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The morning after toppling Tony Abbott, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull bounded out before the assembled Canberra press and began his first doorstop as the nation’s leader by announcing it “a great time to seize the day”.
Senator Bob Day was certainly seizing his, firing off a press release promoting his Family First party as an alternative for “traditional Liberal voters” – a pitch to those dismayed with not only the Labor-esque knifing of a prime minister, but the perceived Labor-esque qualities of the new man in charge. Day’s announcement was out before the new PM had even been sworn in.
“Australia still has a political party that represents traditional marriage, family values, disciplined spending and lower taxes,” Day reassured the public. “That political party is Family First.”
Day was by no means the only figure on the political right scrambling to make an impression on conservative voters sceptical of Turnbull’s small “l” liberalism.
On the One Nation website, Pauline Hanson slammed the Liberals for choosing a leader with a sympathy for republicanism and emissions trading schemes. This was rather understated in comparison with Australia First leader Jim Saleam’s pronouncement that Turnbull was comparable to a Latin American leftist strongman.
Family First is perhaps a more likely home for disenchanted mainstream conservatives, featuring numerous former Liberal members and candidates who have switched over – including Day himself.
The party’s branding is certainly less aggressive than other minor right-wing competitors, channelling the quaint bigotry of a softly spoken vicar as opposed to the thuggish menace of skinheads. Day emailed me some thoughts about the change of prime minister.
“I’m extremely saddened for Mr Abbott; he and I go back a long way – since before he was elected to parliament,” he said.
The South Australian senator said Turnbull had spoken with him on the phone that first morning, and Day expressed hope they could find areas in which they could work together, although he was rather less enthusiastic about suggestions the Turnbull government is to consider changing senate voting rules to make it harder for minor party candidates to get elected.
Family First might be bullish on luring Liberal voters, but Day was more circumspect in regard to poaching disaffected Liberal politicians such as Senator Cory Bernardi.
Bernardi has close ties with Family First; however, he is also being egged on by the likes of commentator Andrew Bolt to create a new conservative party, at this stage a prayer Bernardi has refused to answer. When I asked Bernardi’s office,
the possibility was not ruled out, and the senator has publicly mentioned the prospect of an alternative right-wing party rising to challenge the Liberals if the Turnbull government deviates from conservative principles.
Day said he would happily welcome Bernardi to Family First but felt his fellow South Australian conservative senator was serving an important role as the “conscience of the Liberal party”.
“I have had a long association with a good many members of the Liberal party and we regularly talk about the many matters upon which we agree,” he said.
Rise Up Australia national president Daniel Nalliah, who is an evangelical pastor, claimed he had a discussion with Bernardi in the period leading up to the leadership spill, but only in regard to Nalliah’s efforts to lobby the government to prioritise persecuted Christian minorities in the Syrian refugee intake.
“Who knows, if he was part of a breakaway party, we could work together,” Nalliah said, also nominating Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a conservative force with which he would like to better co-ordinate.
Rise Up Australia wasn’t far behind Family First in plotting how to make the most of the new political landscape.
On the second day of the Turnbull prime ministership, Nalliah met with his deputy, Rosalie Crestani, to discuss how to reach out to Abbott supporters, and the two have met repeatedly since to refine a strategy. Nalliah said the planning sessions began because Rise Up Australia’s phones were “running hot” with calls from angry Liberal voters – echoing the claims of Abbott’s supporters within the Liberal party during the night of the leadership spill.
“Some callers took up membership with the party, while others claimed they’d be voting for us,” he said. “We’ve had five prime ministers in five years, and people are being turned off by the major parties. They are not pleased.”
That last line paraphrases not the Liberals but the Greens, who successfully capitalised on Labor’s leadership turmoil and rightward drift in recent years. Nalliah said that although Rise Up Australia is obviously of a different ideological bent from the Greens, the party hopes to achieve a similar level of influence at the other end of the political spectrum.
As to how he plans to target Turnbull, Nalliah said he will focus on how the new leader seems less strident than Abbott when it comes to terrorism and border protection, points he said he raised at an anti-Islam rally in Mildura last weekend.
“On national security and Islamic extremism, Turnbull has shown no leadership on that front,” he said. “He is a Labor man in Liberal skin.”
Before the leadership coup, the polls indicated a Turnbull prime ministership could leave the Liberal Party exposed on the political right. The member for Wentworth rated consistently as the preferred Liberal leader among the wider electorate, but Turnbull’s detractors noted his strong numbers were boosted by Labor and Greens supporters who likely wouldn’t vote for the Coalition in any case.
Among Liberal and National party voters, Abbott was easily the preferred leader as late as Essential Report’s final pre-spill poll on August 4, when he garnered 41 per cent support among the base, almost exactly double what Turnbull attracted.
Yet after assuming the leadership, Turnbull quickly won ground among this core constituency – capturing 47 per cent compared with Abbott’s 14 per cent in Essential Report’s September 22 poll. This dramatic turnaround could be attributed to a number of factors: the honeymoon period for a new prime minister, a preference to fall in behind whoever the actual leader happens to be, and perhaps Turnbull’s assurances he won’t tear up the Coalition’s policies on climate change and same-sex marriage.
Sydney Traditionalist Forum convenor Edwin Dyga said Abbott’s loss was more a symbolic setback for conservatism than anything, and ground needed to be gained in the “culture war” outside the halls of parliament to generate an authentic conservative political comeback within it.
“As the term suggests, this is a cultural struggle,” he said. “Certainly, it has political consequences, but you cannot change the hearts and minds of people by legislative, judicial or executive fiat alone. Something else is needed first, otherwise there will be no fertile ground for the political message to take root among the electorate.”
Luke Torrisi, PhD candidate in conservative politics and host of the nation’s only explicitly “paleoconservative” radio program, on 88.9FM in Sydney, said simply marrying socially conservative opinions with liberal economics was not true conservatism, and bemoaned what he characterised as the prioritisation of big business interests, the dependence on migration to fuel economic growth, and the outsourcing of child-rearing to third parties and the state.
“The Liberal party likes to describe itself as a broad church – well, the walls have moved so far apart the roof is caving in,” he said.
He sees no serious alternatives in the minor political parties on the right, arguing they generally don’t understand the foundations of their own political philosophies and will inevitably fizzle out.
“Pauline Hanson and One Nation are the most obvious example,” he said. “They rode in on a populist wave and shouted out their positions on policy without an intellectual basis. Even poorly educated Labor voters, while they themselves might not have read much Marxism, have an intellectual class which is very well-read and knows how to distil it into a simple set of maxims.”
Torrisi offered Bernardi’s controversial 2013 book The Conservative Revolution as an example of a fully fleshed-out conservative manifesto, but wonders whether the senator would actually leave the Liberal party.
“He is future leadership material, but leadership of what I don’t know,” he said.
Torrisi believes it will take some kind of crisis to attract people back to old-school conservatism and thus see the rise of a competitive alternative to the Liberals on the right, but for now he’s doing what he can as a foot soldier of the culture war. His community radio show is called “Carpe Diem”. Seize the day.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 3, 2015 as "Rallying the right".
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