• Hannah Phillips

What’s Happening to the Liberal Party?

The best analysis of what is happening in the Liberal Party has been written by, believe it or not, Tony Abbott.

Abbott says that disruption has become the norm in politics just as it has in business and other forms of social interaction.

He says that this is a global phenomenon which affects parties of the left and the right equally.

He says that low economic growth, asset price inflation brought on by low interest rates, stagnant wages and less affordable housing have made voters grumpy.

As a consequence the centrist policies built around liberal economics have been overwhelmed by progressive demands for new social policies some of which are generated by identity politics.

He says the challenge is to re-establish the common consensus that forms the basis of good democratic government.

This is made harder by the social media echo chamber and the dramatization of policy as a moral issue as is the case with climate change.

In a rapidly changing political environment the centre right of politics is having difficulty identifying what it stands for.

The Thatcher/Reagan nostrums of smaller government, lower taxes and individual freedoms no longer seem appropriate when people are concerned about moral issues such as ‘fairness and equity’, personal identity and the rights of individuals and animals.

Tony Abbott quotes Stephen Harper to make the case that conservatives are being blamed for the fact that they established the rules that are causing the middle classes in democracies to feel the economic pain.

“A large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Trump because they are really not doing very well. They are not doing well in the world that we conservatives created after the Cold War. And they are not doing well, in part, because of some of the policies we conservatives have advocated … The world of globalism is not working for many of our own people … We now have a choice. We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying … Conservatism is successful over time because conservatism works. We have to make it work for the mass of our citizens once again.”

A key point that is not clearly pointed out in this analysis is that the blame is directed at the traditional political class as a whole, both Labor and Liberal.

The right wings of both parties who are committed to the neo-classical economic tradition are seen as dinosaurs and so the left wings of both parties are moving towards the new progressive left.

This explains the new character of the British Labour Party, the Democrats in the United States, the moderates in the Liberal Party and the left of the Australian Labor Party.

Stephen Harper believes that new conservatives have to engage with contemporary issues rather than simply opposing change in a reactionary way.

It is a mistake to be defensive. Tony Abbott understands the need for the major parties of the left and right to adjust to changed circumstances rather than to cling to outdated ideologies: “Because voters will ultimately make up their own minds about what’s really in their best interests, left-wing parties that believe in open borders and right-wing parties that believe in ever freer markets are at risk of losing their base. Obviously, this is an opportunity, not just a threat—to be seized by the side of politics that first wakes up to what’s happening. In the United States, thanks to candidate Trump, that was the Republicans. The challenge now is suitably to update the party’s political philosophy from the age of Reagan when the benefits of free trade in goods and free movement of people were much more taken for granted. What’s wanted is a coherent underlying rationale beyond catchphrases like putting the country first,” he says.

The former Prime Minister is clear about who the base of the Liberal Party should be even if most commentators are derisory about his views.

He argues, drawing on Stephen Harper’s book:“Rootless, cosmopolitan intellectuals parading their moral superiority, or masters of high finance dressing up self-interest as economic correctness, are not for him. His people, the people he thinks the Centre-Right must promote and protect, are: members of the armed forces and the emergency services; small business operators mortgaging their homes to invest, employ and serve the community; and parents making sacrifices for their children. He salutes everyone and anyone who’s creating something. It’s really a moral vision that he’s articulating. Centre-Right politics should foster the civic virtues: duty, service, thrift, responsibility and, above all, love of country.”

In Abbott’s view the basis of a political party should be its beliefs. He distinguishes between beliefs and ideas. Beliefs he says are fundamental to everything that a politician does whereas ideas are the stuff of analysis.

Ideas are the currency of academics whereas political leaders must have more than this.

The issue that the former Prime Minister has, probably more than any other politician, is to persuade the public that his beliefs coincide with their interests.

At the moment there is a huge trust deficit which pervades the relationship between the public and the political class.

The Liberals are bearing the brunt of this distrust at the moment. It is exacerbated by statements from the progressive wing of the party that reinforce the public’s distrust of the conservatives.

However Labor is not immune to this distrust despite the fact that it has moved substantially to the left in order to appease progressive populism.

Without substantial change to economic circumstances they will fall victim to public opprobrium.

The real risk for Australian democracy is that both major parties will fall apart and the political system will become atomised around independents and small parties representing sectional interests.

There are already signs of this with the attention now being gleaned by the group of women independents who are making a mess of policy development but being widely praised for their activities.

John McDonnell

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