Inside Story

What is the Liberal Party for?

History could help the Liberals out of their malaise

Norman Abjorensen 7 December 2018 3545 words

After an unprecedented run of electoral success, the Liberal Party was no closer to “discovering the nature of its soul” by 1966, the year prime minister Robert Menzies announced his retirement, said historian Ian Hancock. Menzies is shown at Parliament House in Canberra on 20 January 1966, the day he retired. N. Herfort/Sydney Morning Herald

To say that the Liberal Party is in a state of shock is an understatement. With the loss of the very safe seat of Wentworth in a by-election and a comprehensive drubbing in Victoria, the party faces a possible loss in the NSW state election in March and almost certain defeat in the federal election expected in May.

Attempts by the federal leadership to dismiss suggestions that the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull in August affected the result in Victoria are laughable. The fact is that Liberal and Labor are brand names in the political marketplace, and while voters are astute enough to draw distinctions between state and federal issues, they are well aware that no such distinctions apply to the parties — the same organisation, the same people and, by implication, the same problems.

The crisis engulfing the Liberal Party is not just an electoral crisis; it is an existential crisis. At the end of next year, the Liberal Party — far and away the most electorally successful party in Australia’s history — will mark its seventy-fifth anniversary, but just what the party will look like then, just a year from now, is unclear. Part of its crisis right now is its identity. What is it? What does it stand for? What is its constituency? What does it mean to be right-of-centre and how far should that be from the perceived centre?

Such identity crises have recurred many times in the past, but this time things are different. The party finds itself beset by internal insurrection and, for the first time, under siege from the right by populist agitators and, especially in Queensland, One Nation.

The non-Labor parties in Australia — and it must be remembered that they came into being primarily to oppose the growing Labor Party at the end of the nineteenth century — have had a chequered history, forming, dissolving, reforming and absorbing dissident elements from Labor. The first Liberal Party, under Alfred Deakin, was created with the merger — the so-called Fusion — in 1909 of bitter foes, the Free Traders and the Protectionists, to better oppose the well-organised Labor Party.

After Labor’s split over conscription during the first world war, prime minister Billy Hughes led his “National Labor” group out of the party, later merging with the Liberals to form the Nationalist Party. After another Labor split — this time over how to deal with the Great Depression — dissidents joined the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party. The UAP was derided by its critics as being anything but united, more concerned with protecting British interests than Australian interests, and not a real party at all but rather a front organisation financed and directed by business interests. All these points had a modicum of truth to them.

The UAP foundered during the war, forcing Robert Menzies out of his first incarnation as prime minister in 1941, and all but disappeared at the 1943 election when Labor under John Curtin swept to power in a landslide. From the resulting ruins, Menzies and others picked up the pieces and built what became the Liberal Party.

Failing to win at its first federal election in 1946, the new party gained office under Menzies in 1949. It would remain in power for a generation, until it was dislodged by Gough Whitlam in 1972. It was, of course, assisted mightily by the disastrous split in the Labor Party in the mid 1950s over the issue of communism; this time, the breakaway Labor rebels didn’t join the main non-Labor party, but instead formed the conservative Democratic Labor Party, whose preferences were instrumental in keeping the Liberals in office federally and in Victoria.

The Liberal Party didn’t have to spend too much time on philosophical reflection during its postwar ascendancy. The exigencies of the cold war and Liberal attacks on Labor’s supposed “socialism” lent a black-and-white character to most issues. Under Menzies, the pitch to the “forgotten people,” his iconic construct of aspirational, hardworking middle-class families, maintained a steady rhetorical focus, occasionally enlivened by the injection of fears about communism, aggressive regional nationalists like Sukarno in Indonesia, and the “yellow peril” lurking ominously to Australia’s north.

But it was not all plain sailing. In 1961, the government’s badly timed “credit squeeze” saw the party going down to the wire in the election, just one seat standing in the way of Labor’s Arthur Calwell getting the keys to the Lodge. The party hierarchy — firmly of the belief that it was the permanent government, Labor was unelectable and Menzies invincible — was badly shaken.

From a majority of thirty-two, the Coalition was down to a margin of just two in the House of Representatives. In 1962, the party’s policy research group grimly surveyed the carnage. It was acknowledged that the narrative that had sustained the party since 1949 had run its course, and the group’s report talked of the need to restore the “vitality, imagination and emotional appeal” that had characterised the 1949 campaign. The message to MPs and branch officials was the same: the Liberal Party had to find a distinctive, fulfilling, relevant and continuing purpose. In other words, it had to reinvent itself.

