The wreckage which is the current state of Australian politics is so serious because it comes at a time of almost revolutionary change in the world, a time when stability of our institutions would seem to be vital. The opposite seems to be happening and it has been foreseen for years.
Paul Kelly had called it already in 2014.
Australia’s political system is in malfunction …The erosion in Australia’s political culture over a decade is alarming. It is tied to wider social and media trends. That many Western democracies are at a more advanced stage of this malaise — defined as the inability of political systems to respond to the needs of their societies — is no cause for assurance….Indeed, the global evidence only raises a troubling question: is this the new norm?
The answer to that is “Maybe it is the new norm”. Yes, the Australian political system is broken, the governing party the Liberal Party of Australia (not ‘liberal’ in the America sense but supposedly centre-right, classic liberal) is a smouldering ruin, controlled by a series of Australian State party branches which seem to resist, exclude or isolate much intellectual and political opposition. Membership is at or near historic lows. It is led nationally by a Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, a man with many high personal qualifications but who seems to limp along with no political instinct at all. In fact, if one looked closely at his stressful early life, his supposed arrogance prior to politics when he was in business (lawyer, merchant banker, investor and deal-maker, that is) we can see the complexities of his observable persona. But his recognised or unrecognized political weaknesses explain hardly anything about why this party, forged from conservative/non-left interests in 1944 and used to governing the country (47 of the 67 years between 1949 and 2017) seems broken, hopelessly split as to the political direction required to be popular.
While watching the Labor party break itself between 2010 and 2013 (with more than a little help from Tony Abbott), the Liberal party has just followed down the same path with one huge difference: When the ALP committed electoral suicide by infighting and cutting down leaders, the internal discipline, pushed mainly by the really powerful controllers in unions and functional left/right factions (backed by those same unions) stayed intact.
The Liberal party had a tradition quite unlike the ALP; it had never overthrown a parliamentary leader serving as Prime Minster, whereas Labor had done it three times by the time Abbott became PM. When the Malcolm Turnbull group were working to take over the party from Tony Abbott (who had taken them into government in 2013) they expected the party members and MPs to just accept it. As has been seen, though, when they made that move to politically assassinate Tony Abbott they broke something in their party and large numbers of people were seemingly lost to it and have never come back. As is often the case, when an advisor (and pollster) was quoted as dismissing the need/value of these voters: “The qualitative evidence is they don’t matter,’’ the targeted group is incensed and uses the attack as a rallying cry. They didn’t come back and the party has never recovered. Over one million votes went to right or conservative small parties at the July 2016 elections and seems to have stayed there. At the time of writing, the party has been well behind in polls for a year. They took over with the huge majority Tony Abbott had won for them in the Australian Parliament. After a disastrous election campaign in 2016, they govern with a majority of one.
A proper drill-down to the core dysfunction of this Liberal Party will have to wait for later posts as will the decades-long campaign to attack, undermine and smear Tony Abbott. Multi-front, unrelenting, politics and media attacks along with outright religious smears, it has been unprecedented in living memory and only the as-long campaign against Cardinal George Pell could equal it. Abbott was undermined – even as opposition leader when he had started to destroy the popularity of the ALP. As Prime Minister, after taking the Liberals into government by taking 25 seats from the ALP in two elections, serious and constant sabotage of his government by a combined group of party, parliamentary and media associates gathered their forces against him. This grouping, together with some of the very lobbyists Abbott had forced to choose between being party officials or lobbyists finally got together to help bring him down. The enormously strong party of Robert Menzies was to be changed forever.
As for the Liberal Party, it was formed during WWII and now has arguably reached its use by date, at least as a centre-right party. The party power brokers have taken it a long way from the time when the founder Robert Menzies could attach words like “progressive” to it – along with focus on the individual – which had, for him, none of the controlling aspects of the revival of the old progressive movement from the early 20th Century. Modern “progressivism” seems to have copied the elitism inherent in that old movement (and which is shown by its virtual control of the ALP and Greens in Australia).
While there will be far more detailed focus on these Liberal Party members from all states, factions, personalities and their power bases in further posts, the public should be made aware of leading members having influence like this in each state. In NSW, non-politician power players who double as leading lobbyists are very prominent. So prominent that they flaunt their power in public. They really dominate, no matter their supposed resignations from factional positions. As will be seen, their very direct influence has hardly diminished, but has probably increased, so that you wonder just why they made the pretence of “resigning” in the first place (one report had it as “taking one for the team” after a spate of criticism). As will be seen, the dangers to that centre-right ethos are readily observable in its current policies and internal dynamics. Worse than that, the struggles within that party seem to occur in every state of Australia and it is currently in a fight-to-the-death mode while fighting for power.
The internal disunity leads an observer to wonder whether this party can survive. Certainly, if the public get wise to the power of these hidden controllers and see that they and not members or the voting base influence their policies, proposed splits in this party might attract away more of the core voters to ruin the party of Menzies. Seemingly a permanent fixture in Australia since 1949 when it first obtained power, the divisions are very deep now. More people should look at its predecessor, the United Australia Party and see just how similar the Liberal Party of today (certainly the NSW branch) is to that narrow, vested interest-owned wreck of a party it was when the Liberal Party was formed to kill it off. Perhaps it is a natural progression that these types of centre-right parties devolve into this preordained form that virtually demands their creative destruction. By observing its latest “model” I would say it is the personnel and individual ethics/principles which will determine its fate.
The Liberal Party has never before seen problems going to its very existence but the older party, the Australian Labor Party, has its huge problems also. While it is powerful (partly by default thanks to the dysfunction of the Liberals) and has large and constant large amounts of money at its disposal thanks to the trade union support, the ALP has gone a long way to surrendering all control to those same unions which keep it afloat and have such a large say in how it works even as a government.
It is to that ALP, its problems and dangers for Australia that we must turn next.