Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What a circus! Mr Dutton et al and my own confusions

What a circus! I refer to this morning's events in Canberra when in the face of a leadership threat from now former Minister Peter Dutton, Prime Minister Turnbull called for a leadership spill, thus vacating the Prime Ministerial position as well as that of Deputy Leader of the Liberal party.

The resulting Liberal Party room vote saw the Prime Minister returned as Liberal leader and hence Prime Minister with 48 votes compared to 35 for Mr Dutton. Foreign Minister was the only nomination for the Deputy Leader position and hence was returned unopposed. The vote only involved Liberal Party members. The National Party's leadership including the Deputy Prime Minister were not affected. The size of the vote for Mr Dutton left many speculating on when the next challenge would come.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's  political reporter Jackson Gothe-Snape has a useful short summary of the events leading up to the vote which in many ways came out of the blue, although there had been rumblings.Since the vote, the ether has been saturated with prognostication about the meaning of it all, focused on the question of whether the Prime Minister can in fact survive.

I want to leave that aside, focusing instead on a few things I do not understand.The issues were already fresh in my mind because of a longer piece I have been writing on Senator Fraser Anning's maiden speech. I hope to bring this up Sunday. For the moment, some immediate comments.

I note that my views don't matter. Things will happen as they happen. I am simply seeking to understand.

Mr Dutton

When I first heard that Mr Dutton might mount a challenge, I was incredulous. He is a polarising figure in Australian politics. This began prior to his appointment to the Immigration later Home Affairs portfolios, but accelerated in those roles. He is, I think, the least liked even hated political national figure measured by on-line chatter and commentary. The general consensus expressed before and repeated now is that he might help hold up the Liberal National Party vote in Queensland but would lose elsewhere.

In contrast, Mr Dutton asserts that he ran because he had a better chance of winning than Mr Turnbull, a view that seems to to be shared to some degree at least by 35 of his colleagues. So we have a huge dichotomy between the popular view and that held by Mr Dutton and at least some in the Liberal Party. So what might form the base for such a view?

Australia is a large disparate country with growing divides that reflect history, culture and economic and demographic changes There are considerable and I think growing regional variations. Mr Dutton is a more effective campaigner than Mr Turnbull. Those most opposed to him do not vote Coalition anyway and can be ignored. For the rest, Mr Dutton is more likely to preserve the base from the challenges posed by the proliferating minor parties while attracting votes in at least some marginal seats where issues such as immigration, power prices and services are of particular importance.

The softer, kinder, Mr Dutton who suddenly emerged following his defeated challenge is does seem to be heading in this direction. I'm not sure that it could work, but it is an explanation that at least makes a certain sense.

Liberal Party Ideology, Power and Factions

I'm not sure that I properly understand just how the Liberal Party works. Perhaps I never have. It's never been an especially ideological party, more interested in power, something that has contributed to sometimes instability. It's always been a centrist party with a socially conservative or status quo wing that has varied in power. In many ways, the Party and its predecessors have defined themselves in opposition to Labor. However, it has had a core of values that provided continuity.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the Liberal Party has become very confused, that it has been taken over by ideologues who in many ways are in conflict with the Party's traditional ethos. Some in the Liberal Party complain about its shift to the left, suggesting that it is abandoning its traditional conservative base. My difficulty is that I don't know what this means.

There appears to me, and this is something I will explore in my Fraser Anning piece, to be a fundamental conflict within what people are calling the "right" between the neoconservatives, the libertarians, the traditionalists and the populists. This is exactly reflected in the Liberal Party. The Party appears to be struggling to span the divide, to find a way to cover the rifts, to respond to the forces that it has itself helped to create. The result is a lack of coherence, indeed of conflict, in values, ideas and policy. Mr Dutton appears to reflect this.

I am not saying Labor is necessarily better, although that's another story. I am saying that I don't understand the Liberal Party any more, that I don't know what the Party stands for, that I simply can't predict what might happen. I guess that it's just a question of going with the flow.  



