It is certainly convenient and natural for media and political insiders to focus on the personal conflict between Abbott and Turnbull, or the ideological conflict between Coalition conservatives and leftists. Articles about personal or intra-party spats write themselves. Take a longer and broader view, however, and what we see is the bipartisan breakdown of political class legitimacy.
It was only six years ago that NSW turfed out the most incompetent, inward-looking, contemptuous-of-the electorate ALP government in its history. In a record landslide. It was only three years ago that Australia rejected the most incompetent and ideological ALP government in 35 years. And now, Australia is ready to reject an incompetent, do-nothing, inward-looking Federal Coalition government.
Across all states the electorate has proven to be highly volatile and deeply suspicious of those with government power. And why not? Being in government gives political players a far greater opportunity to demonstrate their lack of principle, their incompetence at contracting, managing or executing any initiative, their focus on intra-party status and advancement, their disdain for concepts of duty and restraint, and their utter contempt for voters and their long-term interests as mug punters who can be snowed with social media vacuities and glam photo shoots.
Michael Davis goes close when he calls out the fact that voters are:
Put off by the Liberals: the personalities, the culture, all of it. They hate the constant white-anting, leaking, and undermining. They hate the incessant, roaring whispers of coups and factional warfare. They hate the fickle, feckless party room. They hate the chronic deficit of true leadership, which leaves them unable to find a better replacement for the top job than a man who already failed miserably at it…They hate the total lack of direction, principle, and a governing philosophy.
I beg to differ on two points. They are put off by the Liberals because the Liberals are in power and can exhibit their empty-suitedness more clearly than parties in opposition. What voters are really responding to is political class culture, and that culture is fundamentally the same across parties and media outlets.
Secondly, politicos – media, commentators, bloggers, ex-staffers and similar – have an academic’s fixation on a coherent policy program or governing philosophy. Voters do not.
The history of the establishment centre right over the past 50 years has shown that expressed (coherent) political ideas are an irrelevance except for pundits, panel shows, staffer dinners and the cocktail circuit. What counts for voters is the likelihood of action in a general direction.
Voter experience is of a 50-year history of Coalition governments either fiddling at the edges or actively promoting progressive or statist action, in opposition to everything they say publicly. Voter experience is of grand initiatives quietly shelved with no discernible effect (Red Tape Reduction, anyone?). Voter experience is of words (coherent or otherwise) without action or change, other than to blow the budget. Though from a different policy perspective, this applies as much to ALP as to Coalition governments.
So, on the question of governing philosophy, of coherent ideas: No matter what Abbott or Turnbull or Shorten or Plibersek say in terms of ideas, we know the likelihood of appropriate action – zero. Thus the grand commentator storm following Abbott announcing his policy wish list is really so much gumph. No-one except politicos fixated on intra-party machinations gives a damn.
This, and the sheer self-serving and self-preserving contempt that oozes from our political class, is fundamental to its failure and ultimately, legitimisation.
This cannot end well. Political parties are dysfunctional bureaucracies whose pathologies make the public sector look rapier-efficient by comparison. They are incapable of real change without a motivating catastrophe.
This can only encourage an angry and despairing electorate to burn it all down. Next to this, the Abbott-Turnbull story is simply a deckchairs-Titanic distraction.
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