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The Shorten bogeyman

By Tim O'Hare - posted Friday, 29 December 2017


A superannuation policy that discourages thrift, a tax and spend budget, a same-sex marriage bill that steamrolls religious freedoms, an ever-expanding budget deficit and a Royal Commission into the banking sector. Still worried about a Shorten government? After the Turnbull government is through, will there even be any left-wing agendas untapped for Shorten to pursue?

Yet we are constantly told to fear Bill Shorten taking power. This was the justification the Liberals gave for removing an anti-Carbon Tax, pro-budget repair Prime Minister. Australia cannot stand three years of Bill Shorten but rather than spending our precious remaining time in government legislating a conservative agenda to be sold on its merits, let's instead prepare the furniture for Shorten's arrival. In other words, he can't beat us if we steal his policies.

There's an old cliché 'The Left falls in love, the Right falls in line.' That isn't really true of the right-wing Australian politics. Where Whitlam, Keating and Gillard all had a relative awareness of their political mortality and sought to push through and make history-defining reforms in the face of impending death, the same cannot be true of the conservative side of politics.

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Australian political scientists have long proclaimed the Liberal Party to be Australia's 'natural party of government.' That may be true but contemporary Liberals never look natural in government.

Malcolm Fraser had perhaps the most enviable mandate in Australian history after beating Whitlam in a landslide then thumping him again less than three years later. Yet in his time in office, Fraser increased social security spending, retained Whitlam's policy of free tertiary education and expanded the government's role in communications through the establishment of the SBS.

Likewise, the Howard government looks better with hindsight especially when it stands beside its drab successors. But history will remember Howard 's first two terms in office more favourably than his last two. With the notable exception of Work-Choices, Howard's agenda for economic reform ran out of puff after 2001 and his government hung on past its use by date through handouts and pork-barrelling. He also appointed Mark Scott to head the ABC.

Tony Abbott was no angel either. His Paid Parental Leave scheme undermined his Treasurer's defining pledge that the 'Age of Entitlement' was over. He introduced the Renewable Energy Target, burnt capital on a GP Co-Payment that did nothing to address the deficit and was really just a 'research tax' in disguise and abandoned efforts to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The point is that when assessing the contemporary Liberal Party, it is important to not have a rose-coloured glasses view of their past.

But Turnbull is worse precisely because, with Howard and Abbott, there appeared to be a line they wouldn't cross for the sake of re-election. Under Turnbull it is debateable whether

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there is any line.

Where Howard and Abbott were, to varying degrees, conviction politicians thrust into the Liberal leadership not on personal popularity but on mutual trust and synergy with the caucus, Turnbull could be a conviction politician but he's in the wrong party.

Turnbull looks uncomfortable leading Australia's dominant conservative party. His support for an Emissions Trading Scheme is toxic amongst the Liberal Party base. Meanwhile, the Liberal Party's success in border protection is unlikely to resonate with Turnbull's circle of urbane socialites. Insider debates about whether the Liberal Party is a conservative or liberal party are largely just that. Amongst the Liberal Party base it is a moot point.

The Liberal Party rank and file are the Howard Party, committed to the protection of strong social institutions and economic reform. If Turnbull wanted to be the voice of the minority of voters who identify as socially liberal and economically conservative, then he would be best to found his own party Don Chipp-style where he could have an influence in the Senate. Of course we all know that Turnbull joined the Liberal Party to become Prime Minister.

If Turnbull is willing to dismantle the Liberal brand for his own ego, how then is he any better than Bill Shorten? The truth is that Turnbull and Shorten are similar beasts. They were both celebrity candidates chosen for plum seats and earmarked for high office before they entered parliament. They both have powerful friends on both sides and they both climbed over the carcasses of more than one leader to get where they are.

The notion that Turnbull, a man who declared he would be Prime Minister regardless of which party he joined, is trustworthy while Shorten is unhinged is naive. Shorten is best summed up by Tony Abbott as being 'nothing if not a political pragmatist' and, if given the choice between introducing a radically left-wing agenda or gaining re-election, you can bet he'll go with the latter.

The Liberals had better check themselves before they wreck themselves. If the prospect of a Shorten government means focus-group driven policies, spin and deceit then the only alternative is authenticity, courage and principle.

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About the Author

Tim O'Hare is a Brisbane-based, History graduate from the University of Queensland. He is a freelance commentator on political and cultural issues with specific reference to economics, education and free speech. Along with his commentary on social media, online publications and blogging he also finds creative expression in stand up comedy in a variety of bars in and around the Brisbane CBD.

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