If the Queensland election tells us anything about politics in Australia it is that the stranglehold of the far right over the conservative arena in Australia is being broken. Emphatically so.
What we will see at the federal level in coming days, weeks or months – or however long Prime Minister Tony Abbott holds on to his job – may well signal the last hurrah of the far right in Australia.
The dramatic repudiation of former premier Campbell Newman tells us that the Australian electorate has no stomach for the Tea Party-style extremism that has manifested itself in all manner of policies – from education, health, the budget, immigration, to its anti-science stance on climate change and rejection of renewable energy, and its total capitulation to vested interests.
Newman and Abbott have much in common in their style and in the substance of their policies – so much so that everyone accepts that the Queensland election has massive implications for the federal scene. As former treasurer Wayne Swan pointed out on Saturday night, both Abbott and Newman pretended to be moderates while campaigning, but turned out to be extremist once in government.
Swan said both men took the electorate for mugs. Newman’s graceless speech on Saturday night – and his inference that future generations would admire the brilliance of his government even if the current generation didn’t – showed he still didn’t get it.
And Abbott’s speech to the Press Club in Canberra on Monday shows he doesn’t get it either. It was, like every other public declaration since his election 16 months ago, little more than a repeat of the three-word slogans Abbott used in Opposition – although Abbott did try to beat Newman’s record of using the word ‘strong’ so many times in the one speech, as if that was a policy in itself.
It was a warning to the electorate that it should be scared of budget deficits, illegal immigrants and Muslims. When Abbott turned to his future vision, he began with Islamic extremism and ended with the ‘roads of the future’ and had little else between. He also warned us to be scared of Labor governments, but recent voting in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia have shown the nonsense of that approach.
Abbott spoke of intergenerational debt. He was referring to budget deficits, but never mentioned climate change and the environment, probably the greatest liability this generation will leave to its children and grand-children.
He talked of sunrise industries versus sunset industries, and the jobs of the future, but never once talked about the opportunities of new technologies and renewable energy. It was just about roads.
The comprehensive repudiation of Campbell Newman tells us that rejecting climate science, trashing renewable energy, and treating the electorate like mugs has no future. Abbott, though, is not listening. Cue Malcolm Turnbull, entering centre stage.
Now the true liberals within the Liberal Party have to work out how to get rid of Abbott, and with him, the far right that has installed itself within his inner cabal, his department, and numerous other industries.
It won’t be easy. The most obvious response from the federal Liberal party to the Queensland outcome is to give up on those barnacles that it cannot possibly get passed in the senate – trashing the renewable energy target is one of them. But the moderates within the Liberal Party don’t hold the numbers.
The NSW Government has shown how this might be done. The Baird government is the next in line to suffer from the fallout of the far right and ‘Toxic Tony’. Today, it announced it has become the first conservative government in Australia to join the Climate Group, it openly supports the renewable energy target, albeit it a delayed one, it embraces rooftop solar, and supports community energy.
These are similar policies to the new Queensland Labor government, which is supporting rooftop solar and large-scale renewables, community energy, and wants to export jobs and technology from a renewable energy industry.
It will never be clear how much the issue of renewable energy and household solar played in the Queensland election. But with some 400,000 households with rooftop solar, and one-third of these without state-based subsidies, even a moderate impact would have been enough to tip the balance.
But it should not be forgotten that Abbott was installed as leader of the Liberal Party for the sole purpose of rejecting the carbon price, and rolling back environmental and renewable energy policies.
Policy was reduced to those three word slogans and these continued even in government. Australia has embarrassed itself on the national stage, from Abbott’s performance at CHOGM, and then at the G20, to Australia’s no-show at Warsaw, its sending of a climate denier chaperone to Lima, and the thumbing of its nose to the global renewable energy industry. The proposed knighthood of Prince Philip simply crystallised what everyone had suspected, that this government has lost its grip on reality and is lost in the past.
The question for many Liberals is how much damage has been done to the party brand. Its current policy suite is alien to anyone in the political centre and to the bulk of the population. The membership is small and dominated by the Right.
As one disenchanted Liberal explained to RenewEconomy: Australians want a fair deal. It has a sense of decency and fairness. It supports renewable energy. It wants the Great Barrier Reef protected, not lied about, as environmental groups are accusing the Abbott government of doing as recently as last weekend.
Right now, ‘Toxic Tony’ is looking like the most successful tool in the ALP box. Sooner or later he will have to be replaced. This is not a matter of if, but when.
The question then becomes, who will replace him? There seems only two options and of those two options only one makes sense for the Liberal party. Technically both Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull are both possible but in reality the only decisions the party can take and avoid oblivion is Turnbull.
If, because of the Liberals’ ageing and hard right membership, they don’t, then Turnbull should walk and start anew. A few years ago, I canvassed the possibility that Malcolm Turnbull could start his own party. As a former investment banker, Turnbull knows all about reverse takeovers.
(And, as it turns out, while Newman was preparing to face his political execution in Queensland, and Abbott steeling to stave off his, Turnbull was in California, having a test drive of a Tesla Model S, which he raved about, telling his Facebook followers that there is an ‘energy revolution’ coming through battery storage. Another Liberal MP, Steve Ciobo, also said on Friday that solar and storage would likely encourage many Australians to quit the grid.
‘The current Liberal Party is flawed,’ my party informant told me. ‘It is riddled with a dying membership, is ultra right membership and executive leadership who despise new blood. The executive leadership changes like the leadership of the bowls club and the reincarnation of (Michael) Kroger in Victoria demonstrates this ‘spin’ cycle.
‘So why would Malcolm actually stay? With him as leader he will battle a highly antagonist party whose membership is not broad-based. He will have policy positions that all need changing but a patronage system built of old financial favours.’
‘So Malcolm has a win-win ahead of him now. He is either made party leader and then has to undertake a full party renewal and restructure, or if not he walks and launches the old liberal party through an established shell, securing the middle ground and leaves the current liberal party at the far right, without a leader and heading for clear electoral oblivion at the next election.’