There are dangers in writing liberalism’s obituary. If politics is ultimately determined by living standards, then the Lib’s prospects remain strong, even after the Aston byelection.
It is easy to get over-excited about by-elections, to transpose humiliating defeats on to future federal elections and conclude that the country is in the grip of a major political and ideological realignment.
And it is certainly true these are bleak times for the Liberals. The party suffered a massive defeat in the Aston by-election — not just because an incumbent government did particularly well, but because the Liberal vote collapsed. When what was previously a blue bastion is lost, some backbenchers are bound to panic, especially at a time when Labor governments dominate the Australian mainland.
Meanwhile, the cultural left has made a “long march through the institutions,” unconsciously following the model laid out by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci nearly a century ago. And a socialistic ethic has taken hold among the Millennials and Generation Z, undermining the free society.
All that being said, there are dangers in writing liberalism’s obituary. True, Liberals face serious challenges, such as attracting younger voters and reconciling the conservative and small-l liberal wings of the party. But history shows that the Liberals demonstrate their ruthless survival instincts when it really counts.
Following Harold Holt’s death in 1967, Robert Menzies told his daughter Heather: “I am witnessing the destruction of the party… [it’s] a leaderless rabble, and I have great fears for the future.” And yet the party of Menzies has been in power in Canberra for about two thirds of the period since his lament.
Following its fifth consecutive loss in 1993, Liberal senator Chris Puplick wrote a book called Is the Party Over? In it, he warned that the Liberals were “exclusionist, hostile to new ideas and new people and too concerned with trying to bring people back to the ‘good old days.’” Less than two years later, John Howard won a massive landslide election victory and held power for another 12 years.
When Kevin Rudd was in the political stratosphere in 2008-09, the eminent historian Judith Brett warned that the Liberals risked “becoming a down-market protest party of angry old men in the outer suburbs.” Yet Rudd was brutally knifed by his own colleagues and the ALP resembled nothing so much as a pub brawl.
When Tony Abbott narrowly won Liberal leadership, the doyens of the press gallery had marked him as a right-wing throwback to a bygone era. Yet the “Neanderthal” Abbott led his coalition to a resounding victory, handing the Australian Labor Party one of its biggest defeats.
Bear all this in mind when you hear pundits hail a new progressive era after Aston. Labor victories, with the exception of Victoria, do not signal some great ideological shift. Nor do the Liberals face an existential crisis.
In 2022, Middle Australia did not embrace a new philosophy. It was rejecting a man: the country had enough of Scott Morrison. Remember Labor won only 32 per cent of the primary vote and a two-seat parliamentary majority. All this is why the Coalition should not, as Howard warns, descend into a “woe is us” mentality.
The key to Liberal renewal has been to not just reinvent itself with the times, but to broaden the appeal of sound policies rather than copy the agenda of its opponents. As Malcolm Fraser in 1975, Howard in 1996 and Abbott in 2013 showed, only centre-right Liberal leaders win power: cowardly, ideologically rudderless leaders, in thrall to fashionable orthodoxies, fade into the media mind-meld.
If politics is ultimately determined by living standards, then Liberal prospects are good. True, unemployment is extraordinarily low and, thanks to the export sales of commodities, including – gasp! – gas and coal, we are enjoying historically high terms of trade.
However, the spectre of financial contagion — exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis, China’s massive military build-up and a frighteningly polarised America – threatens the long peace and prosperity that Australians have become accustomed to for generations.
If higher interest rates continue to tighten cost-of-living pressures — and monetary policy often works with long and variable lags of a year or two — Labor will surely experience the kinds of “events” against which Harold Macmillan famously warned. The voters’ revenge, when it comes, could be pitiless.
And when the traumatic reckoning comes, the Liberals will need to set out a productivity-enhancing policy alternative to Canberra’s utopian top-down solutions and fiscal recklessness, so they can focus on bread-and-butter issues, such as housing affordability and cost-of-living crises, which an energy crisis would worsen. At the same time, they need to defend more vigorously the western tradition of freedom of expression, which is coming under continued attack from a minority of hate-filled people.
Call out the corporates who act like social activists. Condemn the “sensitivity readers” who censor children’s books. Criticise the academic campaign to decolonise the history curriculums. Respect trans people, but oppose the extreme gender activists who have hijacked trans issues to cancel women and to force people to state their pronouns. Support Indigenous recognition, but raise serious concerns about the constitutional powers of the Voice to Parliament.
Stand up to the twitter mobs, a small, unrepresentative minority whose undue influence poisons public discourse. Above all, promote a classically liberal vision of an Australia where enterprise is encouraged, hard work rewarded, and genuine freedom of expression is tolerated.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.
Photo by Liza Summer