Australian politics, society & culture

What’s Right? The Future of the Liberal Party

John Howard on the rise, 1984. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.
John Howard on the rise, 1984. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.

Peter van Onselen

Medium length read3100 words
 

If members of the parliamentary Liberal Party are asked which faction they are aligned with, the moderates or conservatives, most will tell you with a straight face that there are no factions inside the liberal party. Some will insist ‘faction’ is the wrong terminology; tendencies, ideological clusters or personality groupings are better ways to identify how Liberal MPs choose to sub-group. One of the few parliamentary Liberals who seriously thinks about the philosophical direction of the party, the deputy leader in the Senate, George Brandis, claims: “It is now as commonplace to speak of the conservative and liberal (or moderate) wings of the Liberal Party as it is to speak of the socialist Left and Right factions of the ALP.” Speak of, perhaps. But in reality the conservative–moderate divide in the Liberal Party has become an antiquated notion. The modern Liberal Party no longer has such easily identifiable ideological groupings and it hasn’t for a long time.

Cover: May 2011
May 2011
Sonya Hartnett on Animal-Watching Abroad
Sonya Hartnett
Lindsay Tanner’s 'Sideshow'
Andrew Charlton
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
Linda Jaivin on Harbin, China
Linda Jaivin
Hugh White Reflects on Japan
Hugh White
Drusilla Modjeska on Tufi, Papua New Guinea
Drusilla Modjeska
Janette Turner Hospital on Central Park, New York
Janette Turner Hospital

A new way of clustering Liberal MPs has emerged since the Coalition was defeated at the 2007 election. An old-fashioned state-based divide is opening up between the Victorian and New South Wales divisions – and, perhaps more importantly in the short term, an age divide is fracturing the party as the remnants of the John Howard era cling to the hope of victory at the next election while the new generation of Liberal MPs put aside their ideological differences in a collective push for a greater say in the direction the party takes. These divides will determine whether the intellectual heart of the Liberal Party stays in NSW, where it has been for most of the past 25 years, or returns to Victoria, the home of Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies. They will also determine whether the conservatism of the Howard era is extended into a new Tony Abbott era, in which the party is ruled out of NSW, or whether generational change gives the Liberal Party’s more progressive tendencies an injection of ideological life.

A range of factors complicate this relatively simple construct. Joe Hockey is the notional leader of Generation Next within the Liberal Party, yet he is a New South Welshman and a long-serving minister from the Howard government. Abbott is the spiritual leader of the conservative wing of the party as well as the parliamentary leader, yet he advocated the softening of Liberal’s industrial relations agenda, embraced ‘direct action’ on climate change (albeit only after his infamous “absolute crap” remarks) and dragged some of his colleagues kicking and screaming towards a generous paid maternity leave scheme funded by big business. Nevertheless, the conflation of youth and state pride within the Victorian division of the Liberal Party has the potential to challenge the long-held dynamic of NSW – and conservatism – being the key ingredients in determining the shape of the party. Still unclear is whether the state push out of Victoria by the younger MPs will see a more progressive agenda develop, or a continuation of the slide towards pragmatism over ideology amongst our elected representatives – a scourge that afflicts both sides of the major party divide and entrenches traditional conservatism (by that I mean resistance to change).

In his 1967 memoir, Afternoon Light, Robert Menzies wrote: “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.” This commentary has been used by the progressive wing of the party ever since to justify why Liberals should not allow conservatism to dominate policy and personnel. Conservatives reject the argument, pointing out that for Menzies – himself a conservative on many issues – the rejection of the socialist panacea was the more important part of the descriptor.

For decades non-Labor political parties have been united as much by what they oppose as what issues bind them together. Opposing socialism brought together the Free Traders and the Protectionists in 1909, because the emerging Labor Party was seen as the greater of evils. A large part of the success of Menzies in founding the Liberal Party in 1944 prior to the end of World War II was to re-direct that focus, to proactively appeal to the so-called forgotten people. Menzies’ book used similar rhetoric to re-focus the Liberal Party’s ideology after he retired. However, in office Menzies was the beneficiary of what Liberals opposed far more so than what they collectively represented. Liberals rejected communism and, with that, Labor’s brand of socialism. It was an easy political kill for Menzies during the heady days of the Cold War.

