Lost at Sea

There is a legend of Irish Monks who went to sea in search of paradise, they would set up small hermit communities on tiny islands, but eventually a more pious sect would break away and sail back out to sea to continue the doomed search for paradise. There is some evidence to suggest these voyages were real, evidence suggests Irish monks may have actually discovered Iceland, some claim the legendary St Brendan discovered America long before Christopher Columbus. In some ways these obsessive maritime monks remind me of the intellectuals of the Australian Liberal Party, drifting perilously out to sea in search of some form of paradise.

This madness has become a common political phenomenon. Following a defeat, political apparatchiks come to the self-serving and deluded hypothesis that the reason for their woes is a lack of ideological purity. A classic example is that of the British Labour Party. Following Ed Miliband’s defeat to David Cameron, what did the party do? Blame a fictional move to the right, and embarked on a quixotic quest to the lunatic left, ensuring another decade in the wilderness in search of purity.

This madness has settled in the ranks of the conservative intelligentsia in Australia. Why are One Nation on the rise? How come Labor won the West? What led to 10% swings on the Central Coast? Well according to the likes of The Australian, The Quadrant and The Spectator, the answer is simple, the problem is the Liberal Party just isn’t conservative enough.

When Malcolm Turnbull took control of the doomed Abbott government he promised to get the Liberals back on track. Re-committing the party to focusing on creating and high paying jobs and a generous social security net. A party that respected the intelligence of the Australian people. But what occurred since winning that challenge? Turnbull lurched to the ideological right at every opportunity, becoming coal powers greatest cheerleader, dog-whistling on refugees, engaging in bizarre anti-union conspiracy theories, attacking welfare recipients, committing to an non-binding plebiscite on same sex marriage, pathetically governed by the fanatics on his back bench. When the 2016 election rolled by there was no discernible difference between the policies of Abbott and Turnbull. As a result the first term government barely got itself over the line, loosing some of their traditionally safest seats. While the rubble was still smoking, what analyses did the conservative pundits draw to explain the failures of the Turnbull government? A lurch to the the centre, a failure to stick to conservative values, a betrayal of the party faithful. Einstein’s definition of insanity comes to mind.

In former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennet’s latest piece on how to “get Australian back in the game”, Kennet suggest taking the axe to penalty rates all together, instead paying overtime to those who work more than 38 hours per week. Slashing company tax rates, introducing a Ted Cruz style income tax scheme by cutting personal income tax rates to 35% for people earning over $100,000 and only 10% for those between $10,000–$100,000 (by way of comparison someone earning $180,000 currently pays an effective tax rate of 50% meaning top income earners would benefit from a 15% income tax cut), whilst at the same time upping the regressive GST to 15%. Further Kennet argues that we should scrap the environmental protections that ban fracking and finally taking the cake for dingbat right-wing thought bubbles; introduce a year of mandatory community service for 19 year olds. Jeff’s new plan is the old plan, tax hand outs to the top end of town, passing the buck on to the poorest via GST hikes and penalty rate cuts and fighting the endless culture war on ‘lazy millennials’. The solutions from the Liberal Party haven’t changed since John Hewson’s Fightback.

Take the ACT Liberal Party. Having been pantsed by Labor in the 2016 Territory elections for the fifth consecutive election, the ACT Liberal Party realised it was time for a rethink, and elected 32 year old Alistair Coe. Another right wing culture warrior whose policies involve; getting tough on crime, being ideologically opposed to public transport, and swinging the axe in to the public service. Take this endorsement of Coe from The Australian; “There is a strong indication that Alistair Coe, a young conservative, will take over the leadership of the ACT Liberals. The left-leaners in the party, backed by The Canberra Times, are pushing the line that the Liberals need more moderates. But that was their problem. The Liberals suffered from too much moderation and lukewarm leadership”. What the Liberals and The Australian don’t seem to understand, being “too moderate” is not the problem. Governments are formed from the centre, not the fringes, the electorate has no time for the culture wars or ideological battles.

The Spectator recently got stuck in to the NSW Liberals, rightly lambasting the “corrupt and incompetent patronage machine”, but what were the practical solutions to the party’s problems? What policies could the party adopt that would create jobs, grow the pie, ease the cost of living and get the party in touch with the concerns of ordinary electors? Well cutting taxes for high income earners, tackling 18C of course, and last but not least, sticking the boot into Gillian Triggs.

Conservatives in Australia are paddling furiously out to sea. Further and further right, away from mainland Australia. Cory Bernardi has built himself a one man raft and began his pious pilgrim to the Island of St Brendan, also know as electoral oblivion. You can see the frustration this madness is causing. Recently Barnaby Joyce savaged the free-speech puritans in the coalition, describing the 18c debate as an issues that “lives in the extremities of the bell curve…definitely not the issue people are talking about in the beer garden on Friday night or at the counters of banks, or to be quite frank, in the big office blocks when they finish work on Friday night”, further questioning what meaningful difference the proposed reform made to the lives of ordinary people.

Conservatives have forgotten their own history. Before the rise of John Howard the Liberal Party once had a truly liberal tradition. The party’s cultish devotion to supply side economics is a relatively recent one. There was once a time when the Liberal Party championed a minimum wage, and protections for skilled industry, home ownership was considered a conservative value. Unless the Liberal party can re-position itself in the centre, they are doomed to fail at the next election. I suspect they might be already.