As the Howard government acquired unprecedented peacetime powers and the Australia we knew began to slip slowly out of sight, a remarkable warning was sounded from within the government’s own ranks. Responding to another round of security legislation, a member of the Senate observed that there was “no doubt” that the proposed laws “are a very serious incursion into the way in which we currently expect to be able to live our lives in Australia.”
The year was 2005 and the speaker was Marise Payne, a Liberal senator from New South Wales who was also the chair of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee, which had the job of examining a series of security bills sent up from the lower house. Payne’s remark was a little-acknowledged red light for the government.
In concert with two fellow Coalition committee members, the libertarian Brett Mason and the sometime moderate Nigel Scullion, a unanimous view was taken back to the party room, and most of the committee’s recommendations were adopted (apart from “the odd ambit claim,” according to Payne). A determined Liberal prime minister and his attorney-general were forced to retreat by a committee dominated by government senators and led by a member from the prime minister’s home state.
Three years later Marise Payne rejects the idea that a spirit of compromise was at work within the government – compromise being too strong a word, and spirit an exaggeration. It was more about pragmatism. This was, she told me recently, a good indication of how those internal tensions were managed in the Howard government. But she does recall “a very conservative member” of the government coming up to her and saying, to her great surprise, that the party “had done the right thing” in the end, and had struck a balanced position. “Right, I said to myself, I will take that.”
John Howard and Marise Payne have both spent much of their lives within and working for the Liberal Party in New South Wales, but they are very different political creatures. To explain why involves a detour through the history of the fractious state branch.
New South Wales likes to think of itself as Australia, but it isn’t. Back in 1887, the redoubtable Henry Parkes even proposed that the colony change its name to Australia – a move not unexpectedly opposed (and ridiculed) by the other colonies.
But the sentiment persists. The former prime minister John Howard was a typical Sydneysider (an early Victorian term for those who lived on the Sydney side of the Murray). He professed not to recognise state identities or loyalties; we are, after all, simply Australians.
The arrogance underlying such attitudes is deeply ingrained, and is not without significance for that ongoing conundrum of our national identity. But it is more salient, perhaps, to express the problem another way: Australia is not New South Wales. Indeed, a compelling case can be made – in terms of both history and the political culture shaped by that history – for New South Wales to be regarded as the exception.
The economic and political development of New South Wales followed a different trajectory from the other colonies, leading to its early embrace of free trade doctrine. The protracted debate at the Federation conventions over the site for a national capital largely revolved on an argument between Sydney and everyone else. The rather absurd compromise enshrined in Section 125 of the Constitution – mandating a national capital not less than one hundred miles from Sydney – was in fact driven by a suspicion that the Sydney free trade virus might spread too easily with proximity.
Non-Labor politics in New South Wales has a flavour all its own. (It can even be argued that Labor in that state is different too; it is certainly more tribal.) But trying to nail down the qualities of difference is extremely difficult; the perception is one thing, the proof another.
John Howard’s early biographer, David Barnett, touches tantalisingly on this point, unfortunately without elaborating, when he suggests that had Howard been born in Melbourne – at Glen Iris, say, rather than Earlwood in Sydney – “he might not have joined the more narrowly based Victorian Liberal Party.” But, he writes, “the New South Wales Liberals were different. One did not have to ‘belong’ to join. New South Wales is different. It is the only state whose people invariably describe themselves as ‘Australians’ rather than by their state origins.”
But how exactly do the two cultures differ? There have been some interesting exploratory studies in this area, but it still awaits a thorough examination. John Docker’s ground-breaking 1974 study of intellectual traditions, Australian Cultural Elites, highlighted some significant differences in social thought and how this thought is reflected, especially in literary traditions. Docker suggested that Sydney culture reflected a general European romanticism and a philosophical tradition rooted in free thought and libertarian ideology, whereas Melbourne was characterised more by a Romantic and post-Romantic tradition that was less individualistic.
