This article was originally published on June 1, 2016.
There’s a story that has become the story of the 2016 election. Yet no one’s paying attention to it. It only occurred to your correspondent the other day, three weeks into this ghastly drawn-out torture. We have all been missing it, because for the past year or more it has been omnipresent. Yet it’s an extraordinary happening.
The “event” in question is the extraordinary weakness of the Liberal Party, its real decay. We have become accustomed to talking of both Labor and Liberal as “hollowed out”, and that is true. They’re not the mass parties they once were. But operationally (if not morally-politically) Labor has made the transition to being a post-class, post-mass-member party far better than the Liberals. Labor retains a stable institutional base with the trade unions, which gives it some vestigial connection to a rank-and-file.
Their internal conflicts are managed through factions and sub-factions; when things become chaotic, they don’t stay that way for ever. Their candidates may be machine people — a political caste drawn from a wider political “class” — but they are still, by and large, competent. Even the “mystery meat” candidates that must be found for unwinnable seats are, by and large, not whackers. When they capture state government, they tend to stay there for at least two terms.
Now, compare and contrast the Liberal Party, and in doing so, remember the inevitable effect of events. Once something has happened, it appears, in retrospect, inevitable, no matter how unlikely it appeared beforehand. Viz, the defeat of the Newman government in Queensland, and the Baillieu/Napthine government in Victoria. In Queensland, what was set up to be a minimum decade out of power was dissolved in a single election.
In Victoria, a slower-burn defeat delivered one of the most socially left/progressive governments Australia has seen. The Andrews government is quietly, competently moving the whole state “leftwards” (in a certain manner; I wouldn’t call a government that wants to police VCE texts but is willing to give away the Port of Melbourne to private interests for decades a “left” government, if you see what I mean.)
Now, a first-term government is fighting for its life. Like most people, I believe that the Turnbull government will be returned; indeed, going off the experience of the UK in 2015, I suspect the majority will be less reduced than many believe. But I’m saying this for the reason every other pundit is: I have no clue, and it will be less embarrassing to be surprised by a close-run or a hung Parliament than by a Liberal return. Nevertheless, if the Libs have bad luck, and Labor good luck, if the marathon campaign continues to expose Turnbull’s inability to project power, and to advantage Shorten’s modest but solid political skills, anything could happen.
The fact that this is even considered a possibility is a measure of the dire straits the Liberal Party is in. Were it to be defeated — outright, or in a hung Parliament that elevated Labor — Turnbull and the party would have been subject to an unprecedented humiliation. Some are fond of referring back to the Scullin government as the last single-term government (by some, I mean myself and the Hendersons). But the circumstances do not compare at all. Scullin came to power in 1929 riding atop a Labor Party, like people ride dragons.
One part of the party had moved leftwards through the ’20s; the Catholic Right had remained centrist. The NSW branch was a law unto itself. The Wall Street crash happened in the same week as the election. Scullin was now faced with a party that had two exactly opposite cures for this global disaster: moving left to full socialism, and moving right to save capitalism. A split was inevitable. Labor was split three ways, and was replaced by a party, the United Australia Party, which had an ex-Labor man as leader (Joe Lyons, with his canny media adviser George Palmer, father of Clive).
Nothing like this has undermined the Liberal Party, in a period when economic growth continues and mass prosperity is yet to be fully interrupted. The conservatives snit over Safe Schools, Abbott’s removal, etc, isn’t a real rebellion; it’s just a sulk, that the world is not as they would wish it, is not receptive to their ideas, and that their champion turned out to be a dill. At state and federal level, the Liberal Party is a self-disembowelling entity; it is hollowing itself out in real time. Turnbull’s scrappy, diffident, second-rate campaign is part of this. If he loses, he’s gone. If he wins in anything less than triumph, he remains — so contrary to the first months of his premiership — a bit of a fizza.
How did it come to this? How does such a party end up fighting for its life against a drab and uninspiring Labor Party? One answer would be that the Liberal Party has now, after two decades of work, so successfully undermined the platform on which it once stood, that it has fallen through the hole. The party has simply ignored, or not even understood, the lessons for liberalism in the 20th century — lessons that the party’s founders in the 1940s understood well.
A liberal party always faces a dilemma that neither socialists nor genuine conservatives face: what will be the form of its unity? How can it preach the primacy of the individual, yet at the same time have a mechanism by which individual interest can be surrendered to a collective party will? More importantly, what sort of unity does it preach? What surrounds individualism, in a way that ensures meaningful social life is possible?
Pre-World War II, the non-Labor right managed this by mobilising nationalism, imperial loyalty and a measure of Bismarckian social welfare and nation-building. No one questioned that the cities and towns would be built by boards of works, that universities would be outside of commerce, that shops would close on Sunday, etc. In the post-war era, the refoundation of a Liberal party emphasised a changed role for the state. The party is portrayed as “Menzies’ child”, but it was a coalition of forces, much of the ethos arising from the war and the struggle against fascism. The state was now to be a proactive and positive element, not preserving existing relations, but changing them, in the direction of greater equality — while, contrary to Labor, preserving the primacy of property and commerce.
