Right-leaning politicians in New South Wales and Queensland are tapping into the frustration and economic pain of the Covid lockdowns to promote the prospect of a fresh challenge to the Liberal party at the next election.
John Ruddick, a former prominent member of the Liberal party in NSW, who was close to Tony Abbott, attended the weekend anti-lockdown rally in Sydney and tweeted that he was fined $1,000 as a result.
He has now joined the libertarian Liberal Democrats, and plans to run in the federal seat of Warringah, formerly held by Abbott.
“I got involved with the Liberal party in the 1990s when we had great conservative thinkers like Reagan and Thatcher, and leaders like Jeff Kennett, Nick Greiner and John Howard who believed in small government and promoting business,” he said.
“Now we have too many careerists in the Liberal party. I don’t believe they are true believers in the founding principles of the of the party.”
Ruddick said the Liberal Democrats’ policy was to drop all Covid-related restrictions by Melbourne Cup day.
“This is the same as a very bad flu and it would be crazy to open up in the middle of winter but, by the Melbourne Cup, the flu season will be over and most people will have had an opportunity to get vaccinated.”
Asked whether he was concerned about aligning himself with anti-vaccination campaigners, Ruddick said the Liberal Democrats were “neutral” on vaccination.
“I believe 30% of voters are very unhappy with the restrictions,” he said. “If we can get 10%-15% of the vote we can win Senate seats and have an influence on policy.”
There are signs that others may also defect to the Liberal Democrats.
The former Queensland premier Campbell Newman has resigned from the LNP and is understood to be considering making a return to politics at the federal level.
Ruddick confirmed the party was in discussions with Newman and that Covid restrictions were a uniting factor.
“Whilst I have unwavering admiration for the passion, commitment and dedication of the rank and file members of the [Liberal National] party, I am dismayed that the political wing fail to represent and indeed stand up for our values,” Newman wrote in his resignation letter to the LNP.
“I find that I cannot reconcile the way that they are undertaking their responsibilities with our stated commitment to fiscal responsibility, smaller government, support for small business, the elimination of red tape and the defence of free speech and liberty.”
The “last straw”, he said, was the “destruction of people’s livelihoods and freedoms” under the government’s response to Covid-19 across the country.
The former Liberal MP Ross Cameron has also joined the Liberal Democrats and told the Australian he was recruiting Senate candidates.
“We are actively looking for the biggest, most magnetic candidate in every state – a recognisable figure – with the aim of winning the last Senate quota in each of them,” Cameron was quoted as saying, promising to run “an anti-lockdown message like Nigel Farage’s single-message campaign on Brexit”.
“I was a member of the Liberal party for 40 years, and I can say we will tear strips off the Liberals and Nationals like hammerhead sharks tearing at the carcass of a sperm whale.”
Abbott himself appeared to ponder an anti-lockdown stance in a recent podcast with Nick Cater, director of the conservative thinktank the Menzies Institute.
“One of the many reasons why I’ve never been comfortable with the lockdown mindset is that it’s contrary to human nature to want to be passive as opposed to active in the face of a challenge,” Abbott said.
“There’s something odd about leadership which is almost manically busy telling everyone else that you’ve got to do absolutely nothing; that we save the world by lying on our couch rather than by rolling up our sleeves and doing what needs to be done.”
Meanwhile the conservative riposte to GetUp, Advance Australia, set up by businessmen Maurice Newman, Sam Kennard and David Adler, has called on supporters to sign a petition urging Scott Morrison and the national cabinet to impose a 10% pay cut on politicians and public servants every time they impose a lockdown.
“Millions of people are suffering because of your decisions. Meanwhile politicians and public servants who issue lockdown orders don’t lose a cent,” the petition reads.
“Enough is enough. It is time you felt the consequences of your actions. We demand change.”
The former Liberal Craig Kelly has also jumped on the anti-lockdown push. Having been banned permanently from Facebook for repeatedly breaching the social media company’s misinformation policy, the independent MP for Hughes used Telegram to call for the removal of NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian.
“Gladys, Chant and Health Hazzard – the people are coming for you,” Kelly wrote.
“Liberal Party – WAKE UP and remove these incompetent fools that are ignoring the science and the evidence before they destroy the Liberal party and NSW.”
Both the prime minister and the National party leader, Barnaby Joyce, defended the right of the maverick LNP MP George Christensen to attend a lawful anti-lockdown rally in Mackay at the weekend.
There is significant discontent within the the Liberal party over the economic impacts of the restrictions, particularly on small business, which minor parties are seeking to foment and exploit.
A number of the dissidents, including Ruddick, Kelly and Cameron, have appeared occasionally or regularly on Sky News, which gives them a broader platform for their views.