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.