A recurring response to Coalition electoral defeat is the call for a merger between the Liberal and National parties. It never goes anywhere, and probably never will, but it can be quite revealing to see just who is pushing the idea and why.
At the weekend it was Nick Minchin, Liberal Senate leader, who told the Young Liberals’ national convention that “The competition from Labor is so powerful and so intense that we must unite in order to compete”.
Minchin’s motives are nothing if not transparent. As a factional warrior for the party’s right, he looks to the adhesion of numbers from the Nationals to boost his own internal strength. That’s exactly how the right maintained control of South Australia’s Liberal Party for so long, after absorbing the then Country Party in the 1930s.
In the same speech, Minchin said that factions could be “the means to foster and nurture the two great political philosophies of which we are the Australian custodians, liberalism and conservatism”. No prizes for guessing which side he’s on, and it’s not the one his party is named after.
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The history of the Liberal Party is a history of mergers, starting with the original fusion almost a hundred years ago between Protectionists and Free Traders. Each merger has been an expression of the view that fighting Labor was more important than any other policy or philosophical issues – and since that is inherently a conservative view, each merger has strengthened the hand of the conservatives.
But this time the pressure isn’t just coming from within the Liberal Party; some interests within the Nationals are pushing the same idea.
To support a merger from the Nationals’ point of view you have to be both fearful and hopeful: you have to be doing badly enough to think that something fairly drastic needs to be done, but still strong enough to be confident of exercising control, or at least disproportionate influence, over a merged party.
Sure enough, that just describes the Nationals’ position in Queensland.
Hence the recycling of state leader Lawrence Springborg, back trying to sell his idea of a “united conservative party”. As George Brandis pointed out, “Anyone who didn’t come down in the last shower can see that in Queensland this is a proposal to rebadge the National Party.”
Possum Comitatus explained last week why that won’t work electorally: “From the outset the merged party would start to represent everything that turns off … the moderately conservative Liberal voter.” But if internal warfare is your main game, then electoral consequences are very much a secondary matter.