In 1972, after 23 years in opposition, Gough Whitlam tried to do too much in too little time as prime minister, shortening the life of his Labor government in the process. Three years later and Labor was out of power, suffering the largest defeat in federal political history. But the re-elected Liberal Party was back without having thought sufficiently about what its core values were. Opposition to socialism (and interventionist government) only got the party so far. Members were calling for a positive agenda to reflect the times. With Malcolm Fraser and much of his inner circle largely void of political ideas, a new agenda was proffered by the dries – a collection of radical free-market thinkers who wanted to reform the economy and in particular the industrial relations system. Although he was treasurer under Fraser, and therefore bound by cabinet solidarity, John Howard had sympathy for the philosophical thinking of the dries. He proceeded to argue their case, at first quietly, then publicly during the Liberal Party’s most turbulent times in the 1980s and early 1990s, once the Fraser years were over and a deep political wilderness set in as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating pursed the micro-economic reforms that Fraser’s cabinet should have.

While the economic philosophy of the dries wasn’t electorally popular, and support for it within the Liberal Party was spotty at best, it gave Howard the foundations for reforms he would go on to enact in government. It gave the Howard prime ministership policy and ideological ballast, something the Fraser years didn’t have because the remnants of the Menzies era – dominant in the upper echelons of the ministry – were catapulted back into office before the party had learnt the lessons of defeat.

Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party risks emulating Fraser’s unimpressive record as a do-nothing government if elected, rather than that of his political hero, Howard, who reformed in a broad range of areas, from tax to gun laws. Abbott enjoys telling his colleagues: “You can’t govern from the Opposition benches.” The worry, so the argument goes, is that if Oppositions try to lead, they either make themselves the issue or they provide valuable advice that helps poor governments to lift their game.

Attaining power is the first priority for the Abbott Opposition, retaining it comes a close second. Knowing what to do with it is another matter. The patronage of power has become the primary goal for many players from both major parties. The trappings of office – the cars, the travel, the extra staff and the salaries – matter as much, if not more so, than do the opportunities for reform that incumbency affords. Indeed the pursuit of reform becomes something functionaries who feel strongly about retaining power are cautious about because “doing stuff”, as one shadow minister put it to me, entails risks.

Conservatism fits rather neatly with this abiding philosophical approach. Keeping radicals away from power and incompetent Labor ministers away from the levers of Treasury are worthy goals for traditional conservatives. But what does this offer progressives or liberal economic reformers? Or indeed social liberals? Even Howard, who was unashamedly socially conservative, would not have tolerated governing for its own sake (as was clearly apparent from his final-term push for further industrial relations reform in the shape of WorkChoices). While the conservatives undoubtedly entrenched their power base within the Liberal Party during the dominant and strong leadership of Howard, conservatism has become a common ideological choice amongst Liberals today because it fits with the pragmatic goal of winning elections, rather than because that ideological wing of the party is over-represented in the parliament. It is especially evident amongst the leftovers from the Howard era as they face up to the reality that the next election, for many of them, is their last shot at a return to power. Failure likely will end many of their political careers. No point, therefore, risking an agenda built around anything other than reminding voters about Labor failures.

But pragmatic caution is not the only reason for the lack of robust policy discussion: policy debates have been largely settled on the Right of politics. The divisions over industrial relations aren’t what they were when Howard and the dries were pushing for what seemed like radical change at the time. Modern politicians are less defined by their belief structures than they were in previous decades. The functionaries who often gravitate towards political staffing are increasingly moving on to a political career. Also, within the Liberal Party today, ideological differences are in large part limited to issues of conscience, not party political positioning. The parliamentary Liberal Party almost universally agrees on a tough border protection policy, an industrial relations system defined by greater flexibility, reactive action on climate change rather than proactive pricing of carbon, and a construct whereby marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Exceptions to this prove the rule.