The chief problem, according to the research group, was that the party no longer had a clear and recognisable identity; it had become blurred. Worse still, Labor had captured what would now be called the centre ground, described in the report as the terrain marked “warm, human and positive.” In an effort to restore what it called a sharper identity, the research group borrowed from the British Conservative Party (by then having been in office eleven years), advocating an emphasis on two key themes, which it termed “national” and “rights of individuals.” The former was to be used to talk about security and development; the latter was to apply to traditional Liberal concepts such as equality of opportunity, reward for effort, home ownership, free enterprise, and the recognition of the family as “the fundamental unit of society.”

One issue highlighted by the group — which it attempted to address with greater use of the term “national” — was that many members of the party did not identify as Liberals so much as “non-Labor” or “anti-Labor.” To make matters more confusing, the party even went by different names in some states — the Liberal and Country League in South Australia, for example, and the Liberal and Country Party in Victoria. (The latter was a legacy of a bitter feud between the parties when the Country Party rejected a marriage proposal in the late 1940s and the Liberal Party sought unsuccessfully to eliminate its rival electorally, provocatively changing its own name.)

But little changed. Economic recovery in 1963 prompted Menzies to call an early election, which he won comfortably, picking up seven seats, and the party thought no more about its image. Liberal Party historian Ian Hancock has written that the party organisation, both at federal and state levels, “was no closer by 1966 to discovering the nature of its soul.” It certainly wasn’t a united party. Elements of the party opposed to the government’s introduction of conscription for military service and involvement in the Vietnam war formed the Liberal Reform Group, which later became the breakaway Australia Party whose preferences helped Labor win in 1972.

Out of office for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, the Liberal Party devoted little thought to the problem of image — or what might be called, in contemporary political jargon, the “optics.” The born-to-rule syndrome was very much alive, and the 1972 result (and 1974’s as well) was seen as an aberration rather than an indicator of any fundamental flaw in the party.

But some in the party had taken note of a shifting demographic — a younger, better-educated electorate who had listened to and voted for Gough Whitlam. To win them back, new issues, such as the environment, had to be dealt with. Yet the party modernisers, especially in Victoria, were quickly dubbed “trendies” by the old guard conservatives, and had little impact federally. Led by the uninspiring Billy Snedden (which said much about the shallow talent pool), the federal party did little more than squabble.

At the state level, and especially in South Australia, opposition to change was strong. There, the Liberal Movement, a reform group led by former premier Steele Hall, broke away, with Hall later winning election to the Senate. Although most of the rebels, Hall included, later returned to the Liberal fold, some joined the Australian Democrats, the breakaway party founded by Don Chipp. This former Liberal minister argued that the party had moved too far to the right and had abandoned the centre ground, which he intended to claim.

By the time the Liberals were back in government, after the dismissal of 1975, new currents were starting to flow, challenging the relevance of the Keynesian consensus that had prevailed since the war. The rising New Right sought to bring a harder ideological edge to the erstwhile pragmatism of the Liberal Party, and while prime minister Malcolm Fraser managed to contain the would-be insurgents, they would emerge in force after Fraser lost in 1983, as factions headed by John Howard and Andrew Peacock jostled for supremacy.

The thirteen-year exile ended for the Liberals in 1996, and the New Right was in the ascendant. “The times will suit us,” remarked newly elected prime minister John Howard. The party had moved sharply to the right, but there were also stirrings on the far right that Howard read better and quicker than most. The rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation troubled him: those who had rallied to Hanson’s call should have been his people. While most political leaders raced to condemn Hanson over her inflammatory maiden speech, Howard stayed silent, watching, waiting, listening. Something was happening out there. He had to head this off, and in a very real sense the Tampa stand-off, which would dominate the 2001 election and divide Australia, sprang from this.

In 1998, Howard battled to hold on to office, losing fourteen seats to Labor and trailing in the popular vote. The 2001 election was looking increasingly ominous for the Coalition, especially as the Coalition parties had been all but wiped out by Labor in a Queensland state election in February of that year, with obvious implications federally for Howard.

