This morning in Brisbane, Tony Abbott launched his campaign for the return to Prime Ministership and to win the election against Bill Shorten’s Labor. Well, the occasion actually was a speech titled “Reform in the Age of Populism” delivered for the Institute of Public Affairs, but I found it difficult to read it as anything else than an electoral gauntlet. Intrigued by the topic – we do live, after all, in the age of Trump, Sanders, Brexit, Corbyn, Le Pen, Macron and the variety of both left and right anti-establishment movements that make the politics as usual difficult if not impossible to practice – I expected more of a general discussion about how you sell free trade, free market, smaller government and lower taxes to the electorate that is increasingly a combination of “woe me” and “gimme gimme”. Instead, I’ve heard a specific policy plan, including a freeze on further green/renewable energy in order to stabilise the grid and lower the energy prices for the consumers as well as a reduction in migrant intake to more closely align population growth with the GDP growth and ease the pressure on housing prices. These are reforms – of sort, or at least policies – for the age of populism; ones that Abbott knows Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet would never adopt, as they go against the grain of the few strong beliefs and instincts that Malcolm actually has.
But populism is clearly in the air, even for the Turnbull government, though it’s arguably not the sort of populism that Abbott has in mind or as practiced on the centre-right elsewhere these days. In the words of the Treasurer Scott Morrison a few days ago
“The challenge for us as Liberals is to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer about convincing Australians to be on our side, but to convince them that we are on theirs.”
This is neither leadership nor liberalism (nor Liberalism). The centre-right, liberal-conservative party, which 23 years ago became a spiritual home for this child of communism, is no more. It has been apparently replaced by another managerialist, “pragmatist”, middle-of-the-road social democratic party in the business of getting into bidding wars with other social democratic parties to buy the soul of the electorate. It’s not really about any great ideological differences; it’s about who can spend more and more of fewer and fewer taxpayers’ money (combined with more and more debt) in better and more ingenious ways to buy off the greater slice of the electorate. In this, the Liberal Party has been remade into Turnbull’s image; these are the natural instincts of the man who didn’t join the Labor Party because he thought he was too rich and successful to be allowed to advance through its ranks. You can take the boy out of Labor but you can’t take Labor out of the boy. And if he can’t join the real thing, he’ll make the thing he joins into an imitation. But it’s not wholly his fault. The Party Room more or less went with him, as did a large section of the party base, both pointing at the general electorate, which has seemingly moved to the left over the past decade, and asking why be an ideological purist and in the opposition when you can be a non-ideological pragmatist and in government. But to present the options in such a stark binary way is the lazy way out of the current political conundrum. You can pretend you’re making virtue out of necessity by shunting the party into a centrist direction that has been your preference all along, or you can actually engage in a much harder work of reshaping your message to make your ideals appeal to a changing electorate. But followship is easier than leadership.
If not leadership and not liberalism (though in his speech, Morrison did make some bows to the traditional liberal pieties – if only that came through the current policy offering), the truth of the matter is that neither ScoMo nor Mal T (the other Posh Spice) have a populist bone in their body politic either. There is an old advice that suggests you fake it till you make it, but neither are they very good at faking. Trump is a very rich New Yorker who can play the game, but he is an exception, being more of a cartoon character and a caricature than a real person. He has never been a sophisticate and it helps him now in connecting with the “forgotten people” of America. Morrison and Turnbull are anti-Trump, not just by temperament but because their policy instincts are closer to Hillary Clinton’s Demo-Plutocrats than to the right grassroots either in the United States or in Australia.
So what does it actually mean for Morrison that we’re on the side of the people? This is not France in 1789, with the pro-Bourbon monarchist faction pitted against the Jacobins who are “on the side of the people”. Or Russia in 1917. We, in the contemporary Western world, live in the age of democracy; all the parties that participate in politics are on the side of the people (unless, like Trump or the Leave campaign, you position yourself against “the elites”, which the Turnbull government does not). Convincing people we are on their side has always been the bread and butter of democratic politics, whether in the rhetorical sense that “we” will act in the national interest, or – since there is no such thing as homogenised “people” with identical interests and wants – that “we” can appeal to out base and enough of the middle to secure a majority.
I suspect though that since Scott Morrison went to pains to distinguish the new approach from the old approach, “convincing Australians we are on their side” will no longer mean “we understand your concerns; here is what we believe in and this is how we will translate these beliefs into ways that address your concerns”, but “what people want people get”. The problem is that “people” want an awful lot of different things, many of them contradictory, and many of them very expensive. The government has limited resources, or at least used to have limited resources until it rediscovered how it can painlessly borrow money instead of making tough political calls by increasing taxes. Turnbull will never “do Trump”, which means standing against globalisation, climate change orthodoxy, multicultural industry and cultural elites. For him it would be auto-cannibalism. Hence he will rather engage in out-social democratising Labor – see Gonski 2.0, NDIS, NBN and so on.
So is this ultimately the choice in the battle for the soul and the future of the Liberal Party – Abbott’s “reform in the age of populism” or Turnbull’s pseudo-populism of the Labor-lite borrow-and-spend? I believe Turnbullism is a dead end for what is still my party. But I also believe that as much as to a hard-core group of admirers he remains “the once and the future king”, neither his colleagues nor the electorate has warmed up to Abbott any more than they had before his fall. While his policy program (including a referendum on the Senate reform; “the house of rejection, not review”, as he calls it) has merits, he’s not the person to push it through both the Party Room and then the general election. Abbott can’t and Turnbull won’t. In here lies the short-term tragedy of the Liberal Party. The young guns of the party – Trevor Evans, James Patterson, Julian Leeser, Tim Wilson, Jonno Duniam, Nicole Flint, Andrew Hastie et al – will have their work cut out for them as they work over the next decade or two to rebuild and restore the Liberals as a centre-right political force animated by values and ideas and strengthened by convictions and character. I wish them all the luck but I don’t envy them the task.