Grattan on Friday: If defeat comes, what then for the Liberals’ succession?


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The conservatives’ strategy is to reap what victories they can while Malcolm Turnbull leads.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

If the Turnbull government’s present agonies become death throes and the election is lost, coping with opposition will test to its very core a Liberal Party that in power has been fractured and self-indulgent.

For a start, would the conservatives, who at the moment have an ideological mortgage over the party despite moderates holding some key cabinet posts, be able to foreclose and, if so, with what consequences?

It’s almost two years since a widely hailed moderate prime minister overthrew a conservative one. Yet in many areas Malcolm Turnbull has not been able to assert his authority over the party. Instead, he has been forced to, or chosen to, accommodate the right’s demands and embrace senior conservatives as his closest ministerial confidants.

The conservatives’ very effective strategy – from their own point of view if not electorally – is to reap what victories they can while Turnbull leads. But their real moment could be in prospect if he loses (assuming he takes the party into the election).

It would depend on who emerged as leader – which in turn would be affected by the size of the defeat and the composition of the post-election party. But conservatives, already shaping the internal debates, would seem well placed in the field of successors.

Peter Dutton, their hardman, has gone from the minister Turnbull didn’t want on cabinet’s national security committee to the prime minister’s adviser and protector, recently rewarded with the creation of the proposed home affairs portfolio.

Dutton can afford to be a mainstay of Turnbull’s praetorian guard. His best chance of leadership lies in Turnbull losing and his pitching as the tough Tony Abbott-style headkicker the Liberals might think they need in opposition.

Meanwhile, the immigration minister burnishes his right-wing credentials by relentlessly milking the border protection issue, assiduously feeding friendly Murdoch tabloids, and maintaining a warm dialogue with 2GB shockjocks.

If not Dutton – who could conceivably lose his marginal Queensland seat – the Liberals would be looking at Scott Morrison, Abbott, Christian Porter (also vulnerable in his Western Australian seat), Josh Frydenberg and Julie Bishop.

Morrison is an ideological chameleon, so it would be hard to predict where the Liberals would head off to under him. While his stocks have receded, in opposition he might be viewed as a compromise.

Abbott would surely be seen as yesterday’s dog.

Porter, a former WA treasurer and attorney-general, arrived with much promise but so far has lacked the popular touch.

Frydenberg probably wouldn’t be regarded as ready.

Bishop doesn’t appear up to – or up for – years of opposition slog, and would likely quit parliament.

Of this list, only Bishop is (sort of) a moderate; Frydenberg is (sort of) centrist.

The lack of moderates in the succession list is notable, given Christopher Pyne’s ill-judged boast to that faction that it was in the “winners’ circle”. It’s not, if we are talking about future leaders. Nor is it articulating, in the sense of a broad manifesto, what the party stands for, according to moderate lights.

This failure to proselytise – something they did diligently at times in the past – is one source of the moderates’ current weakness.

For the most part, Turnbull has failed to chart a philosophical path ahead for the Liberals. Buffeted by political circumstances, bad opinion polls and determined internal critics, he has lacked the opportunity or will to do so. Or perhaps, as a primarily transactional politician, he doesn’t have the intellectual bent for that sort of task.

Turnbull’s much-talked-about July speech in London, in which he said the Liberal Party belonged in the “sensible centre” – a phrase he’d taken from Abbott, though each would identify the centre’s content differently – generated intra-party controversy without inspiring the followers.

In contrast, Abbott has the time, inclination and intellectual heft to set out directions, with numerous articles, speeches and radio interviews.

While Abbott has only a small band of loyalists in personal terms – because he’s seen as electorally unpopular and as someone undermining the government’s chance of surviving – he espouses positions supported by many other conservatives within the party and their commentariat sympathisers.

The response to Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt in the Senate highlighted the divisions among Liberals over some basic values. Attorney-General George Brandis tore strips off Hanson in a spontaneous and emotional speech, drawing a standing ovation from Labor and Greens. Education Minister Simon Birmingham – one consistently gutsy moderate voice – tweeted support. But positive reaction from the government benches in the Senate was more muted.

Brandis has subsequently come under attack from some conservatives for his speech. Peta Credlin, Abbott’s former chief-of-staff and a significant extra-parliamentary player in the “Liberal wars”, who advocates banning the burqa, wrote: “Rather than condemn Hanson to win the applause of Labor and the Greens, George Brandis should have shown leadership on an issue where women are denied their rightful place in our community.”

A Sky ReachTEL poll taken after Hanson’s action found 56% support for a burqa ban.

Brandis lost out in Dutton’s win on the planned home affairs department, but managed to retain responsibility for approving warrants for ASIO activities.

In the battle for the party’s soul Brandis may think he has little to lose by taking a stand. He’s under pressure to quit the parliament at the end of the year to open the way for Turnbull to reshuffle; it’s not clear whether Brandis would or could seek to stay a while beyond that.

Given the conservatives’ present power in the Liberal firmament, it is worth revisiting Brandis’ 2009 Alfred Deakin lecture, in which he argued that the party’s much-heralded “two traditions” – conservative and liberal – theory “was a specific contribution of John Howard’s”, rather than a historical feature.

“This awkward blending of two different systems of values was very much a reflection of John Howard’s own personal values, shared by no other significant Liberal leader. Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton, Malcolm Fraser were all happy to describe themselves simply as liberals. Howard was the first who did not see himself, and was uncomfortable to be seen, purely in the liberal tradition,” Brandis said.

In that lecture Brandis also pointed to the contest, when a party goes into opposition, between those who want to be brutally honest about past failings and those seeking to defend the legacy.

Unless a lot changes fairly quickly – and admittedly the election isn’t due until 2019 – extolling a rather scattered Turnbull legacy might be a challenge.

In government, the Liberals’ own goals have given Labor many breaks. In opposition, the challenges in getting their act together would be considerable.

The broad right is already splintered, with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and, toward the centre, the Nick Xenophon Team all competing with the Liberals and Nationals.

If worse came to worst, the right could fragment further in opposition. There was muffled talk previously of those from the Queensland Liberal National Party wanting to sit as a separate group, although this isn’t considered practical.

If their vote held up better than that of the Liberals, the Nationals would likely be angry with their partners after a rout. They are already blaming Liberal ineptitude for the Coalition’s woes – although the crisis over Nationals MPs’ citizenship saw the exasperation suddenly flow the other way. A blame game would make harder the adjustment to the loss of power.

While unrelenting negativity can be an effective path for an opposition, as Abbott showed spectacularly, there is no guarantee it is enough. Bill Shorten has picked up a good deal from the Abbott playbook, but Labor under him also has a quite strong, and in parts daring, policy agenda.

The Liberals could not simply rely on a Shorten government being a shambles. They would need to develop over time a positive program – and one that connected with ordinary people, rather than being in an indulgent la-la land of the hard right.

Much would depend on leadership in a party that turns on the axis of the person at the top. That takes us back to the apparent problems of succession.

The ConversationOf course, there might be nothing for the Liberals to worry about. Turnbull – with his device of covering uncertainty with the definitive declaration – assures us the government “will win the next election”. Many of his colleagues just wish they believed him.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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CHINA: CHRISTIANS WARY AS RECESSION, UNREST HIT


Beleaguered government officials could view church as threat – or a force for stability.

BEIJING, February 25 (Compass Direct News) – With China’s central government last December issuing a number of secret documents calling on provincial officials to strive to prevent massive unrest in a rapidly collapsing economy, observers are watching for signs of whether authorities will view Christian groups as a threat or a stabilizing influence.

While the Sichuan earthquake last May proved that Christians were willing and able to assist in times of national crisis, raids on house church groups have continued in recent weeks.

The secret reports have come in quick succession. A central government body, the Committee for Social Stability (CSS), issued an internal report on Jan. 2 listing a total of 127,467 serious protests or other incidents across China in 2008, many involving attacks on government buildings or clashes with police and militia.

“Recently every kind of contradiction in society has reached the level of white heat,” the CSS warned in an earlier document issued on Dec. 16.

The document said some officials had “ignored the welfare of the masses … piling up pressure until the situation exploded,” and concluded that, “The relevant Party and State organs must … give daily priority to the task of getting rid of all the maladies which produce social instability and the present crisis.”

On Dec. 10, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the National People’s Congress issued an internal document calling on senior provincial officials to make every effort to alleviate social and political problems exacerbated by the current recession.

On Dec. 12, the Ministry of Public Security authorized provincial officials to tighten control of all communications in the sensitive period prior to Chinese New Year, which this year fell on Jan. 25. Fearing turmoil as millions of newly-unemployed factory workers headed home for New Year celebrations, the government cancelled all leave for Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers, placed them on high alert and mobilized an additional 150,000 police and armed militia for the holiday period.

On Dec. 15, the public security ministry issued a further document calling for tightened security at government ministries, military bases, armament stores, state borders, airports and railway stations.

In its Dec. 16 report, the CSS warned that provincial authorities must try to resolve grievances by non-violent means before protestors begin attacking factories and government offices or stealing, looting and burning property.

