Amidst the aftermath of Obamamessiah’s Coronation Inauguration, with the specter of “change” looming over the United States, the Republican Party has been dominated by much introspective navel-gazing. Politicians and pundits cry out for the party to ‘broaden its base’, modernize, appeal to younger voters. The brand needs to be changed, they cry, not by reverting to traditional conservative beliefs, but rather by a refashioning into something ‘modern’, something ‘appealing’.
In determining the future course of the party, it is instructive to not only view the course that we as a movement have taken in the past, but also how other contemporary political parties have dealt with this challenge. Does this desire to ‘trendify’ equate to political success? I would urge as a cautionary tale that we view with sadness the state of the right in Australia, so we may avoid the pit that they have fallen into.
Most of us would be aware that in November 2007, the Australian Liberal Party (Australia’s conservative party) lost Federal Government after 12 years. For many years the leadership of John Howard in supporting freedom at home and abroad, and resisting the religious hysteria of the global warming movement, was an inspiration to conservatives worldwide. Whilst far from perfect, particularly in later years, it was a government rooted in small government principles: taxes were reduced, and budgets remained in surplus. At a time where small government principles seemed to be waning internationally, with those on the right disillusioned (or indeed sickened) with the ‘compassionate conservatism’ (code for quasi-socialism) of George W. Bush, Australia stood out as a beacon of freedom. The global impact of Howard’s intellectual leadership from opposing Kyoto to the culture wars was great.
Indeed, it is a testament to the transformation of Australian society, and the true legacy of the Howard government that the Labor victory of 2007 was made possibly only by Labor reinventing themselves as ‘economic conservatives’ and ‘social traditionalists’ – the only way to defeat conservatives was to become conservative! Despite Labor leader Kevin Rudd portraying himself as a younger version of John Howard, it goes without saying, that, following his election, such ideals fell by the wayside and were replaced by creeping nanny state protectionism, economic intervention and the penalization of initiative and success. As the former singer of the band Midnight Oil, and now Labor MP and (scarily) Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett was heard saying just before the election, “once we’ll get in, we’ll just change it all”.
Such occurrences are, of course, merely part of the political cycle. Unfortunate as it may be, there is no such thing as a permanent majority, and temporary electoral setbacks are in and of themselves no cause for concern in the battle of ideas. We should, however, concern ourselves with the direction that the Liberal Party, post office, has taken. It can be described as nothing less than a tragedy that under the Liberal Party’s new leader, Malcolm Turnbull, much has changed, and in this there is a lesson all conservatives and libertarians should take heed.
Malcolm Turnbull and the center-right movement have traditionally been considered an ill fit, to say the least. From championing radical changes to centralize the Australian constitution, to fighting for Australia’s ratification of Kyoto while Howard was in power, many of Turnbull’s positions have long been viewed as anathema by the nation’s conservative intellectuals. Many have argued that he is little more than a political chameleon, adapting his views to that which is trendy and popular with the inner city elites. Indeed Former Labor Senator Nick Bolkus stated that Turnbull, on more than one occasion, raised numerous genuine inquiries with him on how to achieve Labor preselection (Australian primary equivalent) in the 1990’s. Although denied by Turnbull, such allegations fed into popular conservative conceptions of Turnbull as a value-free opportunist.
In accepting the Leadership of the Liberal Party, Turnbull’s speech to the media laid out the blueprint for a new style of ‘conservatism’; one based not on laissez-faire conceptions of individual freedom, but on government empowerment. Clothed in the rhetoric of individual rights, he presents a model little different to those of nanny state paternalism. Turnbull’s words – “a society can not be free if it is not fair” – say it all. The next day he promoted Christopher Pyne, widely acknowledged as a leading light in the party’s hard-left and a recent attendee at the Democratic Convention, into a senior cabinet post.
For many on the right, there is little doubt that Turnbull is a man of no convictions whatsoever. No convictions, that is, except one: that he should be Prime Minister. No longer is leading the means to an end, it is the end in and of itself. Indeed, insiders say Turnbull never actually believed in Kyoto when arguing for its signing. No, far worse, his attitude was that “while it would do nothing, it isn’t worth suffering political pain for principle”.
Turnbull’s response to the global financial crisis can be described as nothing but sickening. He decided to seize the initiative (and the media spotlight). He proposed a quasi-bailout and, attacking the government from the left, argued for government guarantees of all bank deposits; a move met with surprise by economists (as Australian banks remained highly profitable and had no need for a bailout) and conservative commentators (surprised that the Liberal Party would embrace socialism so rapidly). The government of course was delighted at the opportunity to enact carte-blanch socialism. It did so, and two days later the stock market plummeted as everyone withdrew investments to put into bank guarantees, retirees (under Australia’s quasi-privatized social security system) were locked out of savings as institutions froze funds to try and halt the panic, and the dollar collapsed. Smart move, Malcolm. Now long after he attacked Australian banks for profit-seeking (not withstanding the irony of his former position as chair & managing director of Goldman Sachs Australia), attacked ‘rich executives’ and effectively called for government intervention to bring down mortgage rates! The very reason that triggered the global financial collapse in the US, one which Australian banks were spared, the leader of a supposedly conservative party tried to introduce at home! Oh, and Turnbull still talks with pride on how in the early 1990s he bitterly attacked the (then-Labor) government for daring to deregulate our telecommunications industry.
And then we move to Labor Market reform. Nowhere can the mind-boggling cowardly cravenness of the Liberal Party be seen more starkly than here. Note, by the way, that I deliberately do not call them the Opposition, as is their proper title in Australian politics, for they have completely failed to oppose anything. Her Majesty’s Supine and Backboneless Dishrags would be a more apt title. And it got worse. With the Union-beholden Labor Party proposing legislation to return Australia to the 1930s, destroying individual freedoms, eliminating jobs and critically damaging the economy, the Liberal Party – on this, the one issue where some of its greatest achievements have been – did nothing. It refused to stand up for the right to work. It refused to stand up for freedom of contract. It merely bowed its head and submitted. Similarly, when the economic vandals that are the Australian government released a Keynesian big-spending, deficit inducing, market-destroying stimulus package last week, the opposition did… nothing. Oh, it did meekly propose some minor amendments, but once they government didn’t agree, it bowed its head, fearful of popular backlash that it was ‘blocking reform’ and did … nothing. Infrastructure funds and a ridiculously unnecessary auto bail out? Yup, Liberals just let them roll ahead. A policy platform based on no more than perceptions of future opinion polls. No principles. No ideas. Just an empty void.
Such is the state of affairs that a prominent political commentator asked, puzzled: “tell me what the Coalition would do significantly differently on the economy, water, health, education or global warming?” What is the difference indeed. The Liberal Party is no more than a carbon copy of Labor. “When all is said and done, Turnbull and his shadow environment minister Greg Hunt agree with virtually everything that Rudd and his climate change minister Penny Wong say about taxing industry and redistributing the proceeds at potentially huge cost to the economy”.
This is the fundamental cancer that is infesting the conservative movement: the willingness to play to media elites through ‘bipartisanship’ and ‘compromise’. Odiously selling out your beliefs and politically prostituting yourself to climb the greasy poll to success. It is morally repugnant. But, not only that, it does not work. Howard was Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister. He gained this honor for a reason. For conviction. For standing up for the values of what is right. Irrespective of what spineless moral relativists might say, there is a right and a wrong. Freedom should ultimately triumph. Bipartisanship is no more than selling out your beliefs. The most successful in the political game have done more than tell the populace what they want to hear. Rather, they have evangelized them. Politics is not only the antithesis of leadership, as Baroness Thatcher once declared. It is, indeed, political death. There is a reason Dante reserved a special level of hell for political fence sitters.
And after all this compromise? the result of Turnbull’s policy of political prostitution? Labor leads the Opposition by 59% to 41%. And Turnbull’s personal support? Rudd leads Turnbull as preferred leader 66% to 19%.
Tom Switzer, former Opinion Editor of The Australian, recently noted:
In this environment, why should Liberals lurch left when Labor could only win power by moving right? Why should a right-of-centre party run to the left of a church-going, family-values Labor leader almost as conservative as the prime minister he replaced? Indeed, Kevin Rudd – first as opposition leader and then as Prime Minister over the past 13 months – has had a lot more in common with John Howard than he has with Phillip Adams.
As opposition leader, Rudd not only styled himself as an “economic conservative” but also mimicked Howard on virtually everything from opposition to gay marriage and teacher unions to support for anti-terrorism laws during the Haneef debacle and the federal intervention in remote indigenous communities. Such tactics worked a treat. He convinced key segments of the socially conservative working and lower middle classes in marginal suburban and regional electorates to vote Labor again after their 12-year affair with the Coalition.
He concludes by saying:
As Peter Costello argued on these pages recently: “The Liberal Party should remember it is the guardian of the centre-right tradition in Australia.” If Liberals cede the nation’s heartland to Rudd, they might as well kiss the next election goodbye.
Indeed. Yet this is precisely the course Turnbull is taking. All the while the mainstream media lavishes praise upon him, salivating at the concept of the change he brings. And indeed, why should they not? For Turnbull is essentially one of them. One of the Elite. Popular on Facebook, and photographed with celebrities and societies glamorous. Agreeing with every left-wing policy directive. And this is the trendy model that many here want us to emulate. Sick of attacking the culturally left elite, many conservatives simply want to join them.
So what are the implications for the broader conservative movement? No longer can we look to our Australian cousins for leadership, where it would seem de facto socialism has found bipartisan political support. But more importantly, the lesson is of the importance to stay true to your beliefs. To do otherwise is not only moral suicide, but political.
Many conservatives recite the words of Ronald Reagan uttered in 1970 after the defeat of the Republican Party: “I don’t know about you, but I am impatient with those Republicans who, after the last election, rushed into print saying ‘We must broaden the base of our party’ when what they meant was to fuzz up and blur even more the differences between ourselves and our opponents… A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers… if there are those who cannot subscribe to those principles, then let them go their way”.
If only this lesson was remembered in Australia today.