Several months ago, liberals and conservatives celebrated the centenary of ‘fusion’ – the moment in 1909 when the Protectionist party and Free Trade party buried their differences, and combined to fight the rising Australian Labor Party, which had given the world its first genuinely Labor government.

Despite attempts to regard the Liberal Party that emerged from that fusion as the forerunner of today’s mob, they ain’t – and the fact that Australian historians refer to conservative parties as the ‘non-Labor’ forces for shorthand recognises the signal fact of our history, that the broad middle of the Right is a coalition of forces and, at its worst, simply a cloud of atoms pointed in roughly the same direction.

In the UK, the Conservative Party arose from the aristocracy, the church and the universities, the Liberal party from the bourgeoisie, the North, and non-conformist protestant sects. Each has rolled over into something else – and the Tories have made a fresh and audacious move – but they’ve always maintained a social base, and an articulation of a philosophy immanent within that base.

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In Australia, the non-Labor parties have always been a shadow of Labor, defined by it. Even out of power Labor has been in power, courtesy of the harvester judgement and the IR system, the transition of people like Hughes and Lyons, the DLP, and decades-long state governments in NSW and Queensland.

Contrary to the overly consensual model of Australian history expressed by Paul Kelly’s (or Gerard Henderson’s?) notion of the ‘Australian settlement’, the issue has never been settled. The Right waged relentless war against the system in the 20s, and had another crack in the 50s. What looked like a settlement was simply victory by Labor in keeping the Right out of power, even when they were in power.

The Liberal Party we have now was founded in part out of a perception that (occasional tilts notwithstanding) the right could not fight and win a class war in a country founded and dominated in its modern form by the working class – albeit one with possibly the most politically cautious, conservative and downright corrupt leaders in the world.

Though Menzies and the old UAP crowd would rapidly take control, the wellspring of the Liberal Party was a genuinely liberal middle-class – or ‘moral middle class’ in Judy Brett’s phrase. Often ex-serviceman and women, the party was founded in the same spirit that swept the Attlee Labour government to power in the UK – that if post WW2 society simply resumed the ways of the 30s, much of the sacrifice would have been in vain.

Effectively, the Liberal Party has been running off the energy of that ursprung ever since – through the years of Menziesian* nation-building, Fraser’s continuation of the nascent multicultural project. Howard’s decade got the last revs from that by reversing it, its expansive notions of Australia refashioned as a resentful and defensive carping about exclusion and division.

By doing that Howard got a few years that might have been denied the party – but he gunned the works, and burnt out the electrics. The party had used itself for fuel.

That desperate last strategy had managed to obscure what was happening – on its centenary year, the non-Labor party was undergoing fission, not fusion.

Consider what Fusion was. It was not simply an arrangement between two groups, not a coalition. It was a recognition that one entire political framework – empire versus free-trade, restraint on capital versus its expansion – had been superseded.

Protection was not simply a series of measures to protect local industry – it was an idea about what a society should be, in which social relations held economic relations in place, limited their purview. Free trade was the idea that economic relations should be allowed to reconstruct social relations (which for free traders chiefly meant that it would rive out rent, and rentiers).

The rise of socialism and Labour parties from the 1890s simply instituted a whole new political division, by energising real social forces – labour unions that had once been isolated unified and collectivised, parties giving them political expression, a doctrine of social transformation.

That division in turn died in the 1970s, with both the political defeat of socialist experiments, and the emergence of deep contradictions which made it unworkable. Labor simply took over what should have been the Liberals’ historical role – neoliberal reconstruction – and badged it as a form of modernisation, making it part of a distinctive progressive package, and leaving the Libs with nowhere to go but populism with a use-by date.

But now politics has re-divided. The hitherto small information/cultural producer class has become a force in its own right, cutting across old economic class divisions and old affiliations. You can see this in a whole lot of processes – the way in a seat like Higgins for example, one can anticipate a lot of people who would vote Liberal in a Liberal-Labor stoush, flowing to the Greens, even with an, erm, interesting candidate like Clive Hamilton.

Socialism in its 20th century form is over, and the question is no longer framed by private-public, worker-company divisions. Increasingly the divisions is between knowledge frameworks – people inside the new global economy, often working mainly with information, who see the world in terms of systems, networks, processes, global entities, as part of a single humanity on the one hand, and those tending to be in the old world of more local, parochial, and fixed ideas of morality, work and social order.

Farmers, sections of the old middle class, the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ etc – people increasingly excluded from the cultural and financial mainstream.

That division now runs smack down the middle of the Liberal Party, which is why the party is on the verge of ceasing to exist as anything other than a shell – and leading to the real possibility of real recombination of the non-Labor forces.

Faced with such dilemmas, parties are lucky if they get people who are smart, resourceful and agile, such as David Cameron or Barack Obama.

The Libs have Malcolm Turnbull and Nick Minchin.

Turnbull simply lacks the political skills to solve this – he’s the equivalent of a colour-blind interior decorator. It was simply a category error for him to imagine he could reshape the party, and lead it at this juncture, a mistake about himself.

Minchin is smarter, and a better politician – and delusional, seeing a fundamentally new politics of humanity and nature through the prism of the Cold War. Whether that is simply because of his limits as a thinker, or a Lear-like self-indulgence at the end of a career matters less than his great error about what he’s doing.

He thinks he’s preserving the conservative core of the party, even at the price of going backwards in election ’10. In fact, he is trapping it in a loop, whereby the marginal and excluded increasingly determine its direction, until it becomes unsellable to the mainstream of 21st century Australia.

At which point even the Liberal Party will realise that it’s dead.

On the centenary of Fusion, nothing expresses non-Labor’s dilemma more that, even when marking its history, it cannot learn from it.

*I have a feeling that the correct pronunciation of this word would be Min(g)usian, due to some rules of Scots phonology I have forgotten.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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