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The Liberal Party’s narrative problem

22 February 2017

Like his predecessors, Malcolm Turnbull needs to find his inner storyteller


Let me tell you a story: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in Jakarta soon after becoming prime minister. Ferdi Oktaviano/DFAT

Let me tell you a story: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in Jakarta soon after becoming prime minister. Ferdi Oktaviano/DFAT

Less than a year into the electoral cycle, Malcolm Turnbull continues to poll poorly, with the trajectory continuing to trend downward. If this doesn’t change, his government is almost certainly headed for defeat unless (1) the Labor Party implodes (highly unlikely) or (2) he can reinvent himself and reposition the government (increasingly unlikely).

The task ahead will not be easy. The Liberal Party is anxious about the One Nation challenge, the Nationals are even more so (and furious about the Liberal–One Nation preference deal in Western Australia), and Turnbull faces the ongoing possibility of insurrection in the ranks. To make matters worse, there is a remote possibility that the Australian economy will enter, if not a recession, then a serious slowdown before the election in late 2018 or early 2019, despite the Reserve Bank’s assurances.

The leaders of the main anti-Labor party in Australia (whose primary objective is always to keep Labor out of office) have traditionally found it difficult to talk convincingly about anything other than the economy (unless a war breaks out, or some other national emergency occurs). Labor has always been more adept at painting a social picture. As the political scientist and Labor Party historian Fin Crisp once remarked, one side proposes, the other opposes.

It was Crisp who popularised the term “anti-Labor parties” for what he called “the parties of town and country capital.” He quoted the Bishop of Armidale at the time of the Great Depression in 1931: “Labor has been primarily interested in men; the ‘Parties of Resistance’ primarily in money.”

To counter this perception, non-Labor prime ministers, especially at election time, have sought with varying degrees of success to fashion a narrative that seeks to broaden their appeal beyond the purely economic. In the 1920s, for example, Stanley Bruce wove the theme of national development into his pitch, using the slogan “Men, Markets and Money.” For a time, it struck a responsive chord, getting his Nationalist–Country Party coalition over the line in 1925 and 1928.

The Labor renegade Joe Lyons, who headed the United Australia Party government in the wake of the Great Depression, was seen as a voice for fiscal sanity (read orthodox finance) but also enjoyed the good fortune of seeing his former party descend into turmoil. Nevertheless, he sought to broaden his social agenda, advocating – though with limited success – greater development of Australia’s north, expansion of public works programs with emphasis on housing and urban infrastructure, and a national insurance scheme that never eventuated. After his win in 1932, he was returned in 1934 and 1937.

The redoubtable Robert Menzies, who succeeded Lyons in 1939 only to be deposed by his parliamentary colleagues in 1941, was keenly attuned to the need for a broader message, a line of appeal that would extend beyond immediate self-interest. Consigned to the political wilderness after his defeat, he first reinvented himself, using a series of radio broadcasts to address middle-class voters, whom he called “the Forgotten People,” and then fashioned a new political vehicle out of the ruins of the discredited UAP, the modern-day Liberal Party.

It was as the champion of the middle classes that Menzies emerged triumphant in 1949. Although economic downturns nearly upended his government in both 1954 and 1961, he never confined his attention narrowly to the economy, talking of national development and, of course, national security as he sought to play up Labor’s indirect links with communism via the trade unions. Menzies had his narrative.

Menzies was succeeded in 1966 by the hapless Harold Holt, whose brief tenure before his death saw the narrative focus shift to engagement with Asia, with the Vietnam war giving him the opportunity to talk about the American alliance and its importance to Australian security. Holt’s 1966 election landslide was the last election to be fought on foreign policy.

Holt’s successor, John Gorton, sought, in his incoherent way, to develop a narrative around new nationalism and resource development, but it failed to gain appreciable traction. Having lost a bagful of seats at the 1969 election, he was toppled in 1971 by Bill McMahon. The risible McMahon, effectively the last man standing in an exhausted and greying party, didn’t even bother with a narrative: his job was to turn out the lights after everyone had left.

