Guest Notes

Conservative notes

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

The Right is cleaving

Take a look at right-of-centre political parties in the Anglosphere. In Canada things are bad, very bad. After years of Stephen Harper running a pretty disappointing Conservative government (save for foreign policy, where he was excellent) the left-wing Liberal party of Canada with Justin Trudeau is in charge. The 18-month leadership battle to replace Harper – you see in Canada the party members get to decide who will be leader – ended up with a 51 per cent to 49 per cent winner. And only a few weeks ago the man on the losing side of that count walked out of the party.  He charged (very plausibly in my view) that the Conservative party and Opposition leader Andrew Scheer were way too left-leaning. He had few conservative views and it was ridiculous, continued the allegation, that Scheer should be supporting Canada’s agricultural supply management scheme – the one President Trump detests. So in the Great White North the right side of politics is in less than wonderful shape.

Meanwhile in Britain things are bad, very bad. Theresa May has been a disaster as a right-of-centre Prime Minister. In large part this was the easily foreseen consequence of putting a committed Remainer in charge of Brexit negotiations. In my view, Theresa May could well go down as one of the three or four worst PMs of the last century or so. Boris Johnson has recently likened her Brexit plan and strategy to putting on a suicide belt and handing the trigger to Brussels. Boris is right.  And most Conservative party members agree with him, not the PM. You’d say that things would be hopeless there for the Tories save that the Labour party is currently being led by a man with a history of cosying up to terrorists, with economic views to the left of Marx, with an unwillingness to take on anti-Semites in his own ranks and who still thinks Venezuela is on the right track.  His only redeeming feature is that deep down he’s a Leave man. Still, that’s who the Tories are up against and so incompetent is May and so divided her party that they are only up about four points in the polls over Labour.

Turn to the US and you see the right side of politics in power in the person of one Donald Trump. But again, many of the Republican party – the overt ones labelling themselves as ‘Never Trumpers’ – hate Trump and detest his policies. In particular they dislike his commitment to strong borders, to more limited immigration (with its concomitant concern not to flood the country with cheap labour), to unrelenting fights with a left-leaning media, to calling out allies who don’t pull their weight on military spending and loathe the Don’s love of disruption.

On the other hand, within Republican ranks there is a hefty degree of consensus on the big tax cuts, on the ongoing and comparatively massive paring back of regulations, on the appointing of judges who see their job as applying the law not making it up at the point of application, and on Trump’s commitment to cheap energy.


At the moment it’s not clear if Trump will or will not go a long way to remaking the Republican party in his own image.  The upcoming November mid-term elections will be crucial. Almost all first term US presidents lose ground in Congress at their first mid-term election. Obama did very badly indeed. And the number of presidents who come into office with both Houses of Congress and then manage to keep them both is very, very small indeed.

Will Trump be able to do it? In my view the Don will keep the Senate; he’ll probably even extend the Republican majority there, albeit because of the luck of which states happen to be in play. As for the House of Representatives, Trump and the Republicans are hefty underdogs there.

But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a narrow Republican win there too.  If that happens, Trump will dominate the party until 2020. So in the US things on the right side of the political divide are portrayed by most of the media as bad, very bad, but in fact they’re better there than elsewhere by a bigly amount.

And then we can turn back home to Australia. The Liberal party in Canberra is a mess, I think we can all agree on that.  It is obvious now to everyone that the party room cleaves more or less into thirds.  One slice of MPs are Turnbullite Black Handers who like to deal in symbolism and virtue-signalling. (Think the Paris Accord. Think spending a fortune to win a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.) They like big immigration as it more or less automatically keeps GDP figures healthy. They like subsidising renewables and throwing money at ‘home made’ submarines and obscure Barrier Reef outfits. At core these MPs share the ABC world view on a significant range of issues.

A second tranche of the Liberal partyroom can be thought of as Abbott nationalists. They want to ditch Paris, cut immigration and try to fight identity politics. Many of these Liberal MPs understand that the important economic measure is the growth of GDP per capita. If over the last decade Australia is doing no better than Japan, which has zero immigration, in terms of the per person GDP growth rate, then these MPs should ask themselves why Australia should have just about the highest rate of immigration going.

Already you can see the size of the split within the Liberal party ranks.  Indeed, if you are Scott Morrison how do you keep these first two tranches of the partyroom away from each other’s throats, to say nothing of getting them simply to put up with each other if it means they can win? I ask that question seriously, not rhetorically. The last more or less third of the Liberal partyroom is made up of the MPs who, depending upon the circumstances, can quite happily slide between the other two groups. They aren’t overloaded with principles for which they’d be prepared to die in the ditch. But they do want to keep their jobs.

I think you could make the argument that the situation confronting centre-right politics in Australia at this point in time may even turn out to be even worse than it is in Canada. Ditto in comparison to the UK.

And compared to the United States, where the Republican base actually loves what’s happening, we look awful.

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