Liberals Must Fight With Themselves Before They Battle Labor

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21 April 2023
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Sweeping disagreements under the rug will not get the party back into power. It’s argument that drives policy creativity.

When you believe you’re the party of government and you’re not in power anywhere on the Australian mainland, inevitably it’s going to be difficult for the Liberal Party.

You try to console yourself saying “we’ve been here before and the tide will turn”, but you know that the second half of that statement is based more on hope than anything else.

There’s nothing inevitable about the arc of history. Once upon a time, the world lived with the fond assumption that where capitalism went, democracy followed.

When Robert Menzies won the federal Liberals’ first election victory in 1949, there were probably Labor MPs telling themselves what Liberals repeat today. Those Labor MPs only had to wait 23 years for their prediction to come true.

When Jeff Kennett lost the 1999 Victorian election, the most common reaction from the Liberals was “we’ll be back as soon Victorians realise what they’ve done”. The Victorian Liberals did come back – after a decade.

Four years later, they were out of government again. At the next state election, they’ll have been out of power for another 12 years.

Liberals forget that the tide doesn’t always carry you closer to the shore. In 2014, at the election they lost to Labor’s Daniel Andrews, the Coalition held 38 out of 88 lower house seats. After last year’s state election, it holds 28 seats.

None of which is to say of course that Peter Dutton can’t win the next federal election. The Coalition has 58 of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives and he needs another 18 seats for a majority. In 1996, Howard won an additional 29 seats, and in 2013, Tony Abbott won an extra 18 seats. So it can be done. But, honestly, against a first-term government, it’s unlikely.

Which means Dutton and the Liberals should face up to life in opposition. Opposition is not all bad. In fact, you could make an argument that the Liberals, at least federally in recent years, are actually better and do more in opposition than in government.

In opposition, the Liberals do more thinking, more arguing, and they write better policies than when they’re running the country. Certainly, at times, the Liberals have provided good government. Already the Howard/Costello era is looked back on as something like the golden years. After their deposition of Abbott, it’s not obvious what Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison achieved. In 2016, if Bill Shorten had beaten Turnbull to become prime minister it’s not clear how the country would be very different from what it is now.

Fightback! cost John Hewson the election but shaped the course of the nation’s policy debates for a generation, while to this day John Howard’s election policies of 1987 are probably the purest expression into politics of the ideas of free market liberalism. Both were the product of opposition. It was Abbott as leader of the opposition who set the national agenda on border security, not Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard as prime minister.

The Liberals (sadly) take great pride in being the “practical” and “pragmatic” party of government. That might be fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t tell you what to do if you’re not in government.

At the moment, the Liberals are saying that at least they’re “united”. But unity is overrated. If you’re going to have a fight between yourselves, it’s better to have it in opposition. Howard and Abbott won government from opposition because their arguments had been tested and improved as a result of the internal battles they overcame.

Right now, the first fight the Liberals need to have with each other is about what they stand for.

The diversity of opinion among Liberals on something as fundamental as the Voice isn’t a sign of strength. It’s evidence of a party room that’s been completely hollowed out intellectually and that can’t even agree among itself on the basic principles Liberals should fight for.

It’s easy for a political party to be united when disagreements are swept under the carpet, non-performers keep their jobs, and everyone pretends that sitting quietly and doing not much is the way to success.

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This article was originally published in The Australian Financial Review on or about 21 April 2023 and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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