Flat White

The successful failure of the Australian Conservatives

23 June 2019

5:00 AM

23 June 2019

5:00 AM

In 1946 Winston Churchill declared to the British Conservative Party leadership what he believed to be its “main objectives”.

Topping the list was “To uphold the Christian religion and resist all attacks upon it”.

While not a Christian in the way Scott Morrison is, Churchill nonetheless had a deep sense of divine destiny and above all knew that the Judeo-Christian ethic underpinned Western Civilisation.

In December 2017, arguably Australian Christianity’s darkest hour as legislation to redefine marriage was being debated in the wake of the plebiscite, a majority of the cabinet of then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull voted against a tranche of freedom of religion amendments.

These were advanced by Liberal Senators James Paterson and David Fawcett to give effect to the promise of the winning Yes campaign that no other Australian’s rights or liberties would be affected by the change to marriage.

Labor and the Greens predictably lined up against the freedom provisions but their defeat was clinched with the support of Liberal MPs and Senators.

For the tens of thousands of Australians who had already joined Cory Bernardi’s fledgeling Australian Conservatives, this was further validation of their decision.

Like Bernardi, they had not left the Liberal Party, the Liberal Party as a group unit had abandoned them and liberalism’s most sacred principles.

To Morrison’s credit, he was one of the few in the Turnbull cabinet to vote for all of the Paterson/Fawcett amendments.

Watching so many Liberals vote on the floor of the Parliament against reasonable protections for freedom genuinely shocked me.

It sealed my decision to leave the Australian Christian Lobby after 10 years in Canberra, join Australian Conservatives and move back to Queensland for a tilt at the Senate.

It wasn’t just on freedom of religion that the Coalition government was drifting to the green-left.

Energy policy was shackled to UN climate ideology as householders battled sky-rocketing electricity bills and industry threatened to move offshore.

Coal-fired power stations were closing down without baseload electricity-generating capacity being replaced and the grid remains unstable, all on the watch of a conservative government.

Commonwealth debt was soaring towards $750 billion and Senator Bernardi’s calls for a debt ceiling had been rebuffed by his former colleagues.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in his 1978 Harvard Lecture, leaders in the West had lost the “will and courage” to defend the values of the West.

This seemed to sum up the state of conservative politics under Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 and 2018.

So it was with great energy and enthusiasm that so many of us rallied to Senator Bernardi’s courageous leadership which stuck to the timeless conservative principles of smaller government, lower taxes, stable families and above all – pushback on stifling political correctness.

Bring back common sense and burst the Canberra bubble were our refrains.

We set about building Senate campaigns in each State.

Australian Conservatives had no interest in playing the role of wrecker – we knew the real threat was Labor and the Greens.

Our aim was to wrest Senate seats from other minor parties – particularly the Greens if possible – without harming the Coalition.

The dream was to have the balance of power or, if not, critical mass on the Senate crossbench. If Labor won, we could try and block the tsunami of bad policy we knew was coming.

If the Coalition won, we could help a returned Turnbull-led Government return to genuine Menzian values by shaping outcomes in the Senate.

While hope is never a strategy, we calculated that One Nation would most likely implode and they nearly did amid blood on a Senate office door, an Aljazeera sting and a wild night at a Washington DC strip club.

When we started Clive Palmer and his gazillions were not on the horizon.

But the real game-changer was the Peter Dutton challenge of Turnbull which delivered the Prime Ministership to Morrison in August last year.

Immediately Morrison pivoted back to the centre.

He scrapped the anti-coal National Energy Guarantee, promised to protect religious freedom, pushed back against rainbow PC “gender whisperers”, cut immigration and he wouldn’t shut up about “bursting the Canberra bubble”.

He cut our grass.

Morrison kept turning up at churches whenever he was travelling and this would show up in viral social media feeds of Christians all over the country.

He even turned up at my local church, Hope Centre, one Sunday while I was away campaigning in North Queensland.

My friends were electrified by his visit. It’s not every Sunday the PM rocks up.

Christians, who along with disillusioned Liberals, were a key constituency for Australian Conservatives.

Those who had fled the Liberals as Turnbull wrapped the party in the anti-freedom and gender-bending rainbow flag now had reason to come back.

As Labor used the post-same-sex marriage political environment to ramp up attacks on Christian schools’ ability to employ staff who shared the parents’ ethos, people who were feeling that their freedoms were being eroded suddenly had hope.

Deep down I knew the Australian Conservatives’ value proposition on a range of issues was in trouble but we had come too far to stop.

The angry hard right fringe that will always be attracted to populist figures voted for One Nation and Clive Palmer, as expected.

The thinking and principled conservatives we had been cultivating fled back to the Coalition in fear of a hard-left anti-freedom, high-taxing and anti-coal Labor-Greens government.

On election day, we hardly troubled the scorers.

The marijuana and vegan parties, with no campaign resources or profile to speak of, beat us.

This was despite the efforts of very committed supporters and donors, many of them former Liberals.

In Queensland alone, more than 1000 volunteers helped my Senate campaign at pre-poll and on election day.

Enough money was raised to produce and screen high-quality television ads, radio and social media advertising, billboards, a million tri-fold leaflets plus corflutes and booth kits for credible polling day coverage from Cairns to Coolangatta.

This effort was replicated around the nation.

Our supporters’ disappointment at doing so badly was tempered with relief that Labor had lost and Morrison had won.

We did not expect this. The nation had dodged an economic and social policy bullet and we were the first to feel relief and joy.

We also took satisfaction in that Morrison had shamelessly adopted so many of our policies.

He proved that the true election-winning formula for the Coalition did not lie with the green-left direction the party was travelling, as popular as that was with the elites and the media.

Australian Conservatives will go down as a footnote in Australian political history. But its message was one our nation needed to hear and its cause was just.

I have no regrets in rallying to the Bernardi flag and I’m grateful to every Australian Conservative supporter who backed the Queensland Senate campaign.

Our efforts have not been in vain.

The Morrison miracle has seen a recalibration of conservative politics.

Having wooed conservative voters back, he has the authority to build on the trust they have returned.

I’m sure he would be open to starting with a Churchillian-like list of objectives.

Lyle Shelton is a former managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby. He was the Australian Conservatives’ federal communications director and lead Senate candidate at the 2019 election.

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