Should Coalition voters endorse Malcolm Turnbull’s coup and policies by setting aside reservations and voting for his party in the belief that Labor would be even worse? Or should they pin their hopes of reform and revival on the creative destruction of defeat? Two of our contributors argue the toss
Ever since the Turnbull coup, those of both conservative and libertarian bent, have been troubled by the prospect of endorsing the latest PM’s treachery at the ballot box. Does one wish for a dose of poetic justice and the usurper’s once-and- forever exit in ignominy or defeat from the leadership and, most likely, the political stage? Or is it better to subsume resentment and reservation and back the Coalition, the notion being that any party is better than Labor?
Below, James Allan and Steve Kates, representing each of those conflicting views, have at it.
Dear Steve (aka Mark Textor’s Man),
I have one question for you. If you see all decisions as snapshots – one-off calls between two choices on the current table – then here’s what follows. Presumably you will always opt for the least bad choice (and I grant you that Turnbull is less bad than Shorten for us small government, right-of-centre types), without an eye to longer-term consequences. But my query is, what’s wrong with a longer view? We know that, at some point in the future, Labor will win an election. That is inevitable and desirable in a democracy. So I wonder which of these two scenarios you think better:
Scenario A: Turnbull squeaks home. He moves the Liberal Party left, and the country left, but the latter not as far to the left as Shorten and Labor would do. Meantime, more Turnbull people get preselected. More guff about ‘the Religion of Peace’; more on renewables; more money to the ABC; just not as bad as Labor. You might even assume that a few Conservatives keep a lid on the worst of the Turnbull’s Labor-like schemes.
Then Turnbull either wins again or he loses and Labor gets in.
Let’s assume Turnbull wins again and there’s more of the same. After that, Labor wins. By then the whole political spectrum has been moved left (see continental Europe and the so-called Christian Democrats over the last 25 years). We get Labor in that context, with a Liberal Party more left wing than it has been, possibly ever. So that means when Labor does win it will surely be more left-wing than a Shorten-led Labor this July. And this more-left-Labor will win once, maybe twice. So that’s the next four elections on this scenario, as in Libs then Libs, then Labor then Labor.
Scenario B: Turnbull loses and Shorten gets in. Labor has to deal with the debt problems it caused. Taxes, of course, go up. Things are worse than under Turnbull, a bit. The Liberal Party has some sort of accounting for what it has done in axing a winning PM (unlike in Canada, where the Tories stuck with an unpopular Harper in his first term and he delivered two more wins). And some sort of accounting for choosing MPs who opted to replace Abbott with the most left-wing person in their party room. After this first Shorten win either he loses or wins the following election. I reckon there’s a good chance Shorten loses, and to a reformed and cleaned-out Coalition.
But let’s say I’m wrong. Shorten wins again. Now we’re doubly worse off. But we have an actual conservative opposition and, as Quadrant‘s John O’Sullivan points out, the sort of Opposition you face matters; it affects governments. The third election goes to them, the Coalition. And then they repeat and win one more. So, on this scenario, it’s Labor then Labor, then Libs then Libs.
You and the ‘Oh My God, you can’t vote for Labor!’ crowd of reluctant Turnbull supporters seem to think that Scenario A is unarguably better than Scenario B. I think there’s much to say in favour of Sscenario B. In each the Libs win twice and lose twice. But in my opinion the endpoint for Australia – for those of us of a small government, strong border security, Hobbesian sensibility – is miles better under Scenario B. I am not welcoming a Shorten win in any short-term sense. I am saying that in the long-term, thinking four elections down the road, this is the better choice, and by a fair way.
Notice that I have said nothing about the good consequences that flow from not rewarding bad behaviour, not to enton pusillanimous MPs, and cheap, venal ambition in the service of a political perspective we don’t share. Nor have I pointed out that there are very good consequences in not allowing yourself to be played for a mug. If they know you will always vote Lib, provided the party is perceived to be just a smidgeon to the right of Labor, then Mark Textor is right in asserting that the base doesn’t matter. we become irrelevant to their thinking, or virtually so. In evolutionary psychology this is analogous to the person who does not take retribution when double-crossed (see my Spectator pieces from immediately after the coup). It is a ‘loser gene’ and will die out. The best long-term strategy is niceness and co-operation until you are stabbed in the back. Then you get even. This has no good short-term consequences for you. But it has great long-term consequences. You are seen not to be a mug – in this case a Textor stooge.
Now you can respond in three ways. (1) The Libs will never lose another election so vote Turnbull. (2) We can keep stop the political spectrum from moving to the left under Turnbull. We really can. (3) It is wrong-headed to think long-term and dynamically. You should always think super short-term, like some inner city guy who won’t marry his girlfriend because he wants sex with lots of different chicks. (And I wonder, Steve, if when you write about economics you take a short-term, snapshot view of the economy or a long-term dynamic one? Just asking.)
