The Twilight of the Australian Liberal Party

Before he was elected Prime Minister in 1996, John Howard said during an interview with Four Corners that he wanted to see Australia as “a comfortable and relaxed country.” By expressing that vision, he was referring to Australia’s growing position in the Asia–Pacific region, as well as being a former British colony tied by culture to the Anglosphere. But, more importantly, he also referred to the Australian citizen being in a unique position to not feel guilty about their history and to look forward to the future. The phrase “comfortable and relaxed” was ambiguous enough for Howard’s detractors, who believed it reflected his social conservatism. They interpreted it as both an active evasion of confronting reconciliation with Australia’s indigenous peoples as well as a push for Australians to become lazy and ignorant. Nevertheless, Howard governed for 11 years thanks to a renewed relationship with suburban voters and a billion-dollar budgetary surplus.

If the word “relaxed” played a substantial part in Howard’s 11-year governance, then “comfortable” would explain why the Liberals suffered a massive defeat in this year’s federal election. On May 21st, 2022, the Liberals, led by Scott Morrison, were defeated by the Australian Labor Party, led by Anthony Albanese, who hails from the party’s left flank. Albanese is only the fourth leader in Labor’s history to be elected Prime Minister since the Liberal Party was formed in 1944. In coalition with the rural Nationals, the Liberals have dominated Australia’s post-war period for an accumulated total of 50 years, making them one of the most successful centre-right political parties in the Western world. Adding to that remarkable record, until the election last weekend, the Liberals were in power for nine uninterrupted years. But during the Liberal Party’s period of power and through its revolving door of leaders, Australia was far from “comfortable” and was losing patience with the party’s contradictions and insecurities.

The Liberals lost some of their most significant blue ribbon seats in some of the most affluent suburbs of the nation to a collective of independent candidates. The “teal independents”, as they have become colloquially known, were bankrolled by Simon Holmes à Court, the founder of a climate change activism organisation, Climate 200, and the son of Australia’s first billionaire, Robert Holmes à Court. With a makeup of mainly white, wealthy female professionals, these independents targeted their electorates on the premise that the Liberals’ lacklustre response to climate change and their underwhelming treatment of women – one of which involved a scandal that saw a junior staffer being sexually assaulted – needed to be rectified. Yet these seats, most of them in wealthy inner-city enclaves, were held by Liberal MPs who otherwise believed that Australia needed to aggressively cut its carbon footprint, as well as implement gender quotas to improve its reputation among female voters. But due to the party’s history of compromising with the Nationals, Simon Holmes à Court described these moderates as “fake”.

This wasn’t the first time such a scenario had happened. The seat of Warringah is currently occupied by Olympic skier Zali Stegall, who ran as an independent in 2019, and defeated the former prime minister Tony Abbott, who had held that electorate for 25 years. While Abbott continues to be held in high esteem by the conservative commentariat, his scepticism of global warming, opposition to same-sex marriage, and poor image with women did him no favours. During his time as Opposition Leader, he was the subject of an infamous speech by Julia Gillard that called out such hypocrisies.

What should a centre-right party represent in the 21st century? On the surface, the Liberal Party is supposed to represent the small business entrepreneur, the ethic of individualism, and limited government. John Howard once described the Coalition as a broad church, pointing to a political tradition that fuses Edmund Burke’s conservatism with John Stuart Mill’s classical liberalism. Yet, in reality, these three factions – moderates, conservatives, and centre-right – became uncomfortable being together under the same tent.

The careers of the three most recent Liberal prime ministers reflect these tensions. The moderates, led by Malcolm Turnbull, were fiscally tight but socially progressive. Tony Abbott, a conservative, was far more traditionalist. The centre-right, also known as “the ambition faction”, was Morrison’s faction, a consolidation of both political philosophies, attempting to present them more pragmatically. Throughout each of their three terms, each personality fell behind in the polls and made choices that were antithetical to their beliefs.

Under Morrison, Australia reached a trillion-dollar deficit for the first time in its history, as a result of relentless spending on COVID, which would include the quasi–universal basic income program, JobKeeper. Then there was the botched move to push legislation promoting religious freedoms in Catholic schools that alienated the moderates because they presumed it would fuel bigotry towards LGBTQ+ students. Even if one disagreed with the platforms that the teal independents ran on, it is easy to understand why these once-safe seats had drifted away from the Liberals: the Climate 200-backed independents’ approaches were simpler and more coherent.

