Opinion: Voters tire of Liberal sheep in wolves' clothing

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Sunday 19 December 2021

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Why haven't moderate Liberals like Simon Birmingham and Marise Payne stood up?

Spare a thought for the moderates in the Liberal Party, because frankly, that's about all they spare for you.

True, they occasionally stick their heads up on things like climate for instance, but this tends to be when the shooting's over and the change is already happening.

It is rare for them to be assertive, and unheard of for them to put their own jobs on the line for a principle.

Instead, they use words, cleverly arranged and artfully timed to appear modern, while otherwise mouthing the talking points and voting with the Nationals.

Remember Paul Keating's assessment after Malcolm Turnbull took back the Liberal leadership? He said Turnbull was "a cherry on top of a compost heap".

In fact, that was the point. After 30 disastrous Newspolls, even the ideologues agreed they were as good as potato peel as long as Tony Abbott remained at the helm.

Abbott wanted to die on every hill - marriage equality, climate action, even fast broadband.

"...do we really want to invest $50 billion worth of hard-earned taxpayers' money in what is essentially a video entertainment system?" Abbott said as opposition leader.

Hasn't that aged well, particularly during the pandemic?

While the Coalition's hardliners despised Turnbull's cosmopolitanism no less in 2015 than they had when they necked him for Abbott in 2009, they also knew he was their party's most saleable figure.

Their solution was to shopfront the government with Turnbull but ensure he was powerless to update the platform on climate/energy and social policy.

It was a Faustian pact which not only sealed Turnbull's fate but laid bare the shallow reach of the progressives within an increasingly right-wing party.

It is a classic bait-and-switch operation. Centrist, socially modern voters are drawn to the party by the quasi-progressive local MP but the policy outcomes they actually get have been decided by the likes of Joyce, Peter Dutton, and Matt Canavan.

You will have heard comments like it: "I can't stand Scott Morrison or Barnaby Joyce but our local MP is a good guy".

If this leaves the moderates looking a bit pointless and shop-soiled, who cares? Not them because they keep their careers, and some even get a ministerial post.

The two leading moderates are Finance Minister Simon Birmingham and Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Birmingham recently blamed Australian media for egging on French President Emmanuel Macron over Australia's submarine deceit.

"Each journalist can question themselves whether all they pursue is in the national interest or otherwise," he said, in comments not out of place in China or Poland.

As a small-L liberal, Payne might have been expected to apply intense public pressure on the UK over its harsh imprisonment and imminent extradition to the US of Australian citizen Julian Assange.

After all, even Joyce acknowledged this week that Assange had broken no Australian law, and had not been on US soil when he published leaked evidence of US war crimes. The British and American pursuit of Assange is wrong at law and in principle, but the liberty wing of the liberty party remains mute.

Ditto the relentless and unjustified political persecution of the Canberra lawyer, Bernard Collaery.

Crickets.

The electoral attraction of inner-city moderates relies on habitual Liberal voters remaining disengaged, preoccupied with their own lives.

But the danger for moderates now is that voters are waking up to the ruse, energised by the combined weight of policy failure over sexism, corruption, and climate.

Many can see that the Liberal Party they have long supported is these days, only paying lip-service to the centre-ground while actively courting the preference-wash from the far-right forces of Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer.

And what have the moderates got to defend themselves with? A list of policy gains which is (a) highly debatable, and (b) so short it fits in a single Twitter post.

While many of us switch off over summer following a year we'd mostly rather forget, armies of volunteers are amassing, organising, strategising.

T-shirts are being printed, websites created and cars, be-decked with signs.

Comfortably-off citizens in leafy electorates are getting active in politics for the first time, drawn by the by the Prime Minister's scoffing contempt of pork-barrelling revelations.

Call it the zeitgeist, or the coming together of "me too", climate, and political integrity, but whatever it is, a class of credible independent candidates has simultaneously manifested in the 2022 election - most of them in liberal strongholds in the middle and inner suburbs.

These hopefuls are political novices, but they are hardly nave. Typically, they are successful mid-career tertiary educated women with business acumen and strong community links.

If successful, history will view their arrival as an oxygenating wave of democratic renewal.

Of course it could all come to nothing. More than a century of electoral orthodoxy points to this.

In seats like Wentworth, Kooyong, Goldstein, and Hughes, the respective candidates, Allegra Spender, Monique Ryan, Zoe Daniel, and Georgia Steele could do well to very well without quite getting the chocolates.

But 120 years of precedence, is not without its upsets and these are hardly orthodox times.

Like many observers, I misread the electoral mood leading into the May, 2019 election.

But I was right about one thing.

Blue-ribbon Warringah had voted more decisively for marriage equality in the survey than even the socially progressive ACT.

Indeed, Abbott's electorate was the second strongest pro-equality Liberal seat in NSW. Yet its MP was the nation's highest profile opponent.

This suggested a crucial values disconnect between the Liberal Party and its inner-urban blue-ribbon base. Zali Steggall, herself a natural Liberal, spoke directly to that disconnect.

Clearly terrified, the Coalition says these independents are simply stooges.

"Apparently they're independents but they're only running against Liberals - I think people see that for what it is," Morrison said last week.

He needs to start worrying more about voters seeing the Liberal Party for what it actually is.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

Updated:  17 January 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager