The Liberals, the religious right and the ACL, where to now?

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) and many other conservative Christians wanted a more socially conservative Liberal Party – and by the end of the election night, one could say they achieved their aim.

Making this observation is not to mock the ACL because the future structure of the right-hand half of our political spectrum has been in question for some time. The election results for the Liberals have moved a simmering pot to the front burner.

Post Election 2022

“The success of campaigns by the teal independents and the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) show that the Liberals cannot win on the Left following tonight’s election results,” says an ACL statement that raises critical questions.

“Three of the four Liberal MPs whose opposition to faith-based schools and religious freedom was extensively advertised by the ACL have likely lost their seats tonight. The result confirms similar concerns that emerged from the recent South Australian election loss by a Liberal government widely criticised for pursuing socially progressive policies.”

“The ‘broad church’ Liberal Party cannot survive long-term because it cannot be all things to all people.” – Wendy Francis

Wendy Francis, ACL’s National Director of Politics, says: “‘The ‘broad church’ Liberal Party cannot survive long-term because it cannot be all things to all people. It cannot appeal to Left and Right at the same time. The competition on the Left will always be more convincing and more attractive to left and centre-left voters in city electorates, and tonight’s wins by the Teals, despite the Liberals being more socially progressive than ever, prove that.

‘Meanwhile, by virtue signalling to these increasingly unwinnable constituencies, the Liberals turn off social conservatives in western Sydney seats (like Reid) and other outer suburban areas which should increasingly be Liberal heartland.'”

What happened on election night?

The ACL put lots of their election resources into campaigning against the five Liberal MPs who crossed the floor, leading to the failure of the Religious Discrimination Bill. The electorates were thoroughly letterboxed. The ACL mobilised thousands of volunteers.

Four of the five renegades lost on Saturday night. The exception was Bridget Archer, the member for Bass in Tasmania, a state where the Coalition vote held up.

Three of the others lost to the teal independents in inner-city seats. Trent Zimmerman (North Sydney), Tim Wilson (Goldstein, Vic) and Katie Allen (Higgins, Vic). Fiona Martin lost to Labor with a significant 8.7 per cent swing in Reid (NSW) which straddles the inner-city and multicultural middle ring suburbs.

Another ACL release gives details of polling that showed a high awareness of the religious freedom vote by the renegade Liberals.

“Independent polling in North Sydney, Wentworth and Reid showed that awareness of these issues among voters, two days before the election, was very high. This follows a major campaign by ACL in these seats which included flyers, door-knocking, phone canvassing, billboards, digital marketing and newspaper ads.

“In Wentworth, 69.8 per cent of voters knew of Dave Sharma’s voting record on religious freedom and faith-based schools, compared with 64.8 per cent in North Sydney (Trent Zimmerman) and 63.3 per cent in Reid (Fiona Martin).”

Any evidence that the ACL campaign caused four Liberals to lose their seats is weakened by their neighbours also going Teal.

But to take Melbourne examples, seats neighbouring those the ACL campaigned in also experienced swings to the Teals. Tim Wilson (Goldstein, Vic) lost to a Teal, as did Josh Frydenberg (Kooyong).

Any evidence that the ACL campaign caused four Liberals to lose their seats is weakened by their neighbours also going Teal. The effect of the ACL campaign appears to have been swamped by the Teals – so it would be hard to pick. The Reid result, a seat uncomplicated by the Teals, would hint that there was not a significant effect. Reid swung to Labor by 8.7 per cent.

(It probably is going too far to suggest the ACL and other conservatives wanted the Morrison government to lose. It is reasonable to conclude they might have believed that the Coalition could pick up enough “peri-urban” seats to win. After all, that is what the Morrison campaign appeared to be aiming for.)

One can look to inner Brisbane with no Teals or campaign by the ACL against floor-crossers, where the Greens had teal-like results in inner-city seats against both the Liberals and Labor.

This analysis is not to dismiss the ACL campaign but to say that more significant effects on the night, such as the teal vote, make it hard to measure the ACL’s accomplishments.

