A recurrent critique of the Liberal Party is that it is more a conservative party than a liberal party, and that it should become more liberal. This critique has a libertarian version (for example my article on ‘big government conservatism’), and also a ‘progressive’ version, which has found its way into book form twice since the early 1990s: Christopher Puplick’s Is the Party Over?: The Future of the Liberals (1994) and Greg Barns’ What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party? (2003), which I rather unkindly reviewed for Quadrant.
After the 24 November defeat, it was the ‘progressives’ who moved first to fill the ideological vacuum left by Howard’s departure. In The Age at the weekend, Victorian Liberal Senator Judith Troeth told us that:
the party has an opportunity to reinvent itself and recapture the inclusive and progressive liberalism that once made it electorally strong. (emphasis added)
While some aspects of ‘progressive liberalism’ are in my view worthy, as John Roskam rightly points out it is not an election-winning strategy for the Liberal Party. Can anyone name an election the Liberals won because they were more ‘progressive’ than Labor?
If anything, as Roskam says, Howard lasted so long partly because his populist conservatism resonated with the electorate. ‘Progressives’ are generally appalled at the idea of locking up self-selecting refugees, but the public supports it (though there may have been some softening of opinion). Howard believes that migrants should fit in, and so does the Australian public. Howard thought conditions in NT Aboriginal communities warranted a military intervention, and the public agreed. Howard wanted to press more welfare recipients into work; a majority concurred. Though Howard was probably behind public opinion in not removing petty discrimination against gays, he was on safe ground confirming that the law did not permit gay marriage.
And there is a still larger problem in adopting any of these ‘progressive’ issues as the way back for the Liberals. The people for whom these are top priority issues will generally already be aligned with a left or centre-left party, voters who are irrelevant to the future of the Liberals. Indeed, the general mediocrity of the Liberals who advocate these issues shows how the talent on these matters has long departed the Liberal cause. Senator Troeth contradicted herself in the same newspaper on the same day. Robert Dean didn’t bother checking Menzies’ record before unfavourably comparing Howard with Menzies. Greg Barns’ book was a mess, as was Chris Puplick’s.
This is not to say all ‘progressive’ issues are out-of-bounds for the Liberal Party. But they are only possible within a package that appeals to more than 50% of the electorate. And that means ‘inclusiveness’ for conservative voters, and not just groups favoured by ‘progressive’ politicians.