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Nov 27, 2009

No party lasts forever: split happens

There is no socially and economically liberal political force in Australia like the Free Democrats in Germany or Liberal Democrats in the UK. But with the Liberal Party’s fault lines widening this week, is now the time for such a party to emerge?

In Germany they are called the Free Democrats, in the UK the Liberal Democrats and in Canada, the Liberals.  In Australia they do not exist.  There is not, in this country, a socially and economically liberal political force parading its wares in the political marketplace.  But with the Liberal Party’s fault lines widening this week, is now the time for such a party to emerge and who might support it?

The zealous determination by conservatives to destroy a liberal leader in the form of Malcolm Turnbull makes it abundantly clear that the Liberal Party is hell bent on being a right of centre conservative party and that there is no room, except in a token sense, for liberal approaches to issues.  This is not a new phenomenon — it has been evident since John Howard took control of the party in 1995. I wrote about in 2003 in What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party?, a book spawned by my own disendorsement from a Tasmanian seat in 2002 because of my public support for better treatment of asylum seekers.

It is time for liberals, or moderates as the media terms them, to start thinking laterally.  They owe it to those Australians who find  Labor and the Liberal Party too conservative on a range of issues to contemplate the beginnings of a new political force along the lines of those that currently exist in the UK, Canada and Germany.

But who would vote for a genuine liberal party that stood for action on climate change, market-driven economic policies, and new thinking on issues such as drugs, gay marriage and indigenous self-empowerment and refugees?  Turnbull’s own electorate of Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs is one that might find such a political force very attractive.  It is a diverse, educated electorate as is, for example, Peter Costello’s former electorate of Higgins in Melbourne, or Chris Pyne’s electorate of Sturt in inner urban Adelaide.  Sydney’s north shore, particularly the lower reaches, also represents a generally liberal profile.

That there is yawning gap in the political ideas marketplace in this country is made abundantly clear to a “liberal” voter when he or she looks down at the ballot paper come election time.  Do they vote for a cautious Labor Party that is fearful of embracing issues such as a charter of rights or more humane treatment of refugees?  Or do they plump for a Liberal Party, which has some decent progressives within it such as  Turnbull but whose policy direction is steered by hard-line conservatives?  Of the minor forces there is only the Greens, which, while socially progressive, is economically illiterate and prone to bouts of extremism.

So what sort of vote would a liberal force attract?  The Free Democrats and the Liberal Democrats in the UK are the third force — they never outpoll the major parties but they influence policy through being coalition partners in the case of the Free Democrats or by potentially holding the balance of power as may occur with the Liberal Democrats after next year’s UK  election.  One could expect a similar scenario in Australia with a liberal party perhaps winning a handful of House of Representatives seats and some senate seats.  This would make them a powerful player in the numbers game.

The political hardheads will no doubt claim that these musings are the stuff of a disillusioned liberal looking for a new home.  Maybe, but remember this — no political party lasts forever amalcolm turnnd splits happen.

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35 thoughts on “No party lasts forever: split happens

  1. Colin Prasad

    Good Point Greg. Perhaps the Liberal rebels should just join the National Party (crikey, they need the numbers) as they seem to have more in common with them than true liberal values. They can then eek out their irrelevance amongst friends, and let the remaining moderate Liberal party build towards a future – like UK New Liberals.

  2. Perry Gretton

    @Colin Prasad: Agree, but it won’t happen, unfortunately. The left wing of the Liberals needs to break away. Such a party would have a strong appeal to those who can’t abide the National Party fruitcakes and illiberal Liberals, but still find it hard to bring themselves to vote Labor.

  3. Andrew Peel

    Yes please. Although there would be no point if they weren’t prepared to form a coalition with labor or the greens.

    Actually, the moderates shouldn’t concede that the loonies represent the conservative point of view. A conservative view of the world, while informed by a pessimistic view of human nature, is nonetheless coherent. The climate denialists are just delusional reactionaries and genuine conservatives should be embarrassed to be associated with them.

    So a break away party of moderates should name itself the Conservative Party. 😉 .

  4. Tomboy

    Also agree. I’ve posted similar suggestions on other blogs before. Notice in Canada they have a real liberal party. Australia is starving for a political party that isn’t beholden to the trade union movement nor the Hansonites and offers an alternative to the Greens as well. And Malcolm would make a fine first President of Australia. And a message to Barry O’Farrell…watch your back – remember what the Right did to Brogden? They might be emboldened enough to do it to you again.

  5. Anne Sanders

    From John Walker:
    There is a problem. The conservatives in the UK are different to the US and our crazies. The UK conservatives are not nearly as barking as our lot. In Australia a new democratic liberal party (DLP!) could end up existing only to keep the crazies out of office, not that this is a bad aim. There is a lot of the quality of 1950s Labour split in the air.
    Control of the existing party ‘name’ should be fought for. It is not yet time to walk away. The situation of the state of NSW with its problems of awful management and corruption shows what happens when you have a split and unelectable opposition.
    If the extreme conservative wing of the Liberal Party want to form their own huddle of “preserve our bodily fluids from pinko plots”, they should leave and get a new name. Perhaps the ‘Dr Strangelove’ or ‘How I learn’t to love CO2 party’ might suit.

  6. Michael Beggs

    Doesn’t the ALP occupy this position already?

  7. Jillian Blackall


    “Doesn’t the ALP occupy this position already?”

    I would say no, not really. The ALP still has an image of representing a combination of the traditional working class and the solidly left-wing middle class. There is not much scope there for the liberal middle class, ie not as left-wing, more fiscally conservative, as well as being socially progressive. I agree with Greg – that there is a large gap in the marketplace, and I am hoping that Malcolm Turnbull will be able to play a key role in resolving that problem, whether as leader of the Liberal Party, or, in a worst case scenario, as leader of a newly formed party.

  8. Michael Beggs

    Hi Jillian,

    I don’t know. I guess the ALP has a residual attachment to the unions, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference to its politics. I suppose the ‘Labor’ brand might be off-putting to certain sections of the ‘liberal middle class’ on ideological basis (i.e. because of their ideology, not the party’s). As for ‘fiscally conservative’, the ALP has tried for twenty years to portray itself as such and has acted accordingly. I guess there is a substantial section of the ‘liberal middle class’ that doesn’t understand how the economy works and wants a balanced budget, rain or shine.

    Overall, though, I think the centrist ‘liberal middle class’ is catered to by the existing major parties better than any other grouping, because everyone goes for the centre ground. If the ALP really was restrained by the unions and the Liberals did get dragged out to the right, I guess that space might open up. Of course, it would only maintain the dominance of the centre.

  9. Perry Gretton

    The “centrist ‘liberal middle class'” is rather to the right of what I want to vote for. Fiscally responsible, for sure, but a little more principled on social issues. Labor is too conservative for me.

    Petro Giorgiou was showing the way, and Malcolm Turnbull I believe has a similar outlook. A separate party is definitely called for.

  10. Jillian Blackall

    There is a very large difference between producing a balanced budget rain or shine and borrowing and spending billions of dollars a la Rudd. It probably has been a bit too excessive. I acknowledge the economic reforms of the Hawke/Keating era.

    I like Petro as well.

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