My ANU colleague and Crikey commentator Norman Abjorensen is forecasting a death blow for the Liberal Party. If, as seems increasingly likely, the Coalition loses on 24 November, the Liberals are in danger of self-destruction without the spoils of office to help enforce discipline.

The prospect of a new “small-l” liberal force has been foreshadowed for some time. The Coalition parties have handled their two previous in opposition poorly. The Liberals are a party built for government. A successful Liberal Party leader commands a high level of authority. Opposition leaders, almost by definition, have yet to prove their leadership credentials.

Certainly, the Liberals would miss the spoils of office in every state and territory. Yet, the two-party system has been very stable for over fifty years. Something like the Liberal Party will always exist as long as we keep the current electoral system. If a loss causes some soul-searching amongst Liberals about the purpose of their party, that is no bad thing.

The direction of the party may depend on who survives the deluge. The Coalition loss in 1983 left the dries in a difficult position, allowing Andrew Peacock to defeat John Howard for the leadership. This time around, with the likes of Malcolm Turnbull, Gary Humphries, Marise Payne and Christopher Pyne in danger, the election could determine the character of the party in opposition.

After a decade of Howard’s dominance, the right is in the ascendant. Working out exactly who is liberal or conservative after a decade in power, though, is difficult. Nothing has given Howard greater pleasure than watching wets such as Ruddock and Vanstone implement his authoritarian refugee policies. Brendan Nelson, Helen Coonan and Julie Bishop have toed Howard’s line against their ideological instincts.

The main danger of factional wars is that one or both factions decide that they would prefer to lose an election than see the party victorious under the leadership of their internal enemies. Howard was in that position in 1984. Yet, even the troglodyte right in New South Wales has acquiesced to the sensible and centrist Barry O’Farrell as parliamentary leader.

Howard might even become a unifying force in defeat. Whatever the dominant ideology in the party, it always needs to be balanced with the pragmatism that has been the hallmark of successful Liberal governments. Why on earth would the wets leave the Liberal Party at the very time their nemesis leaves office? They’ll be celebrating, not deserting.

Peter Fray

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