Originally published as the afterword in ‘Dignity and Prosperity: The Future of Liberal Australia’, edited by David Stevens (Connor Court, 2023)

As opposition leader, I often said that the longer the Rudd-Gillard government lasted the better the Howard government would look. But to the authors of these essays, it’s not just the former Labor government that makes the Howard era look good. Their eloquent silence on the period 2013 to 2022, fairly shouts their conviction that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison era, likewise, has only added to the lustre of the Howard government.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that these authors include John Howard himself plus six of his ministers. In a sparkling essay, Howard makes the surely self-evident (yet often unheeded) points that the Libs have to stand for something and that they can’t let factional bosses take the party membership for granted. Doubtless, the recent government should have been better; so in terms of good government, the period 1996 to 2007 is indeed highly instructive for today’s Liberals.

But there are at least two factors not otherwise touched on here – leadership instability and the lack of a comprehensive background debate on policy reform – that impacted on the Howard government’s relative success and the subsequent Coalition government’s relative shortcomings. And notwithstanding the revolving door prime ministership, and the philosophical and policy contention that it represented, there were substantial achievements that Liberals should not overlook in their nostalgia for a golden age.

Almost uniquely anywhere in the world, the Abbott government has to its credit the complete stopping of a big wave of illegal immigration by boat. The carbon and mining taxes are almost the only major new taxes that any incoming government has ever simply repealed, as opposed to just adjusting or even reluctantly accepting. The Turnbull government was the first in the West to call halt to Beijing’s influence peddling. And the Morrison government’s AUKUS alliance was much more than just deciding to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. It’s re-engaged the UK in the defence of the Indo-Pacific and finally dispelled two centuries of Australian strategic caution.

Had key measures from the 2014 budget, such as the Medicare co-payment, increases to the pension age, changes to social security indexation, and stopping school leavers from going straight on the dole, not been sabotaged in the senate, Australia’s economic position would be quite different. Had the reduction of nearly 10 per cent in public service numbers not been reversed; and had the Japanese submarine deal, regulation repeal days, plus the tax and federation reform white papers not been discontinued, the government’s policy record would have been much stronger.

And if the Peter Dutton-led opposition is to defy expectations, and turn the Albanese government into a one-termer, it will find much to learn from the period 2009 to 2013 when the Rudd-Gillard government first lost its majority and then was removed in a landslide. The flip-side of a relentless focus on the then-government’s failures was a positive commitment to “stop the boats, scrap the tax, fix the budget, and build the roads”.

If, as looks likely, the near future brings sky-rocketing prices and power rationing because of Labor’s emissions obsession, plus rising taxes to pay for runaway spending on programmes such as the NDIS, there’s a few key commitments that could readily form the basis of the next Liberal election platform: namely, keeping coal-fired power stations open, ending the nuclear ban, opening up the gas basins needed domestically and globally (like Narrabri and Beetaloo), and avoiding any new spending that’s not paid for by reductions in existing spending.

Still, it should be granted that the Howard government did comprise more substantial figures (and better political characters too) than any of its successors. Whatever you think of Howard era policies, on budget repair, on the GST, on waterfront reform, and on work-for-the-dole, its senior figures were prepared to mount sustained arguments for difficult policy reforms.

And while the Howard cabinet was by no means philosophically homogenous, the fact that it almost never leaked showed cabinet ministers’ commitment to the success of the government rather than their own individual advancement. Having witnessed the difficulties that a driven rival can exploit or create, Liberal luminaries should now be much more conscious of the Howard government’s indebtedness to Peter Costello.  Had he been a different man, he might readily have lobbied his way into the prime ministership; only, in the process, to have diminished the achievements and perhaps curtailed the longevity of that government.

