Monday, March 10, 2008

The Liberal Identity Crisis

While the coalition parties are no doubt still reeling from the election loss, it’s only natural that some pretty deep soul-searching is going on. The approval ratings of Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson just keep getting worse and worse, and now it seems that the very existence of the parties is being re-examined, with Dr Nelson throwing his support behind a possible merger.

While there has been a push for similar mergers in the past, it’s never really been given serious consideration until now. While there is significant opposition, what is surprising is the level of support for the idea. Whether this is because the idea is genuinely appealing, or because the members are desperate for a glimmer of hope remains to be seen.

Critics have suggested that such a merger would not be a comfortable fit, with the two parties having some significant differences, but that is not really the problem. After all, the coalition has worked every successfully for a very long time. Most if not all philosophical differences could probably be accommodated into a new National Liberal Party without too much difficulty.

Where the plan is more likely to come unstuck is in the bush. Despite the fact that the Nationals have struggled in recent years to retain relevance, if they disappeared now it would leave something of a vacuum. The experience of the One Nation phenomenon has shown that people in the bush are keen to find representation that will more accurately reflect their views, and the disappearance of the “Country” party could be the catalyst for a new force to emerge. Conversely, reaffirming a strong and independent image for the National Party would actually help the opposition parties regain some political traction.

The discussion about a possible merger is a distraction. The problem is not with the coalition agreement or with party rivalries. The problem has been policy and leadership. When the Liberal Party gets those right again, they will be back in the political race. Of course that’s probably not so reassuring for Brendan Nelson.

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