Alexander Downer is a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and a former Australian Foreign Minister. He is the Chairman of Trustees at Policy Exchange.
What lessons should Boris Johnson take from the defeat of the nine year old Australian Liberal Party government in last month’s general election?
There’s hardly a country on earth more distant from the UK than Australia – and there’s hardly a country more socially similar.
Over the last nine years our two countries have rejuvenated our relationship: we have a high-quality free trade agreement and in AUKUS an unprecedented military technology agreement.
Expect relations to remain close, but perhaps less intimate, with the new Australian Labor Government.
Australia and the UK face many of the same challenges: post-pandemic price rises, higher interest rates, shortages of labour, and the culture wars we’ve both imported from liberal arts faculties in the United States.
That’s why Australia’s recent election has lessons for the UK.
Let’s look at the Australian Labor Party. It went into the election with a dull but worthy leader; none would praise Anthony Albanese’s charisma but he isn’t scary. Labor campaigned with few practical policies.
It emphasised broad themes. For example, it would end debate about climate change by improving (marginally) Australia’s 2030 Paris target. This would mean slightly higher energy prices but no difference to the global climate. This didn’t matter to high income voters; it is the symbolism that counts.
Labor would do more on childcare and build great roads and bridges. How, why and where? No one really cared, it sounded good. Most of the extra spending to do these things would be “off budget”.
No one cared about that either; the Government had borrowed and printed record amounts of money through the pandemic and that didn’t seem to do any harm.
So Labor had a general theme: big, intrusive government is a good thing and the state has demonstrated through Covid that control of the public is good for everyone’s health. Labor surfed on the contemporary zeitgeist. They didn’t need to expose themselves to detailed policies.
So what about the Liberals, the conservative government? They’d been in government for nine years and in that time had changed their prime minister three times. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?
They’d been in government through the pandemic. They had closed the borders, locked down society, shuttered businesses, confined people to their homes, and spent more money than any government in Australian history.
Many people vote conservative because they believe in individual liberty, not state control. They believe government should protect the most vulnerable while the rest make their own judgements about risk and opportunity. And they believe the budget should be cautiously managed and taxes kept low so individuals can decide how to spend their hard earned money.
All those arguments, that philosophy which was the lifeblood of the Liberal Party, was drained from its body by the Covid pandemic. It was left pallid and listless, with a Prime Minister who wasn’t very popular.
Scott Morrison tried to argue he was fixing the economy: it was recovering well, the budget could be repaired and taxes wouldn’t increase.
But at the same time energy prices were rising and shopping was becoming more costly. Real wages were starting to fall. The great boast of conservatives that they are the best managers of the economy and that Labor would be a risk seemed hollow to many.
But worse, the Liberals had lost the debate on values. They were characterised as a harsher and more uncaring version of Labor. They didn’t make the case for the sort of society they wanted.
After nine years in power the country’s cultural institutions remained colonised by the left. The schools and universities preach left environmentalism and an Australian version of critical race theory. Educational institutions embed these concepts in the minds of young people.
The Liberal government blithely let it happen, and didn’t counter critical theory with its own laudable beliefs in the equal value of all human beings regardless of race, gender or sexuality.
In the two or so years Johnson and the Tories have until the next election they need to concentrate on sound economic management. They need to refine the argument that spending and borrowing causes inflation and increasing taxes drives down living standards.
Above all they need to change the tone of the national conversation rather than have the statist obsessions of the left define political virtue. They need to convince the public that the Left’s social and economic model is wrong.
The Liberal Party in Australia is starting to debate whether it should move to the left or the right. It’s a banal, dry argument. If it moves to become ‘Labor Lite’ it will shift national values and the national conversation still further Labor’s way.
It needs to engage in and win the debate about values and build its policy positions around those values. That’s the Australian lesson for the Conservatives.