The tumultuous debate within the Liberal Party today over the issue of climate change is a proxy for something much deeper. That is, the Liberal Party, at least in its post Menzian days, has never resolved the question of where it ought to sit on the ideological spectrum. Under John Howard it was decidedly liberal only in name, and deeply conservative by nature. Malcolm Turnbull, a liberal leader in the mould of a Fraser or a Hewson, is exposing that fault line by asserting his authority and his philosophical disposition and asking his Party to be contributors to the ongoing debate over the ways in which Australia could best tackle climate change.
The resistance Mr. Turnbull is experiencing ranges from that of the Sarah Palin of the conservative movement in this country, the Nationals Barnaby Joyce, to the more subtle but nonetheless equally conservative types like Victorian senator Mitch Fifield. Both Fifield and those Liberals who support the sentiments of Joyce are seeing red over Turnbull’s progressive approach to a totemic issue like climate change.
When Mr. Turnbull talks about wanting to lead a party of ideas conservatives read that to mean embracing causes such as the environment, an area of policy where the conservative movement feels distinctly uncomfortable because of potential impacts on its allies in the business community, and by virtue of a skepticism about the merits of government regulating in the name of environmental protection.
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But as observed earlier, climate change is a proxy for a bigger and deeper issue – what does the Liberal Party stand for and where does it want to place itself in the ideas debate? The Liberal Party has been at its strongest when its leaders were conservatives, as in the case of John Howard, or where they gave the appearance through their rhetoric, of being conservatives – Malcolm Fraser springs to mind here. But when the Party elects a genuinely liberal individual such as Turnbull the right panics and sees its grip on the party ‘s soul being weakened. So it goes after Turnbull, directly and through its allies in certain media outlets like the conservative Australian.
What is happening to Turnbull makes a mockery of the Liberal Party’s mantra that it is a ‘broad church’. It is not. It is one in which if liberals get too big for their boots they are struck down.
As is the case with most fault lines this is not one that will resolve by merging into one entity. Unlike the ALP, which uses factions to keep its divisions in check, the Liberals have no such outlet and even if they did it might not matter because the philosophical difference between liberals and conservatives is much greater than between one wing of the ALP and the other.
Malcolm Turnbull’s actions may represent the beginning of a long dialogue on the disintegration of the Liberal Party. After all nothing in politics lasts forever.