Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s roadmap to normality was criticised as vague but it did contain one piece of substance –- he made it harder for stranded Australians to return home. Our mindset at this point should be to tear down that Covid wall, Prime Minister, not heighten it.
The government’s re-election strategy appears to be built around flogging the Covid horse till polling day. The clean-up however is too urgent for political timetables. Australia has been one of the least Covid impacted nations but on a per capita basis has racked up one of the world’s biggest Covid debts — comparable to wartime. When those wastrels of the ALP lost office in 2013 they handed over $257 billion in federal government debt. Three Liberal Party PMs later and it’s on its way to $1.2 trillion.
Endless debt? Engineering the semi-Covid. state? All but promising ‘carbon-neutrality’ by 2050? Sorry, but three strikes and you are out. This is not just a deviation from the Liberal Party’s founding. It’s betrayal.
At his campaign launch for the 1946 election, opposition leader Robert Menzies thundered, ‘Or shall we build upon liberal democracy, which passionately believes that the war was fought to overthrow the authoritarian state; that there can be no national progress except through the efforts of the individual.’ Menzies was a classical liberal –- small state, big citizens -– hence his choice of party name.
A few years after his retirement, Menzies spent many hours being interviewed by the Australian correspondent for The Economist, Lady Frances McNicoll. Her audio recordings of many of the interviews are preserved. That goldmine was largely sealed until the Menzies Foundation gave Troy Bramston access while he was researching his 2019 definitive biography of Menzies. Menzies’ view of his successors reveals endless disappointment. In 1974, at a gala event for this eightieth birthday Menzies said, ‘When we commenced the Liberal Party we had principles. Principles are apparently nowadays things that are not to be insisted upon because to insist upon them is to demonstrate you are ‘reactionary’ or ‘conservative.’’ Bramston has ample evidence Menzies, at least once, voted for the right-wing Democratic Labor Party.
If the great man was distressed in the 1970s what would he think now? After the last 18 months, my hunch is he’d want to see a 1944-style fresh start.
The Liberal Party could have championed a Swedish style citizen-trusting, light-touch Covid response. Sweden took an early hit but today has one of Europe’s lowest Covid fatality rates and along the way didn’t set dangerous precedents. If outlier Sweden was a bridge too far, then for months we’ve had plenty of evidence from big and small American states that the impulse to wind back Covid restrictions early is sound.
Social media often compares this Covid episode with George Orwell’s 1984. It’s inaccurate. We don’t have monitoring cameras in our homes and while dissent is curbed it’s not a crime. On a scale of one to ten, however (with ten being 1984), pre-Covid we were a two and now we’re a four. The trend is not our friend but very correctable. Covid has however demonstrated that if the big state and big business seriously collude they have the means to engineer a twenty-first century high-tech version of Orwell’s dystopia (China’s halfway there).
Lockdowns, travel prohibitions, tracking, snitching on neighbours, school closures, masks, free money and debt to Jupiter have all been a happy joint venture of the state and federal ‘Lib-Lab Party.’ Keen observers are not surprised. In 2017 then Treasurer Scott Morrison had this to say about free speech, ‘I know this issue doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour.” Scott Morrison has been a workaholic his entire working life and I suspect he’s been too busy to ever ponder his party’s classical liberal founding.
It wasn’t always this way. The New South Wales Division is to blame.
In its first half, the Liberal Party was dominated by the Victorian division. Every federal leader from 1945 to 1985 was a Victorian bar Billy McMahon. Other than the brief tenures of Andrew Peacock and Alexander Downer, every subsequent leader has come from NSW.
Besides a brief period from 2003 to 2009, the NSW Division has been controlled by the erroneously named ‘moderate’ faction. Yes, they’re moderate about policy (they don’t believe in much) but they’re immoderate about the pursuit, not so much of power, but of perks.
The moderates are a throwback to the Tammany Hall-style political machines which ran many American cities in the nineteenth century. Political machines are built on patronage and their end-product is sub-optimal politicians more loyal to the machine than the national interest. The ethos of the moderates is, ‘winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing’ and that now dominates the federal parliamentary party.
There was meant to be a ‘small government dry’ faction somewhere in the party room but they’ve been awfully quiet during Covid. If they can’t speak up now, what use are they? Had Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser overseen a similar response to the swine flu scare of 1976, there would have been cabinet resignations, an irate backbench and a backdown.
What about the Nationals? Barnaby said some good things as a backbencher but the quieter he stays as deputy PM, the more it suggests his grumblings were comeback tactics. More significantly, a party panel recently rejected John Anderson’s much-anticipated comeback and party grandees didn’t seem to care.
Anyway, I’m off to the Liberal Democratic Party. Surely classical liberalism is a growth stock in 2021. Can the LDP become a party of government that restores economic rationalism? I’m told it’s a longshot but it’s a better bet than clinging to the false hope the Liberals rediscover their founding principles. If Menzies voted DLP in 1972, my hunch is he would vote LDP in 2022.
John Ruddick is the Liberal Democratic Party candidate for the seat of Warringah at the next federal election.
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