Unknown said...

The problem with a broad church is that without some kind of unifying ethos, over and above "power at ny cost" or "at least we aren't Labor" is that invariably it will become schismatic. Don't forget that Tony Abbott reportedly left the seminary all those years ago because they were insufficiently combative in pressing (his view of) their mission. Weak leaders (MT, Louis XIV, Ethelred the Unready) are mere cannon fodder for such situations. One analysis I read split the vote for and against Turnbull into the parties of ' We're doomed, but if we stick with MT at least some of us may survive' and 'We're doomed so changing leaders may change our fortunes, and I may survive'. Fun fact: when Abbott pulled the same trick, he would have lost to the empty chair, except he held an open ballot and bound all his Ministers, including Turnbull, to vote for him.

The one upside in politics I've seen in the past year or so is that the bye-elections and Albo's non-challenge to Shorten have forced Shorten and therefore Labor to at least enunciate some policies.

Predictions: MT will get knifed, Dutton will fail to get the Coalition over the line but it won't be a catastrophic loss, Shorten will become PM but will not serve a full term, we will be stuck with governments where the leader is far more interested in dodging friendly fire than in facing the opposition or governing. The intriguing thing will be to see how a post-loss LNP will behave.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting comment. While power at any cost and we aren't Labor have been Liberal themes, I think that the party had more coherence than you allow.

I may bring those predictions back to haunt you. Who knows! My best guess is that Mr Dutton will fail to get the numbers. I say that only because the PM seems to have locked Ministers in behind him while Mr Dutton's fairly populist policy positions today probably haven't helped his cause. On the election, if Mr Turbull survives nether he nor the Coalition will be helped by what's going on. The rolling averages from the PR polls show a very difficult scenario. If Mr Dutton gets up, I think that he will stabilise some votes while losing others. Similar outcome.

There is a fair bit of support around for Albo for PM. Ditto for Ms Bishop. In the event of another challenge, wouldn't surprise me if ms Bsihop came through the pack.

Evan said...

I think there are parallels with Labor of a generation ago. Gough managed to straddle two constituencies. Then the Greens arrived. Fraser managed to straddle two constituencies. Howard moved to the right and the small right wing parties arrived.

It seems to me that Lib-Lab are much more 'professional' now i.e. wanting to win power, rather than knowing what they want to do with it.

Jim Belshaw said...

I did think about your first point, Evan, although there are many more than two constituencies.

My thinking was that Labor's move to the centre had opened the way to the Greens, while the similar Coalition shift had opened the way for the new forces. Traditionally, while there have been new city based movements much of the pressure here has come from the country with the CP/Nats acting as the buffer. The relative submergence of the Nats in the coalition has left a vacuum. But thinking further about that its all more complicated.

For example, splintering in the Liberal Party during the late 60s and early 70s led to the emergence of new political groups that finally merged in the formation of the Australian Democrats in 1977. The Democrats were essentially a centrist party that occupied a space opened up because the ALP was seen at too left, the Coalition too right, both too conservative on particular issues. The Dems provided a home for those from centre left to centre right that were dissatisfied with the main parties.

Political changes have also to be set against a background of social and economic change that affects but doesn't mirror the "left-right" divide as conventionally defined. I actually struggle to say what constitutes left and right today.

Evan said...

Yes 'left' and 'right' don't work very well now I think. Not for about a decade.

Perhaps 'green' and 'brown'?

Unknown said...

I am very much reminded of Keating's attempt to gain control of a government which was bound to lose at the polls, were it not for the gift of the GST handed to him by Hewson. Except Dutton seems to be a bit more hamfisted than PK. I certainly hadn't expected the rushed attempt to knife MT a second time before he could expose his 'softer' and more intellectual side a la PK.

2 tanners said...

Sorry, previous comment was mine. @Evan, perhaps he divide should be "inside the tent" and "outside the tent".