Opinion

Judith Brett
Can the Liberals stay relevant?

The greatest challenge facing the defeated federal Liberal Party is not whether to move to the right or the left, nor whether to court voters in the outer suburbs or try to win back its once blue-ribbon seats. It is how to stay relevant and it’s a challenge the party seems barely to recognise. Just a week after the Coalition lost government, the Liberals’ new leader, Peter Dutton, predicted they would be back in office within three years because they would have to “clean up Labor’s inevitable mess”. There it was: the new government not even sworn in and he was talking about “Labor’s inevitable mess”.

The pioneering political psychologist Harold Lasswell once said that you don’t know what power means to a person until they lose it. The same can be said of political parties. What Dutton reveals is that, at rock bottom, what power means to the Liberals is that they are not Labor. Their core purpose, like a snarling dog in the manger, is to keep Labor from the hay. This will be enough only if Labor really does stuff up, and big time. But what if it doesn’t? What will the Liberal Party have to offer? How will it be relevant?

In its first month in office, Labor has been busy picking low-hanging fruit. It allowed the Nadesalingam family to return to Biloela on bridging visas, after the Coalition spent $6 million trying to deport them. Penny Wong visited the Pacific three times, shifting it to the centre of our foreign policy in response to China’s growing influence. When the news broke that the Solomon Islands government was about to sign a security pact with China, it was junior woodchuck Zed Seselja, then minister for the Pacific, who hopped on a plane. Labor is also moving swiftly to legislate for a federal integrity commission. The government is talking to China again. It has promised to implement all 55 recommendations of the Respect @ Work report. And our new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, will live at The Lodge in Canberra rather than in a Sydney Harbour mansion.

As well, freezing weather and the war in Ukraine have plunged the country into an energy crisis, which allows Labor to point to the mess it has been left to clean up. At his first media conference, the new minister for Energy, Chris Bowen, blamed the Coalition government’s “nine years of denial and delay” on climate action and its 23 energy policies for soaring prices.

What then should the Liberal Party do to stay relevant? Does its past hold any lessons? And is there anything it can learn from the way its founder, Robert Menzies, responded to a similar and far more daunting challenge?

In 1943, the party’s predecessor, the United Australia Party, lost in a landslide. It had been unable to retain majority support in the house of representatives two years earlier, after two independents crossed the floor. Labor formed government with John Curtin as prime minister and was proving competent and effective. The ’43 election confirmed what had happened in the parliament: Labor enjoyed a 9.8 per cent swing and the Coalition was reduced to 23 seats in the 74-seat parliament, including eight for the Country Party. This was the catalyst for the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944 and 1945. The UAP was discredited. Splinter parties were forming. Non-labour needed to regroup and form a new party if it wished to stay relevant. Today’s Liberal Party does not face the organisational challenge Menzies did but it does face a similar philosophical and policy challenge.

When Menzies said, “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary”, he was signalling that the new party needed to embrace fundamental shifts that were taking place in people’s expectations of government during the war. There was no going back to the policy settings of the Depression. Keynesian macroeconomic management and the federal government’s takeover of income tax had given the federal government new capacities to manage the ups and downs of a capitalist economy. The maxims of sound finance that had held during the 1930s needed to be put behind the new party, as did opposition to expansion of the Commonwealth government’s role in the delivery of welfare.

In 1946, the newly formed Liberal Party supported the referendum to give the Commonwealth government power to legislate on a range of social services, including unemployment, pharmaceutical and medical benefits, and student and family allowances. Menzies succeeded in inserting a limitation on “any form of civil conscription”, which prevented the formation of a British-style national health service, but otherwise supported this massive shift in the balance between individual and government responsibility for people’s health and wellbeing. A progressive party that looked to the future would embrace Keynesian economics and an expanded welfare state.

The content of what is reactionary and what is progressive differs in different historical circumstances and May’s election result tells the Liberal Party what it must do to stay relevant. The major challenge is to disentangle itself from its decades of climate change denial and play a constructive role in the formation of effective, long-term climate policy. Trying to wedge Labor by championing nuclear power is not the answer. Whatever its merits, the opposition’s quick landing on this as the answer to our energy crisis shows it is still focused on the politics of brand differentiation rather than on developing real-world solutions.

Most intriguing is how the Liberal Party will respond to legislation for a federal integrity commission promised for later this year. Will it support the commission to avoid strengthening the hold of the teal independents in their inner-urban seats? Or is it afraid of what the commission may turn up, given that it is likely to have retrospective powers?

Before Tony Abbott launched the royal commission into Labor’s home insulation program, the so-called pink batts inquiry, the prevailing convention was that a new government did not investigate the actions of the previous government, no matter how strong the stench. After Kevin Rudd won in 2007 he did not launch an inquiry into the Howard government’s implication in the kickbacks paid to Saddam Hussein’s regime by AWB, the privatised company that replaced the Australian Wheat Board. Nor was there an inquiry into who knew what in the children overboard affair and whether John Howard deliberately lied. The assumption was that, in losing the election, the government had paid the price.

But convention never stopped Abbott, card-carrying conservative though he was. Abbott’s determination to go after Rudd created the precedent for the Albanese Labor government to set up a federal integrity commission able to inquire into the actions of previous governments, including their politicians and public servants. A retrospective time frame of 15 years has been mentioned, but we will need to wait for the legislation to see just how far back the new body’s powers will reach. Even if it were only five years, there are plenty of candidates for investigation: robo-debt; the government’s purchase of land in the Leppington Triangle for 10 times its market value; the sports rorts and car park affairs, together with other grants suspected of being influenced by political considerations; and when Scott Morrison first knew of Brittany Higgins’ allegation that she had been raped in Parliament House and what steps, if any, were taken to hush it up.

There are plenty of other challenges for the Liberals. The republic, for one. Will the party work with Labor to achieve a major constitutional change, or align with the collection of old and young fogies who make up the monarchists? Will it seek to build bipartisan consensus for the Voice to Parliament sought in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, or seek brand differentiation by pretending the voice will be a third chamber? Will it support a strengthening of laws designed to prevent sexual harassment at work? If not, how will it show Australian women that, as deputy Liberal leader and shadow minister for Women Sussan Ley said, “We hear you”?

These are all hard asks. They will require the men and women of today’s shadow cabinet to admit to mistakes and misjudgements over the past nine years and to stop worrying about being Labor-lite. They require the Liberal Party to co-operate in developing bipartisan solutions that will last. It is difficult to see any of this happening. There is no one in today’s federal opposition of the intellectual stature or political courage of Menzies. The only prominent Liberal who seems to understand the challenge facing the party is Matt Kean, treasurer in the only mainland Liberal government still standing, New South Wales.

Kean was openly critical of the Coalition government’s refusal to raise its 2030 emission reduction target from 26-28 per cent. In 2020, when he suggested there were Liberals pushing for a higher target, Morrison slapped him down. “Matt Kean doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know what’s going on in the federal cabinet,” the then prime minister said. “Most of the cabinet wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was.” Well, they do now, thanks to Morrison, and some of them are no longer even in the parliament. The only plausible answer I can see to the question of what the Liberals should do to stay relevant is to find a federal seat for Kean.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Can the Liberals stay relevant?".

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Judith Brett is a political historian. Her most recent book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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