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The crumbling of the Liberal Party can be traced back to John Howard’s leadership even in opposition, and his remaking of Menzies’ party in his own image. By Mike Seccombe.

Part one: Collapse of the modern Liberal Party

Former prime minister John Howard at the Liberal Party 2022 election night event at the Fullerton Hotel in Sydney.
Former prime minister John Howard at the Liberal Party 2022 election night event at the Fullerton Hotel in Sydney.
Credit: Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images

The devolution of the federal Liberal Party has been a gradual process. Yet if one vignette sums it up, it was the scene on the streets of Manly, in the affluent, socially progressive seat of Warringah on Sydney’s northern beaches, three days before the election.

Katherine Deves, a woman with no significant Liberal history or serious policy credentials, was driven to politics only by her virulent opposition to transgender athletes. She was selected over the objections of local party members, at the behest of Scott Morrison, and was carefully kept away from media and public scrutiny for most of the campaign. Deves finally broke cover on that Wednesday street walk. With her was former prime minister John Howard.

They made an incongruous couple: Deves towering over Howard as she glided and he shambled along the footpath. He did most of the talking. She mostly smiled and nodded as he insisted her views about trans athletes were “not insensitive, it’s just a statement of the bleeding obvious”.

Howard must have known that Deves would not take a seat in parliament. Right from the start it was clear Warringah – taken from Tony Abbott by independent Zali Steggall in 2019 – was all but unwinnable. That is why a long line of potential candidates, including former premiers Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian, declined to run. Once Deves’ abhorrent social media posts came to light, describing transgender people as “surgically mutilated and sterilised”, among many other things, she was politically dead.

This raises the question of why Howard was sent out on the street with Deves, three days out from polling. The only plausible answer is that it was to ensure continued focus on the trans issue – actually a non-issue, given its irrelevance to the lives of most Australians. The object of the exercise was not to help Deves – she was beyond help – but to try to win votes in culturally conservative outer suburban and regional electorates. Howard was there to do what he always does better than anyone else in the party: foment division by escalating the culture wars. He did so no matter the cost to Liberal Party moderates facing challenges from progressive candidates for the votes of small-l liberal constituents.

Those moderate Liberals complained at the time, privately and in some cases publicly, that they were being thrown under the bus by the party’s right-wing leadership. They wanted Deves disendorsed. Now we see how right they were to be concerned. Nine moderate-held seats in the house of representatives were lost. Only six remain, plus another seven in the senate.

Among the seats lost were many once considered Liberal heartland: Goldstein, North Sydney, Mackellar, Wentworth and Curtin, now held by teal independents;  Bennelong, Higgins, Hasluck, Pearce, Tangney and Boothby, now held by Labor; Ryan and Brisbane, now held by the Greens. And of course, Kooyong, held for 32 years by the Liberal Party’s founder, Sir Robert Menzies, and for the past 12 by the former treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

In Frydenberg’s absence, the only contender for the leadership was the hard-right Peter Dutton. When he announced his frontbench this week, its members were drawn overwhelmingly from the right and centre-right factions of the party.

Only a handful of moderates got frontbench spots, mostly in minor portfolios. The most senior of these were Simon Birmingham, shadow minister for Foreign Affairs; Paul Fletcher, Science and the Arts, the Digital Economy and Government Services and manager of opposition business in the house; and Jane Hume, who was given Finance, Public Service and special minister of state. Marise Payne, who initially resisted a spot, was persuaded to take the position of shadow cabinet secretary. Deputy leader Sussan Ley is nominally moderate, but over recent years has drifted closer to Morrison’s centre-right group.

And so we are left with a federal Liberal Party that is the most right-wing it has ever been, although Dutton has promised to be accommodating of a wider range of views than his predecessor.

“We aren’t the ‘Moderate Party’. We aren’t the ‘Conservative Party’,” Dutton said two weeks ago, as he confirmed his intention to become leader. “We are Liberals. We are the Liberal Party.”

Dutton echoed the words of Menzies, promising to work for the benefit of the “forgotten people” of middle Australia. But the party he leads is no longer the party of Menzies – it has not been for decades. Dr Peter Baume can attest to that.

