A nihilistic defection

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, June 10, 2014


MARTIN Hamilton-Smith has defected from the Liberal Party benches because he is focused on the big picture: big office, big salary, big desk, big fridge, big super and big chauffeur-driven limo.

“Mammoth nihilist rant” is one of many anagrams that can be constructed from his double-barrelled name and, as far his former South Australian Liberal Party colleagues are concerned, it seems to fit the bill nicely.

That was how they viewed his “considered decision based on what’s best for South Australia”, and his irony-free comment that he was happy to serve in Premier Jay Weatherill’s cabinet because he was “a team player”.

Any team, apparently, so long as it is winning.

You don’t have to be part of the Liberal tribe to be troubled by this self-serving and contemptuous act.

It was not Hamilton-Smith’s good looks, intelligence and charm that won the hearts of the voters of Waite. They wanted to be represented by a Liberal on North Terrace, not just for 21⁄2 months.

Just what kind of a premier he might have made if he had survived as leader long enough to fight an election is anybody’s guess. The fact that he is able to cross the political frontier so casually suggests that the principles he lives and dies by do not amount to much at all.

There was a period of convergence in Australian politics in the 1980s and early 90s as Labor moved towards the reforming centre. When Kevin Rudd conspicuously declared himself an economic conservative before the 2007 election, some were bold enough to imagine than the nonpartisan nirvana had arrived.

In office, however, Rudd became starstruck and discovered he was an interventionist after all. “Not for the first time in history,” he declared, “the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself.”

Labor under Rudd and Julia Gillard was not so much interventionist as meddlesome. It didn’t implement “policies” as such; it made announcements.

Haphazard as it sometimes seemed, Labor’s disparate program was connected by a distinct ideological strand. The assumption underpinning home insulation, alcopop tax, GP super clinics, the National Broadband Network, plain packet cigarettes and almost everything it presumed to touch was that government knows best how to run our economy, our businesses and our lives.

For Liberals the ensuing disasters were a catalyst for a return to first principles and the foundational spirit that Robert Menzies adopted in 1944 to unite the non-Labor side of politics.

Menzies’ core idea — that prosperity comes not from central planning but from the multiplication of talents, enterprise and energy of its citizens — was uncontested in mainstream politics 10 years ago, not just in Australia but across much of the Western world.

Now, Washington, Brussels and other technocratic strongholds have once again fallen for the misapprehension that governments are not just improvers of particular things but fixers of the lot.

It is a delusion Menzies caricatured in his description of the state that will “dole out bread and ideas with neatly regulated accuracy … nurse us and rear us and maintain us and pension us and bury us”.

The weight of economic history, if nothing else, tells us this approach is unworkable and unaffordable.

Menzies’ argument, however, is a moral one first and an economic argument second. The problem with the heavy-handed state is not just that it will eventually go broke but that it leads to a nation of “pallid and bloodless ghosts” drained of energy and enterprise.

“Leaners grow flabby; lifters grow muscles,” wrote Menzies.

It is a metaphor which has lately been revived by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, marking the federal leadership’s sharpened awareness of the Liberal Party’s founding principles.

It seems odd, to say the least, that at this moment of heightened awareness of the meaning of Liberalism, and after six years in which federal Labor has clearly demonstrated the flaws in the alternative approach, that a former state Liberal leader should decide to bat for the other side.

Even allowing for the fact that things are broadcast half an hour later in South Australia, Hamilton- Smith’s decision is at odds with the heightened political sectarianism of our times.

It is tempting but foolish for the party he left behind to dismiss his defection merely as an act of insanity, avarice or stupidity.

The real lesson of this unsettling incident may be that the Liberal Party needs to acquire the courage of its convictions at state as well as at the federal level.

The principle that prosperity is derived from individual enterprise rather than the benevolence of the government applies to moribund states like South Australia and Tasmania as much as Queensland and Western Australia.

So does Joe Hockey’s warning about the age of entitlement. The lifters versus leaners analogy works as well for institutions as it does for people.

With a federal Liberal government that is actively discussing handing more responsibility back to the states, it is an auspicious moment for South Australia to re-embrace its proud 19th-century tradition of enterprise and begin deregulating the economy.

The expansion of the South Australian public service under Labor — up by around 20,000 at the last count — should be anathema to Liberals, along with any notion that Adelaide will prosper as the make-work capital of Australia. The Liberals, if they were bold enough, could offer a clear alternative.

The perfidy of Hamilton-Smith is a symptom, not the cause of the South Australian Liberal Party’s

malaise. When even its former leader seems confused about what the party stands for, what hope is there for the voters?