The lesson from the rise of the teals and another fracturing of the center-right vote in Australia is that the Liberal party needs to have a clearly defined purpose to succeed.
This disintegration is not entirely without precedent. By the time the United Australia Party officially dissolved in 1945, the party had long been rudderless, its raison d’etre of getting the nation through the Depression with thrift and sacrifice having exhausted itself.
Robert Menzies famously resurrected the fortunes of the Australian center-right, but he did not do it by establishing a “broad church”. While it was certainly meant to have a broad appeal ranging from “salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”, Menzies explicitly founded what he called “a party with a philosophy”.
In the Guardian, Van Badham recently argued that history shows that the Australian center-right succeeds most when it appeals to the center. However, the formation of the Liberal party represented no leftward shift from its predecessor, which after all, had been formed around an ex-Labor premier of Tasmania.
The Liberal party represented a revival of Australia’s strongest political tradition, namely liberalism, and a clear sense of direction came with it. Menzies was tapping into something with deep roots in Australian history, so much so that by the end of the nineteenth century, virtually every Australian politician called themselves “liberal”.
In the Australian context, liberalism has conservative elements, often confusing definitions. By the time of federation, liberals had triumphed such that defending that which existed was to “conserve” a liberal order. Australian liberals have always believed freedom flourishes under our existing institutions, including parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.
‘The concept of the broad church when it comes to the Liberal party of Australia is a legacy of John Howard.’ Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP
Australian liberalism thus contains many of the tenets of the philosophy of Edmund Burke, whom Menzies admired. During the 1940s, when Menzies was giving his series of radio broadcasts made famous by “the forgotten people”, he quoted from Burke that a political party is “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”.
The concept of the “broad church” when it comes to the Liberal party of Australia is a legacy of John Howard, who was trying to put to bed ideological infighting, which had dogged the party throughout the 1980s. But the fact that the Liberal party was led out of the wilderness by Howard rather than a Peacock says a lot.
The Australian center-right has tended to succeed when it has a clearly defined purpose, whether that be upholding patriotism during and after the first world war, maintaining fiscal conservatism in response to our gravest economic crisis, or defending the role of free enterprise threatened by Chifley’s bank nationalization and the rise of international communism.
The Australian center-right had failed when it became purposeless, like the end of the UAP or even during the 1980s when Labor had taken up the crucial job of Reagan/Thatcher-style economic reform.
Leaders who define themselves by their “moderation” have failed because they go out of their way to make the party pointless. Look at not just Peacock’s failure but also the unexpected near defeats of 1969 and 2016. It must be remembered that Malcolm Fraser, who was electorally successful, only drifted to the left after office.
Australia’s unique compulsory voting and preferencing dsystemsystemag politics toward the center. Australia has a long tradition of sacred cows that cannot be touched because of this, namely the “Australian settlement,” which endured for decades, and an industrial relations system that cost Stanley Melbourne Bruce and John Howard not just their prime ministerships but their seats. One could argue that border protection has become a new “settled issue” in this vein.
But just because our voting system nudges politics towards the center does not mean that center-right parties are rewarded for leaning into this and losing their sense of direction. People need to be motivated to campaign when they don’t have a union persuading them, and right-leaning preferences are far less reliable at returning to their respective major party.
The recent wave of teal independents follows the fracturing of the UAP into multiple parties towards the end of its lifespan. Still, even before this, the center-right introduced preferencing because of a tendency to have an assortment of candidates.
People who value individual freedom and personal conscience tend to herd about as well as cats. They need to be inspired and led.
Moderate Liberals are often fond of quoting Menzies as saying that Liberals “were determined to be a progressive party”, but what is too often forgotten is that as a visionary with a strong will, Menzies would define what progress meant. He was not a weathervane pointing the direction of social and political trends beyond his control, which actively eat away at a liberal ethos.
The center-right will recover sooner or later when it again finds its purpose. It isn’t easy to imagine this will happen by simply chasing the teal vote.