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Liberalism and the Liberal Party are becoming mutually exclusive, as Tony Abbott digs in over same-sex marriage and climate policy. By Sophie Morris.

Liberty the loser in the modern-day Liberal Party

Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

When former Liberal leader John Hewson defines the ethos of the modern Liberal Party, he does so with a sarcastic snort.

“We support the individual and the primacy of the individual,” says Hewson, who led the party in opposition from 1990 to 1994, “as long as it doesn’t conflict with our short-term political strategy.”

This week there was muttering among certain Liberals that Robert Menzies would be turning in his grave at the spectacle of the party he founded on the bedrock of individual freedom rejecting a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.

But Hewson says he’s not really one to look back with nostalgia on every utterance of Menzies and fault the party for not living up to them.

His gripe is not that the Liberal Party is failing to attain the ideals espoused long ago by its founder, but rather that it remains mired in the distant past.

“We haven’t evolved to a large extent,” says Hewson, who is pretty sure he still pays his party dues but no longer attends any meetings. “The party structures are still those of the 1940s. The way we involve people in preselection processes, bringing women into parliament, these things haven’t kept pace with the broader Australian community.”

Despite initial rhetorical flourishes about the importance of free speech early in the term of this government, liberalism is now in short supply in Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party. Conservatism, by contrast, is alive and well. 

Abbott’s conservatism differs from former prime minister John Howard’s, who at least identified strongly as an economic liberal.

“I think he’s probably the most conservative prime minister we have ever seen,” says political historian Judith Brett, who has written extensively about the Liberal Party and Menzies’ legacy. 

While Abbott embodies this conservatism, it is also true that it is currently the dominant strain in the parliamentary party. 

His manoeuvres on same-sex marriage appeared chaotic but were calculated to shore up his support from the party’s conservative core.

“There’s a conservative rump in the party that he now is depending on to maintain his position, which is not that representative of mainstream political opinion,” Brett says.

She attributes the conservatism of the parliamentary Liberal Party in part to a disjuncture between party members, who decide preselections, and Liberal voters.

“In the past, parties have been keen to win elections by capturing the centre, whereas Abbott is unusual in that he seems to be more preoccupied by the people who are going to vote for him anyway,” she says.

By late Tuesday, it was clear that the Coalition still overwhelmingly opposes same-sex marriage and that, even so, Abbott would use all options available to quash a push for a conscience vote, scuppering any chance of a private member’s bill passing parliament.

He roped in the Nationals to join the Liberals in a marathon six-hour meeting on the issue, in a move that frontbencher Christopher Pyne, who is considered close to Abbott, likened to “branch stacking”. 

These contortions may have been unnecessary. Even without the rural-based party, the Liberal supporters of same-sex marriage would have come up short of securing a conscience vote. Chances are that, even on a conscience vote, the legislation would have failed this time. 

About 90 MPs spoke in the joint Coalition party room, and only about a third were in favour of allowing a conscience vote, which would release all MPs, including frontbenchers, from supporting the party’s current opposition to same-sex marriage. Several backbenchers have flagged they are prepared to cross the floor on a private member’s bill, but doing this would cost ministers their jobs.

Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy, coming from a state in which the party historically has a deeper attachment to small-l liberalism, stated publicly what some federal MPs were saying privately: “People who feel that members should be bound on matters of conscience by a party vote, well, they need to go back and look at the rationale on which our party was founded by Robert Menzies. It wasn’t one of binding votes, it was one of conscience.” 

Or as Hewson puts it: “Sometimes on these questions, leadership requires you to rise above your personal views and say, ‘This is an issue for a conscience vote.’ ”

By proposing a “people’s vote” on the issue during the term of the next parliament, Abbott is reprising the approach he took to quashing Malcolm Turnbull’s push for a republic via the 1999 referendum. As a monarchist and junior minister, Abbott was instrumental in devising a campaign that killed off that issue for years.

