On Tuesday night I was there to witness, first-hand, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s explosive comments on the place of conservatism in the Liberal Party.
The Prime Minister’s remarks were made as part of a speech delivered to the UK think tank Policy Exchange, which had just awarded him the 2017 Disraeli Prize for Australia’s successful immigration policies.
With the aid of a teleprompter, Turnbull delivered his speech in the Institute of Mechanical Engineers building in Westminster.
Turnbull quotes Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies on the naming of the party: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”
Leaders create the centre
But the Turnbull speech didn’t just rebuff reactionary conservatism. He stated that Menzies also rejected “classical liberalism” and endorsed the “sensible centre” – a phrase he attributes to Tony Abbott.
The underlying issue with the centre is that, sitting in no man’s land, you are bound to get sprayed by bullets from both sides.
The centre is not a place of vision and purpose. It does not inspire either your political base or the country. It gives you no idea what you want to achieve or why you want to achieve it.
If you think back to great political leaders, none sought out the centre. They created the centre.
Menzies himself, in his time of political wilderness, turned to the Institute of Public Affairs – founded just a few years earlier – for ideas. He came to power in 1949 by fighting against the nationalisation of banks, and the cosy consensus of creeping socialism of the era.
Menzies was scathing of the those who believe in nothing
Menzies was not a moderate, he was scathing of unprincipled Liberals. Turnbull could have also quoted Menzies complaining about “Liberals who believe in nothing but still believe in anything if they think it worth a few votes. The whole thing is tragic.”
Winston Churchill, who Turnbull glowingly refers to, was on the fringes of British politics throughout the 1930s because of his rejection of appeasement. Churchill inspired the nation by declaring, just a few-hundred metres from where Turnbull spoke, that “we will fight them” – a battle cry for defending Western civilisation.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan similarly changed the course of the West by pursuing liberalisation at home and an aggressive anti-Soviet strategy abroad. They scoffed at the idea of the centre.
In practice, for centre-right parties appeals to the centre have meant taking policies from a left-wing play book. A key question at a time of sluggish economic growth is: what does the ‘sensible centre’ mean when it comes to economic policy? Does so-called pragmatism demand higher taxes and bigger government?
Values win votes
This is not only bad policy; it is electorally toxic – as British Prime Minister Theresa May discovered last month. It is notable that during her keynote address to party conference last October, May sought to “embrace a new centre ground”.
Come the June general election, May failed to stand up for a set of values and present a positive vision. This was in deep contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s rousing – and economically dangerous – calls for a radical socialist agenda that inspired millions more than expected to vote Labour.
By not distinguishing himself from Labor, Turnbull runs the same risk as May: giving people no reason to vote for him. If given a choice between Labor and Labor-lite, voters may as well just choose the real thing – as 15 consecutive Newspolls have shown voters intend to do.
There were strong parts to Turnbull’s speech. He said that to be welcoming you must decide your own immigration policy. Speaking on terrorism, Turnbull scorned the “mush of moral relativism”. In response to a question from Viscount Matt Ridley, Turnbull lauded the benefits of global trade and, apparently contradicting himself, rightly stated that: “The Liberal Party stands for freedom or it stands for nothing.”
If Turnbull wants to win the next election he needs to stand for something. Be it from the liberal or the conservative strain of Liberal Party thinking, the Australian people want leadership and vision. They want someone who can inspire by applying a values-driven approach to the serious issues we face. Thinly veiled jumps to the left will not do.