What will replace the Liberal Party?
As the country moves left, the Liberal Party moves further right. If they’re no longer a viable party of government, what comes next?
The parties of the right have fallen apart many times since federation but each time have quickly reconstituted themselves with a deft political fix. This time, though, it’s different. Never before have they faced such fundamental threats as they do now. Never before have they been so profoundly and irretrievably out of sympathy with the majority of Australians.
The 2022 federal election reduced the Liberal primary vote to 23.9%. Peter Dutton’s net approval rating is at minus 28%. No Liberals are in government anywhere in mainland Australia. The seats of Menzies, Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Howard, Peacock, Abbott and Turnbull have all been lost. ‘Moderate’ federal MPs have deserted their party, accelerating a process which has been going on for decades.
One of them, former minister Karen Andrews, spoke to journalist Niki Savva:
“Andrews reckons,” Savva wrote, “there is a goat track – not a pathway – back to government, or at least to potentially regaining some heartland seats with her pick for leadership, Josh Frydenberg, winning Kooyong. Right now, the chances of that are between zip and zero.”
If it was about one election, however disastrous, permanent eclipse would not be seriously discussed. Both major parties have had wall-to-wall state governments before. And they’ve both had bad times – particularly Labor, which was out of power federally for 23 years between 1949 and 1972.
Then, the Liberals were in tune with the electorate; Labor was riven by splits and burdened with poor leadership. Menzies crafted an anti-Communist scare campaign that was as effective as it was dishonest – but which transformed him from an inept political failure into Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
A similar tactic kept the Howard government in office. The Coalition was on track to lose the November 2001 election when, two months before polling day, a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, sought permission to land a group of refugees they had rescued from drowning at sea. Howard broke international law by refusing that permission but gained a potent scare that wedged Labor and created a sense of crisis.
Then, a month before that election, came the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. Terrorism and boat people were conflated and a frightened electorate swung back heavily to the right.
But the electorate seems harder to scare now. Attempts by Peter Dutton and other Liberal leaders to win support over danger from China, people smugglers, African gangs and the indigenous Voice to Parliament have failed. The party now finds itself marooned.
THE UNCOMFORTABLE LOGIC OF ELECTIONS
Every three years when the votes are counted, wishful thinking ends and reality bites. In May last year, the precipitous long-term slide in Liberal support sent its primary vote to its lowest point in the party’s history.
Over the 32 years from Fraser’s accession in 1975 to Howard’s defeat in 2007, the average of the Liberal primary vote was 37.6%. It had twice, in 1975 and 2004, gone above 40%. At the last election it was 23.9%.
According to the Poll Bludger polling average, the Coalition’s primary support has fallen another 5.6% since then. (If the Queensland LNP vote was distributed between the two Coalition partners, the Liberal-only figure would be about 5% higher. It would still be the lowest primary vote in the party’s 78-year history).
On the other side of politics, the Labor vote has also declined as an increasing number of voters move their allegiance to the Greens, independents and micro-parties. But Labor’s decline has been less dramatic and has been partly balanced by the rise in support for the Greens.
Taken together, the core parties of the left and right – the Liberals and Nationals on one side, Labor and the Greens (or Democrats) on the other – confirm a trend that questions the future viability of the Liberal Party. Results are volatile, so the trendlines are the ones to watch here.
The problem extends to state politics. Any national political party relies on its state and territory grassroots organisation for success in the federal sphere. That is particularly true of the Liberals, who have strong state machines but a relatively weak national organisation. But troubles in the state divisions – acrimonious splits between factions, the intrusion of the religious right into local branches, and a generally hard-right membership – have crippled the party’s ability to win elections at either level.
A snapshot of the proportion of seats in state and territory lower houses 15 years apart reveals something of the decline. Election results are volatile, and this simple snapshot exaggerates the differential for New South Wales and Western Australia and understates it for Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. Nevertheless, it shows how difficult the situation has become for Liberals almost everywhere. NSW, Victoria and Western Australia, which have the worst results, represent 66% of the national population.
Election campaigns have become more and more expensive. As this chart shows, contributions to the federal party have risen over the past 20 years, though there was a plateau during Labor’s two terms of government between 2007 and 2013. The massive result of 2019 perhaps reflected the concerns generated by Labor’s economic policies at the time – abandoning negative gearing, halving the capital gains tax discount and limiting franking credits for shareholders.
THE NATION SHIFTS TO THE LEFT
After every election, a group from the Australian National University produces a comprehensive survey of voters’ attitudes on a large range of issues. Among the results is data on where a voter sits on the left-right spectrum.
