In conversation with a Liberal insider some weeks ago, I heard the phrase: ‘I’m trying to rebuild the conservative movement in Australia.’ An admirable sentiment, indeed. But it raises more questions than answers, especially coming from inside the Liberal Party. A similar set of questions manifested themselves when I read Tim Smith’s ‘Victorian Notes’ column in The Spectator Australia (8 Oct). Smith showed he possesses an impressive rhetorical right-hook, in what was a fine polemic against the legislative program of the Andrews Labor Government.
What caught my attention most was Mr Smith’s confidence in the Coalition’s ability to offer strong, stable, and sensible government. I would agree that the Liberal-National Coalition appears superior to the radical social engineers currently ruling the Education State. However, Smith wrote the following:
The custodians of liberalism and conservatism in Victoria will continue to stand up for the moderate mainstream of our society and oppose this type of minority fundamentalism that Labor and their Green allies are trying to foist on our country wherever they can.
Is this true? Smith would know better than I. Still, I harbour serious doubts regarding the Victorian Liberals’ willingness to provide full-frontal opposition to Andrews’ agenda. Certainly, the record will reflect that lower-house Liberal MPs spoke against the Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill, which will restrict the ability for schools to discriminate on religious grounds when employing people. Hansard will also show that MPs like Smith were clear in their criticism of the nonsensical legislation which will allow people to change their sex willy-nilly.
However, where is Opposition Leader Matthew Guy? Where is Shadow Attorney- General John Pesutto? Where is Mary Wooldridge, leader of the Liberals in the Legislative Council? Certainly, Pesutto spoke admirably in Parliament against the Equal Opportunity Amendment. But where are the press conferences attacking this legislation? Where are the op-eds? Where are the attack ads? Where are the talkback radio interviews lambasting the government? If there were ever a moment where the Liberal opposition could kick the Labor Government in the metaphorical guts and show the Victorian public how out-of-touch their policies are, this is it. But they’re almost nowhere to be seen. How come it is left to Smith, a first-time MP and junior backbencher, to write the polemic against Andrews and company?
I can hazard an educated guess. If push came to shove, I suspect a good number of Victorian Liberal MPs would be on board with some of these ALP policies. I gather that less than half the Liberal upper house MLCs would vote against the two aforementioned bills, given a conscience vote.
Things are probably less grim in the lower house, but still not glowing. Add to this the likelihood that many Liberal staffers, some of whom are the next generation of MPs, would be happy to see gay marriage and sex-change chaos sail through the relevant parliaments, and the Liberals don’t quite look like the party of the ‘moderate mainstream’ anymore.
So, are the Liberals up to it? Are they truly the custodians of liberalism and conservatism? Or are they the ‘broad church’ that has gone liberal?
Conservatives like Tim Smith are in the minority in parliamentary Liberal parties. There is a faithful rump of members who still represent Menzies’ forgotten people and propagate conservative values. However, the remainder of Liberal MPs represent their university-indoctrinated staffers and other inner-city elites. This is the party, not of Menzies and Howard, but of Turnbull, Pyne, and Bishop.
Which brings me to the Federal Liberal Party. The MPs who are out there touting the cause of Tony’s Tradies, Howard’s Battlers, and Menzies’ Forgotten People, are either outside of the Liberal Party or they’re on the outer rim. Andrew Hastie recently published an impressive piece in the Australian arguing the case for the gay marriage plebiscite. He did so on philosophically conservative grounds, and in a way which was winsome and clear. Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz have been publishing in the pages of this magazine and Quadrant, and Abbott has also landed some op-eds in newspapers. But these three are all backbenchers. And, sure, current Ministers of the Crown are busy people, but they are not exactly busy arguing the case for conservative government. They seem too busy protecting their own political hides. Or too busy trying in vain to impress the mainstream media.
The picture I see is one where the Liberals, in both state and federal parliaments, lack the political will to make a principled case for conservative government. They also appear to lack the will to fight against progressive government. I would suggest that this is the case for one of two reasons: either most Liberal MPs are too scared, or they actually don’t believe in the cause. For example, the relatively meek opposition offered by the Victorian Liberals to the recent round of radical legislation from the Andrews Government might mean one of two things. They might not be able to get enough ‘oxygen’ in the media to get their message out. The other possibility is that they want to be on the record as being against these bills in order to reassure their conservative base, but don’t actually want the legislation to fail. Otherwise, as I asked before, where on earth are they? Starved of oxygen? Or starved of political will?
My guess is that the Liberals lack the political will to make a go of conservative government. They are a broad church, to be sure. But as a church, they have gone liberal, with the pews growing bare. It is obvious that the conservative movement needs rebuilding in Australia. If what I am suggesting is true, it might need to happen from outside the Liberal Party. I’d be delighted if I was proven wrong. But Mr Smith and company might better serve their constituents by doing something new, something that truly can and will stand up for the moderate mainstream of our society.
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