John Howard was widely regarded a “smart politician” – in many ways a backhanded compliment. But it wasn’t Howard’s policies that made him Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister, it was his opposition. Put simply, until Kevin07 came along there was no suitable alternative. During the Howard Years, the revolving door to the office of the Federal Opposition Leader was almost the laughing stock of the nation. Beazley was the cute and cuddly teddy bear of politics, too soft and wishy-washy to govern. Simon Crean resigned after two years and became the first ever Labor leader to be replaced without contesting an election. And Latham was a disaster: a negative, bullying and spiteful thug who was given the epithet “Mr. Flip-Flop” by Howard. All of them failed to grab the public’s interest, and none of them could match Howard’s cunning and political savvy.
In much the same way, the Liberal party has it’s own revolving door on the leader’s office. First there was Brendan Nelson, who struggled to distance himself from Howard’s policies and plunged in the opinion polls. Turnbull came next, and got outraged over a fake email before urging his party to support the Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme. When that upset Liberal hardliners, they put Tony “Mad Monk” Abbott in charge and it’s been a roller coaster of bungles and gaffes ever since. The one thing all three have in common is an inability to engage the public.
One thing that became clear to me after the Rudd-Abbott Healthcare debate (watch it here) was that the Liberal Party will not – can not – win the next election with Tony Abbot still leading it. In fact, they will have very little chance with any of the currently serving members – with the possible exception of Malcolm Turnbull (probably the reason Abbott has left him sidelined on the backbench). The top echelons of the Liberal Party are filled with dinosaurs – old relics of the Howard Years who still cling to old fashioned notions of xenophobia, homophobia, White Australia and climate change denial. Until those fossils are removed – most likely over time through generational change – they are turning Rudd into Howard. Without challenge, they allow Rudd to get comfortable, to run the country as he sees fit without a serious or credible check on his government.
This, it could be argued, is the nature of all opposition governments. Bush enjoyed the luxury of a weak Democratic Party opposing him in the US, just as Tony Blair faced an ineffectual Conservative Party in the UK. In time, opposition parties slowly realign themselves and build new, fresh leaderships to challenge the reigning incumbent. It took eight years for Obama to emerge from within the rank and file of the Democratic Party and wrest the Presidency from Bush. It took eleven years for Rudd to do the same in Australia. Gordon Brown currently languishes in the polls but there’s still nobody capable of challenging him in the UK, thirteen years after his Labour Party took power. How long will it take the Australian Liberal Party to find its savior?