A 1980 conference on the question resulted in The Sydney–Melbourne Book, published in 1986. Among the many contributors was James Jupp, who examined political culture. Melbourne, he observed, was very much an English city, not because it was anything like England in reality “but because it preserved a social hierarchy which held political power as well as enjoying wealth and prestige.” In Sydney the congruence between wealth, power and prestige was “less perfect, partly because of the long dominance of Labor in local politics.”
This state of affairs has deep-rooted political implications, not least of which is the extensive network of patronage that Labor has always had at its command in New South Wales, at both state and local government level. Jupp observes that political conservatives in Sydney acquired the “ratbag characteristics of an ‘outgroup’” and spawned such responses as the rise of the New Guard, which mobilised in the early 1930s to challenge the perceived radicalism of Jack Lang, and later the free marketeers and libertarians. “Melbourne conservatism remained quietly confident, because unthreatened. It was more genuinely liberal and less reactionary, a tradition still influential on internal Liberal Party politics today.”
Nowhere was the rise of the Labor Party met with such shrillness as in Sydney. In 1890 the voice of the establishment, the Sydney Morning Herald, opined: “Our greatest peril comes from the intrusion of the labour struggle into the field of politics… One characteristic of social strife of this kind is its extreme bitterness and violence. Nothing is more certain than that if it is begun the most extreme and violent men will control the situation.”
Certainly the differences in political culture and ideology that persisted through Reid’s Free Trade Party and into the non-Labor mainstream after the fusion of 1909 were always there to some extent, but it was not until the protracted efforts to resurrect non-Labor fortunes in what became the Liberal Party that they surfaced as real obstacles to political union. At the forefront in negotiations in the 1940s were the Sydney and Melbourne chapters of the Institute of Public Affairs, but as Ian Hancock has pointed out, each stood on very different ideological ground. “Whereas the Victorians had embraced progressive social policies and emphasised the responsibilities of capitalism,” he writes, “the New South Wales IPA aligned itself to the principles of laissez-faire and stressed the dangers of socialism.”
Uppermost in the minds of the Sydney powerbrokers was concern about who would control the funds and the party, a far less trusting attitude than in Melbourne. But at the heart of the wrangle – and it was by far the most serious threat to Liberal unity – was the ideological divide: Melbourne business and political opinion had broadly accepted the idea of the mixed economy in the post-war era, an attitude “not so evident in the New South Wales IPA,” as Hancock puts it.
At the time, Melbourne won. But the Sydney forces never relented, despite their minority status within the Liberal Party nationally. When Sir Eric Harrison resigned as deputy leader in 1956 to become high commissioner in London, Melbourne’s Harold Holt looked a sure thing to succeed him; what in fact happened was a bitterly fought contest to try to retain a New South Wales leadership presence. Bill Spooner, very well-connected in Sydney business circles, ran Holt to the narrowest of margins, a reported forty votes to thirty-eight.
Spooner was very much in the Sydney camp of Harrison and Bill McMahon, openly laissez-faire and claiming that government ownership contradicted the principle of free enterprise. The party nevertheless remained firmly in Victorian hands up to and after the retirement of Robert Menzies in 1966, the succession and death of Holt and the election of John Gorton. The deputy leader, McMahon, was vetoed by the Country Party leader, McEwen, mostly over his relations with an organisation that ran a very public campaign against tariff protection. In a biographical sketch, the lobbyist Peter Sekuless wrote: “In McMahon the free trade interest had such an effective advocate that the arch-protectionist could not risk his becoming prime minister.”
As it was, McMahon was later to triumph when Gorton fell on his sword. He became prime minister in 1971 only to lose to Labor the following year. The McMahon experience, inept as it was, led to concerns about what some Liberals regarded as “his reckless closeness” to Sydney business interests; in fact, his successor, Billy Snedden, a Victorian, was later to remark privately on several occasions that the Liberals would never again entrust the leadership to a Sydneysider. Of course they did, twice to Howard, once to John Hewson, and now to Malcolm Turnbull. The party, of course, has changed, and under Howard – very much a product of NSW exceptionalism – this one-time aberration, for the time being at least, became the Liberal norm.