When this question was first canvassed, in 1996, women were more conservative than men. Their progression from right to left is perhaps the most decisive dynamic in recent Australian politics. Men, as a group, have become less conservative too, particularly following the end of the Howard ascendancy. (The only obvious explanation for the apparent increase in 2022 is that it looks like an artefact of the sample rather than a real shift.)
But men have never become, overall, progressive. Women have. They have shifted the centre of gravity in Australian politics and society.
Younger people have always tended to be more progressive than their elders, but that difference has accelerated. Among voters under 45, the 35-45 age group has remained close to the centre but those between 18 and 34 have shifted markedly. (Again, the volatility in the 18-24 group can only be explained as a statistical quirk.)
It was once true that people became more conservative as they aged, but it’s no longer the case. The millennial generation, now in their late twenties to early forties, are becoming more progressive as they get older. It’s an international phenomenon and appears to be linked with increased levels of education and concern about the world of the future, particularly climate change.
Older voters still tend to congregate to the right of centre but, here too, there is a shift toward the left. Apart from people over 65, older voters are now centrists rather than conservatives.
An analysis of the average stance of each party’s voters shows no discernible difference between Liberal and National supporters. Over 26 years, there is no shift to the centre here: they remain equally and markedly conservative. Labor voters have become more progressive, but not by much.
This indicates a probable link with the decline in major party support. The electorate overall has become more left-leaning but major-party voters have not. So substantial numbers of those left-moving voters have shifted their support to independents, micro-parties and the Greens. Green voters have become more progressive so, in contrast to the majors, that party’s support has increased.
It's political Darwinism: those who do not adapt to a changing environment will die.
The point is confirmed in the ways voters regard the party they support. Liberal voters think their party is significantly more conservative than National voters think theirs is. So the declining numbers of Liberal voters retain their support for a party that is far to the right, and a long way from the ‘broad church’ that Menzies talked about in the 1940s.
As the previous chart shows, Labor voters see themselves as left-wing: on average, they scored 4.2 on the left-right scale in 2022. But the next chart shows they see their party as somewhat further to the right than they are, at 4.6. It’s not a huge gap but it indicates that the ALP under Anthony Albanese is shaping itself as a party of the centre, not of the left, placing it as Australia’s natural party of government.
They seem content with the prospect of still more of their left-wing voters defecting to the Greens, probably in the belief that the losses will be more than made up by acquiring new support from centrist voters who previously supported the Liberals. The calculus is that Green votes will come back to Labor as preferences anyway. It has its dangers: if the left bleeds away, and centrist voters defect from the Liberals to teal-like independents, Labor’s hope to dominate the political scene could prove frustratingly elusive.
Greens voters put their party (at 2.8) a little further to the left than they put themselves (3.1).
NEW SOCIAL ATTITUDES HAVE TRANSFORMED AUSTRALIA
An indicative set of issues shows how profoundly Australia has changed in the past 35 years: abortion, taxes, terrorism and union power are all traditional, hot-button conservative concerns. But the pendulum has swung decisively.
Take abortion. For religious voters, particularly, this remains a significant issue but they are now more out of sympathy with the rest of the nation than ever before. Abortion is no longer a matter of broad controversy. More than two-thirds of men and more than three-quarters of women support its ready availability.
It is a central belief among political conservatives that the role of government in the economy should be limited and that taxation, therefore, should be reduced. This is the common thread that has always united Liberals across the party’s moderate and conservative wings. The differences between the two are to be found in social, not economic, policies. On economic issues, then, both are equally out of touch with the electorate.
Support for the ‘war on terror’ has plummeted. Most Australians are no longer panicked by terrorists, boat people or refugees in general. The scare tactics that John Howard used so effectively no longer work.
Reining in the power of unions, and promoting the interests of business, is another foundational Liberal tenet. The Howard government succeeded in outlawing strikes and most of the weapons of collective bargaining by workers, while extending the rights of employers. The result has been wage stagnation, rising inequality, insecure work and exploitation.
The electorate knows this even if the Liberals don’t. The proportion of voters who believe big business has too much power has edged up over the past three decades but only 40% still think unions have too much power.
Militant unionism is no longer the bogey it once was.
WHAT WILL REPLACE THE LIBERAL PARTY?
It is not unusual for once-powerful political parties to fade from major to minor.
That’s what happened to the British Liberal Party after the First World War and to Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party, which went from 154 seats in the House of Commons in 1989 to two in 1993, before being taken over by a new outfit.
