Some rambling thoughts on the Australian Liberal Party’s current malaise…
The Liberal Party’s Identity Crisis
With each passing day, it seems harder and harder to discern any kind of coherent philosophical base uniting the Liberal Party. Even its alleged commitment to small government and the virtues of free markets is more theoretical than real these days. That particular axiom has been hollowed out recently, as the Coalition has sought to retain the favour of the electorate by embracing traditional Laborite, “big government” programmes. Promising to fund bloated schemes of questionable financial wisdom – the NDIS, the NBN and the Gonski school reforms are just three that come to mind – the Liberals have even abandoned any substantive devotion to economic liberalism. This is of a piece with their rather anaemic (non-)defence of key centre-right/conservative values. The party is now languishing in an agonising period of ideological confusion.
The question concerning the Liberals’ governing principles has taken on a new urgency in recent times, as the various ideological factions composing the party – the so-called “moderates” and “conservatives” – have descended into rancorous, internecine debate. This isn’t to say the issues besetting the Liberals weren’t present beforehand; something like this doesn’t just spring up overnight. Clearly, they have been percolating for some years now, with the party’s past two leaders, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, acting as standard-bearers for the warring blocs. But the unexplained (not to mention incompetent) removal of the former member for Wentworth has exposed the fact that the present-day Liberal Party is, philosophically-speaking, rudderless.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the party of Menzies faces a crisis, one of existential import. But what has caused this ideological drift? Such a situation, slow to take shape, is unlikely to be mono-causal. Rather, it is the product of a complex confluence of factors, both proximate and distal.
Mapping the Crisis
At one level, the Liberals’ current woes can indeed be seen as a by-product of the party’s apparent inability to reconcile its two main philosophical streams. The increasingly schismatic quality of its internal ructions has obviously had an enervating effect – when any group is this consumed with collective navel-gazing, a period of drift is inevitable. The same-sex marriage debate showcased some of these divisions, with that particular question unveiling deeper fissures concerning the basic direction of the party. Tensions have been intensified immeasurably by the simmering personal feud between Abbott and Turnbull, who came to embody contrasting visions of what it meant to be a Liberal. Partly as a consequence, the party now seems beset by a kind of philosophical inertia, increasingly torn between two ways of articulating conservative/right-leaning politics in Australia. Such conflicts continue to smoulder, not only within the parliamentary party, but also at the local branch level.
Nevertheless, one shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the sole reason for the Liberals’ problems, important though it is; nor is it the only lens through which the party’s listlessness may be viewed. For several years now, the Coalition has been afraid to advance a principled, coherent, conservative approach to the many issues with which the country must grapple. Instead, it has either evaded those issues outright, or engaged in abortive and half-hearted attempts to give voice to a right-of-centre perspective. Worse, it has wholeheartedly embraced positions that were first propounded by its ideological opponents, and which in many cases undermine the strength of the conservative position. This sad state of affairs is doubtlessly connected to the party’s internal divisions, such that it persistently struggles to present a unified view on a clutch of controversial questions. But one doesn’t have to look too far to find examples of even Liberal warriors capitulating on principle for the (increasingly elusive) prize of electoral popularity.
It might be recalled that it was none other than Tony Abbott – a conservative pugilist, if ever there was one – who on the eve of the 2013 election promised that there would be “no cuts” to education, health, and the like. At best, the pronouncement jarred horribly with what many regarded as basic right-leaning approaches to the role of the state, fiscal rectitude, etc. (even if one ultimately concludes that no cuts were required, how wise is it to blithely promise that much before one has been able to conduct a proper audit of federal spending?). Moreover, it was Abbott who in 2014 abandoned efforts to dilute S18C of the RDA in the interests of some Quixotic goal of uniting all Australians – including Muslim Australians – behind a raft of new anti-terror laws. Once again, conservatives watched in dismay as a putative champion abruptly abandoned another article of (political) faith.
The point of this exercise in recent political history is to suggest that the evacuation of the Liberal Party’s binding philosophy began before many of the internal divisions we have been witnessing came to the fore. Abbott’s uncharacteristic timidity and awkwardness during the debate around S18C is a clear example.
This goes well beyond the events of the previous six months, or even the past five years. As John Roskam, executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs, has pointed out, the Liberal Party has been in a state of ideological flux since the retirement of John Howard after the 2007 election defeat. Writing just after Peter Dutton’s ill-fated attempt to wrest the leadership from Turnbull last August, Roskam observed:
“[It does not] settle the fundamental question the Liberal Party has been grappling with since the retirement of John Howard and Peter Costello. For a decade the Liberal Party has struggled with the question of what should be its philosophy and its principles…”
Roskam went on to correctly note that the Liberal Party has, over the past ten years, embraced a number of economic positions that would make any Keynesian proud (to take just one policy domain). It has increased taxes, expanded the welfare state, and presided over the entrenchment of new and burdensome regulations. Meanwhile, members of the party shy away from several controversial – though nonetheless important – civic debates. The result of this timorousness is two-fold: a now-chronic inability to outline an agenda that can appeal to both intellect and lived experience; and the public’s (understandable) failure to grasp the party’s vision for the country.
In Search of Adequate Leadership
Roskam made an interesting, albeit fleeting, point about the identity crisis with which the Liberal Party has wrestled. It is obvious that the party of the Howard-era was a far more united, far more coherent political body. It was a “broad church”, of course, composed of both social conservatives and small “l” liberals. But with uncanny political nous, as well as an ability to articulate his party’s position in a clear and consistent manner, Howard was able to maintain a degree of institutional and philosophical cohesion – based largely around a shared commitment to economic liberalism – not seen since. Elsewhere, Roskam suggests:
“In simple terms, at the federal level the parliamentary leader of the Liberals sets the party’s philosophical direction and Liberal MPs then follow it.”
Is it a case, then, of faulty leadership? Can the Liberals resolve their painful wrestling by finding an effective “pontiff” who can successfully hold together this broad church, whilst outlining a compelling vision for the country that grounds itself in centre-right principles? Howard achieved this goal with consummate skill as he led the Liberal Party to four consecutive election victories. Whatever one thought of his basic political stance, such leadership is sorely lacking these days. Its absence, and the sense of drift that has ensued, is indelibly linked to the party’s present malaise. The fact that it has now had three leaders since winning office in 2013 – with the third coming to power despite never having explained why his predecessor’s demise was necessary – is perverse evidence of this reality. Although some sporadic efforts towards the construction of a positive agenda have been made, the current leadership of the Liberal Party seems just as diffident as previous iterations. Conversely, a talented leader can draw together the disparate elements of a party in an act of remarkable political alchemy. Roskam’s observation is therefore true in many respects: philosophical cohesion and fidelity to a party’s traditions depend in large part on the quality of the person leading it.
On the other hand, I think Roskam’s dictum may overstate things somewhat, if simplistically applied to today’s context. The political, social, and economic landscape has shifted markedly since John Howard was in office, which I think makes it far more difficult for a centre-right leader to articulate and prosecute his or her party’s agenda. At this point, the Liberal Party is in such a perilous state that it seems incapable of producing anyone who can rise about the intellectual torpor in which it is mired. This isn’t to say that the environment in which the Howard Government found itself was entirely benign; nor am I suggesting that the re-vitalisation of the Liberal Party under a competent leader is impossible. However, it appears that on a number of fundamental questions – questions that go to the heart of what the party stands for – the electorate has either drifted leftward, or fragmented politically in a way that eludes any one party’s control. In such a climate, even the most gifted of leaders is constrained in what he or she can accomplish.
The Economy: A Window into the Liberals’ Woes
Economics, which is so consequential to the Liberal Party’s identity, is a case-in-point. The Global Financial Crisis proved to be something of a watershed in regards to the way a government’s relationship with the economy was conceived. Rightly or wrongly, that catastrophe was attributed by many commentators to the evils of unbridled capitalism – a consequence of the free market’s alleged moral failings. Since then, consecutive governments of both ideological persuasions have adopted an increasingly interventionist approach to economic management. The GFC provided the rationale for the Labor Party to dramatically increase public spending – a trajectory from which its parliamentary opponents have only marginally dissented.
Voters have become habituated to such increases. The notion that government ought to play a relentlessly interventionist role in the economy, or should provide a panoply of income supplements as part of an ever-expanding welfare state (regardless of need), are now axioms of modern Australian life. Note, for instance, the victory of Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government in last November’s election, which was attributed in part to promises of massive infrastructure spending projects. The electorate was impressed by what it saw as an activist government “getting things done”. Unfortunately, such promises carry with them the likelihood of fiscal profligacy – a risk that did not prevent Victorian Labor from notching up a huge win. That win is one sign that the expectation of governmental largesse is now an accepted norm; when such a climate prevails, even the mere suggestion of reform in this domain is a risky prospect. Just look at the discussion around company tax cuts. As current polling data around the reduction of company tax suggests, the public is at best bemused by – and in many instances, quite hostile to – the idea that large businesses should be afforded some relief in this area.
