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Will a preoccupation with party unity destroy the Liberal Party?


The unease over the Liberal Party’s recent decision to join the National Party in campaigning against the forthcoming Voice to Parliament referendum has been so great that even some of the media’s most credible supporters have commented on the internal division.

But is the Liberal Party really “divided like never before”? Such claims hardly hold up when we take history into account.

The original Liberal Party was formed from a merger of the Protectionist and Free Trade parties in 1910. It was officially named the Liberal Party, with Alfred Deakin as its leader, in 1913. It was reformed twice before World War II, first in 1916 as the National Party (led by Labor renegade Billy Hughes), then in 1931 as the United Australia Party (UAP), led by another Labor deserter, Joseph Lyons. In 1941 the UAP, now led by Robert Menzies, was defeated on the floor of parliament.

Division and realignment were basic anti-Labour politics until the 1940s, when former implacable enemies were deployed to take advantage of opportunities created by turmoil within the Labor Party. The latter was rocked by Hughes and his supporters moving to the other side during World War I and again shattered by defeat during the Depression.

Yet there was policy laziness within the UAP when war loomed. Lyons “knew how to win elections,” said former National Party prime minister Stanley Bruce, but lacked policy initiative and struggled to maintain party discipline.

Joseph Lyons “knew how to win elections,” said Stanley Bruce, but struggled to maintain party discipline.
National Archives of Australia

The defeat of the UAP in 1941 was perhaps the most profound collapse we have seen in anti-Labour forces. It would take a massive reform of the party and a revitalization of the Liberal message, led by Robert Menzies, to re-emerge as the Liberal Party that won government in 1949 and held office for 23 years.

Is the current intra-party struggle of a scale that saw the implosion of the UAP and the creation of the modern Liberal Party? Certainly not, or not yet. Peter Dutton has provoked a bitter debate with his opposition to the Voice to Parliament. He has also suffered a significant loss of support in the polls from an already low base.

But to date, a majority of his party colleagues support his position, it is likely that industry members do too.

Read more: How does the Liberal Party’s voting policy compare to the proposed referendum?

More recent liberal divisions over policy provide further grounds for comparison. The Republic question, championed by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating in the 1990s, seemed likely to cause divisions with the Liberal Party. While Howard was a seasoned monarchist, his shadow cabinet consisted of well-known Republicans, Peter Costello, Robert Hill, Richard Alston and Peter Reith.

During the 1996 election campaign, Howard pledged to hold a constitutional convention on the republic if he won the premiership. If that convention reached consensus on a model, Howard would take it to a referendum, which happened in 1999. Recognizing the differences of opinion within his party, the Prime Minister allowed Liberal MPs to vote for the Republic, but was pleased when the referendum, which he enthusiastically campaigned against, failed.

Despite obvious ideological differences, the republic question has never seriously threatened party unity. Howard took the opportunity to underline, as he often did, that the Liberal Party was a “broad church”.

Malcolm Turnbull’s protracted and fruitless 2018 attempt to introduce a National Energy Guarantee (NEG) — which destroyed his authority and sparked a spill in which Scott Morrison took over — offers further lessons for the Liberal Party.

Turnbull, working with the NEG to find a solution that would satisfy business, investors and most of the public, could not resist the relentless opposition of the party’s right to any progressive initiative. He was not only a moderate and science-based response to a manifest problem, but also a solution that seemed likely to gain public support. But Turnbull couldn’t deliver what many wanted because he couldn’t contain the internal fighting in the banquet hall.

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This was a deeper division than anything we have seen in the current coalition to date. Morrison managed to contain that division by promising to “win the vote”. He succeeded in 2019, not by proposing policy reform, but by effectively negating everything Labor proposed under Bill Shorten. After winning the ‘miracle’ election, he presided over a period of government and governance failure that led to the coalition’s defeat in 2022.

The 2022 performance was so bad that even Howard relented that “the lack of a program for the future (…) the lack of some kind of manifesto hurts us very much”.

In the months since, however, Dutton has failed to craft a new liberal message that has wider electoral appeal. Instead, he has persisted with a conservative and highly oppositional approach, such as the coalition opposition to Labor’s target to cut emissions by 43% and to the safeguard mechanism.

Read more: Australia will have an industry carbon price – and it could lead to more climate action across the economy

This resort to negativity and scaremongering, practiced with electoral success by Tony Abbott in 2013 and Morrison in 2019, is again reflected in Dutton’s resort to questioning and division rather than positive engagement with The Voice. It can also be seen in false claims, such as deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley’s recent claim that if the Voice referendum is successful, the new mechanism could be used to veto Anzac Day.

These opposition policy positions can maintain party unity and satisfy members, but they fail to recognize fundamental problems. Australian electoral politics is undergoing significant realignment. Women and migrants have left the coalition, younger Australians’ concerns about climate change, housing affordability and wealth inequality are registering in voting patterns, and the mainstream still leans towards supporting the vote.

Given the 2022 election result and the polls since then, the only reason for the coalition to continue with its oppositional approach is a commitment to its small and unrepresentative base.

There are three things every leader must do. The first is to keep the party together, and this is what Dutton – aware of Turnbull’s fate – does. It will not be enough: social and demographic changes are against him. If it is loyal to its members, the party will be destroyed at the polls.

The second is to respond to changing circumstances, recruit a larger number of members, and persuade the party to adopt a constructive policy agenda appropriate to current circumstances. This is where Menzies, and perhaps Howard, succeeded.

The third is successfully communicating its policy goals to a broad audience by explaining how they will serve the most important public concerns of the moment. Menzies’ recognition in his day of the need for a revived liberalism, and now Howard’s call for a manifesto for the future recognize this.

If the Liberal Party cannot deliver a positive message of liberalism aligned with the mainstreams of the current electorate, a fate like that of the UAP is inevitable.

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