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After John Howard’s loss, the Liberal Party was transformed again, with branches taken over by religious sects, and the voters he targeted from a distance becoming members. By Mike Seccombe.

Part two: The Howard battlers joined the party

Former prime minister Scott Morrison, with his family, concedes defeat following the federal election, on May 21.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison, with his family, concedes defeat following the federal election, on May 21.
Credit: Reuters / Loren Elliott

In defeat, Scott Morrison finally managed to unify his party. Almost everyone, it seems, blames him for their loss.

The former Liberal member for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, who lost the blue-ribbon seat to independent Allegra Spender, spoke of the “visceral” dislike of Morrison he encountered while campaigning. Voters, he said, felt Morrison “was too religious”.

He continued, “They didn’t like that he carried coal into parliament one time. They didn’t believe his sincerity on climate change … They didn’t like our handling of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations, and Grace Tame.”

You hear variations of the same theme from lots of Liberals, from Labor, and in the media analysis. It was all down to Morrison’s character, and perhaps a bit of Barnaby Joyce.

There was certainly much for Labor to attack: Morrison’s propensity for ducking responsibility and blaming others when things went wrong; the inadequacy of his response to the pandemic, bushfires, floods, climate change and the cost-of-living crisis; his picking of gratuitous fights with Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia over lockdowns; his lack of awareness or interest in the concerns of women; his encouragement of pork-barrelling and the corruption of government process; and his general lack of candour, empathy and competence.

In his post-election analysis at the National Press Club on Wednesday, the Labor Party’s national secretary and campaign director, Paul Erickson, went through all these failings in great, damning detail. He also stressed, contrary to popular wisdom, that the fault lay not just with Morrison.

“Scott Morrison may have come to personify these failures, but they are institutional and collective, not individual,” he said. “They were actively prosecuted by senior cabinet ministers and all Coalition leaders, including the two men then seen as the only likely successors to Scott Morrison – Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton.”

If anything, Erickson cast his net too narrowly by restricting his criticism to the Morrison government. The fact is voters are moving away from the Coalition – particularly the Liberal Party – not only at the federal level but in every jurisdiction in Australia. They began doing it well before Scott Morrison became prime minister.

This suggests Morrison is only a symptom of something that has afflicted conservative politics for a long time and now has cast it into rapid, maybe even terminal, decline. The conservative side of politics has collapsed before. The Liberal Party, after all, was constructed from the wreckage of the United Australia Party.

Ian McAuley, a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, provides some hard numerical evidence of that decline. He has compiled the numbers on the vote share of both Labor and the Coalition parties for the past 20 federal, state and territory elections, back to 2014.

Labor’s primary vote – that is, before the distribution of preferences – fell in nine of those elections, but by less than two points on average. This was roughly consistent with the long-term decline in the vote share of the major parties over almost half a century.

The Coalition, in contrast, saw its vote share fall in 19 of those 20 elections, by an average of almost 12 points.

“The exception was the Queensland election in 2020, when the One Nation vote came back to the Coalition. But it lost the election anyway,” McAuley says.

The biggest fall in the Labor vote share was 4.4 points in the May 2021 Tasmanian election. There were bigger swings than that on nine occasions for the Coalition. In the case of Western Australia, the Liberal vote plunged 15.9 points in 2017 and another 9.9 in 2021.

The consequences are evident in Australia’s parliaments. The only state in which the conservatives hold a majority is Tasmania, and even then it is of just one seat. The Coalition is in tenuous minority government in New South Wales. Everywhere else it is in opposition. In the west there are only two surviving Liberal members in the lower house.

At last month’s federal election, the Liberals received just 23.9 per cent of first preference votes, down 4.3 points from three years ago.

The numbers tell of a party in existential crisis, but they don’t say how it came to be there. Doing that requires close study of the Liberals over the past several decades.

Emeritus Professor Judith Brett, political scientist and historian at La Trobe University, traces it back to the time of the Howard government and its adoption of the tactics of the United States Republican Party, which had made a political art form of stoking the fears and prejudices of “disengaged, angry, lower-working-class people”.

Those divisive tactics included belligerent rhetoric, personal smear campaigns, push polling, the drumming up of wedge issues, and so-called dog whistling, particularly on race, says another political scientist, Dr James Murphy of Swinburne University.

Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, the pollster-strategists, were instrumental in importing similar tactics for the use of the political right to this country, and subsequently to the Tories in Britain and right-wing parties elsewhere.

An early example of these tactics, says Murphy, was seen in the 1992 Queensland campaign, overseen by Crosby, against the Goss Labor government. The campaign involved claims Labor had blood on its hands after a prisoner out on early release committed a murder. This replicated the 1988 campaign run by the US Republicans against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, blaming him for crimes committed by convicts allowed out of prison on weekend furloughs in Massachusetts, the state of which he was governor.

