(Image: Private Media)

Despite plenty of warnings, the laziness and complacency of self-described Liberal “moderates” has created a political vacuum that is being exploited not by other parties but by a grassroots political movement that is more in touch with the pre-Howard Liberal Party than any current MP.

The threat to Liberals in what were once heartland seats has morphed from a couple of seats — Indi, where the inept Sophie Mirabella lost her seat to independent Cathy McGowan in the 2013 Abbott landslide, and Warringah, where, just six years after that landslide, Abbott lost his own seat — into a broader movement that aims at the soft underbelly of the federal Liberals.

That used to be its embrace of climate denialism, its subservience to fossil fuel industries and the dominant role of the Nationals on energy policy, and its ferocity toward refugees.

In the last three years, however, the refugee issue has mostly disappeared as a front-page concern. But it’s been replaced by something much more toxic for the government: its corruption and refusal to establish any kind of worthwhile integrity body.

Liberal “moderates” have allowed themselves to be dragged away from the political centre on integrity every bit as much as on climate. While right-wing extremists and climate denialists within the Coalition have openly attacked climate action, mocked the government and threatened to cross the floor in demanding coal-fired power stations and pushing for continued funding for fossil fuel interests, “moderates” have settled for occasionally calling favoured journalists like Nine’s David Crowe to politely express hope for stronger climate policies, and vaguely threatening to “reserve their positions”.

Similarly, Scott Morrison’s three-year refusal to implement his commitment to an integrity body — which was savaged by Barnaby Joyce as a threat to the Nationals’ traditional pork-barrelling — has been met with silence by “moderates” until Tasmanian Bridget Archer crossed the floor last week to support McGowan successor Helen Haines on debating an integrity body bill.

Archer was immediately subjected by Morrison to the same treatment meted out to Julia Banks before the last election, complete with unsubtle suggesting that Archer needed support, as if she had some sort of health issue that had made her cross the floor. Meanwhile LNP, Liberal and National right-wingers were merrily crossing the floor in the Senate without any hint they needed “support”.

Despite Liberal attempts to portray female Voices candidates as “puppets” of the left, there’s a strong argument that some are more authentic Liberals than many in the current party — only it’s the Liberal Party of Malcolm Fraser rather than that of more recent leaders: one with a commitment to the environment, a positive view of refugees, supportive of greater governmental accountability and progressive on social issues.

A figure like Zali Steggall, while ardently supporting greater climate action, also supports lower taxes on, and more support for, small business, and opposed many of Labor’s tax policies at the 2019 election. Kylea Tink, standing against invisible North Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman, has been a CEO and managing director across several businesses and NGOs. Wentworth’s Allegra Spender — another CEO and company chair — hails from Liberal Party royalty.

These are in effect green Tories, indistinguishable from Liberal MPs on economic issues but more in line with the Liberal values of an older generation in relation to the environment, integrity and asylum seekers. That is, they offer the wealthy voters of Liberal-held seats the virtues of Liberal governments — lower taxes, generally — while committing to progress issues like climate and anti-corruption.

Ironically, they would be perfectly at home in the NSW Liberal Party, a genuine broad church where a highly conservative Premier — who professes himself relaxed about the state’s anti-corruption body — leads a moderate government in which the treasurer is an effective prosecutor of a serious climate action agenda. Instead, they will cost the NSW Liberals hundreds of thousand of dollars that could be directed to more marginal seats in the coming election.

They represent not merely an opportunity lost, but a style of politics anathema the major parties. The latter are hollowed-out institutions, reliant on donors to determine policy and public funding to maintain their status. The Voices candidates have emerged through community processes in which local groups search for the best candidates to represent them, and provide policy input into their platforms. Liberal “moderates”, who have allowed donors and extremists to dictate to them, have created an opportunity to see if that kind of politics can succeed.

Bernard Keane has donated to Kylea Tink’s campaign in North Sydney.

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