Published in The Australian, 30 December 2016
Labor will be the biggest winner of any attempt to divide right-of-centre voters
Not a single Liberal MP would be in the parliament without the party. We don’t owe the party slavish obedience but we certainly owe it respect and loyalty. That’s what John Howard used to say, and it’s certainly what I believe. If we think the party is headed in the wrong direction or is making a big mistake our duty is to try to fix it, not to leave it.
Few people would have more reason than I do to be disgruntled with the federal parliamentary Liberal Party. Yet I want to make it crystal clear: any abandonment of the party would be a catastrophic mistake. Leaving the Liberal Party — especially to form a new, supposedly conservative party — would just doom our country to at least two terms of Labor government.
Right now, a combination of unhappiness with what the Liberal Party has done to itself and excitement about the Trump insurgency in the US is driving interest in a new political alignment here. At this time, I have little doubt that there are many good, patriotic people — frustrated at our country’s political impasse and angry with seemingly ego-driven politicians — who think that a new political party might help (a more sophisticated version of One Nation, perhaps). For our country’s sake, I hope that they put the long-term prospects of electable conservatism ahead of the short-term satisfaction of lashing out in a gesture of defiance or a righteous reassertion of philosophical purity.
After the change of prime ministership in September last year, I received literally thousands of letters, cards and emails of support and encouragement. They’re still coming. I’d say that at least a third asked me to consider starting a new political party. Time and time again, I replied that, for all its faults and failings, the Liberal National coalition is our country’s best hope of sensible centre-right government and that it’s much easier to repair an existing party than to form a new one. To those who said that it was necessary to punish the Liberal Party for behaving dishonourably and for emulating Labor’s political execution of an elected prime minister, I replied that you wouldn’t just be punishing our party; you’d be punishing our country by helping to elect a Labor government. And that it wasn’t fair to punish the innocent in order to get at the guilty.
There are certainly lessons for Australia in the Trump ascendancy and in Brexit. Political establishments that patronise the people who vote for them are in big trouble. Centre-right politicians shouldn’t pander to political correctness. Successful countries shouldn’t be apologetic about their achievements or diffident about their futures. In the end, robust Anglo-American leadership will be much better for the world than the dithering of the EU or the corruption of the UN.
But lest anyone get too excited about “doing a Trump” here, three points need to be remembered: our quite different political system makes it almost impossible for an individual outsider to take over the government; even in these uncertain times, the best a new political party could realistically hope for is not government but a few senators; and, most fundamentally, actually governing the country and solving problems is much harder than articulating grievances, however right, sensible and necessary that might be.
In America, you elect an individual to be president. As Trump showed, a supportive political party organisation is hardly needed. In Australia, by contrast, you need to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives to become prime minister and to form a government. And for that, you need an organisation capable of selecting electable candidates and running successful local campaigns all over the country to win 50 per cent plus (with preferences) of the total vote. A man on a white horse can conceivably become the president. But only a big party leader can become the prime minister. And while Trump trashed the Republican Party to win the nomination, I doubt that he could actually have won the presidency without its endorsement.
The conservative instinct, a sound one, is to respect that which has shaped us — family, faith, country; to build on our existing strengths rather than to start again from scratch; and to be cautious about change that could easily turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth. My guess is that a new entity called the Conservative Party could win up to 10 per cent of the total vote here in Australia. But almost all of it would be at the expense of the Liberal National coalition which, as Howard repeatedly declared, is the custodian in this country of both the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and the conservatism of Edmund Burke. As such, our preference is to support lower taxes, greater freedom and smaller government — but in ways that strengthen the family, small business and Australia’s standing in the wider world.
It’s entirely possible that an explicitly conservative party, denouncing the Coalition as unprincipled opportunists, could win a Senate seat in every state. It’s almost inconceivable, though, that it would win a lower house seat anywhere and — here’s the rub — it would inevitably leach preferences away from the Coalition and deliver government to Labor.
This is what One Nation did in the 1998 and 2001 Queensland and West Australian elections. Wittingly or not, at the 1998 federal election, the One Nation vote almost destroyed the government that turned out to be the best conservative administration Australia has ever had. Then there was the Joh-for-Canberra push that arguably stopped Howard from winning the 1987 election. The clear lesson is that the Labor Party is the only winner from disunity on the conservative side of politics.
The bottom line, should rebellious Liberals form a new conservative party, is that decent, well-meaning people will set back the cause they supposedly support, possibly for a generation. It would be our own version of Graham Greene’s observation in The Quiet American that: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”
What’s needed in 2017 is not a new conservative political party. It’s more self-belief from the one we actually have. It’s a credible agenda for the mainstream conservative political movement that already exists. In particular, it’s a strategy for dealing with a Senate that’s very good at sabotaging or watering down the seriously conservative measures that are put to it. The best way to bring that about— the only way, indeed — is for conservatives in the Liberal Party to stay in and fight for what they judge best.