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Wither the Liberals, the Nationals and the Coalition

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 23 May 2022


Last Saturday, the Coalition government lost office after nearly nine years in power.

It appears the ALP will be able to secure a slender majority with possibly 77 or more seats in the House of Representatives and be able to govern in its own right. They will not have to rely new expanded crossbench of 16 members that includes four Greens and six new TEAL MPs. The Coalition is hovering in the mid-50s. As in the past whenever there is a big swing to or against the Coalition it is the Liberals who are the big winners or losers – in this case they are big losers. By contrast, their coaltion partners, the Nationals have, as they have in the last three elections, largely held their own retaining their complete complement of 16 House of Representative seats.

This election result has the potential to lead to a realignment and restructuring of non-Labor politics, just as it occurred after the 1943 elections. That election saw the Liberal Party's predecessor, the original United Australia Party (UAP) decimatedcausing its disintegration, and the emergence of a more national, modern and democratically structured party.

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This election is devastating not just because of the number of seats the Liberals lost - in this case 16-18 seats – one of the biggest in their history (1961, 13; 1983, 21; 2007, 20 seats). This is not insignificant. More importantly, some of the losses were in blue-ribbon inner-city seats in Sydney and Melbourne that fell unprecedently to independents – the TEALS. Moreover, the Liberals who lost their seats were mostly from the progressive wing of the party.

All this has brought into the open several issues that have long been simmering within the Liberal Party – namely the schism between the so called 'progressives' and somewhat mislabelled 'conservatives' which has become increasingly formalised in organised and competitive factions and the fundamental question of what exactly does the Liberal Party stand for these days? The Liberal Party'sfounder and leader, Robert Menzies proclaimed when forming the party that he did not want it to be reactionary but rather to be of "liberal and progressive faith". The problem, that arises after every Liberal defeat, is what does this mean in practice and how does this accord with the more complex set of values that underpins the Liberal Party.

Exacerbating these problems is that the Liberal Party, like its UAP predecessor, suffers from declining membership; a skeletal branch structure; and factions, so that both nationally and across the states, the party has never been in more disarray in terms of unity, ideology and what its place is in a changing Australia since it was founded in 1944.

Responses to these issues, are now taking, as they have in the past, two distinct paths which were being partly voiced before the election, but because of the nature and extent of the recent losses, far more intensely now than previously.

One response, that was heard throughout the last nine years of Liberal governments, but has now has become much louder, is that the party has lost its way and connection to its more conservative voter base.

The Liberals today suffer from policy temerity, and policy pragmatism of the worst kind – of giving in to every interest groups' demands, no matter how small or how out of sync with the party's fundamental beliefs and values or for the good of the country. This involves responding to every issue with increased spending, of increased government intervention, of vacating every policy area to appease these demands. Witness the Morrison government's playing the bidding game of spend and match with the opposition during the election campaign. Such acquiescence has made those issues the focus of all political debate and made the Liberal Party irrelevant as it becomes increasingly indistinguishable from Labor.

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Former Monash University political scientist Dr Nic Economou long espoused the view that there was a disjunction between the inner-city elites who have different education, jobs, income, and social values from outer suburban and regional Australians. The problem was that the inner-city elites are exerting a far greater impact on the policy agenda than the number of votes and seats they influence. That the inner-city cliques are more articulate and share much of these views with those in the media who report politics, has further enhanced their impact.

Therefore, the response to this situation is the Liberals must get back to their core values, resist the agenda set by the centre left and progressives, and reset the debate. The loss of the some of the progressives last Saturday makes this now easier to achieve.

The alternative view, expressed by outgoing Liberal Finance Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, a progressive from South Australia, was that the party needed to incorporate more fully the views of both those progressive Liberals who lost their seats and thus, by implication, the views of the TEALS. Birmingham has also questioned the coalition with the National Party whose innate social conservatism and questioning of climate change both before and during the election, was one of the causes for the loss of those inner city seats.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser is author of Robert Menzies: Man or Myth and is Series Editor of Connor Court's Australian Biographical Series, and has written numerous academic articles and chapters on federal and state Liberal parties and Coalition politics.

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