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Like much of Australia I've been watching the Liberal party slowly come apart in recent days. You know when you're watching a horror movie and the creepy music is playing and one of the characters is moving through a darkened house in which the murderer/monster is lurking and your heart is in your mouth and you're on the edge of your seat when they turn to do something you know is fraught with peril and you feel like yelling at the screen "don't go there", but they do anyway and get slaughtered? Well, minus the suspense, it's pretty well been like that for the Libs in the last week. You watch and wonder why they would do such stupid things, but it's great entertainment.
The answer is that they're out of touch with reality, otherwise known as the electorate. Their own ambitions and petty squabbles have blinded them to the ruinous course they've taken. One writer, Alister Drysdale, a former advisor to Liberal heavyweights claimed that for many Australians the result yesterday exposed the Libs "as a conservative cabal of misfits, deniers, naysayers and idiots." It's hard to argue against that.
Let's rewind a little. For the last few months the contentious issue of global warming and the governments proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS) has been subject to cross-party debate. Kevin Rudd sought bi-partisan support for the scheme and in any case needed the Liberals onside for the legislation to be passed. The Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, was a supporter in principle but looking to negotiate on some of the details to make it more business friendly. In the meantime the kids at the back of the class were becoming increasingly fractious. In the last couple of weeks the whispered dissent became a full-blown rebellion by some of the more maverick members of the opposition.
There should be room for dissent, but where the Libs parted from common sense is how it was expressed, which was at times disgracefully disloyal, and in substance of their dissent. Strange to think in the world we currently live in that there are people – senior members of the Liberal party at that – who believe the so-called climate change is a left wing conspiracy.
Leading the charge was Nick Minchin, the Benedict Arnold of this affair. Minchin is one of the right wing conservatives of the party. Turnbull, the prime minister, is more progressive and traditionally liberal. These guys are never going to settle down for a convivial beer at the end of a long day, but that shouldn't matter. Unfortunately for Turnbull Minchin chose this issue as the opportunity to de-stabilise and ultimately unseat him. No matter how you characterise it – and many have called it Machiavellian – Minchin set out to undermine Turnbull and kill the legislation – as it has turned out, regardless of cost.
In the wings were other climate change sceptics. Andrew Robb stood up to stab Turnbull in the back; Tony Abbott, a long time arch-conservative but all over the shop on this issue; and the usual collection of right wing ratbags and stooges.
To cut a long story short Turnbull's position was made virtually untenable by this behaviour and the orchestrated resignation of part of his shadow ministry. He was virtually held to ransom while that bastard Minchin no doubt had a laugh in the background. Turnbull resisted, Abbott stepped in, and it was all being orchestrated towards a single end – the replacement of Turnbull by the acceptably moderate Hockey, and the demise of the legislation.
This is where the horror movie strangely splices itself to an old episode of the keystone cops. Or is it the Three Stooges? A leadership spill is declared and a vote takes place in which the popular favourite, and only real option, Joe Hockey is eliminated. This leaves a head-to-head contest between the fatally undermined incumbent, and the hardline conservative, electorally unpopular Tony Abbott. Which is the lesser evil? Even the Libs don't seem to know as the vote takes place and Abbott wins 42-41 with one critical donkey vote by an obviously frustrated and disaffected member. So that's that: Tony Abbott is leader.
Now Tony Abbott and I are poles apart when it comes to our politics and beliefs, but unlike most I don't mind him. I admire his commitment and I think he's one of the sharper pollies going around. That doesn't change anything though. By electing him the Libs have effectively committed electoral suicide on the strength of murky and misguided principle and the shameful shenanigans of the back room operators.
Whatever the truth of climate change it's not an issue that's going to go away. Most people are believers even if the science is sometimes confused and the politics doubly so. No-one wants new taxes, but most are inclined to err on the side of caution when it comes to the issue: no-one wants to see the earth erupt into a ball of flame and if a few taxes along the way may prevent that then that's fair enough. The real sceptics are at the margins of society – mainly elderly conservatives, reactionary ratbags and the odd Liberal party leader.
Unfortunately for the Libs that is now their constituency: ratbags and old codgers who are going to be dead before too long. The great rump of the electorate and the decision-makers of the next generation want something done – and the Libs have now sidelined them.
What all this means is the Libs are heading towards political irrelevancy and electoral oblivion. They have elected a leader who is an electoral hard-sell, are clinging to a concept nobody really believes in anymore, and have torn themselves apart publicly. Really, why would you want them running the country when they can't manage themselves? The answer is that you wouldn't – and so it's hard not to believe that the Libs have wiped out their chances for years to come. Labor are looking at a landslide victory next election which may well secure them the balance of power and ensure a margin that will take years to erode.
Despite the looming defeat of the proposal Rudd is doubtless delighted with this turn of events. He shouldn't be though. All democracies need a credible dissenting voice to keep them honest. What is bad for the Liberals is bad for the country. Rudd is already at fault for not properly explaining what his proposal is about, and for watering it down in the name of political expediency. Don't expect anything to become any clearer or any more sensible in the near future.
P.S. The photo is not Tony Abbott, though many will be excused for believing so.