After the rollercoaster ride of the Whitlam years from 1972 to 1975, Australia’s next Liberal PM, Malcolm Fraser, made sporadic attempts to come up with a narrative. But despite election wins in 1975, 1977 and 1980, he struggled with the legacy of having come to office via a vice-regal coup. In 1977, he harked back to the chaos of the later Whitlam government as a campaign theme, then offered the electorate tax cuts that were never delivered. Even worse, a “temporary surcharge” was imposed in 1978.

Despite stumbling at the tax hurdle, Fraser sought to stand on his record in 1980, returning to the Liberal orthodoxy of superior economic management but adding the old favourite, national development, this time coupled with a hoped-for resource recovery (which never happened). The voters were sceptical, taking thirteen seats away from the Coalition, putting Labor within easy striking distance in 1983, the election that returned Labor under Bob Hawke.

It was thirteen long years before the Liberals again occupied the Treasury benches, this time under a recycled leader in John Howard, loser of the 1987 election, dumped as leader in 1989 but returned after election losses under Andrew Peacock in 1990 and John Hewson in 1993, and the brief comic interlude of Alexander Downer.

John Howard was a Liberal leader of a different kind; unlike many on his side of politics, he was deeply interested in history, especially Liberal Party history, and the lessons that could be learned from the past.

Although economically literate, Howard well knew that a one-dimensional appeal based on economics alone was not enough. In the lead-up to the 1996 election that brought him to power, the leader who was once derided as “Little Johnny” sought, like Menzies, to reinvent himself. In a series of “headland” speeches, Howard spoke like a statesman, addressing such issues as national identity, the notion of fairness and the appropriate role for government. This was the emergence of the new John Howard, the cultural warrior.

Howard’s own life experience had prepared him for this role. He was born in Sydney in 1939, and Labor ruled in New South Wales from 1941 to 1965, dominating not just politics but cultural life as well. To the suburban, small business–owning Howard family, Labor was both a political and a cultural enemy.

Central to Howard’s worldview was the belief that Labor had hijacked the national narrative; the conservative contribution had been afforded insufficient recognition. As political historian Judith Brett has noted, before Howard the Liberals had no plausible way of talking about anything other than the economy; now they did.

Howard assailed the “leftist orthodoxy” of Paul Keating, whom he succeeded as prime minister, taking aim at Keating’s account of a violent colonial past, which Howard maintained glossed over many achievements. But he was not just about setting the record straight. On the contrary, he was intent on appropriating it altogether, turning powerful symbolic concepts such as mateship and Anzac into a new, individualistic public nationalism that ran counter to the traditional egalitarianism of Henry Lawson and the collectivist ethos of the bushmen identified in Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend.

Howard’s record is now history. After winning in 1996, and again in 1998, 2001 and 2004, he became not only the second-most-successful prime minister after Menzies, but also a profoundly transformational (if divisive) leader, whose influence and impact we have yet to fully appreciate.

This brings us to Malcolm Turnbull. Does he have the capacity to do a Menzies or a Howard and reinvent himself?

Turnbull was once the most popular politician in Australia – before he became prime minister. It was this fact that persuaded cautious colleagues to support him against Tony Abbott in 2015. But that popularity has since steadily eroded, and the election win in 2016 owed more to the buffer of Abbott’s 2013 majority than anything else.

His first few weeks offered glimpses of a new direction; he spoke of a bright future of innovation. But not only did innovation abruptly fall off the agenda, some senior ministers openly scoffed at it.

National disappointment with Malcolm Turnbull is reflected in the polls; Liberal Party disappointment is articulated in the steady retreat from the political centre that once looked like Turnbull’s home-ground advantage.

To be sure, it is early days in the electoral cycle, but time might already have run out for Malcolm Turnbull. •

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Safe pair of hands: former chief secretary Carrie Lam, during a rally on 3 February kicking off her campaign for chief executive. Jerome Favre/EPA

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