Two weeks on, the Wentworth byelection result continues to be the Rorschach test of Australian politics in 2018. Pundits and politicians are interpreting the outcome to mean whatever they want it to mean. The loss of what was assumed to be a safe Liberal seat has been taken by left-leaning Liberal MPs to mean their party must “do more” on climate change for example, while right-leaning Liberal MPs claim that whatever happened in Wentworth doesn’t mean anything anyway because the electorate isn’t representative of the rest of the country.
Those Liberal MPs who lament the demise of Malcolm Turnbull argue that while under his leadership the party was behind in the polls the situation was not irretrievable. They argue the Liberals and and their policies should shift to “the centre” (i.e. to the left of where they are now) to cater to the drift leftward of voters’ preferences.
Those Liberals MPs responsible for the former PM’s downfall reply that first there’s no evidence Turnbull would have performed any better at the next election than he did at the last. The Coalition under Turnbull as “the pragmatic centrist” lost 14 seats at the 2016 federal election. Under the Abbott “the unelectable man of the hard-right” the Coalition won a total of 25 seats over two federal elections.
The debate over what Wentworth means for the Liberals is a proxy war over the future direction of the party. It’s a battle that gives every sign of being carried on for years to come – and while the Liberals are in opposition in Canberra.
One of the challenges the Liberals face as they ponder their future policy directions is they’ve got no process for debating and resolving philosophical differences. The fight between the “wets” and the “dries” in the late 1970s and 1980s took more than a decade to be resolved in favour of the “dries”.
In simple terms, at the federal level the parliamentary leader of the Liberals sets the party’s philosophical direction and Liberal MPs then follow it. In the modern-day Liberal Party the way to change a policy is to change the leader.
Giving the Liberal leader effective carte blanche to make policy might not be a problem when that leader is Robert Menzies or John Howard. But it is a problem when that leader is Turnbull.
Howard is correct when he says the Liberal Party was at its best when it operated as a “broad church”, encompassing the variety of the non-left philosophical traditions in Australia. Whether the Liberals can continue as a single political party that’s a “broad church” party is an interesting question.
A “broad church” requires its adherents to subscribe to some common aims and objectives, that ideally for a political party would be more than just winning elections.
For much of the Liberal Party’s history those aims and objectives were broadly agreed upon and centred on national security and economic policy. Now the issues of national security have fractured into an argument about asylum-seekers and the level of immigration. On economics, the Liberals have largely replaced the notion of fiscal restraint and smaller government to enter into a contest with Labor as to who can impose the most effective regulations.
Added to all of this is what to the Liberals is largely uncharted territory, namely the debate the nature of the country’s traditions and values, the so-called “culture wars”.
On all of these questions there is “liberal”, “libertarian” and “conservative” perspective. Sometimes those perspectives all align to produce a single agreed-upon policy, but increasingly they don’t. The suggestion that every policy challenge is susceptible to a solution through the application of non-ideological pragmatism is misguided. Whether for example taxes should go up or down can ultimately only be decided according to values and philosophy.
What’s forgotten by those Liberals who argue the party should abandon ideology is that such a statement is itself a statement of ideology.
The maintenance of a centre-right political party as a “broad church” requires the skills of a Menzies or a Howard. No political party or system is sustainable if it can only be operated by a once-in-a-generation political impresario.