Party stability on the progressive side of politics and repeated party reconfiguration on the conservative side of politics are a marked contrast in the history of Australia’s two-party system.
That history is relevant now, as the Liberals find themselves in the electoral wilderness and a schism is brewing over their stance on the referendum for an Indigenous vote in the Australian Parliament.
It raises a legitimate question of whether, as has happened several times in the past, the Liberal Party could be replaced by a new vehicle that better represents mainstream Liberal and Conservative voter interests and provides a viable electoral alternative to Labour.
A celebration of many iterations
Unlike the Australian Labor Party, which predated the Federation in 1901 and has existed continuously since then, the Liberal Party was founded in 1944 and formally launched in 1945. It is the fifth iteration of the main vehicles through which centre-right federal parliamentary representation.
Federally, the Liberal Party genealogy is:
Protectionist Party, Free Trade Party (1901-1909)
Commonwealth Liberal Party (1909–1917)
Nationalist Party (1917–1931)
United Australia Party (1931–1945)
Liberal Party (1945+).
The earliest parliaments were dominated by Alfred Deakin they called them famous, “the three elves” – because it was as if three cricket teams were playing the same match. They were the Deakin-led Protectionist Party, the Free Trade Party (later renamed the Anti-Socialist Party), and the Labor Party.
In 1909, the Protectionist Party and the Anti-Socialist Party united to form the Commonwealth Liberal Party to compete with Labour, ushering in the era of the “two parties”.
The next two iterations saw the main anti-Labour party unite from the opposition with Labor breakaways to form a new party.
In 1917 the opposition Commonwealth Liberals merged with Billy Hughes’s breakaway National Labor Party to form the Nationalist Party, in office under the premiership of Hughes and later Stanley Melbourne Bruce.
In 1931 opposition Nationalist Party and Labor defector Joseph Lyons and his allies joined to form the United Australia Party (UAP). This was the vehicle for Lyon’s premiership and, after his death, Robert Menzies’ first premiership.
The UAP became increasingly dysfunctional after Lyons’s death. Menzies proved a poor wartime Prime Minister, was unpopular with colleagues and resigned as Prime Minister in 1941. Arthur Fadden’s coalition UAP-Country Party government fell several weeks later after losing a confidence vote on the floor of parliament, succeeded by the Curtin Labor government.
Labour’s landslide election victory in 1943 ended the UAP as a political force. The party’s primary vote fell to 21.9%, winning only 14 of the federal parliament’s then 74 seats.
Menzies pushed for the formation of the Liberal Party as a new start for centre-right politics in Australia.
His view that the UAP was terminal was driven in part by the large amount of political activity emerging from center-right forces beyond party boundaries. This included a large number of independent anti-Labour candidates running in the 1943 election.
The increase in the number of independent candidates from the centrist community – particularly the Teals – running in the 2022 federal election is a striking parallel.
Read more: The Liberal Party is currently in a sorry state across Australia. That should worry us all
Can the Liberal Party be born again?
Founding a new political party is a drastic step. The consideration of whether an existing batch is still viable and can be renewed, or, as Menzies judged with the UAP, is too far gone and needs to be replaced, is a delicate one.
Former Prime Minister and Liberal leader John Howard stated after the 2022 election that “we have to stick together”, arguing that Peter Dutton was the right man for the job.
Keeping the Liberal Party together has since become the measure of Dutton’s success or failure as opposition leader. This is either a low bar or a sign that the Liberal Party is indeed in danger of falling apart.
These tensions date back to the early 1980s under Howard’s auspices, when conservative pressures to crush moderate views began in earnest.
Howard and the successors of the Conservative Liberal leadership have since demanded the sell-out of principled centrist policy positions as the price for moderates’ inclusion in Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet.
Liberal moderates continually paid that price in exchange for ministerial advances. This, in turn, accelerated the Liberals’ flight to the right. The party became less and less reflective of mainstream Australia, even as some visible moderates survived and rose through the ministerial ranks.
Women in particular feel unwelcome in the party. The bullying of MP Julia Banks and her subsequent resignation from the Liberals in 2018 became emblematic of the party’s toxic masculinity problem.
Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s misogynistic treatment of sexual assault allegations involving Liberal Party figures followed. Female voters remember this at the ballot box.
The ubiquity of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics in the industry’s membership coupled with, influenced by Sky News “After Dark” programs, fringe interests and American Republican-style agendas alienates people who could or would have been industry members in other eras been . There now seems to be little room for moderate liberals.
People who quietly try to improve things from within are frustrated by the hardened factions and the conquest of key party organs by warring right-wing factions. There are too few mainstream people to work with to drag the party back to the center.
Combined with the demographic changes noted by Redbridge analysts Kos Samaras and Tony Barry after the Liberals’ poor showing in the Victorian state election and federal Aston by-election, the picture looks bleak for the party.
The liberals are losing support not only among women, but also among young people, Samaras and Barry note. This is compounded, they say, by the fact that young people now don’t become conservative as they age: those who once would have developed into liberal voters simply don’t.
Read more: Will a preoccupation with party unity destroy the Liberal Party?
The Teals who won the traditional Liberal blue ribbon seats in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in the 2022 election are essentially moderate Liberals on the crossbench as sensible centrists are averse to and repelled by the Liberal Party in its current state. stands.
Entropy is gaining momentum.
Less than a year ago, Indigenous MP Ken Wyatt was a Liberal minister before losing his seat in the 2022 election. In April this year, Wyatt resigned from the party out of frustration at the Liberals’ opposition to the Indigenous Voice to Parliament , of which he himself commissioned the co-design and went to the cabinet expecting support. He was disappointed.
The resignation of Julian Leeser, the Dutton’s opposition spokesman for Indigenous affairs – a Voice supporter like Wyatt and a significant number of other Liberals – breaks the pattern of moderates selling their souls for career advancement. While admirable, there is much less to lose by taking such a principled position in the opposition than a government, but it is a start.
Now Vote-supporting liberals form WhatsApp groups to coordinate their actions in the “yes” campaign. This will likely put them in campaign contact with centrist Teals in those traditional blue ribbon seats that the Liberals lost in the 2022 election.
Could that create a chemistry that fuels the development of the next iteration of the Liberal Party?
Who knows? But remnant centrists within the liberals finding common cause with Teals and their allies out there, campaigning, if not together, at least close together on an exciting issue of national importance, makes it more rather than less likely.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton’s defensive stance, appealing only to ‘the grassroots’ and trying to keep the Liberals together, may prove to be the lost gamble in this fifth iteration of Australia’s main center-right party. As Dutton would know from the sport, pure defense rarely wins the game.