The scale of demonstrations and riots has already reached frightening proportions. In the Jan. 2 internal assessment leaked in Hong Kong, the CSS said the 127,467 serious incidents across China last year involved participation of around 1 percent of the population. Of these cases, 476 consisted of attacks on government and Party buildings, while 615 involved violent clashes with police and militia, leaving 1,120 police and Party officials and 724 civilians killed or injured.

 

Church as Subversive

Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Local governments in China last year reported on continued measures to prevent “illegal” religious gatherings and curb other criminalized religious activities, according to reports from the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Dec. 20 and Feb. 2. (See “Tortured Christian Lawyer Arrested as Officials Deny Abuses,” Feb. 11.)

In recent months authorities have quietly gathered data on church growth using surveys at universities and workplaces, and called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss the supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. (See “Officials Grapple with Spread of Christianity,” Feb. 4.)

Raids on unregistered church groups have continued in recent weeks, with police perhaps prompted to ensure tighter controls on church activity. On Feb. 11, police arrested two South Korean pastors and more than 60 Chinese house church leaders from four provinces who had gathered for a seminar in Wolong district, Nanyang city, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported. The police also confiscated personal money, cell phones and books, and forced each person to register and pay a fine before releasing some of the elderly leaders.

Authorities held six of the detained leaders for several days but by Sunday (Feb. 22) had released all of them, Compass sources confirmed.

In Shanghai, police and members of the State Administration of Religious Affairs on Feb. 10 ordered Pastor Cui Quan to cancel an annual meeting for house church leaders, and then ordered the owner of the hall used by Cui’s 1,200-member congregation to cease renting it to Cui within 30 days, according to CAA.

Senior staff at Beijing’s Dianli Hospital on Feb. 6 ordered elderly house church pastor Hua Zaichen to leave the premises despite being severely ill, CAA reported. Government officials had refused to allow Hua’s wife, Shuang Shuying, an early release from prison to visit her dying husband unless she agreed to inform on other Christians, according to Hua’s son. After refusing their offer, Shuang was finally able to visit Hua on her release date, Feb. 8; Hua died the following day.

Both Shuang and her husband have suffered years of persecution for their involvement in the house church movement.

On Feb. 4, police seized Christian lawyer and human rights defender Gao Zhisheng from his home in Shaanxi province, CAA reported. At press time his whereabouts were unknown.

While other incidents have gone unreported, house church leaders in northern China told Compass in January that despite tighter restrictions in the current economic and political climate, they were optimistic about the ability of the church to survive and flourish.

 

SIDEBAR

Disenchantment, Dissent Spread Across China

In December, China celebrated the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” economic reform policy, which had led to a high annual growth rate of some 10 percent. While Party leaders publicly congratulated themselves, an internal party document warned that 75 percent of the financial benefits had gone to only 10 percent of the population, mainly high and middle-ranking Party members and some entrepreneurs.

With the growth rate now seriously dented, relations between Party members and the general public were “about to explode,” the document warned.

The document also referred to an “ideological vacuum in Party and state,” a “moral vacuum in upholding regulations,” and a “vacuum in spiritual civilization,” in stark contrast to the moral and spiritual values held by religious groups.

According to the Research Institute of the State Council, urban unemployment among young people had already risen to 10.5 percent by last June. If foreign investors continued to withdraw funds, the institute warned, this figure could rise to 16 percent or higher, sparking more outrage against the government.

Tens of thousands of factories closed down in the first six months of 2008, well before the full impact of the global recession hit China. By November, 10 million migrant workers were unemployed; most recent estimates put the figure at 20 million, and officials admit this figure will reach at least 35 million by the end of 2009.

Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, responsible for agricultural affairs, warned in a recent report that 30 percent of all villagers have set up peasant organizations to challenge local government officials and crime bosses. Some groups also have plans to launch armed insurgencies and their own peasant governments.

Several million university graduates will also face unemployment this year, potentially lending their voices and leadership skills to mass protest movements.

An increasing number of intellectuals have already signed Charter 08, a petition issued in December calling for multi-party elections, human rights, press freedom and the rule of law.

On Jan. 7, a prominent Chinese lawyer, Yan Yiming, filed an application with the Finance Ministry demanding that it open its 2008 and 2009 budget books to the public. On Jan. 13, more than 20 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter calling for a boycott of state television news programs because of “systematic bias and brainwashing,” while a Beijing newspaper ran an article arguing that freedom of speech was written into the constitution, The Washington Post reported in late January.

In response, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders via state media that, “The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave.”

Many analysts agree that the Chinese Communist Party may be facing its greatest challenge to date.

Report from Compass Direct News