Now he has settled on a nebulous position on same-sex marriage that minimises the chance of change – it reflects the preferred position of the Australian Christian Lobby – while still giving a nod to those who seek it. It has already seen outbursts from frontbenchers, with Turnbull arguing a public vote will lead to a drawnout debate that is a distraction for the government and George Brandis slapping down Scott Morrison’s preference for a referendum rather than a plebiscite. At a referendum, it is easier to defeat change.

It’s much the same approach Abbott took this week on climate change, proposing an emissions reduction target that he said showed Australia was “not leading but we’re certainly not lagging”.

The government now pays lip-service to the policy dilemma posed by climate change, finally outlining this week the “environmentally and economically responsible” emissions reduction target it will take to a global summit in Paris in December.

But the approach continues to be one that favours direct government subsidies, rather than using market forces to generate incentives for abatement. 

On the international stage, assessments were less charitable of Australia’s commitment to a 26 to 28 per cent reduction on 2005 greenhouse gas levels by 2030. 

“Mr Abbott’s hubris is staggering,” said Lord Deben, the head of Britain’s climate change advisory body and a former Thatcher government minister, according to Guardian Australia, adding that the decision put Australia among the “don’t cares” of the international community.

The targets fell well short of the Climate Change Authority’s recommendation that, to match comparable countries, Australia would need a reduction of 40 to 60 per cent on 2000 levels.

Howard Bamsey, who as former special envoy on climate change was one of Australia’s most experienced negotiators, says that on the international stage the target “will make Australia a laggard, but not an obstructer”.

“We may not be rowing very hard, but we’re in the boat,” he says. “It’s not so bad that you can totally condemn it as the government turning its back on the problem, but neither can you say we’re doing our fair share. And people will be thinking, ‘They haven’t got a credible plan of how they’re going to get there’.”

And therein lies the rub. On current policies, achieving even this target is a big and expensive ask. The Australian Industry Group, a manufacturing and business lobby, belled that cat when chief executive Innes Willox said the targets were a “step change from anything deliverable by current policies”, warning it would cost a whopping $100 billion to $250 billion in government subsidies and that tougher targets would probably be needed.

Abbott’s aversion to a market-based solution may stem less from policy conviction than from his instinctive opposition to Labor’s preferred approach. It was, after all, this issue that elevated him to the leadership and that some in the government still believe won them the election. But relying on government subsidies is an awkward position for a free-market party, especially one facing budget constraints.

The government has left the door open this time to the business community’s preferred option of purchasing international carbon credits, but it’s only open a crack.

By the end of a parliamentary sitting week that had started with an abysmal Newspoll for the Coalition, at 46 to Labor’s 54, the government was straining to return to its preferred turf, with Abbott promising to “bolster the fight against the ice scourge” and backbencher Dan Tehan calling for Australia to join air strikes against Daesh in Syria.

But this was drowned out by squabbling over the same-sex marriage strategy and the eruption of a fresh controversy over trade union royal commissioner Dyson Heydon headlining a Liberal fundraiser.

Still, national security is certain to return as a theme with the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, chaired by Tehan, due to report on the latest legislative pitch on Friday.

The government’s further drift towards heavy executive power over individual liberty was underlined in evidence from officials on Monday about the Kafkaesque nature of the citizenship-stripping proposals.

These are the proposals that generated controversy earlier in the year, when leaks revealed deep concern in cabinet at the extent of discretion that would be granted to the immigration minister. 

Despite retreating from the broad discretionary powers in the initial proposals, it now seems those powers rest instead with a secretive group of bureaucrats, who advise the minister whether a person has committed conduct that triggers the revocation of their citizenship.

Commonwealth Ombudsman Colin Neave has told the committee it is a “legal fiction” to claim, as the government has, that a person’s citizenship would automatically cease when they engage in certain conduct. 

Much detail still needs to be explored on this legislation, but one thing is certain. Counterterrorism legislation has long been a field in which personal freedoms are sacrificed in the name of national security. After this week, it’s clearer than ever that no one should assume that the primacy of the individual is this government’s guiding light.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2015 as "Liberty the loser". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.