The Coalition had lost six Queensland seats in 1998, and its remaining seats in that state were looking decidedly shaky. The federal president of the party, Shane Stone, a former chief minister of the Northern Territory, called Queensland Liberal members to a meeting to ascertain their views on the collapse of the conservative vote. He took notes, summarised the concerns in a memo and gave it to Howard, the memo subsequently finding its way into the media.

As Stone reported it, Liberal MPs believed the government was dysfunctional and out of touch. It was seen by the community as mean and had been “too tricky” on a string of issues, which he named. The MPs complained that Howard and treasurer Peter Costello were “not listening” and had antagonised traditional Liberal voters. The Coalition leadership had to be “dragged screaming” to fix its mistakes.

But little changed, and Howard went on to win the election later that year, and to win again in 2004 before losing to Kevin Rudd in 2007. In Queensland, the party’s dismal performance, coupled with its subservience to the National Party, saw moves initiated to bring about the long-mooted merger of the two conservative parties, and in 2008 the Liberal National Party of Queensland was formed.

Historically, the Nationals (formerly the Country Party) had resisted merger invitations, making them the one major conservative organisation to stay outside the Liberal fold. (The exception was in the Northern Territory, where the two parties had operated as one since 1974.) The thinking was that if the Country Party lost its distinctive identity, a rural rump party would quickly arise to take its place. In Queensland, with its unique demography with the majority of the population living outside the capital, the Nationals were dominant and, prior to the merger, the two parties had found themselves in frequent competition with one another for seats.

The Queensland experiment, which was supposed to deliver government to the merged party, has resulted in a single term — the disastrous Campbell Newman government, elected in 2012 with a record majority only to lose spectacularly in 2015. The LNP represents the biggest shake-up yet in conservative politics since the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944, but is unlikely to be emulated elsewhere (and nor is it guaranteed to survive in Queensland).

The federal arrangement, by which Queensland LNP members join either the Liberal or National party room in Canberra, has created more problems than it has resolved. And in giving Queensland a disproportionately amplified voice in Canberra, the Queensland tail can be seen to wag (and has wagged) the Canberra dog. A case in point was the Longman by-election, which was used to attack Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership and set in train the events that saw him toppled just weeks later. The Peter Dutton–driven campaign overlooked the fact that Turnbull was by no means unpopular outside Queensland, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. This fed into the twin Liberal disasters of Wentworth and Victoria, where Turnbull’s removal made little if any sense, and where regard for Dutton was not exactly high.

In a curious way, this sequence of events reprised the Queensland thinking behind the bizarre “Joh for PM” campaign in 1987, when a right-wing populist premier in Joh Bjelke-Petersen mistook his standing in his home state for national standing. South of the Tweed River, his campaign was simply laughed at, and that was what killed it — but not before he had inflicted severe damage on any chance the Coalition had of victory.

In the 1990s, with the simple dichotomies of the cold war over, new battlelines had to be drawn. The culture wars that erupted during that decade became the new theatre of hostilities. Many of those on the right felt that while they had won the economic battle, the left was winning on the cultural front. The Liberal Party, like the Republicans in the United States, would engage in the culture wars as a way of forging a new identity and a new sense of purpose, hoping to attract disaffected blue-collar voters uncomfortable with the values of a new, affluent, left-leaning middle class. The appearance in 1996 of the so-called “Howard’s battlers” looked for a time to be validating this approach.

This process was traced and analysed by the American writer Sidney Blumenthal, in his The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: The Conservative Ascent to Political Power. He argued that the rise in right-wing activism on the cultural front and in the marketplace of ideas was a radical departure from traditional conservatism, and was driven more by ideological considerations than any devotion to tradition. It was essentially an adversarial movement that needed for its very existence a vision of a pervasive left-liberal establishment, no matter which party was in government.

Blumenthal called this “shadow liberalism,” arguing that while conservatives might hold power they remain ideologically obsessed with the idea of a left-liberal establishment, with its roots in the media, academia and other areas of civil society. “Though they have a sense of mission, they also have difficulty rising above the adversarial stance,” he wrote. “For conservatives, liberals must always be in power; without the enemy to serve as nemesis and model, conservative politics would lack its organising principle.”

Blumenthal’s analysis is applicable to the Liberal Party in Australia, and indeed much of the modern Liberal Party’s toolbox is imported from the United States, most notably in the frequent references to “the base,” a term much used in the Tea Party insurgency that took over the Republican Party. It remains debatable whether the concept even has validity in a broad-based political party operating in a system of compulsory voting. In the United States, it was used to get activists to vote in primaries and turn out to vote in elections.

