On election night in 2013, the Liberal Party dominated Australian politics. Tony Abbott has just thrashed Labor, picking up 90 seats. The Liberals governed in the two biggest states, and the LNP under Campbell Newman had nearly obliterated Queensland Labor the year before; the Liberals governed in the boom state of Western Australia. Hopes were high that the Weatherill government would be dispatched in South Australia, and Labor’s time in Tasmania looked over. A long period of Liberal ascendancy appeared certain.
Three and half years later, the Liberal Party faces its worst crisis since 2007, with a massive loss in Western Australia and a dire position at the federal level leaving it struggling to compete with Labor across the country. The party went backwards at its first federal electoral test — an unwanted Western Australia Senate byelection in 2014. One by one, conservative governments have fallen since then.
It now only governs in NSW — under the party’s third leader since 2014 — Tasmania and, barely, at the federal level, with constant speculation that Malcolm Turnbull’s one-seat majority might vanish. The party has had only two victories since 2013: in Tasmania, where a decrepit Labor government was ousted, and in NSW, where Mike Baird handily beat a Labor Party still recovering from an extraordinary period of blatant corruption.
But arguably, the situation is worse than in 2007, when the defeat of the Howard government meant every government in Australia was controlled by Labor. Back then, the Coalition faced ageing governments in the eastern states, and although it had failed to remove the corrupt NSW Labor from Macquarie Street, it could look forward to ousting them under Barry O’Farrell.
Worse, the 2017 generation of Liberals must deal with a problem the 2007 class thought was dead and buried — One Nation, which despite its inept performance in Western Australia, still threatens the Liberal National Party in Queensland. And unlike in 2007, when preliminary moves were underway to create the LNP, there is now serious talk of some form of demerger to enable the Nationals to better fight off the threat from the right in regional Queensland, bringing a decade-long union to an end.
And in the absence of a successful leader such as John Howard (and, briefly, Abbott), the federal party is split between its moderate and hard-right wings. This division has become fused with a personality-based conflict between Abbott and Turnbull. While the Rudd-Gillard conflict wrecked Labor’s second term, it was never motivated by ideology. The Liberal Party must cope with a deep ideological divide centred on competing, vengeful personalities.
Money, factions, ideology and a fractious base have plunged the Liberal Party into its darkest period since the Howard years. In a special series, Crikey will look at the factors behind the crisis besetting one of Australia’s major political institutions.