Liberal conservatives want to stay inside the tent

17 Jul Liberal conservatives want to stay inside the tent

Andrew Tillett — Australian Financial Review — 15 July, 2017

John Howard has a blunt message for disillusioned conservatives tempted to abandon the Liberal Party: don’t go.

Appearing at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre, Australia’s second longest serving prime minister argued the Liberal Party was custodian of two political traditions, conservatism and classical liberalism.

“Let me say to people in this country who regard themselves as conservative: you are always welcome in the Liberal Party,” Howard told his audience.

“Don’t waste your time on alternative conservative iterations, they will end in tears.”

Former Liberal dissident Cory Bernardi, who set up his own Australian Conservative Party, said conservatives would be welcome to join his party.

Malcolm Turnbull this week cited Howard’s “broad church” approach to party management during his speech in London to articulate the Liberals’ overriding philosophy of respect for individual freedom and private enterprise. He referred to the “sensible centre” of politics saying this “remains the place to be”.

The key point Turnbull made was political labels like conservative and moderate had been rendered meaningless in the modern age. As the PM asked, was it “conservative” to argue in favour of free trade and markets as he has, or demand more protection as some in the US right do today.

All this wisdom was overshadowed by initial media reports – based on extracts provided by the PM’s office to journalists – that Turnbull had repudiated the notion the Liberal Party was conservative, citing how prime minister Robert Menzies had deliberately avoided that name when he founded the party in 1944.

Trying to avoid trouble

When he actually delivered the speech, Turnbull tried to avoid stoking trouble by crediting the sensible centre reference to former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Nevertheless that did not stop One Nation and former Liberal dissident Cory Bernardi, who set up his own Australian Conservative Party, from throwing up their arms and saying conservatives would be welcome to join their parties.

Inside the coalition however, despite the angst over Turnbull’s leadership, little credence is given to the idea that a rump of disgruntled conservatives will defect.

While some MPs were privately critical of the PM’s speech and its timing, publicly they were more muted. Only former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett came out swinging.

Even Abbott’s chief spearcarrier, Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz, agreed with the PM.

“The Liberal Party is and has always been a train running on small-l liberal and conservative tracks – unless both are tended to the whole train will derail,” Abetz wrote in a blog post.

“That’s why the Liberal Party is at its best when Liberal conservatives respect small-l liberals and vice-a-versa.”

Stay united

While the PM eschews labels, the party’s right wing can be broadly split into so-called big C conservatives, who define themselves on social and cultural issues such as opposition to gay marriage, and classical liberals more focused on free market economics and keeping government out of regulating private lives. The left-wing moderates are more active in pushing socially progressive policies.

Victorian backbencher James Paterson, who puts himself in the party’s right as a classical liberal, argues the fusion of conservatives and liberals in the one party makes sense because on nine out of 10 issues they agree.

“Even on those where there are differences, there is enough common ground to make it work,” he tells Perspective.

“For example, social conservatives have the best chance of living their lives according to their values and passing them onto their children in a liberal society where government is limited. Big government is the greatest threat to free speech, religious liberty and freedom of conscience – on these issues liberals and conservatives are perfectly aligned.”

NSW backbencher Craig Kelly says conservatives are better to stay in the party to argue their case, pointing out how minor parties invariably end up imploding.

“We’re always better working inside the tent,” he tells AFR Weekend.

“It often gets reported as a weakness but it should be seen as a strength that individual backbenchers can get out there publicly to argue their case and cross the floor.

“We want a wide marketplace of ideas. We have got to be careful we don’t end up going down the track of no one can criticise and have to march in tune like robots. That would be terrible for the Liberal Party.”

Measuring success

Bernardi has no regrets about leaving to form his own party. He measures success not just in terms of electoral outcomes but if he can influence the Liberal Party to adopt more conservative policies.

“If it can prompt the Liberal Party to embrace democratic reform that’s a positive,” he says, in reference to a push by Abbott and other conservatives to break the moderates’ stranglehold on preselections.

For all the talk about what kind of Liberal Party Menzies wanted, Deakin University Emeritus Professor Judith Brett, who has written extensively on the history of the non-Labor side of politics, says while Menzies had values, he was not an ideologue.

“The core of the Liberal Party tradition is it’s a party of government, committed to providing practical solutions that would have the support of the mainstream,” she says.


This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review
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