Apart from the short breaks when Andrew Peacock and Alexander Downer led the federal Liberals in opposition, the NSW division has supplied all the party’s federal parliamentary leaders since Malcolm Fraser lost government in 1983. Of John Howard, John Hewson, Brendan Nelson, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, only Hewson and Nelson didn’t serve as prime minister, while Howard holds second place as the longest-serving prime minister after Victorian-born Robert Menzies.
With no ready-made NSW Liberal to replace or succeed Morrison, perhaps the federal leadership will return to the Victorians when the next vacancy occurs. Josh Frydenberg is the obvious candidate and at the moment he isn’t putting a foot wrong. The prime minister, meanwhile, is having difficulty putting one right.
Do the Victorian Liberals deserve the leadership? After all, their recent record in state politics is woeful. This month’s failed and pointless leadership challenge highlighted the diminished state of the party room after the electoral drubbing of 2018. No one within the Victorian organisation appears to be in charge. The factions — which don’t officially exist — fight so hard over preselections and positions in the organisation that Labor is having an untroubled run through the Covid-19 crisis, implanting an agenda that would have scared yesterday’s Liberals into unity. Meanwhile, the deep wounds associated with personalities who ought to have had their day — namely two-time divisional president Michael Kroger and former premier Jeff Kennett — continue to linger.
Federally, the story is happier. The Victorian and NSW Liberals contributed similar percentages of seats in their respective states to the 2019 federal election result.
But does any of this really matter?
At every stage of its history, the Liberal Party has struggled with the internal problems that emerged in the mid to late 1940s. Instead of parroting myths about its origins and genuflecting before the Menzies shrine, it might profit from deploying a few officials to read the party’s records to find out what actually happened then. They might be surprised to learn three things about the Liberals’ more remote past.
First, Menzies was not the founder of the modern Liberal Party; no one qualifies for the definite article. True, the party might not have been formed as it did if he had returned to legal practice. But he played no role in forming the South Australian division, which was already in existence as the Liberal and Country League. The Queenslanders made it clear that he was unwelcome in their state. Bill Spooner did more than Menzies in setting up the NSW division in 1945, and Menzies was asked to stay away from the 1947 state election. After his failed first prime ministership, many Liberals across the country believed that “you can’t win with Menzies.”
Second, and more importantly, the key party problems the Liberals tried to solve in the postwar years remain unresolved seventy-six years later. The same issues keep cropping up: the relationships between the organisation and the state and federal parliamentary parties, between the federal and state organisations, between the organisations and the branches, between the Liberal Party and business, and between the Liberal Party and the Country/National Country/National Party. Anyone reading the party’s papers on these subjects or the continuing debates over the purpose and methods of preselecting candidates might conclude that there are no permanent solutions for any of them.
Third, it is remarkable how the Liberal Party spends little time reviewing its successes yet a great deal of time on the losses, much of it producing the same or similar explanations for every electoral defeat.
Take for example the loss of the winnable 1987 federal election. The “Joh for Canberra” campaign was a one-off disaster, but what other explanations did the official review offer? Answer, the usual suspects: advertising, finance, the federal secretariat, the organisational structure, the lack of consultation between the federal parliamentary party and the organisation, candidate selection, and relations with the Country/National Country/National Party. That list provides a good starting point to explain the next electoral failure, and much of it could be written before the event.
How then does the party explain success?
Sir Henry Bolte, the long-term Victorian premier (1955–72), loved to boast that Victoria was “the jewel in the Liberal crown,” just as he liked to remark after another of his state victories that the result showed the “sagacity” of the Victorian people. He rarely dwelt on two of the critical factors that underlay his success: the strength of the conservative Democratic Labor Party in Victoria, with its disciplined allocation of preferences; and the left’s control of the Victorian Labor Party, committing it to maintain ideological purity seemingly at the expense of electoral success.
Liberals who know their own history would be aware that the Bolte and Menzies years of supremacy were those of good luck as well as of good management. The cold war, the Labor split and the long postwar economic boom delivered the right circumstances for a prolonged non-Labor hegemony. This reality check makes it easier to explain why Labor held office in New South Wales without much difficulty for all the postwar years until 1965.
Liberal Party officials in the 1950s to the 1970s were not misled by the hyperbole of the politicians. They also knew that factional and personal wars of one kind or another had been endemic since the party was formed in 1945.
The destructive personality clashes are riveting. Unfortunately, one of them is not down on paper. It concerns two strong men in the 1950s organisation who knew how to bring Menzies to order. Both bore the same surname, Anderson. William (“Bill” to his friends) Anderson was the party’s Victorian president and later federal president. John (better known as “Bill”) Anderson was the Victorian state president.
Anderson the federal president, a Shell company director, could walk into Menzies’s office any time he chose and would periodically tell the “Great White Chief” what he should be doing or what he was not doing well. The other Anderson, a former second world war commando, told Menzies at the time of the 1954 election that if he (Menzies) refused to go to the Ford motor works in Geelong to campaign for the local member, Hubert Opperman, then he (Anderson) would pull the entire state organisation out of the election. A disgruntled Menzies, expecting to be harangued and abused in Geelong and wanting a quiet Saturday in the Windsor Hotel, finally agreed. Cheered after one of his best electoral performances, he turned to Anderson and mischievously remarked, “It was a good idea of mine to come here.”
The Andersons had just one problem: they could provide the kind of leadership notably missing from the present Victorian organisation, but they spoke of each other in terms the less-than-friendly Kroger and Kennett would have recognised.
One party official in the 1970s spoke more than a half truth when he said that three types of people joined the Liberal Party: the mad, the ambitious and the lonely. In later years, more of the lonely obtained comfort by staying home to watch television. The ambitious could prove difficult if insufficient positions or parliamentary seats existed to accommodate them. The mad — that is, the ideologically charged rather than the clinically disturbed — constituted the main problem: they had to be calmed down, outvoted, diverted or eased out.
Over the past seventy-six years a number of the mad and the ambitious, along with some newcomers and some decent and concerned Liberals — possibly with a business or legal background — would come together every three or five years to reform the Liberal Party and solve its unsolvable problems. A committee would be formed, a review conducted, a report prepared, and a recommendation taken to state council. Leaving aside the probability that the proposal involved an exercise in common sense — and was therefore likely to be rejected by state council or fail because of a rule requiring more than a simple majority — the striking thing about these processes was that they so often began with the assumption that a new idea was being contemplated. Even a quick appraisal of internal arguments in the 1940s and 1950s will show that almost every subsequent idea for reform was first raised back then.
So, the party that does not know its own history resolutely repeats it.
Reading the Liberal Party’s files might depress unwary party officials. Yet it should not. Federally, the Liberal Party has been in government for fifty years since its formation. All the failures of reform, all the dire predictions, didn’t get in the way of election victories. To the annoyance of those driven by what Neville Wran called “the vision thing,” the Liberal Party in practice rarely thinks beyond the next election. It does, however, expect and require the leader to win it.
If the past has anything to offer it is that while the relentless search for solutions to recurring problems will continue to be unsuccessful, it need not prevent the federal parliamentary leader from doing his (no “her” is presently in sight) job of winning the next election. •
The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.