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Can Meg Lees's new party become a new home for small-'l' liberals?

By Cameron Andrews - posted Tuesday, 6 May 2003

While the launch of Meg Lees' new party, the Australian Progressive Alliance might seem like good news for those who believe soft liberal voters are in need of representation, if she fails it will just mean the further consolidation of John Howard.

There seems to be plenty of evidence around to suggest that soft, or small 'l', liberals are in need of representation.

The Prime Minister has worked hard to transform the so-called Liberal party into a purely conservative outfit and in the process has alienated many of the small 'l' liberal voters that have traditionally found a political home in the party. If arch-conservative Tony Abbot is appointed as his successor the transition will be complete.


The billions of public dollars poured into private health funds, extra funding for elite private schools, harsh treatment of asylum seekers, and disdain shown towards the UN are all indicative of a party that has left any commitment to genuine liberalism far behind. None of this would sit comfortably with voters attracted to small 'l' liberal thinking.

Over the last decade and a half, the Liberals' moderate MPs have been either squeezed out or induced to tow the conservative line. Former moderates Robert Hill, Phillip Ruddock, and Brendan Nelson are now senior government ministers and have transformed into powerful advocates of conservative policy. With the death of Peter Nugent in 2001 only about 5 or 6 Liberals who could still be described as small 'l' liberals remain. Contrast the recent solidarity shown on the war in Iraq with previous public outbursts against party policy on issues like Asian immigration, reconciliation and mandatory sentencing and it is clear just how compliant the Liberals' moderates have become.

While the viability of a strictly small 'l' liberal party is yet to be tested at the ballot box, there is a good amount of evidence to suggest it could attract a significant share of the vote.

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats - a party firmly based in liberal thinking - is polling more than 20 per cent of the vote and is poised to overtake the hapless conservatives as that country's true opposition.

Closer to home, the solid support previously shown for the Democrats in the months leading up to the 2001 federal election, and now for the Greens (though to a lesser extent as the Greens support seems to be coming more strongly from the ALP), is a good indication that voters can be attracted away from the Liberals.

The strong performance of independents in some electorates also points to an electoral market for small 'l' liberal thinking. Independent federal member for Calare, Peter Andren, and NSW state independent member for Manly, David Barr are politicians who have clearly articulated small 'l' liberal views on issues including asylum seekers, the war in Iraq, ABC funding, and reconciliation. Their success stands out as evidence of a market for small 'l' liberal thinking in what would otherwise be conservative electorates.


But is Meg Lees the right person to galvanise these disaffected liberals into a united national voice?

For Meg Lees' new party to be successful it will need to be more than just Democrats Mark II. It is a less-than-encouraging sign that the party executive Lees announced was comprised entirely of ex-Democrats. The fact that Lees could find no one outside the Democrat ranks to take on the key party positions suggests she either didn't try or failed to entice anyone of merit to her cause. Ex-Liberals would give her real credibility, although some ex-Labor members would also have been useful.

Lees' party will prosper if she is able to inject new ideas into the political market place. But it will need more than the few loose positions and vague promise to "improve legislation" that was announced at the party's launch. Lees will need to sell voters a small -'l' liberal vision of Australia's future that goes well beyond the humdrum and negativity of the current stagnant national policy debate.

While there is clear potential for Lees' party, the risk her failure would pose to the small 'l' liberal cause is that she would have made it harder for anyone else to step forward to fill the liberal vacuum. With a gaggle of independents, greens, and the remnants of the Democrats still on the scene there is only so much political oxygen to go around.

If Lees fails, this would be just more good news for John Howard. With nowhere better to go, small 'l' liberals will have no choice but to keep voting big 'L' Liberal for a while longer yet.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 1 May 2003.

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About the Author

Cameron Andrews, a former state president of the Democrats, is an adviser to the independent state MP David Barr and Chair of the Reid Group.

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