As well, these days, almost no one acknowledges what the Liberal Party (and Australia) owes to John Hewson. Despite being the main issue in the 1993 election defeat, his Fightback! programme (with its recommendations for a GST, tariff cuts, and privatisation) turned out to be subsequent governments’ policy blue-print. In turn, Fightback! had built on the policy work undertaken earlier by pro-market think tanks and by the Business Council that had informed much of the Hawke government’s policy innovation.

For at least a decade now, there’s been much talk about productivity improvements and the need for wealth creation but hardly any coherent policy programmes put forward that might bring that about. Instead, misleadingly named big government measures such as the National Energy Guarantee and the NDIS have been pitched as economic reforms.

What’s been almost entirely absent from our recent national debate has been a Fightback!-style policy platform to inform the actions of a Coalition government. It’s easy enough to identify the issues holding our country back: too many supposedly skilled migrants who end up driving Ubers; too many young Australians going into name-your-topic “studies” courses rather than the hard sciences and practical trades that are in such short supply; couples putting off having children because a home of their own is way beyond reach; too many working age people who neither work nor have serious caring responsibilities; and the red tape that’s smothering economic activity in the name of health and safety, sustainability, and diversity and inclusion. Even so, there’s been little deep thinking about how this might be changed.

What’s needed is serious research into the things that should matter for a centre-right government, such as: getting better schools without spending more; making the health dollar go further; creating government structures that get things done rather than slow them down; making our universities genuinely intellectually elite; identifying the dams that would deliver the most water for the least environmental disruption; re-invigorating work-for-the-dole to beat the something-for-nothing mindset; and finding ways to spend the government dollar that would boost high-tech industry rather than just deliver overpriced and sometimes substandard locally built kit.

In Hewson’s day, frontbenchers and the leader’s office led the policy work but a great deal of the analysis and modelling was done by supportive outsiders. Something like this is needed again if the Liberals are to have the Plan for Australia that could win an election and sustain a good government.

When the Liberals recently became the first federal opposition to lose a seat in a by-election in almost a century – on top of defeats federally, and in Victoria and NSW – there were predictable claims that the party was too right-wing for an electorate that had moved to the left, especially on climate change. But other than AUKUS, which Labor instantly me-too-ed, where was the evidence on which any of the defeated Liberals could be convicted of being right-wing; or indeed anything other than slightly less left-wing than their Labor opponents?

Perhaps the electorate really has become hyper-sensitive on climate – even though in every election where climate has been a contest between the parties (2010, 2013 and 2019) the Coalition did well by highlighting the economic costs of emissions reductions. But if voters really have moved, might that not equally be due to a failure of leadership and conviction on the Liberals’ part?

After all, the Liberal Party is hardly going to win an election by having a “stronger” emissions policy than Labor, or by promising to outspend Labor on health and education. Rather than ditch its liberal-conservative credentials, it should use time in opposition to rethink how its enduring values and sound instincts are best translated into effective policy. Liberals should revel in having at least some policies that are starkly at odds with Labor’s because politics drives progress when it is a battle of ideas rather than a mere beauty contest.

As Margaret Thatcher once observed, “the facts are conservative”. Climate change is unlikely to remain the key concern of voters who can’t get affordable 24/7 power. Voters could readily turn against the various strains of identity politics as their kids return from school unsure whether they’re boys or girls and as women have to share facilities with biological men. So much contemporary voter angst is a function of having things so good for so long and won’t survive more economically and strategically challenging times. The Liberals’ task is to avoid any compromises with the zeitgeist that might disqualify them from leadership once the worm turns.

For instance, Peter Dutton might well have accepted the principle of a constitutionally entrenched indigenous Voice, both to the parliament and to the executive government, and confined himself to complaining about the lack of detail. Instead, he’s decided that giving any group a special say over how government works offends against the liberal commitment to constitutional equality and the conservative commitment to limited government. That the Liberals are in need of heavy duty guidance is implicit in all these essays. But in opposing the activists’ Voice, Dutton may actually have found his own; and demonstrated to these distinguished party elders that he’s actually much closer to their spirit than they thought.