As I type, Malcolm Turnbull’s media allies are no doubt gearing up to blame the ‘Del-Cons’ for the humiliating defeat – or still more humiliating victory – the Prime Minister will suffer at the hands of that filthy little numpty Bill Shorten. ‘If conservatives were half as eager to criticize Shorten as they were Turnbull,’ the narrative will go, ‘the Coalition’s base wouldn’t have been so utterly demobilized.’ And they’ll miss the point entirely. The base wasn’t, in fact, demobilized. Anyone who’s watched these pages will see that right-wing Liberals have never been more engaged with their party’s leadership. No: Turnbull’s problem wasn’t the excess of Del-Cons. It was the deficit of Del-Mods – ideological moderates who chided Turnbull for abandoning the Sensible Center.
Rita Panahi is right. The Liberal party room didn’t fall behind Turnbull because they were afraid of a corporate loss. They were, rather, afraid of losing their own seats. Under Abbott, the Liberals were projected to win reelection by a smaller margin than they had in 2013, which means all but the bluest of blue-ribbon seats were at least in nominal danger. Turnbull promised to win them an even greater majority than Abbott had; all they asked in exchange was that he downplay his progressive pet projects. (emissions trading, gay marriage, the republic, etc.) If Turnbull could deliver, that wasn’t necessarily a bad deal. And with Abbott’s preferred leader polls bobbing in and out of the red, the vastly more popular Turnbull couldn’t have hurt the Coalition’s chances … could he?
It turns out that, yeah, he could. Del-Cons, quite understandably, bemoan the Liberals’ post-Abbott retreat from traditional conservatism – a position I sympathize with heartily. But the Liberals didn’t swap conservatism for progressivism. Instead, they simply put a gag on all inter-party ideological discourse. Turnbull’s leadership, it was decided, wouldn’t be predicated on principles – if only because the conservative-majority party couldn’t find common ground with their progressive-dominated leadership. So the Liberal platform was reduced to its lowest common denominator: vague mutterings about smaller government, union corruption, and border security.
This ‘pragmatic’ route may well have been the government’s downfall. The Coalition’s campaign was, in a word, vapid. The cleverest man to ever occupy the Lodge seemed allergic to ideas. One expected such conduct from Bill Shorten – a duplicitous intellectual midget leading a party of entitled thugs. But that look doesn’t quite suit Mr Turnbull. A man so given to reciting poetry and quoting Thucydides, the longtime MP of the country’s artistic heartland, and a man who made his fortune (and his name) in the intellectual marketplace, can’t suddenly decide to pass himself off as a fair-dinkum, no-fancy-book-learnin’ kind of Prime Minister.
But this all might’ve been overlooked had at least one or two prominent moderates in the Liberal Party ushered just a peep of disappointment in Turnbull’s decision to swap ideological purity for electability. In the wake of the coup, the Del-Cons published more obituaries for Australian conservatism than could be collected in a Norton Anthology; to the best of my knowledge, not a single moderate warned Turnbull that he’d lose their support if he compromised too much with the Right faction. Nor, in the months since, have any Del-Mods emerged to chastise their man for neutering his progressivism in the pursuit of a popular mandate. Plenty of Laborites and Greenies, of course; but that only makes the moderates’ intellectual impoverishment all the more vivid.
Australians like to think of themselves as practical, down to earth folks. By and large they are. But just because yours isn’t a nation of card-carrying ideologues doesn’t mean you don’t have wide, aspirational visions for your country. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Brexit have sent an earthquake through the status quo-ist political establishments in the US and UK. Hundreds of young men and women raised in comfortable Western homes are fleeing to the Islamic State. This is a time of earth-shattering idealism – some of it good, some of it bad, some of it truly evil. Failure to recognize this massive paradigm shift will never resonate with even the most stolid electorate.
So perhaps what Team Turnbull needed least of all was a muzzle. Maybe what he really needed was an all-out civil war, Del-Cons vs. Del-Mods. At least then this government wouldn’t have given the impression of milquetoast technocracy – the exact quality that ultimately doomed the smug Remain camp in Britain, felled the Republican establishment, and so long denied Hillary Clinton her ordination in the Democratic primary.
There’s a case for centrism, just as there’s a case for conservatism. Turnbull didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, make it for himself. More problematically, none of his allies made it for him. As long as their man was on top, they seemed content not to muddy the waters… not realizing that voters were more than happy to take that burden on themselves.
If the Liberals do manage to return to government, they’ll have to seriously rethink their approach to party discipline. Stifling ideological discourse for the sake of electability might’ve worked wonders in the past, but today it’s as counter-productive as accusing Catholic politicians of divided loyalties or blaming the Masons for economic inequality. That’s just not the way voters think. They’ll have to let the Del-Cons and the Del-Mods loose on each other, to prove that the Coalition isn’t just a confederacy of careerist dunces.
And, while they’re at it, they might send the Del-Cons a fruit basket as a token of their thanks. Of the two major parties, they alone have kept the flame of aspirational politics alive. If high-minded political discourse has a home anywhere in the two major parties, it’s on the Liberal fringes. That’s not much to spit at – especially considering how overwhelmingly conservative the Coalition base is – but at least it’s something. If they’d been cowed by the pragmatists’ derision and scorn, Pauline Hanson might’ve claimed well more than three seats in the Senate.
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