Politics

Victoria votes: Liberals with a lot to learn from Menzies

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Victorian Opposition Leader Guy, former Prime Minister Menzies and Prime Minister Morrison (Screenshots via Youtube; Menzies image via Wikipedia)

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield looks at possible reasons for the five per cent swing to Labor in the Victorian State Election.

THE LIBERALS, as a party, must be on the nose, right?

They have ditched two prime ministers because of poor polling during the last four years and have tanked spectacularly, in both state and federal byelections, on the way to Saturday night’s massacre in Melbourne.

LIBERALS HAVE THE ANSWER: “WE’LL BE BACK!”

Not that it has been recognised by the current party leadership.

At the end of the Wentworth by-election, PM Scott Morrison told the defeated party in the electorate that "she’d be right, they’d put up the right ideas". “We’ll be back!” he reckoned.

Likewise on Saturday night in Melbourne, while the defeated 0pposition Leader, Matthew Guy, “conceded” they’d been done over and had to mend their own game, Federal frontbencher Josh Frydenberg said, "she’d be right, the Labor Party had the bad ideas". “We’ll be back!” he reckoned.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Others were less cheery, like Victoria’s Shadow Attorney General, John Pesutto. Close to losing his own seat on Saturday night, he told a television audience: "something's gone horribly wrong".

Let's try a fairly orthodox explanation for the stumbling and bumbling of this major party and its rejection by voters. In a word, it’s divided, because strong forces inside want it to change over from being liberal and cautious, to fall in with the authoritarian right-wing instead.

Malcolm Turnbull, the second prime minister to be sacked, named some of the key figures on that authoritarian right-wing side: Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott, Greg Hunt, Mathias Cormann, Steve Ciobo, Michael Keenan and Michaelia Cash.

WHAT ELSE WENT WRONG?

The first thing that made the Liberal Party go really cockeyed was taking up the doctrine of neoliberalism and neoconservatism from the 1970s and 1980s onward.

Part of a movement managed from corporate America, they took up a mantra of:

  • small government;
  • no taxes;
  • the privatisation of public property (at knock-down rates); and
  • deregulation of business activity.

This delivered much money into private pockets so now we have a large clutch of billionaires and real people can’t afford to pay bills from the privatised electricity company, let alone buy a family home.

It is a system one step away from wholesale criminality because of the lack of legitimate, democratically-made regulatory law, very tempting to the wrong type of people.

Former PM Paul Keating – when a Labor Treasurer the actual architect of a first-phase of this doctrine – has acknowledged that when the financial sector expands, all sorts will be attracted into it. There’s less guarantee of quality or probity.

Look at the evidence produced by the Financial Services Royal Commission and the bland “meaculpas” scripted-up in the PR department of those banks.

The tempting thing for political types on the right was the chance of getting a historical big win, a zero-sum game, winner-take-all — permanently change the whole system, in favour of key constituents, starting with creating a clutch of billionaires.

Gone would be the Menzies compromise with Australians across the board:

  • living with unions and workers negotiating good pay and conditions;
  • respect for professions as a body of knowledge (Liberals used to actually be the “doctors’ party”); and
  • providing a “climate for free enterprise” for small business and farmers, mostly infrastructure programs and a concessional tax regime. (You would not see those traders and producers getting cynically whipped up as some kind of political shock troops against all and any other players).

Instead, they try and run everything on the lines of a U.S. corporation and measure all outcomes in terms of short-term money profitability.

CAT GOT OUT OF THE BAG

The trouble was the 2014 Federal Budget where the determined Liberal Prime Minister Anthony John Abbott and those close to him let the cat out the bag.

If they were going to give massive tax breaks to the super-rich, there’d be no more revenue, so they began cutting government services.

Large numbers of people began to notice what the Government was trying to do, which showed up in the polls and, now, in the way they actually vote.

While Abbott became so palpably unpopular he was abruptly dumped, some kind of rot had set it in.

THE ROT SET IN

It was not just neoliberal or neoconservative reaction, heading back to the 19th Century with bad pay, no taxes, so no services, no education and no health care, it was just gaols, hanging judges and a half-starved army, the workhouse, child labour, mass poverty and dear, sweet, brightly talented Jane Austen entertaining us with tales about how the gentry draw down mystery incomes and organise their sex lives.

Added on would be the heavy hand of authority.

It was a new sensation for many Australians, under Abbott, to have a government prepared to make you cop changes, without consultation, that would turn back the clock.