Management of the economy based on balancing the books, reducing government debt and stimulating investment are the functional goals of new administrations on the Right of politics. These simple goals are made easier to sell ahead of genuine reform or ideas when Labor governments either put, or appear to put, the goal in jeopardy. While the Abbott Opposition isn’t endowed with the personnel from the Howard era who managed the key economic portfolios, the last Coalition government was recent enough to allow him to use that track record as a tool for his own election. The irony of this is that Abbott in Howard’s cabinet was viewed by his colleagues as one of the less fiscally sound ministers.

Where disagreements emerge between differing Liberal Party ideological tendencies, they are more defined by what approach best suits the political situation of the day than any guiding principles of philosophy. It has been quickly forgotten that this was the case even when Malcolm Turnbull was arguing for putting a price on carbon. The approach was based on a belief that if the conservatives didn’t do this they would suffer severe electoral repercussions at the hands of Kevin Rudd and his advocacy for action to address the “greatest moral and economic challenge of our generation”. Turnbull wasn’t initially standing on pure principle: slowness to act on climate change had been one of the factors that harmed Howard in his quest to win a fifth straight election. Turnbull lost the support of his party when the small number of strong opponents to the emissions trading scheme was joined by a larger number of Liberals who started to question the strategic electoral value in backing Rudd’s plan.

Howard used to say that the Liberal Party was best served when the conservatives ran the show and the moderates were (on occasion) listened to. But after years of conservative dominance of the Liberal Party, there really aren’t moderates who know what issues set them apart. Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, Scott Morrison, Greg Hunt, George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull are all variously described as Liberal moderates. Some of them dine out on the tag, even define themselves by it. But it is hard to find issues that seriously set any of this group apart from the conservatives.

Bishop hasn’t taken a moderate approach to asylum seekers since she was slapped down by Howard’s principal private secretary, Tony Nutt, ahead of the 2001 election, when she expressed concerns about children in detention. Morrison, the current shadow immigration spokesman, uses strong rhetoric to defend the Coalition’s tough line on boat people. Pyne is often labelled the leader of the moderates, along with Hockey, yet both men’s strong religious convictions put them at odds with a raft of progressive policy positions. Hunt continues to work in the role of shadow climate change minister (with a title change to ‘climate action’) even though Abbott has moved the party away from pricing carbon – a position Hunt passionately advocated under Turnbull’s leadership. Brandis is currently championing pursuing David Hicks for any profits he might make from his autobiography, even though Hicks’s guilty plea was before a kangaroo court after years of incarceration without charge. Turnbull, while progressive on some social issues when religion doesn’t get in the way, defines himself more as an economic reformer – a policy script that no longer divides progressive and conservative Liberals. About the only issue in recent times that might have split the Liberal Party was the decision to cut into foreign aid spending to fund the flood reconstruction in Queensland. But even on that score the names mentioned fractured in all directions when shadow cabinet debated the issue. Self-describing moderates within the parliamentary Liberal Party like to claim that the era of Howard conservatism is over, replaced by a numerical reality that they are now the dominant force at the top of the party. So far as strict social conservatism goes that might be true. But no more so than it is true that the era of Howard economic liberalism has been lost. Both have fallen victim to pragmatism (of varying descriptions) rather than any sort of moderate ideological resurgence.

The new state-based and age groupings within the Liberal Party are not defined by philosophy; nor are they defined by personality clusters, as they often were when factional grouping masqueraded as ideologically based. Today’s party is divided according to a pragmatic set of circumstances – a state division that wants to reclaim the prize of being the heart and soul of the Liberal Party (Victoria), and a younger group of MPs eyeing rapid advancement, some of whom can see the value in using their statehood to help attain personal political goals.

Since 1985 a New South Welshman has led the Liberal Party for all but two of 26 years (the exceptions being Andrew Peacock from 1989–90, and Alexander Downer for eight months during 1994–95). Prior to that time Billy McMahon was the only leader to have come out of NSW. The 1990 election was the last time the Victorian division returned more MPs than Labor did. Since then Victoria’s powerbase inside the party has diminished, only propped up by the constant allure of a Peter Costello stint as leader, until his retirement towards the end of 2009.

Victorians haven’t even been able to marshal enough support to win the deputy leader’s position since the 2007 defeat. Queensland and Western Australia have emerged as the new secondary powerhouses of state-based authority inside the Liberal party room. A resurgent vote in Queensland for the conservatives at the last federal election and a long-term growth in the WA vote for Liberals and Nationals (such that they now hold 12 of 15 seats in the west) has entrenched the party’s appeal to pioneering mining interests to the detriment of southern state (and sometimes) progressive tendencies.

However, despite its weakened state in terms of numbers in the party room, Victoria is the home of many of the so-called rising stars now in parliament for the Liberals. New Liberal parliamentarians such as Kelly O’Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg, Scott Ryan, Dan Tehan and Alan Tudge are all likely to become ministers before their parliamentary careers are over. A number of them were staffers during the second half of Howard’s leadership, which leaves open the risk that their approach to politics is too narrow for strong reforming zeal. They are joined by a younger generation spread across the country, still waiting for shadow ministerial advancement. Jamie Briggs, Paul Fletcher, Michaelia Cash and Simon Birmingham are such examples. And there are other MPs from Generation Next who have worked their way into junior portfolios but perhaps should have been promoted further already. Mathias Cormann, Marise Payne and Mitch Fifield fit into this category. These groupings of Liberals (with the possible exception of those already in the outer shadow ministry) are united by their pragmatic concern that, if the Coalition wins the next election, they will be shut out from advancement because of the continuation of the Howard second XI or, if the party falls short of victory, it will have been because Abbott refused to renew the party at the executive end when he had the chance.

Younger MPs are always more prepared to pursue risky reform and fight for party reform they believe is necessary for the long-term betterment of the party than are longer-serving MPs because time is on their side. They can risk periods out of power in the short term if the reforms sought (and achieved) place the party in a better situation once elected further down the track. For all the difficulties the Coalition went through in the ’80s and early ’90s, its years in office were undoubtedly improved by what it learnt during that time. The current Liberal Party hasn’t had the chance in the short time it has been out of office to move from acting like a de facto government to an alternative government. De facto governments act as if they have a right to rule; alternative governments develop a set of reasons why they should.

The Victorian division of the Liberal Party felt more pessimistic about Abbott’s leadership ahead of the last election than did other states. A sense of disillusionment continues today, albeit suppressed by the allure of office. When Abbott’s personal ratings fall, it is always the Victorian division quick to raise concerns (usually in conjunction with some of the younger MPs). Several preliminary attempts have been made by Victorians to move Victorian Andrew Robb into the deputy leadership over West Australian MP Julie Bishop, without success. Several younger Victorian MPs believe that they should be on the frontbench but are not.

The question that therefore remains is what impact a generational or state-based shift might have on the current parliamentary Liberal Party. A more powerful Victorian presence could have electoral benefits for Abbott in a state he didn’t poll well in at the last election. But that is a narrow political calculation and Liberal strategists aren’t focused on winning extra seats in Victoria anyway. They are looking to retain their current configuration across the country with the expectation of gains in NSW as the path to majority government. A revival of the authority of the Victorian division is more likely to occur, at least initially, as a consequence of the rise of new talent on the frontbench rather than a swelling of the Victorian numbers in the Liberal party room. If that happens, it could be expected that the younger MPs start to push for more reform of and discussion about political ideas, rather than using the current pitch of a return to the steady hand of the Howard era. But the risk for Liberal Party renewal is that Generation Next is no more ideas-focused than the frontbenchers they will replace, some of whom they worked for as political apparatchiki.

Peter van Onselen

Peter van Onselen is a journalist and a Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia. His books include Howard's End: The Unravelling of a Government, co-written with Philip Senior, and John Winston Howard: The Biography, co-written with Wayne Errington.
More by Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP