I wrote recently that the sensible centre in Australian politics is dead. Labor is off with the populist pixies and the Liberals no longer know why they’re there except to rip at each other’s throats.
With Labor forsaking policy and principle for grievance populism, the Liberal party has blown a golden opportunity to assert a centre-right restatement of what is the mainstream of Australian political discourse. Instead, it tacked left to steal Labor’s abandoned policy clothes. The very real risk for Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, “Fixer” Christopher Pyne and other fellow travellers is that the centre-left voters they woo will take the government’s money and still vote Labor anyway, while the socially and economically conservative support base crumbles as formerly rusted-on Liberals look further rightwards in disgust. And despite Pyne’s assertions on Monday’s Q and A that the preferences of the disgruntled will still come back to the Liberals ahead of Labor, a primary vote gone is a primary vote lost.
The decisive solidifying of Newspoll against the Turnbull government is evidence of this political reality. The problem for Turnbull is, sadly, that having tacked so hard to the left it’s almost impossible to tack right again. While he’s leader, the die is cast.
Re-enter Tony Abbott.
In his Institute of Public Affairs speech yesterday, Abbott warns his party is drifting slowly but steadily towards the fatal shoals of political oblivion. His “Make Australia Work Again” manifesto, despite the unfortunate Trumpist overtones of its banner, is on the whole a credible blueprint for centre-right reform encapsulated in the pithy, simple messages to voters that Abbott excels at and prolix Turnbull certainly doesn’t. It is, as newspapers have been reporting this morning, a platform for a potential Abbott return to the Liberal leadership.
It is certainly far more positive, and constructive, than Pyne’s immature and intemperate boasting about the power of the Liberal party moderates, encapsulated by his enthusiasm for the trendy left’s obsession with same-sex marriage.
Abbott’s vision is far from perfect. Like Theresa May, he remains the big government conservative of whom then Treasurer Peter Costello despaired, with a touching but misplaced paternalist trust in the ability of government to do good by intervening in people’s lives – and look where that’s got her. Government-funded construction of coal-fired power stations? That’s not the business of government in this day and age, and certainly not the national government.
But his is not a One Nation vision, nor even a Cory Bernardi vision. Abbott’s manifesto is determinedly in the mainstream centre-right, attractive to the Liberal base and to millions of voters disillusioned by the shambolic state of our politics. It could be sold and, importantly, it could be delivered, whether or not he’s the leader to deliver it.
But what saddens and frustrates those of us on the centre-right is not the substance of Abbott’s declarations of policy and principle, but that internal fights for a governing party’s direction and soul are usually reserved for when that party loses government. First Labor in the Rudd-Gillard years, and now the Liberals in the Abbott-Turnbull period, have committed political fratricide while still on the Treasury benches. Already a year into a term that likely will be truncated by a crowded 2018-19 electoral calendar, the one opportunity for the government to reboot its agenda before the next election effectively was taken, and blown, in this year’s Budget. Abbott’s plan and (if it be so), his push to reclaim the leadership on a policy platform, probably comes too late to save the Liberal ship from the rocks.
Hopefully the Liberals will yet adopt some, if not all, of the Abbott manifesto. Alas, and despite Abbott’s sincere belief that it is a manifesto for retaining office, it is more likely to be a manifesto for a Liberal party in opposition – if, that is, it continues to exist as a coherent force – holding a populist, big taxing and bigger spending Shorten Labor government to account.
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