How might the centre-right do better? This is the question that the promising young writer Jake Thrupp has posed; and in Australia Tomorrow, 40 liberal-conservative luminaries have given their answers, including three former Liberal leaders, a former premier, the Deputy Prime Minister, eight current or former Coalition frontbenchers, and seven current or former federal MPs.
At one level, it’s a little surprising that conservatives should be canvassing their need to improve, given that Labor has only governed in Canberra for six of the past 25 years. But as John Howard says in his introductory piece: ‘nothing beats the relevance of ideas and the passion with which they are advocated’; and as Peta Credlin adds in hers, ‘even though the Liberal party is in office, nationally and in three states, it’s still at a very low ebb…. (because) in many respects, it’s hard to see right now the difference between the Liberal governments and the Labor ones’. Essentially then, this book is about the ways in which Liberal-National governments and oppositions often let down their supporters by failing to put their political ideals and aspirations into practice. Faced with choosing between the robustly conservative views of most Liberal party members and an increasingly ‘woke’ zeitgeist, too many MPs end up going with the flow. I’m sure this played a role in my replacement by Malcolm Turnbull, despite having brought the Liberals back to government in record time.
Some of the essays (from David Crisafulli, Jacinta Price and Elizabeth Lee) are moving personal stories of how they came to the ‘right’ side of politics from disadvantaged backgrounds. A few dwell on their authors’ personal hobby-horses, yet are (mostly) nonetheless interesting for that. One is basically just a ministerial portfolio statement. Taken as a whole, the pervasive sense is that Coalition governments have lacked the courage of their convictions; perhaps because it’s hard to discern what those convictions really are; beyond the near-universal political aim to foster prosperity and security, and thereby to win elections.
Editor Thrupp sets the scene: ‘Australia is a great country but it could be greater’, he says, had the ‘centre-right side of politics’ not been so ‘timid when it comes to reasserting its values’. Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells suggests that the Liberal party has ‘lost its way’ because it’s ‘moved too far to the left’. Senator James McGrath laments that ‘successive Coalition ministers have wilfully failed to attempt any reform of the ABC’. Gary Hardgrave says that too many Liberal MPs have become ‘lazy acolytes’ of the same ‘big government and big business mantra’ as Labor. Tim Wilson is disappointed that his own government has not done more to empower individuals economically. Jason Falinski thinks that his own government hasn’t done enough to shake up the ‘cartel of advocates, regulators, class action lawyers, unions, and big super trillion-dollar fund managers’ that are sucking working Australians dry. John Alexander says that we’re not spending enough on infrastructure yet funding too much of it with debt. Campbell Newman (writing before he’d resigned to join the Liberal-Democrats) calls on the Liberal party to ‘re-affirm its traditional values… to totally support the Forgotten People’. Senator Amanda Stoker calls on conservatives to more ‘robustly defend and champion the liberal principles that have enabled us to thrive: …freedom of speech and freedom of conscience’. Senator Ben Small regrets that productivity was not mentioned at all in the most recent federal Budget speech. Senator Matt Canavan is scathing about the government’s refusal even to try to repeal the nuclear ban. The Deputy Prime Minister himself, Barnaby Joyce, worries that the right is becoming a ‘mirror image’ of the Left by neglecting its ‘obligation… to assert the primacy of a world in which endeavour, opportunity and ambition are rewarded and the state takes a back seat’.
I’ve highlighted these because, as senior Liberals and Nationals, they’re the ones closest to the problem; but it’s to Thrupp’s credit that he’s assembled such an array of contributors, from ‘regulars’ such as Alan Jones, to those whose strong opinions are rarely in print, such as Gina Rinehart.
Many are dismayed (to put it mildly) by Coalition governments’ responses to Covid: to impose unprecedented restrictions on freedom and to borrow and spend previously unthinkable sums. In what is probably the book’s finest essay, referencing the oft-proclaimed parallels between the pandemic and wartime, Menzies Research Centre director Nick Cater notes that ‘once again, our liberties are at stake; this time, not from the intentions of a hostile enemy, but from what we are doing to ourselves’. As liberals, he says, ‘we long for the day when QR codes, permits for interstate travel and two metre rules are just a bad memory. We look forward to partying like it’s 1945 when the tape is removed from park benches and we can stand upright in a pub with a beer in our hands. Those of us who put on a paper mask rather than one made of cloth, as a gesture of hope that all things must pass, trust we will one day be vindicated’. The immediate task for liberals, he says ‘is reconstruction, to repair the damage to the liberal democracy we once imagined was the birthright of every Australian’.
Long ago, in response to correspondence attacking alleged governmental failures of omission or commission, invariably concluding that the constituent could never vote for me again, I would often blithely respond that, far from being a choice between great and good, or even between good and bad, politics was usually a choice between bad and worse – and that, on this standard, I could still turn out to be the better man! Freed from the endless juggling of politics – yes, even conservatives-by-conviction still have to do that – it’s easier to appreciate the desire of voters (and of the contributors to this volume) to have a more sustaining reason for backing the Liberal party than ‘the alternative would be worse’.
After these essays were finalised, all who believe sufficiently in our country to take our national security seriously were given compelling positive grounds to re-elect the Morrison government. Credit to Anthony Albanese, too, for backing the decision to acquire nuclear submarines but a long-term Coalition government is by far our best bet for seeing it through.
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