Howard’s Sydney origins made him a conservative iconoclast. He cast aside the caution with which previous conservatives had treated policies that appeared to favour privilege. Much of the opposition Howard encountered within the Liberal Party early in his career can be explained in terms of his perceived recklessness in seeking to pursue policies that so clearly favoured the employing class over the employed. It was, if you like, an acknowledgement of the dangers inherent in failing to cloak conservative policies in social liberal garb.
Taking this argument a step further, it might also be used to explain the curious and at times lethal dichotomy that exists in NSW Liberal politics: the disparity between the moderate wing, which until recently held sway, and the far-right conservative wing, now very much in the ascendancy. The moderates, who did their ruthless utmost to hold the right at bay, always envisaged the damage, electoral and otherwise, that could be wrought if the far right was allowed to run unchecked; it was an acknowledgement of the rough beast residing within. Just as the conservative’s caution is shaped by a sceptical view of human nature, so the social liberal’s moderation is shaped by conservativism’s potential to polarise a society.
Of all the state political cultures, that of New South Wales is not only the most polarised but also the most polarising. It is no coincidence that the two most divisive prime ministers of recent times were both tribal warriors from New South Wales, Paul Keating and John Howard. Yet one of the paradoxes in NSW Liberal politics is that the enduring strain of conservative ideology has not proved to be entirely dominant; the state has produced as many moderates as it has conservatives. In fact, the only electorally successful non-Labor premiers in the modern era, Bob Askin and Nick Greiner, pushed hard to move the party towards the centre to try to capture the votes of disillusioned Labor supporters in a traditional Labor state.
It is part of the paradox that from within the most conservative-dominated division of the Liberal Party comes one of its most avowedly non-conservative figures. Marise Payne’s eleven-year career in the Senate has been, by and large, a swim upstream. She was a fierce internal critic of the mandatory sentencing of children in the Northern Territory, spoke out about the systematic demonisation of asylum seekers and boat people, and chaired that obstreperous Senate committee. But she is adamant that no one in the party room ever sought to stop her speaking out, least of all Howard. Were they listening, though? She acknowledges that managing a political party as diverse as the Liberals is no easy task; views and opinions are bound to, and do, clash.
In her inaugural speech in 1997, Payne told the Senate that she was “a product of the Liberal Party of New South Wales, which I joined in 1982 – a party with strong and proud traditions.” Most observers, I suggest to her when we meet, would see those traditions in New South Wales as conservative traditions; and, indeed, it was only under the leadership of Howard that many in the Liberal Party for the first time began referring to themselves as conservatives. Does she identify with this tradition?
“The statement meant, in a political sense, that I joined very early in my life. I was still a student. Everything I have done in public life I have done while a member of the Liberal Party. I am a liberal, I am a member of the Liberal Party. I have always called myself a liberal. If I had wanted to be a conservative I would have gone to London and joined the Conservative Party,” she says. Payne draws attention to another passage in her inaugural speech, where she cites the party’s founder, Robert Menzies: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise…”
We are seated in Payne’s Senate office, interrupted by division bells from time to time and the constant hubbub of the TV monitor tuned to the Senate. Yet she is relaxed, listens closely to questions and thinks carefully about what she says. She is warm and laughs a lot – low-key but very serious in a non-threatening way. Her fundamental beliefs, it becomes clear, are all-important and non-negotiable.
Payne’s mentors read like a who’s who of the Liberal left: Andrew Peacock, Nick Greiner, John Fahey, Ted Pickering, Robert Hill. Indeed, her pre-parliamentary career was spent, in part, as an adviser in the offices of many of these men, as well as having been both a state and federal president of the Young Liberals (before they fell to the conservative onslaught). Her previous associations, and her ideological disposition, make her a perennial target of the Liberal right. Her nomination for a casual vacancy in 1997 was opposed by the right, her preselection is constantly challenged, her position on the Liberal ticket is always under attack. Payne had to fight hard to retain her place in the 2007 election, and so embattled was she that John Howard himself and his chief conservative henchman in New South Wales, Senator Bill Heffernan, intervened to keep the existing team intact as a message of unity to the electorate.
