Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The courage of their convictions.

A big congratulations to Senators Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce for crossing the floor to vote for the CPRS scheme.

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Sue Boyce

Senator Sue Boyce

For the last month the central debate amongst political insiders was how many conservative climate sceptics were going to cross the floor to vote against the CPRS. No one doubted the threat was serious, and on some of the early amendments they even carried out their threat to vote no. This wasn’t enough for the cons, and following one failed spill motion they resigned on mass, forced a second leadership challenge and though expecting to lose, pulled out a surprise victory in the leadership stakes. Of the 10-15 Liberal senators who still supported of the CPRS in line with a strong majority of the public only 2 voted yes, and the bill failed.

As for Turnbull, he surged amongst Labor voters in his final days for his defiant support of the CPRS, and provided himself an exit narrative far more historically praiseworthy than the already pencilled in outline of having badly lost an election arguing for policies he didn’t support. His biographers have their story, and while not the PM outcome he thought himself destined for, it’s one he can be proud of. (And out of bitterness or convictions he’s still arguing for an ETS. Watch this space.)

So what is the moral of this story: In Australian (&US) politics, it seems only conservatives have the courage of their convictions. In government the conservatives ruthlessly pursued their policies, and now in opposition are fundamentalist in their rejection of the lefts agenda (Such as Tony Abbotts sudden disapproval of mandates). True, this stridency isn’t always the best electoral politics, Bush & Howard went down humiliatingly and Abbott is miles below Rudd on the polling. But in policy and momentum terms it matters. Bush got through much of his agenda (save reforming social security), as did Howard, and in office Obama and Rudd have struggled to get their signature issues through (Health & ETS respectively) and only barely scrapped through a stimulus package (whose debt they now wear like a bad smell). All of which makes their re-election campaigns so much harder as they have little to point to as achievements. This isn’t a startling new observation obviously, but it is worth recognising when it occurs. There’s all sorts of explanations floating around, assigning rational reasonableness to the left & irrational ignorant passion to the right, but it doesn’t really hold weight. Likewise theories that this is just a post-election backlash (as the US teaparties have been seen) don’t work either because the same determination was evident in government.

Instead, it seems to reflect the pattern of the last 30 years. The right emerged circa 1970 with a clear vision of society and agenda, easily won the rhetorical war against the dying remnants of Post-WW2 liberalism, and has stayed in the ascendant ever since. Though the left had some electoral victories (Hawke, Clinton) and has made good advances in some areas (homosexual rights, environmental, retaining welfare net), it hasn’t ever really gotten up from its crouched, defensive position. It hasn’t been willing to be blooded and potentially risk any kind of electoral backlash in order to carry out its policies. It was so anxious to gain government it weakened or deferred most of its real beliefs, and having gained it is even more anxious to keep it. This isn’t always the worst thing, sometimes good government means just pragmatically minding the store, something that is in the best of the conservative tradition. But when it comes to big critical issues, it also can translate overwhelming strength into policy defeat. Rudd’s suffered it here, and we are just waiting to see if Obama can escape it in the US (the public option is dead, but surely something will get through). So good on Troeth and Boyce for having the courage of their convictions that seemingly few other liberals and moderates do. To vote as they see their conscious and beliefs dictate, not based on calculations of self-interest.

If liberals/the left is to escape this, the option is not more strident politicians, but a much clearer and more thought through agenda. One that can carry liberal/left/progressives of all tempraments through, and mutually re-enforce various elements. It’s not enough to support health care & climate change as individual policies, we need to show how these build towards an clear vision of a better country. I’ve started to begin such work here, I hope you’ll join with me on this.

2 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Fhakk

     /  December 6, 2009

    One aspect of this vote that you may have missed is the fact that Senator Troeth is set to resign. Knowing that you’re going to leave politics anyway surely must be a factor in any decision to go against the party line (even if the line had changed just 24 hours previously)

  2. Thats certainly true. However others such as Russell Trood are almost guaranteed not to be re-elected (He has the 4th Coalition seat in Qld) so could have acted. Likewise people such as Humphries, Kroger, and Payne are not likely to get anywhere under Abbott regardless. Brandis I can understand not acting due to being shadow Attorney-General (and hopefully he keeps it), but Coonan has just retired from the front bench today (so clearly she knew Abbott wouldn’t want her/she was done already) so could have acted.
    (This is also why they should have moved as a block the previous week following Andrews tilt. Just rammed it through and defeated the Abbott train before it could get going. That would have likely been enough to keep Turnbull as leader, protecting them from retribution.)

    Every senator who stayed has their reasons for it, and i imagine the lobbying was quite intense near the end. But they are also elected to serve their constituents and their consciences. The ETS meets both.