It’s the economy, stupid…
27 May 2022
Quite the wreckage, huh?
17 seats down, a host of future stars put to the sword, and the Prime Minister who can’t remember the cash rate sent off to Japan to meet the President who couldn’t remember his predecessor’s name.
Most chillingly for the Liberal Party, seven of its ‘heartland’ seats are now in the supercilious clutches of the Teal mafia. They are rich, they are righteous, and – as Zali Steggall’s effortless return in Warringah shows – they are here to stay.
Fools have rushed to propose that the Liberals respond with a commensurate lurch to the left. Wiser heads have rightly pointed out that with 44.6 per cent of the National vote still lodged firmly on the Right, the Liberal ship might benefit from a conservative course-correction.
Whatever heading HMAS Liberal Party takes from here, we must be absolutely clear about the nature of the storm from which she emerges. This tempest is the long-threatening, but spectacularly sudden divorce of economic interest groups within the Australian body politic.
The Simon Holmes à Court MPs represent some of the most existentially-secure communities on the planet. Their use of Teal branding heralds an abstracted political Utopia, reflecting the very real hybrid paradise in which they live: Blue is for Sydney’s harbour, postcode wealth, financial and legal literacy, and an accompanying propensity for technocratic managerialism. Green is for Melbourne’s gardens and an idealised environmental romanticism – this is not a genuine neighbourly care for our lived environment (Mosman and Toorak still love their Range Rovers), but rather the blind ambition to save humanity from itself.
Yet, of the supposed ‘Blue’ (read: Liberal Party) virtues listed above, which can we honestly say is a true benchmark of an authentic Conservative ethos?
In fact, these things aren’t virtues at all. They are identity characteristics. They are brandings accumulated by the Liberal Party thanks to exceptionally strong executive functioning during the Howard Years and the prevailing post-Thatcher-Reagan global orthodoxy.
Thatcher, Reagan, and Howard all had good reason to lean heavily on this mode of popular financialism. In their eras, economic rationalism was useful as an implement of practical policy, downstream from a core conservative philosophy. In the 80s and 90s, free enterprise, tax, and labour market reform, along with the democratisation of the financial system were essential to the flourishing of the family, the coherence of the community, and the strength of the nation-state. Essential you might say, to conserving the greater good.
In Australia, The Liberal Party, absent any meaningful buttressing of its philosophical underpinnings post-Howard, still relied predominantly on convincing the well-off to stick with ‘the party of economic management’ well into the 21st Century.
This prolonged the growth and sustenance of a distinct metropolitan voter-class who preferenced the Liberal Party in protection of their economic wellbeing, but would not claim to be authentically ‘conservative’ or in some cases even ‘classical Liberal’
These are good people. They work hard and want the best for their children. They vote intentionally, and have been artfully seduced by the magical solution the Teals offer: that is, the chance to heal the world without any meaningful personal sacrifice. It is a wholly dishonest, imaginary political proposition, but one that is made possible by a misplaced obsession with financial management as a key tenet of Conservative branding.
The Teals have exploited this geo-specific concern for material well-being, and presented themselves as like-cultured economic managerialists, but with bigger better hearts. The 2022 election then, is the coming home to roost of the economic rationalist’s chickens.
Until now, only Australia, of all the Western nations, has remained attached to economic rationalism as the defining article of modern Conservatism. Accordingly, only in Australia, is (or was) the nominally Conservative Party still so strongly considered to be the Party of the wealthy.
To be sure, the rich and the environmentally-conscious should still have voted for the Liberal Party. The Teals advertise a false agency and will deliver nothing that Albanese Labor doesn’t already have designs on. They may well just bring chaos to Canberra, as the new, extraordinary parliamentary dynamic takes hold.
Mercifully for the battered Liberal Party, that chaos will not be their concern. What should be, is the realisation that the economic rationalists’ brand of politics will not provide a path back to power, nor will it recreate a constituency capable of reviving the party’s electoral viability.
This is a good thing. The Liberal Party now has the privilege of perhaps two full terms to develop a full suite of authentic policies which respond to the real needs of aspirational, entrepreneurial, family-focused Australians. Though this process must begin outside the glamour seats, this doesn’t mean the burghers of Warringah, Wentworth, and Kooyong won’t return to the party one day. They surely will.
When they do, however, they should rejoin the Liberal fold convinced that the party’s policy substance runs deeper than a sales pitch. They will not, and should not return merely because they feel the Blue team is best qualified to mind their money.
When Clinton strategist James Carville coined his famous phrase, ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid!’ in 1992, it resonated not just because the economy is a universal concern, but because it highlighted the political folly of ignoring the bleeding obvious.
The Australian Liberal Party must not make that mistake.
Ben Crocker is a Constitutional Fellow at The American Conservative and Centre for the Study of Statesmanship in Washington DC. Twitter: @RealBenCrocker