Flat White

Even a broad church needs walls

2 March 2017

7:20 PM

2 March 2017

7:20 PM

Whatever internal troubles Malcolm Turnbull and the federal coalition were experiencing, it’s fair to say that Tuesday’s release of the 18C Committee report didn’t help. But apart from the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Sunday penalty rates decision (which Bill Shorten, who instigated the whole business, is now being allowed to criticise with impunity), all the government’s recent problems are of its own making.

The words and deeds of Messrs Bernardi, Abbott, and now Christiansen have all been a long time coming. The only surprise about George Christiansen’s resignation as National whip, for example, is that he didn’t go all the way and resign from the party. Section 18C too has been causing coalition headaches for a while now, and regardless of the report’s recommendations (or non-recommendations, as is mostly the case), there was never going to be any relief.

And so what’s a conservative Liberal to do? I was at the book launch of Making Australia Right which has largely been overshadowed by Tony Abbott’s keynote address, and contra almost every report of the event, it sounded and felt more like a heartfelt plea than an unlikely job application. Maybe I’m wrong and he really was throwing his hat into the ring, but in any case Tony Abbott’s not the man to lead the party and the government if and when Turnbull goes. However, regardless of the intention behind Abbott’s manifesto, its content is worth considering.

The Prime Minister’s Liberal defenders are quick to tell us that the party of Menzies spans two great political traditions: conservatism and liberalism. Being a Broad Church covers over a multitude of political polar opposites, it would seem. But it’s quite clear that many who would offer this clichéd commentary have no idea that the “liberal tradition” means something other than modern Left-wing progressivism. They have evidently never heard of “classical liberalism”, and so it doesn’t occur to them that what they understand to be liberalism could never share a party room with conservatism. As Menzies said, “the etymology of our name ‘Liberal’ indicates we have stood for freedom.” Menzies was perhaps prescient in putting “have” in the past tense.


Everyone knows that our friends at the firm of Bernardi, Abbott & Christiansen are more conservative than liberal, but the Broad Church formula permits this. But it’s still a church. It may be ecumenical, but it’s not inter-faith! And so where does that leave the heretic Turnbull? Criticising Abbott, that’s where. Protesting too much! And accusing him of the ridiculous charge of trying to sabotage the party’s chances at the next election.

Time and time again the PM has had the option of interacting sensibly and honestly with bona fide liberal and conservative ideas. Heck, he might have even run with one – you know, for the sake of his members. But time and time again the craven coalition treated its base with contempt and genuflected at the altar of progressivism in the pursuit of relevance, respectability, and fantastical electoral success.

Tony Abbott’s manifesto is a lifeline, or at least it could be if anyone has ears to listen. He called for defence to be more about “protecting the country not just creating jobs in Adelaide.” This proposal alone is a vote winner with the (non-South Australian) electorate, but it’s even better than that: it is conservative. And indeed liberal. He called for a moratorium on immigration because he’s a racist trying to appeal to One Nation. Oh no, wait; it was, he explained, because of the downward pressure it would place on housing markets. Surely that would interest even the wettest of Young Liberal 18C enthusiasts.

Speaking of which, Abbott’s call to “”leave protecting our liberties to the Parliament, the courts and a free press where they belong” was once part of the party’s manifesto as well as its former leader’s. Of course, when he was leader Abbott himself shamefully reneged on a promise to repeal section 18C, not even putting it to a vote so we could have seen which Liberal MPs value free expression and which ones we should blame for the Race Discrimination Commissioner’s witch hunts of Bill Leak and the QUT students. This disgrace alone renders him patently unsuitable for leadership, but I’m happy to understand his book launch address as half-manifesto, half-mea culpa, and a plea for good conservative, liberal government.

Regardless of their rhetoric, Turnbull and his enablers have no basis to make such a plea and no claim to Menzies’ Liberal etymology. They may still have nightmares about budgie-smuggling, knighthood-granting PM Abbott redivivus, but the rest of the party has already stopped imagining such a scenario. If the government loses the next election, the fault will lie not with Abbott, but with those who refused to listen to him and to others, and who, frankly, were obsessed with him at the expensive of any policy, conservative, liberal, or whatever.

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