A Dutton prime ministership would have deflated One Nation and the Australian Conservatives by drawing Turnbull-era refugees back to the Liberal Party, but that was not to be. Scott Morrison’s challenge will be to serve a healthy portion of the red meat they crave
Milton and Rose Friedman understood their lives’ good fortune when putting a title on their joint autobiography, Two Lucky People. Well, in Australia today there are two people who are even luckier, Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi. Just as Nigel Farage and UKIP saw their purpose and raison d’etre vanish after the Brexit vote (well, at least for a time), so Hanson and Bernardi might have found themselves sidelined in the minds of conservative voters had those three Liberal swing votes gone to Dutton instead of Morrison.
A Newspoll published after the second Liberal leadership ballot showed the extent of the likely rebound to the Liberals in the event of a Dutton victory. Waves and waves of Dis-cons would have returned to the fold from their (for many) temporary electoral homes with One Nation and the Australian Conservatives. This, in turn, would have bolstered Dutton’s polling numbers and greatly boosted his chance of success at an eventual general election.
Morrison is a “soft” conservative much preferred by the wets and the Liberal left and, as far as conviction goes, pretty much an unknown philosophical quantity. He has emerged as the candidate of the deal-makers — the Michael Photios candidate, going by the way Liberals allied with and beholding to that warlord and powerbroker turned out to thwart Dutton. No doubt Turnbull era refugees from the Liberals will say much the same thing — if you want your true conservative, stay with Cory or slip your vote to Pauline.
Of course, Dutton was never the favoured candidate of true conservatives. That remains Abbott — more conservative by a stretch than Howard, Costello (certainly), maybe even Ming himself. But Dutton would have done quite nicely if one applies the good sense of William F. Buckley, who argued that in any race between conservatives it is the most conservative who should get the vote even if he or she is not the perfect conservative. Plus Dutton is a Queenslander, and we all know how Queenslanders love a fellow Queenslander. Dutton PM would have shored up those at-risk seats north of the Tweed. So there is an opportunity lost.
There are two emergent views on the right about Morrison. The first begins with a question: why does a Dis-con not feel more elated at seeing the back, finally, of the Malchurian candidate? Because, from his perspective, Morrison is more “soft” than “conservative”, his ascent the result of a deal and none-of-the-above compromise. His success depended on the malign forces of the NSW Liberal left, the very same people who have targeted Abbott and Craig Kelly. Plus there are those memories of how he well and truly stitched up Abbott in 2015. He is an apparatchik, to those eyes, maybe in the mould of the dreaded Sinodinos. Morrison’s elevation is, for a conservative, a bit like being kissed by your sister.
Then there is Morrison’s record in government. He succeeded in his first brief because Abbott had his back when he was turning back all those leaky boats and treating the bleeding heart press gallery with the contempt it deserves. His performance as Treasurer was far murkier, facilitating as he did a burgeoning debt, higher government spending, persistent extravagance in relation to wasteful education and climate-change expenditures, and general support for his mercifully ousted ex-leader’s many other hare-brained schemes. In short, if he is perceived to have been part of the problem, how can he be the solution?
The other view is that we should regard the glass as being half full. Turnbull is gone – a huge gain — while Morrison is untested, therefore we shouldn’t write him off just yet.
To quote, of all people, Larry Pickering, there is “no need to gnash teeth or slash wrists, ScoMo has runs on the board as a Right of Centre operator. He loyally did the job with Sovereign Borders that Abbott gave him and then loyally served Turnbull well in Treasury. He gets the job done, and he’s good at it.”
Wish as we might, blunt realism says we cannot expect the ABC to be sold off, nor will Islamic immigration to be stopped. We cannot expect to see the Paris Accord dumped, considering that Josh Frydenberg, a very smart man who surely knows it’s a crock, has just spent three years claiming to believe its nonsense and is now Morrison’s deputy. The best we can hope for is that, rather than repudiating Paris, this duo will quietly sidle away from the worst of it. Those who fancied a leader up to the job of banishing rent-seeking wind farmers and solar-powered pickpockets from polite company, much as Jesus scourged the money-changers from the temple, won’t be satisfied.
We shall see which of those two views prevails. The Party’s choice of deputy is a huge clue. Josh “Call me NEG” Frydenberg’s recent form ain’t promising on either the ideological or the competence front. But hoping for a huge and sudden ideological shift under Dutton would have been optimistic too, so the half-full argument stands.
Those who see the Morrison glass as half full are, maybe, focusing on who is best to save the Liberal Party electorally. They probably accept the “broad church” hypothesis that has been given a fair airing these past days. But managing a broad church is now a much harder task than previously, and not just because of toxicity in the party room. Now the stakes are higher because the issues most in contention are subject to fiercely held views, rather than being open to nuance and compromise. Hence the broad church’s need for a parson of masterly dexterity and skill. Does Morrison have these qualities? Would Dutton?
