In which, oh no, some Liberals know a dirty word


”We have to move forward,” said Hockey. ”Clearly this issue has done us incredible damage and I hope the Australian people forgive us for having this very public display. But I say to the Australian people: we are a progressive party.

With all the turmoil and intrigue of the Coalition’s civil war, it’s been easy to miss some of the little details. Far more interesting than theorizing over a Liberal Party disintegration that isn’t going to happen is this important piece of rhetoric from the man who might be their leader as soon as next week.

Australian politics, though not to the extent of its American counterpart, has shied away from overt expressions of left wing ideology in recent decade. Even Keating, with his heartfelt embrace of reconciliation, the republic, an improved relationship with Asia, and other such small-l liberal causes, he was still an economic rationalist who had little time for old Labor socialism. John Howard proudly proclaimed his conservatism, as did his fellow party-members. Such was the benefit of being associated with the right wing that Kevin Rudd, as a new Opposition Leader, invented a reputation for himself as “an economic conservative.” The last thing any self respecting member of mainstream Australian politics wished to claim was an affiliation with the greenie, latte-sipping, chardonnay-swilling, inner-city left. In fact, the only time in recent years that being seen to be a conservative was a problem was for the NSW Liberals in 2007, and that’s because no one in the state could quite believe anyone could be to the right of NSW Labor. (Barry O’Farrell won’t make the mistake Peter Debnam did; that’s why he’s clamping down on the hardline conservatives in his party causing troubles with Hitler parodies.)

But all of a sudden, thanks to the 2007 election, the unpleasant aftertaste of 11 years of John Howard, and issues that resonate within the electorate like climate change, being a leftie ain’t that bad anymore. Look at Uncle Joe up there!

Excuse his blatant falsehood; whatever stance the Liberals should form on climate change, they are not a progressive party. Not even Petro Georgiou is anything more than a moderate conservative who knows how to act like a human being around refugees. The Liberals have long liked to call themselves a, well, liberal party, but after a half-century of conservative policies, it’s hard to believe them.

This, though, is different[1]. Hockey is adopting a tag usually associated with students, Greens voters and other assorted ratbags: progressive. Liberals are never progressive. They can be “wet,” or “moderate” or “centrist,” but never “progressive”; unlike the Labor party with its right wing, their centrists aren’t described as lefties. But here Hockey sees a political benefit for his party in the public perceiving them as more left-wing than they actually are. It’s the same mechanism Rudd used with his social-conservative schtick; the public didn’t trust his party to be economically responsible, so he claimed the opposing ideology for it.

And you can see why Hockey’s doing it, even though a big chunk of his party is determined to convince the country they’re anything but progressive. The Australian political center is definitely to the left of the Coalition on this issue. They don’t support an ETS as strongly as they used to, but they still greatly approve of doing something about climate change. The Coalition is simply not progressive enough on this issue, and in the words of Ian Macfarlane, “Malcolm Turnbull is modernising the parliamentary Liberal Party … He is bringing the party into the 21st century and there are some people who want to keep the party in the ’60s.”

On this issue, being progressive is, for once, not a dirty word. In fact doing what the Liberal Party is doing, as Turnbull says, is ”irresponsible from an environmental point of view and it is completely and utterly self-destructive from a political point of view.”

[1] I think adopting “progressive” and “liberal” are different things, because liberal is not only the name of their party, it has suggestions of classical liberalism about it. Progressive is just calling yourself a pot-smoking vegetarian friend-of-the-ABC.