The Liberal Party is riven by internal bickering, with various camps claiming to speak for its “true” values and traditions. The contest is leading not to any prospect of unity or discipline, but to the party’s fragmentation. The war is fought in the guise of a contest over leadership appropriate to the party’s soul and to the national interest.
In the process, the party is incrementally diverging from popular opinion on issues essential to future electoral success. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is currently in the crosshairs. But whether or not he survives to fight another election, whoever leads the party next time is unlikely to be the saviour of the party or Coalition government.
The predicament is best understood by analysing what is at the heart of this struggle: the pragmatic liberalism that was the Liberal Party’s foundation; the divergence of the party base from majority opinion; and the contemporary obsession with “the leader” as solely responsible for the party’s fortunes.
All exponents of Liberal Party values lay claim to the “Menzies” tradition. The most vehement contemporary claimants are on the party’s right wing. Their plaint is that the commitment to individualism, private enterprise, small government, lower taxes and free trade has been forgotten. Cory Bernardi split with the Liberals to establish his own party, Australian Conservatives, “to reconnect with voters and restore traditional Menzies-era values”.
Others of like mind remain in the fold — and threaten Turnbull’s leadership. The most prominent is his predecessor, Tony Abbott. Abbott continues to advocate more extreme budget austerity, climate change scepticism, immigration restriction, market fundamentalism and regressive taxation reform than even Turnbull (who has compromised on everything he once promised in an attempt to mollify the right) has yet conceded.
Such claims depart from Menzies’ principles in two core texts. The first is his famous “Forgotten People” broadcast in 1943. The second is his essay on “The revival of Liberalism in Australia” in Afternoon Light.
Menzies championed thrift, self-reliance, private enterprise, individual responsibility and freedom, and the family as the bastion of our best instincts. He warned of the danger of an “all powerful” state. But he pitched his appeal to the middle class, excluding the rich and powerful (who did not need his help) and the “unskilled people” (protected by unions and with wages safeguarded by common law). Thus he mobilised an election-winning constituency between what he saw as the extremes of exploitative financial power and the incipient socialism of the organised working class.
Yet Menzies insisted:
There is no room in Australia for a party of reaction. There is no useful place for a policy of negation.
He never claimed that his was a conservative party. On the contrary:
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, and rejecting the Socialist panacea.
Still, the state had its part to play. Menzies supported protection, not free trade. He “did not … [believe] that private enterprise should have an ‘open go’. Not at all.”
He identified the state’s obligation to address unemployment, and secure economic security and material well-being through social legislation. He advocated fierce independence, but the difficulties of those who fell through the cracks were to be ameliorated:
… we have nothing but the warmest human compassion … towards those compelled to live upon the bounty of the state.
This philosophy served Menzies well. Not until the late 1980s did the party change, when it “torched its traditions” as it sacrificed ameliorative liberalism in the interests of economic reform. Only then did the split between “wets” and “drys” lead to liberal moderates being increasingly marginalised. And only then party did hardliners begin to assert their claims as “conservatives”, a term that had never been indigenous to Australian anti-Labor politics, but was appropriated from the US culture wars of the time to serve the same purpose.
The bipartisan commitment to neo-liberal reform did what was intended. It increased prosperity, but at the cost of increasing employment uncertainty and astonishing inequity in the distribution of rewards. Inflation was defeated, but some communities were devastated as industry disappeared.
By the early 2000s, surveys revealed that the “new consensus” had not won popular acceptance. By 2016, there was pervasive distrust in the institutions of the new order and an unprecedented loss of confidence in the leaders who had brought this about.
It is a collapse that has impacted both major parties. Pointedly, for the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, after election, reverted to policies that mirrored the party’s base — now increasingly divergent from majority opinion on social issues, especially climate change.
Unable to garner public support, Abbott was supplanted by Turnbull, whose initial popularity depended on a progressive liberalism akin to a contemporary adaptation of Menzies’ stipulations.
But the “broad church” was gone. Progressive liberals have given up; the hard right has claimed Menzies’ mantle and threatens retribution if Turnbull “offends” against the much diminished and now atypical membership base. He is besieged on both sides: an uprising if he confronts those who claim to speak for the party; and a loss of popularity (and electorate support) as he compromises on the more progressive liberalism he promised the public.
It is not, finally, an argument about who is more and less Liberal, but a manifestation of the unravelling of the party. Who could break the impasse that looks likely to defeat Turnbull? Schisms between liberals and self-proclaimed conservatives will continue within, potentially with more splintering of populist, libertarian and hard-right fringe parties.
Any new leader would need to be a master tactician and negotiator without peer to achieve consensus across this morass. No-one currently in the ranks demonstrates such skills. And a return to Abbott or any of his ilk guarantees electoral oblivion. We may be witnessing the end of a once great party.
Authors: James Walter, Professor of Political Science, Monash University