But what if the question is not the short term future of the Liberal Party but, rather, the long term future of Australia? A far more radical approach is required, first, to hosing out the Liberal stables; second, to reforming party structures so as to kill off the malignancy eating out the NSW branch and, because a good cleaner doesn’t miss the grotty corners, excising the Black Handers, one of whom had no compunction in making common cause with GetUp against a fellow Liberal.
And the vital third item on the must-do list: to actually pursue policies that appeal to conservatives and mainstream voters — policies that are understandable, understood and actually solve people’s problems.
And what of the possibly returning dis-cons post the leadership change? Will Cory and Pauline stay lucky?
The Turnbull infection must represent the first time in modern political history that a government has set out, with quite deliberate intent, to disenfranchise and thoroughly alienate a great chunk of its own support base. These are the people , to quote Mark Textor’s infamously stupid off-the-cuff, who don’t matter because, in his view, they had nowhere else to go. And they say the man is a skilled political operator!
Most elections are decided, or at least have been in more traditional political times, by a small number of undecided voters, the so-called swinging voters committed to neither major party ideologically but willing to look closely at the policies of each and how those policies affect them. Back in the 1970s, when I was first studying political science and reading Society and Electoral Behaviour in Australia by Don Aitkin, it used to be the 40-40-20 rule. Elections were decided by the middle 20%, and the size of swings depended at least in part on the competence of the government and its ability to maintain its support base. Cut into one of those ’40’ chunks, however, and you have desertions, donations withering, volunteers not volunteering and 38 losing Newspolls in a row.
Now, for the first time and directly counter to Textor’s appraisal of the electoral mathematics, there is a sizable minority so disenfranchised that many of its number may never return to the fold. A number of Liberal politicians, including Turnbull backers (but not restricted to them), power brokers and members of its media cheer squad have resorted to a twin defence. First, swallowing the Textor gospel, they can’t see the disaffected actually voting for Shorten and Labor. The polls say otherwise. Second, these same apologists for the 2015 coup have tended to argue “we may be Liberal-lite and not much better than rubbish, but real Labor would be worse”.
To erase Bernardi and Hanson’s stroke of luck in seeing Morrison’s elevation I believe three things would have to happen for any semblance of a swingback to occur. First, as everyone from John Howard down has suggested, cabinet picks can say a lot about resolve and intention. In this case, however, the signals have been mixed. Angus Taylor, renewables critic, in charge of energy: good. Christopher Pyne to defence: not so good. Marise Payne to foreign affairs: at least she will be spending more time out of the country.
Second, the policy bete noirs of the right – the ponzi scheme of high immigration, multiculturalism, political correctness gone mad and institutionalised to boot, genuflection before the climate scam, meek adherence to Labor policies on welfare and education and the failure to address religious freedom post the same-sex marriage vote – must be addressed with some urgency and vigour lest the dis-cons stay away. The base loves red meat, taking the fight to the other side, and offending our opponents as often and as seriously as possible. (That is why laborites loved Keating, of course). The base also resents “LINOs” – Liberals in name only. The want and need more than bench-warmers who go along to get along and believe in nothing they won’t betray when push comes to shove.
But the party of Turnbull didn’t just antagonise the base. Oh no! They actively developed policies antithetical to the base. Most infamously, they set out to build climate change alarmism into core policy. They ushered in same-sex marriage, cheering as they went. They destroyed the trust of the Catholic school sector, sneering as they did it. They put buffoons in charge of key policy areas like defence. They “bought” the last election instead of safeguarding the public purse. They failed to act on free speech, and replaced one appalling Human Rights Commission chief with another. They rewarded venal power companies with subsidies to ditch base-load power. They were, in Turnbull’s proud and parting words, “progressive”.
Third, only the factional warriors like the factions. Decent people inside and outside the parties abhor them. But what the ruling faction has achieved, in effect, is the perfect vertical integration of its operational control of the political process, from pre-selections, to branch stacking, to ministerial appointments, to getting jobs for mates, to lobbying on behalf of companies which gain preferment from governments or have favoured policies adopted.
If these three things can happen – a quality cabinet, policy refocus and policy vigour and thoroughgoing “cleaning house” – the Libs may be back in business. If they do not, Cory and Pauline will not be able to keep from smiling broadly all the way to the election.
Fortunately, thanks pretty much solely to Abbott, the Libs potentially have a platform, a mentor and a guiding star to find their way out of the wilderness. Heaven knows why Abbott bothers, but the Libs should be thankful that he does, rather than trying to knife him all over again.