THE Federal Liberal Party is pulling itself apart. The direction established by Sir Robert Menzies and described by John Howard as “a broad church” is being lost to a sustained takeover by the growing conservative membership that has no tolerance for “liberal” values. History shows us that publicly divided parties do poorly at elections.
“A disposition rather than a philosophy” is the way that conservative columnist, Andrew Bolt, described his own stance to Charlie Pickering on the ABC TV show “The Weekly”.
In doing so, he also revealed the values of conservatives within the Liberal Party with whom he so closely associates. Bolt is very clear that he did not want Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, seeing him as too progressive. He illustrated his concerns with a revealing question: “Where is the voice of conservatism in the political process when the so-called conservative party does not have a conservative leading it?”
Some Australians think the party is called the Liberal Party – not the Conservative Party!
This growth of the conservative movement within the Liberal Party has gone from strength to strength from the time of Malcolm Fraser. It has moved from conservative to much more conservative. This new brand of conservatives in the US is regularly referred to as the neo-conservatives or “neo-cons”. The concept of “neo” is not just about the concept of new – it also carries the connotation of revived. This movement sees itself as reviving old values of small government and traditional moral values.
The Webster dictionary defines the neo-con as the concept of “a former liberal espousing political conservatism”.
In Australia, there is now a large group of the Liberal Party ready to “espouse political conservatism”. Former ACT senator Gary Humphries lost his chance at re-election after conservative elements gathered enough strength within the ACT Liberals to replace him with the current conservative ACT senator, Zed Seselja.
There may be some hope for more moderate Liberals who were shocked by the conservative Abbott/Hockey approach to politics. Ultra-conservative former speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, lost her pre-selection to Liberal staffer, Jason Falinski, in a move that has given incumbency to a more moderate representative for the very safe seat of Mackellar.
Intentionally or not, Australian neo-conservatives are destroying the “broad church” Liberal Party of Menzies in order to revive one element of the coalition that brought the liberals and the conservatives together to secure decades-long government through the 1950s and 1960s. With the demise of liberalism and the rise of conservatism, not just the party – but all of Australia, is likely to see a more divided society.
Social conservatism is what is generally recognised at the core of this movement. The “neo-cons” have no reluctance to interfere with personal freedoms when it fits with traditional perspectives on marriage, on a woman’s right to control her own fertility, on illicit drugs or other issues of law and order. However, they vigorously oppose interference by the “nanny state” in their ability to make money.
Carl Rhodes criticised the movement in “The Conversation”, suggesting government in Australia is has become an arm of business. He cites not only Abbott’s “open for business” mantra and objections to a Royal Commission into the banking sector, but points out that things have not changed under (former banker) Malcolm Turnbull stating: “Westpac chimed in with its view that a Royal Commission could ‘impact confidence in the economy’. There is a warped logic at play”.
That ‘warped logic’ is about corporate power and influence within government.
Turnbull has toadied to the conservative elements. He failed to stand up to them on climate change, on equality in marriage and “safe schools”. His demise in the polls will be seen by the conservatives as an opportunity for a change of leader.
Senator Cory Bernardi warned last year of a split within the Liberal Party believing his conservative movement represents the “silent majority of Australian conservatives” who were challenging “the leftist agenda of big government and decaying society”.
His wife, Sinead Bernardi, recently registered and trademarked the name and logos for “Australian Conservatives” to provide “the services of a political party”.
While the conservatives divide, the Labor Party is finally looking united. This is going to be an interesting election year.