Monday, 22 February 2016

Will the real Liberals please stand up?

Tony Abbott, in his world tour of far right, Christian lobby group speaking engagements, has never seemed more comfortable in his own skin. Free of the need to putty over the wide chasm between his personal beliefs and that of his party, Abbott is looking and sounding more confident than he has in years. Gone is the halting, repetitious speech patterns, designed to slow his mouth from uttering what’s really on his mind and activate instead the soulless three-word slogans. 
Abbott now is the Abbott that was always there lurking beneath the blue ties, the hair rinse and the more latent attempts to buffer away the sharp right edges of his political demeanor. He's become the unabashed poster boy for the conservative right of the Liberal Party which has Malcolm Turnbull on a very tight leash. “Don’t start carping on about the climate change crap again. Stay away from gay marriage and forget about cutting ties to the Mother Country,” say the chorus of this group, comprised of Eric Abetz, Corey Bernardi and Kevin Andrews. Abbott’s not using his demotion to the backbench to snidely undermine Turnbull – he’s out there openly articulating a call to arms to the disaffected in the electorate.
Malcolm Turnbull believes in free markets, free country (a republic) and free choice of an individual to marry whomever he/she pleases. He acknowledges climate change and like a true liberal, believes market forces can solve the problem. 
So who is ‘more Liberal’ – more representative of their party? The problem is, both are it seems, and it’s the fault line that threatens the future of the party. Turnbull appears to be much more aligned to Menzies’ “Liberal Creed”, articulated in 1964. “As the etymology of our name 'Liberal' indicates, we have stood for freedom... We have learned that the right answer is to set the individual free, to aim at equality of opportunity, to protect the individual against oppression…” 
How can you believe in small government, liberty and freedom of enterprise, but not of individuals or country, as the conservative right do? As PM, John Howard extrapolated Menzie’s vision to declare the party “…a broad church”. But it’s like putting pagans and devout Christians together under one roof – the building may resemble a church in structure, but the fundamental elements that make it a church – a place of worship for people of a singular faith – are missing. And someone’s sure to burn it down. 
In the US, Donald Trump is like the Pied Piper, merrily dancing through America’s white, middle class lands playing a tune that has proven surprisingly seductive to a growing majority. In droves they are falling in behind him, this man once dismissed as a joke, now seen as a messiah to the disaffected – the American Dreamers who feel they’re living a nightmare. 
As Abbott warmed up for his speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom group, it’s hard not to think this is all part of a calculated trajectory, one that is fuelled by the disaffected right of the party and stoked by powerful media and conservative right campaigners such as Rupert Murdoch, Alan Jones and others. Whether the end game is a new political party founded on the principles of the conservative right, or a mutiny of Turnbull’s progressive agenda (as has already begun with the gay marriage plebiscite) is yet to be seen. But something’s up. And given Labor is dead in the water, the time for a Liberal revolution may paradoxically be just right.
Turnbull needs to do some soul searching about what his policy mantle will be before this year’s election. Will he allow himself to be straight-jacketed and rendered facile by the far right? Or will he get the bit between his teeth, lead with policies that will deliver real economic and social change for our country, and stand on the platform of true liberalism that champions the freedom of individual, business and country? 
While he’s showed benign support of Abbott’s right to speak at such events like the ADF, Turnbull would do well to keep an eye on his predecessor’s extracurricular backbench activities. In his blatantly self-congratulatory speech during the Margaret Thatcher Lecture last year, Abbott may have hinted at his hitherto unthinkable resurrection. “The lesson of Margaret Thatcher's life is that strong leaders can make a difference; that what's impossible today may be almost inevitable tomorrow.” 
Diana Elliott is a freelance writer. 

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