Here is what the Liberal party could learn from the Conservatives under David Cameron | Trent Zimmerman

Last week the former British prime minister David Cameron visited Sydney to headline a climate conference for Liberals and Nationals organized by the Coalition for Conservation, an organization dedicated to creating a national platform for the environment across the center 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 modernize his party.

During my lifetime, I have personally heard speeches from three former or future Conservative British prime ministers: 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. It is also worth noting the contribution of John Gummer (Lord Deben), environment secretary under John Major, still regarded as an environmental hero by many in the United Kingdom.

Thatcher’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in November 1989 was a clarion call to the international community to work together to address climate change. This address could be given today with the same validity and relevance. 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 in the Liberal party seeking to respond to the lessons of the May federal election.

We need to respond to what voters told us at the ballot box, and climate change is an important place to start.

While Australia has chartered its 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 ideologies, and the issues we face in the global community.

David Cameron

In a gathering of Liberal and National party members – state and federal – Cameron reminded us of the modernization 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 a constructive participant and led the 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.

He took that approach of “do we learn and change, or do we double down and repeat?”. With slightly less eloquence, he advised us 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 favor?

The problem and challenge he faced sound all too familiar. The three elections, the losses that preceded Cameron’s leadership election, gave him the license 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.

Cameron said his success was made possible on climate and diversity because he led the drive for change rather than identifying a problem and delegating it to others to fix it.

He also highlighted the importance of political consensus on issues like the climate. While recognizing 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 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 good intentions.”

While there are 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; climatemate change is an important place to start, ranking as it did chief among the concerns of many Australians in electorates like the one I represented. For that reason, 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 path to Number 10 could provide a roadmap we can learn from. The earlier we implement change, the sooner we can regain the support of those we lost.

Trent Zimmerman is a former federal member of North Sydney.

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.