Thirty-six years ago, Baume was a leading moderate light in the Liberal Party, then in opposition to the Hawke government. He was also the shadow minister responsible for the Status of Women. In June 1986, he delivered a powerful speech, tracing the history of discriminatory practices against women and calling for the introduction of legislation to give women equal employment opportunities.

But the following year, when Labor introduced the bill he had called for, his party’s leadership determined to vote against it. Baume and six others crossed the floor to vote with Labor. He later said his liberal principles “sat poorly with the increasingly dominant radical conservatism” of his party.

The leader of the party at the time was the same man who protected Deves in that Manly street walk: John Howard. He was the same leader who first diverged from the centrist line of Menzies, proudly declaring himself the most conservative leader the party had ever had.

Baume sees a clear through line from that long-ago declaration to the Liberal rout at this most recent election, from the leadership of Howard to the likes of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison and the hugely diminished benches Dutton now leads.

“There’s nothing wrong with him being a conservative. But there’s everything wrong with saying the party should become a conservative party. There’s a big difference between the two,” he says of Howard.

“It’s an unbelievable achievement that we lost Kooyong, Warringah, North Sydney, Wentworth, Goldstein, all those seats. That really took some doing. If you were a disaffected, small-l liberal, you had nowhere to go.”

Baume is 87 now and lives in Warringah. He voted for Zali Steggall.

 

The late 1970s and 1980s were a time of great political change, not only in Australia. The post-war economic orthodoxy was in the process of being supplanted by what in this country was called economic rationalism and elsewhere was known as Thatcherism, Reaganism or, in New Zealand, Rogernomics. It favoured a free-market economy, cutting tariffs and industry protection, the privatisation of state assets, lower direct taxation, higher indirect taxation and smaller government.

The Liberal government of the time was divided over these reforms between so-called “wets” and “dries”, with the latter grouping enthusiastic for change. Prominent among the dries was then treasurer Phillip Lynch, who hired a gun economist from the Reserve Bank to help his staff with policy. That was John Hewson.

When Lynch was forced to step aside following allegations of improper land dealings – he was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing – Howard replaced the treasurer and inherited Hewson, who says he was encouraged by then prime minister Malcolm Fraser to keep an eye on Howard.

“[Fraser] was very concerned about Howard,” Hewson says. “They never got on and he never trusted Howard.”

Hewson believed dry economics and progressive social policies could go together. Indeed, when Labor won government a few years later, in 1983, it showed that was the case. While the economic changes Bob Hawke and Paul Keating introduced were inevitably disruptive, they endeavoured to soften their impact – in sharp contrast to Howard’s ideological equivalents, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

In opposition, the Liberal Party fell into internecine war between its moderate elements – led by Andrew Peacock – and Howard and the social conservatives.

Menzies’ conceptualisation of the Liberal Party has family as one of its central tenets but, says Hewson, Howard’s ideal of what a family should look like failed to evolve from the 1940s. It did not account for different family structures, and particularly working women.

“He had this particular view of the family structure: male and female, father and mother, and 2.2 children. He was always enthusiastic about the idea of the family tax [which] legitimised income splitting between the parents,” Hewson says.

Issues of race and ethnicity also were prominent in Howard’s years in opposition. In 1986, for example, he virulently opposed sanctions on the apartheid regime of South Africa. While Howard did not go as far as Thatcher, who called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, he repeatedly talked down the prospects of ending white-minority rule.

In 1988 he released his “One Australia” migration and ethnic affairs policy, calling for an end to multiculturalism and opposing a treaty with Indigenous Australians. He argued that the rate of Asian immigration was too high and threatened Australia’s “social cohesion”.

Whatever else might be said of Howard, he was a stayer. Finally, in 1996, 22 years after entering parliament, he became prime minister.

Political wisdom holds that oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. The Australian electorate was, by then, tired of Labor and might well have thrown it out three years earlier but for fear of the daunting complexity of the Fightback policy offering of John Hewson.

The 1996 poll also produced the shock election of a disendorsed Liberal from Queensland, Pauline Hanson, whose campaign focused on stirring resentment among working-class voters against the imagined privileges enjoyed by Indigenous Australians and Asian immigrants.