Such scepticism is no longer confined to the progressive side of politics: many on the populist right, for example, hold economic views that are antithetical to a free market philosophy (think One Nation). Though a minority force within Australian politics, right-wing economic nationalism is not negligible. Thus, on the issue of the economy – to say nothing of other urgent questions – the Liberal Party is confronted with a much more malign political landscape. Finally, splits within the party itself reflect what one observes within Australian society-at-large. They manifest themselves in debates around economic philosophy, with some Liberal members calling for a move away from a “dry” approach, in favour of one that is claimed to be more “centrist”. Whether they are genuinely convinced by such notions, or have merely proposed them for the sake of electoral gain isn’t the point; however, a prospective Liberal leader wanting to stake out a distinctive position on (in this case) economics will not only face external hostility, but internal intransigence as well. Fiscal restraint and economic liberalism, meanwhile, continue to dissolve as core tenets of the Liberal Party’s platform. (As an aside, it’s ironic that the Liberals are still castigated for their apparent devotion to a harsh, unsparing economic philosophy, when in so many instances their policy position either mirrors, or merely shifts by degrees, the agenda of the ALP).
What I’m trying to say is that the issues confronting the Liberal Party are institutional and structural. The tectonic changes that Australian society has experienced have made it much harder for a leader of the Liberal Party to offer up an agenda that maintains some fidelity to centre-right principles, whilst also appealing to large swathes of the electorate. The party itself it adrift, having long ago slipped its ideological moorings on the question of the economy; some putative Liberals are being formed by a political culture inimical to liberal economic values, whilst others are advocating an entirely post-ideas approach to political engagement (a meek capitulation if ever there was one). As a consequence, the party faces the reality of at least the partial collapse of a common agenda. This is made all the more acute by a complementary breakdown in a shared conception of authentic centre-right social values, which has now become contested territory.
An Uncertain Outlook
Thus, even if the Liberal Party were to engage in another round of blood-letting – a real possibility if they lose this year’s federal election – there is no guarantee that a leader capable of supplying intellectual ballast could be found, given its parlous state. What’s more, taking the helm of the party now means having to contend with the fact that much of the electorate is either ambivalent towards, or deeply sceptical about, many of the tenets that have traditionally formed the party’s base.
If correct, this means we are left with a sobering conclusion: the absence of clear direction within the Liberal Party (in economics, as in so many things) is not merely symptomatic of political incompetence or a lack of unity, but is a product of the unfavourable historical juncture at which it finds itself. The Liberals must wrestle with the tension of trying to remain a party of (in this case) economic liberalism whilst appealing to an electorate whose mood on that issue has substantially shifted. That tension can be seen in the increasing internal confusion that besets the party, and its faltering efforts to respond to a changing economic landscape. Grappling with deep disagreements over their basic philosophical orientation, the Liberals are now at the mercy of centrifugal forces, both internal and external, that threaten to sunder them entirely.
Herein lies a devilish conundrum. On the one hand, the party of Menzies can choose to bravely unite around a coherent set of values, and hew to those policies that have traditionally formed a core part of its identity. That of course risks an indeterminate period of electoral failure, since the party can no longer rely on a neat dovetailing of economic liberalism and the voting public’s majority sentiments. But on the other hand, if the Liberal Party elects to move (further) away from its natural home on a raft of issues, it only succeeds in raising vital questions concerning its commitment to a distinct, coherent, stable philosophy. Abandoning its governing principles merely for the sake of electoral gain means that it alienates itself from the very thing that supplies its reason for being in the first place. Similarly, if the party seeks advantage by aping the ALP – all the while maintaining a superficial commitment to superior economic management – it merely exposes its own desiccation. Producing a leadership team capable of outlining a credible agenda would form only a partial solution to this dilemma. Given the welter of structural changes over the past decade or so, wholesale reform is beyond the capacity of any one individual. It confronts an uncertain future, regardless of the direction it chooses.
Having said that, the Liberal Party as a whole will probably need to bite the proverbial bullet and re-embrace a principled, centre-right agenda, despite the possible electoral consequences of such a decision. At least on the question of economics, the party will need to be resolute as it tries to persuade a doubting public that relatively free markets, small government, fiscal restraint, strong property rights, and the like, offer the best avenue towards national and personal wealth. This alone is how its identity crisis might be definitively resolved. I’m not saying this will be easy, or that it offers a straightforward path to success. For the time being, at least, I’m fairly certain it won’t. But what other alternative is there, save for a cynical (and so far unsuccessful) attempt to mimic the party’s political opponents? Whether Liberal members are willing to place fealty to principle above such cravenness, however, remains to be seen.