Senator Lucy Gichuhi’s decision to sit with the Liberal Party is a small but important step militating against the fragmentation of centre-right politics. She’s obviously decided that she can achieve more as part of a government or potential government than as a lone or isolated voice crying in the wilderness. For Malcolm Turnbull, this is the sort of consolidation he’d like: a new MP that should make it slightly easier for him to get legislation through the Senate. The question, though, is how much unity on the conservative side of politics does the PM really want?
This weekend, the NSW Liberal party decides whether to allow rank and file members to vote in pre-selections for parliamentary candidates and in elections for party office-bearers. You’d think internal party democracy would be a no-brainer but the left-leaning factional insiders who have turned the Liberal party’s biggest division into a closed shop and who have been Turnbull’s biggest internal supporters have resisted it for years. Under sustained pressure from the membership, the party establishment agreed to a members’ convention last year that recommended thorough-going reform. But a rear-guard action is underway to have state council delegates support the one third of members who voted against reform over the two thirds who voted for it. Indeed there are realistic fears that Turnbull himself will only support token change. This could mean that more conservative members will desert the party in disgust and leave the left faction even more firmly in charge.
What’s going on now in the Liberal party has echoes of what happened inside Labor in the mid-1950s. Then the Labor party was divided between more conservative and more radical elements over the issue of communist influence in the trade union movement. Eventually, most of the anti-communists either left the ALP or were expelled. They formed the Democratic Labor Party that regularly won up to 10 per cent of the vote and sometimes held the balance of power in the Senate. The DLP’s main purpose, though, was to punish the unreformed ALP by preferencing against it and therefore keeping it out of office until communist influences were removed. This gave the Coalition 23 years in government.
‘To stay or to go?’ is the question that many Liberals are now pondering out of frustration with the Turnbull government. It’s the question that thousands of NSW Libs will have to answer if, as tipped, the party reforms are dumped this weekend in favour of the more limited reforms that the factions will allow. Under those circumstances, leaving the party might seem like a good way to punish poor policy and dishonourable behaviour. Yet it leaves the wrong people in charge; if one side quits, the other side wins.
It’s increasingly apparent that the Turnbull coup was not just a change of leadership but also a fundamental change of direction. The Liberal party shifted from being of the centre-right to being of the soggy centre (as Turnbull more-or-less admitted in a speech in London). Turnbull’s fixation on the prime ministership made it possible, and the poll-induced fear of callow backbenchers and the impatience of second-rate frontbenchers facilitated it. Ultimately it became the takeover of a small ‘c’ conservative party by the small ‘l’ liberals whom Robert Menzies once described as ‘believing in nothing or rather believing in anything if they think there’s a vote in it’.
Nothing would please the left-wing faction more than an exodus of conservative members from the Liberals to the Australian Conservatives if the one-member-one-vote reform is defeated. It’s noteworthy that when Senator Cory Bernardi was threatening to leave the Liberals a year ago, Turnbull hardly stirred. Clearly, he wanted him to go. Indeed, a conservative walkout that boosted the Bernardi party would be the perfect result for Michael Photios and all the other NSW leftist factional warlords because it would leave them securely in possession of the Liberal brand while potentially forming a government via preferences from the minor party.
While the DLP wanted to reform the ALP by making it lose, it seems that the Australian Conservatives expect to reform the Liberals by helping them to win. It’s an odd tactic. In the end, the DLP didn’t reform the ALP and it marginalised its own supporters, ultimately becoming a vehicle for many of them to become Liberals. But it did keep a deeply flawed Labor party out of national government for nearly two decades. As long as they preference the Libs, the best the Australian Conservatives can expect is to keep in office a Liberal government that, arguably, is only marginally better than an increasingly militant federal ALP.
As many said at the time of the DLP split, the only realistic way to reform a political party is to ‘stay in and fight’. That’s what NSW conservatives must ponder if the reform they’ve been championing fails. The danger is not just that the Liberals might lose the next state and federal elections but that they might entrench a contest between soft-left and hard-left parties to the long-term detriment of our country.
It would be an extraordinary paradox if the formation of the Australian Conservatives didn’t hurt Malcolm Turnbull at all, but actually reinforced the Liberal Party’s drift to the left.