May 27, 2010

How the Liberal Party left Malcolm Fraser behind

Malcolm Fraser can be blamed for many things, but he cannot be blamed for feeling out of place in today's Liberal Party.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Whatever one's view of Malcolm Fraser's time in government -- and I'm on the record as a critic in several respects -- it has to be a matter of concern for the Liberal Party that one of its most successful leaders no longer feels able to maintain his party membership. This morning's papers report that Fraser left the party last December, concerned about its drift to the right and saying it "was no longer a liberal party but a conservative party". The criticism is all the more damaging since it comes from someone who in his day was seen as the leader of the party's right. Fraser now says -- and there is no particular reason to doubt his word -- that he always saw himself philosophically as a liberal. But what distinguished the Liberal Party at its foundation was the way that it combined liberalism and conservatism; not in the sense of a coalition between rival viewpoints, but by appealing to people who themselves combined the two views, and saw no real incompatibility between them. Robert Menzies -- like his foreign counterparts such as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and John Diefenbaker -- saw liberalism as a fundamental part of his political heritage. It was not a radical, reforming liberalism, like that of Jefferson or even Gladstone, and it could sit comfortably enough on the more conservative side of the political spectrum, but it showed a genuine belief in democracy, personal freedom and the rule of law. Fraser was the heir of Menzies: like him a political pragmatist, conservative in temperament, suspicious of doctrinaire views (whether socialist or free-market), inclined to muddle through rather than take a firm stand on principle, but loyal at heart to the Western liberal-democratic tradition. Being pro-business and anti-communist positioned him on the right, but well within the party's mainstream. Fraser's opponents within the Liberal Party also identified as liberals -- not just those on the left, who appropriated to themselves the term "small-l liberal", but also the dries, who argued for free trade and deregulation. Liberalism is a broad church, and the debate over liberal principles could be intense, but there was a consensus that such things existed and were important. The change since Fraser's time is striking. The term "conservative", once used mostly as a stick with which to beat one's rivals, has become the normal self-description for many members. The party's leaders no longer profess any loyalty to "liberalism", but only to "Liberalism", a term that has been emptied of content by giving it a capital "L": it means simply whatever the Liberal Party happens to be doing at any time. Fraser's generation, having lived through the Second World War, could never forget the importance of liberalism; even down to John Howard -- whose similarities with Fraser are often overlooked -- it was understood that there were potential enemies to the right as well as to the left. With the current generation, that realisation has been lost. The Liberal Party of Fraser's time, whatever its faults (and there were many), would never have flirted with torture, with creationism, and with the repudiation of international law over Tampa and later Iraq. There are still liberals in the party today, but they are outnumbered and outgunned by the acolytes of an American-style "movement" conservatism -- militant, intolerant and anti-intellectual. Fraser can be blamed for many things, but he cannot be blamed for feeling out of place in the Liberal Party of today.

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19 thoughts on “How the Liberal Party left Malcolm Fraser behind

  1. John Reidy

    A party must be to some extend a reflection of its constituency.
    Has this changed? Have the non labor supporters – business (big and small) moved to the right?
    Or where they always to the right of the liberal party but had no non labour alternatives?

  2. John Reidy

    sorry for the 2 typos – extend – extent
    where ->were

  3. Michael

    Charles Richardson I laugh in your face.


    You! a solidly rusted on Socialist who would have despised Fraser during the Kerr era, giving credence to a decision by an erratic,dribbling, bumbling old fool who should be holding hands with Whitlam at his Elizabeth Bay Funny Farm?

    My God what a duo.!

    Whitlam being constantly lowered from his soap box in the TV room and

    Fraser being dragged by his feet from the dunny with his pants off.

    Can you not all see it.

    Please someone, anyone, take them out the back with the chickens and shoot them.

  4. Michael James

    I think as the ALP has adopted a number of Liberal policies in their bid to be elected under Rudd, they have moved to the centre.

    The conservatives have moved a bit to the right to differentiate themselves from the ALP, making them less liberal than they may have been in the past.

    I think this also reflects that the electorate as a whole is a bit more right-leaning than the commentariate (and most Crikey readers) would like to believe.

  5. davidk

    Good piece. Iquite agree. The only thing I’d add is that I thought the only commonality betwixt all Liberals was a rabid hatred of everything Labor, and I cite Michael above as proof.