The seeming need to follow whatever was politically fashionable hurt the Liberals because such an approach alienated their traditional voters. Turnbull constantly faced derision within the ranks whenever he stated his belief that tackling climate change was necessary for the party to stay relevant. Scott Morrison, meanwhile, has always been reluctant to address climate change head on. He once held a lump of coal during a parliamentary debate, trolling the opposition to “not be afraid”. Months after his surprise election win in 2019, he was condemned for spending a family vacation in Hawaii while many parts of Australia experienced huge bushfires, costing millions in burnt homes and wildlife. But in November 2021, leading up to the Glasgow COP26 conference, Morrison declared that Australia would be committing to “Net Zero by 2050”, which would involve transitioning its fossil fuel industries into renewable energy like solar and wind. This change of heart was confusing at best. It divided the Nationals’ party room, which wasn’t willing to put it as one of their big priorities, while the progressive Left felt that his approach was limp compared to the commitments made by the rest of the world.

At odds with the moderates and the centre-right, some conservative Liberal and National party figures drifted away to minor parties like One Nation, the Liberal Democrats, and the United Australia Party (named after the predecessor to the Liberals), attempting to ride the momentum remaining in opposing COVID safety measures. But that strategy proved to be unsuccessful at the ballot box. The most notable failure was that of Craig Kelly, who defected to the UAP after being censured in Parliament for his anti-vax views. Despite being the Australian politician with the largest Facebook presence (until his suspension in March 2021), and despite being backed by a massive ad campaign funded by billionaire Clive Palmer, Kelly managed to win only 7 percent of the votes in his electorate.

It will be hard for the Liberal base to figure out what accomplishments Abbott, Turnbull, or Morrison can share with pride. For Abbott, reversing Labor’s Emissions Trading Scheme and being tougher on immigration were campaign promises that were achieved soon after coming into office. But aside from this, he provided no other vision. Same-sex marriage was recognised in 2017 under Turnbull, but through a gruelling referendum rather than direct legislation. But the AUKUS alliance initiated by Morrison is considered a shining achievement in national security, featuring a significant deal including nuclear submarines from the US and the building of a stronger defence against China, and which potentially brings huge steps towards a nuclear future.

A historical day for Australia that shows we take the defence of our nation seriously. pic.twitter.com/PhKQEKbsYy— Barnaby Joyce (@Barnaby_Joyce) September 16, 2021

Despite facing voracious criticism from France’s leaders for clumsily scrapping a similar deal with them (and from Turnbull, who initiated it), some polls show a majority of Australians approve the new security pact. This demonstrates that, for a centre-right party to be sustainable, it doesn’t need to align into either a purer conservative or moderate governance; it can be managed properly by a leader that can strike a balance between the two factions.

Morrison and Turnbull attempted that and fell short of the expectations of their bases. To break with the past, the Liberals and the Nationals need to bring innovative policy to the forefront. Home ownership is a core tenet of political conservatism, and it has never been harder for a young Australian to own a house.

Indebted to the @smh for publishing my piece on housing esp my necessarily forthright message to my fellow conservatives:“There is no future for conservative politics if more people, especially younger people, have nothing of their own to conserve.” https://t.co/vi2GmCTImy— Gray Connolly (@GrayConnolly) May 20, 2022

In the final weeks of campaigning, Morrison promised young people that they could access their retirement savings to pay a first home deposit. It was a solid policy, what you would expect from a centre-right government.

If the Liberals seriously wish to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions to net zero, then they should attempt to change the conversation around nuclear energy by lifting the national ban and utilising unused uranium reserves. It’s not uncommon to see Liberal politicians supporting this idea. But since this clean energy source is opposed by the Greens and the Teals, there is an opportunity to achieve two things: undercut the Overton window and highlight the environmentalist hypocrisy from the Left, while boosting competition in the mining sector, which tends to be one of the biggest exporters of coal and natural gas.

“If Australia participated in developing such reactors, we not only could provide the world with our tech but we also could provide our uranium, contributing to a prosperous clean energy future while also becoming rich in the process” @nuclear_forum https://t.co/4usgnXwerf— Michael Sharpe (@MrMichaelSharpe) May 26, 2022

Some recent events should have given the Liberals an advantage that could have earned them another term. With economic growth rapidly stabilising and unemployment at a historic low of 3.9 percent, Australia has proven to be one of, if not the biggest recovering OECD economies post-COVID. Most of the states relaxed the numerous restrictions that had given the country such negative media attention across the world, and Australia is now one of the most highly-vaccinated nations with a low number of COVID-related deaths. Meanwhile, the country has been actively reducing its carbon emissions long before any formal plans to pursue Net Zero were put in place, and before the recent spate of catastrophic natural disasters.

