Teals assault the thin blue line

May 3, 2022
The Teals say that they are essentially conservative, if liberal in their politics. Image: Flicker / Marco Verch

If there is one thing worse than losing office to the other major party in politics, it is losing strength in the factional balances within one’s own party. On both sides of politics, even in mid-election there are some working for the defeat of politicians on their own team, even at the risk – indeed likelihood – that the loss of a seat may be the difference between government and opposition.

All the more so when party, or factional realists, appreciate that loss of office is the most probable outcome. Why not take the opportunity to see some factional opponents purged by voters -or at least made to fight without all of the resources that could be put into the struggle? Why not stand by when potential future party leaders of another faction – that is to say potential leadership rivals – are drummed out of politics?

Some people fear that the challenges of the so-called Teals, independents standing in Liberal-held seats because they want more action on climate change, or honesty in government and an end to unprincipled rorting, is dragging the Liberal Party to the left. This is, presumably, because the incumbents, under attack for failing to promote effective climate change and anti-corruption policies, might try to present themselves as being more moderate in order to compete.

In fact, most of the incumbents under attack are on the more moderate side of their party politics. Robert Menzies and other early party leaders used to speak of the party as being a giant umbrella – and spent much of their energy trying to have it cast as wide a shade as possible. But since the defeat of Malcolm Fraser in 1983, there has been a lot less room for party moderates, whether characterised as small-l liberals, or as members of the party’s left. This has been in
part a function of the triumph of neo-liberal philosophy (and in Labor as much as the Liberal party), but it has also been a result of active ideological warfare by which moderates have been driven out or have been made to feel unwelcome.

The purges of the past 50 years were largely led by John Howard, but in the states, particular factions of the right have extended their influence and control – almost invariably to then anathematise views they regard as “wet”, “woke” or politically correct. From time to time, moderates reorganise and snatch back some power – as they have over the past decade in NSW. But locally or nationally, there have been many Liberals – Malcolm Fraser, Ian MacPhee and Malcolm Turnbull might be examples – who have come to conclude that the party to which they once belonged no longer has room for their long-held views.

It should not be thought that Liberals are alone in having some members who would prefer that the party lost rather than some factional enemy in one’s own party flourish. While a fourth consecutive Labor loss would be devastating to the wider party, some allies of Bill Shorten, the former leader, have not hesitated to undermine Anthony Albanese, and are less than enthusiastic about a probable Albanese victory. They are not, however, Albanese’s main problem, particularly as victory seems likely. Judging by performance the central task has been to strip the campaign of anything other than symbols, and to abandon anything capable of being described as too much characteristically Labor, lest it frighten the punters. The timidity is probably a winning theme, given that the current popular enthusiasm seems to be for anyone other than Morrison, rather than for particular policies or causes. Indeed, almost any of the Teals could
win a charisma contest against most of the Labor front bench.

The point of the Teals is that they claim to be right-of-centre, albeit ones disgusted by the Morrison government’s inadequacies on climate change, good governance and political corruption.

If Teal candidates succeed, and some probably will, the Liberal Party will lose moderate voices, and the more conservative, and more authoritarian factions of the party will benefit. This will be immediately apparent in leadership ballots, but also in the distribution of shadow portfolios, and in the smorgasbord of policy positions. Those frozen out find it hard to regain power and influence, and must usually resort to grassroots organisation, or branch stacking, to get a hearing.

The Teals say that they are essentially conservative, if liberal in their politics, and vehemently deny that they are either Green or Labor candidates in disguise. Yet if they succeed and operate collectively, at least on their common aims, in a quasi-party manner, they might be said to have created a new party of the centre, a potential refuge for moderates of the old Liberal Party. Something rather like the old Australian Democrats, if significantly to their right, and at risk, like the Democrats of being undone by the compromises necessary to stand still.

Alongside the challenges coming to some incumbent Liberal moderates are ones organised by the Australian Christian lobby, seeking to punish them for their votes opposing state-sanctioned discrimination by church organisations against transgender people. There are constituencies for such a right to discriminate, and not only among fundamentalist Christian sects well out of the Australian religious mainstream. The same-sex marriage plebiscite demonstrated that the appeal of a right to discriminate was to be found primarily in outer-suburban seats, particularly in Sydney. But in inner-suburban seats – the ones under attack from the Teals – incumbent Liberals correctly perceived that they would be punished by their liberally-minded electorates for supporting bigotry. That is true even now, as is likely to be evidenced by the fate of the imposed-Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, whose political notoriety is founded on vehement opposition to transgender rights, including in sport.

A collateral attack may also come from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, which has already announced its intention to withhold preferences from moderate Liberals in favour of the Labor Party. One Nation does not, generally, win many votes in inner-city seats, but the mood to attempt to drive more moderates out of the party will probably extend to other areas where the Liberals, and the Nationals, need every vote they can get.

Incumbents such as Dave Sharma, in the inner-Sydney seat of Wentworth, facing Peta Spender, as a Teal independent in spite of her impeccable Liberal pedigree, are bitterly arguing that they were voices in the Morrison caucuses urging action on climate change. And also, on other issues on the independents agenda, including opposition to religious bigotry. They should not be punished for the sins of the Morrison government, but encouraged, by being returned, to stay in and fight. A member in the party has much more chance of building support than an independent, they say.

Yet most of these moderate Liberals, from senior ministers down to back benchers, seem to have been signally unsuccessful in pushing causes, particularly on climate change. The gibe against Dave Sharma – that he has consistently voted for the same propositions that the Leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce, has promoted — is true, regardless of what, if anything, he has done or argued behind the scenes. Only on the religious “freedom” bill did any of the moderates exhibit any spine.

Existing independents (including those of the Teal variety) as well as members of small parties have been much more successful in influencing government policy, or changing legislation, than any of the moderates promoting their minority causes within their own party. This has not only been because many of the important votes have been in the senate, where the coalition has lacked a majority and has needed to woo from the crossbench. It has also been a function of the attention, even in rural and regional constituencies, given members and potential candidates wanting more effective climate action.

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