There have been rumours of a coming split in the Liberal party. I expressed my hopes for this last week, and while I certainly wouldn’t put any money on it now, it will be very interesting to see how the story plays out. Will there be repercussions for Senator Bernardi for publicly admitting to the possibility? Either way, I wouldn’t put away your popcorn just yet.
Now, it would never happen while the party was in government. Of course I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if it did, but I don’t think even the most pigheaded Liberal MP would be stupid enough to try it. But if (and now it is, unfortunately, if rather than when) they lose next year’s election, I wouldn’t put it past some of them. It wouldn’t necessarily be political suicide for those concerned — a new Conservative Party, let’s call them, would ironically have the advantage of incumbency, with a full term of Parliament to prove themselves, as we don’t kick out MPs for changing parties — and so it’s not all that far-fetched.
The name Liberal has always been at odds with the party’s conservative platform.* A bit of a fuss was made last week when somebody noticed that Bernardi’s twitter bio lists him as a “Conservative Senator” and makes no mention of his party affiliation, and while he denied that this was a recent change, I think (I hope) it might be significant in itself. When he was directly asked to rule out defecting, he had no comment. And he’s got a book out. That’s never a good sign. A politician with a book out can be safely assumed to be more ambitious than one without — especially if they’ve dropped the price from $30 to $2, as someone pointed out to me. Although that might just be due to the fact that nobody is, so to speak, buying his bullshit.
Now, why would I of all people, a bleeding-heart leftie, possibly think that a new rabidly conservative major party might be a good thing for our country? A major advantage of our preferential system, after all, is that you don’t tend to get vote-splitting, so it’s not like it would directly lead to a landslide victory for the ALP (which I don’t necessarily want either; I’d much prefer hung parliaments and especially hung Senates).
Well, there are a few reasons. With my policy hat on, number one is that the appearance of disunity would hurt both sides of the split; they’d be unlikely to get as many votes or seats combined as the single party would have, although you could never prove that. The ALP has fractured twice in its history, and in both cases the split hurt them electorally, for a long time. They’d spend time and effort fighting each other and less fighting the ALP and the Greens. It would spell the end of the Coalition as we know it — there’d be no way of knowing whether the Nationals would side with either side post-split, and it’s been very rare that the Libs haven’t needed the Nats to form government.
Additionally, without the most batshit consies in it, what remained of the Liberal party would by default shift to the left on average, while almost certainly (if the popularity of the Abbott government is anything to go by) commanding more if not most of the pre-split Liberal vote. They might be in Opposition for a while, but they’d be a more moderate Opposition. This could in turn put pressure on the ALP to shift leftwards in order to differentiate themselves.
Most importantly though, and this is where I put my meta hat on, it might even spell the end of majority government in Australia. It would certainly be a shake-up to the whole system, which every system needs now and then. The two major parties are far too conservative (in the organisational sense), and fresh blood would definitely be a good thing. They’re used to being either in government or in opposition, as though that’s just the natural order of things — and so is the electorate. A split would illustrate most clearly that it doesn’t have to be that way, and would likely force them all, including Labor, to actually stand for something.
And more major parties can only be good for democracy; the more parties, the more likely a given person’s opinion will be represented among them. And for better or worse, democracy must give representation to everybody’s opinion — and, historically, it’s almost always been for the better.** A Liberal Party to represent centrist economic liberals like Turnbull, and a Conservative Party to represent the social consies, including the batshit ones like Bernardi, would be much more democratic than the entirely artificial conflation of the two stances we currently have; and that’s not even starting on the Nationals, who might reemerge as a force in their own right, making coalitions according to their own policies rather than serving as the half-fossilised country wing of the Liberal Party.
* It does accurately describe their economic approach, but then, economic liberalism and especially neoliberalism shouldn’t be something to be proud of. Most of their crusted-on voters are social conservatives who don’t give a toss for economics, or at least don’t give a toss about understanding it; while Labor is just as neoliberal as the LNP these days.
** When it hasn’t been, that’s usually been down to a failure of the system itself, such as FPTP giving governments large legislative majorities with a distinct minority of the vote, as we see in the UK and Canada, or to outright corruption, as with the epidemic gerrymandering in the USA — neither of which problems are indictments of democracy in principle. I intend to write a full post on the matter, but a footnote will do for now.