But Australia can’t feel confident when its leadership becomes complacent and while its people are left unsettled following frequent crises. When the Liberals faced a progressive opposition more demoralizing than they could have imagined, they were left flat-footed and failed to inspire. One can assume that John Howard had a different scenario in mind when describing a "comfortable and relaxed" Australia.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/30/the-twilight-of-the-australian-liberal-party/
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At the federal election just gone, I tried to find a way round the Hobson’s choice between on the one hand a government that was good on counteracting the depredations of the neo-clerical (secular churchy) postmodernist trained Woke Regime Ascendancy (Plague) that runs the regime systems of social administration, but also, besides being electorally corrupt, was completely in the pocket of our very powerful hydrocarbon industries when it came to the environment and climate change, and on the other, a main opposition with a slightly better attitude to the environment and corruption, but was also a stooge for the Wokes and their asylum grade identitipolik.

So, what I did was vote for a local federal candidate who was Muslim (not Woke by definition), anti-corruption (against fraudulent or dishonest practices in relation to electoral-political constituency funding and tax payer funded government advertising) and wanted to do something about Australia’s lousy environmental record, especially, but not exclusively with regard to climate change.

It was all a bit convoluted because Muslims are not my normal go-to people for effecting political change, but beggars can’t be choosers.

I was not a alone in this conundrum.

A significant proportion of the electorate during this last federal election were similarly in the business of hunting and pecking for candidates who weren’t within the traditional dipole pantheon of ideological blocs that have characterized democratic politics since the nineteenth century.

The traditional boundaries of ‘Right’ and ‘Left’, ‘Traditional’ and ‘Progressive’, ‘Conservative’ and ‘Reformer’ and ‘Radical’ and ‘Moderate’ have blurred to the point of not just theoretical meaninglessness, but unhelpfulness in practice, as in who to vote for in elections.

The brutal fact of the matter is that the democratic consensus is breaking up, as the world it represents breaks up, both locally and globally.

50-70 years of retreat from an economy and culture of disciplined, objectively determined and rational needs and wants into ones of fantasies of desire and immediate satiation regardless of longer-term consequences, and rolled out through systematic deregulation and privatization of the means of social reproduction and administration, has had catastrophic effects on the natural world and existential/social commons infrastructure that we need to function sustainably.

We have been pulling out the chocks that held us up for three generations, but now they just cannot hold our weight anymore

Those infrastructures are now collapsing around us and the ‘hard’ (manufacturing and mining) and ‘soft’ (social reproduction and admin) wings of Indulgence Capitalism face crisis within the commons areas they have been supposed to be stewarding, and everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else by denying their own responsibility, while with crystal clarity demonstrating the undeniable perfidy of ‘the other guy’.

It is a classic example of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dummism that keeps democratic politics within the corrupt parameters of the arguable and the deniable, by all sides, in what increasingly appears to be a self-fictionalizing charade that blindsides all sides to just how grave their position has really become…

What we are witnessing is an ancien regime that is in the act of its own passing.

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Climate scepticism isn’t a smart move in the current global climate, the only way to push back is to actually point out the actual reports from the IPCC- which stand in marked contrast to the apocalyptic predictions and doomsaying commonly presented by media, further used to frighten schoolchildren and aid in their indoctrination.

Yes, climate change is a serious long-term problem- but the IPCC itself acknowledges that it is by no means an existential threat or a threat to human civilisation- at least not up until 2100. Recently, action has been taken to remediate the perception of IPCC scientists. Many didn’t know, for example, that the RCP 8.5 and SSP 8.5 had long since become impossible, and only useful as a benchmark for determining lesser effects. To put it another way, in order to ‘achieve’ them we would need to scrap all nuclear, solar, wind and hydro and simultaneously convert all our cars to running on coal.

The most alarming climate scenario which is now feasible is the Rocky Road scenario, and it is looking increasingly likely as it is the one in which international cooperation stalls and major powers become belligerent towards each other. That being said, the most likely projections would probably place total climate change by 2100 at between 2.2C and 2.6C- with both nuclear and a faster rate of iterative technological innovation pushing the figure towards the bottom end of the estimate, and an overreliance on wind and solar pushing the estimate towards the top end.

