The Liberals are proving themselves unable to differentiate their product from that of the ALP and even veering close to the Greens. The rot started with John Howard and his “broad church” approach which welcomed soft socialism into the Liberal Party in an attempt to maroon the ALP with the hard left policies.
Howard was fortunate in this approach in having a strong-willed Treasurer who could make use of Treasury without being engulfed by the men and women led and nurtured by Ken Henry, the Keynesian global warmist. But other ministers and Howard’s own policy choices started processes that caused economic harm, moving the party closer to the ALP.
Most notorious among these was Howard’s 2001 decision on renewable energy subsidies, initially to bring these inherently high cost, low reliability wind/solar sources to comprise “two per cent additional energy”. As such interventions inevitably do, this started permanent pressure for additional renewable subsidies (which Howard, to his credit, resisted while in office). Subsidies to renewables will bring their share in electricity supply in 2020 to 24% (with commercial hydro another 8%). These policies have converted the nation with world’s cheapest electricity into one with the most expensive.
Howard also embarked on a process of buying up water from farmers in Australia’s most productive agricultural province, the Murray-Darling, to give to environmental uses. Reversing a 100-year history of the nation’s major river system as a “working river”, half of whose flow was diverted to irrigation, Howard (perhaps to outflank a possible rival in Malcolm Turnbull) determined that 450 gigalitres out of 11,000 were to be taken back for unnecessary environmental flows. This started a process that today has one-fifth, 2,700 gigalitres, formerly earmarked for agriculture poured into environmental flows.
And, though Howard refused to ratify the Kyoto Agreement, forerunner of the 2015 Paris accords, he took steps to implement the reduction in emissions that Australia had agreed when we signed the protocol in 1997. Among these was a coordinated policy approach to prevent land clearing in Queensland and New South Wales, a measure masterminded by federal Environment Minister David Kemp, that effectively took farmers’ property without compensation. This policy was instrumental in reducing emissions[am1] [am2] by 21% of the level that they would otherwise have been, allowing Australia to crow that it had met its Kyoto targets (Canada, a major promoter of the Kyoto Agreement, decided that taking such actions against its landowners was unconscionable and thus reneged on its Kyoto targets).
The broad-church policy paved the way for Rudd’s victory, which he facilitated by proclaiming himself a deregulator – a political chimera that fused the Liberal’s fiscal conservatism with Labor’s more human face. Chimeras are, of course, mythical creatures, as the resulting Rudd/Gillard/Rudd debacle established beyond doubt. Tony Abbott tried to shift a few degrees to the right but with the incompetent Joe Hockey in place of Costello as Treasurer, he was carrying greater baggage, further weight to which was added by Abbott being unable to fire Martin Parkinson as Treasury Secretary.
When Turnbull’s white-anting was rewarded by his elevation to leadership, the ingrained conservativism that prevented Howard, moreso Abbott, from surrendering to leftist interventionism evaporated. Turnbull has a rusted-on faith in government intervention and is a true believer both in the global warming myth and a future where technology will mean cheaper solutions to energy than those which require digging up resources. His policies were and remain alien to those of liberalism, but by that stage the broad church had brought forth and given prominence to a group of Liberal MPs with little faith in free enterprise and less in small government. These were joined by others spooked by Abbott’s poor opinion polls and for whom Turnbull offered plausibility as a saviour.
Continued poor opinion polls and the near loss of the 2016 election proved this wrong. But the broad church has undermined Liberal Party values by allowing an infiltration of members, some of whom are barely distinguishable from the green left. This became apparent when forty federal Parliamentarians voted for Turnbull in the recent leadership spill even after it was clear that he was bereft of liberal principles, was ever willing to spend and was obsessed with a Ruddian global warmism that coloured his entire philosophy, even appointing fellow true believer Martin Parkinson as his departmental secretary.
The seat of Wentworth is the latest casualty of these policies. In the wake of the loss, Trent Zimmerman was not the only NSW politician calling for a more robust attack on fossil fuel-generated electricity. He would certainly be joined by his patron, Michael Photios, the state powerbroker whose wife, Kristina, is a director of Clean Energy Strategies, which bills itself as “a boutique corporate advisory firm specialising in energy“. Photios has been trying to replace conservative Liberal MPs, including Craig Kelly, who has converted his seat of Hughes from marginal to safe Liberal. In Kelly’s case the vaunted replacement is a former ALP representative, Kent Johns.
Although Scott Morrison has said there will be no change in the policy, pressures from the Wentworth election outcome, the left of the Party are moving to kill suggestions of a shift to a harder core anti- Paris and pro-low cost energy stance. This leaves the electorate with little to distinguish the ALP from the Coalition, except the gentler, rosier patina that the ALP will supply.
Could a Liberal leader do a “full Trump” and offer the liberal and conservative policy blend that has proven so successful in North America? Many would argue that Australia’s mandatory voting system means there is no possibility of energising otherwise non-voting supporters in the way Trump has done. Perhaps so, but the drift to the centre-left that characterises the Liberal Party today makes it difficult to discern a path that will prevent its defeat in a general election.