Readers will know there’s a big election pending in the UK, one in which a Conservative (albeit coalition) government is taking its record to the voters. That will happen on May 7th. However I dare say significantly fewer readers will be aware that the Canadian province of Alberta is having an election two days earlier, on May 5th. Both elections have something to tell Tony Abbott about how right-of-centre parties ought to operate once in office.
Let’s start with Alberta, the oil and gas capital of Canada. The Tories have been in office there, always with a majority government, since 1971. Yep, you read that correctly. For 44 years the Conservatives have won landslide after landslide, from the early Trudeau years federally through all sorts of ups and downs in the price of oil, through to the implosion and re-birth of the Tories at the federal level in Ottawa. Through four and a half decades it’s always been a Conservative majority government in Alberta.
Yet the polls are looking dire for them for next week. Forget a minority government, the Tories may even lose office. Worse, they may lose to a virtually brand new party that is (wait for it) more conservative than they are. Yes, a new party was set up just a few years ago because the Tories had begun to look like a vehicle for the inner-city, government-employed, chattering classes, a party that was finding it hard not to raise taxes and spend big. In response an upstart new party was formed, bizarrely going by the name of The Wildrose Party. At the last election in 2012 these newbie Wildrose guys were leading in the polls right up to the last few days before the voters fled back to the only team most of them had ever known and the Tories won big.
But the Conservatives did not change their ways. They lost a leader; they brought a new one in from the federal ranks; they induced nine Wildrose MPs to cross the floor; they brought down a ‘tax increase’ budget; and then called a snap election a year early. From that moment the Tories have been tanking in the polls.
Whatever happens in Alberta next week – even a hard left party is in with a chance – the message for Tony Abbott is clear. Don’t run an ersatz Labor-lite administration. The Tories in Alberta won for decade after decade when they gave the voters a sensible right-of-centre government. But move left, mimic what the chardonnay-sipping Ultimo luvvies here like, and you start to foster disenchantment amongst your core supporters. When Conservative parties push too hard to the left, they bleed support. Now, a party that didn’t exist a handful of years ago may form government in Alberta.
‘Ah’, I hear mutter some of those Commonwealth Coalition MPs with the backbone of a jellyfish (which is most of them), ‘that’s only one jurisdiction; it’s an anomaly; better to do whatever it takes to get some sort of agreement with the Senate loonies and Labor to show what good compromisers we are.’
But today’s lesson comes not just from Alberta. Look at the UK. Prime Minister Cameron is in big danger of losing the election there too, despite running this time and last election against two of the worst Labour Party leaders of all time. (Sound familiar, what with Bill Shorten leading Labor here?) David Cameron opted early on in his tenure to ignore his party’s base and so aimed to win new supporters from over there on the left somewhere. He even called those on his party’s right ‘fruitcakes’ and ‘loonies’. This is not the political strategy of your Ronald Reagans, Margaret Thatchers and John Howards who always kept the base close before seeking new supporters.
In fact it wasn’t till the tiny Ukip party started vacuuming up disaffected Tories that Cameron realised he’d made a mistake. Ukip won the last European Parliament elections and right now is polling about 13 per cent, over four times what it got last election. That may not sound like much but when Labour and the Tories are more or less tied in the polls in the low to mid 30s, Ukip is the difference between a massive Tory majority and maybe losing.
So Cameron is now begging Ukip supporters to ‘come home’, saying he’s learned his lesson and he’s the real route to a referendum on leaving the EU. But why believe him? He reneged on his explicit promise to give a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty once he came into power (‘too late, too late’ he explained later) and it’s abundantly clear he wants to stay in Europe. Many Ukip supporters would prefer Miliband and Labour to Cameron, such is their visceral dislike of the latter. Of course, Cameron may yet pull this off, as might the Alberta Tories, but why ever get into such a situation?
Which brings me to this Abbott government right here, right now. Yes, it has done a spectacular job stopping the boats, thereby doing what Labor and the ABC promised us could never be done. And yes, it got rid of the carbon tax, another big win. But at the same time this government has flirted with selling out its base, of trying a David Cameron or Alberta Tories approach to governing. Given a choice between repealing 18C as most of its core supporters want (and as was promised) and caving in to appease a coterie of special interest victims’ groups (sorry, ‘Team Australia’), the Coalition plumped for the latter.
It brought in a ‘temporary’ new tax, without even getting any spending cuts in exchange. It seems to be talking of more taxes to come, and does nothing, virtually nothing, about an ABC that leans so far left and so insouciantly disregards its statutory obligation to be impartial that a visiting British journalist said it made the BBC look like Fox News. Meanwhile this government seems unable to explain to voters that it stands for spending restraint because that is the right thing to do and that it will try to get such measures through the Senate but if it cannot it will take them to the voters; rather than do what Labor do and spend more, tax more.
Of course it’s still early days for the Abbott government which, despite all of the above, looks miles better than the alternative. Nor is it yet equivalent to some end of election campaign plea from a desperate David Cameron to forgive him five years of daily sins. But this pending budget is the time to show us whether Abbott treats politics the way Reagan, Thatcher and Howard did – or whether he’s an Albertan Tory à la David Cameron. Ronnie, Johnny, Maggie and most Coalition voters hope it’s the former.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 May 2015 Aus