The Politics    Friday, December 9, 2016

Where the hell are the Liberal moderates?

By Sean Kelly

Trent Zimmerman speaking in parliament.
Playing nice isn’t working

Two and a half weeks ago, at the height of the latest Peter Dutton brouhaha, a sole Liberal MP rose to voice his dissent at meetings of the party.

Trent Zimmerman said that labeling an entire group (i.e. Lebanese Muslims) was unhelpful. He made the point in political terms, too, pointing out the necessity of keeping significant ethnic communities on side. Zimmerman was forcefully answered by the MP Michael Sukkar, who comes from a Lebanese Maronite Catholic background.

It was easy to see this as the intervention of one concerned loner – and a failed intervention at that. In fact, one MP told Fairfax that Zimmerman was “smashed” by Sukkar, and that Zimmerman had “completely misread the mood of the party room”. Similar quotations appeared in other publications – whether from that same MP it is impossible to tell.

It is at least possible that what actually happened was a little more complex. Paul Bongiorno wrote in the Saturday Paper that MP Craig Laundy was “apoplectic” about Dutton’s comments. That Friday, Michelle Grattan wrote:

It was deliberate that no-one rose to back Zimmerman. There was an informal agreement to let him run alone. The critics of Dutton wanted to lay down a marker, rather than trigger a brawl that would be damaging for Turnbull.

This is a loyal strategy. Speak to your colleagues. Make your dissent known. It will become public, but without footage to back it up. The protest is made, without becoming a prominent symbol of party division.

Increasingly, it also seems like it’s also a losing strategy. In politics, sadly, there is such a thing as playing too nice.

I remembered today that I’d written a column about moderate Liberals discovering their voice. I went and had a look for it, thinking it was in the past month or two. It was all the way back in July. It’s safe to say the glimmer was brief.

That said, Kristina Photios, who has been a member of the Liberal Party for 12 years, who has worked with Macquarie Bank and Optus, and who is the wife of NSW Liberal Party powerbroker Michael Photios, has told Fairfax that she has quit the party in protest at the “vocal minority” of conservatives blocking action on climate change.

Fairfax summarised her stand this way: “The Liberal Party must move ‘back to the centre’ and progressive members should stand up and be heard to ensure Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is not held hostage to the hard right of the party.”

Photios herself is not an MP, and doesn’t wield enough power to change things within the party. But perhaps her stand will encourage other moderates to start raising their voices. After all, conservatives like George Christensen and Cory Bernardi seem unrestrained by concerns for Turnbull or the party that helped get them elected.

To be sure, this is a difficult choice for loyal moderates. Fighting back against the “delusional conservatives” or “delcons” would give some of them precisely what they want – public division, which would harm Turnbull, their bête noire. But then not fighting back also gives the delcons something they want – repeated wins on policy fights. If you’re going to lose either way, there might at least be some gain in standing up for your beliefs.

Photios herself put the point succinctly: “There’s no point in having the numbers if they don’t translate into policy and into the direction of the party.”

Away from deep philosophical divisions, the influence of the right is becoming absurd, even on clear practical matters. There is no morality wrapped up in any of the methods to tackle climate change – they are all just different technical paths to reducing emissions. There may, however, be some morality wrapped up in price changes. Price increases have an impact on families – governments concerned about fairness need to take this into account.

And indeed, Craig Kelly, one of the first vocal critics of this week’s plan to discuss an emissions intensity scheme, and who chairs the parliamentary environment and energy committee, said, in opposing such a scheme, that “If we’re going to see electricity prices reduce that way, fantastic, I’m all for it.”

Which seemed like a fine thing to say, very clever, until it turned out, later this week, that an emissions intensity scheme – now ruled out by Malcolm Turnbull – would indeed have reduced power prices, to the tune of up to $15 billion over a decade. Another report found that the policy would have saved a household, on average, $216 a year.

So we now have a situation where not only are the conservatives getting in the way of the moderates on cultural and rights issues, like marriage and Safe Schools, they are actively costing average voters $200 a year.

In a sane universe, this would be the point at which all of the arguments about Bernardi et al. “reaching out to ordinary voters” went out the window.

It is wrong of me, however, to suggest that this is all the conservatives’ fault. That is the easy conclusion to reach, because they are the ones making all the noise. But it is the moderates who are choosing, each time, to play nice; to grin and bear it while the party they joined is whittled away. A little while ago, perhaps, there was some logic to that decision. That logic is fast fading. Russell Broadbent offered a counterexample a few weeks ago with his speech on racism. Kristina Photios this week offered another. Their fellow moderates should pay attention.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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