It was this fusion of social liberalism and, as a junior partner, classical liberalism, that gave the Liberal Party its great post-war success. It also made it a mass party, dependent on membership dues in a way that matched Labor’s union base — and minimised the sway that business donors could have over it. When the party lost a handle on that mix — which it did in the ’80s, federally and in NSW and Victoria — and wandered into a mix of austere classical liberalism, nationalist populism and authoritarianism, it was rejected.
Strikingly, the federal Liberal Party has never been the key agent of neoliberalism, and the dismantling of the proactive state. By the time John Howard came along, much of that work had been done for him by Keating. Paradoxically, Howard could now revive a version of that social liberal-classical liberal mix on cultural terms – the promise to create a more “comfortable and relaxed country”. In 1996, Howard was the candidate of collective life; Keating promised more “exciting” disruption.
The social liberal-classical liberal mix had one particularly vital function: it made the role of liberal politician meaningful. To run a proactive state was an expression of one’s liberalism. In the post-war years, such social liberalism was uppermost in the intent and careers of people such as Hasluck, Casey and Downer the second (the Downer sequels have proved disappointing) (none of this, I’m claiming as particularly original; a fuller version of some parts of it can be read in Judith Brett’s Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class). Thereafter, the social liberal impulse began to migrate, changing its form each time — to Whitlam Labor, as left-liberalism, in the ’70s and ’80s, and thence to the Greens in the 2000s. There it now resides, which is why the Greens are becoming competitive in Liberal seats — especially Victorian ones, from whence such social liberalism sprang.
Once the Liberal Party could no longer offer its distinct brand of social liberalism, once it could no longer say that there was a specific and universal reason for it to be in power (other than the defence of class interests), it started to come apart at the seams. Howard made budget cuts, some of them brutal and nasty (especially in indigenous affairs), but he did not change the form of the social state he inherited. Instead he waged culture war to try and wrest control of it — the national museum, the ABC, SBS, etc — rather than privatising or abolishing them. He created a mix of nationalism, social liberalism and neoliberalism that served well — until he undermined the social liberal component by introducing WorkChoices.
Since then, no one in the Liberal Party has been able to find a new mix that would work in the 2010s. Indeed, the party has jumped on its horse and rode off in all directions at once. The Abbott campaign for government in 2013 created the appearance of a social contract simply by lying and claiming that it would preserve Labor’s social program. The exposure of this as a cheap lie more or less destroyed what remaining social liberal credentials the party could command.
That left a political vacuum, which Abbott and Hockey tried to fill with a noxious mix of free-market economics, sub-hysterical reactionary cultural values, and, well, just ad-libbing. Thus became clear the double-whammy for a party that loses its distinct social-political reforming mission — not only do you have no program, but the quality of your personnel begins to suffer.
From the demise of Howard onward, and some time before, the Australian right had begun to be taken over by American libertarian strands — a way of thinking that holds government as an essentially parasitic enterprise, the role of those elected to office to restrain its further spread. That’s the honest version of it. The corrupt one is, having no belief in the idea of a proactive liberal state, the party has no internalised restraints on becoming an agent and client of the corporate entities that now comprise the bulk of its funding base. The final result of that is a decline in the quality of the personnel.
Because, after all, if being a liberal politician has no meaning in itself, other than the prevention of more government, or the advancement of individual interests, who on Earth would be attracted to it? Increasingly the best people from the right side of the social debate aren’t doing politics at all; they’re out in business — above all, in tech, which has become a form of social mission in its own right, and taken on the form of politics.
The commercially oriented public-spirited person now feels that the best way of realising such a destiny is to make a pile of money, and then become a hands-on philanthropist. They would once have signed up for the Liberal Party. They are no more likely to sign up for the Liberal Party than the are for the Knights Templar. Incapable of offering a real and integrated political vocation, the Liberal party fills up with carpetbaggers, scions, libertarian fanatics, and people who don’t have that much else to do.
How else would it be possible for the Liberals to be running someone like Chris Jermyn for the seat of McEwen? When I saw Jermyn’s disastrous reverse ambush of Bill Shorten, and his rapid retreat from reporters asking him basic questions about the party’s Medicare policy (“This is why I hate journalists,” he said, as he packed up his “listening post”), I assumed he was a candidate for a safe Labor seat, a stooge dropped in so the nine Libs in Gellibrand had someone to vote for. That he is the candidate for a crucial marginal beggars belief. I’m sure there are equally bad Labor candidates. I bet none of them are in marginal seats.
Compare also the quality of the Labor frontbench and the Coalition — and, well, there is none. The Coalition is a Grand Guignol freak show, a reflection of Labor out of a funhouse mirror. The takeover by Turnbull’s gimcrack entrepreneurialism was the final extinguishment of any sort of integrated free-market, social liberal-nationalist politics in the party.
The Liberal Party is now spruiking a magic beans view of private investment, low taxes and growth, about which most Australians have great suspicion. It is the right doing what it has done for the past decade: pitching to the Australia they wish we had, a US knock-off, rather than the Sweden-Down-Under they’re stuck with.
The only thing protecting the party from being pushed further down in the polls, is the unwillingness of Labor centre to take a risk, and talk in terms of bigger ideas and greater themes. Without doing that, they won’t do anything more than reduce the government’s majority on July 2. If they try for something more, whatever the risk of ambush, they have the chance to deal a heavy blow to a party that has spent a decade undoing the careful political shaping of the previous half-century. That’s the big story, or one of them anyway, of this election.