What the GOP can learn from Australia’s conservatives

Tim Andrews Contributor
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As Australia awaits the results of its federal election, one fact emerges crystal clear: irrespective of who becomes prime minister, this was a historic win for conservatives, and a harbinger of things to come across the world, with a powerful lesson for all GOP candidates coming into the midterms.

After riding the crest of hope and change to election in 2007, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seemed unstoppable.  The (conservative) Liberal Party was in disarray, and the media was unanimous in its prescription: the only way for the Liberals to survive was to “modernize” by abandoning their conservative ideology and “move forward” by embracing policies like cap and trade.

These forces calling for “modernization” found their standard-bearer in Goldman Sachs executive-turned-politician Malcolm Turnbull, who, after months of agitation, succeeded in winning leadership of the Liberal Party and, cheered on by the commentariat, quickly set about reshaping the Liberal Party in a more progressive direction, making cap and trade his signature issue. Clearly, the media proclaimed, his was the way forward; the future of “conservative” politics. Yet the conventional wisdom was wrong. Poll numbers for the Liberals plummeted. Had an election been called, the Liberal Party would have been annihilated. The situation was so dire, the Liberal Party’s very survival was in jeopardy. Yet the elite consensus remained clear and unchanging: as bad as things were, they would only get worse if Turnbull was replaced. “Moderation” was the only way forward.

Yet, in November 2009, on the eve of the cap and trade Senate vote, the Liberal Party decided to do the unthinkable. They replaced Malcolm Turnbull with hard-line conservative Tony Abbott in an unprecedented leadership coup, turning the party back to conservatism and defeating cap and trade in the process. Again, the media verdict was unanimous — this would be the death knell of the Liberal Party. Within a year, “you would be able to fit every Liberal member into a phone booth.” “Tony Abbott + unelectable” comes up with 15,000 hits on Google. Again, the media elite were wrong.

Seven months later, Kevin Rudd was forced to resign as prime minister, his support having evaporated. The “unelectable” Tony Abbott had brought down a prime minister. Rudd’s successor, Julia Gillard, seeking to take advantage of the “honeymoon period” that would be granted Australia’s first female prime minister, quickly called a federal election and announced that she was retreating from most of Mr. Rudd’s policies.

With Australia traditionally giving new leaders considerable leeway, no one seriously thought that Mr. Abbott stood a chance of even coming close to victory. His platform of reducing spending, cutting taxes, and opposing cap and trade was ridiculed as being an outdated ideology. The Liberals, like the Republicans, were dubbed the “Party of No.”

And yet, as results came in on election night, the verdict was clear. This was the strongest performance against a first-term government in 79 years. The opposition received half a million more votes than Labor, a staggering margin in a country with a voting population of only 11 million. The seemingly-invincible Labor machine had been stopped. Whether or not Tony Abbott is able to form a government, the stark contrast to the Liberal Party’s position from just 12 months ago is a testament to the value of conviction and principles in politics.

It is often said that political pragmatism and ideology are mutually exclusive. This election demonstrates that to be profoundly false. Only by returning to its conservative ideology was the Liberal Party able to reap political gain.

Despite media prescriptions to the contrary, so-called “moderate” politicians on the right consistently fail, whereas those who stand up for their beliefs are rewarded by the electorate (think of Thatcher and Reagan). In the same way that opposing ObamaCare and the so-called stimulus heralded the Republican revival, so too in Australia it was only once the conservatives started behaving like conservatives that they began winning votes. In politics, principles matter, and the successful leaders on the right are those who are able to stand by them. Small government, individual freedom, and free markets work. And not only do they work, when they are articulated by political leaders, voters are drawn to them.

As November approaches, and the GOP establishment is faced with a question of whether to continue supporting conservative values, or whether to abandon conservatism because the media establishment told them to, let the historic recovery of the Liberals in Australia teach them a lesson: conservatism can — and does — win.

Tim Andrews is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant with over a decade’s experience working on Australian election campaigns, and is the co-founder of MenziesHouse.com.au, Australia’s leading online community for center-right activists. He previously worked for Americans for Tax Reform, and has served as the federal president of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation.