Wednesday, May 14, 2008

They’re (probably) not coming back

To be cross posted at LP, where there may actually be some comments.

Everyone knows the Liberals are in trouble, with the possible exception of Alexander Downer. However, looking at the discussion, both on blogs and in the MSM, this seems to be perceived to mean: They can’t win in 2010, probably not in 2013. However, the assumption seems to be that at some point the Liberals will be back (possibly merged with the Nationals). Much advice has been given based on the notion that ambitious Liberal leaders should be positioning themselves to lead in 2013 or 2016, rather than now.

I disagree. I believe that 2010 is likely to be the best chance the Liberals will ever have to get back into government. If they can’t win then, or at least give it a decent shake, there will probably never be another Liberal-led federal government in Australia.

A big call I know, but my thesis is that the Liberals are caught between two crises, both of which will likely see them whither in the long term. Every election will become harder to win, and after a while it will become difficult for them to even sustain the position of official opposition.

There are other, smaller problems, but the first core issue is the savage decline in their recruitment, both in raw numbers and in talent. The second is the way they have put themselves on the wrong side of history on many political issues, creating millstones they will struggle to shake off.

There are obvious questions about what this will mean for the structure of Australian federal politics, and what will happen at state level. I have theories about each of these, but I’ll save these for subsequent posts.

Declining Talent

Anyone who has spent any time around the youth wings of the Liberal party (be it the Young Liberals or the Liberal Students) knows there is a problem. I don’t have reports on South Australia or the territories, but in the larger states and Tasmania it is clear talented Liberals under 30 are such an endangered species those that do exist should have a keen interest in Bob Brown’s EPBC challenge.

Membership numbers are hard to obtain, and estimates of talent are subjective, but whether you look to John Hyde Page’s The Education of a Young Liberal, or survey recent student elections, there’s plenty of evidence that the party has far fewer (non-stack) young members, and those that exist are less likely to be intelligent, articulate and dedicated.

The lack of talent can be seen when younger Liberals get put in positions of authority or leadership. Hamish Jones was perhaps the most high profile such disaster, but others exist, most recently the case of the party staffers sacked for being stupid enough to update their anti-Baillieu blog from Liberal Party head offices.

The problem for the Libs is not that such idiots exist; it’s that these people get preselected or employed in positions of influence because there aren’t enough others to fill all the spots required. At the moment they’re mostly running in unwinnable seats or serving behind the scenes, but as the baby boomers retire from politics people like Jones – with all Buswell’s weaknesses and none of his strengths - are going to start appearing in marginal, and even previously safe, seats.

Even if the Liberals can turn around this recruiting problem its going to be quite a while before people recruited next year will be ready for senior positions. But does anyone really think that, out of power everywhere and with their vote plumbing record lows, the next few years will be a fertile recruiting era? The problem is worsened by the fact that there is now a severe shortage of worthy mentors for any bright young sparks who do come along.

In 2010 the Libs will have a leadership team that includes, in some combination, Malcolm Turnbull, Brendon Nelson, Julie Bishop, Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin, Eric Abetz and possibly Peter Costello. All born between 1953 and 1958. The talent is hardly overwhelming, but it’s not entirely absent either. By 2016, and possibly earlier, many of these will be gone. Almost certainly their replacements will be worse, particularly if the party suffers a wipe-out at the next election and is struggling to fill its front bench. One can expect more Lindsay leaflets, more chair-sniffing incidents, more internal conflict.

The Wrong Side of History

One of the outstanding features of the Howard Government was a preference for short-term advantage over long term planning. This has done incalculable damage to Australia, but it’s not going to be good for the party either.

The most obvious example of this is in regard to Global Warming. People who have been damaged, and are aware they have been damaged, by higher temperatures or rising sea levels will be very hard to persuade to vote Liberal. By 2030, and possibly a lot sooner, this will be most of the population of Australia. With Howard gone the Liberals might try to distance themselves from him in this area, were it not that a fair few of their remaining MPs have outed themselves as denying anthropogenic global warming altogether, a position that in a few years time will be electoral poison.

There are a number of other issues that will individually do the Liberals far less damage, but may collectively add up to a significant problem. Underfunding of education, infrastructure and research are unlikely to really bite with most of the electorate, but the people who will be most concerned will also be those who would be mostly likely to address the talent decline.

In a few elections time the Liberals may once again win votes by demonising asylum seekers, but there won’t be any votes in their record on Tampa per se. On the other hand, the ethnic communities that coped the brunt of this behaviour will by then be a significant share of the electorate, and it’s hard to imagine how the Liberals will be able to win even marginal support from these groups.

A few caveats

All this is probable, rather than certain. Perhaps an issue that favours the Liberals will become significant enough to balance Global Warming. A series of bombings by Islamic fundamentalists in Australian cities would seem the most likely such scenario, but it’s possible to construct others.

Alternatively it is possible that a future Liberal leader will prove so inspiring he or she will single-handedly reverse the party’s membership crisis.

Nevertheless, I maintain that by far the most likely way for the Liberals to ever win government again is for a global recession to affect the Australian economy so badly that, come 2010, the argument that Labor can’t manage money has resonance while there are still enough Liberal MPs with something resembling a clue for them to take advantage of it.