Abbott’s challenge now is to renew the Liberal Party
GetUp’s latest poll has found the public are hoping Tony Abbott will take the party down a progressive path.
It’s a big year for the Liberal Party of Australia. One hundred years ago, the Protectionist and Free Trade parties combined to offer voters an alternative to the Labor party.
Oppositions can be great force within our democracy. They can be the drivers of accountability and transparency, of new thinking and ambitious policy. And in a democracy where our major parties fight over just a small subset of the population (swinging voters), their power in influencing the Government of the day is certainly present.
Since the Australian public gave the Howard Government the boot many in the Coalition have been doing some soul searching. Tony Abbott has committed his summer to developing his party’s policies in the lead up to next year’s election campaign.
So what should he be working on?
In the recent GetUp poll conducted by EMC, one of the first polls since Abbott’s ascendancy to the leadership, GetUp has found first and foremost that people’s strongest desire of Abbott’s leadership is that he will take action on climate change.
We know that at the moment the public are unsure about who to trust on climate change. As Peter Lewis writes in his piece on The Punch today, the winner in a 3 horse race on who to trust (between the ALP, the Greens and the Coalition) is a 4th horse from the outside: “don’t know”.
And so Tony Abbott’s task over the summer is clear. He must convert the ‘don’t know’ voters. And converting the ‘don’t know’ voters means adopting a progressive approach to climate action.
64% of respondents in our latest EMC poll believe that Tony Abbott should support action on climate change. And what kind of action? Well the majority of Australians (52%) still believe an emissions trading scheme is the way to go.
And the demands of the Australian public for a more progressive agenda from the Liberal party continue on issues like workers rights and a woman’s right to chose.
A whopping 73% of Australians feel that Tony Abbott should not interfere with a woman’s right to chose to have an abortion.
And less then one in five Australians think that Tony Abbott has truly walked away from his support of WorkChoices – the majority clearly wanting him to.
The Liberal party, like all political parties, has those on the inside who are trying to modernise the party, and those who are not. As Queensland Liberal Senator George Brandis said in his 2009 Deakin lecture, “those who are important figures in the defeat of Government will rejoin that we must defend our legacy”.
And so Tony Abbott has a choice ahead of him. Will he defend the former Coalition Government’s inaction on climate change or adopt a modern, realistic approach to the need for ambitious action? Will he defend the architecture behind work choices while abandoning it in name, or will he truly accept that the Australian public want workers protected? Will he interfere with the rights of women in making their own medicinal choices, or will he be stuck in the vices of his past beliefs?
And in taking these policy positions into some thoughts about the overall direction of the Liberal party, one thing becomes very clear. The battle that underscores the challenge the party faces is whether or not to be a progressive party that differentiates itself with Labor on the basis of it’s definition of liberalism (as a concept centered on the rights of individuals), or whether it chooses to differentiate itself from Labor with a Howard-like conservative agenda.
Tony Abbott should make no mistake that Howard conservatism will not work. As Senator Brandis pointed out in his instructive Deakin lecture, conservatism, by its very nature, “cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving.”
While Tony Abbott has chosen to include in his shadow cabinet voices like those of Christopher Pyne and Joe Hockey, this must not be a token gesture. His electoral success relies on his ability to convince the Australian public that he is a modern leader with a progressive approach to public policy.
The opportunities for adopting a progressive approach are obvious, and profound.
Mr Abbott’s capacity to grasp these opportunities does have an expiry date though. In the next few months, while his honeymoon period as Opposition leader continues, we will be able to test his willingness to modernize his party by analysing his policies on key issues like climate change, workers rights and a woman’s right to chose.
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