Hands up if you read Paul Kelly in last Saturday’s Australian? He was writing on the state of conservatism in Australia. In fact, Kelly starts his article with this: ‘Conservatives in the Anglo democracies are confused, divided and mainly in retreat. The meaning of conservatism is now riddled with disputation. Conservatives fight over whether Donald Trump is saviour or demon, whether Brexit is a calamity or a liberation and whether the Turnbull government deserves to be saved or denounced.’
This Kelly thesis is one that he and I had debated on Tom Switzer’s ABC radio show only the week before. It won’t come as much of a surprise that I disagree with huge chunks of the Kelly thesis. First off, conservatives (and I mean ones pursuing conservative agendas, not Team Turnbull Labor-lite clones) are in power in the US and the UK. The US has 320 million odd people. The UK has 65 or 70 million. So to make his first point work Kelly needs to throw in Canada, New Zealand and Australia – implicitly assuming that Australia is not run by a conservative government, which is correct – and then count countries rather than populations.
As for the meaning of conservatism, well there has never been agreement on this. Hobbes differed from Edmund Burke differed from David Hume differed from Oakeshott differed from Scruton. The strands are many and multifarious. This is normal. We are not talking about the Académie française, and some sort of pre-eminent council laying down edicts about the meaning of French words, the way Peter van Onselen likes to declare from on high what conservatism means in a way that makes me wonder why anyone would claim to be one. And we can all point to the same lack of agreement about the meaning of liberalism or socialism.
And as for supposed internecine fights, well, there is little disagreement amongst the self-styled conservatives I meet at Liberal party branches, or Australian Conservative functions. They overwhelmingly like Trump. They like Brexit. And they dislike Turnbull and Team Turnbull. Yes, there are differences and disagreement on whether it is worth voting for Turnbull next election with Shorten as the alternative. But that hardly constitutes retreat of Gallic proportions.
The Kelly thesis is simply wrong on a host of matters. Outside Australia its declared pessimism for conservatism looks frankly odd, unless you define it idiosyncratically. I know that Kelly came out against Trump and predicted he’d lose. And was not in favour of Brexit either. I was in favour of both, and even predicted both would occur. The Brexit vote is probably the most momentous vote in my lifetime; for the good, for the nation state, for democracy and for standing up against the various elites personified by Jean-Claude Juncker who despise common voters. Sure, there is a rearguard action by Remainers, but it faces huge obstacles. Brexit will happen. Want to bet whether ten years from now the UK or the EU has experienced better growth? Better immigration policies? More trade deals?
As for Trump, the media class spews bile at the man. No doubt he’s a vulgarian, but on a moral level he looks no worse, or better, than Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, LBJ and JFK, the press remaining pretty much silent about those Democrats. And as for Trump’s record, the media foam at the mouth about that too. But be clear, if you look at what the President has done such as appointing a record number of interpretively conservative judges, tax cuts, taking a scythe to regulations across the board, helping provide the animal spirits that have invigorated the stock market, appointing actual conservatives to key positions (something Team Turnbull is congenitally unable to do) and embracing lowest cost energy his record is astoundingly conservative. And did I mention that Trump tries to do what he promised he’d do before the election? I am a free trader but I knew of Trump’s promise to impose tariffs and so I now think he should impose them. No one can expect to find a candidate or party with whom there is 100 per cent agreement. Democracy is a least-bad option game, sometimes viewed longer term. And as for those tariffs, Bill Clinton levied bigger ones; George W did too. And Reagan. Obama also imposed tariffs. Go and check out the latter’s tariffs on car tyres from China. Now I don’t like any of that. But I do like politicians who try to do what they said they would. The alternative is to sanction and expect political lying and then bank on a sort of world-weary cynicism from commentators and the elite. Would Kelly have Trump not do what he said he’d do?
All that said, where Kelly and I do agree is on the pathetic state of conservatism here in Australia. We just don’t agree on its main causes. For me it is significantly a function of the terrible call the party room made to roll Abbott – one that was fostered and aided by the left-leaning media in this country, and not just by the ABC but by many of Paul Kelly’s colleagues at the Australian. That paper is by far the best daily in this country and one of the best anywhere. But if you believe that the media does much to influence voters (I am sceptical) then the Oz has a lot to answer for in its editorial support for Kevin Rudd in 2007 and for its blatant (though not universal) preference for Turnbull over Abbott. Go and count up the columnists on Kelly’s paper who favoured and defended the defenestrating coup. Read the preponderance of Oz columnists urging conservatives to stay with Turnbull today (that cheerleader line now being counter-productive in my view).
Last point. Kelly says it would be electoral suicide to run on a vigorous platform centred around getting out of the Paris Accords, ditching the Gonski spendathon, cutting spending and revisiting the NDIS. But people wrongly said this about stopping the boats. Kelly himself said it ten years ago about rejecting Labor’s ETS. Certainly the media class (known for its overwhelming left-wing bias) would hate such a vigorous platform. And yet Trump showed that you can win by rejecting the media’s supposed verities and with next to no support from them.
My guess is that a brutal election fought on the cost of energy (including ditching Paris – we won’t always have it!) could win big for the Libs. And throwing in a bit of Presbyterian frugality vis-à-vis government spending and perks couldn’t hurt. You can’t win, though, if you don’t fight. And you can’t fight effectively if you don’t believe.
That’s the core problem with Australian conservatism right there. And that’s why Turnbull can’t win the next election and (contra Mr Kelly) needs to be rolled ASAP.