Like a bore at a dinner party, the Coalition now spends most of its time goading others to conceal its lack of anything interesting to say. Conservative hostility to renewable energy stems from the fact that environmentalists support it. Conservatives' obsession with cutting taxes is designed to create a "budget emergency" so they can sack some more public sector workers. And their fear of same-sex marriage flows directly from the fact that so many progressive people support it.
But as Malcolm Turnbull is beginning to learn, focussing on topics that energise your enemies makes even less political sense than it makes ideological sense. Let's take them in turn.
There is nothing left wing about a solar panel or a wind turbine. When the new technology of cars displaced the old technology of horses, few politicians, or economists, saw the internal combustion engine as a left-wing issue. While it's true that early cars weren't as reliable as good old-fashioned horses, faith that technology would improve over time was once a defining characteristic of right-wing optimism. Of course, the curmudgeons who shape conservative thinking in Australia today are never forced to explain why they are so pessimistic about new-fangled renewables and batteries, yet so optimistic about carbon capture and nuclear power.
The renewable-energy target was first introduced by that well-known lefty, John Howard. And the RET's current parameters were introduced by the deep-green sleeper agent, Tony Abbott. But despite the fact that the original design and the current shape of renewable-energy policy was legislated by the Coalition, apparently any problems with today's energy market are directly attributable to the environment movement.
The right has been all over the shop on energy policy for decades. While Howard announced the RET back in 1997, he remained implacably opposed, in 2006, to carbon pricing. Of course, as the 2007 election drew closer, Howard became a fan of emissions trading, a position his successor, Brendan Neilson, eventually adopted after some post-election chaos. In Nelson's words: "We are committed to an emissions-trading scheme in principle, also of course the clean energy and international action."
The next Coalition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, supported emissions trading but, of course, Abbott, ever the free thinker, abandoned his 2007 support for an ETS and, in 2011, announced his support for a "simple carbon tax" instead. Abbott soon moved on to his next position of "principle" in raging against all forms of carbon pricing. In describing his "principles" for the design of climate policy, Abbott described himself as "a bit of a weathervane on this".
The Coalition-aligned end of the business community have been just as flexible as Abbott. While the Business Council of Australia likes to lecture the public and Parliament about the need for "certainty" and "stable policy", it is remarkable that it never ran an expensive public campaign against Abbott's plan to repeal the carbon price introduced by the ALP and Greens with the "in-principle" support of the council. Despite claiming to support the use of market-based instruments, despite claiming to accept the science of climate change, and despite claiming to be above party politics, the council soft-pedalled as Abbott took a populist sledgehammer to our energy-policy architecture. And now, like the Coalition, the council is trying to blame environmentalists for the "lack of certainty" in energy policy.
And then there are the conservative conniptions about tax. In opposition, the Coalition and the Business Council alike thundered away about the "budget emergency" and the "unsustainable" levels of government debt in the lead-up to the 2013 election. But now it is in government, the Coalition is determined to deliver the $65 billion worth of tax cuts the council is demanding from it, and the council is determined to gloss over the budgetary cost of its demands. This is, of course, despite the fact that government debt has grown by $170 billion since Joe Hockey's first budget – the one he based on the advice of former council president Tony Shepherd's audit commission.
But it's not just the amount of tax that needs collecting that confuses the right; it's also the best way to collect it. While collecting revenue from greenhouse-gas emissions is clearly out (for now), collecting taxes from the big banks is in (but not at the state level). Way back in 2015, we were warmed up by the Coalition and the Business Council for the extension of the GST to fresh food and health services. This week, Dennis Shanahan opined on The Australian's front page that the time for "policy purity" had passed and that the GST should be removed from electricity. The council was again strategically silent in response to this outbreak of "populism" from the right.
The only way to make sense of conservatives' approach to tax policy in Australia is to view it through the prism of the strategy known in the US as "starving the beast", defined as "a political strategy ... to limit government spending by cutting taxes in order to deprive the federal government of revenue in a deliberate effort to force it to reduce spending". It's easy to spot once you know where to look.
And then there is same-sex marriage. The alleged party of small government, the party that claims to prefer individual decision-making over bureaucratic decision-making, is dying in a political ditch to prevent adults from deciding for themselves whom they can marry. Even though the polls and the Coalition's "libertarian" philosophy suggest that it should champion marriage equality, the determination to deny some progressive groups a win is, for the Turnbull government at least, sufficient reason to incur a much bigger political and philosophical loss. It won't end well.
Of course, it need not be this way. Right-wing governments in other countries have introduced same-sex marriage with no apparent loss of political capital or social cohesion. Business groups in other countries have embraced both the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and the opportunities associated with big new investments in renewable energy and batteries. And the data is quite clear that the highest-income countries in the OECD all collect a larger share of GDP in tax than Australia, and they all spend more on high-quality public services than us as well. The sky doesn't fall when you tax and spend well.
Australia is one of the richest countries in the world but, as Donald Horne so famously said, we are not just a lucky country, we are a lucky country "run by second-rate people who share its luck". It needn't be this way. There is nothing in the economics or philosophy textbooks that can explain why reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, building a well-designed tax system and letting grown-ups decide whom to marry are "left-wing issues". It is only the inability of the Liberals, Nationals and the Business Council to develop an agreed vision that's more specific than "jobs and growth" that drives them to make such political mountains out of such policy molehills. Like a bore at a dinner party, they know it is easier to make a lot of noise attacking others than it is to make an interesting and persuasive argument themselves.
Richard Denniss is The Australia Institute's chief economist. His new podcast series "The Lucky Country" was launched this week. Twitter: @RDNS_TAI
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