A long walk in the wilderness

06/11/2007 - 22:00


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As Liberal parliamentarians and power brokers assess the polls, which all point to electoral demise and thus “wall-to-wall” Labor governments for the first time ever, some have begun to suspect that November 24 will bring utter devastation.

A long walk in the wilderness

As Liberal parliamentarians and power brokers assess the polls, which all point to electoral demise and thus “wall-to-wall” Labor governments for the first time ever, some have begun to suspect that November 24 will bring utter devastation.

Some are even coming to the view that their party, founded in 1944, will thereafter have enormous difficulties being an effective and credible opposition.

Melbourne’s News Weekly assessed the situation well: “He [Kevin Rudd] has pulled off a remarkable feat in the shortest time as opposition leader and the briefest political career of any aspiring prime minister since World War II.

“If the polls are to be believed, Mr Rudd has Labor within the grasp of pulling off the most stunning political victory in living memory — during a boom and against a government that is neither incompetent nor disintegrating.”

There are some who suspect a wider gap may emerge, and so have begun contemplating the shape of things after November 24.

And what they foresee is disturbing.

The more circumspect have noted that, although most elections since 1949 have been closely run encounters, voters generally returned governments; and most certainly when the economy was pounding along, fully employed, as today.

Losers were consequently assigned long terms in opposition.

In 1949, Labor icon Ben Chifley lost to Robert Menzies, who remained prime minister until 1966, after which the Liberals retained power until 1972; 23 years all up.

What followed were three incompetent Gough Whitlam years, from 1972-1975. After that, Malcolm Fraser held the reins until 1983, followed by Labor under Bob Hawke (1983-1991) and Paul Keating (1991-1996); 13 years all up.

Then came the 11 Howard years of 1996-2007.

Such a statistical breakdown certainly suggests the relatively young Kevin Rudd and family can reasonably expect up to a dozen years – four terms – as residents of Kirribilli House and The Lodge, if he manages to control his notoriously bad temper and isn’t otherwise unbearable – two characteristics that hastened the demise of the Whitlam and Keating governments.

In other words, some Liberal realists have started to consider the likelihood of being in the wilderness until at least 2016, perhaps even 2019, when Mr Rudd is the ripe old age of 59 or 62 respectively.

When saying this, it’s worth recalling that the Coalition has lost 20 consecutive state and territory elections since 1998, which suggests that three or four consecutive national losses wouldn’t be entirely surprising.

This also suggests that the next non-Labor PM has probably only recently celebrated his or her 21st birthday and may not yet be a Liberal Party member, let alone an MP.

Remember that Mr Rudd wasn’t in parliament in 1996 when Labor was toppled by Mr Howard.

Probably the only Western Australian now in Canberra who is likely to still be there when a non-Labor government eventually emerges is 38-year-old Belgium-born junior senator, Matthias Corman.

In the not-too-distant future, even the Liberal Party may vanish and be replaced by an entity capable of adopting a range of election-winning policies that immediate post-Howard MPs are incapable of imagining, let alone enacting. 

If all this sounds somewhat gloomy, it’s perhaps worth recalling the published words of Liberal senator, Nick Minchin, who’s warned of tough times ahead.

In a 2005 party publication, soon after highlighted by State Scene, he warned that the Howard government was far from firmly ensconced.

“At present the Liberal Party has 247 parliamentarians in state and federal parliaments, to which we can add 64 Nationals and 12 CLP [Northern Territory] parliamentarians,” he said.

“By contrast, the ALP has some 428 state and federal parliamentarians, giving them an advantage of 105 MPs along with their electoral offices, staff and electorate allowances.

“Moreover, the ALP political message is amplified by ministerial staff and other government resources in six states and two territories.”

Despite this, he said, nearly 5.5 million Australians had backed the Liberals and Nationals nationally, well over a million more than voted Labor.

But he added that of this figure, a huge 1.5 million had “deserted us at the state level”, prompting him to dub that 1.5 million as “soft conservatives”.

Many of these were the so-called ‘Howard battlers’, who now seem to be deserting the Liberals and turning to Rudd-led Labor.

Senator Minchin added that, in 1949, when Robert Menzies gained power, the party had nearly 200,000 members in 1,652 branches; a rough average of 120 per branch.

In 1983, when Australia’s population was about double that of 1949, there were just over 100,000 members – about half that of 1949 – so down by a factor of four.

With Australia’s  population now 21 million and membership standing at about 80,000, which is probably an over-estimate, things certainly aren’t bright.

But here’s another Minchin stinger.

“It may be possible to win elections from government with a limited membership, but when we are next in opposition federally, we will confront serious competitive disadvantages,” he wrote.

“Weighing up alongside Labor are allied battalions of well-funded unions, noisy self-interested pressure groups, a sympathetic media, an opinionated host of academics divorced from all reality, developers with close relationships to Labor-controlled councils, and a big business community increasingly nervous about offending Labor state governments.”

It would be difficult to have put it more bluntly.

As Senator Minchin said, things aren’t rosy for the Liberals even though they’ve long controlled Canberra, from where Mr Howard increasingly centralised Australian governance in accordance with Labor’s 1921 commitment.

And there’s also the crucial question of party finances, which are always likely to be healthier when the Liberals control state and national treasury benches.

On this Senator Minchin wrote: “The financial position of many divisions has been alarming in the past two decades with three states facing severe crises and some party buildings sold to maintain solvency.

“The donor base is shrinking and divisional staff numbers have been under long-term decline. Campaign staff are often the first to go…”

Clearly if a fundamental overhaul of the Liberal Party proves impossible, the other option is to simply wind it up and create a new right-of-centre entity.

The only encouraging sign (for the Liberals) seems to be the prospect of a Rudd government failing to come through with the goods, something that’s quite possible.

So far Mr Rudd has been a political plagiarising supremo, something he’ll be unable to do after November 24, unless, of course, he looks to overseas models such as highly regulated, over-bureaucratised and exorbitantly taxed Sweden, where he served as a diplomat.

Only time will tell. But his propensity to so plagiarise certainly suggests he’s a likely candidate for adopting some foreign model.

Here’s what economists, Alex Robson of Canberra and Sinclair Davidson of Melbourne, recently wrote of him in The Wall Street Journal Asia.

“In practice, a Labor government under Rudd would re-regulate economic life. Over the past year he has promised to set up no fewer than 68 new bureaucracies and establish 96 reviews if elected…

“His proposed industry policy – constructed by Kim Carr, a declared socialist – would create an uber-bureaucracy of 12 industry innovation councils.

“The goal, it seems, is to promote manufacturing by picking winners: a policy with an appalling track record of failure in Australia and elsewhere.”

But if Australian Liberalism’s only hope of resurrection is to rely on some form of Rudd idiocy, perhaps a brand new non-Labor party – something Senator Minchin failed to postulate – is precisely what’s needed.



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