Something is happening to conservative political parties in Australia and overseas. Left-of-centre parties have gained power in the UK, US and Australia by advocating agendas far more centre than they are left. This has left the conservative side of politics floundering, unsure if they should stay the course or contest the middle ground by bringing their policies into line with voters who want greater regulation of the market and less government intrusion into their personal affairs. In Australia, centrist Labor governments are in government Federally and in every state except Western Australia. However, this may change with moderate Opposition leaders in both NSW and Victoria seen to have a chance next time voters go to the polls.

Labor governments have been quick to claim that moderate oppositions stand for nothing. The pine for the days when Margaret Thatcher claimed there was no such thing as society; former Howard Government Minister Tony Abbott could barely let a month pass before without talking about abortion and when the Bush administration pushed the painful end of life decisions surrounding brain-dead bulimia-victim Terri Schiavo to the centre of the national agenda. The days when the extreme rhetoric and policy of conservative policies could be counted on to alienate the majority and drive them into centrist Labor’s arms.

But the average Australian has no cause for grief. Instead, the rise of moderation on the conservative side of politics is cause for celebration and relief. Because when right-of-centre parties moderate, they drive political no-brainer issues to the margins. Issues like whether women should have a right to choose abortion, or terminally ill people the right to die-rights that 80 per cent of the Australian public support. This leaves our pollies to duke it out on urgent policy matters that are the business of government, like the sustainability of current approaches to public health, public education, essential service provision and the environment.

Will the moderation of conservatives make politics boring or value-free? Not at all. However thrilling the men in John Howard’s cabinet found their constant assault on women faced with unplanned pregnancies, the targets experienced them as bewildering and just plain hurtful. I well recall the waitress who put her hand on my arm as I paid for my coffee. She had seen me on TV arguing for a removal of the ministerial veto over RU486. “You know that bloke?” she whispered. “The one with the big ears who is always saying stuff about abortion? I hate him.” There were tears in her eyes. “I just hate him.”

The claim that moderation will make right-of-centre politics value-free is rubbish, too. Policies that protect individual privacy, and privilege the public good over narrow sectarian interests, are as ethical as they come.

But the moderation of conservative parties is a work in progress, not a done deal. Those seeking to scuttle aren’t just found on the left, but the once-ascendant far right. Commented Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary about the centrist leader, David Cameron, “I wonder whether David Cameron is a conservative.” In Australia, Tony Abbott is penning a manifesto on conservative politics that is part of his quest for leadership of the Liberals.

All this may be worth considering the next time you hear someone say that a centrist Liberal or National party leader “stands for nothing.” What most Australians value-and see as the real business of government-is found at the political centre.

The moderation of political conservatives will benefit us all.

Publication history

A Welcome Shift to the Political Middle Ground  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)
2009-04-12