The most distressing thing about the Morrison/Turnbull budget is not that its authors fled in horror from the prospect of defending core values — you know, quaint concepts such as lower taxes, less government and fewer public servants. No, the real shame is that no one has quit cabinet in protest
Do you know what you notice when you live for a while in the United Kingdom, or even Canada? Sometimes, not often but on occasion, politicians resign from cabinet on a point of principle. To Australian eyes these are strange figures because they seem to value something more highly than the power and perks and privileges that come with being in power. Agree or disagree with their convictions, you see that they are prepared to say ‘I will not be associated with that, even if the price is resignation from cabinet and having to retreat to the backbenches’.
Now I’m reliably told that some Coalition MPs actually hold a few right-of-centre views about debt, about eliminating the deficit, about standing up for free speech, about not supporting ever more tax increases, that sort of thing. Some of these near-extinct Liberal Party MPs are even, or so I’m assured, presently in cabinet. If that is true, then answer me this: why did not a single one of these perhaps-mythical creatures resign from cabinet when presented with this abomination of a big spending, big taxing, big government, Labor budget? Where was the man or woman of principle who refused to put his or her name to this Wayne Swan-inspired document?
Did a single one of our so-called right-leaning Liberal cabinet ministers resign – you know, the ones we’ve all been assured repeatedly by the Turnbull apologists in the media would keep Malcolm from veering too far left? I certainly didn’t notice any resignations on principle. Not when this budget was announced. Not when superannuation was being attacked. And not when the Turnbull-led monstrosity of a supposedly Liberal government basically just gave up on doing anything about repealing Section 18C. (Apparently it’s now sufficient just to say you want, in general terms, to do something and then, when a few independent Senators say ‘no’, just throw in the towel and give up. That and that wan effort alone counts as enough for those without shame to claim they are fighting for Bill Leak’s memory and free speech in general. Personally, I’d prefer a double dissolution election on the issue, but then I’m concerned with outcomes, not virtue signalling and bumper-sticker moralising and hoping to con a few of the Liberal Party faithful into voting for you next election.)
Now I understand the need for cabinet solidarity. But nothing in that doctrine requires a minister to stay in the job. Nothing prevents him from quitting, perhaps because the issues and beliefs that brought him into politics in the first place are being sold down the river by the people running the party. That sort of preparedness to quit and move to the backbench, rather than be associated with, say, an Italian-style spendathon budget is no doubt more likely to come from politicians who first had a successful career doing something other than being an earlier politician’s aide-de-camp or press secretary or what have you.
If politics is all you’ve known, all you’ve really known, then you’re never going to put principle above staying in the game you’ve played your whole adult life. Put differently, these sort of politicians simply don’t hold any values or principles they won’t forsake to stay in cabinet.
So maybe those of us on the right just need to see this Liberal Party absolutely smashed at the next election in order to try to inject a few beliefs into those MPs who represent us through that party of purported centre-right conservatives.
It’s an awfully big price to pay. But as time goes by I’m becoming more and more resigned to it, if I can be forgiven for putting it that way.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline