In the 1980s, the Labor Party implemented the Liberal Party’s policies. Three decades later, policy has come full circle. Today, the Liberal Party is implementing the Labor Party’s policies. This is the truth at the heart of the divisions among federal Liberal MPs.
In the 1980s, the ALP and Liberals supported the liberalisation of the Australian economy. Today, the Liberals and the ALP support increased regulation, taxes growing as a share of the total economy, and the implementation of huge government spending programs such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the national broadband Network, and the “Gonski” changes to school education funding.
As was the case with other social democratic parties across the world, the ALP in the 1980s embraced neoliberalism with the zeal of a convert. It took the ALP many years and many fraught national conferences to eventually accommodate itself to neoliberal economics – an accommodation that now appears to be ending. In the United States, it was Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, who balanced the federal budget. In New Zealand, it was Roger Douglas as a Labour minister for finance who floated the NZ dollar and sold off state assets.
In the 1980s, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating pleaded necessity. Australia would become a “banana republic” if it didn’t adopt “a sensible economic policy” as Keating said in May 1986.
Following the defeat of the Howard government in 2007, the Liberals convinced themselves they needed to accommodate and in some cases even pre-empt the shift to the left of public expectations. The paradox of Australia’s 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth is that the community now believes it is affordable and sustainable for government to keep getting bigger.
The current debates in the Liberal Party over climate change and energy policy and more lately immigration are only the precursors to a much bigger and more fundamental argument about what the post-Howard Liberal Party stands for. In recent years, Liberal MPs have toed the party line and looked the other way as they’ve waved through tax increases and levels of government intervention in the economy that would have been unthinkable in the Howard/Costello years. This attitude of benign neglect of principle from Liberal MPs will change should they lose the federal election. If the Liberals go into opposition, to use a technical expression, “it will be on for young and old”. To characterise the contours of the potential debate among Liberals as being between “moderates” and “conservatives”, as so many commentators do, is to misunderstand the condition of the current Liberal Party. When it comes to economics, the debate will be between those Liberals who believe in economic liberalism and those who don’t.
But in addition to fighting between themselves on economics, the Liberals are fighting about culture. It will be a two-front war.
Managing debates about matters such as the nature of our national identity and the character of the country’s history has traditionally been notoriously difficult for the Liberals. The Liberals resolutely refuse to engage in the so-called ‘culture wars’ but then complain as the tenor of public debate in this country lurches towards the progressive left.
The Liberals have little experience, and even less capacity to engage in any kind of internal or external debate about philosophical principles. The evidence for this was most clearly seen in how the Liberal Party managed the issue of same-sex marriage. The Liberals legislated for marriage equality, but had no idea of how the concept of equality should sit against the ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. Liberal MPs did what politicians always do when they don’t know what to do – they handed the problem to a committee to solve.
The Labor Party for all of its many faults still has a rough idea of what it stands for. Whether it puts into practice its slogans of “equality” and “fairness” is arguable – but at least most people can comprehend what those words are supposed to mean.
Malcolm Turnbull is derided for his endless repetition of “jobs and growth”. But in fairness to the prime minister, such a phrase so devoid of meaning, is a form of words Liberal MPs can agree on.