The Politics    Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Principles versus pragmatism

By Dominic Kelly

No responsible government can be completely beholden to its most ideological elements

In a 2011 party room debate, the then Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott, told his colleagues that in a choice between “policy purity and political pragmatism, I’ll take pragmatism every time”. Abbott is often mistaken for a man with strong conservative principles, but here he was unashamedly declaring his willingness to compromise.

The struggle between principles and pragmatism is central to political developments as parliament settles into the first sitting week of 2017. Less than 24 hours after Cory Bernardi resigned from the Liberal Party, ostensibly on the grounds that “the values and principles that have served us well seem to have been set aside for expedient, self-serving, short-term ends”, the Turnbull government has announced its intention to put pragmatism first.

In an attempt to get some of its welfare cuts through the Senate, the government has proposed fortnightly increases to family payments, a longer period of paid parental leave for some families, and more child care assistance. Conceding that the budget will take a hit, the minister for social services, Christian Porter, attempted to put his best gloss on the compromise: “What we’ve done is gone back to the basic principles and we’ve modified some essential positions to try and give the package of measures the best possible chance of success.”

Not leaked to the media for breakfast consumption, however, was the real sting in the tale. As is common in the age of the boomer supremacy, young people will be asked to take the biggest hit. Josh Butler at the Huffington Post discovered that Youth Allowance claimants will face a waiting period of four weeks, and adjustments to eligibility requirements will see many young people receiving significantly reduced rates of payment.

Meanwhile, Senator Derryn Hinch has shown his own willingness to compromise, offering an olive branch to the government regarding its anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation. Industrial relations hardliners are crowing, but the Guardian reports that a representative of one major builder says the amendment will hand power to the CFMEU. Maintaining conservative principles can be confusing.

Returning to the man of the moment, whether there is a future for Bernardi’s conservative movement remains uncertain. No Liberals or Nationals – not even the odious George Christensen – have indicated any willingness to throw their support behind him. For many years, Family First looked like a much more suitable home for Bernardi, especially when his Conservative Leadership Foundation was a co-tenant of former senator Bob Day’s infamous office building. Now, Day is being coy about a possible switch to the Australian Conservatives, just as his former chief of staff takes up a new role [possible paywall] with … Cory Bernardi.

Today’s links

  • Norman Abjorensen shows that divisions within the conservative side of Australian politics have a long history.
  • The ABC has an interactive explaining what Bernardi’s defection means for the Senate. And that’s probably enough about Cory.
  • Amusingly, the Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly is concerned [possible paywall] that conservative principles are being trashed by “conservative media outlets”. Write what you know, I suppose.
  • Unwilling to do anything about blatant tax rorts such as negative gearing, the government is now turning to fantasy projects as a solution to the housing-affordability crisis.
  • Marcia Langton has some harsh words [possible paywall] for the prime minister and his minister for Indigenous affairs, Nigel Scullion.
  • Alarming evidence of coal spillages near the Great Barrier Reef.
  • The Daniel Andrews Labor government in Victoria faces another legal challenge to its detention of children in adult prisons.
  • Finally, in the United States, another leading “principled conservative”, House Speaker Paul Ryan, shows no sign of standing up to President Trump.


Dominic Kelly

Dominic Kelly is a PhD candidate and tutor in politics at La Trobe University. He tweets from @illywhacker_.

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