Last week the former British prime minister David Cameron made a visit to Sydney to headline a climate conference for Liberals and Nationals organised by the Coalition for Conservation, an organisation dedicated to creating a national platform for the environment across the centre right. He came bearing some important lessons for Liberals if we are to avoid the fate of the Conservatives, who lost three elections before empowering Cameron to modernise his own party.
I have personally heard speeches from three former or future Conservative British prime ministers during my lifetime: Margaret Thatcher in 1993 in the House of Lords, Boris Johnson while foreign secretary, at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, and last week David Cameron.
Those three prime ministers represent a common thread of Conservative party leadership on climate change and the environment. To the mix, it is also worth noting the contribution of John Gummer (Lord Deben), environment secretary under John Major, who is still regarded as an environmental hero by many in the United Kingdom.
Thatcher’s speech to the United Nation’s General Assembly in November 1989 was a clarion call to the international community to work together to address climate change – it’s an address that could be given today with the same validity and relevance. Both Cameron and Johnson have led domestic and international action on climate change in a way that has reflected the broad bipartisanship on this issue in the UK.
Cameron’s contribution in Sydney last week was particularly poignant for those of us in the Liberal party seeking to respond to the lessons of the May federal election.
While Australia has chartered its own course, separate from the strings that once more closely bound us to the UK, there is still a certain resonance and commonality between our political systems. This reflects our liberal democratic values, the predominance of political parties that share similar ideology and the common issues we face in the global community.
In a gathering of Liberal and National party members – state and federal – Cameron reminded us of the modernisation journey he led the Conservative party on in the lead-up to his victory in 2010. Central to this was his drive to ensure the party was not only a constructive participant but actually led debate on climate action. He also worked to ensure that the Conservative party fully represented, in his words, the “brilliance of British society” which was the motivation for his drive to attract more women and people of ethnic diversity into the parliamentary ranks of his party.
In his words he took that approach of “do we learn and change or do we double down and repeat?”. With slightly less eloquence, he gave us the advice that if your customer says they don’t want eggs and ham for breakfast, does it make any sense to serve up double eggs and ham to win their favour?
The three election losses that preceded Cameron’s election as leader gave him licence to take the party in a new direction. There was a willingness, if not some desperation, to allow progressive Tories to try something new to win back voters – many in traditional Conservative constituencies – who had abandoned their party for Labour or the Liberal Democrats. The problem and challenge he faced sounds all too familiar.
On issues like climate and diversity, Cameron said his success was made possible because he personally led the drive for change rather than identifying a problem and delegating to others to fix.
He also highlighted the importance of political consensus on issues like climate. While recognising the Conservatives and British Labour would use different levers and policies, he made the point that as opposition leader he didn’t seek to wedge the Labour government on their own climate agenda. Again, in his words, “endlessly questioning your opponents’ approach, even when they are doing the right thing, makes it even harder to convince people of your own good intentions.”
While there are clearly differences between the circumstances of the UK and Australia and differences between the Tories and the Liberal party, there is a striking lesson from Cameron’s approach to what can and should be done to ensure the Liberal party is to re-earn the trust of those who abandoned the party, particularly in metropolitan electorates.
There have been some foolish suggestions that the Liberal party should politically abandon electorates previously considered our heartland following our defeat in many of those seats. A simple look at electoral maths means that the pathway to a return to government is perilously narrow – I would argue impossible – for the Liberal party if it were to adopt this approach.
Instead, we need to respond to what voters told us at the ballot box and climate change is an important place to start, ranking as it did chief among the concerns of so many Australians in electorates like the one I represented. It’s for that reason that the opposition should be prepared to build on the bipartisanship that has emerged for the 2050 net zero commitment and reconsider its decision not to support the government’s 2030 target of 43% emissions reductions, including for legislation supporting that outcome.
There will be other issues the party will need to confront – including the recruitment and preselection of talented women. Again this will require strong leadership, particularly to overcome the failures of internal Liberal party processes to match goals with achievement.
Cameron confronted more than 15 years ago issues that Liberals in Australia are still facing today. His own path to Number 10 could maybe provide a roadmap we can learn from. The earlier we start to implement change the sooner we can regain the support of those we lost.