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Coalition losing its base

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Would the last liberal in the Liberal Party please turn off the lights? 

Waves of memberships, donations and pledges of support from people who have traditionally supported the Liberals are flowing into parties that support liberal values. We’ve certainly benefited at the Liberal Democrats, and we understanding the same has occurred at Family First.

We first noticed a shift from the Liberals when the Coalition dropped its commitment to free speech and the repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.  And we have noticed it every time the government blocks a foreign investor, describes a new spending program as an ‘initiative’ or ‘investment’, or tweaks a tax to raise more revenue. 


But the biggest wave of disappointed Liberal supporters has come as a result of the budget a few weeks ago.  The budget increased discretionary spending, despite the previous acknowledgement that we have a spending problem.  It increased taxes on multinationals and smokers, despite the Government previously ridiculing Labor when it proposed something similar. And it increased taxes on savers, despite the Government’s pledge that ‘there will be no new taxes on superannuation under this Government’. 

The budget also abandoned the limp commitment to deliver a budget surplus equal to 1 per cent of GDP by 2023-24, despite the repeated rhetoric that government must live within its means.

Real liberals are leaving the Liberals in droves.  A similar phenomenon has been seen before on the other side of politics.  For years, the Greens have been gaining members, donations and votes from people who traditionally supported Labor, but who yearned for more interventionist policy in areas like tobacco control and renewable energy.  Now the Coalition is losing support from traditional supporters who yearn for more liberal, responsible and market-oriented policies.

Such a transfer of support from the Coalition’s base to more market-oriented minor parties will come as no surprise to political theorists, for four reasons.

First, median voter theory suggests it is logical for the Coalition to sell out its base.  Government is not won by the party most loyal to its founding principles; it is won by the party that wins the support of the ‘median voter’.  This ‘median voter’ doesn’t identify with either the Coalition or Labor.  Median voter support swings between parties from election to election.  If the backroom apparatchiks in the Coalition or Labor think  the ‘median voter’ wants bigger spending, more tax on the rich and bans on free speech and foreign investment, then that is what both the Coalition and Labor will offer.

Second, compulsory voting encourages the Coalition to appeal to people who are so politically apathetic that they would not bother to vote if it were voluntary.  This slants the Coalition’s offerings away from policies that would appeal to their thoughtful traditional supporters, and towards superficial policies that appeal to the apathetic and ill-informed.


The third reason for the exodus of support from the Coalition to market-oriented minor parties is preferential voting.  The wise heads among traditional Liberal supporters know they can safely send the party a message by voting 1 for a party such as the Liberal Democrats and 2 for the Coalition.  Such a vote will either elect a market-oriented minor party candidate who can hold the government to account and help it cut spending and balance the budget — or it will elect a Coalition candidate.  Such voting will in no way contribute to the formation of a Labor Government, or a Senate crossbench populated by the Greens.

Finally, the transfer of the Coalition’s base to market-oriented parties is reinforced by the Coalition’s decision to hold a double dissolution election.  Disgruntled Coalition supporters who know their maths realise this is a great opportunity to flush obstructionist ferals from the Senate crossbench and introduce additional senators who can pass spending cuts and serve as the conscience of a Coalition government.

The Greens became the third force in Australian politics by pressuring Labor to adopt pious but economically irresponsible policies.  The stage is now set for a fourth force to emerge to pull the Coalition back to its base.

With each passing week the Liberals are bleeding members, donors and first-preference votes.  That the Prime Minister has arranged for this election campaign to be one of the longest in Australian history is surely a matter of considerable concern at Coalition campaign headquarters, and considerable celebration elsewhere.

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is a former Senator for the Liberal Democrats.

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