Does the Liberal Party have a future?
If these were ordinary times, if it was only about one election result, the question would not need to be asked. These are not ordinary times.
To understand why the Liberal Party is in danger of relegation to the impotent margins of Australian politics – or of disappearing altogether – we need to go back to where it started, with Robert Menzies in the final months of World War Two.
|Menzies's creation was always strictly conservative, never a 'broad church'|
In 1943, a landslide to Labor reduced the United Australia Party to a primary vote of 21% and 14 seats out of 74 in the House of Representatives. Menzies assembled the shattered bits of conservative politics into the new Liberal Party and imposed two fundamental characteristics: ideological conservatism and a decentralised party organisation.
In any sense other than the narrowly economic, it was never a liberal party. The “broad church” is, and always, was a myth. The only notable area of disagreement in Liberal circles was in social policy; in economic and foreign policy, debate involved detail, not fundamentals.
Until Howard, social policy dissenters – Fred Chaney, Peter Baume, Petrou Georgiou, Judy Moylan – were tolerated. They seldom won, but gave the party a more human and acceptable face. They were good PR. But Howard, who described himself as the most conservative leader the Liberal Party had ever had, drove them to extinction.
A RIGID IDEOLOGY
Throughout the 77 years of Liberal Party history, those two ideological basics have barely altered. Economic policy is about the primacy of the free market, low taxes, small government, and an almost religious faith that private businesses are the only creators of wealth and prosperity.
And Menzies created a party structure around a weak federal organisation and dominant, largely autonomous, state branches.
In both of these, Menzies sowed the seeds of his party’s eventual demise.
The strict and continuing adherence to neo-liberal economic policy means the Liberals have been unable to adapt to the community’s demands for decent public services – health and hospitals, schools, universities and so on. They bitterly fought against establishing the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Medibank/Medicare, public funding of disadvantaged government schools, research and development, universities. And so on.
When they inevitably lost these arguments, and were no longer able to ignore what the people wanted, they resorted to undermining and under-funding these key elements of a decent society.
The Liberals consistently espoused losing positions on crucial issues. Climate change denial, the fight against a banking royal commission, and the opposition to an integrity commission caused immense damage to the party’s credibility with the electorate – including its own core supporters in prosperous, educated urban communities.
The Liberal Party structure also leaves it unable to deal decisively with dysfunctional state divisions. Federal intervention in the affairs of a state division became possible during the Howard era but – unlike with the Labor Party – has never been an effective way of dealing with state issues. The recent notorious intervention by Scott Morrison in taking over the New South Wales division was not to reform or to revitalise. It was solely to allow him to select his preferred candidates against the wishes of party members and can have done nothing to endear the process to grass-roots Liberals.
CANBERRA, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
For both major parties, state organisations are an essential element of electoral success. When they fail, money dries up, volunteers stay at home, the best candidates disappear, the party’s brand suffers and they lose elections.
Liberal divisions in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia are all, for their own reasons, in trouble.
The party machines in the two biggest states, Victoria and New South Wales, are faction-wracked and dysfunctional. In New South Wales, warfare between the Right and Moderate factions has crippled the operation for years. Morrison’s federal intervention – and the subsequent electoral debacle – further fragmented and weakened the party.
Victoria – again, for years – has been a battleground between the religious Right (Michael Kroger, former state president and denizen of Sky After Dark) and the “moderates” (personified by Jeff Kennett!).
In Queensland, the Liberal Party no longer exists. At the 2001 state election, they were reduced to three seats out of 89 and in 2008 the politically irrelevant rump was folded into the “merged” Liberal National Party. It all but name, it was a National Party takeover.
In South Australia, Steven Marshall’s Liberal government was tipped out of office after only one term. That’s been the pattern in South Australia for decades: near-permanent Labor governments with brief Liberal interregnums. The party machine is accustomed to losing. They’re quite good at it.
At the last state election, the Western Australian Liberals were reduced to two seats. They’re no longer even the official opposition. In the federal election, they lost four seats in a swing against them of 10.4%. “The state branch of the Liberal Party was decimated and is short of staff, resources and morale,” wrote the ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green.
Typically, when a major party’s electoral fortunes reach such a low ebb, a realignment occurs and a new grouping is formed. That happened when the UAP collapsed in the 1940s; it happened again in Canada after the 1993 election when the Progressive Conservatives went from 151 seats to two.
That will be more difficult for the conservative forces in Australia today. The days of one-stop-shop political parties, trying to satisfy disparate and irreconcilable cohorts, are probably over. That applies to the left as well as to the right, but the turning point is happening first to the conservatives. How they – and the electorate – will deal with loose alliances of smaller groupings is questionable. England, said Disraeli, does not love coalitions. Nor, despite the obvious exception, does Australia.
Darwin’s unbending rule applies to politics as well as to biology: those who fail to adapt will die.