Perhaps in the Australian context, it is best to read the term as code for right-wing insurgents within the Liberal Party. Certainly, this appeared to be how it was used by conservative NSW Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, in her letter of resignation from the ministry, which helped fuel the challenge to Malcolm Turnbull, when she expressed “concerns that the party was moving too far to the left and that we were losing our conservative base.” Implied in this was a condemnation of Turnbull for not engaging on the cultural front, a criticism also levelled at the defeated Liberal leader in Victoria, Matthew Guy, by conservative commentator Andrew Bolt.

In the wake of the electoral rout in Victoria, several prominent Liberals have expressed their concerns about the state of the party, among them the Senate president, Scott Ryan, a former vice-president of the party in Victoria, who has spoken forcefully against what he sees as an increasingly narrow ideological turn by sections of the party and outside commentators seeking to redefine what it means to be a Liberal. Liberal voters “don’t want views rammed down their throats,” he said, drawing attention to big swings against the Liberals in seats “that are the cradle of the Liberal Party,” in federal seats like Goldstein, Higgins, Menzies and Kooyong. These voters were the “real base of the Liberal Party. They sent us a message… They don’t want litmus tests for what it means to be a real Liberal.”

Many Liberal voters are fairly conservative in their own lives, raising children, working hard, running small businesses, supporting strong local communities, he went on, “but they’re pretty liberal in their political outlook. They don’t want views rammed down their throat, and they don’t want to ram their views down other people’s throat. And that has historically been the Liberal way. We’re often conservative in our disposition — I am — but I’m very liberal in my political outlook.”

Part of the problem, he said, was “tone.” While Victoria’s was a state election, some of the noise that came out of Canberra “did strongly influence the scale of the loss, where it happened.” On the Wentworth by-election, Ryan said some people had “tried to dismiss those voters as not part of real Australia… labelling people, dismissing them — that’s not the Liberal way…” He wanted to “cast the net wide in the Menzies and Howard tradition [so] as to give people a reason to be Liberals, not come up with litmus tests and say if you don’t hold this view on a social issue, or if you don’t hold this particular view on climate change or renewable energy, then somehow you’re not a real Liberal.”

Those attitudes were not the path to electoral success, he concluded. “And I’m sick of being lectured to by people who aren’t members of the party, by people who have never stood on polling booths, about what it means to be a real Liberal.”

A prominent Liberal frontbencher, John Pesutto, whose previously safe seat of Hawthorn recorded a savage anti-Liberal swing, said the party needed to make its language, policies and culture “more inclusive” so that socially progressive but economically conservative people would feel welcome after the “rebuild.”

Whether a rebuild is voluntarily undertaken or forced on the Liberal Party remains to be seen. A possible loss in New South Wales and a likely defeat federally in 2019 will no doubt initiate some soul-searching, which will necessarily involve some deep thinking about what a broad-based centre-right party actually stands for and whom it seeks to represent. The thousands of voters who deserted the party in Victoria — once celebrated by Robert Menzies as “the jewel in the Liberal crown” — will not be won back easily.

Quite clearly, the party organisation has been found wanting, and the veteran powerbroker, and recent state president, Michael Kroger has already fallen on his sword. The question of leadership also arises — in Victoria as well as federally — and raises the paucity of parliamentary talent, itself partly a result of low membership.

Scott Morrison has made a poor start to his prime ministership and is on track to become the shortest-serving substantive prime minister since the forty days of Arthur Fadden in 1941. His glib and cynically opportunistic approach to policy — such as proposing to move the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to bolster the Jewish vote in Wentworth — suggests a shallowness that invites comparison with the hapless Billy Snedden. His inability (or refusal) to explain why Turnbull was dumped does nothing to raise his stocks in an electorate heartily tired of the party’s incessant wrangling. His departure from the chamber as the Wentworth independent, Kerryn Phelps, rose to make her maiden speech bespoke a man without regard for protocol and utterly devoid of grace.

Morrison might well survive as party leader in opposition simply because of the lack of an immediate alternative. Assuming Peter Dutton retains his marginal seat in Brisbane, and that is by no means assured, the Queenslander should under no circumstances be rewarded with the leadership after the damage he has inflicted.

The Liberal Party has many challenges ahead of it. Defining what it is actually about is undoubtedly the most pressing. •