The Liberal party refuses to utter the F word. Not only does it regard it as filthy but using the F word would move the party too close to its arch nemesis, the Labor party. But now that it has lost office all across Australia the Liberal party must at least think about using the F word. That word is, of course, “factions”.
The problem of lack of formal factionalism in the Liberal party has been spectacularly revealed over recent weeks when key figures from the party’s Victorian state headquarters were dismissed for actively undermining their leader, Ted Baillieu.
The two employees of the party had reportedly set up “blog sites” to destabilise the party’s leadership because Mr Baillieu espoused some social ideas that were slightly left of the Liberal norm. A number of other members have also resigned for their part in bringing the party into disrepute.
The irony in this is that throughout its history the Liberal party has boasted that it has been a “broad church” of ideas in Australian politics incorporating both conservative and liberal strands. But what this episode shows is that the party is suffering from the clandestine nature of its factional system.
If the party is to be an effective organisation it needs to be reformed. An organised factional system, similar to the Labor party, would help the party reconcile the differing ideas it houses. More importantly it would stop the state party’s spiral into the terminal vortex of internal disunity.
It has been no secret that during the last few decades the Labor party has been dominated by factions, which are essentially parties within the party, groupings of like-minded individuals which band together within the larger organisation in an attempt to influence decisions. In the Labor party the factions fall into two main streams: those further to the left of the political spectrum and those more to the right.
Conversely the Liberal party has held its lack of formal factions as a badge of honour. But despite its faction-free rhetoric the Liberal party houses its own brand of factionalism which is essentially unofficial and fluid in nature. They tend to be based around personalities rather than deep-seated philosophical differences. Recent Liberal battles have been between the Kennett and the Kroger/Costello factions in Victoria. At a federal level the tensions - which were never far from the surface - were between John Howard and Peter Costello supporters.
Looking at the example of the Labor party in recent years it’s clear that factions are no guarantee for smooth sailing. Indeed when factions tussle the entire party suffers leading to instability and insecurity - and voters will not support a disunited party. But once factions reach a situation where they can effectively share power the party is strengthened. This is most clearly illustrated by the recent factional deals which underpinned Kevin Rudd’s ascendancy and subsequent electoral win.
Earlier in the year Dr David Kemp, the Victorian Liberal’s current state president, boasted the party was not dominated by factions - a sentiment echoed by other state presidents across Australia. But the Liberal party does indeed have factions. It just refuses to recognise they have a legitimate role in the party’s operation.
Formalising factions can provide a mechanism for power sharing within the party. This would be much healthier for the party than the current situation of being infested with brittle cliques which undermine individuals. Factions provide scope for, and legitimise, differing opinions rather than marginalising dissidents.
History has shown us that being in opposition breeds frustration within political parties. With government now a dream rather than reality, Liberal parliamentarians and members will become increasingly frustrated as they squabble over the carcass of the once unbeatable Howard-led Liberal party. In the Victorian division the frustration is amplified as it nears almost 10 years of being in Opposition.
The recent revelations highlight how problematic the lack of formal factionalism is for the party. Rather than raise their concerns through formal means the two individuals resorted to airing their grievances through blog sites.
Formal factions, based on philosophical differences, are needed to generate true debate within the party. For the party to become a stronger and more credible alternative it must reform its organisation. And it can start this reform by using the F word.
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