Payne is philosophical, observing only that “my position is always precarious.” Is this because she has made powerful factional enemies within the party? “You would have to speak to others about that, those who thought [opposing me] was a good idea. All I can say is that I have always worked diligently to represent my constituents assiduously, pursuing issues on their behalf, and trying to be as helpful as I can – all those things we’re supposed to do.”
Despite her prominence, her position has become even more precarious as the far right has tightened its grip on the party in NSW. If liberalism is to mean anything, I ask her, then how does she feel about sharing a political bed with someone like David Clarke, the right-wing powerbroker who also considers himself a product of the NSW Liberal Party? “We are diverse, there’s no doubt about that. I’ve watched this process develop over many years now, and I have to say it’s one of the great strengths but also great challenges of the Liberal Party.” Later, when our conversation turns to John Howard’s oft-repeated remark that the Liberal Party is a broad church, she quips that this is certainly so, but for a time only half of the congregation was being invited to sing.
I make the observation to her that New South Wales is different – a point that many within the party have made over the years, including the former federal director, Lynton Crosby. She thinks for a moment before agreeing that, yes, there are discernible cultural differences. “For example, I was in Melbourne recently for a Liberal Party dinner for Peter Costello. I actually felt it was different from a Liberal event in Sydney; it had a different feel altogether about it. Of course, I might be completely wrong, but there seemed to be less by-play in the room, less tension. But whether that was because it was a celebratory event, I’m not sure. But it did strike me at the time as a different feeling, a different atmosphere.”
Marise Payne is not your average NSW Liberal; and certainly she is not what those on the party’s right, such as her fellow NSW Liberal, Tony Abbott, would ever dare (or want) to describe as an average Liberal (assuming, of course, that there is any such creature). For a start, on the wall of her waiting room in the Senate is a striking African National Congress poster depicting a stylized image of a woman. It speaks of empowerment; it signifies Third World concerns; it articulates feminism; and it embraces radical politics. But, most uncomfortably for many on Payne’s side of politics, it is about struggle. (No, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds; yes, some people are disadvantaged minorities who have rights that have to be fought for.)
It was not quite a generation ago – and there are still people serving in the current parliament from that time – when a majority of the Liberal Party supported, either overtly or covertly, the white supremacist regime in South Africa. The African National Congress was roundly condemned by Liberals in parliament as a front for communism, and as nothing more than a terrorist organisation.
Marise Payne’s abiding concerns, signalled from day one of her arrival in the Senate, are not issues normally associated with the Liberal Party – and certainly not the Liberal Party of John Howard, his “battlers” notwithstanding. She has carved out a constituency far removed from the popular idea of the genteel Liberal heartland, among the marginalised, the powerless, the gay community, HIV sufferers, migrant communities, disenchanted youth. It is no coincidence that she bases herself at Parramatta, in Sydney’s largely working class west.
It couldn’t be more different a list of concerns from that of Pauline Hanson and One Nation, who were in the ascendant when Payne gave her inaugural speech: “Not only for our migrants but for Indigenous Australians, political life has been momentous over the last two years. I am not a parent, but I am a daughter, a sister, and a granddaughter. My commitment to and love for my family has guided my life. I watched, read and listened with interest to discussions surrounding the release of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report into The Stolen Generation.
“I could not but put myself in the position of those whose stories filled the report. As I was growing up in my safe and stable family, in my home and at my school, children my age in Aboriginal Australia were still being taken from their homes, their parents and their siblings. I can never feel their pain, but I can try to understand the devastation I would feel in their situation, and I can apologise for those misguided acts. As a nation we must answer the challenge of reconciliation now for the memory of those for whom it is already too late and for the sake of future generations.
