State Libs need to look for trouble – not avoid it
Liberal Party faithful attending a recent function in the “dead red” North-western suburbs of Melbourne got more than they bargained for when Liberal Party powerbroker Michael Kroger opened fire on the ineffectiveness of members of the party’s state parliamentary wing. He went on to outline his own view of the source of Labor’s state successes across Australia, and the problem with the Liberal response.
The impotence of state Liberal opposition is so permanent a feature of the political landscape that the concern of federal colleagues has given way to a sort of benign neglect. Ultimately, this means the party is only an election away from political oblivion.
Kroger holds out little immediate hope for state Liberals, stating that they will not win back government unless they are able to break the new Labor paradigm of state government. This Labor paradigm involves turning the states into a “new local government” which the voters are simply too apathetic about to motivate them to change parties.
“Think about local government”, says Kroger. “As long as the rubbish is collected and the streets are clean, no one really cares who is running it. How many of your local councillors can you name?”
Kroger argues that Labor has managed to manufacture a similar community attitude towards state government. “There are two rules they follow”, Kroger explains. “First, run a budget surplus”.
The availability of an ever-expanding revenue stream from the GST has made this possible for even the most profligate and irresponsible Labor governments.
“The second rule”, Kroger explains, “is not to ofend anyone”. Kroger offers the example of Morris Iemma in New South Wales, a politician whom no one had ever heard of before he ascended to the Premiership. There Labor sought the most bland and unexciting leader possible, a leader who would not attract the public’s attention to state politics.
So how does the Liberal Party, currently stripped of its traditional mantra of Labor’s fiscal incompetence, go about winning government from these cardboard Premiers? Many state parliamentarians seem to have privately concluded that there is little choice but to wait for Labor’s profligacy to outstrip even the growth of the GST – not an unrealistic hope in the medium term. Yet such defeatism will lead to still more demoralising defeats in the near future, threatening the viability of the Liberals’ state divisions.
Kroger is no such defeatist. “The answer is to fight Labor on values. They want to make state politics so boring that no one listens to the news about it. We have to counter that by making it interesting”.
The “culture wars” over the values that should underpin Australian institutions are an integral part of the Howard Government’s strategy at a federal level, but this is turf state Liberals have been reluctant to fight over.
Yet the great strength of John Howard lies in his ability to pick the right fights on values. On aboriginal land rights, immigration and anti-terrorism laws, Howard has mastered the art of provoking the most hysterical extremes of the Left.
Further, Howard’s willingness to stand firm in the face of impassioned opposition generates an image of toughness and consistency that has proven resistant even to the reality of craven political compromises. This is attractive even to those who disagree with Howard on specific policy issues.
The message from both Kroger’s analysis and Howard’s success is that state oppositions should stop dodging a fight and start looking for one.