December 2018 – January 2019

Comment

The Liberal Party: a rolling fiasco

By Nick Feik
The government’s suite of half-formed ideas work for no one

The Liberal–National Coalition, currently led by Scott Morrison, is moored to a set of ideas largely left behind by the general public. Most Australians believe in a social-democratic compact in which governments deliver decent services and infrastructure. Multiculturalism, environmentalism, secularism, public broadcasting, workers’ rights, and regulation to prevent corporate and government corruption – these are now baked into society. Wherever possible, though, Liberals fight them. In most cases they are joined by their Coalition partners.

The public isn’t crying out for corporate tax cuts. On the contrary, it wants more funding for health, education and a welfare safety net. Lower power prices? They’re an issue of public concern, but so too is the truly grave issue of climate change. The Coalition has done nothing to address either. However, many of its MPs believe in freedom of expression for religious organisations and racists, and even support such motions in parliament.

One effect of having an agenda so out of step with the public is that it becomes difficult to do anything at all. Policies that emerge from the Coalition party room come in a form unacceptable to parliament. The 2014 budget under Tony Abbott was the prime example of this; energy policy is only the most recent. The government has turned itself inside out producing a suite of half-formed ideas that work for no one.

Commentators have written persuasively that it is the ideological rift between the wets and the dries, the moderates and the hard right, that is making the Liberal Party a dysfunctional rabble. Arguably, those battles have already been fought and won. To his discredit, moderate Malcolm Turnbull chose not to fight many of them, especially on climate change and energy, and he often turned a blind eye when colleagues fired salvos on culture-war and ethno-nationalist lines. The much-cited Liberal “broad church” increasingly came to mean appeasement of the hard right, if not total surrender to it.

Even on the narrowest definition of “reform” – to reduce the responsibilities and obligations of business – the government has stalled. (It was indicative of the hollowness at the heart of the Liberal Party that, when asked to explain why Morrison was suddenly the new prime minister, so many MPs began by talking not about the government’s own plans but about the threat of Bill Shorten and the Labor Party.) The pro-market posturing remains simply that, because most people don’t believe big business should have an easier ride, and the rest of parliament tends to agree with them.

Another more perverse effect of being out of step is that the party expends most of its energy denying or excusing its own actions. The Abbott government cut ABC funding by $254 million (and more is to come), the Liberal federal council voted overwhelmingly to privatise the ABC, and government ministers have spent the best part of five years attacking Aunty’s journalists and services, yet when presented with the stark evidence that they are constantly undermining the broadcaster, they baldly deny this.

When the Turnbull government rejected the Uluru statement out of hand, the reason given was that it wouldn’t fly with the Australian public. There was no evidence for that claim (and it was later contradicted by polling), so the government has since spent its airtime defending accusations that it rejected the proposal for spurious ideological reasons, rather than hosting a proper debate.

Liberal MPs supported parliamentary motions by Cory Bernardi warning of the influence of “renowned globalist” George Soros, and by Pauline Hanson proposing it was “okay to be white”, and then found it necessary to deny they had supported racist slogans. Swimming back on something like that is dangerous when the water has been poisoned: in early November, Labor MP Anne Aly’s office was plastered with posters declaring “it’s okay to be white”. The excuse that government senators voted for that very slogan without knowing what it meant doesn’t really cut it.

The PM repeated the coal lobby’s lines on renewable energy (“when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow …”) and coined the euphemism “fair dinkum energy”, while his colleagues consider subsidising new coal-fired power plants and coalmines. The government ignores the warnings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and refuses even to countenance an emissions-reduction policy. But do they own their position, and explicitly reject the science of climate change? They don’t dare.

Note how many times recently the government has announced something, then backed away from it within days. A new “national day” recognising Indigenous Australians; a plan to move the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; changes to religious freedom laws; priority boarding on Virgin flights for veterans; cuts to the funding of Australia’s largest food charity, Foodbank – the list goes on.

The government also tried to stymie the banking royal commission, has nobbled the NBN and frozen the Medicare rebate, but in each case refused to admit that its actions were intentional. Even on its signature corporate tax cuts, it spent more time trying to paper over the fact that they’d benefit the big banks than it did justifying or campaigning for them.

It’s hard to come across as authentic when you’re unwilling to stand for your own beliefs. Of course, we still get the hairy-chested announcements – half a billion dollars for the Australian War Memorial, a “national interest test” for Australian Research Council grants, forcing migrants to move from cities to the regions, tough pledges on terrorism – but they seem divorced from any kind of agenda. It’s play-acting.

What seems so hard for Liberal politicians and supporters to acknowledge is that it’s the culture of the Liberal Party – so masculine, white, and uninterested in listening to scientists or policy experts, to young people, to women – that has created the current rolling fiasco. Bullying is one index of this. Even in the wake of allegations by Julia Banks, Julie Bishop, Ann Sudmalis, Lucy Gichuhi and others, the party has done nothing to address its “women problem”. It will have even less female representation going into the next election. Candidates in the Liberal Party are selected according to merit? By what standard, though? They can’t even say why Scott Morrison is the prime minister. And yet, he’s exactly what they want: a leader who enacts their brand of paternal condescension while sticking to the same narrow politics.

Australia doesn’t have a voting system that rewards a hyper-partisan base. Only idiots and zealots try to foster one for major parties here, because the mainstream, unsurprisingly, still tends to the political centre. A major party that doesn’t seek to represent majority views may not be major for long.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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