  6. Charles Richardson

    @John – that’s a really good question. I don’t know the answer, but I think parties generally feel less pressure to keep in tune with their supporters than most people would think. Most voters aren’t very ideologically motivated; they’re mainly concerned that the economy keeps ticking over and public services keep getting delivered without taxes getting too high. Philosophical differences take their toll eventually – and I think they will with the Liberal Party – but it can take a long time.

    @Michael – as it happens, I strongly supported Fraser in the ’70s, and I still think Kerr on balance probably did the right thing. My main difference from Fraser (as you’d see if you followed the link I provided) is that I’m much more of a free-marketeer than he is. But I wasn’t writing about me.

    @Michael James – yes, I think that’s probably right. Indeed the process seems to precede Rudd; the Liberal Party may have taken from the Hawke-Keating years the moral that they couldn’t win by being more pro-market than Labor, so they mostly stopped trying and started to differentiate themselves more on other issues. But I suspect the American example was important as well.

  7. Andrew Olexander

    Excellent analysis Charles…

    Terms like “wet” & “dry” and “small ‘l’ liberal are peculiarly Australian – and cause our Liberal cousins in the US and UK to scratch their heads, and look at us quizzically…

    In the US and UK, this is because Liberals and Conservatives reside (mainly) in different political parties. Here they reputedly ‘share’ one.

    Thousands of Liberals (of the left and right) have fled the Liberal Party over the last 15 years in particular – not because of the old ‘wet – dry’ arguments – but because of the advent of an alien looking and strident fundamentalist conservatism like the one you describe.

    Many former Liberal Party members and loyalists cannot bring themselves to reconcile with a philosophy which at once resembles hard line US Conservatism – with a huge dose of DLP/ NCC Conservatism thrown in for good measure.

    To Liberals of the both right and left (as you put it) such a dominant policy direction and complexion in today’s Liberal Party is simply a foreign anathema.

    Those ‘Liberals’ who remain – variously described as “moderate” or “progressive” have well and truly lost the numbers, the battle and the internal debate over policy. These days they compromise so much that they are indistinguishable from the conservatives – who hold the silent captive, and who purge those who speak out.

    The enduring question is: “Where have all the Liberals gone?” And many ask themselves – when will somebody move to create a truly ‘Liberal’ party in Australia to take on the conservatism of both major parties?

  8. davidk

    I certainly agree that the electorate as a whole is generally more conservative than liberal. Otherwise Howard wouldn’t have won 3 elections. I aassume Abbott thinks so too. I imagine Murdoch is as well. I also concede that Labor has moved to the right and believe the Greens are the only representatives of the left. It remains unclear where Rudd sits.

  9. Andrew Olexander


    Yes… generally agree with you. If our political dynamics were different in Australia – I tend to suspect our voting behaviour would split similarly to the UK – 30% Con, 30% Lab, 30% LibDem – give or take.

    It was interesting to hear Bob Brown extolling the virtues of Fraser yesterday (and Liberals like him), and describing Australian Greens policies across all portfolios as overwhelmingly small ‘l’ liberal!

    Time will tell on that – the Greens have a lot to do in the meantime.

    As the National Party have proven for years in Australia, Nick McKim is proving in Tassie – and as the Liberal Democrats are now proving in the UK – one does not necessarily need an overall majority of votes to significantly influence policy outcomes in your philosophic direction – ‘coalitions’ also work well.

  10. j.oneill

    @DavidK. The opinion polls do not generally support that proposition. On a range of important issues the public is more progressive than the politicians from either the Coalition or Labor. Involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, or the slavish adherence to Israel’s ongoing defiance of international opinion, or having a Bill of Rights.
    This means that for a significant proportion of the population they are not getting the government they want irrespective of whether it is run by (currently) Rudd or Abbott. That raises serious questions about how “representative” our democracy really is.

    The modern Liberal Party (and its National appendage) are certainly increasingly dominated by the fundamentalist right wing, but how different is that really from Rudd’s viewpoint? Think about the plethora of anti-democratic legislation passed by the Howard government in the post 9/11 ‘war on terror’ binge. Not a single piece of that obnoxious assault on our democratic traditions (in the common law sense) has been modified or repealed even as the US Supreme Court and the English Court of Appeal and House of Lords have wound back the more repressive elements of the British and American equivalents.

    The last time the Australian High Court pronounced on the matter of our civil liberties it was to uphold the notion that someone could be held indefinitely in prison without charge and without trial.

    There is more that is seriously wrong with our political system than represented by Malcolm Fraser’s departure from the Liberal (sic) party.

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