The Dark Greens have already begun to push against Labor’s current commitments. Many are still convinced that the world is going to end in 2030, or that this is the threshold for irrevocable harm. Quite the contrary, the authors of the 2018 interim report (which was where the 12 year timeline emerged from) publicly criticised major journalistic outlets for misrepresenting or misreading their work. The actual prediction for ‘irrevocable harm’ was 2053 or thereabouts, although this was only an estimate.

Perhaps the largest problem with climate change is that people generally perceive it as something somebody else should tackle, and increasingly many believe it is a choice governments should force on their citizens. The best ways of mitigating one’s own carbon footprint are reducing travel requirements and examining one’s energy usage. Dietary changes have little impact, but changing the way you dispose of waste can have a positive effect many wouldn’t expect. If you have any food waste and a garden, give it to the local wildlife or even start a wormery. Paper recycling is another area, as much of the methane production originally attributed to the meat industry, actually stems from anaerobic decomposition in waste dumps.

As usual my essays are to be found on my Substack which is free to view and comment:

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I summarised the US political situation during the last election as one side playing house of cards (Red) and the other side playing Jenga (Blue). It seems “Right” and “Left” are being replaced by “Establishment” and “Anti-Establishment”, but the Establishment has proven a slippery sucker to pin down - what do they stand for other than self-sustaining Indulgence/Crony Capitalism?

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My dear John, the traditional political bloc ideological color codings are now irrelevant, as they do not really represent recognizable iconography within what was once a clear landscape, but now opaque.

What we are looking at is an entirely intra regime politic that for want of a better characterization might be on the one hand the ‘churchy’ social architects that are the both publicly and privately funded apparatchiks who control the state social bureaucracies and digitalized ‘soft’ corporate capital, that together manage consciousness, and on the other hand, the older agro-manufacturing-mining ‘crown’ of capital, which is ambiguously allied with what is left of the white working class after their jobs and prospects were sent to cheap foreign labor, both domestically imported and trans-nationally exported.

Both sides are competing and jostling wings of Indulgence Capitalism, who are brimming with not just contradictions between each other, but within their intimate relationships.

For instance, both the black and white working class elements have been subjected to the same industrial scouring out that has left wages depressed, employment casualized, unemployment chronic and necessary infrastructure neglected and underfunded.

The bright young bourgeois avoided all that by getting their expensive tertiary degrees and moving into nicely paid tertiary.services make work on the coast, helped along by tax breaks and havens that leave them paying less tax than ever before.

And all that can be squared away by setting whites and black working-class people against each other and getting everyone worried and fussed about any issue of social justice you care to name, as long as it maintains the extremely comfortable status quo for its regime beneficiaries.

The Wokes are petty bourgeois regime operators who keep the system going. They have magpied bits of detritus from the disintegration of socialism and cobbled a well-meaning cover story that uses the victims of history without ever giving them an even break, much in the same way the raddled and corrupted Medieval Church did with its long-suffering congregations 500 years ago…until they got tired of the hypocrisy, cant and failure to deliver the salvation services fundamental to the Church’s business model.

Woke is a souffle that will never rise more than once, because like that other dream peddler, Hollywood, it only delivers feel-good color and movement out of high sounding sentiments that make Woke look good, bolsters the fat Woke institutional salaries and share buy backs and keeps the ideological client beneficiaries exactly where they presently are, indefinitely.

Welfarism, empathy and making fools think that indulging their subjectivist ideological fantasies will make them come true, is a fools paradise, populated by idiocies only possible when mass populations have been successfully disconnected from reality, which is what the system of social administration now manages.

Now I know that if this sounds a bit circuitous and flaky, that is because that is what it is, as we find ourselves successfuly locked into ideological architecture designed 150-200 years ago…and now completely obsolete…which is just another mechanism for nobbling real change through the emergence of a visionary successor in the coming postmodern devolution.

And be assured, when such a beast does arrive, while it might well be committed to rebuilding our ruined social and existential infrastructure, its connection to socialism as we have traditionally understood it, will be extremely tenuous, as we disassemble the nation state and move towards capitalism Lite, in circumstances no one in their right mind would want to voluntarily live through, if they could possibly help it.

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Great post C.D. Always love your writing, whether I agree with you or not (it’s the former in this case).

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