Purportedly, one of the positive traits of the Liberal Party as an ideological entity is that it stands up staunchly for the individual. While the Labor Party enforces a very strict brand of collective party room discipline when it comes to parliamentary voting, the Liberal Party has traditionally been viewed as being a bit more tolerant of members who express dissenting views, either publicly or in parliament. This approach takes on an additional level of complexity when one also considers the Liberal Party’s coalition with the National Party federally, and the practically mandatory requirement within modern Australian parliamentary politics for leaders to maintain ironclad control over their own parties (or at least appear to).
Obviously, the rough ideology of the National Party overlaps to a certain extent with that of the Liberal Party, particularly on social or “moral” issues, where both parties tend strongly towards the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, it would clearly be a mistake to assume that the unity that the Coalition exhibited during the lifetime of the Howard Government was the natural state of the relationship. It now seems that the glow of power provided ostensibly by the popularity of John Howard in the role of Prime Minister was the glue that held these uncomfortable allies together. Howard also had the added benefit of being a Liberal whose views were generally conservative, and flexibly pragmatic enough to command the support of the National Party. He was not averse to engaging in acts of rank populism from time to time in order to keep his rural mates on board, even if they did not always sit comfortably with his own ideological views.
By comparison, it is also becoming ever clearer that if John Howard was a ready-made uniter as a leader of the Coalition, Malcolm Turnbull is a ready-made divider. Turnbull is a polarising figure within his own party, and he is even moreso in the context of the broader Coalition. Socially, he is to the left of the majority of the parliamentary Liberal Party, and of course the parliamentary National Party. In terms of economic views, he is to the liberal right of the entire parliamentary National Party, his views etched indelibly by his experiences in the business world and a life of urban affluence.
In trying to compete with the Rudd Government, whose party room discipline thus far has been comparable to that of the Howard Government in terms of ruthlessness, Turnbull has been trying to enforce a similar level of discipline. He is also trying hard to have things his way, as any leader would do, but problematically, his views do not align very well with those of his party or indeed his party’s coalition partner. Clearly, he can not have it both ways; something has to give, either the primacy of Turnbull’s personal ideology as leader or the party-room discipline he is trying to enforce.
Malcolm Turnbull is going to have to defuse this situation, and quickly, or else either his leadership or the federal coalition agreement with the National Party are going to be irrevocably damaged. He can not have his cake and eat it too, as he did in the private sector. He needs to compromise on his own views, or give the reins to somebody who can.
ELSEWHERE: More from Mark over at Larvatus Prodeo.