|This page is intentionally opinion-based although it does use facts for its arguments. You have been warned.|
The present Liberal party is originally a creation of one of Australia's longest-serving PM's, Robert Menzies in the 1930's. It was always a conservative vehicle but also an attempt to enshrine the values of liberalism in an Australian context. From the start it took the opposing view to the Labor party on issues of industrial relations, education, foreign affairs and defence. This led to the not unsurprising perception that it was the party of the big end of town, which still persists.
Unfortunately, the party has tarnished its own image from the start by adroit political manoeuvring, particularly from Menzies, and this legacy continues. Menzies earned the nickname 'Pig Iron' after he refused to stop exporting iron to Japan before WW2, a decision which helped to oust him from the party for much of the war. After retaking control of the party, Menzies politically destroyed Evatt who was probably his greatest threat by invoking communist paranoia, a favourite tactic against the Labor party for much of his time as PM.
When he retired in the mid 1960's, a pattern of leadership instability followed, eventuating in loss of government in 1972 to Labour. This pattern seems dependent on the power structure of the party. Since then the party has twice repeated this pattern of winning with shock tactics from a strong leader, followed by a period in office where control increasingly centralized and then a period of defeat during which the party has sought a new leader to win office. In an irony, Malcolm Fraser destabilized the leadership in 1968, giving then Opposition leader Gough Whitlam leverage to lead the Labor party to eventual office.
In 1975, Malcolm Fraser used the tactic of refusing Supply and a little-known law giving the Governor-General power to dismiss a government to wrest caretaker control of government from Gough Whitlam. He succeeded in winning the subsequent election, but lost the following one to Bob Hawke, sending the party into 16 years of Opposition. During this period Andrew Peacock and John Hewson tried and lost elections. In a bizarre twist, John Howard lost the leadership to Alexander Downer for a brief time. He went on to win the 1996 election with the unusual tactic of refusing to have a platform other than being an alternative to Paul Keating. Upon winning he then claimed a conspiracy to hide a massive deficit, and used a variety of other shock tactics to win subsequent elections to date.
The Liberal party is dependent on a strong man at the top. This is the historic result of the formation by Menzies, although they claim to make decisions by a democratic process. It is a centralized structure, which has increasingly come under the control of the federal parliamentary party generally overriding the state branches. For much of its history the powerbase was in the Victorian liberal faction, a centrist faction, but since the 1990's it has been influenced by the New South Wales right-wing faction. This is somewhat ironic given the utter failure of that state liberal party to win government at the time. Commentators suggest the faction has got so out of hand a new party may be formed just to expel it. The problems of this structure have been obvious for decades: the 'survival of the fittest' attitude to Liberal political successs ensures that when it fails, it tends to split the party. The Democrats are one example of this; they directly resulted from the 1975 crisis. In a sense the right-wing Liberal faction is another, given the pressure that Hewson's 1993 failure put on the central moderate faction. The failure of the Howard faction which became a faction unto itself separate from the NSW right may result a rebalancing of the party's political spectrum, but seems unlikely at this stage.
The party started as standard urban conservatives: big on small government, lower corporate taxes, social conservatism. While these have remained, the right-wing faction based in New South Wales has followed American political trends towards fascist agendas: authoritarian centralism, xenophobic nationalism, militaristc geopolitics and corporate allegiance and identification. Such a trend will have its backlash, but in what form is yet to unfold. Increasing radicalism is likely to be a feature of general politics; whether it retains an electoral edge is the question.
The opportunism inherent in Liberal ideology is a factor in their political successes and failures. It enabled them to use the Coalition to their best advantage, and effectively wipe out the National vote in rural electorates; it may also be their downfall in those same electorates.
There is no doubt that Howard, while being the most successful Liberal leader, has also been the most radical and destructive, for party and country. It will be years before that is recognised in national terms, but in party terms it is imminent. Despite attempts to avoid it, Howard has mimicked the last years of the Hawke-Keating government with a Treasurer left to bear the brunt of electoral dissatisfaction, and through his dictatorial style, ensured that his party will be a shambles when he leaves it in the not too distant future.
The Liberal party are not a conservative party despite their overtures to conservatives. They are a party of power, formed by Menzies for that purpose, and do not deal well with Opposition. Although claiming moral depth to their philosophy, the hollowness of that boast is clear from the ease with which successive leaders have dumped seemingly core Liberal values.
Until Howard's long run, the disarray of the party was evident by their inability to find the right leader. The right leader is everything here. When they can't find a winner, this party has no message, no direction and an inconsistent structure. The front bench is going to find life tough: their backbenchers are angry and their leadership alternatives are few. Whoever takes charge will also be in charge of the power structure, faction deals, and administration. This top-down dependency of the Federal branch has resulted in chaos for State branches. But the party is too dependent on realigning their attack on a new fresh and appealing leader. After three leaders the party has settled upon the appalling choice of Tony Abbott whose polling is weaker than the party s.
While the party has been successful in retaking the State governments those governments are by no means long-term propositions. After several coups at the parliamentary level, the current party is not demonstrably further along than 2007 except in terms of heightened rhetoric and favourable polling. Having won federal government in 2013 by these means, it is unlikely that they will be encouraged to change these tactics.
Who's who and what's what - The press gallery reporting of the Abbott government ministry (the very phrase still rankles) has been poor, to say the least, and that bodes ill for the quality of reporting we might expect from it over the years ahead.