Victoria’s Coalition government, in office for almost 10 months, has so far been largely successful in avoiding controversy — in keeping with Ted Baillieu’s steady-as-she-goes style and with his very narrow parliamentary majority. Last week, however, some of its internal tensions rose to the surface.

The issue was the state’s charter of human rights, introduced by the Labor government in 2006 and now under review. Coalition backbenchers on the scrutiny of acts and regulations committee produced a report demanding that the charter be gutted, leading last week to debate on the issue: Greg Barns suggested it was the sort of thing one might expect in Zimbabwe.

But then Baillieu stepped in, making it clear that he would not allow such a radical step. Responsibility for the review has been taken over by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and it is expected that the outcome will be some minor tinkering with the charter — an outcome that, if necessary, the Premier will have to force down the throats of his Coalition partner and his own backbench.

It’s no surprise that a Centre-Right party would contain strong opponents of a human rights charter: that position, however philosophically confused, has become pretty much standard on the Right throughout the “Anglosphere”. (Even in the US, the Right’s support for the Bill of Rights is at best highly selective.) If anything, Baillieu’s position is the noteworthy one.

It’s further evidence, if any were needed, of what a remarkable beast the Victorian Liberal Party is. When it comes to economic policy, for example, its mixed Deakinite-liberal heritage leads it to be all over the shop, but on social issues its progressive tendencies have usually been uppermost.

The most striking case is probably abortion. Every other state division of the party can be relied on to produce an anti-choice majority, but not Victoria. In the 2006 debate on RU486 its MPs voted two to one in favour of the pro-choice position, and did so on a cross-factional basis.

That’s not to say that the membership at large agrees with the positions its representatives take, but it at least means that the forces of reaction have not been sufficiently strong to override the progressive instincts of the party’s elite.

(Parenthetically let me note that the result, in my view, has not always been good policy: while following the “progressive” line meant supporting freedom in the abortion debate and on the human rights charter, it meant going the other way on the Bracks government’s racial and religious vilification legislation.)

The question is whether that is now changing. It’s common knowledge that the party’s membership is smaller, older and less representative than ever. That is already having its effect on preselections, with fewer and fewer qualified candidates presenting themselves and an influx of backwoods ideologues in their place.

Moreover, the cross-factional support for progressive policy has been waning; instead it looks more like the personal property of the Baillieu group, who lack a majority in the party organisation. Peter Costello, who was strongly pro-choice, has retired, and the Kroger-Costello group has begun to look more and more like a right-wing force.

As such, it will have trouble escaping the madness that overtaken the federal Liberal Party and its counterparts in the US and elsewhere — the flight from reason and science and the embrace of a mindless partisan populism, often abetted by religious fundamentalism.

If that happens, life for the Victorian Liberals will get interesting.

Baillieu may succeed in facing down the fundamentalists this time, but if he is to keep them within the tent he may have to concede more and more to their way of thinking.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey