That title contains an equivocation. In the internationally accepted sense, Australia’s Liberal Party, despite the half-hearted efforts of Malcolm Turnbull, is a conservative party, not a liberal party; it is a member not of Liberal International but of the centre-right International Democrat Union.
Nonetheless, as a primarily middle-class party that professes some allegiance to the free market, its electoral position is comparable in some ways to that of liberal parties. And events last weekend throw up a fascinating contrast in relations between such parties and the Greens.
The big headline was from Germany, where that country’s Liberals (the Free Democrats, or FDP) on Sunday walked out of coalition talks to form a new government with the Christian Democrats and Greens. Liberal leader Christian Lindner portrayed the decision as a matter of principle, saying “It is better not to govern than to govern wrongly.”
But most reports suggest that agreement between the three parties was very close, and that the remaining policy differences were small. Lindner appears to have been motivated not by any specific stumbling block, but by a more general fear of being seen to give up too much of the FDP’s separate identity. That was the lesson he took from the party’s disastrous result in 2013, when it fell below the 5% threshold after four years as junior partner to the Christian Democrats.
Voters, however, are unlikely to take kindly to a new election, after having delivered what looked like a perfectly workable governing majority in the last one. Yet it’s not clear whether other options are any better; chancellor Angela Merkel sounds decidedly cool on the idea of minority government, and even if the FDP abstains, Christian Democrats and Greens between them do not have a relative majority (although they’re close: 313 seats as against 316 for the combined Social Democrats, far left and far right).
The Liberals have form in this department. In 2005 they refused to go into coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens after those two parties lost their combined majority, instead forcing a grand coalition between centre-right and centre-left. In the short term that worked for the Liberals; the following election, in 2009, saw their best ever result. But it abdicated their historic role as the balancing centrist party, tying them more closely to the right and warping the development of German party politics.
Then and now, the subtext is the rivalry between the Liberals and Greens. Although both their image and some of their policy positions are very different, they are competing for very much the same sort of voters: the young, the socially engaged, the educated middle class. Their enmity is the result not of distance but of proximity, and if they cannot work out a way to co-operate, German politics is going to be the loser.
And a rather similar rivalry – even less acknowledged by those concerned – marks the relationship between Australia’s Liberal Party and Greens, as evidenced in Saturday’s by-election in the Victorian state seat of Northcote.
As is common for by-elections well outside its territory, the Liberal Party declined to field a candidate. In what was basically a straight fight between the Greens and Labor (no-one else managed more than 5.2%), the Greens prevailed comfortably, winning with 55.6% of the two-party-preferred vote, a swing of 11.7%.
A number of reasons can be offered for the win, but clearly the absence of a Liberal candidate was an important one. In 2014, almost three-quarters of Liberal voters had followed the how-to-vote card and preferenced Labor ahead of the Greens. Left to their own devices on Saturday, many of those votes evidently went to the Greens, either directly or via preferences.
The swing to the Greens correlates well with the pattern of the Liberal vote in 2014; the three lowest swings were among the four worst Liberal booths, and the three highest swings were among the four best. Although many Liberal voters obviously stayed home, the Greens picked up a lot of the rest.
Last week had already shown the Liberal leadership to be out of touch with its voters, when results of the same-sex marriage plebiscite revealed much stronger than expected support in safe Liberal seats, even those usually thought of as conservative areas. Now it seems that (at least in the inner city) Liberal voters also fail to go along with their leaders’ demonisation of the Greens.
State Liberal leader Matthew Guy responded on Sunday by threatening to not field candidates in Northcote and similar seats at the next state election, unless (impossibly enough) Labor were to direct preferences to Liberals ahead of Greens in seats where the two are in competition.
Guy’s threat is most unlikely to materialise; for one thing, it would probably cost the Liberals an upper house seat. But it also involves a basic inconsistency: the argument is that Labor should preference against the Greens because they are dangerous extremists, but the threat is only effective because Guy knows that many of his voters disagree, and would support the Greens ahead of Labor if they were given the choice.
Like in Germany, the underlying reality is that, to the extent they can claim to be a broadly liberal party, the Liberals are competing with the Greens for much the same pool of voters: the educated, affluent middle class.
And just as that rivalry in Germany seems to have pushed the Liberals to the right in an effort to differentiate themselves, so the Australian Liberals – who went down the same track, and further, a long time ago – are finding that if they define themselves by hostility to the Greens, their voters may be reluctant to follow them.
Disclosure: Northcote is the neighboring electorate to mine, and I handed out how-to-votes and scrutineered for the Greens candidate on Saturday.