The Coalition’s woes: which way to turn?

Scott Morrison cannot claim all the credit for helping Labor win office. The Liberal Party’s collapse goes back a long way – to 1995 when John Howard, “a master practitioner of the politics of division”, became Opposition Leader, according to Mike Seccombe in the first part of a two-part series on the Collapse of the Modern Liberal Party, in the Saturday Paper.

Seccombe’s article is partly a criticism of the Howard government’s policy failure, describing how he re-made the party of Menzies in his own, narrow image, bringing on many of our present economic problems:

His government halved the rate of capital gains tax, thereby fuelling the housing price boom that persists to this day, which turned homes from being simply places to live into financial investments. He cultivated anti-intellectualism and relentlessly attacked the national broadcaster. He courted the religious right. He pandered to vested interests in the mining sector and ignored the environment and climate change. He imported divisive electioneering methods such as push-polling and dog-whistling from America.

It is also about Howard’s pushback against multiculturalism. Seccombe’s description is of someone yearning for the imagined paradise of a White Australia where everyone knew their place, and who could enjoy a meeting of minds, if not of political style, with Pauline Hanson. While Howard and the party backed away from overt racism, the Liberal Party has become more strident in its anti-intellectualism and more accommodating of so-called “Christian” right-wing religious cults. It has not been heading in the same direction as the nation.

Guests on a Late Night Live program – What happened to the Liberal Party of Menzies? – similarly see the Howard years as a transition away from the Menzies tradition of centrism and towards hard social conservatism. Howard saw an emerging multiculturalism as a chance to open up new cleavages in Australian society, to the electoral advantage of the Liberal Party. Phillip Adams’ guests are Fred Chaney – former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and uncle of newly-elected Kate Chaney, politics professor Judith Brett, and Australian columnist Troy Bramston.

The 36-minute discussion starts with insights into Menzies’ political philosophy – “liberal” and “progressive” in the context of his time, and his approach to politics which he saw as a contest between rival notions of the public good, rather than as a tribal or identity-based battle. The “teals” elected to Parliament last month, and the people who elected them, would have been at home in the Liberal Party of Menzies’ time but are repulsed by what the party has become.

The discussion turns to the party’s failures in recent times. Sleaze, incompetence, contempt for the public purpose, hyper-partisanship, loss of moral guidance, and disregard for the institutions of democracy all get a mention as having contributed to the party’s ill health. Notably the party’s strategists seem to have imported political ideas from UK and US conservative parties without considering how Australia differs from those countries. For example it is not possible in Australia to build a substantial political base by appealing to those with the socially conservative agenda of “evangelical” churchgoers.

They all see the election as an opportunity for a change in the nation’s political life. While the two-party system is coming to the end of its days, Parliament could be enjoying a restoration to its rightful position as the place where the nation’s difficult problems and choices are dealt with.

Brett is author of Robert Menzies' forgotten people and Australian Liberals and the moral middle class. Bramston is author of Robert Menzies: the art of politics.

Unsurprisingly none of Adams’ guests believe that it would make any sense for the Liberal Party to move further to the “right” or to abandon well-educated professionals who used to constitute its core. But there is a serious argument within the party and its supporters, many of whom believe that it should abandon its old core and focus on the outer suburbs. William Bowe has a post Rich Liberal, Poor Liberal on his Poll Bludger site, with links to proponents of both views.

Martyn Goddard on his Policy Post has an in-depth analysis of the Liberal Party: Does the Liberal Party have a future?. He covers much of the same ground as the above commentators, and also goes into problems the party has with its state branches. Political parties have resurrected themselves in the past as the UAP did in 1944 and as Canada’s Progressive Conservatives did in 1993, but is such re-construction a possibility for any party in 2022?

Those links are about the Liberal Party. There is also the National Party. In spite of Barnaby Joyce’s having thwarted anything that looked like a sensible energy policy, to the Coalition’s electoral cost, the National Party is a little smug, possibly because while the Liberal Party suffered a 4.3 percent swing against it, the Queensland LNP and the National Party suffered swings of only 0.7 percent. (AEC figures). Gregory Melleuish of the University of Wollongong has a Conversation article The Nationals suddenly find themselves with a new leader and in opposition. So where to now?. It will probably be a matter of a style that’s a little more urbane and a little less bucolic, without much change in policy.

Essential Poll – a happy honeymoon

The most recent Essential fortnightly poll has a series of questions on political issues.

People are very happy with Anthony Albanese. The sudden jump in approval (from net 1 percent before the election to net 42 percent now) says something about an election campaign in which the outgoing government and its media allies substituted ad hominem attacks on Albanese for any serious consideration of public policy.

Post-election, more of us feel that “Australia is heading in the right direction”, but there are significant, and predictable, partisan differences.

The cost of living, including wages and interest rates, remains people’s most pressing concern.

There is a set of questions about trust in public institutions, including universities, legal institutions, the public service and parliaments. The net results (trust minus distrust) are positive but they are lower than one would expect to find in a robust democracy.

We generally think economic conditions will worsen (Essential does not give a time frame), but there are significant differences according to age: young people are mildly optimistic while older people are gloomy). Similar results are revealed in a question on people’s outlook on their household financial situation. We believe that our household financial situation will be better under an Albanese Labor government than it would be under a Dutton Coalition government.

Our support for Australia becoming a republic is still lukewarm (44 percent support, 34 percent oppose, 22 percent unsure). There are significant partisan differences – Coalition voters are still attached to the idea of a foreign head of state. Surprisingly, older people seem to be a little more republican-oriented than younger people – perhaps they remember the 1975 dismissal, and are more aware of Britain’s use of Australia as a nuclear test ground, and its contemptuous behaviour towards Australia in the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars.