Opinion

Steve Bracks
The duel in the Liberal crown

Worldwide, centre-right political parties find themselves in crisis. The mantra of free and open markets coupled with individual liberty is under threat from extreme right – not conservative – forces infiltrating these once mainstream parties. Conservatives would try to maintain the status quo, protect institutions and resist chaos.

Whether it is the “Tea Party” in the United States Republican Party or nationalistic, anti-immigration and fringe religious groups in the Australian Liberal National Party, there is a real move from the moderate centre. Real Liberals are being drowned out by a solid right-wing rump, aided and abetted by their favourite media outlets. As a consequence, there is policy atrophy, at best; or damaging, retrograde energy, migration and civil liberties policies, at worst.

These extreme right forces are angry at what Australia has become. They want to urgently turn back multiculturalism, run a discriminatory immigration program, block overseas investment and dismantle the institutions that protect our pluralist society.

Liberalism appears to be dead, beset by continual culture wars and market interventions that are supposedly in the national interest – such as Australia’s energy policy paralysis and a continuing obsession with coal.

This context helps explain last week’s thumping victory in Victoria by the Andrews Labor government, the latest in a string of successes for Labor in the state over the past three decades. The shadow attorney-general, John Pesutto, may have summed it up best as he watched the election results roll in live, sitting as a panellist on the ABC: “Something has gone horribly wrong.”

Such was the alt-right infiltration of the Victorian Liberal branches, the party was incapable of mounting a coherent state election policy. Its narrowcasting to a “fear of crime” and an 11th-hour promise on decentralisation meant the party completely vacated the ground on state issues to the Andrews government. As much as, in the aftermath, Liberal Party faithfuls are attempting to frame this result as a “state election run on state issues”, it’s clear Matthew Guy and his party ran on the federal playbook – foregrounding social policy and law and order – and they were defeated convincingly.

The Andrews government was the only major political party speaking to Victorians about things that really mattered to them – education and the rebuilding of the TAFE system; health and a royal commission into mental health; tackling climate change with a state 50 per cent renewable energy target; ambitious infrastructure projects to tackle population growth and congestion; and, massive investment into early childhood development. Indeed, for the first time in living memory, the Victorian Liberals didn’t even have a coherent education policy on offer.

In Victoria, the Liberal Party’s policies turned away from the people Robert Menzies described as the “backbone of the nation”. Menzies’ words, so favourably and often quoted by those in the party he played such a key role in founding, seem prescient in the wash-up of this election: “Salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on. These are, in the political and economic sense, the middle class … The case for the middle class is the case for a dynamic democracy as against the stagnant one. Stagnant waters are level and in them the scum rises. Active waters are never level: they toss and tumble and have crests and troughs; but the scientists tell us that they purify themselves in a few hundred yards.”

The new right-wing Liberal Party members in Victoria demanded their “pound of flesh” as well, leaving Guy to announce policies for a return of compulsory religious education in government schools, the closing down of a successful supervised injection facility in Richmond and the cancelling of the Safe Schools programs. They are hardly mainstream policies, but he had to do it. Is this what the Liberal Party has come to?

There is little doubt the fallout from the federal leadership coup reinforced the belief for Victorian voters that the Liberal Party was lurching to the right. It was the only way you could provide a plausible explanation for the removal of Malcolm Turnbull, the party’s best asset in Victoria. The resignation this week of federal Chisholm MP Julia Banks from the Liberal Party is further evidence that the Liberals’ right is driving out progressive party members.

“My sensible centrist values, belief in economic responsibility and focus on always putting the people first and acting in the nation’s interest have not changed,” Banks said in her resignation speech. “The Liberal Party has changed, largely due to the actions of the reactionary and regressive right wing who talk about themselves rather than listening to the people.”

On Tuesday, Daniel Andrews announced his frontbench – and revealed that the second Andrews ministry will achieve gender equality with a cabinet that’s 50 per cent women. This sort of representation seems a world away from the Victorian Liberal Party and its federal counterpart, which will have just 11 female MPs in the house of representatives when Julia Banks moves to the crossbench.

On Sky News, another federal Liberal MP, Tim Wilson, relayed Victorians’ sentiment on election day. “I sat there on polling booths and every second person either gave you deadly silence, which is a very cold deadly silence, or there were people mentioning energy, climate or the deposing of the prime minister,” he said.

“This is not the path to electoral success,” Liberal senator Scott Ryan, the president of the senate, said after the Victorian result. “And I’m sick of being lectured to by people who aren’t members of the party, by people who have never stood on polling booths, about what it means to be a real Liberal.”

Indeed, what is now happening to the Liberal Party – at least at the state level in Victoria – is reminiscent of the split Victorian Labor went through after the 1950s, which resulted in 27 years of continuous opposition. The split radicalised Victorian Labor and hampered our ability to speak to Victorians on mainstream issues. Sounds familiar.

Sixty years later, it is the Liberal Party suffering the same internal tensions – between their alt-right and small “l” liberal members, atrophying their party, narrowing their base and hindering their ability to speak to mainstream Victorians.

A prime example of this came in the midst of the Victorian election, when the Liberals selected a branch member, Meralyn Klein, as their candidate for the marginal seat of Yan Yean, only for Klein to appear in an anti-Muslim video with Australian Liberty Alliance president Avi Yemini. The far-right ALA posted the video online, and Klein was asked to resign from the Liberals. But she remained on the ballot paper.

The Victorian Liberals have long boasted about being the “jewel in the Liberal crown”. It is now evident they are losing their lustre. Losing eight of the past 11 Victorian elections, allowing Labor to govern in Victoria for three-quarters of the occasions since 1982, is evidence of the tarnished crown. It’s more a crown of thorns.

The reality is the Victorian Liberals were never brilliant – rather Labor was divided and unelectable up until 1982. Yet the legacy of this period was to leave a misplaced self-confidence among Victorian Liberals. Their view was, and arguably still is, that they were the default government in Victoria. While Labor may occasionally win, it would always falter eventually, bringing the Liberals easily back into government.

Last week’s conclusive election win by the Andrews Labor government should jolt the Liberals out of this self-satisfied lethargy. In the wake of this “bloodbath” election, Matthew Guy has resigned the leadership, while party president Michael Kroger finds himself under intense scrutiny. There is a real possibility of reset for the Victorian Liberals. And it is not as though it is unclear what needs to change. As Scott Ryan said: “What we need to do is say the Liberal Party has people with various views, and all of those views can be accommodated, and internally the idea of compromise is actually a good thing.”

Yet there is no sign of any preparedness to change. No willingness to compromise. That would require change to both policy and people. The very change Victorian Labor undertook in the 1980s, which has resulted in Victoria being the most Labor of all states in Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "The duel in the Liberal crown". Subscribe here.

Steve Bracks
is a former Labor premier of Victoria and governance adviser to the prime minister of Timor-Leste.