Personally, I don’t buy any of those three. Nor is it convincing to pretend that all those who differ from you are apostates or morons. There is a case to be made here; I think it’s a strong one.
The best consequences will flow from a Turnbull loss.
Let me begin with a story I have told before, which I wrote about just before the spill that replaced Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull:
When I used to work in Canberra, our offices backed onto the Liberal Party headquarters, and I was asked one time, even before Malcolm entered Parliament, what I thought about him. My answer was that if I was in the constituency that would decide the fate of the next election, and my vote was the one that would put him in or out, that I would hesitate about which way to go. That was then. Today I would have no doubt.
Since the post was titled, “I would never vote for a Coalition led by Malcolm Turnbull” you can see which way I would have gone. You can find the whole thing at the Catallaxy blog via the link above, so I do have some history in thinking about these issues:
But that was then, when the question was purely speculative. This is now, when we are faced with a Turnbull-led Liberal Party versus Shorten-led Labor. The issue is whether it is worth enduring three (or more) years of Labor with all the damage it would do, versus a Liberal Party led by someone farther to the left than Shorten, but surrounded by a party that has more sense than its leader and his far-Green beliefs.
While I am at it, a word about Tony Abbott, who let the side down with his cavalier approach to policy even when he could see Malcolm lying in wait. I don’t know how much Abbott had to compromise in keeping his cabinet together, but I don’t think he thought about what might happen, even though it looked menacing enough at the time. And since here we are and in this mess, he must carry at least some of the blame. But Malcolm carries the most.
These are, moreover, really dangerous times. The left (which encompasses Malcolm) is not just merely socialist and high-spending. The left is now open borders, with its aim to submerge every facet of Western civilisation it is able. Obama set the pattern and it has been evermore in this direction, with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn the models for the future and Hillary Clinton not far behind. Watching the modern left in action, we find attacks on everything that has made the West great, from its freedoms to its objective science to its market economies to its Judeo-Christian ethos and traditions. These are the battle lines and if we can preserve some of it here, then that is what I want to do. I do not wish to live in the New Australia patterned after the New Europe post-Merkel.
The choice is between a left-wing pseudo-Liberal who leads a party that, as of last September, still had 43 ready to vote against him, versus a more centralist Labor leader who will have nothing like even remotely close to 43 willing to support his more moderate views. Malcolm is a known quantity, and what is known is that he is a strategic and policy incompetent, politically far to the left of the party he leads. He will of necessity lead the Coalition into the election, but – and this is where we differ – I don’t think he will call the shots after that, even assuming he wins, which is far from assured.
Out beyond, my best case scenario has Donald Trump as President in 2017, which will change everything. Malcolm, being devoid of any useful ideas of his own, will find the world in which he is trying to legislate very different. Our cultural dynamic may hopefully have changed. No more open borders, no more state-sanctioned global warming hysteria, no more undisciplined spending. And the 43 will have grown to the majority of the party – they may already be there – and Malcolm will find himself shunted towards the exit, with Morrison or someone of a similar disposition taking his place.
You cannot craft the replacement team among the Libs. Bronwyn went and was replaced by someone ideologically much worse. Politicians are not philosopher kings, and I have no expectation that things are going to get better. I can see, at every turn, genuine regret about the change even by those who supported the shift. I now have my list of people whose views on politics I no longer feel the need to listen to, and the list grows longer.
Nothing would scare me more than an un-reformed Labor Party winning the election. You are kidding yourself if you think the Libs will ever be anything much different from what they already are now, even after three years in opposition. But at least they can hear what people like us are saying. The other side, Labor, is deaf to it all and would make this country a shambles. I cannot see the advantage of such a risk for so little potential gain. Let me give you Tony Abbott’s words from just the other day:
“Just how much lasting damage was done by the worst government in our history is only now starting to become apparent.
But Labor hasn’t learned and would do it all again – and more.”
Everyone seems to like happy solutions to difficult problems. Malcolm has himself discovered that he has not a single solution to the problems we face, not one. Not one of the policy ideas he has floated lasted even a week. If the Libs get over the line, it will be in spite of him and not because of him. Three years seems like a long time to put up with Labor once more — and there is no certainty that it will be only three years. Being in government, if you don’t have destructive white-anting at every turn, makes for serious efort invested in policy-making. Thrown into opposition, the Libs’ disintegration could be far worse than you might imagine. My worst case scenario is Labor in Australia and Clinton in the US. I cannot do much about what they do opn the other side of the Pacific, but here I can only hope to do as much as possible to maintain things as best as we still can.
However, I will go at least this far with what you said: If I thought a Coalition win at the next election would mean the Libs under Malcolm would become the New Green Party of Australia, I would take a flamethrower to the lot, and then salt the earth after.
James Allan teaches law at the University of Queensland. Steve Kates teaches economics at RMIT University.