By Adam Carlton
John Howard obviously likes grabbing a headline and appears to enjoy being presented by friends in the media, as the Liberal Party elder and the great Australian political figure, handing out pearls of wisdom to his successors.
His ignoble exit, being one of only two prime ministers to lose their seat as well as an election, has been carefully brushed over. Howard was defeated over the attempt to impose an industrial relations regime that took away just about every right from the workforce. It was called WorkChoices. Even his own people turned their backs on him in the end.
Howard’s voice is still heard, not only because he has retained some powerful friends in the media, but mostly because, the Turnbull government is seriously divided within itself.
Malcolm Turnbull’s lack of leadership qualities are only part of it. If this was all there is to it, the problem would be resolved by deposing him and bringing in a new leader. But the division is so deep that there is no front runner. And the longer this goes on, the more fragmented the Liberal Party is becoming.
It should be remembered that Malcolm Turnbull got the leadership guernsey as a compromise candidate, after the disaster of leadership under Howard protégé, Tony Abbott. Under a united party, he would not have stood a chance.
Since then, Abbott and his camp have been continually sniping and undermining. This too has only been possible because division is already there.
The problem of the Liberal Party is much less about personalities than it is about what it stands for. Put it this way. This is a party primarily existing to represent the big end of town. But doing this when the economy is down and skepticism about politicians and the political process has risen to an unprecedented level, this is not so easy to do.
Ever since the rise of Howard, the Liberals have been totally embedded in the politics and economics of neoliberalism. This did not change with his fall. What has happened, is that there is now very little support for it in Australian society. Traditional party backers within the ranks of big business are divided on it. Neoliberalism has benefited some, like the financial industry and mining. It has also worked against others, notably manufacturing.
Competing interest groups exert pressure to be heard, and in doing so, are players in the factional politics.
There has been a loss of legitimacy, and it is in the dash to find a new way to press ahead, that the party has descended into its present state. As the internal jockeying goes on, Howard comes in to say they must stick with Turnbull, at least for now. He is astute enough to appreciate what is going on, and the party interest in imposing some control over how the differences play out.
But this might be an impossible task. Impasse exists, because on the inability to formulate and implement a precise direction within the boundaries of neoliberalism; whether the emphasis should be on the iron fist or velvet glove.
This has worked its way into recent key issues. In dealing with the problems of the banks, a largely cosmetic inquiry has been set up, which despite this, is starting to reveal a few hard truths.
There is the matter of stagnant wages. Government policy has worked hard to redirect national income from wages, but in doing so, has caused some concern. The Business Council of Australia has come out, contrary to the actions of many of its members and the party it supports, to publicly state that this is a threat to the economy.
Differences exist over global warming and protection of the environment, on how to deal with refugees, on civil liberties, on the details of Australia’s political and economic relationships with the rest of the world and in a range of other areas.
The inability of the party to come solidly together, lies behind the indecisiveness and inconsistencies of Malcolm Turnbull. Anyone else at the helm would be facing the same difficulty.
As it is, Turnbull has taken on the look of a dead man walking, held up a little longer, because there is no-one else in a position to step in. Now that Turnbull’s stocks on Newspoll are set go fall 30 times in a row, his government is walking the plank to its demise. That is, unless something dramatic and big enough turns up in the meantime.