The recreation of Sirs and Dames was a symbolic move that way — even making Philip Mountbatten, the “Duke”, an Australian Knight.

Enough people didn’t like it, the polls kept going bad, as yet not recovering at all.

WHAT ELSE WENT WRONG?

It’s possible to build an all-new constituency for an aggressive campaign of reaction, mostly by finding lost souls who respond best to their own bad side in a selfie. Normally that can be done by promoting racial prejudice and war — guns generally are a catalyst.

The die was cast with “children overboard” and the Tampa crisis in 2001, the Liberal government of the day basically saying, Keep out Arabs and other Muslims.

Successive Prime Ministers have tried to look military (less so the hapless Turnbull, not really a soldier-looking type). On the last such occasion, Morrison attended some media opportunities with Australian service personnel guarding the APEC conference at Port Moresby. Some of the greetings he got looked very stiff — it must annoy professional service personnel to be used as political props.

An egregious case going on at this time is the cultivation of a former soldier (and Australian representative at the Invictus games) Phillip Thompson as the Liberal candidate for the marginal electorate of Herbert — based on Townsville and Lavarack Amy Barracks, Australia’s biggest. The idea would be, that we might not have a khaki election overall next year but might be able to get one in North Queensland.

It could depend on how fed up the electors might be with other aspects of the Coalition Government, apart from supporting the army. Alienating big sections of the electorate might become structural — offending segments of society enough that they leave and do not change back.

In Melbourne on the weekend, the Labor Party won new electorates inhabited by middle-class business and professionals, exactly the sector the new Liberal Party has been cutting out — people it used to get on well with.

Key Liberals these days even like to publicly kick into “latte-sipping”, “greenies”, “doctors’ wives”, doctors themselves, definitely teachers, people who watch and listen to the ABC, all those who used to quite like universities the way they were, “renegade” clergy who support same-sex or asylum seekers and families with gay people in them. Anybody who wants a modest bourgeois family lifestyle and has a sincere outlook on issues of the day and does not fancy devoting their life to some entrepreneurial rat race is in line to get insulted.

Would the Liberals seriously expect people not to look for some other party to vote for, at least to send them a stiff message – a good kicking back?

The Labor position has been that it is holding on to its support in those “other” parts of town, not zones of leafy privilege and then casting a wider net by sticking to message.

In Victoria, Labor Premier Daniel Andrews said they had a program approach, to build the State, provide health care and schools and settle problems — which seems to have worked for a good majority.

We may, in fact, see the political machine looking to America and its President Donald Trump for some kind of lead — maybe a little fake news, some playing fast and loose with the facts. It’s amazing what you can get away with.

A first sign is the start of an attack line on pensioners, saying Labor plans to axe benefits being paid to thousands. It’s based on the Labor proposal to go back to its policy, before 1998, not to pay rebates on investment taxes when no actual tax has been paid by the taxpayer. It points out that the policy does not target poor pensioners, though many retirees currently do have their affairs set up as self-managed superannuation — mostly at the wealthier end.

The problem with attack campaigns, especially if threadbare with evidence and facts, is how they can backfire. A lot of people in this educated and digitised society go and check out all the facts.

Here the current Liberal Party leader, Scott Morrison, who functions as his own attack dog, is shaping up as a serious liability because he is looking like a shallow character.

Exhibits are:

  • the ill-considered move to change the location of the Australian Embassy in Israel, evidently in the hope of influencing Jewish voters living in Wentworth – not thought through; and
  • the story of him getting sacked as head of Tourism Australia, perhaps not being up to the boring part of that job, managing all the financial accounts.

In a word, we have a talker but maybe not much of a thinker — bound to be a problem with many voters as he has been put up as Prime Minister of the country.

The Liberal Party is split with left and right factions fighting out in public — always fatal in elections.

Moderate Liberals wanting a broad base, have to try and defeat the reactionary ones before they take over, but it’ll cost.

WHAT NOW?

Plenty of votes remain in the Liberal column (still over 30% in Victoria), so despite odds now building up heavily, a turn-around might happen in the public mind.

But several things have gone wrong in the party made in the image of Robert Menzies.

Capable as anybody of being a brass-plated bastard, Menzies yet had some large-mindedness, not small-mindedness, and stopped those around him going too far with what they wanted to do.

If Matthew Guy and others now want to make a correction, they might go back and check his record and give some thought to the idea of compromise with your public.

Then, good luck to them pushing out the hard boys in the party and selling some better ideas to their mates.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic

 

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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