Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Nick Greiner's way forward for the Liberal party

eCouncillor attended the dinner celebrating the 20th anniversary of the election of the Greiner government last Friday night and witnessed the former premier deliver a magnificent and historical speech on the state of the Liberal party today and the way forward. Part of that speech published in the SMH on Saturday is reproduced below. I fully support Nick's thesis that the nature of politics in the community has permanently changed. It has been emerging for two decades that the community no longer identifies with the great ideological struggles of left versus right. A giant middle ground of Australians now seek a synthesis of ideas, aspirations and understanding from political parties - and the Liberal party with its traditional base of conservatives and liberals is in a position to meet that new era politics - if it reforms around Australia.

Nick GreinerMarch 15, 2008

NSW is a national laughing stock. In the 1980s it was corruption that made NSW a laughing stock. This decade the state is a national laughing stock for everything. NSW is in the political and bureaucratic wilderness in terms of talent. The state deserves a wooden spoon for, among other things, economic performance, infrastructure, health and planning.
If the Liberals are to win government at the next NSW election, the changes must start at home. We need to change the dysfunctional organisational structure of the party as a first step to changing behaviour, to enable the kind of positive decisions that win elections. We must become a genuine broad church able to take the middle ground of politics.
There is some denial regarding the performance of the Liberals in NSW. The party has faced a Labor Government that has gone from fair, to poor, to simply hopeless - the worst ever. The Government has failed on integrity and effectiveness. Despite this incompetence, the Liberals have won just two seats from Labor in 17 years. We have dismally failed the test described by Bob Hawke: if you can't govern yourselves, you can't govern the state.

We will not deserve, nor receive, electoral support if we are not able to demonstrate that we are a party of balance and moderation, interested in the public interest, not sectional interests.
I commend efforts of the state leader, Barry O'Farrell, and the state president, Geoff Selig, to move decisively to an inclusive way forward. The Liberal Party should be the natural home for both social conservatives and progressives. This is not the United States. A narrow focus on wedge issues is no basis for success, especially sustained success.

We must review our relevance to today's community. We must consider explicitly the appeal of our message to young people and people from a non-English-speaking background. We must re-establish our links with both.

As our society becomes "more single, more childless, more secular, more non-white, more immigrant", as David Frum wrote of the US in his book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, we must not allow our opponents to be the natural beneficiaries.

Rudd's capacity to effectively maintain all Labor's traditional constituencies while broadening his appeal to the Howard base is a textbook example of politics in the 21st century.
Of course we should argue for distinctive Liberal positions such as flexible labour markets, privatisation, tax reform and so on.
We need to retain our traditional strengths in economic management, state development, security and family values. But let us move with the centre of the body politic on the softer issues, not insult that centre by denying the relevance of its warm and green concerns. Compassion and concern for the planet are fundamental aspects of the national psyche. We must acknowledge the power of symbolism and emotion. There is nothing in Liberalism, in competition, in self-reliance that is inconsistent with innovative and effective Liberal ideas on the environment and on the wellbeing of the less fortunate in society.

The future lies in coalition building, not going it alone. We must learn to work better with independents and minor parties across the political spectrum. Around Australia we are being outplayed by the ALP in this crucial space. There is much fertile ground in universities, business, industry associations and community groups for us to engage - our focus should be out into the community, not inwards on ourselves.

As for the question of factions, the problem for the NSW Liberals is not the presence of factions but our inability to manage them in the cause of the party's overall success. Our key problem is that the winning faction takes all. Whichever side has the ascendancy takes all the positions and endeavours to assert all the influence as opposed to sharing between the factions.

It is easy to believe that a drover's dog would beat Labor in 2011. That would be foolish. NSW Labor on its merits deserved to lose in 2003 and to be annihilated in 2007 - neither happened and we are to blame.
The old truism about how "governments lose, oppositions don't win" no longer applies. The evidence of successive wins by incompetent failed governments in Queensland and NSW in particular is the proof. Making the case for change is obviously crucial. Demonstrating our own capacity to be trusted is equally so.

Let us not be frightened of change, of vision, of new directions. Equally, let us not be afraid to agree with Labor when it gets it right. NSW Labor has no capacity to govern, no ability to govern. It simply wants to be in government and enjoy the spoils of office. We must be more than a pale shadow, more than just "not Labor".

Finally, we must be ready to be competent managers of the bureaucracy and "pro-good government". To quote Newt Gingrich, we cannot win over time as the permanently angry anti-government party because it does not appeal to most voters.
When we last won government from Labor 20 years ago, we faced a government reflecting its age and loss of talent. But equally, we were a united Coalition with stable, well-established leadership appealing to a broad cross-section of the community, with a clear focus on winning and a clear set of directions. People knew in a general sense what sort of government they were getting and its key aspirations for reform, or to use our slogan, "change for the better".
The Coalition has a wonderful opportunity to win in 2011, to learn from both the successes and failures of the Greiner and Fahey governments, to acknowledge the reasons for the dismal efforts of the last three election cycles and carve out a new relevant coalition for good government for all the people of NSW.

Nick Greiner was the Liberal premier of NSW from 1988 to 1992. This is an adaption of a speech delivered last night at a dinner to mark the 20-year anniversary of his government.

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