Last month I attended The Australian’s ‘Big Voices on Big Issues’ panel discussion in Melbourne. Senior columnists Janet Albrechtson and Caroline Overington bemoaned a supposed ‘crisis of conservatism’ which they claimed had seen its foundations shaken by the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull.
Their suggestion was that moderate liberalism had infiltrated the Liberal Party’s ranks, captured its policy agenda and alienated conservatives. Losses in Western Australia and Queensland, and the federal government’s declining two-party preferred vote was explained by a disenfranchised conservative base, they claimed.
Yet, it is clear that where former-PM Tony Abbott withered and wavered on key conservative matters, Turnbull has delivered decisive leadership and policy achievement. Those opposed to Turnbull on the grounds of this ‘conservative crisis’, appear more captured by personality than they are by any real policy concern.
While masquerading as a fierce principled ideologue, Abbott’s true political nature is of contradiction and hesitant indecision. Despite ruling out paid parental leave while a member of the Howard cabinet, Abbott then went on to champion it as a premier policy of his Prime Ministership, before ditching the scheme as a “double dipping” entitlement in his 2015 budget.
Similarly, his stance on climate change has experienced significant alteration and adjustment. Despite the former PM’s recent questioning of climate science being met by the cheers of the conservative press, his remarks stand in antithesis to his earlier claims that “climate change is real” and that “strong effective policy is required to deal with it” from a National Press Club address early in 2013
How can the former PM be taken seriously in joining the Monash Forum and calling for a more coal-centric energy platform, when it was his government which introduced a renewable energy target to begin with?
There is no doubt that Abbott was effective in elevating the flaws of Laboor policy, simplifying it to the electorate and achieving a significant public response. Consider his take-down of the carbon tax and the tide of support won over on border protection. However, this deft touch for campaigning was not accompanied by a capacity to govern when he received the keys to the lodge.
Where his conservative principles were unclear, Abbott’s vision for the nation was of even further confusion. An eagerness to reduce the federal deficit and deliver budgetary surplus could perhaps be acknowledged as the key ambition of his government. But in the face of Senate roadblock, Abbott refused any policy variation, illustrating his dearth vision and immobility – two things essential to good leadership.
Abbott hasn’t even been able to deliver on his “no sniping, no undermining” promise since resigning as PM.
Robert Menzies’ enduring desire to unite conservatives and liberals in protecting “the individual, his rights, and his enterprise” has been central to the Turnbull Government. Despite a popular view that Turnbull would lead the party down a path of leftist economic and social policy, he has delivered far more for conservatives than Abbott as PM.
Consider his National Energy Guarantee, a well-measured federal policy which emphasises “engineering and economics” ahead of the renewable energy target of the Abbott Government. Under Turnbull’s policy, renewable energy is not imposed to drive up prices and reduce reliability but given full credence if only developed in a way that is competitive within the energy market.
Where Abbott shied away from changes to 18C in defence of free speech, Turnbull brought a policy to the parliament which sought to amend the Act’s dangerous legitimation of offence politics.
Turnbull has been monumental in ensuring the success of Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders. In securing an agreement with the US to provide a comfortable home for those poor souls remaining on Manus and Nauru, Turnbull united the necessary border stringency with a sense of compassion in a way Abbott never could.
There is no doubt that the Turnbull Government has not been perfectly kind to traditional Liberal voters. Its bank levy and banking royal commission aroused considerable opposition amongst party ranks. Yet, the levy was relatively meagre in light of banking profits and was well received amongst the general public. The royal commission has also lent to legitimate concerns around industry regulators and commercial activity.
Outcomes are ultimately what matter in the scheme of the nation. Turnbull has proved adept in negotiating and securing policy victories despite a difficult Senate. Successful passage of workplace reforms and the same-sex marriage plebiscite is testament to this. Even Turnbull’s company tax cuts are not yet dead. These are reforms that would be cheered aloud by conservatives were Abbott sitting in the PM’s chair.
This is the hypocrisy which binds those who proclaim a ‘conservative crisis’.
What is clear is that the enormous popularity which drove Turnbull into The Lodge in 2015 did not stem from conservatives abandoning Abbott for Turnbull. Therefore, if Turnbull never held conservative support but yet delivered a Coalition primary vote which at its height notched close to the 50s, how can a ‘loss in conservative support’ be what explains the government’s current polling dilemma?
One Nation and the Australian Conservative’s poor showings at the Queensland, Western Australian and South Australian elections illustrate that while disgruntled, most conservatives will not stray from the Liberal Party.
Evidently, it is the mainstream centrist Australian majority which has lost faith in Turnbull and so turned to Labor. A restoration of Abbott leadership thereby offers no solution to the party’s electoral woes.
Approaching 30 consecutive Newspoll losses, Abbott-loyalists will inevitably seek to incite leadership speculation. However, the question for the Coalition Government is not how to ‘win-back’ conservative support but how to recapture the political narrative.
While proving adept at negotiating the complex conservative-liberal relationship, Turnbull has afforded Shorten ground in the policy conversation. His aggressive advocative capacity, which we have seen in glimpses, needs to be revived to defeat the real threat that is populist class-warfare Shorten economics.
Mathias Cormann has championed this challenge, but the entire Coalition party room needs to unite around Turnbull’s strong policy achievements and agenda to dispel the Labor threat.
At the panel discussion, I put it to Janet; “is your assessment of Turnbull’s leadership more out of personal distaste than of accurate policy evaluation?”
I was given a flippity response, but I hope she realises, along with all Abbott-loyalists, that the real threat to conservatism lies not in Turnbull, but in Shorten’s Labor opposition.
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