Liberals’ Historical Baggage is Weighing the Government Down

Inside the Turnbull government there’s a dividing line that isn’t much mentioned in dispatches.

Boundary lines can be imprecise and a bit arbitrary but let’s calls this one the line between the Liberals ensconced in parliament before the leadership change in 2015, and the generation entering parliament after it.

As the government approaches the anticipated loss of its 30th Newspoll early next week, it’s worth taking some time to think about the newer generation, and their particular place in the firmament.

If you turn your sights on this group, you see a bunch of folks depressed about the current state of play but also trapped by it.

A lot of the new crop are ideological, interested in ideas and inclined to prosecute them with vigour, but serious policy conversations are almost impossible to pursue inside a government weighed down by historical baggage.

You can’t have a policy discussion internally within the government without that discussion being refracted externally through a leadership prism – and that’s a serious problem if your political party is presenting to the voting public as something of a vacuum.

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Some of the new generation feel the Liberal party hasn’t had a decent definitional conversation internally since John Hewson engineered the Fightback! program in the early 1990s. Some worry that, as well as lacking a basic organising raison d’être, there is no obvious strategy for base renewal – no compelling pitch to young people, to the millennials that will determine the outcome of future elections.

And while the government drifts, devoid of the desired definitional ballast, the generation stationed above the newer arrivals prosecutes their 20-year-old factional and personality feuds, and manages the ongoing transaction costs associated with the last leadership change in 2015.

Some of the new generation of Liberals are intent on not falling down the same destructive wormhole as the veterans, and bristle when they are used as bait in frolics like this week’s so-called Monash Forum, which is both a real thing (more of that shortly), and a shopfront for internal mischief.

Perhaps these folks will alter their current inclination not to repeat the mistakes of their elders if proximity to a federal election, and a persistent negative poll trend, begins to create internal panic – but at the moment, the people we are talking about have zero interest in a change of leadership.

This group views the last leadership change as one of the reasons the government can’t ever clamber out of the deep ravine it’s fallen into. Every time Malcolm Turnbull looks like he might be able to get some traction, a bout of internal mischief ensues, hijacking the conversation, and reinforcing public perceptions of a riven and directionless government.

The government is entering a strange week, even in our deeply strange political times. There will be a fixation on one milestone™ poll as if it means something. Of course it means nothing.

If the next Newspoll is bad, it’s just one more in a hard-baked negative trend. Thirty losses in that particular survey. We are up to 77 straight losses in our Guardian Essential poll series.

The government didn’t win a poll last year, which suggests the voting public is surly, and disinclined to buy whatever it is the government is selling, in the intermittent periods when the government can actually work that out itself.

The trajectory of the last four Australian prime ministers tells us this is an incredibly challenging time to be in government, and the leaders keeping their heads above water around the world either have empathy or can fake it (something Turnbull struggles with – emotional intelligence), or they can harvest grievance into successful political insurgencies of one kind or another – some positive, some vaguely dystopian.

If you talk to hard heads in the government, the current survival objective is modest in the extreme. At this point it just wants to avoid being written-off. If it can, there is a chance it could use the next election campaign as a circuit breaker of sorts – a presidential contest against a Labor leader the voters haven’t warmed to.

In the meantime, the parliament doesn’t sit again until May. The government is putting a budget together which will trigger the usual facile bobble-head blather about reboots and turning points, which federal budgets very rarely trigger.

Julie Bishop is fanning her feathers just in case; Peter Dutton, the conservative next-most-likely, is issuing public lectures to cabinet colleagues on the importance of loyalty, thereby maintaining himself resolutely in the spotlight; and a lycra-clad Tony Abbott may yet be moved to chain himself to the gate of the decommissioned Hazelwood coal plant in Victoria if there’s a headline or a live radio cross in it.

The spectre of parliament’s angsty mamil-in-chief and his imminent coal listening tour brings us neatly back to the Monash Forum, and what is real about that sortie, and what isn’t.

The new ginger group that broke cover this week was, as the internal wags say, a platinum triple-A production (meaning Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz), and it was capital-A absurd.

It is, frankly, ludicrous for a centre-right, market-oriented political party to oppose a market mechanism to bring down greenhouse gas emissions and drive an economic transition, and support a Soviet-style centralised build of new coal plants – but that was the avowed objective, meaning we really have reached peak unhinging.

But as stupid as it is, the little sortie hangs a lantern over a real internal fight, which still looms.

Between now and the end of the year, assuming the states give them the green light – the government will have to work through stage two of its proposed national energy guarantee, and by stage two I mean all the detail associated with its new energy policy.

That means settling an emissions reduction target for the electricity sector between now and 2030 – a process that could also stir up internal angst about the emissions reductions that will also need to happen outside the electricity sector if we are to have any hope of conforming with the Paris target.

It also means setting a regulatory framework, including a new reliability standard, where coal-fired power will either pretty obviously be in, or out.

When they secured party room agreement for the national energy guarantee in principle last October, Turnbull and the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, had the advantage of stealth – they tasked bureaucrats with cooking up the policy quickly and quietly while Abbott warbled on incessantly in the cosy coal conversation corner furnished by 2GB, and Sky News at night.

The policy was dropped on the party room and pushed through with only a minimum of resistance because Abbott and the coal crew had been lulled into thinking they had won round one.

The prime minister and the energy minister won’t have that same luxury this time around.

Everyone knows what’s coming and the policy will have to be determined out in the open, in plain sight, and ultimately managed by internal consensus.

So while the Monash Forum is, doubtless, chuckle-worthy, it would be a mistake to think it is nothing – that there is nothing to see there.

While the avowed membership ended up being next-to nothing, some MPs didn’t sign up because they didn’t want to be used by Abbott for cheap political thrills, or because they were completely mortified as Liberals to be co-joined to a manifesto favouring massive government intervention – not because they are inclined to say yes to anything on the energy front that the leadership eventually brings their way.