She was widely, immediately condemned, but not by Howard. The newly elected prime minister, who had declared that “the times will suit me”, eventually offered a mild rebuke of Hanson – perhaps because he shared some of her prejudices, perhaps because he saw opportunity to divide and conquer.

Howard was a master practitioner of the politics of division, seeking advantage in fighting culture wars. He railed against what he called the “black-armband view” of history. He steadfastly refused to offer an apology for the forced removal of the Stolen Generations. He ran a scare campaign against land rights, memorably appearing on ABC TV with a large map in September 1997.

“This,” he told Kerry O’Brien, “shows 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia coloured brown on this map. Now, the Labor Party and the Democrats are effectively saying that the Aboriginal people of Australia should have the potential right of veto over further development of 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia. Now, that is a very simple message. I think the Australian people will understand that message.”

The incident illustrated his political genius: it was a simplistic interpretation of reality, by which he managed to mislead without actually lying.

Howard went on to become Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister after Menzies. But he came very close to leading a one-term government. The Coalition lost 14 seats in 1998 and a leaked post-election review by party president Shane Stone said the government was perceived as being mean, tricky and out of touch.

It might have lost in 2001, too, but for a bit of luck. In August the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 433 rescued refugees, mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan, sought to bring them to Australia. Howard seized the chance to make it a national security issue, sending SAS troops to board the ship.

When Islamic terrorists struck the United States on September 11, 2001, Howard happened to be in Washington. He pledged to join the US in its war on terror – and for a November election fought on border security. Around that election, he coined his most indelible line: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

 

Howard was lucky. He was also lucky to fight the next election against a hyper-aggressive and somewhat unhinged Labor leader in Mark Latham. He was lucky to be prime minister through an unprecedented resources boom, during which money flowed into Treasury coffers almost faster than his government could give it away in tax cuts and middle-class welfare payments.

As to his legacy? Most commonly enumerated as lasting policy are his introduction of the goods and services tax and the implementation of strict gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. Most Australians, most Liberals, were wholly supportive. The bravery came from Tim Fischer, the leader of the Nationals, whose constituents needed their guns.

What else? His government halved the rate of capital gains tax, thereby fuelling the housing price boom that persists to this day, which turned homes from being simply places to live into financial investments. He cultivated anti-intellectualism and relentlessly attacked the national broadcaster. He courted the religious right. He pandered to vested interests in the mining sector and ignored the environment and climate change. He imported divisive electioneering methods such as push-polling and dog-whistling from America. He remade the party of Menzies in his own image.

“The modern Liberal Party was really founded on the idea of a very deliberate kind of coming together of conservative and liberal strands in the culture,” says Professor Frank Bongiorno, a political and cultural historian at the Australian National University. “Menzies was very insistent on that. It was very much based on the notions of democratic participation and a sense of post-war idealism … that the war had been fought for individual liberties and the gesture towards the new ways of economic management and the welfare state, and basically he pragmatically supported them. It was based on this notion that it was a democratic, participatory party.”

But that is not what Howard left. Under him there was little tolerance for diversity of opinion. It was a tenet of the Menzies party, for example, that Liberals could vote with their consciences and cross the floor of parliament. In all Howard’s 11 years in power, though, former chief minister of the ACT Gary Humphries says he was the only Liberal who did. Humphries made the move to federal politics and now says he wishes he had not, so stultifying was the control of the right wing.

As for being a grassroots party, Bongiorno says Menzies would be appalled at the tight control exercised over candidates by party leaders, the idea that “politics is for professionals and everyone else should basically just butt out”.

Sarah Maddison, a professor of politics and director of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne, says Menzies would not countenance the politics of division and the culture wars that came to characterise the party under Howard and the leaders who followed him.

“Howard unleashed it,” she says, “and his successors, like Tony Abbott, pushed that boat out as far as they could. And when that didn’t go so well for him, still, no one in the party was listening. And so we ended up with someone as shallow and meaningless as Scott Morrison.”

The question now is whether the Liberal Party can recover. 

This is part one of a two-part series. Read Part two: The Howard battlers joined the party.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Part one: Collapse of the modern Liberal Party".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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