Malcolm Turnbull’s lack of new ideas keeps the Coalition languishing on the wrong side of the house, says Barry Cohen
‘The duty of an opposition is very simple… to oppose everything and propose nothing.’ Thus spake British Prime Minister Lord Derby in the House of Commons in 1841. Conservatives worldwide have maintained the tradition ever since.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in Australia, where the Coalition are reeling from the umpteenth Newspoll indicating that if an election was held in the not-too-distant future, they would be cactus.
The Coalition do government well. They point the country in the general direction they want it to go and then let the Sir Humphreys run the show. It’s opposition where they have trouble. Being conservative, change is alien to them, new policies anathema. Having been in office for 70 per cent of the time since Federation, they’re unlikely to change. It explains their ‘born to rule’ mentality.
Labor governments, the Coalition believe, are aberrations, which, after a brief period in office, will bring Australia to ruin and be rejected by the voters at the earliest opportunity. They are rarely disappointed.
Unfortunately for Labor, the party’s rare election victories were exquisitely timed: the first world war, the Great Depression, the second world war, the 1973 oil crisis and now the Great Recession. They didn’t help their cause with endless internecine warfare.
However, as the Australian voter became more sophisticated, better educated and less divided by class and religion, Labor’s image changed. A more polished kind of politician emerged who captured the middle ground of Australian politics at both state and federal level. Kevin Rudd is the latest manifestation of this changing face of Labor.
It still hasn’t dawned on the Liberals that they can no longer rely on their pedigree and blanket opposition to everything proposed by the Rudd government to win support.
Approaching the mid-point in this parliamentary term, the Liberals have already had two leaders and are contemplating a third. Sound familiar?
Brendan Nelson’s fate was hardly surprising. His maiden performance was so appalling it became obvious that he wouldn’t last. Mercifully, he was put down in a relatively bloodless coup. With Peter Costello the ever- reluctant bridesmaid, Malcolm Turnbull was a shoo-in.
Few have come to office with better qualifications. Although a political neophyte, Turnbull was already a national figure through his success in law, merchant banking and as a leader of the Republican movement. He was well-educated, intelligent, articulate and financially successful. Although well-connected with the top end of town, he was not of the patrician mould typical of conservative leaders. His father, a battler, had made considerable sacrifices to give him a private-school education.
His character flaws include ruthlessness in achieving his goals, evident in the way he removed his predecessor from the seat of Wentworth, and an absolute certainty in the correctness of his views. This is not unique among political leaders. In fact, it’s almost a prerequisite. However, it is a good idea to keep one’s disdain for lesser mortals under wraps until you’ve got the top job. While he had difficulty in doing that, he nevertheless became leader of the opposition a little over three years after entering Parliament.
No one, least of all the Liberals, expected their new leader to topple Kevin Rudd overnight. What disappointed them was his failure to improve on the pitiful performance of his predecessor. The 67 to 19 per cent difference as preferred prime minister is not their major concern, for there have been many instances where opposition leaders have lagged well behind in the preferred PM poll and still won the next election. Of greater concern is the 58/42 gap in the two-party preferred vote. That foreshadows a defeat of terrifying proportions. And if they keep playing up in the Senate, Rudd will seek a double dissolution.
Amazingly, it hasn’t occurred to the Liberals why they are in such a mess. They can’t understand why the punters don’t share their distaste for Kevin Rudd. The voters may not love Rudd, but they respect him and are prepared to forgive the occasional slip. After a mere 18 months, they are prepared to give him a chance.
The voters are also aware, despite the Liberals’ insistence, that Rudd is not responsible for the worldwide financial crisis. Because it started within days of the 2007 election, that is hardly surprising. The carping criticism by the Liberals will not convince voters otherwise. They know the recession is worldwide and that most countries are far worse off than Australia. They also resent being treated as fools by the Liberals for heaping the blame on the Rudd government for all the woes that presently beset Australia. That is why the Coalition’s standing in the polls is so low.
They have foolishly followed Lord Derby’s dictum to the letter: ‘oppose everything, propose nothing’.
This is not to suggest that the Rudd government is, or should be, beyond criticism. On the contrary, there is much to criticise and numerous alternatives to be proposed. But selectivity hasn’t been Turnbull’s strong suit. He feels it is his duty to whinge and whine at every initiative taken by the government.
There is plenty of nervousness about the large spending programmes and the cash payments to millions, but there is also a feeling that the government is doing its best to stave off a recession and concomitant unemployment. That has the public’s wholehearted support.
What is missing from the Turnbull approach is alternative policies. It will stick in the Liberals’ craw, but they should study the approach of their ‘Great Satan’, Edward Gough Whitlam, who, when opposition leader, set the parliamentary agenda by presenting well thought out and costed programmes for health, education, urban development, Aboriginal affairs, the arts and much more. It was Labor party policies that captured the headlines from 1967 to 1972.
Unless Malcolm Turnbull can excite the electorate with new policies, the Coalition face a long period in opposition.