‘I Told You So!’. These are not words that listeners usually enjoy hearing. In fact, if you’re looking for a quick way to really, really annoy someone then these four words are up there with ‘Triggs is freedom’s friend’ and ‘Morrison’s a conservative treasurer’. That said, odds are pretty good that if you are a long-time Liberal Party voter, and you keep reading this column, you’re going to be annoyed. That’s because I’m about to say again what I said last year just before our federal election, namely that small government, pro-free speech Liberals would be better off voting for Labor than for the Libs as long as Malcolm Turnbull is leader.
And you know what? Events are unfolding in a way that shows I was right. Hence, ‘I told you so’. Let’s go back and ask the counter-factual question of what life would have been like had Bill Shorten and Labor squeaked in with a one or two seat majority, or managed to piece together some sort of minority government last July.
First off, had that happened it is a dead certainty that Turnbull would have been kicked out as leader. Or he would have resigned. And it’s also sure that the Liberal Party would have moved back to the right after the failure of the ‘progressive, move to the Left’ Turnbull experiment. (Full disclosure: I know that on the ABC and on much of the Australian’s op-ed page Herr Turnbull is described as a centrist but what he has done is to move the Liberal Party to the left on the political spectrum, a long way to the left. And notice that what counts as the centre is not a fixed point; it moves depending upon who the key players are in the main parties and what the proposed policies of the other parties are. More on that in a moment. For now, I will use the more honest terminology that is irrefutable – Turnbull has taken the Liberal Party to the left.)
So just how left-wing do you think a Shorten Labor party budget could have been with, say, a Tony Abbott led Liberal Party in opposition? I say that Shorten would not have dared to bring in a budget as left-wing as the one Scott Morrison just handed down. That hypothetical Labor budget would have proposed raising taxes less, noticeably less, than the Turnbull-led Liberal party just did. And could Shorten have done worse on the free speech front, cheap talk not counting? Of course if, for you, politics is just about political tribalism and making sure ‘your team’ wins then the actual policies that team proposes will be close to irrelevant. You will always find a way to defend ‘your team’ and to argue ‘well, those other guys will be worse’, sort of like in Ancient Rome when one might hope for the Blues over the Reds or Greens. (In fact, given this sort of mindless political tribalism it’s exactly like that).
However, if what matters to you are actual, substantive outcomes – on reducing spending, on delivering on free speech, on lowering taxes – then political parties for you are just a means to an end. You might wisely think that as a generalisation Team X usually best embodies the bulk of my views.
But then you are not some 23 year old political advisor for whom his or her political party’s success is ‘the good’ in life, and for whom a sold soul here or there is a small price to pay for victory, and maybe for pre-selection in a few years.
Here’s the thing I hinted at above. What Labor can do and what its positions can be depends upon the Liberal Party’s positions, and vice versa. And with Turnbull in charge of the Libs they move left, a long way left. And that frees up ground even further to the left for Shorten. The so-called ‘centre’ of any political spectrum is not some static area which never changes. And that was always the massive danger with having Turnbull in charge. My fear was that he would take over Labor turf, and Labor would move even further left. So hands up anyone who honestly can deny that that has happened?
Back just before the last election, I reckoned we on the right should take our medicine and vote for Labor to get Turnbull out and give Shorten a three year term with a ballooning deficit brought about by Gillard and Rudd economic landmines. I favoured this not because I liked that outcome but because I was taking a longer term view and figured that that was the lesser of two evils. If you consider politics in a timeframe that extends beyond the next election, then it is simply a fact that sometimes – not often, but sometimes – it is better to lose a battle to try to win a war. This is never true for MPs and political advisors or for those who are simply ‘my party right or wrong’ political tribalists. For the rest of us, it is true.
I thought the Turnbull coup had created one of those rare situations, one where the cuckoo lefty now running the party had to be defeated. Now the main difference between my analysis and that of John Stone (also in this magazine) was that he believed that if the Coalition won a very narrow election victory that caucus would then see the horrible error of its ways and dethrone Turnbull. I was sceptical. I was sceptical in part because so many Liberal MPs are (how can I put this??), well, useless. They haven’t got two right of centre views to rub together.
John Stone, by contrast, was more optimistic. And as it happened you could not have engineered an election outcome last July that would have been more propitious to his analysis. A one seat Coalition victory was just what the good doctor Stone ordered. Almost a year in, it seems to me that John was simply too optimistic as regards the Liberal party caucus. Those in caucus on the right are frozen with political indecision. Hamlet-like they have yet to spill any political blood, or anything else. ‘It was all too traumatic last time we defenestrated a PM’ they moan. ‘We can’t do it again’, one of them has told me. Well, yes you can you gutless wimps. Look at where the party is now compared to only two years ago.
Worse, even on the John Stone analysis it would be a terrible thing, a travesty, if the Libs under Turnbull ever won a big majority. If this is what he does with a paper thin majority, God knows what he’d do then.
So none of us can hope for that; we can’t give money to the party; we can’t help with canvassing. We’re stuck in this twilight Turnbullian purgatory.
I told you so.