Saving the Centre-Right House Divided

bob menziesSplitting 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.
Click here to subscribe

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.


21 thoughts on “Saving the Centre-Right House Divided

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    The message of this article is one of confusion, to say the least. How Menzies incorporated liberalism and conservatism in his time is of no use in prescribing the remedy for the salvaging of today’s Liberal Party. Meaningful dialogue between the progressive and conservative elements in Australian society – indeed in any western society – is an utter impossibility. The atrocious behaviour of the progressive forces in the USA in response to Trump’s victory attests to that. They will have it all or they will destroy everything in their blind rage if they are denied their birthright of moral and intellectual superiority. Negotiating with the hoy-poy is way beneath their vastly superior dignity. Conservatives must triumph over progressive forces in order to save western civilisation. The question is: how? Addressing that question is a far more meaningful endeavour than speculating on the oxymoron of how to accommodate the conceited, egotistical progressives without sacrificing conservative principles.

    • Jody says:

      Not forgetting that the Menzies version of conservatism is a child of the 1940s and 50s. ‘I did but see her riding by and yet I’ll love her till I die”.

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    The Liberal Party was a resounding success initially, because of the 50,000 strong and 600 organised branches the Australian Women’s National League brought to the founding conference. The old UAP was moribund. The best organiser was the charismatic, feisty (Dame) Elizabeth Couchman, she demanded (and won), equal rights for women in party conferences.

    Menzies had style, and was a wonderful figurehead, but just a little lazy. The power behind Menzies was (Sir) William Anderson. On top of that, Labor self-destructed (courtesy of ‘Doc’ Evatt’s madness, Bob Santamaria and Cold War dollars.

    Liberal economics came courtesy of the agrarian socialists around, (Sir) John McEwen, the acknowledged father of secondary industry. That was a winning formula, no stupid ‘Austrian’,supply side rubbish from that pragmatic leader.

    The authors comment about Burke/Paine ‘meeting’ is significant. A new coalition of forces needs to be found in Australia.Liberal minds need to expand. Trump forged a new alliance using Twitter, technology and direct talking.
    Conservative Liberals DO need to open their minds, get ‘progressive’ and develop new alliances: stop union bashing, stop stealing from working people, stop migrant bashing, stop fawning around destructive finance capital and build the common wealth around physical economic principles.

    • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

      The final sentence of this comment could well have been written by a dyed-in-the-wool socislist/greeny.

      • Jody says:

        In reverting to the old tics of reactionary conservatives you undermine your own arguments. Veitch makes much sense, though I don’t agree with all of it.

        • padraic says:

          I tend to agree with bits of all of the above but like Bill I find the last sentence a bit puzzling. Union bashing? I thought the issue was the lack of respect for the rule of law by some unions and their bikie standover tactics and corrupt behaviour – not the unions as a concept. Stealing from working people? The only ones I know who do that are the working-age chronic dole bludgers who do not want to work when they are offered and live off the taxes paid by working people and the other ones are union officials who use members’ dues to feather their nests and improve their lifestyle. Stop migrant bashing? Hello – I was under the impression that it was illegal migrants and those who want to do us harm who were the target – not those who came invited and are happy to join us in nation building. Stop fawning around destructive finance capital – Oh dear, the dreaded “capitalist” again. I presume that means the banks and the only fawning that goes on with them is if an individual wants a loan – I am at a loss what that has to do with the present government. Physical economic principles?? Sorry Don, but that one has beaten me.

          • Jody says:

            The whole thing is rather confused, but the first 2 paragraphs do make sense to me. Not sure the “Country Party” was all about agrarian socialism. He has our farmers confused with French farmers, I suspect!! Now, THAT’S agrarian socialism writ large.

          • Don A. Veitch says:

            By physical economics I mean American system economics of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Henry Carey, Erasmus Peshine Smith and Friedrich List (a German exile in then USA).
            This system grew out of the American War of Independence and argued for: productive powers; home markets; agriculture linked to manufacturing; infrastructure; national credit from a national bank; tapping into natures ‘bounty’; tariffs (at industry’s infancy) etc. This system of ideas grew from Adam Smith’s attack on Crown prerogatives and rent seekers.
            Today, the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate), is an incubus on true physical production (agriculture, manufacturing, infrastructure).

          • Don A. Veitch says:

            Why do conservatives always attack organised labor? The old Marxist unions in Australia had to be fought (BLF, Wharfies, Halfpenny’s AMWU), but gratuitous ‘’union bashing’’ is just a Punch and Judy show, falling for the old class warfare game. Winning
            Conservatives should preserve workers rights, preserve the common wealth, defend the right to organise that is how you divide and beat the ‘left’. Trump knew that, Hilary ignored them and lost.

          • padraic says:

            Thanks Don for that explanation of “physical economic principles”. Sounds like common sense to me and something that I would support.

  • ArthurB says:

    Australia is not the only Western nation with a large (and growing) divide between the sophisticates who live in the inner parts of large cities, and the deplorables, who live in the outer suburbs and the regions. It is happening in the UK and the USA, I presume it is also happening in Western Europe.

    On http://www.unz.com there is an excellent article by Fred Reed, titled “Internal Secession and the Road to Ruin: Two Countries”, about the divide that Trump has exploited so brilliantly. With my rudimentary IT skills I can’t create a link, but I would recommend it to QoL readers. It is easy enough to find from the home page.

  • Bushranger71 says:

    There is a pretty simple solution Alex, although doubtless anathema to the elites.

    Publicly tell both John and Jeanette Howard their input to Liberal Party affairs is no longer appropriate.

    Then, purposefully set about untangling all of the very damaging legacies of Howardism.

    And; revert to Bob Menzies basic principles as the basis for rebuilding a party that will be acceptable to mainstream Australia.

    Just wishful thinking!

  • Dallas Beaufort says:

    The lines of division suit the Academe, Where do the conservative votes start and finish? Are there no conservatives living inside this invisible line starting at the suburbs to the city hub? Where are the Greens in play with all of this as it is they whom both major parties have fought over for the past 3 decades while throwing taxpayer cash to win elections. Both major parties isolate the conservatives within, seen by the exit of the right in Labor and now the liberals. Tony Abbott rounded them up under sensible polices now lost to both.

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    Anyway to conclude …
    The golden period for Australia was 1950s/60, and in that period the electoral facts are:
    1. Menzies competently led a COALITION OF FORCES;
    2. The Liberal Party (because of women) was a MASS party in the suburbs;
    3. The FORGOTTEN PEOPLE only backed the LCP because it delivered full employment;
    4. The Country Party party was interventionist, dirigiste and PROBABLY ‘SOCIALIST’;
    5. Second preferences (and electoral victories) were delivered by a PRO-TRADE UNION (anti-communist) Democratic Labor Party;
    6. Santamaria delivered the CATHOLIC VOTE.
    Today’s ‘conservatives’ want some hero on horseback, a Bonapartist, to magically appear and rescue us all. It will not happen.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Give it a bone. The electorate has changed since the 1950s


    Your thoughts are always wrong and irrelevant

    Bill you are right … again

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Stuff the centrist thinking it doesn’t work.

    Revert to the unapologetic Conservatism of Menzies.
    The bed wetting centrists, left and right, will follow for they all know the labor green left will merely stuff it all.

    Appealing to the centrists doesn’t work because they are so confused they’ll try anything and fail at everything because they have no belief but their own lack of belief.
    They don’t know what they want and they become shrill when they can’t get it. They then really spill their guts and show us all how conflicted and empty they are.

    Jody is a prime example.

    • padraic says:

      Keith, I’ll buy out of your debating with Jody, but in the above post you have hit the nail on the head. It put me in mind of something when I was reading recently about the 50’s political scene in Iran and came across the following comment about the PM at the time, Mohammed Mossadeq, “His problem was that he excelled in the negatives; he offered no positive vision to replace what he hated.” This is what we are seeing today. No major party is prepared to do a Luther and nail their program on the door for all to see. My grandfather told me that in the Depression in Sydney candidates for an election used to get up on fruit boxes outside suburban railway stations and tell people what they stood for. If a candidate waffled a bit on some issue, the crowd would shout “What’s your policy?” The present out of touch pollies don’t want to tell us what they stand for in case we don’t vote for them. Big mistake. That’s one reason Trump got in because he worked out what people were interested in and agreed with them and backed it up with firm policies and action. The other reason why he got in was because he is not a lawyer. Most contemporary politicians these days are lawyers and lawyers are trained to debate and score points and defend the indefensible or to sue anyone for anything for money or political ends, and that’s what we are getting in Western countries today and that’s why the non-lawyer element in communities are revolting. What is happening in USA today is like something out of an airport novel.

    • Warty says:

      I would agree that this so called centrist philosophy leaves me cold, but I don’t for a moment thing that your sickening Christopher Pynes and Senator Sinodionoses and the other drop kicks are confused or have no beliefs. I think they are sincere in the pursuit of the whole political correctness trip, and no doubt point the finger at the conservatives in their midst for the poor polls. Certainly this is at odds with the fact that so many previous supporters have fled to the warm embrace of Pauline, but it is easier to vent their anger at the second coming of One Nation rather than examine the sociological aspects underlying her (electoral) attractiveness.
      I don’t know if you’d agree, but Turnbull doesn’t seem to have been a happy chappy of late, and the very fact he hasn’t been able to launch a convincing counter attack over the penalty rates issue, perhaps points to the level of brain fog he is being weighed down by: he seems incapable of thinking straight, and little Billy Shorten is rampant.

  • Warty says:

    One of the things I really enjoyed about this article was its clarity of expression, so as such it was a pleasure to read, though I somehow doubt that I would have enjoyed it as much if I’d strongly disagreed with the content.
    I think I’ve just outlined the definition of an ‘echo chamber’. Shucks!
    Truth be told, I had been growing aware, long before the July election, that the ‘broad church’ nature of the Liberal Party was likely to be its undoing, and having joined Cory’s mob, I can observe the show without the anguish I felt six months to a year ago.
    Society is polarising at an increasing rate, and it seems that Trump’s win is helping to drive further polarisation. I cannot see anyone being able to ‘reconfigure’ these two fundamentally different philosophies within the Liberal Party: the level of intolerance seems to have grown exponentially. Perhaps s.18C symbolises this.

  • Keith Kennelly says:


    Thanks and you are right it is because Ming all to boringly repitious with Jody and me.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Not ‘because Ming’
    S/b becoming

Leave a Reply