“A future Australia should be a nation free from discrimination against any individual. Discrimination against people based on their gender, their race, their sexuality, their religion, their HIV status or their education does not belong in our democracy. Before I hear the clamouring cries of right-wing media commentators about political correctness: this is not a statement about women’s rights, gay rights or minority rights; rather, it is about human rights.”
She roundly condemned One Nation and Hansonism – putting an immediate distance between her and Howard – took up the issue of women, and support for Burma’s silenced democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. She also spoke up for those discriminated against, especially HIV sufferers, and spoke of her time as a member of the AIDS council in NSW – again not a common interest among Liberals. This was not an Abbott or a Howard speech, but to Payne it articulated what the Liberal Party is (or should be) all about. Her answer when I ask what this means is one word: liberalism.
Her definition falls back on a classical formulation, but one that was seldom invoked in practice in the Howard era. To Marise Payne, liberalism is “the freedom of the individual to live their lives as they see fit whilst respecting in every case the rights of others; developing their own individual potential to the fullest; enjoying the right to be judged on their own individual merit; and, importantly, being respected simply as an individual.”
Payne is reluctant to criticise either her party or Howard, but she was one of the first Liberals who publicly articulated the obvious in the wake of the 2007 defeat: that something was very wrong with the Liberal Party. It was, she said in a speech to the ultra-conservative Sydney Institute, in need of rejuvenation. It was a sobering and hard-hitting analysis, but not far beneath the carefully chosen words was the key message: that the Liberal Party had all but ceased to be liberal. It had wandered too far from the path enunciated by Menzies; it had strayed from its once lofty ideals into altogether alien territory.
Payne denied that the party’s foundation ideals were no longer relevant, and she defended the philosophical positioning of Menzies. She also took a well directed swipe at the moral crusaders who now dominate the party’s forums in NSW, strongly suggesting that they had little place in a truly liberal party “The basic precondition for membership should be commitment to Liberalism, not any other premise,” she said.
She worries about the shrinking membership of political parties and a pronounced reluctance among Australians to become party members, a situation she sees as limiting the possibilities of political participation. Political parties themselves need to do more to make membership more attractive and meaningful. Addressing the issue of party capture by extremists, Payne urged a reaching out by the party to embrace more of Australia, citing as examples of the new “forgotten people” those from foreign nations, younger people who were becoming politically alienated, and women. The party’s increasing neo-liberal direction before the 2007 election cost it a great deal of support, especially among those who saw it as lacking compassion. “For example,” she said, “older women, who had been giving to the collection plate at their church for decades to support the dispossessed and disadvantaged, did not accept or understand our approach to refugees – in particular the detention of children. A strong argument about our commitment to the humanitarian resettlement program cut no ice with these formidable advocates; the predominant impression was of heartlessness.”
Payne also criticised the party’s growing social conservatism under Howard, and pointed to those who felt excluded from the socially constructed rhetoric of the “family” (which was Howard code for disapproving of homosexuality or other alternative lifestyles). This had created a perception that the life of some family members was perceived by the government as insufficiently “mainstream” to merit the respect and basic human rights that the rest of the community took for granted, just because they were gay. “We can talk about the importance of family all we like, but once we are perceived as telling Australians that we disapprove of the lives of members of their family, I believe we are crossing a line, and we also pay a philosophical price for that,” Payne said.
Elaborating on those themes, she told me it was a prime concern to her that the liberal position was articulated and debated across the full range of policy areas, but especially so on human rights because, if liberals were not there, their concerns would be ignored. This, she says, has been one of her self-appointed tasks in a variety of Senate committee roles she has performed.
There is now a sense of thaw after the Howard era, and Payne has been brought in from the cold, named by new leader Malcolm Turnbull as shadow parliamentary secretary for Indigenous affairs and for international development assistance – perhaps the most significant indication yet of a shift under his leadership. But the Liberal Party in NSW remains a fractious beast, still under right-wing control, with those who have opposed Payne in the past still in powerful positions. Her battle for a voice in the broad church, and a seat in the pew, is not over. •