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The Coalition and Howard’s legacy

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 16 December 2008


If Malcolm Turnbull is to have any chance of winning the next election he must start to put distance between himself and ex-Prime Minister John Howard’s rapidly thinning policies and congealed prejudices.

Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey seem to be instinctively groping toward such a position but others like Helen Coonan and Julie Bishop are clinging to the past. Their defence of Howard’s outrageous and stupid 2007 statement, that the election of Barak Obama as President would give support and encouragement to Osama bin Laden, was an act of political folly. It was the opportunity to begin the process of separation from an increasingly unpopular former Prime Minister.

Significant parts of Howard’s policies, among them defence, immigration, refugees, border security, AFP, NT intervention, water, education, health and tourism were absorbed into Rudd’s “policy” program and the rest are unravelling with the decline in the economy and the changing world order.

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Turnbull needs to create a “new” Liberal Party and to do that he will have to discard some of Howard’s troglodytes, such as Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin, Helen Coonan, Kevin Andrews and Julie Bishop. Turnbull requires new, visionary and truthful policy, spin no longer has political capital, it’s associated with Howard and all that was wrong with his flawed regime.

There can be no seamless transition from a Howard to a Turnbull led Coalition. Just as there could not be from a Whitlam to a Hawke led Labor government or a Latham to a Rudd led Opposition. The problem for Turnbull is all the more difficult because there were many aspects and characteristics of the Howard regime that no self respecting Australian government could or should follow. The political wedging at the expense of the electorate was bad enough but it was the deceit and downright lying used to maintain power which Turnbull presumably would not wish to emulate either personally or professionally.

The electorate passed judgment on that brand of degraded politics by voting Howard out of office. The Howard diehards are a liability, the sooner they are shed the better. Peter Costello is kidding himself if he thinks he will rise like a phoenix out of the ashes. He also represents the Howard past, having done or said little to place any distance between himself and the former Prime Minister’s policies since the election. Costello’s limitations, together with those of many of the “brilliant” financial pundits of the boom years, will become more apparent as the recession/depression gathers pace. Failure to invest in infrastructure, health and education will be the judgement of history that Costello will come to resent.

Senator Barnaby Joyce is right to draw attention to the silliness of the Liberal Party in adopting past failed practices. He was right to cross the floor of the Senate in an attempt to maintain constancy in Coalition policies.

Equally the former President of the Liberal Party, Shane Stone, was wrong to call for a break with the National Party over the issue. Stone doesn’t get it, the Coalition stands no chance of getting re-elected until it breaks with Howard and the past, develops strong policy and embraces the positive and honest politics that Barnaby Joyce advocates and supports.

Turnbull should take the bull by the horns and tell Australians that next year is going to be rough. By so doing he will be seen to be more of an honest broker than Kevin Rudd, even if in the short term the polls turn further against him. Turnbull should prepare his ground; a considered and truthful statement concerning the prospects for the Australian economy will deliver him credibility in the longer term.

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In delivering his message Turnbull should ensure that he highlights the capacity of ordinary Australians to handle hard times. He should stress the collective strength of character - it should be a Churchillian message such as that delivered on the eve of the Blitz.

In my view Australia is going to do it tough because of our limited economic base confined mainly as it is to mining and agriculture. Mining is contracting in direct proportion to the shrinking Chinese economy and agriculture will suffer as a result of the loss of the single wheat marketing desk. Russia has just announced that next year it will subsidise wheat sales.

Tourism will decline and will not be boosted by the ill-advised decision to link promotion to the film flop, Australia. Service industries will also decline and Australia has little else to underpin its economy, having abandoned manufacturing, foot ware and textile industries.

Next year ,and the year after ,will be hard for Australians, not helped by the fact that we have the second highest, national private debt, after the United Kingdom.

Turnbull needs to offer the type of leadership required for tough times, neither populist nor spin. It is the sort of leadership which Rudd gives every indication of not possessing.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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