With less than three weeks to go to election day, it’s still hard to get excited about the contest for who will govern Australia. But the battle for control of the Liberal Party remains enthralling.

By announcing on Sunday that the Liberals would preference Labor ahead of the Greens in every seat, Malcolm Turnbull confirmed what has been long suspected: that Tony Abbott, the man whom he deposed as leader, has more control over the party’s direction than Turnbull himself.

On a number of policy questions, that’s easy to see. Many of Abbott’s signature policies – including the same-sex marriage plebiscite, the giant military build-up, offshore processing of refugees and opposition to carbon trading – remain stubbornly in place, despite occasional signs of Turnbull’s discomfort.

It may be that if the government is returned (as still seems likely), and particularly if it retains a comfortable majority (less likely), there will be movement on some of these fronts. But Sunday’s announcement will be harder to live down.

One of the first rules of politics is that policy is dispensable. Politicians can be fiercely loyal to personality, party or faction; few are ever so loyal to a policy position. Policies come and go, but tribal interests and tribal identities remain.

The Turnbull-Abbott conflict, or rather the cultural conflict of which those two men are symbols, has never been chiefly about particular policies. It is deeper than that, tribal in its intensity: a conflict between two opposed worldviews that provide very different ways of seeing the Liberal Party. What we can now see is that the view Turnbull represents is, despite his victory in last September’s ballot, the minority view within the party.

Unconditional warfare against the Greens makes sense only on the assumption that the Liberal Party is what Tony Abbott tried to make it: an ideologically conservative party, whose primary enemy is not socialism, or trade unionism, or the working class, but modernity.

On any other assumption – if the Liberal Party was mostly about the class interest of capitalists, for example, or if it was just a contrivance to secure political power for a certain group of people, or if it was a force for the promotion (heaven forbid!) of liberalism – the Greens could never become a central issue. They might be a steady foe or an occasional ally, but they would not be a bogeyman.

A Liberal Party that cared about the basics of liberalism – about peace, democracy, accountability, human rights, and so on – would find some sympathetic echoes in the Greens.

The idea that the Greens are more to be feared than the Labor Party, and that therefore they must be the prime electoral target (not occasionally, as may well make sense for tactical reasons, but invariably), could come, on the other hand, only from a worldview that was hostile to liberalism.

And this is not idle speculation; we know that such an anti-liberal or anti-modern worldview is common on the right. It has been explicitly enunciated by Abbott and a number of his colleagues, not to mention a legion of outside propagandists in Australia and overseas (many of them employed by a particular media group, also and not coincidentally known for its unbridled hostility towards the Greens).

These, to put it mildly, are not Malcolm Turnbull’s people. But in his nine months as prime minister he has proved either unable or unwilling to dispute their control over the Liberal Party’s agenda.

Turnbull may win the election – indeed, I think he probably will. Winning elections, however, is of little use if your own party’s political direction is in other, hostile hands.


Disclosure: As long-time readers will know, the Greens candidate most conspicuously disadvantaged by the decision in question, Alex Bhathal in Batman, is a personal friend.

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