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Daily Media Quotation

Conservatives Head For The Middle Ground

November 13, 2006

by Glenn Milne - The Australian

Notionally, at least, the Liberal Party is taking a leaf from US domestic politics.

I'm talking here not of John Howard - although more of him later - but rather the Liberal Party in an organisational sense. My colleague, Geoff Elliott, based in Washington wrote in The Weekend Australian just past: "The big headline from the elections this week is that the US has found the middle again. Most Americans are moderate fiscal conservatives. They were fed up with Republicans appealing to the fringe."

Elliott was referring, of course, to the swagger taken out of George W. Bush's pants by last week's humiliating results in the mid-term elections, which saw the Democrats take control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years.

Elliott quoted a despondent Republican swept from office who referred to the change in the US political climate thus: "As Republicans, we have some work to do. There is a wind blowing out there, and it's not a warm, friendly wind."

The Liberal Party in Australia seems to have awoken, internally at least, to the same wind. Remember that a federal election is due here in about 12 months "approximately", as our ever cautious Prime Minister put it to the Queensland Liberal Party state conference two weekends ago.

The eastern seaboard, with its concentration of seats, will be critical to that election result. That means the internal dynamics of the Liberal and Labor parties on this side of the country (I write from Canberra) will also be vital in terms of candidate selection, campaign spending and themes. And everyone will want to be heading to the centre on all three counts.

In Victoria the Liberal Party is controlled by Peter Costello and his university mate, Michael Kroger. Both are quintessential centrist politicians. In Elliott's terms they belong to the middle of Australian politics; fiscally conservative and adopting a live-and-let-live approach to social policy.

NSW is a different case. Some would say basket case. There the Liberal state division is dominated by a right-wing cabal, headed by upper house member David Clarke. Clarke has been widely accused by his own colleagues within the NSW division of engaging in ruthless branch stacking with one aim: to entrench the power of the religious Right in that state. In terms of election-winning politics it's hardly a formula for success. Again, in Elliott's parlance, this is fringe stuff. Such is the focus of Clarke's group that they have been prepared to embarrass state Opposition Leader Peter Debnam to achieve their aims. Pru Goward's failure to win preselection for the state seat of Epping is the prime example.

The Right's connection to mainstream Australia is marginal and Howard knows it. Ipso facto his decision, recorded in this column recently, to support large-M moderate, NSW factional opponent and sitting senator Marise Payne for re-endorsement. Howard knows when the pendulum has swung too far. And Clarke is at the too-far end of the spectrum.

Which brings us to Queensland. Until two weekends ago the local Liberal Party was more closely aligned with the NSW version of Liberal politics than other parts of the country. It was dominated by Santo Santoro, the federal Minister for the Ageing. From the Right, Santoro was almost universally regarded as Howard's Queensland proxy in the federal parliament; a quintessentially Catholic social conservative, say his Liberal critics, in the mould of Tony Abbott.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Queensland Liberal conference. A broad coalition, including former mortal rivals and previous state presidents Bob Tucker and Bob Carroll, combined to roll Santoro. They came together and claimed 10 of the 11 available executive positions up for ballot at the conference. All of the Queensland Liberal senators - Ian Macdonald, Brett Mason, Russell Trood and George Brandis - worked against Santoro, a fellow senator.

Inside the party they've been celebrating ever since. But in an ideological, rather than personal sense. Their claim to colleagues is that they have reclaimed the Queensland division for the middle, as described in Elliott's American terms.

"Santo was always very good at galvanising the Right's base," one of his opponents tells me. "But he was never very good at building bridges. And ultimately politics is about addition and not subtraction."

You get the obvious analogy with Bush and the religious Right in America.

Santos's supporters, for their part, claim it's a case of demonisation. They say Santoro was never a winner-takes-all factional warrior. They point to the fact that his support was critical to Brandis and Mason being preselected at the outset of their senatorial careers. And to the fact that when Kroger rang him to ask who might be an appropriate flatmate for Costello in Canberra, Santoro nominated Mason. Indeed, they say Santoro is a Costello supporter for the future leadership of the party.

What they also assert is that any defeat for Santoro at the Queensland conference was illusory; that he still maintains critically important and positive relations with the real powerbrokers in the Queensland party: president Warwick Parer, treasurer Brian Swinton and state director Geoff Greene.

All of which may well be true. But at the Queensland state conference dinner, those present say Howard went out of his way to emphasise that the Liberal Party was a broad church that included both Burkean conservatives and the adherents of John Stuart Mill.

Some say he even praised the contribution of small-L Liberals to the party for the first time in living memory. I can't confirm that because the speech is not on the PM's website. Nothing sinister in that. Just a statement of fact.

But if the accounts of Howard's speech are right, Howard too has read the winds of centrism running through the American and now Australian political eco-system.

As he said on the issue of climate change this week: "Once again we have a sense of balance, we find the mid point and ... as a nation, as a people, we avoid the ideological extremes of debate."

That applies to political parties as much as to nations.

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