Splitting a political party is no small thing—especially when that party is the most successful in Australia’s more than 160-year democratic history. Yet this is what a significant minority of the Liberal Party’s members are currently doing. This trend is not being received well by most on the Centre-Right, who instinctively feel, with good reason, that a split would prove electorally disastrous. But the causes which have brought it on are real, and structural, and deep.
The problem is more than dark mutterings after being passed over for ministerial posts, or vengeance desired over perceived slights, or squabbles over personalities—these things are perennial in the life of any political party. Some deeper divide is at work. A fault-line runs through the Liberal Party, crippling its capacity to govern. It is a fault-line moreover which mirrors a growing fracture in the nation at large. The divide has paralysed the Party’s capacity to speak clearly and persuasively about what it believes in, under first a conservative and now a liberal leader.
A party split is one way to resolve this divide, to free people up to be able to speak openly and unitedly about what they believe. It is the wrong way, but it is a way, and one which at least addresses the problem which faces everyone on the Centre-Right. Clearly something must be done, but what?
Oddly for a party so historically successful, the ultimate cause of its current woes goes back to its origins. Founded in 1944 to unite the non-Labor forces, the Liberal Party housed two historically warring philosophies and principles, liberalism and conservatism. Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, instigator of the American Revolution, supporter of the French Revolution, met under the party’s roof his philosophical enemy, Edmund Burke. The fact that the strange hybrid worked, and so successfully, is partly a tribute to the persuasive skills of Robert Menzies and other founders, but also indicates an underlying social consensus, a consensus which no longer holds.
The party adopted the name Liberal, despite the objections of some conservative commentators at the time. Its policies were clearly liberal: the rule of law and right to property; an emphasis on individual initiative and equality of opportunity; and the freeing of all citizens as much as possible from state intervention and bureaucratic over-reach. They were an elaboration of two over-riding passions which have marked out Australian life since its earliest colonial settlement: a passionate insistence on one’s own freedom to decide how best to live, and a thirst to prosper, to share in the egalitarian spread of wealth opportunities that the country offered. These are profoundly liberal passions, and the Liberal Party converted them into its bedrock philosophy. But it could do so only because so many of the wider assumptions of the time were socially conservative ones.
The family and education were both respected as essentially conservative institutions. The idea that either would be viewed as tools of radical social change would have been thought bizarre. The rule of law, the rights of the individual and the right to property were all grounded in the accepted traditions and practices of Britain’s parliamentary democracy, an inheritance absorbed largely without criticism even as it had been modified and transplanted to an Australian setting. These conservative assumptions formed the common orthodoxy for ordinary people in everyday life, and crossed the party divide. John Curtin may have turned to America free of any pangs or inhibitions, but he spent far more of the Second World War talking, both publicly and privately, of the need to defend Australia “as a citadel of the British-speaking race”. When the Labor Party fought against the move to ban the Communist Party in 1951, the argument they used was not that the move to outlaw communists was an attack on universal human rights, but that it was an attack on traditional British liberties. Universities, museums, newspapers and broadcasters all shared this set of values and assumptions. Liberal principles were embedded in, and protected by, a socially conservative culture.
This essay, a companion to Hal G.P. Colebatch’s ‘Political Parties Are Not Immortal‘, appears in the March edition of Quadrant.
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These assumptions no longer hold. Since the 1960s a new orthodoxy has gained ascendancy. From the 1960s to the 1980s successive revolutions, cultural and economic, changed Australia in fundamental ways. What Lionel Trilling described as an “adversary culture” has become dominant in the public sphere, taking control of the commanding heights of university life, of government broadcasters and cultural institutions more generally. Simultaneously resurgent economic liberalism reshaped lives, workplaces and families. The success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in the 1990s represented the reaction of suburban and regional Australians who had witnessed their economic protection and their socially conservative values being driven from the public square. John Howard’s government was a vigorous rearguard action against the newly dominant adversary culture, whilst simultaneously ushering through continued liberal reforms in the economy.
A divide had opened up, however, as the nation split into distinct halves. Ten years after the fall of the Howard government the divide has opened still wider. One of these halves is committed to liberalism, heavily spiced with the politics of difference. This is the cosmopolitan, globalised inner-city class, working in finance, law, business services, in academia, media, publishing and the various personal service industries. Small-l liberal and libertarian in outlook, they are citizens of the world. A significant number gravitated to Turnbull in the last election, and remain open to persuasion by a Liberal Party committed to liberalism, to innovation and deepening engagement with the greater world.
The other half are the outer suburbs and regions. This is ordinary, mainstream Australia, heavily populated with tradies, the self-employed and workers in both small and large businesses. The preoccupations of the cosmopolis leave them largely untouched, the obsessions of the cultural institutions similarly unmoved. The politics of identity they have ignored wherever possible, revealing only a silent, stubborn loathing of the politics of difference, even as it reaches into their search engines and their schools. Willing to give others a fair go—perfectly happy to support Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations—and continue the cultural tradition of mutual tolerance which has made a success of multiculturalism, they don’t like social programs designed to rewire their basic attitudes, pleasures and values. They remain the social conservative heartland.
The divide is now almost absolute. As Benjamin Disraeli did in his 1844 novel Sybil; Or, The Two Nations, we might almost be speaking of two nations:
Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thought and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.
Nearly 170 years later this description echoes eerily our current condition. Disraeli’s two nations of the 1840s were those of “The Rich and The Poor”, a divide almost fatally exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution. Ours, born of an Information Revolution which is remaking people’s relations with work, friends, families, values, passions and virtues, are those of the Cosmopolis and those of the Heartland. Cosmopolis trends liberalist, Heartland conservative. As with Disraeli’s Britain the cleavage is geographic, cultural and economic, and threatens to increase.
This divide is the root cause of the problems currently the Liberal Party. The broad church is coming apart. Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke have rediscovered their original antipathies. There is no longer the same core set of shared assumptions to bind the two major constituencies together, and the attempt to speak to one half without offending the other has rendered the Party almost inoperable, and ineffective in conducting a persuasive public conversation. Burke famously defined a political party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”, and the definition shows why the Liberals’ successive leaders have been made mute, regardless of the noise that comes from their mouths. There is no longer “some particular principle on which they are all agreed” in a fundamental sense. This is why the successive leaders’ statements have emerged as consistently token, their actions largely meaningless. The craving for sincerity, for conviction and genuineness on the part of politicians has been met by the sound-bites and tedium which fill the vacuum created by the Party’s incapacity to communicate what it thinks and believes in. No wonder voters drift elsewhere, seething in frustrated rage. No wonder the aggressively decisive stance of populism so appeals.
So what is to be done? The greater national interest, not to mention the basic health of our democratic polity, requires that both of these “nations” are directly spoken and listened to. The successful government will be the one which can speak both fluently and passionately, with the imprimatur of genuine conviction, to each of these nations. By doing so a successful government will advance considerably the cause of bringing the two nations into contact with each other again. The current government is made up of a coalition of two parties. If these two parties were reconfigured to meet the changed social reality, a Liberal Party split could be avoided, and the two essential creeds of the Centre-Right could once again speak and canvass themselves freely.
Let the Liberals freely advocate liberalism, and engage and persuade the densely urban cosmopolitan electorate to be found in the inner and middle suburbs. Let the Nationals become the party not simply for regional Australia but for all Australians for whom conservatism continues to be the core principle. Let MPs enter into conversation with their own electorates, and their own guiding principles, and decide which of the two parties to align themselves with. Let both halves of Australia be directly spoken to and for by the two coalition parties. Not a split but a rebalancing, a recalibration, where both principles can be vigorously advocated in the public marketplace of political ideas. A rebalancing, moreover, which can ensure that Centre-Right votes and preferences aren’t fatally dissipated.
For both liberals and conservatives, better reform than revolt. Better a self-willed transformation than crisis followed by cataclysm. If the Coalition wishes to save itself, and Australia’s best interests require it to, then it will have to serve as midwife to its own rebirth.
Alex McDermott is an independent historian and writer. His most recent book is Of No Personal Influence: How People of Common Enterprise Unexpectedly Shaped Australia, published to mark Australian Unity’s 175th anniversary in 2015.