Trouble in Libland
by ROSS FITZGERALD
The clock is now ticking on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. He currently faces active resistance from more than a score of Coalition MPs who didn’t enter public life to mimic the Labor Party. To them, the current PM’s not just leading a ‘Labor-lite’ government; he’s in the process of undermining fundamental Liberal Party values.
Edmund Burke defined a political party as a group of people working to advance the national interest according to a set of principles upon which they all agree. As John Howard often remarked, the Liberal Party of Australia was the political representative of both Burke’s conservative tradition and the classical liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’. In practice, this has meant that Liberal MPs overwhelmingly favour lower taxes, smaller government and greater freedom; also cherishing small business, the traditional family and other institutions that have stood the test of time.
Mr Turnbull’s first big mistake as PM was last year’s budget limits on tax concessions for superannuation. Close to 50 per cent of the Liberal Party’s membership would be at-least-partly-self-funded retirees. They saw this change as not only the breach of an election commitment from 2013 but as an attack on the principles of thrift and self-reliance that had characterised the party since Sir Robert Menzies. Then there was the embrace of ‘Gonski 2.0’ on school funding. Not only was David Gonski Julia Gillard’s adviser; not only did this mean spending an extra $18 billion of borrowed money and further involve the federal government in funding state government schools; not only did this repudiate many years of Coalition argument that better teaching, stronger curricula, more principal autonomy and more parental involvement were the keys to better schools; but it bought a fight with Catholic systemic schools whose aspirational parents are usually among core Liberal supporters.
Had it been a Labor one, the recent budget would have brought howls of Liberal protest. Few like the banks but they don’t deserve an extra tax just because they’re unpopular. Maybe a Medicare Levy hike could help to pay for the NDIS, but the insistence that, somehow, it was ‘fully funded’ when the budget deficit was close to $40 billion was absurd. And for a party that had come to power to deal with a ‘budget emergency’, new spending of $15 billion was another sign of surrender on the issues that normally set the Liberal Party apart from the ALP.
Finally, there’s the Finkel report that suggests the solution to price hikes and blackouts caused by over-reliance on intermittent energy is even more windmills and solar panels – only with guaranteed backup power that completely defeats the original purpose!
Mr Turnbull’s political strategy is now clear. He wants to avoid potential scare campaigns by me-tooing Labor on health, education and the environment. In the process, he abandons the Liberal Party’s traditional strength in economic management.
The Coalition’s ‘economic narrative’, to the extent that one exists, is arguably worse than Labor’s. Mr Turnbull thinks that if he can neutralise Labor’s strengths, the election then becomes a straight ‘leadership’ contest that he’ll win in a canter. If the PM is thinking that voters will warm to his personality rather than Shorten’s, he’s grievously mistaken.
Having previously lost the Liberal Party leadership over climate change policy, Mr Turnbull should be alert to the danger Finkel poses. The sensible course would be to change the economics of wind and solar by suspending or scrapping the renewable energy target. He is now considering government investment in a new, efficient coal-fired power station. But the logic of encouraging coal’s demise on the one hand while subsidising it with the other is absurd. If he pushes forward with a version of Finkel, with its effective tax on coal, there’s every chance that his government could be defeated in the House of Reps.
Losing office, again, over climate change would be an inglorious end. Yet defeat on the floor of parliament would be a cleaner way to lose than a heavy loss at the polls, which would leave Mr Turnbull a legacy akin to that of the unlamented Billy McMahon. Or even, let’s face it, a certain K. Rudd.
‘The Spectator Australia’, 24 June 2017, p i.