One of key differences between the Rudd-Gillard shenanigans of 2010-13 and this week’s events is ideology. Rudd and Gillard were never divided by policy principles. Rudd vaguely tried to make it about policy on the night he was executed, saying he wouldn’t “lurch to the right” on boats, but he ended up pushing hard exactly in that direction during his brief second stint as PM. It was always about personalities, most particularly Rudd’s inability to manage, and then his obsession with revenge and restoration.
For Malcolm Turnbull, it’s also about personalities — both Tony Abbott’s utter inability to understand he was no longer opposition leader, and Turnbull’s own ego, which will have to be kept caged and chained up in order to avoid alienating colleagues like he did in 2008-09. But what Turnbull also faces is a politically poisonous ideology led by an alliance of crony capitalists, hard-right culture warriors and fundamentalist Christians.
The arch culture warrior was Abbott himself. One of the reasons why Abbott was so relaxed about adopting many and varied positions on key issues — the one-time advocate of a carbon tax transformed into its greatest opponent; the leader who warned of a budget emergency turned into the man who said a debt to GDP ratio of 50-60% was a “pretty good result” — is that the real issue for him was fighting a culture war against the left, in which other issues (and any facts or consistency along the way) were a means to an end. If the left believed in climate change, then climate change must be denied; if the left supported same-sex marriage, same-sex marriage must be delayed. The goal was to smite his ideological opponents, rather than achieve constructive policy outcomes, to prevent the left from ever enacting its manifold nefarious schemes.
That’s a key reason why, unlike John Howard, Abbott never realised that the far right in the media — Bolt, Hadley, Jones, Devine, McCrann — and the more reactionary fringes of the business sector, like Maurice Newman, weren’t always offering advice that served his best interests. Howard understood the need to govern from the centre and not lose touch with mainstream Australia, whereas Abbott, and his media cronies, approached government as an ideological crusade. “Kill them all — God will know his own” would have been their ideal slogan, except that it was five words too long.
This “everything is politico-cultural” worldview meshed perfectly with the crony capitalist sections of the Liberal Party, who view the party as the parliamentary wing of key business sectors like mining and banking, the types who regard democracy as a species of sovereign risk, and government as primarily a mechanism for channelling funding and regulatory favours to key donors.
These groups heavily overlap with another group within the Liberals, religious fundamentalists. As the proportion of Australians calling themselves Christian of any kind has fallen to barely 60%, the number of fundamentalists in Liberal ranks has risen. Cory Bernardi is the most obvious example, but Liberal ranks are peppered with the likes of Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, who are from different Christian sects but who all share a morally reactionary worldview.
While some fit all three of these groups and share much of their ideologies, the problem of the fundamentalist clique is that they are at heart at odds with the freedom agenda professed, in varying degrees, by culture warriors and crony capitalists. Moral conservatives are opposed to the most basic tenets of freedom: they regard heterosexuality as the norm; they think women’s bodies should be controlled by state regulation; they support censorship and regulation of “sins”. This sort of tension was most obviously on display in the same-sex marriage debate within the party, where the simple liberal ideal that people should not be treated differently based on sexuality was defeated by moral conservatives. However, cultural warriors and crony capitalists are happy to tolerate this kind of anti-freedom agenda because it is primarily about intervention in individual lives rather than economic intervention, and it enrages the left.
The new Liberal leadership is fundamentally at odds with moral conservatives. “This will be a thoroughly liberal government. It will be a thoroughly liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market,” Turnbull said in his first statement after becoming leader. His deputy went further, invoking the party founder. “I am … of the view that the values and beliefs of the Liberal Party are as relevant today as they were when this great party was formed 70 years ago. In Malcolm Turnbull, we have a leader who will be true to those Menzian values and beliefs.”
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Moral conservatives are not merely opposed to freedom and the individual, they are profoundly out of step with mainstream Australia: a strong majority of Australians support same-sex marriage, oppose discrimination and oppose restrictions on abortion and other attempts to control women’s bodies. Pushing their agenda damages the government of which they form a part, like it damaged Abbott. Crony capitalists and culture warriors are also out of step on key issues: Australians strongly support climate action, more investment in renewable energy and higher taxes on corporations, and support and trust the ABC far more than commercial media.
This noxious stew of ideologies pushed the Abbott government far to the right of the political spectrum, well away from mainstream Australia. The challenge for Turnbull, who shares much of the perspective of crony capitalists if not of moral conservatives or culture warriors, will be to push it back toward the middle. He’ll be stoutly resisted by the moral conservatives in particular. There is already talk of them shifting to a new political party led by Cory Bernardi. For Turnbull’s sake, and his party’s, that would be an excellent outcome. The fundamentalists can shift into the wilderness of minor party politics — the world of eternal in-fighting, preference whispering and upper house obscurity — and rid the government of their poisonous influence.