A standout Australian example of this stoking of prejudice was the children overboard affair, which saw the promulgation of the lie that asylum seekers who were trying to gain access to protection in Australia had deliberately thrown their own children into the sea. Howard rode to a win in the 2001 election by wildly exaggerating the threat posed to this country by a relatively small number of boat arrivals, even conflating the asylum seekers with the Islamist extremists they were, in reality, fleeing.

Fear has been used by the Coalition against its political opponents ever since. To take one set of examples, Professor George Williams, former dean of law at UNSW Sydney, counts 92 counterterrorism laws introduced in this country since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

“It’s been rightly described as hyperlegislation,” says Williams. “It goes well beyond what you find in the United Kingdom, the United States. And that doesn’t even cover the many laws on boat arrivals, asylum seekers, or more recently, foreign influence and interference.”

Of course, the threats are real. But, he says, the purpose of much of this legislative activity went beyond simply addressing the issue. The aim was to “set a narrative” that only a conservative government was sufficiently tough to deal with it. Essentially, it was to wedge Labor and win votes.

Initially, it worked. Over time, however, as the terrorist threat has receded in the public imagination, Williams says, “it just isn’t the vote winner it was”.

Before the recent election, Murphy notes, the government’s attack on Labor shifted to focus on a new external threat: China. The claim was that the Chinese Communist Party wanted Labor to win because it would be weaker in its dealings with the superpower. Morrison went so far as to label Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, a “Manchurian candidate” – that is, an agent of an enemy power.

This was not a cleverly calculated effort to wedge Labor. It was more forlorn than that. It was, says Murphy, a “dead cat”. In its determination to shift the debate away from its own failings, Morrison and Peter Dutton threw a metaphorical dead cat on the table as a distraction. But it served only to show how bereft the government was of any plan of its own to deal with China. Or anything else, for that matter. All it offered was negativity.

Fred Chaney, a former leading light in the Liberal Party, sees its current “desperate” state as a direct consequence of its long drift to the ideological right and its adoption of the politics of division during the Howard years.

Chaney served 19 years in the federal parliament, from 1974 to 1993, first as a senator for Western Australia and then as the member for Pearce, which fell to Labor last month. He served as a minister under Malcolm Fraser and as deputy leader of the party under Andrew Peacock. He had a reputation for integrity and was well-regarded by both sides of politics.

He also is the uncle of Kate Chaney, the moderate independent who won Curtin at the election, after a 12.8 per cent swing away from the Liberal incumbent. Fred Chaney quit the Liberals in 1995 and these days laments what has become of the party of Menzies.

“I never got from Menzies what I feel about listening to modern Liberals, which is a contempt for the other. It’s a really, really harsh, harsh attitude – that your political opponents are the enemy. It’s completely wrong. Your political opponents are people with different opinions.”

He finds the divisiveness of contemporary politics “really offensive and, I think, very, very counterproductive”.

“I would hope that what we’ve got now with a third of the voters voting for this Coalition, the third voting for the Labor Party, and … a big crossbench, it’s an opportunity for the parliament to really go back to taking its role seriously, as both a legislative body and as a body which holds government to account and which acts as a clearing house for ideas.”

That’s the hope. The fear is that the Coalition will not change its hyperpartisan, divisive ways.

“The natural tendency of the opposition,” Chaney says, “on the precedent of Tony Abbott, on the precedent of Scott Morrison and on the precedent of Dutton so far, is that they will resume seeing their role as conducting guerilla warfare against the government, right or wrong.”

Even if Dutton, the hard man of the hard right, were minded to try to shift the party back closer to the centre, he would face enormous difficulties, says John Warhurst, emeritus professor of political science at Australian National University.

Warhurst ticks off the Liberals’ many woes: organisational problems relating to both selections of candidates and funding, particularly now the party has lost so much support among the affluent and progressive; continuing culture wars; the weakness of the moderates; and the difficulties of being in coalition with the Nationals, particularly in relation to climate change policy.

“And,” says Warhurst, “the new element, which I’ve never seen before, is the rise of the extreme right within the Liberal Party. You know, in a really scary, Trumpian sort of way, which I don’t think existed even under Howard. That sort of global conspiracy stuff.

“The Christensens and the Kellys have departed now, of course, but there is still this sort of leaching of the Liberal right into the UAP and One Nation. When you listen to people like Alex Antic, from South Australia, or Gerard Rennick, from Queensland, you wonder how the whole thing can hold together.”

It is not just a problem at the federal level. In Queensland, for example, the decision was made in 2008 to merge the Liberals and Nationals, which, says Warhurst, “only submerged the moderates even more”.

