On the Australian Political Right: The Many Colours of the Liberals.
Let’s be blunt. The state of the Libs is currently an ugly picture. There is currently no Liberal Government in power either federally, or in any Australian state or territory.
Weak oppositions are devastating to democracy. This is demonstrated in the way the Brumby Government (in Victoria) has arrogantly ignored widespread community outrage at the Desalinification Plant in Gippsland, the Pipeline Project, the dredging of Port Philip Bay, a near total lack of new investment in suburban rail infrastructure in spite of horrendous overcrowding, and – coming soon – the East-West Tollway. Yet in spite of the gross arrogance of the State Labor Governments, many feel that the Liberal oppositions fail to deliver an appealing alternative. The question is why.
The left often sees the right as being a monolithic whole, yet when we take a closer look, we see that this is not the case. The Coalition brings together people standing for a number of distinct philosophies, including the religious conservatism of Tony Abbott, the nationalism of the RSL, the law and order populism of the police association, the ‘status quo’ conservatism of Barnaby Joyce, the small government individualism of the IPA, and new liberalism / ‘small-l liberalism’ of Petro Georgiou. These philosophies often don’t lead to the same answers to social questions. It’s not difficult to imagine, for example, that if you got both an RSL member and an IPA member to present what they thought Australia’s trade policy should be, you may end up with two very different answers. These philosophies are, if you will, the paints in the Liberal Party’s palette, ready to be splattered on a policy canvas.
While the colours are different, most are not mutually exclusive. The nation can, for example, be defined to suit whatever ends you want. We can – for example – live in a nation defined by its freedom, its Judeo-Christian values, or as a nation of laws. The big exception to this, during the Howard era, was the rift between the ‘Howard-Abbott’ camp (standing for religion, nationalism, authoritarian populism, and to some degree individualism) up against the Kroeger-Costello Camp (largely status quo conservatives, small-l liberals, and some small government individualists). Over the months (and years?) ahead, picking or mixing the right philosophical colour will be the party’s big challenge. They then need leaders who can paint what the Liberal Party stands for in modern Australia, both at state and federal level.
It is an art made more difficult by the legacy of the Howard era, which has alienated many of the party’s potential supporters (for high profile examples, see Fraser, Malcolm; also, Manne, Robert). And this alienation came from how far the Howard era deviated from the underlying principles of many small government and small-l liberals. Some examples of principles undermined include: smaller government (increased spending on ‘middle-class welfare’ before elections), lower taxes (income tax bracket creep), individual liberty and rights (anti-terror laws), and competitive markets (Telstra’s wholesale, network, and retail divisions being privatised as a single entity). In the wake of the crushing electoral defeat of the Howard Government, the challenge of finding the right philosophical colour, and showing how this colour is different to Howard’s, is a large part of the Liberals’ challenge.
A similar phenomena happened at State level in the wake of the Kennett Government’s fall in 1999. While there are obvious differences – Kennett was quite clearly a small-government individualist who made very significant cuts to the state public service (in clear contrast to Howard), there challenge at state level has been similar: finding the right colour for Victoria, and showing how this is different to the deep blue of Kennett. While Robert Doyle was a very different artist to Kennett, he somehow forgot to highlight how his landscape was different to Kennett’s individual portrait, or even mention that he doesn’t like portraits. Whether Ballieu will end up doing the same is a matter for debate.
Painting the right picture is part of the challenge for the Libs. But that’s not the only challenge the Liberals face.