In France the centre-right Gaullists, currently called Les Républicains, saw their vote in the 2021 presidential election collapse to 4.8%. The Socialists did even worse, with 1.2%. Neither of these parties, which had dominated French politics since the Second World War, got enough support even to qualify for public election funding. Their viability is now highly questionable.
For Australia’s Liberals, the path back to power is almost undetectable. The dominant forces in its membership and organisational structure are now hard-right. The moderate faction has been in eclipse at least since the accession of John Howard in 1996.
Howard described himself as the most conservative leader the Liberal Party ever had, and lived up to the name. Under his rule, moderates found the price of preferment was to become conservative in all but name. The list of ministers who abandoned principle in the pursuit of power is a long one: people like Daryl Williams, Philip Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone, Michael Wooldridge, Robert Hill, Brendan Nelson, George Brandis, Christopher Pyne.
The small-L Liberals, who once provided the party with a human face, vanished. Most of those who did not surrender later resigned their memberships in protest at its hard-right direction. That list includes Malcolm Fraser, Malcolm Turnbull, Don Chipp, Ian McPhee, Fred Chaney, Peter Baume, Petro Georgiou, Judy Moylan, Chris Puplick, Judith Troeth, Julia Banks.
There are two reasons why the Liberal Party will not regain its lost centrist support: they don’t want to, and soft centre-right voters wouldn’t trust them even if they did.
There’s a point at which a party’s time as a major force ends and cannot be regained. The Liberal Party appears to have reached such a point. If that’s the case, what will right-of-centre politics look like in the future?
The present parliament looks like this:
The Coalition relies on one state, Queensland, to provide a third of its seats. Currently, 15 of its 21 federal members sit with the Liberals and six with the Nationals.
On that split-up, the parties look like this:
In Queensland, as in the rest of the country, the continuing rout in Coalition support is borne almost entirely by Liberals. At the 2022 election the LNP saw its primary vote in Brisbane metropolitan seats, held by Liberal-affiliated MPs, fall by 6.8%. But in non-metropolitan seats, dominated by the Nationals, the decline was just 0.3%.
It was just the beginning. The most recent Newspoll showing federal voting intentions in Queensland put the LNP’s two-party preferred support at 50%, down 4.05% since the election. If that swing was replicated state-wide, the LNP would lose five seats: Dickson, Longman, Bonner, Leichhardt and Flynn.
The picture is similar in the rest of the country. The present average polling swing of 5.6% would imply a loss of a further 15 Coalition seats. Of those, all but two are held by Liberals.
If the downward trend continues, it might make sense for the two right-wing parties to amalgamate, as they already have in Queensland. Whether or not a formal merger happens, it is already a de facto reality. There is now no discernible ideological difference between the two.
The closer the Liberal rump gets to the Nationals, the more alienated their remaining centrist voters and members will become. The ALP benefits from this. Labor picked up 10 of the 20 seats lost by the Liberals in the last election. And in the Aston by-election, another went the same way. But Labor’s core economic beliefs are incompatible with those of the free-market advocates at the right of centre. There are limits to the ALP’s incursions.
As the Liberals continue to bleed support, no other non-Labor party is in a position to fill the void in centre-right politics. In previous iterations, non-Labor groupings have been reshuffled under a new brand-name: the Protectionist and Free Trade parties became the Commonwealth Liberal Party, then the Nationalists, then United Australia, and finally the Liberals.
That cannot happen this time. The right of centre is splintered and dominated by independents and quasi-independent micro-parties who relish their autonomy. It is inconceivable that they would submit to party discipline and a common set of beliefs across the entire range of public policy. Voters, now thoroughly disenchanted with party politics, reward independents who adhere to genuinely-held principles.
For the time being, Labor is likely to increase and extend its dominance of national politics as the only behemoth still standing. But all governments eventually become tired. In ten or fifteen years from now – and perhaps sooner – we will be ready for a change of government. But what to?
A new party could emerge from the Liberals’ disaffected moderate wing, as it did with Don Chipp’s Australian Democrats. But new parties are no longer able to make the journey from minor to major. The Democrats never gained seats in the House of Representatives and ceased to exist as an electoral force 20 years ago. The Greens, 27 years after electing their first senator, still have only four MPs in the 151-member lower house.
In the longer term, new groupings will probably emerge. None are likely to become dominant in the old major-party sense: Australia’s political duopoly is ending.
Forming government will be more difficult and, as in almost the whole of western Europe, will depend on often-complex alliances. Australian politicians may at last have to learn to work together.