“What federal council meeting? Oh, that federal council meeting – privatising the ABC, following Trump on moving our embassy to Jerusalem? No, nothing to see here. Move along.”
Or so the federal government would have the electorate believe. Think about that for a moment.
The Liberal Party’s membership sent its elected representatives a clear message, a message about turning further to the right, about abolishing public independent media, about sticking to the Institute of Public Affairs playbook, about following Donald Trump’s Middle East policy.
The official line of the Liberal Party’s elected politicians subsequently has been to tell the membership to get back in its box, that they’re irrelevant rabble that have no voice in what their elected members decide.
Or at least that’s the line of the current Liberal political leadership. There are MPs and senators who seem to think otherwise, who are quite comfortable with their IPA membership and all that entails. And there are MPs and senators happy with a fundamentalist edge to their persona and policies.
The A Team – Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz – has been portrayed as an old dinosaur rump of the caucus. That rump will be feeling feistier after the federal council vote and the way the party membership was insulted. The hard young dinosaurs – Andrew Hastie, Zed Seselja, Michael Sukkar, Alan Tudge et al – may well feel their time coming closer.
As the internal Liberal battles continue to be fought branch by branch, the federal council’s treatment will not be forgotten. It is the increasingly hard-line membership that will decide preselections, that will dump the “socialists” in the Liberal ranks, that will look to the American Republican Party as its spiritual home.
God help us.
There was a moment’s clarity for me in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, when it wasn’t clear who had won.
“We’re going to bed without knowing who’s going to be prime minister,” someone said in a tone that suggested it mattered.
“Fortunately, not too much,” I thought.
It struck me that, if you accepted Australia entered the modern era in 1972 with the election of Gough Whitlam, from 1972 to 2016 we had had the same number of years with Liberal and Labor prime ministers. Close to 22 years each of Labor and Coalition governments.
One mob leaned a bit to one side and the other mob leaned a bit to the other, but both had more or less coalesced around Australia’s pragmatic centre.
And the result was a fantastic country, a rich and vibrant society, a strong and flexible economy.
It could be better – it should be better – but on just about every reasonable international comparison, it was pretty blood good. It’s where you’d want your children to be born, just to win one of life’s lotteries.
But what happens if half of our key polity withdraws from the pragmatic centre and takes flight on an ideological and/or religious fundamentalist adventure? Or just goes Trumpian crazy?
That’s the danger of the 2018 Federal Liberal Party Council. The relatively pragmatic leadership dismissing the Miranda Devine readers and Alan Jones listeners and spitting in the eye of the Young Liberals ratbaggery can only reinforce conservative branch stacking. On the weekend, a “wet” party vice-president was rolled – tomorrow what price “wet” MPs?
The Trump playbook increasingly being followed by the ascendant hard right says the next step is to further vilify the enemy both within and without.
On the specific key federal council issues, selling off the ABC is simply absurd. As previously argued, the degradation of conventional media means the nation needs to invest in more public media, not less.
Yet we can expect further ABC budget cuts and more perfidious complaints about ABC reports and programs. On the current trajectory, Senator Fifield will soon be Apostrophe Man, protesting about ABC punctuation errors.
On Jerusalem, Australia already stands as Trump’s most explicitly anti-Palestinian ally. With Hastie apparently free to run his own race as chair of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, we are in danger of going all the way with Mad Donald on China. Hastie could yet prove to be the most dangerous person in Federal Parliament, someone with all the threat of certitude.
Malcolm Turnbull bests Bill Shorten in the opinion polls, but the coalition under Turnbull continues to lag Labor. The doctrinaire Liberal right may feel it has nothing to lose by pushing its own barrows, going about God and/or the IPA’s work.
Last month’s federal budget was a curious document, playing primarily to the coalition’s base, reinforcing that base, with nothing for Australia’s swinging centre. The danger is that broader federal policy concentrates on the base, circling the wagons against all criticism and ideological deviation.
Australian democracy is at its best with strong and reasonable protagonists. Government is improved by good opposition. While the Liberal federal council might mean nothing for the nation today, it promises to do harm soon enough.