Former adviser to John Howard and Peter Costello, Nicki Savva is a journalist who is usually a reliable commentator regarding the internal workings of the Liberal Party. But her comment on telly during the week that the actions of the Right wing of the Liberal Party in destroying the Turnbull government were based on personal revenge, with no ideological component, is wrong. While nobody could doubt that Tony Abbott is at least partly motivated by revenge, the ideological divisions are both real and deep.
The Liberal Party’s conservative and so-called moderate wings are united in their view that wealth is generally created by entrepreneurs (more than by workers), that government intervention in the economy does more harm than good and that a relatively unconstrained capitalist market is therefore a natural, efficient and just economic system.
Nevertheless there are ideological divisions. Malcolm Turnbull pointed to the biggest one of them in his departing address. Turnbull stated that the Coalition finds it very difficult to come to a united position on anything to do with emissions and climate change. He pointed to “bitterly entrenched views” that were “ideological” in nature rather than being based upon “engineering and economics”.
This is of course correct. It is no coincidence that it was the National Energy Guarantee, and in particular the original policy’s inclusion of emissions reduction targets, which immediately precipitated the insurgency. And this despite the pathetically low level of the emissions reduction targets in the original NEG proposal.
Climate change is ideological because it directly challenges the notion that relatively unconstrained capitalism, far from maximising human well being, might come to undermine the existence of organised human life. For the Religious Right, who may believe that capitalism is a system which reflects God divined ‘natural laws’, climate change not only challenges economic values but a whole religiously based world view. Liberal moderates, as well as many social democrats, try to disguise the implications of climate change by describing proposed remedies as “market based solutions”. But in truth, there is no naturally occurring market solution to climate change. All of the solutions to climate change are regulatory solutions involving deep government intervention in the economy, even those that contain a price mechanism.
A carbon emissions market is incapable of arising spontaneously. It is not like the market for bread for example. The bread market arose spontaneously once we learned how to make dough. But it is necessary to artificially create an emissions trading market. This can only be done through regulation. The requirement to measure and audit emissions is regulation. The ability to acquire or purchase permits to pollute is regulation. The policing of those permits is regulation. The establishment of a price for the permits is regulation, as is the number of them released into the market.
It is true that once the permits are first purchased, or otherwise received, they can be traded (on terms that will also be influenced by regulation). But trade is not an economic phenomenon unique to capitalism and, in any event, the ability to trade permits is but a single feature of an elaborate and complex regulatory structure. Further, the ability to trade permits is not even the main point of the regulatory structure. Or at least it is not supposed to be (though critics of emissions trading might beg to differ). The ability to trade the permits is only supposed to be a means to an end. The “end” is transition to a low emissions economy. Once this transition has occurred the need for trade in carbon emissions diminishes or, better still, is eliminated. Again, by way of contrast, it is not an aim of the bread market to eventually eliminate bread.
There are other ideological divisions between the Conservatives and moderates as well. The main ones are republicanism, marriage equality, commitment to multi-culturalism and, more recently, immigration levels.
One of the more interesting ideas to emerge during the Right insurgency was the ‘lead from the Right’ theory. This theory is that unity in the Liberal Party is best achieved through a socially conservative leader who can accommodate the moderates, rather than by a moderate leader who attempts to accommodate the Right.
On its surface the ‘lead from the Right’ theory would seem to explain the success of Robert Menzies and John Howard and the failure of John Hewson, Brendon Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. If the theory is universally true then the Liberals may have made the correct move in installing Scott Morrison as PM because he is a religious social conservative. He only gained support from the moderates in the recent leadership vote because he had fallen out with the Right after having earlier supported Turnbull to replace Tony Abbott as leader, presumably on pragmatic electoral grounds.
Right wingers might look back nostalgically on how the Liberal Party, under John Howard’s leadership, managed to stymy the campaigns for a republic and same sex marriage. But whatever element of truth the ‘lead from the Right’ theory might contain, it clearly cannot be the whole story. Or at least, the ‘lead’ element of the theory is more important than the ‘Right’ element- how else to explain the success of John Howard and the failure of Tony Abbott?
Further, even if once true, the theory may be susceptible to cracks. Despite the attraction of Hansonism to significant elements of Australian society, Australians are probably, on the whole, less socially conservative now than they once were and this even includes the period when John Howard was PM. Marriage equality is perhaps the example par excellence- it is with us and, lo and behold, the Australian social fabric remains in tact even if horribly tarnished by the continued indefinite detention of innocent people.