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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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