Lurching to The Right: The coalition’s spooky response to a political horror showAug 4, 2022
He tried his best.
Shuffling his feet, rocking the stripes, Simon Birmingham fronted the cameras for Insiders on the morning after the 2022 Australian federal election. “Obviously, we’ve lost, and we’ve been delivered a comprehensive message from parts of the community,” he conceded, careful not to surrender too much ground. “[We need to] listen, unite, and get our response right.”
It wasn’t just a bit of political DJing for David Speers and his left-leaning audience; it was a plea to the hyper-conservative wing of his own party to start actually paying attention to the people they seek to rule… sorry, represent.
“The what and the why are issues such as climate change…”
Birmingham––certainly one of the more dignified, pragmatic and even empathetic members of the Coalition––was the ideal ambassador on the back of the cultish clown routine that was the Morrison government.
“…we need to make sure Australians understand we acknowledge the science…”
Benign, if slightly strained, smile.
“…some of us always have, but all of us must…”
“…we acknowledge the need for Australia to play a leading role in action around the world.”
It was a noble effort. He really did give it a red-hot go.
A party in need of a facelift
The Coalition is a tough sell in the 2020s. Their base is getting older, their foes are getting younger, and the world––despite their best efforts––is getting a little nicer, a little greener. In the wake of a comprehensive loss, not just of an election but of their country’s collective respect and the respect of rivals, the Coalition needed a radical revamp. A complete makeover. Something to indicate that reality was in their wheelhouse.
Birmingham’s perspective was the right one. Citing the drop of party support among women, the same sex marriage plebiscite that could’ve been solved by a much cheaper, much kinder conscience vote––we had the data anyhow––and, crucially, long-term environmental neglect, the senator laid the perfect groundwork for a shift in policy and in brand. He knew what he was doing.
Third only to the Republican Party and the Death Eaters in terms of questionable reputation, the Liberal-National Coalition is a public relations puzzle that can only be solved by a post-election shift in ideology. It is the Coalition of brutal live animal export, opposed even by their deputy leader, the Coalition that buried a scientific report into their own carelessness––the Coalition that treated two Yorkshire Terriers as a threat to national security.
Support is plummeting. Any attempts by moderates to position the party as a stable and steady alternative to ‘wasteful’ Labor have now tipped from the suspect to the absurd by their former leader’s dissent into delusion, pivoting from asking the Australian people to embrace him as prime minister to urging the faithful to preference religious extremism over government. This dodgy U-turn demonstrates what a near-miss this recent election truly was.
It doesn’t seem like anyone inside the party heeded Birmingham’s message. At a time when they needed a racehorse, the Coalition anointed a rabid mole. The last thing they needed was yet another shift in a stupid direction, giving more power to the far-right cryptkeepers who had been at the heart of the rot. In the absence of plausible alternatives, however, the party chose Lurch to lead them. The face of the so-called Liberals in 2022 is the face of callous border policy, the face of climate change aggression, if not outright denial; the stony, pitiless culture warrior who makes Abbott look stately and humane. Peter Dutton is not a credible reformer. He is exactly the wrong person at the worst time.
Stuttering, Birmingham tried to set the scene for the redemption of his new boss: “Public perception is not always an accurate reflection of where Peter’s true standing––” He was cut off by Speers, but, rather like Dutton’s wife, Birmingham was on a hiding to nothing from the get-go. The more you try to assure others that someone isn’t a monster, the more you reinforce the suspicion that they just might be.
The Consequences for the Pacific
Dutton’s horrendous attempt at humour––in what he claims was an example of his ‘humanity’––should have disqualified him from the position he currently holds, and certainly any future seat at the table when it comes to impending climate catastrophe in the Pacific region. Simply put, a Dutton government would be a government that laughs at its neighbours during times of distress. It’s not a good image for them or for Australia.
More broadly, the Coalition’s bizarre decision to choose Dutton as their front man, with creepy Alan Tudge on bass, kooky Michaelia Cash on keys and all together ooky David Littleproud on drums sends a signal to our region that the shadow ministry isn’t halfway serious about modernising or improving…or learning anything from their massive defeat. Littleproud’s share portfolio across oil, gas and mining should be more than enough to signal that these corpses don’t care about climate change and will fail to support fellow nations in the Pacific. With both China and the US courting favour in the region, Australia should be a strong voice for kinship and shared progress. Penny Wong has made this a priority out of the gate, but the ghouls on the other side of the aisle are sticking to the old ways. Birmingham tried hard. He had the correct approach, and he made a very strong pitch to the Australian people and his own monster club. That it didn’t work is hardly his fault, yet if the moderates cannot wrestle back control of the Coalition, they’ll be left out in the cold for decades to come. As the great Barrie Cassidy points out, Dutton will never have broad appeal.
In all this stagnation on the right, there is fertile opportunity for the centre and for the left. Last year, the Australian Conservation Foundation demonstrated that David can beat Goliath and this was reaffirmed––almost a year to the day––when the Teal independents and the Greens gained a surprising share of the traditionally Liberal vote. The base that supported the Coalition is splintering apart, chiefly on the issue of environmental sustainability. Birmingham has seen the writing on the wall. Like Turnbull before him, the senator will perhaps realise, too late, that he should’ve stayed among the living instead of flirting with the undead.