Reflecting on conversations in Perth: part 1

By Rewi Lyall

Visiting Perth in the last week of December was reassuring politically in a couple of respects.

I had been concerned about the election of Tony Abbott to the leadership of the Federal Liberal Party. My concern centred on a belief that there is an undercurrent of conservatism and, frankly, selfishness in a significant proportion of the electorate that could be swung by Mr Abbott’s ideology and personality. I still think that there is a section of the community that his brand of conservatism caters to, but have been comforted by a few key points made by friends in Australia.

There appears to be a strong argument to be made that Australians, or at least sufficient numbers of them, have moved away from being easily led by the politics of fear and hate. The dog whistle isn’t as effective as it once was. Personally, I hope this is true. Over the past decade it has been a little depressing feeling that the country was slipping ever deeper into a pattern of concurrent dark nationalism and a certain kind of triumphalist denigration of difference.

If it is true, this suggests that the people who might be affected by the kinds of messages about asylum seekers that the Liberal Party is sending, or on climate change, are almost certainly already in their base of primary voters. It also means that liberal voters are theirs for the losing, at least on the primary vote if not in preferences as well.

There’s a fair row to hoe before the next election, which in my opinion should now not be early (whereas as late as last October I was in the early election camp), but it seems that Labor has every reason to remain confident. There is still a chance, I think, that the poll could be a fair bit closer than it seems now, but some signs support a quiet self-assurance.

Apart from anything else, Tony Abbott’s hold on the leadership is tenuous at best. As was pointed out to me, if the spill had included the two new members for Bradfield and Higgins (or even the caucus member who was away sick), it likely wouldn’t have gone his way. This line of reasoning does discount the very significant rift within the left of the Liberal Party which occurred as a result of Malcolm Turnbull’s breathtaking last minute candidacy in the spill, and presumes that at some future date either he or Joe Hockey will reconcile themselves to allowing the other the leadership. Whether this can happen before the election is anyone’s guess.

I had also started to come to the view that Labor should ditch its plan to reintroduce the CPRS legislation in February. My reasoning was that the failure of Copenhagen effectively handed the Opposition a ‘See, we were right’ line. However, I now see a pretty big upside to pressing on: the basic principle is still right. Either we’re doing something, rather than nothing, about climate change or we’re vacating the field to the denialists.

More to the point, the divisions within the Opposition about whether we should be acting now still exist. If there is any debate which is likely to bring on further leadership tension it is this one.

The debate will need to shift slightly though, I suspect. There’s no question that the Opposition will lead with crowing about the failure of Copenhagen. But behind this will come the argument that even if something must be done, this CPRS is not the answer. I think this might be the kind of rationale that those Liberal Senators who support action on  climate change use as the basis for opposing the legislation and supporting the Opposition’s policy on the issue. The Government will have to be quite convincing on the merits of its scheme if it hopes to either peel off the Liberal Senators it needs or to provoke further internal disruption.

In the meantime, it will be good to see some results from the Government’s programs in infrastructure and education start to bear some fruit this year. We can expect the media to continue to develop the argument that if we exclude Labor’s excellent response to the global recession then there’s not much to be said for its record. This is a spurious argument, and one that deserves to be corrected vigourously.

Regarding Western Australia, it is pleasing to see that Eric Ripper’s leadership of the party remains strong and that the Party is working hard on building its team into a force to be reckoned with at the next election.  While it remains the case that there hasn’t been a one-term government since Tonkin, the only way to test that record is through discipline and hard work. Stranger things have happened: Colin Barnett winning in 2008 being one stand-out example.

Apologies again to all my Perth friends that I didn’t get to catch up with this time. It was probably the wrong time of year, what with family commitments and so forth. Next time!

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