How factionalism works

Today’s text is from Michael Pascoe, writing on Wednesday in the New Daily and widely circulated since, about the post-election future of the Australian Liberal Party. He’s got a valid point to make, but there are some problems.

One is something that we’ve talked about before: the adventures of that curious word “neoliberal”, which still resists all attempts to pin down its meaning. But regardless of the prefix, if Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton count as “liberals” of any sort, then something has gone badly wrong with our terminology.

There’s something else interesting going on with Pascoe, though, namely the way that he unconsciously conflates factions and ideology:

Without the electorate having any say in it, the Liberal Party will have lost most of its “moderate” leadership in three years. …

“Moderate” is a relative term … but the ascendancy of the “dries” and cleanout of “wets” (or at least “damps”) leaves a party veering further away from the pragmatic centre of politics …

Should the Liberal Party lose government on May 18, the hard-right will ensure a return to the worst of Mr Abbott’s period of Total Opposition

What he’s trying to say, I think, is that the parliamentary Liberal Party after the election is likely to be more ideologically narrow than it is now and tend more towards the hard right. That may well be true, but he’s chosen a very confusing way of saying it.

For the last half century or so, the Liberal Party has contained two identifiable groups, a “left” and a “right”. You can argue about whether or not they’re sufficiently well organised to deserve the name of “factions” – I’m not really fussed about that. But they exist, and most prominent Liberal Party figures belong identifiably to one or the other.

The left often call themselves (and are called by others) “moderates”; the right are sometimes called “conservatives”. Famous people on the left include Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt, Marise Payne, Philip Ruddock, Andrew Peacock and Bill Snedden. Famous people on the right include Abbott, Eric Abetz, Bronwyn Bishop, John Howard, Nick Minchin and Alexander Downer.

Knowing which group someone is in tells you something about their likely policy or philosophical views. The right tend to look out more for the interests of the rich, to be more pro-American, more keen on states’ rights, and less interested in the welfare of minorities; the left tend to take the opposite positions. But those are no more than weak correlations.

It’s vital to understand that the fact that someone disagrees with some, or indeed all, of their group’s policy positions doesn’t stop them being a member of that group. Calling someone a “moderate”, in a factional context, isn’t a description of their beliefs: it’s just a label of which group they’re in.

So, for example, Pyne has consistently supported the anti-choice position, contrary to most of his group. Abbott has equally consistently opposed states’ rights.

Confusion is particularly rife when it comes to economic policy, which tends to cut across factional lines. That’s why new terms became current in the 1980s: “dries”, for the free marketeers, and “wets” for their opponents.

Pascoe exemplifies a common tendency of pundits to treat “wet” as synonymous with “left” or “moderate”. But that’s manifestly not the case.

The dries first formed in opposition to Malcolm Fraser, whose policies were wet even though he was on the right. Since then, dry positions have come from both sides of the party. Its driest leader, John Hewson, was backed by the left; Joe Hockey, also from the left, was a drier treasurer than his successor, Scott Morrison, who came from the right.

None of the current leading figures on the right, including Abbott and Dutton, are known for their enthusiasm for the market. The last senior Liberal to make much noise about free enterprise was Malcolm Turnbull, who entered parliament backed by the right but once there mostly lined up with the left.

No-one writing about the Labor Party would make this mistake. Its factions are sufficiently familiar that we all recognise them as primarily organisations for wielding power, with any policy or philosophical content coming a very distant second. But pundits usually have much less awareness of the innards of the Liberal Party.

I don’t deny for a moment that the party is heading into a very problematic time. It may well find that one group within it has acquired an unusual degree of dominance, and it may be unable to escape from its deeply illiberal policy settings.

But don’t assume that the two amount to the same thing. And certainly don’t assume that either will have much to do with the free market.

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