Centre-right social progressives might not like social conservatism. But there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian conservative.
Liberal Party moderates like the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull need conservatives — like Senator Corey Bernardi — if they are to have any hope of prosecuting their economic reform agenda. However, some of us knew that running on a socially progressive and economically dry program bereft of conservative values was a losing strategy long before election night rolled around.
At a lunch last month with a cast of sound members and fellow travellers of the centre-right, we enjoyed the customary sport of an election season — noting around the table our fearless predictions of the federal poll outcome.
The general consensus was that the Turnbull government would be safely returned but with a loss of five seats, at best, or maybe 10 seats, at worst. Up against Bill Shorten’s Labor Party, the Coalition would record a comfortable majority, with the thinking being — straight out of Liberal Party HQ — that support in the critical marginal seats was holding up.
I was the only person that predicted a Labor victory “by a few seats.” With the Turnbull government having been narrowly returned by the barest of margins, my prediction wins the prize for being closest to the pin.
Yes. I crow. But I do so to highlight the significance of the election result concerning the ongoing ‘little local difficulties’ on the centre-right between the moderate and conservative factions.
My prediction was based on the feeling that I simply did not know on what issues the Australian people were being asked to return the Turnbull government. ‘Jobs and growth’ struck me as an uninspiring and yet risky campaign slogan that only a merchant banker could love. Along with ‘innovation’, I thought it might struggle to resonate with the Australian electorate.
These concerns were reinforced when I watched Mr Turnbull give an address at the Menzies Research Centre. It was a good speech that outlined the elements of his ‘plan’ to secure Australia’s economic future through jobs, growth and innovation.
Politically, it would have been a fine speech if given by the Treasurer, or another minister in a senior economic portfolio. The problem, however, was that this was the Prime Minister’s stump speech. It was a cerebral address pitched to appeal to people’s sense of reason and logic, located above their necks. Unfortunately, in politics, people tend to vote based on the emotions located between their neck and their knees, and usually centred on either their guts or hip pockets.
That speech, together with the general tone of the Coalition’s campaign, was indicative of the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to do the hard political yards that would make it possible for him to implement his economic agenda. Labor’s disarray on border protection, the ‘fairness’ controversy over Duncan Storrar, and the Safe Schools farrago now all look like missed opportunities.
On all these issues — ‘boats, bludgers and bendy gender’ — the Prime Minister had nothing to say during the campaign. Running on this kind of triple appeal, pitched to the sensible centre of average voters, strikes me as the kind of strategy that would have won the hearts and minds of middle Australia; and especially among disaffected conservative Coalition supporters angered by the removal of Tony Abbott.
But tacking to the so-called ‘hard right’ on social issues was a no-go zone for Prime Minister Turnbull.
Moderates need the kind of political instincts that conservatives possess to win government and get the chance to implement a dry economic agenda. Because as the Turnbull campaign proved, running a dry agenda in isolation is a recipe for electoral disaster.
This is not a surprise outcome. No government in Australian history — not even the much sainted Hawke-Keating and Howard-Costello governments of the era of reform in the 1980s and 1990s — has ever explicitly campaigned on an ‘economically rationalist’ agenda. John Hewson, before Turnbull, was the only Liberal leader who tried … and catastrophically lost the ‘unlosable’ 1993 election.
That was only the second federal election won in its own right by the Labor Party since 1990. The other was the 2007 ‘Work Choices’ election. Both victories were based on Labor running hard on bread and butter issues; a portent we have seen repeated with Shorten’s successful Mediscare tactic during the 2016 campaign.
The lessons of all this history and recent history seem to be this: the Labor Party does well when it runs a traditional hip pocket campaign. The Coalition does poorly — and plays into Labor’s hands — when it is wedged on ‘economically rationalist’ policies. Furthermore, we now know that the Coalition wedges itself when, as Turnbull did, it runs on a dry economic agenda alone and ditches any pretence to represent its conservative base; whose values, of course, are much pretty much closely aligned with much of middle Australia.
Running on the social agenda preferred by the left-aligned ABC, Fairfax and the universities — as Turnbull implicitly did by omission and remaining silent on the heartland conservative issues noted above — is a political dead end for the centre-right because these groups and these issues have little influence over the marginal voters who actually determine who forms government. As the shedding of more than one million votes for the Liberal Party has comprehensively proven, tacking to the left means you lose more friends on the centre-right than you gain on the centre-left.
The election result speaks for itself. The Australian people were lukewarm at best about the combination of social progressivism and economic rationalism that was offered to them — which turned out to be a doubly losing hand for the Coalition. Moreover, the pretext on which Abbott was removed last October — that his unfashionable social conservatism was getting in the way of Turnbull governing and reforming effectively — has now been exposed as a fantasy, blind to hard political realities, as it always was.
The fact that there are many conservatives on the centre-right is not, and never was, the major impediment to economic reform. The problem with economic reform is that the centre-right has not — anywhere in the world —come up with a viable political strategy to scale back unsustainable health, education, and welfare entitlements. The overarching lesson of the election, however, is the vital importance of the broad church on the centre-right as the foundation of an election-winning strategy that makes reform and good government at least possible.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.