Lukas Coch AAP Malcolm Turnbull
Image credit: Lukas Coch/AAP

For a leadership crisis supposedly at least partly about ideology and policy issues around energy and climate, the Liberal Party’s current implosion is strangely confusing. The Liberal right wants to kill Turnbull’s Prime Ministership because he is too moderate. Connie Fierravanti-Wells last night complained that Turnbull had taken the party too far to the left. Fierravanti-Wells — whose sole contribution to public life has been her insightful examinations of Umbrian tourism — is a right-wing hardliner from New South Wales. Another extreme right-winger, the IPA’s John Roskam, also lamented the party’s drift to the left today in the Financial Review.

Except, the right has been pushing Turnbull to go even further left. It was pressure from the right that pushed Turnbull to embrace the most ferociously interventionist program of competition law in Australian history in energy, to the dismay of economists and industry. It is the right that wants to cut immigration — anathema to liberal economists and big business. Peter Dutton this morning called for a royal commission into energy companies — an idea that originated with Labor. He wants to exempt power bills from the GST — the sort of cherrypicking that would (rightly) mortify Peter Costello and John Howard. The right wants Turnbull to abandon his signature company tax cuts. And it was the right, of course, that preferred a big-government, anti-free-market approach to climate action.

Is it possible to make sense of this confusion? Partly it’s the toxic effect of Tony Abbott on his party — his lingering DLP worldview, his hollowness and opportunism, his inability to effectively develop positive policy (a requirement John Howard shielded him from — important policy in Abbott’s portfolios was always directed from elsewhere). And it’s partly that the right/moderates split within the alleged “broad church” Liberal Party is now about social issues, compared to the ’80s, when the wets/dries split was over economics. That means the right is now the advocate of Big Government, command-and-control intervention in personal lives. And that has also placed them at odds with many in the business community, who are either genuinely socially liberal or simply don’t care about such issues. With sections of the Liberal Party, such as the Victorian branch, increasingly being controlled by Christian fundamentalists, this tension will only grow. There’s also the perceived need to accommodate voters tempted by Pauline Hanson, who presents a populist and economically illiterate platform entirely at odds with the agenda sought by big business.

But most of all, the party has been caught on the hop by the tidal shift against neoliberalism in the electorate. Labor has responded more effectively, partly because shifting leftward economically is what many in the party have long wanted anyway, partly because being in opposition gives you more policy freedom. The Liberals have faced a more difficult task of, in several cases, abandoning positions they fought tooth-and-nail for in government: opposing a banking royal commission, intervening in the gas export market, imposing a special bank tax and, now, embracing corporate divestment powers for the ACCC.

That has also required a reset of Turnbull’s entire agenda as PM. He’d planned to be Hawke-Keating Redux — pursuing further economic reform, leading a nuanced and intelligent debate, explaining Australia’s economic challenges and opportunities and bringing voters with him on a voyage to a more exciting, more liberal and more global economy. All of that is now a smoking hole in the ground; even the jokes about “agile” and “innovative” are now forgotten. Turnbull’s prime ministership will go down as that of the Last Neoliberal.

Like Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton has little grounding in policy or economics. He has never managed a central portfolio, only reaching assistant treasurer in the Howard years. To the extent that he has demonstrated any economic thinking in the opening hours of his campaign to airbrush his image, it has been straight populism. Business is already muttering darkly about his impact on the economy should he become PM. But such ideological confusion is perfect in the leader of a party that has little idea where it sits ideologically any more.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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