This year, 2009 is the centenary of the two-party system in Australia. In 1909, Alfred Deakin's liberal Protectionists and the conservative Anti-Socialists fused in opposition to the rising tide of the Labor Party. Deakin's sporting analogy is one of the famous lines of Australian political history, that there could not be “three elevens on the field”. Since that time, the story of Australian party politics has overwhelmingly been one of continuous struggle between Labor on one side, and non-Labor in its various incarnations on the other.
While it spent much of its history in Opposition, the organisational and ideological coherence of the Labor Party cemented it as a permanent force in Australian politics even in the “wilderness”.
Part of the reason non-Labor has proven so unstable and changing on the other hand is the fact that it was born from a marriage of (in)convenience between progressive liberals like Deakin on the one hand and conservatives like George Reid on the other.
Throughout most of its history, however, in order to be successful it has been the progressive liberal tradition that has dominated non-Labor. This was part of the legacy of Deakin, and later of Robert Menzies. It was under the leadership of Alfred Deakin that what Paul Kelly (in The End of Certainty) termed “the Australian Settlement” was established, including industry and wage protection, industrial arbitration and the founding elements of the welfare state as we know it.
Menzies too saw that Australians are instinctively a progressive people. That is why he preferred the name Liberal to Conservative. The conservative tradition had a way of leading non-Labor to defeat, as in the disastrous 1920s example of Stanley Melbourne Bruce and the United Australia Party when the prime minister attempted to dismantle the arbitration system and lost his own seat as a result.
Just as Deakin fused non-Labor under the mantle of progressive liberalism, so Menzies led non-Labor out of the wartime wilderness under the rhetoric of a social as well as individualistic liberalism. One “that doesn't mean we return to the old and selfish notions of laissez faire” but one in which “our social and individual obligations will be increased” (The Forgotten People). Menzies focus on the “spiritual” and “material” home, and the imperative for state action to improve and progress an individualised “mankind” was in essence social liberalism of the Deakinite variety.
The Liberal Party in the 1980s swung in the opposite direction, jettisoning the Deakinite and social liberal legacy in a process of expurgation that culminated in John Howard's prime ministership. Once in power, Howard's Liberals were able to remake non-Labor in a conservative image through famously adopting the language of the Labor Party, which Labor had forfeited through its own conversion to laissez faire principles.
In terms of policy however, the conservative Liberals took Australia further towards laissez faire economics and social conservatism than Australians in actual fact desired. John Howard's Liberals became the Conservatives that Menzies had eschewed, with conservative principles borrowed from American Republicans and free marketeers. These things are, ultimately, offensive to Australian political culture and popular sensibility.
In 2007 Australians turned to Labor federally, just as they had across every state and territory, in the hope of securing at last a progressive government in line with their progressive instincts. Yet on so many issues that demand progressive action, the Labor governments have stalled. Whether it be a conservative stance on climate change action federally, to a conservative stance on public transport at the state level, Labor has proven itself wedded to machine politics and beaurocratic managerialism.
Like it or not, necessity and the will to power are ultimately the only laws humans universally obey. While government does not feel pressure to reform, it will take the path of least resistance. For us at this juncture in human history, that path is not good enough.
Voters at the last election voted for “change”, but after a promising start the government is stalling - in particular over the most important issues of the environment and the economy. Radical solutions, rather than managerialist window-dressing and rent-seeking, are required on both fronts.
Part of the problem is the disarray and ineffectiveness of all the non-Labor parties in providing a progressive alternative. The Queensland election is a perfect illustration of this failure. There, non-Labor not only remained wedded to conservatism but trumpeted the fact with a takeover of the Liberal Party by the Nationals and conservative faction. Progressives fled, and even supposedly conservative Queenslanders stayed away from the merged entity in droves big enough to deliver victory to a Labor government that by rights should have been on the nose. The Greens, on their side, actually went backwards in many electorates and once again failed to re-elect a single sitting member.
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