The ACL’s recipe for the future of the Liberal Party is not unique, with party insiders saying the same thing – although others say the opposite.

“State Liberals are divided over the reasons behind their party’s federal election loss, with moderates blaming an environmental protest vote while conservatives point the finger at a policy drift to the Left,” reports Tom Richardson of the South Australian website Indaily. The same debate is happening around Australia.

A good question

The question the ACL asks is a good one. Can the Liberals win from the Left?

Leaving aside whether the losing Liberals were “Left” – we could spend a lot of pixels on that – the Coalition’s splintering vote to teals and minor parties on the Right means “exciting” days ahead for the Liberals.

Coalition factions say their opposite number turned voters off. Social conservatives say the moderate/modern Liberals reduced the Coalition vote in outer-suburban seats, while the moderate/modern Libs claim that culture war campaigning – such as that by Warringah candidate Katherine Deves on transgender – reduced the inner-city vote.

So who is a conservative?

This current dilemma for the Liberals centres on the slippery word “conservative” because there is more than one sort of “conservative”. Conservatives in the tradition of Edmund Burke wish to conserve what is valuable in society but allow measured change when needed. But other conservatives have different priorities.

Malcolm Turnbull conservatives: these voters are socially liberal but fiscally conservative, with a base among big business and professionals. This stance is a form of libertarian conservatism. Lower taxes keep the government out of the way of business, and having fewer laws keeps the government out of the bedroom.

Tony Abbott conservatives: these voters are socially conservative and fiscally conservative. Abbott’s first budget was an attempt to begin to wind back the state. Ten years in office would have brought about a much smaller government. More active on fiscal conservatism than social conservatism.

Senator Alex Antic conservatives: these voters want an activist social conservative government. Social conservatism is their priority. (Senator Alex Antic from South Australia is a Christian, who is keen to enlist hundreds of Christians into the Liberal Party.

All of these groups will have overlaps in policy. Which of them can work together will occupy the next three years?

The issues were not conservative ones

It is striking that none of the key policies in the last election were fundamentally conservative, although opposed by the Coalition parties.

1) Climate change has morphed from a change led by big government (a conservative no-no) to a largely market-led change. Arguably it is a cause conservatives can embrace. The Morrison government was trying to catch up.

2) Uluru Statement: the graceful request by First Nations people is an incremental change that fits within conservative gradualism.

3) Respect for women. The alleged rape in Parliament House and the needed reforms could have been a social-conservative campaign.

4) Integrity Commission. The NSW Liberals extended the funding for that state’s ICAC during the election campaign. Meanwhile, South Australian Labor backs their milder version. The Integrity Commission dispute appears to be more about numbers in the dysfunctional Liberal party room.

It is not too hard to see opposition to these as obduracy rather than conservatism. Any new leader of the Liberals will have to consider removing these policy barnacles. The need for such action may be especially true if a party wishes to adopt socially conservative policies – it will need something to bind in some of the other types of conservative.

The past revisited

The collection of social forces organised by Menzies into the Liberal Party has always been unstable. Labor’s splits that kept it out of power for 23 years until Whitlam has been more discussed in our culture, but the Liberals have had their share.

The Liberal Movement split the South Australian Liberals over the issue of one-vote-one-value in the late ’60s. The Liberals who stayed out were the nucleus of what became the Australian Democrats.

Queensland’s long history of National Party dominance is another example of how difficult it is to unify the right-hand half of Australian politics.

Conservative Christians, some of whom will want a party that goes “full Trump,” will have to decide what sort of Liberal Party they can cope with.

The Liberals may be about to make the same mistake the Labor Party did at its most socialist: prefer ideological purity over gaining office.

The answer to the ACL’s question about the Coalition winning on the ‘Left’ is to examine where the numbers lie. Are there enough social conservatives to win? And as we have pointed out, none of the significant issues of the election, such as climate change, are about conservative, even social conservative principles.

There is a job vacancy for a new Menzies. Any takers?