Bill Muehlenberg

Whither the Liberal Party?

Where is the Australian Liberal Party at the moment, and where is it headed? Peter Costello has resigned, and Malcolm Turnbull may be toppled by his own party members over his position on an ETS. Since losing the last Federal election it has already gone through one Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, and may be about to go with a third, perhaps Joe Hockey.

Of course such transitions are not uncommon for parties in opposition. It is one of the worst places to be in politically, and the longer it drags on, the worse things seem to become. But the issue of leadership is only one of its problems. True, both at state and federal levels, it seems there are very few decent opposition leaders around in the conservative side of politics.

But a much bigger problem may be the loss of direction, and a floundering in the political seas. What does the Liberal Party stand for these days? What are its core values? How does it distinguish itself from Labor? These are questions which should be carefully considered by the Liberals at the moment.

It is not clear however if these sorts of questions are on the top of the list. Power struggles and sheer desperation to get into power tend to outweigh more philosophical and ideological concerns. But that may well be to the detriment of the Party.

Sure, both major parties are becoming more centrist, assuming that is where the bulk of the electorate is at. It could be. But the worry is, as the Liberal party makes itself more and more indistinguishable from the Labor Party, why should anyone vote for it? If it offers little that is unique and different, then why not just keep the current mob in power?

In such situations it is usually helpful to return to first principles, to go back to one’s roots. What has made the Liberal Party so effective at getting in and staying in power in the past? One good indicator is the strongly held values of the Liberals some decades ago.

This was probably best expressed by Robert Menzies in a speech he gave in May of 1942. Entitled, “The Forgotten People,” it nicely lays out some core principles and values of the Party, and demonstrates some genuine substance and belief.

Menzies of course was Prime Minister in Australia from 1939 to 1941, and 1949 to 1966. Altogether, he served in that capacity for nearly eighteen and a half years. In many respects he was a great leader, as well as a man of some wit. For example, while speaking in Victoria in 1954, a heckler yelled out, "I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the Archangel Gabriel". Menzies instantly shot back, "If I were the Archangel Gabriel, I’m afraid you wouldn’t be in my constituency."

But back to his famous speech. In it he affirmed some core values of the Liberal Party, values which the nation as a whole could rightly sign on to. A few snippets of this memorable speech are worth posting here. He said this for example about the middle class and the importance of the family:

The middle class “has a ‘stake in the country’. It has responsibility for homes – homes material, homes human, and homes spiritual. I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of the organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race. The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.”

He went on to say that “Human nature is at its greatest when it combines dependence upon God with independence of man”. It is the individual, not the state, which must be promoted and applauded:

“The idea entertained by many people that, in a well-constituted world, we shall all live on the State is the quintessence of madness, for what is the State but us? We collectively must provide what we individually receive. The great vice of democracy – a vice which is exacting a bitter retribution from it at this moment – is that for a generation we have been busy getting ourselves on to the list of beneficiaries and removing ourselves from the list of contributors, as if somewhere there was somebody else’s wealth and somebody else’s effort on which we could thrive.”

He continued, “To discourage ambition, to envy success, to have achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motives to public service – these are the maladies of modern democracy, and of Australian democracy in particular. Yet ambition, effort, thinking, and readiness to serve are not only the design and objectives of self-government but are the essential conditions of its success. If this is not so, then we had better put back the clock, and search for a benevolent autocracy once more.”

While the current Liberal Party is going though turmoil and confusion, it may be helpful to remind them of some of the basic principles of the Party, and to remind them that some core values deserve to be retained, regardless of the day and the age.

Party political parties can on occasion show moments of greatness, nobility and values of worth. It is hoped our current opposition party can recapture some of this greatness soon. Australia needs genuine alternatives, and it needs great men for difficult times.

Menzies was no saint, but he seemed to have a bit of vision, principle, and a set of core values. If the modern Liberals want to get back into power, they will need leaders with similar traits. Otherwise they may languish on the sidelines for some time to come.

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