United front key is to Coalition success

The Australian

In Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, he captured the challenge facing contemporary centre-right politics: “We didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.” The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly correctly argued recently that the challenge to unite the centre-right against the incoherence of nationalist populism “is a values-based and ideological project”. Without such a project, Australia risks “progressive control of both the house and the Senate” after the next election, which will solidify left-progressive ideology in institutions and law and make it increasingly hard to unpick.

This is not fate. Ensuring a ­Coalition victory requires avoiding utterly pointless identity ­politics between “moderates” or “liberals” and “conservatives”, and providing a united front.

The Liberal Party is a broad church. Within the broader Liberal family there are members that show more progressive or conservative instincts on social and, sometimes, economic policy.

But they are not the party’s foundations. The party is united by values, not policy. The foundations are the aspiration to bring forward our culture and institutions to preserve our liberty, ­security and social cohesion; and deliver economic prosperity to underwrite equality of opportunity, strong families and community as the bedrock of our nationhood.

Even the most “moderate” Liberal is not a relativist on culture or institutions. By comparison Labor is, and the Greens want to scrap them. The Greens are internationalists and think of Australia’s best interests second. That’s why they are weak on border security.

Labor and the Greens are prepared to trade away economic opportunity for those less well-off to virtue signal to those who have it better. Electricity is their latest target. The economic benefit of Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target will go to multi­­nat­ionals, and progressive activists will cheer it as a new policy benchmark on which to build.

The cost will be shouldered by struggling households, as is now being evidenced by the problems in South Australia.

Meanwhile, One Nation likes the idea of economic prosperity, but has no vision to achieve it. Economic nationalism won’t deliver improvements in people’s hip pockets in a country that has traded its way to prosperity and can never consume everything it produces.

The election of Donald Trump has inspired some people to argue he provides a direction for the centre-right; but that is only if we want to decouple our party from our values. As my colleague Andrew Hastie correctly argued last November, “Trump has not made the case for classical conservatism” and arguing so ignores “the overwhelming populist strain that defined his campaign”.

To date, Trump’s modus operandi is to push through institutions where he faces resistance, not ­conserve them. His inauguration speech didn’t even refer to the constitution. His response to decisions by courts has been to attack the legitimacy of their decisions.

Populism is not the pathway to political success. A successful mainstream Australian political party must be guided by its ideology, but not be rigidly dictated by it. One of the best analysis of Australian politics is an obscure 1985 article by academic Hugh Collins titled “Political ideology in Australia: The Distinctiveness of a Benthamite Society”. Dressed up in the language of the academy, Collins’s article provides sober reading for anyone motivated to implement ideology as sustainable policy. He argues that Australian expectations of gov­ernment are “mundane and unheroic; there is neither a messianic mission nor a return to a classical ideal”.

Instead, “political institutions and policies are to be assessed in terms of their impact of their operation upon the interests of the majority … as the sum of individual interests”.

Australians are more wedded to common sense than to ideology. Ideology is only advanced through practical policy that improves people’s lives. But advancing policy requires trust in the institutions that deliver them.

A recent poll found only about 30 per cent of Australians trusted state and federal parliaments, and according to the 2017 Edelman Global Trust Barometer, 59 per cent of Australians no longer “believe the system is working”.

Similarly, an article by Rob­erto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk published in the Journal of Democracy last month highlights that democracies risk ­“deconsolidation” with citizens losing “belief in democratic values (and) becom(ing) attracted to authoritarian alternatives”.

Using country-by-country data from World Values Surveys, the article found only 40 per cent of Australians in their mid-20s and 30s think it is “essential” to live in a democracy, compared with about 75 per cent among their grandparents. The good news is that Australia has a low (25 per cent) and relatively unchanged number of people by global standards who approve of “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections”.

Democracy must be seen to work for citizens to stop them looking for alternatives. The perpetual opposition to reform risks taking down the credibility of the institution with it. It’s that para­lysis that leads people to question an institution’s enduring relevance, eventually leading citizens to turn against these institutions and seek a vehicle to disrupt and start again. The tragedy is that citizens come to believe that monopoly government is the solution to the problem it causes.

The broader Liberal project is not just about uniting to govern a country and deliver these policies. It is also to redress the trust deficit by rebuilding contemporary institutions to deliver them.

Tim Wilson is the federal Liberal member for Goldstein.