In which I agree with John Howard – the case against a conservative third party


Me and J-Ho? Not really shocking.

John Howard at a press conference today:

Mr Howard acknowledged that the Liberal Party was in danger of splintering when he reached out to conservatives who feel isolated by the return of Malcolm Turnbull to the leadership.

“It’s also another reminder to those who are talking about the philosophical direction of the Liberal Party. If you are a bit worried about the party, stay in and fight, don’t start talking about a separate movement. Stay in, fight and argue your case because the Liberal Party is, I have always said, a combination of small ‘l’ Liberals and conservatives.”

He said that sections of the party who felt ignored should “stay in and fight, you don’t start wondering off the reservation”.

I assume that all this is in reference to Senator Cory Bernardi launching the Australian Conservatives movement the other day. As the man himself wrote:

As of writing, over 1.7 million votes were cast for right-of-centre or conservative parties rather than the Liberal Party. From my perspective, that was the Liberal base expressing their unhappiness with past events.

Irrespective of the final election result, the clear mission now is to bring people together for the good of the country. That is going to take the formalisation of a broad conservative movement to help change politics and to give common sense a united voice.

The Sydney Morning Herald, needless to say, has latched onto the story, weaving a rather breathless tale of Bernardi maybe or maybe not launching an actual break-away conservative political party, in possible collaboration with the right-wing Senate “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery, ex-MP Ross Cameron, and unnamed others.

Conservatives say such a party would need its “own Nigel Farage” – the recently resigned, charismatic leader of the United Kingdom Independence party…

A broad-based conservative movement, which would be a right-wing equivalent to the Greens, catering to voters who believe the post-Tony Abbott Liberal party has become too centrist…

Mr Druery said he believed a conservative party would “likely pick up one Senate spot in every state” at a federal election.

“They would likely win some lower house seats too but they would have to be very, very clever about their election strategy.”

He said such a break-away party could form a place within the Coalition, like the National Party and the Liberal National Party in Queensland…

In NSW, the right-wing micro-parties collectively picked up about 14 per cent of the upper house vote in the election. In Queensland, the right-wing micro-party vote was hovering around 18 per cent on Wednesday.

In Senator Bernardi’s home state of South Australia, the right-wing micro-party vote was around nine per cent.

There are many within the conservative movement believe there should be one single right-wing party to cater to this constituency, the same voters who turned their backs on the Liberal party under Prime Minister Turnbull.

While I understand the frustration on the right that might be the driving force behind the third-party speculations, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I love Cory, and all the power to him for flying the conservative flag and trying to strengthen the movement, but to try to turn an amorphous movement into a fully-fledged political party would be a mistake, and for several reasons:

1)From a practical point of view, while the right-of-centre minor party vote might indeed be in the teens of percent – or 1.7 million votes in Cory’s calculation –there is simply no way all that vote will magically coalesce around one particular – new – political party. Family First, One Nation, Christian Democrats, Liberal Democrats and a host of other micro and not-so-micro religious, populist and lifestyle parties are not going to suddenly fold; the Australian Conservatives the party would merely become yet another political party competing for the same pool of right-of-centre voters. Firstly, there is very little in it for the current minors in any such merge; secondly, there is very little that unites all these political forces – some are conservative Christians, some are areligious; some are free marketeers, some are anti-globalisation protectionists; some are populists, some are libertarians. The only two things they have in common are the fact they all hate Labor and the Greens, and they are not Liberals or Nationals. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the Conservative fusion would repeat the unlikely 1909 merger of the Protectionists and free trade Anti-Socialists, or the creation of the modern Liberal Party out of a number of different political groups and organisations – but I really don’t think so.

2) The political duopoly is the essential fact of the Australian political history. The Labor Party has been with us since 1893, the Liberal Party in various incarnations since 1909. The Nationals and their predecessors have more or less been in a permanent coalition with the Libs, and for all their differences I consider them both to be a single political force. Third parties simply don’t prosper in Australia. The Greens might be an exception, if you define prospering as syphoning around 10 per cent of the overall vote away from Labor and electing a handful of Senators who sometimes hold the balance of power. Do we really need the right-wing equivalent of the Greens? Some would yes, if the Conservatives could pull the government of the day to the right the way the Greens sometimes manage to pull the government to the left through their numbers and influence in the Senate. “Sometimes”, or rarely, being the operative word. In any case, I think it’s a moot point, since I don’t believe the currently disparate non-Coalition right could form one united party, as discussed above.

3) Bearing the two preceding points in mind, to paraphrase John Howard it’s better for the conservatives to be inside the tent pissing out then outside pissing in. Ultimately the Liberal/National Coalition is the one force capable of implementing centre-right (liberal, conservative, even, God help us, on very rare occasions, libertarian) ideas and policies. If you don’t like the direction the Coalition is going you will ultimately have much bigger influence by arguing policy in the Party Room, voting for the leaders of your preference, and otherwise trying to affect the ideological tenor of the party and its top team from the inside. Don’t like Turnbull? Outlast him. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the only thing necessary for the triumph of moderates is for hard men and women to do nothing and walk away, vacating the party field.

There is an LNP membership renewal form sitting next to me on my desk as I type these words. I haven’t returned it yet, and technically, my membership having expired on 29 June, I’m currently not a member. The delay is not a form of protest; I’m merely mentally calculating how many flat whites with soy or books at a Bookfest I can otherwise buy with $110. But one thing is certain; I won’t be filling out any other membership forms. I don’t have any illusions that my individual membership of the LNP, or the Liberal Party of Australia more broadly, matters at all or affects anything that the Coalition might or might not do in government, but I know that my membership of the Conservatives or any other minor party would be even more pointless. This might not be the most ringing endorsement of major party membership you’ve ever read, but it’s none the less sincere for that.

P.S. While I agree with Howard in this instance, it is amusing reading readers’ comments under the “Australian” piece, giving John shit for his role in convincing Turnbull to stay in politics in 2009. Not one of Howard’s finest moments.