In Western Australia, after the wipeout of the 2021 election, a number of Liberal Party members, including one of the two surviving MPs, David Honey, warned that branch stacking by conservative evangelical churches was driving away traditional supporters and threatened to consign the party to “the electoral wilderness forever”. The reality is that there are but two factions in the west now: the religious right and the secular right.

South Australia, too, has seen an incursion by the Christian right. And although the government was dominated by moderates, it was white-anted by a whispering campaign about then premier Steven Marshall, says a senior party source. Coupled with a series of scandals about rorting of expenses, defections by conservatives, and a protracted campaign against “Premier Marshmallow” on Murdoch’s Sky News, this whispering contributed to the party’s defeat in March.

The story repeats with minor variations in Victoria: culture wars, branch stacking involving churches, and a right wing that is both dominant and politically inept.

In the biggest state, NSW, the reckoning continues over the actions of Morrison and his co-religionist, Alex Hawke, to override the party membership and hand-pick candidates, infamously including Katherine Deves, whose transphobic commentary made her unelectable against Zali Steggall in socially progressive Warringah. Only this week, David Elliott, a prominent member of Morrison’s socially conservative faction, accused the NSW treasurer, moderate Matt Kean, of “treachery” during the federal election for text-messaging a journalist with the suggestion they question Morrison about Deves.

In the ACT, the Liberal Party has been in opposition for more than 20 years. At the federal election, with the defeat of Senator Zed Seselja by independent David Pocock, it became the first jurisdiction in Australia to return no MP or senator from the conservative side. The reason is not hard to fathom: Seselja is an arch right-winger and Canberra is a progressive place.

Not since Howard, says Judith Brett, has the Coalition produced a government with any sort of positive agenda. “Under Abbott all they ever did was undo things that Labor had done. And Morrison’s was just – nothing.”

She suggests that until the party discovers its purpose, it will fail to recruit electable candidates. To do so, it must also work out who exactly its constituency is.

Menzies’ vision was of a party that represented the “forgotten people” who were neither part of the organised labour movement nor protected by great wealth. The reality is Australia has changed vastly in social and cultural terms since Menzies and even since Howard. The party they both led has failed to keep up.

Since taking over the leadership, Dutton has echoed Menzies’ phrase “forgotten people”, but has identified them only as the owners of small businesses – ironically, one group the Liberals did not forget, whom they plied with tax cuts, asset writeoffs and subsidies.

Dutton and his party might start by looking at the changed demographics of the Australian electorate, particularly at what the data says about women, given the fact women are grossly under-represented in the ranks of the party.

Professional women now outnumber male tradesmen. As of last year, Bureau of Statistics data show that about half of all women aged 25 to 44 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. For men it was less than 40 per cent. Women were better educated across all age groups. Overall, 42 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 74 had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Back in the 1990s, says Dr Sarah Cameron, of the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences, women tended more conservative, politically, then men. Now they are more left-wing – particularly younger women.

Women make up the greater proportion of union members as well. They are also concentrated in the caring professions and are poorly paid.

“At the last election, the Australian Election Study showed, the most important issue for men was management of the economy,” Cameron says, “whereas for women in the last election the top issue was health. And that’s an issue area where Labor has a strong advantage over the Coalition.”

Religiosity has also declined among women, as among the broader population.

It was no coincidence that the so-called teal candidates and their supporters were overwhelmingly female.

It is worth noting, too, that when Peter Dutton engineered a spill against Malcolm Turnbull almost four years ago, arguably the best candidate was eliminated first: Julie Bishop. Instead, it came down to a contest between two hyperaggressive, right-wing alpha males, Morrison and Dutton.

The Liberal Party famously has a “woman problem”. But it is more than that: it has a younger person problem and an educated person problem.

Decades ago, John Howard set out to use culture wars as a means to harvest the votes of uncultured people. He went off to stoke prejudice and appeal to what Kim Beazley, in his concession speech after losing the Tampa election, called the “dark angels of our nation”. He tried to convince the politically disengaged that politics was mostly a matter of being tough in response to problems that actually required nuance.

It was not a problem so long as those target groups simply voted for his party. But then they joined it. They became candidates and gradually came to wield real power in the party. Eventually, two of them followed him in becoming prime minister: Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison.

John Warhurst wonders if there is any way back for what was once the party of Menzies. He points to the history of the break-up of the United Australia Party.

“Maybe the lesson there is you’ve got to die and be reborn, that you’ve got to fragment [to] such an extent that you go through [the]hell of opposition, and then you get the emergence of the Liberal Party.”

By which, of course, he means an actually liberal party.

This is part two of a two-part series. Read Part one: Collapse of the modern Liberal Party.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "After John Howard’s loss, the Liberal Party was transformed again, with branches taken over by religious sects, and the voters he targeted from a distance becoming members.".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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