Looking for the liberal Liberals
Labor Herald, 16 August 2016
When Malcolm Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott to become party leader for the second time, the partisan side of me was a little worried. I thought we’d see a PM with a strong inner core, guided by his values and confident in his instincts.
But, after nine months in office and eight weeks’ campaigning, Malcom Turnbull worries me no longer. In fact, I’m beginning to worry for him. I am worried Australia still does not really know what he stands for, and neither does he.
Socially liberal values seem as rare in the Liberal Party as a woman winning a preselection.
This doesn’t make me feel any better, but it is a reminder the Liberal Party no longer fights for centrist, small-L liberalism. Quite simply, this is because it no longer has a centre worth fighting for.
I have argued previously there are three ideological strands in Australian politics: equality, conservatism and liberalism.
Few would dispute the Labor Party has made the goal of equality its own. Ours is the party of Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, of needs-based school funding and a targeted social safety net.
I gladly give conservatism to the Coalition, fixed as it is upon defending the status quo, supporting vested interests, and railing against progressive change. The motto ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will always be one for the Liberal-Nationals.
However, in Australia the tradition of small-L liberalism has been contested over the past 120 years, sometimes vigorously.
For Labor, whether through support for individual liberties or our commitment to open markets and multicultural Australia, social liberalism has always had a prominent place in our story.
For the Coalition, liberalism goes back to Robert Menzies in the 1940s, who claimed liberalism was the bedrock of his new political party. Menzies espoused values of equality of opportunity, creating a society in which rights and duties are recognised, and setting the individual free.
These days however, socially liberal values seem as rare in the Liberal Party as a woman winning a preselection.
In a recent article, Waleed Aly suggested the Liberal Party is ripping itself to pieces; that a civil war between the Menzies Liberals and the Abbott Conservatives can only be won, not resolved.
Since entering parliament in 2010, I’ve argued small-L liberalism is Labor’s to claim. With Tony Abbott as the Liberal Party’s leader, it was an easy debate to win. The Coalition was run by the hard right – the party of ‘NO’, which spent years in opposition trying to wreck the joint, then won office and brought you the 2014 Budget.
But when Malcolm Turnbull took the crown of Liberal leadership and placed it upon his own head, I was worried he might have been able to take the mantle of socially liberal leadership away from Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. He claimed to be a centrist, with socially liberal positions on markets and multiculturalism.
As one commentator recently put it, Mr Turnbull has an AAA problem: Abbott, Abetz and Andrews.
As a centrist, Mr Turnbull could have been very effective – ushering through a republic, making same-sex marriage an overdue reality, forcing Australia to be mature, genuine and responsible in its actions to mitigate climate change.
What I didn’t count on was that Malcolm Turnbull would fall under the spell of the delusional-conservative wing of the Coalition. The ‘DelCons’ don’t, can’t and won’t trust their leader, much less respect him. But they’re now pulling the strings more than anyone would have thought possible a year ago. As one commentator recently put it, Mr Turnbull has an AAA problem: Abbott, Abetz and Andrews.
Take economics, for example. Last year, the big economic idea was innovative companies. At Budget time, it was a 10-year big business tax cut. During the election campaign, Mr Turnbull said his main focus was small business. But in his post-election reshuffle, small business got booted out of cabinet.
It’s no wonder people are asking ‘what is the point of the Turnbull government?’
This Opinion Piece was first published in the Labor Herald on Tuesday, 16 August 2016