker.
Sound familiar? If the Liberals decide to take back Abbott as their own Jeremy Corbyn, they could follow the same fate. While he may attack the detachment of the left’s culture war from pressing social issues, his Daily Telegraph piece and 2GB interview show he has little to offer than an opposing culture war from the right. This can even lead to incoherence. Not only did he pretend to be unaware of the roll-out of Safe Schools under his watch, but he couldn’t seem to decide whether he wanted to disband the HRC or extend its role to look at Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical Islamists. He decried “political correctness” and then proudly cited his own politically correct initiative to ban calling for genocide (phew!).
Even if they veer away, and choose someone else, or grimly hang on to Turnbull, the Liberals’ indulgence of one of Australia’s least popular politicians and his revived phoney ideological crusade is not a good sign. If the return of a non-party like One Nation is a sign of the morbid state of the current political arrangement, the resurrection of Abbott shows it is now coming to the heart of what had been Australia’s most successful governing party.