Less than three weeks ago the people of Bennelong went to the polls to decide their next Federal Member. The result presented a valuable snapshot of how the respective political parties are faring in metropolitan Sydney.
It came as no surprise that the Liberal candidate, John Alexander, won his seat back. What was surprising, however, was the lower than expected return for the Christian Democrats and the Australian Conservatives.
Combined, the two conservative parties achieved parity with The Greens, making the Australian Conservatives, in particular, a movement that should be taken seriously. The comparison also hints at their likely future as the conservative equivalent of The Greens: a party of protest, rather than a party of government.
This should not be taken as a way of disparaging their efforts. Joram Richa is young, talented, and well-liked among conservative circles. But the results of the Bennelong by-election are a firm reality check that Australia has a two-party political system, and that this reality is not to change any time soon.
Turning an eye to the marriage plebiscite, in Bennelong 50.2 per cent of people voted ‘no.’ There is clearly a significant conservative base to draw from, yet the Australian Conservatives only polled at 4.3 per cent
Ultimately, Australians will elect either a Labor government or a Coalition government, leaving the minor parties to exert their influence primarily in the upper house.
Of course, there are still many significant and justified concerns voiced by conservative Australians with respect to a lack of representation, and the way public discourse in Australia has taken a sharp turn to the left.
From identity politics to big-government policy, the Safe Schools Program to gender-neutral bathrooms, euthanasia to energy policy, increasing taxation to the tearing down of statues and revisionist history, all have been discussed and debated in the mainstream this year and have received support from representatives of each of the major parties.
I saw a number of familiar faces handing out for the Australian Conservatives on the Bennelong campaign, some of them I recognised as friends and former Liberals. I understand entirely why they are feeling disaffected, but I couldn’t help thinking how much more effective their contribution would be working as part of the Coalition rather than as a rival to it.
Comparisons can be drawn between the current situation and when the conservatives split from the Labor party to form the Democratic Labour Party. Labor was once a much more socially conservative party than it is today, caring about the concerns of mainstream Australians rather than the minority interest groups of the left, which it champions.
After a significant portion of its conservative membership left the party to form the DLP in the 1950s, Labor’s eventual shift to the left was inevitable.
Although this new, conservative party seemed refreshing and exciting at the time, the momentum for change faded, and as history will show, Labor continued to be a party of government and the DLP remained a minor party. In hindsight, this was a miscalculation with tremendous consequences since Labor’s disaffected conservatives missed an opportunity to stick it out during a difficult time and reclaim their party from within. Instead, they tried to replace the party altogether which, in the long run, proved an impossible task.
I fear that our friends who have left the Coalition may be at risk of making a similar mistake.
Engagement in our democracy is a good thing, and I encourage all Australians to take more of an interest in our political processes. If that means joining a political party, then all power to them. But for those who want to effect real change, I ask that they keep in mind that the parties of government are Liberal, National, and Labor. In my opinion, all three parties would benefit from an influx of conservative voices. If conservatives in Australia really do want to make a difference, I would suggest the major parties as a great place to start.
Damien Tudehope is Member for Epping in the New South Wales Parliament.
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