Once there were moderates

Once there were moderates in the Liberal Party.

In those good old days the moderates advocated progressive policies, attempting to find a balance between market forces, freedom of the individual, social justice and protection of the environment.

It was so long ago that the names of those liberal warriors evoke less recognition today than the latest batch of Big Brother competitors. Some of those liberal luminaries – the ‘wets’ they were called – were a product of the Fraser years.

Peter Baume was at different times Malcolm Fraser’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Health and Education. It was his strong sense of social justice that caused him in later years, as Shadow Minister for the Status of Women, to cross the floor to support a bill giving equal employment opportunity in some government-owned bodies. Baume left parliament a few years later to promote progressive values in public policy, taking on roles in academia and medicine, as well as Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.

As Immigration Minister in the Fraser Government, Ian Macphee was instrumental in promoting multiculturalism. He oversaw the migration of Indochinese refugees to Australia and introduced a family reunion scheme for them. Later as Communications Minister he helped establish the SBS. In opposition, Macphee crossed the floor in support of a government motion targeted at his Leader, John Howard, that race or ethnic origin should never be a criterion for becoming an immigrant to Australia. He lost preselection for his seat to the Liberal conservative (or dry) David Kemp early in the following year.

Macphee’s summary disposal was the beginning of the dearth of liberalism that we see in the Liberal Party today. During John Howard’s second term as Opposition Leader and his time as Prime Minister, progressive Liberals were given a stark choice – get with the (conservative) program or be left to wither on the backbench.

For the most part, the successors to the Fraser liberals weren’t about to be brow-beaten. Petro Georgiou (once the Director of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs that Ian Macphee helped to establish), Bruce Baird, Judith Troeth, Judy Moylan and Mal Washer have all stood their ground against their right-wing peers, but mostly to little avail.

Others decided to dance to their master’s tune or – to quote the Cybermen – be assimilated. It’s almost impossible to contemplate that Phillip Ruddock was one of the two other MPs who crossed the floor that day with Ian Macphee in protest against John Howard’s comments on Asian migration. Yet he and Amanda Vanstone, another moderate, later ran the Howard Government’s hard line policies on asylum seekers.

The list of known ‘moderates’ in Tony Abbott’s kitchen cabinet is equally counterintuitive. Chris Pyne was serially overlooked for promotion by Howard because he was/is a progressive (and a Costello supporter). Yet he was rewarded by Abbott for doing the leadership numbers against Turnbull and is now a Cabinet Minister. Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt and George Brandis are all moderates and none did particularly well under Howard. (Anyone remember The Rodent?) Yet now they all are in the Abbott Cabinet, reciting the lines of the day.

If your mind is not yet boggled sufficiently, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is a moderate too (although apparently he attends the faction dinners of both the wets and the dries).

Is the day of the Liberal moderate well and truly over? Is liberalism dead or is it just playing possum?

According to reports the desiccated wets have – despite their assimilation and no evidence that a single word of social justice or equity has spilled from their lips – formed a cabal around Tony Abbott.

This has apparently caused disquiet in “Coalition ranks over what right-aligned MPs believe is an aversion to any policy that is not consistent with the populist agenda of certain powerful ‘moderates’ with the Prime Minister’s ear.”

Excuse me while I laugh, or cry …

If only. If only it were true.

The post originally appeared at SBS Analysis and Opinion.

Why are the Greens so surprised?

While Labor is using its shiny new leadership process to distract members from election loss disappointment and take the heat out of ensuing acts of retribution, the Greens appear to be floundering in response to a poor election performance that was a surprise to no-one but themselves.

It was becoming clear as far back as the end of 2011 that the Green vote had peaked at the 2010 election. The Greens’ hagiographies claim this result as the point when they emerged as the third force in Australian politics.

In truth the minor party was as much a lightning rod for those protesting against the invidious choice offered between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott as it was seen a legitimate alternative to the major parties. The almost doubling of deliberate informal votes during that election compared with 2007 (from 1.48 to 2.70 per cent), and the ultimate minority government outcome confirm that many voters were looking for someone, anyone, other the Labor and the Coalition to vote for in 2010.

So in believing their own PR, perhaps it’s not so suprising the Greens didn’t foresee their poor result at this election.

An inflated sense of importance may have also contributed to the some of the Greens’ decisions that drove voters away, such as their refusal to pass Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’ for asylum seekers.

Wanting to sit at the big table while maintaining policy purity was another. As the Democrats learned when they bartered with John Howard to ultimately pass the GST, the Greens also learned it’s hard to claim you’re keeping the bastards honest when you’re also doing deals with them. The Greens’ constant laying of claim to forcing Gillard’s hand on the carbon tax/price, but being unable to deliver a carbon penalty that would actually drive achange in behaviour is the most notable attempt by the minor party to justify their decision to join the bastards.

Christine Milne’s later announcement that she’d told the Gillard Government ‘you’re dropped’ did little to assuage the concerns of those supporters who thought the Greens had got too close to their shared-power partners.

Another factor likely to have contributed is that, like the two major parties, the Greens have to accommodate disparate supporter groups and juggle the risk of upsetting one group to satisfy another. Labor has the Left and the Right, the Liberals have moderates and conservatives, and the Greens have the far Left, progressives and environmentalists.

Yet to compound this challenge even further, Milne announced when she succeeded Bob Brown as leader that the party would be reaching out to rural voters as well. It would be fair to describe the reception given by long-term farmers to the Greens – the party opposed to live animal exports, conventional farming methods and land clearing – as mixed. The Greens vote went down in the vast majority of rural seats, although they increased in those which included alternative lifestyle communities, regions threatened by coal-seam gas projects and those seats from which Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott retired. A nine per cent increase in Green primary votes to 18 per cent in Fairfax was the standout exception.

Milne has rightly declared she’ll review the Greens’ 2013 election performance. Her vow before the election to return the party to one of protest and holding the government to account will be tested with only one Greens member in the new House of Representatives that has no chance of influencing the outcome in that chamber, and a short-lived balance of power before the new Senate commences on 1 July 2014.

The review will necessarily scrutinise whether it was worth funnelling limited resources into retaining Bandt’ssymbolically important but practically useless green leather seat. Just as importantly it should seek to understand how the Greens failed to deliver on the expectations of potential supporters. Ultimately, like Labor, the prospect for a strong future lies in the Greens determining what they stand for and who they represent.

This post originally appeared at SBS Comment & Analysis.