The times are a' changing. Australians voted overwhelmingly for equal marriage; the NSW and Victorian parliaments are achingly close to legalising voluntary euthanasia; and the Queensland Premier recently performed a spectacular backflip and committed her government to vetoing any federal government loan for the enormous Adani coal mine. A recent poll by the Australia Institute found 63 per cent of Queenslanders thought the loan should go to other projects; just 21 per cent wanted the money to go to Adani.
Conservative politicians have a loud voice in the media but are failing as spectacularly in their efforts to win over voters as they are to prevent the march of progressive policies. Just as Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey dumped most of the spending cuts that they proposed in 2014, the Turnbull government abandoned its plans to increase the GST and is crab-walking away from its promise to cut the company tax rate for big business. Most of the opponents of equal marriage hastily abandoned their plans to drag out the parliamentary debate with a focus on "religious freedom" in the face of overwhelming public support for marriage freedom.
I am not saying conservatives aren't succeeding in some of their campaigns against unions, environmental groups or policies to support renewable energy. On the contrary, in recent years, we have seen extreme laws aimed at unions and the Turnbull government's recent legislation that makes it harder for environmental groups to raise money.
While there is much in the Coalition's agenda to worry ost Australians, the reality is that conservatives are spending an enormous amount of their political capital fighting the wrong battles, at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The $120 million opinion poll to silence a dozen Coalition backbenchers is but one example of the tactics that have the Labor 10 percentage points clear of the government in the latest Newspoll.
The conservatives' war on renewable energy, combined with their obsession with subsidising coal mines and coal-fired power stations, is one of the greatest political miscalculations since Alexander Downer branded his domestic violence policy "the things that batter". There are now 2 million homes in Australia with solar panels on their roofs, the cost of renewables is falling faster than dual citizens in the parliament, and, in a recent Queensland leaders' debate hosted by Sky News and The Courier Mail, not a single audience member supported taxpayers giving Adani $1 billion. Not one.
Similarly, the conservative war on unions does more to cost the Coalition votes than it does to create jobs. On the one hand, the Coalition taunts unions over the declining proportion of workers who are union members, yet on the other hand it blames the unions for everything from low productivity growth to unemployment. As with the war on renewables, most voters just don't buy it.
After 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth, wage growth is at an all-time low. Indeed, it's so low that not only the Reserve Bank but the Treasurer, too, has conceded it is harming the economy. But despite agreeing that low wage growth is bad for the economy, the Coalition supports reducing weekend penalty rates, a position which, as with its hostility to renewable energy, places it at odds with the vast majority of the public.
So what's going on? Why are the professional politicians in the Liberal and National parties, who know how to conduct and interpret an opinion poll, so determined to support policies at odds with Australian public opinion?
Over the past 20 years, the proportion of people voting for minor parties and independents in federal elections rose from 14 per cent to 23 per cent. While some parties, like Palmer United, came and went quickly, others like the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team have steadily grown their representation. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when the conservative side of politics was united behind the Coalition, the progressive vote was split between Labor, the Democrats, the Greens and even the Nuclear Disarmament Party, which elected senators in successive elections and nearly elected Peter Garrett to Parliament.
These days, it's the Right that has splits within its splits. While the Liberals and Nationals remain in a stable power-sharing coalition, the arrangement has become a lot more fractious and the divisions a lot more public. The Nationals are increasingly determined to ensure they get public credit for parts of the government agenda, which, inevitably, requires them to leak stories about how hard they needed to fight the Liberals to deliver those wins.
And then there's Pauline Hanson's One Nation, David Leyonhjelm's Liberal Democrats and Cory Bernardi's Australian Conservatives, to name just a few of the new parties jockeying for attention and votes.
Part of the problem for Malcom Turnbull's government is that, when faced with a choice between pleasing most voters or defending itself from criticism from right-wing micro-parties, it focuses on the latter. Hanson will always be "tougher" on refugees than most voters, Bernardi will always be angrier about women's right to have abortions than most voters, and Leyonhjelm will always be far more of a climate sceptic than most voters. But rather than ignore the wackiest ideas from the fringe, the Coalition is stuck in an ideallogical turf war over some pretty patchy areas of turf.
The Coalition's bigger problem is that it has been slow to adapt to the new reality that politics is not nearly as binary as the workers-versus-bosses frame of reference that shaped the first century of Australian politics. While workers' rights remain central to Labor's agenda, the ALP has adjusted more nimbly to the challenge posed by parties like the Greens. Indeed, in the ACT, the ALP and Greens have governed in a stable power-sharing coalition for nearly a decade.
While the Greens are usually depicted as being to the left of Labor, the fact is the Greens have pressured the ALP to support policies that are popular and mainstream. It's common to evaluate the tension between renewable energy/coal, corporate tax cuts/increased public spending, bank taxes/deregulation, and a federal ICAC/trust the politicians through the prism of left versus right. But it is more meaningful analysis is to view these issues through the prism of popular versus unpopular.
While Australian political debate is so broken it can make renewable energy, corporate accountability or establishing a national anti-corruption body "left-wing issues", in voters' minds these are simply good ideas. But while the right-wing micro-parties successfully goads the Coalition into proving its "right-wing credentials", Labor simply embraces a range of popular ideas while ridiculing the Coalition for opposing a royal commission into the big banks and supporting big corporate tax cuts.
History teaches that, in politics, things never stay the same. But, for the immediate future, it's pretty clear that the political right is caught in a trap of its own making. To claim ownership of the position of "real conservatives", the Coalition is spending an enormous amount of political effort chasing a tiny number of votes.
Meanwhile, Labor and the Greens just keep backing policies that most of the public support. It's not rocket science; maybe the Coalition will figure this out. Or maybe the electorate will need to explain it, just how it explained the need for marriage equality. Watch this space.
Richard Denniss is The Australia Institute's chief economist. Twitter: @RDNS_TAI