Chasing the Norm

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

4 months on and no change

malcolmturnbull_30_1_09As Norman Abjorensen writes in Inside Story

A century after Deakin’s social liberals meekly succumbed to Reid’s conservatives to combat a rising Labor Party, the social liberal dream continues to flicker sporadically among modern day Liberal supporters. The conventional wisdom is that John Howard purged the party of social liberals (which he did) and that Malcolm Turnbull represents some kind of social liberal resurgence (which is doubtful). Turnbull might well try to soften the party’s more hardline policies (in the face of staunch opposition from staunch conservatives such as Abbott and Minchin), but any hopes that this heralds the start of a Deakinite revival are entirely misplaced

I’ve been advancing the theory for a couple of years that we are seeing the broad re-alignment of our political parties to Conservative/Liberal lines. The Reagan Coalition (of which Howard made much profit) of Social Conservatives and Economic Liberals has effectively broken down. A lot of the accommodations made by the conservatives arn’t sustainable (witness the populism of Mike Huckabee’s campaign, or the economic incoherence of the current Republicans). Likewise, with growing levels of education, prosperity and legislative protection of workers are sapping the unions of their strength (the 2007 effort against WorkChoices will come to be seen as a high water mark), and fundamentally changing the membership of the ALP. Kevin Rudd was never a member of a Union, and whilst most ALP types will still claim some union heritage, they no longer will drive the leaders world view. And despite the current economic struggles, the debate over capitalism and its benefits as the primary system of economic organization is done.

In light of this, Abjorensen’s point is well made. Turnbull has led his part for 4 months, including a quiet few months over Christmas mid-way through a term, the crucial time if you were to try and achieve real political and philosophical change within the party. Turnbull either hasn’t the numbers to even raise the question (unlikely if he was actually committed) or he simply doesn’t see a point in trying to move the party in a new direction.

As such, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that The Liberal Party is going to hold onto its Conservative turn, and solidify. Whilst the Labor Party will shift from its labor movement origins to one of both increasing Economic and Social Liberalism. It will never acknowledge this shift, but considering the great pressure coming from the Greens, it will have to make the move on issues like Gay Marriage, whilst redressing its economic commitment to the welfare state & social services in terms of a larger open competitive economy (as Rudd has been doing effectively for Education). What union/working class elements that are disgruntled by the change (such as those supporting protectionist or more exclusive nationalistic policies), will quite easily slide over to the Right as they did under Howard, though with less capable manipulation by the Liberal Party once the divisions become starker.

In some ways this is a change a long time in the making, the left has long been more compatible with a liberal approach to the world, seeking liberty and opportunity for the individual, freed from the bounds of tradition, culture and inheritance.

Sadly, the party of Turnbull and co would have to face electoral annihilation, and someone with an ego the size of Menzies before it relinquishes its ‘Liberal’ title, so confusion will remain for those of us Liberal in politics but not party. But at least the lines should be come clearer.

Update: Turns out Chris Bowen the Labor Assistant Treasurer penned similar thoughts 6 months ago, advertising the ALP as the natural home of Liberalism.