Turnbull Liberals doomed while conservatism in crisis

Turnbull Liberals doomed while conservatism in crisis, by Paul Kelly.

Conservatives in the Anglo democracies are confused, divided and mainly in retreat. The meaning of conservatism is now riddled with disputation. Conservatives fight over whether Donald Trump is saviour or demon, whether Brexit is a calamity or a liberation and whether the Turnbull government deserves to be saved or denounced.

In Australia there is not a single leader among the six premiers and Prime Minister who is a self-declared conservative. The triumph conservatives enjoyed with Tony Abbott’s 2013 victory has surrendered to frustration under Malcolm Turnbull, who is not a conservative and shuns the label. …

Conservatism is consumed by confusion over its principles and purpose. It is fragmenting in party terms — witness the Coalition bleeding votes to Hanson’s One Nation and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. With John Howard long gone, it is devoid of any authority figure in office able to hold the movement together and retain it within the party. Abbott remains its figurehead with the faithful but his internal standing has nosedived.

The upshot is that the conservative movement in this country has no organisational structure, no agreed agenda or strategic mission, it features rival leadership contenders, crisscrosses the Coalition, pulls in a few celebrities, falls for the false mantra from its media champions and seizes up any grassroots eruptions of support from the suburbs and regions. This is not a winning formula.

Conservatives suffer from serious tactical ineptitude and misread public opinion. The array of prescriptions they demand from the Turnbull government — such as quitting the Paris accords, pitting coal against renewables, ditching Gonski funding, revisiting the National Disability Insurance Scheme and achieving small government with a new round of spending cuts — might delight conservatives but constitutes a package for guaranteed electoral suicide. No government would entertain it.

Many of these issues are legacies from battle that conservatives have already lost with current public opinion. Conservatives in Australia, far more than in the US or Britain, have almost no cultural power, little institutional power and have suffered near-annihilation in schools and universities.

The cultural ascendancy of the progressives has been a long and turbulent 40-year story originating with Gough Whitlam. The personal success of Howard as PM for 11 years merely disguised the extent to which progressives were taking control of institutions. …

Reflect 20 years later on the inability of today’s Liberal Party to explain its policies in moral terms. From budget repair to inequality to climate change to same-sex marriage, the progressives win because they make a moral appeal — witness their campaigns around the need for compassion and fairness, egalitarian­ism, saving the planet and marriage equality. These became moral crusades.

This is to justify neither their policies nor their arguments but to make the essential point that progressives typically tie their stance to a moral position. It is part of their cultural DNA. The conservatives, by contrast, are exposed in moral terms. They lack the intellectual depth and the language to persuade others of the merits of their position. …

In recent times conservatives have lost out over free speech and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, spending cuts, opposition to creeping higher taxes, smaller government, less state regulation, trade union powers, industrial relations reform and jobs, same-sex marriage, union amalgamation, renewable energy, superannuation fund transparency and resistance to the Gonski model. They may lose the battle over the Adani coalmine and the defining contest over religious freedom.

Paul Kelly neglects the role of the media.

Elephant in the room

If only one side of each argument is ever put seriously and repeatedly, and the facts that support a conservative position remain largely unknown, then PC fantasies are unchallenged and PC solutions seem … as natural as they do to Paul Kelly. Paul Kelly is an editor at one of Australia’s main newspapers — funny that.