AFR: It’s not all about that Base

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Liberals must return to forgotten people, not some invented base

How do you build a minor populist party in Australia? Entrust a major party to the Liberal Party’s hard right insurgents. Already they’ve managed to hand another 5 per cent of the electorate to Labor on a platter. Give them more time to chase “The Base” and they’ll have the Liberal National Party draw level with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

The Liberal Party is at its most successful when it serves the interests of middle Australia.

The Liberal Party is at its most successful when it serves the interests of middle Australia.

The Base was desperate to get rid of Malcolm Turnbull, we’re told. So if a conservative revolution was what The Base really wanted, you’d expect it to be more grateful. Yet as the dust clears and the polls roll in, it is becoming evident that The Base was never the real driver of this supposed people’s uprising.

When the 16th century French gentry lusted after what the aristocrats had, they launched the French Revolution in the name of the “sans-culottes” (those “without breeches”). These poor pants-less commoners were an ideal symbol of equality. They were also handy foot-soldiers in a bloody coup against the decadent royalty that the gentry craved. The insurgents succeeded in bumping off the royals, but in the end the sans-culottes were no better off. The streets ran with blood as the Revolution became a battle among the gentry for control.

Two hundred years later, the power putsch just passed is the very model of the French Revolution: a coup launched in the name of the people by a small disgruntled upper class, hungry for greater power.

So who are the sans-culottes of the failed Canberra coup? Who exactly is this “Base”? The conservative intelligentsia have spied them through the prism of a number of recent books: David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. And the intelligentsia have, on the basis of these individually great books, invented a Rousseauian ideal of the Noble Commoner, who passionately shares the obsessions of the conservative elite.

It is imagined as a section of society that has been alienated by political correctness, whose religious or conservative instincts are affronted by gay marriage, whose jobs are vulnerable to immigration and offshoring, and who are struggling with the cost of living, not least energy. And because a small section of the population which broadly fits the bill has switched its vote to populist parties – which talk a big game on on these issues – they believe that to win them back they must do the same. The Liberal Party, the narrative goes, has drifted too far to the left to appeal to the common man.

There is no doubt that there are plenty of ordinary folk who do care about those issues. And let’s be clear, their concerns are valid.

Immigration is out of whack with infrastructure. We have work to do on integration.

Political correctness is undoubtedly used by some to silence people they disagree with and impose their preferences on us all.

Renewable energy and anti-gas zealots have added distortions to an already over-complicated energy market, forcing prices up.

It’s also true that the people who voice their concerns are too often insulted as bigots, biased and backward by people insulated by education, social class and high-earning jobs.

But plenty of these self-same people voted for marriage equality, are worried by predictions of man made climate change, would like to see Australia reduce its carbon emissions (preferably by finding a way that doesn’t raise power prices) and are pro-immigration, as long as they know it’s well in hand. We know this, because poll after poll shows about two-thirds of voters in favour of each of these things. Most anti-gay marriage support came from safe Labor seats. Sentiment has shifted on the immigration intake, as infrastructure struggles to keep up, but people are still consistently positive about the overall contribution immigrants make to society. These are stats, not feels.

Two-thirds of the electorate is more voter support than either of the major parties could ever hope to command at an election. It certainly exceeds the single-digit national figures in support of the conservative and populist breakaway parties.

That in itself points to the large politically moderate base of Australia. It too must be represented.

The truth is that balancing the broad church of the Liberal Party machine is a healthy exercise in representing Australians’ manifold interests. Sadly, these interests are forgotten in power struggles between the so-called conservative and moderate wings of the Liberal Party. The civil war diminishes a strength of the Liberal Party, which learns from its internal broad church to better serve the electorate.

The major political parties have a responsibility to represent the people whose day-to-day lives don’t revolve around politics and partisan feeling, as well as the activists and Twitterati. It is the small businesses, the young families, the hard-working people who just don’t have the energy to care whether or not the Victorian bureaucracy just hosted a non-gender specific “They Day”. They are the people who are the real broad base of any meaningfully conservative and liberal government. They must be served, even as they go about lives that are mostly tuned out to the whole circus.