As the legendary American baseball player Yogi Berra said so memorably, and so damned quotably, "This is like déjà vu all over again".
This week, the Federal Opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, unveiled to the National Press Club in Canberra, his "new vision for Australia", or some similarly grandiloquent missive.
The speech appeared to embrace all sentiments that state Liberal parties expressed after an election defeat — say sorry to the blackfellas, be nicer to the ethnics and reffos, be kind to sick children and old people, hug more trees, stop squabbling among ourselves, revere our heritage and remember our "great party" sprung from the rib of Robert Menzies. I’ve read/heard/seen/reported it all before. One line, though, did resonate with me. The penultimate sentence in Nelson’s speech invoked the great American historian, Arthur Schlesinger, urging his countrymen not to "abandon their historic purpose".
It’s a good start but Nelson would do well to study Schlesinger’s greatest work on the "cycles of history", in which he argues that politics alternates between conservative-classical liberal cycles and social democratic-progressive cycles, because much of the Liberal leader’s speech is a barely veiled apologia for a program rejected just four months ago by the electorate — confrontation on the waterfront, with its guard dogs and masked enforcers; a consumption tax that slugs pensioners and CEOs precisely the same amount when they buy a bar of soap or packet of biscuits; and the industrial relations laws.
Even as his party was capitulating to the democratic will and voting with the Rudd Government to abolish WorkChoices, Nelson, in his heart, could not let go. "We changed for the right reasons, workplace relations laws because we knew it was important to Australia’s future," he opined.
In the back of your mind, you can almost hear Pete Seeger singing. "When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?"
The Liberals are clinging to the notion that they can swing a little to the left on social issues, such as climate change and Indigenous affairs, but remain firmly wedded to economic rationalism, a dogma that reduces everything to its pure monetary cost, despite its overarching social value. The Opposition does not seem to get that it did not lose the 2007 election because John Howard disliked the Mardi Gras but loved the Queen, and had a censorious attitude to drugs and pornography. Indeed, many blue-collar Australians found his social conservatism a comforting counterbalance to his neo-liberal economic policies. They lost because enough voters feared the Howard government was trying to reshape, through WorkChoices, the Australian way of life.
On election day, I drove through four marginal seats — Dobell and Robertson on the Central Coast, Lindsay in western Sydney, and Howard’s own seat of Bennelong – all won by Labor just a few hours later. At polling booths the Liberals had hung placards with the slogan, "A strong economy is central to everything". I wondered initially why you would resort to such a clumsy, clunky set of words, a real mouthful compared with, say, "New Leadership" or "Morning in America". But a senior Liberal told me that, late in the campaign, they realised they had to counter the subterranean theme of the Rudd campaign, which found itself expressed on noticeboards outside several schools —"we live in a community, not an economy".
At key moments during the campaign, and the months leading up to it, Rudd tapped a latent fear in the electorate, when he said that workers were not merely "economic units" but citizens. The union research revealed deep concern that the Howard government’s industrial laws did not merely imperil weekend penalty rates, holiday loadings or meal allowances, but the ability to have a fulfilling family and community life. This concern found its most powerful expression in the "Footy Dad", an archetypal 40-something male who appeared in the first of the ACTU-funded advertisements. He complained that his new workplace agreement allowed his boss, in the name of "business flexibility", to roster him on at the weekends, threatening his continued ability to coach the junior footy team.
Two days after the election, the insightful social researcher David Chalke, author of the annual AustraliaSCAN survey, concluded that Australians were showing a renewed preference for social solidarity over private gain. They had wearied of tax cuts at the expense of nation-building, "choice" in education and health over strong social services, and were much more sympathetic to the role of unions, even if they were not members. "As time [went]on, we became increasingly disillusioned with many aspects of economic rationalism," said Chalke.
And yet the Liberals plough on, pledging to be the party of enterprise and work, leaving Labor to style itself, however modestly, as the party of community.
It is true that Rudd described himself as an economic conservative and Labor as pro-business, but he was also trading on the deep-seated perception in the electorate — a perception that never changed during the heady years of Howard’s triumph — that Labor was better on health, education, the environment and the welfare of ordinary voters. Vic Fingerhut, the legendary American political consultant who guided many Democrats to victory in the 2006 mid-term elections, and who helped devise the unions’ anti-WorkChoices campaign, found that no matter how often they compromise their core values, out in the electorate, the Labor and Democratic parties are still seen as better for working families. Whatever messages Rudd was sending to the top end of town, he was positioning himself to catch the centre-left wave that is sweeping Australia and the United States.
Some Liberals get it but they are long since gone from politics.
Last Friday night, the architects of the Liberals’ last big win in NSW gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nick Greiner’s 1988 landslide. One of the most skilled politicians of his time, Peter Collins, told me recently that in the 1980s, when the free-market tendencies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were relatively popular in the Anglosphere, he and his colleagues read the tea leaves and tried to humanise Reaganism and Thatcherism. But Collins recognises the political cycle has changed, as Schlesinger predicted, and says his old Party must abandon the economic dogmas of the 80s. The Malcolm Turnbull formula – so beloved of "progressive" elites — of a republic and tax cuts for millionaires, just won’t fly anymore.
I suspect the NSW Liberal leader, Barry O’Farrell, understands. He is a smart man, a decent man, a practical man. If his Party has the resolve and good sense to keep him as leader, despite the ups and downs of the opinion polls, he will fashion it into a viable, centrist party, moderate (at most) on the cultural agenda – law and order, stem cell research and same sex civil unions — and communitarian on economics.
The next 20-30 years are unlikely to be friendly to parties that elevate private gain over public good, just as the three decades after 1968 were hostile to parties that preferred welfare statism to enterprise. The pendulum has swung.
The Liberals need to get with the program.
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