One week on and there have been plenty of post-mortems on the Aston by-election, mostly focusing on the predicament of the Liberal Party. Some of them are quite good: here’s Maeve McGregor, for example, on the malign legacy of John Howard; here’s David Crowe on the protest vote against Peter Dutton; here’s Victor Perton, a former Liberal MP, on the way the party has abandoned Victoria.
I want to draw your attention though to one in particular, by Alan Kohler in the New Daily. The title, “If the Liberals hope to survive it must be as progressive conservatives,” will give you the general idea, but it’s worth reading the whole thing. Kohler argues that the party needs to take its cue from the leadership provided by Dominic Perrottet and Matt Kean at state level in New South Wales, or previously by Conservative leader David Cameron in Britain.
But he points out how difficult this will be, due to the way the party’s membership (as we’ve noted here several times) has become so unrepresentative of its voter base. It amounts, he says, to about 0.3% of the population; moreover:
Those 80,000 Australians, to the extent they are not the result of branch stacking and actually believe something, believe things that other Australians increasingly don’t believe, which gets reflected in the people they pre-select.
He particularly fingers the merger with the National Party in Queensland, which brought an accession of conservative strength: “Queensland now dominates the parliamentary Liberal Party, both in numbers and thinking.” As a result, the party keeps promoting policies that alienate mainstream Australia, including denial of climate change and a commitment to preserving property values at the expense of housing affordability.
And despite the reality checks that the electorate keeps offering up, the problem is getting worse rather than better. The party is especially on the nose with suburban voters, young people, educated women and (although Kohler doesn’t mention this) those from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and these demographic groups are all on the increase. The party’s core of older white rural and peri-urban voters are becoming a smaller and smaller proportion of the population.
A factional breakdown of the federal party room, provided by James Massola in Sunday’s channel nine papers, illustrates the problem. Of the 66 Liberal MPs and senators – which include 18 from the Queensland LNP who identify as Liberals – Massola is able to identify 27 as members of the hard right group led by Dutton. Another six make up the depleted contingent of Scott Morrison’s NSW centre-right group,* bringing the right-wing total to exactly half.
Against them Massola lists 14 “moderates”, eight non-aligned and 11 members of a new “centre” group, which is roughly the descendant of Josh Frydenberg’s old “ambition faction” (compare the original analysis from two years ago). The chance of these less-right forces being able to impose a sensible direction of the party was never good, and is even less so now since voters cut a swathe through them at last year’s election.
But if change won’t come from the branches or from the MPs, then where? Once upon a time, there were powerbrokers who might have been able to impose their will (at least in limited circumstances) on both the organisational and parliamentary wings. Most of them, however, are long gone, and the few that are left have been discredited by repeated electoral failure. In their place is a sort of peanut gallery of outside agitators, mostly harbored by News Corp, whose solution is to move the party even further to the right and embrace an openly Trumpist worldview.
Will they succeed? And if they do, might that finally drive a critical mass of activists away from the party, to where they could create a new vehicle for liberal – or, if you like, “progressive conservative” – politics? Don’t count on it.
* The fact that Morrison’s own politics would on any reasonable test have to be called hard right is a good sign of something that Massola realises but doesn’t stress, namely that factional loyalty is not always a good guide to ideology. We’ve talked about this before, for example in this piece from 2019.
6 thoughts on “Where now, Liberal Party?”
Progressive conservatives? Does that mean people who stumble forward when they get shoved?
At the 1975 federal election, the Liberal Party won every seat in Melbourne east of the Yarra. They also held every state seat in the east except Dandenong. Since then, one by one, they have lost every seat in eastern Melbourne except Deakin, Menzies and La Trobe, and also most of the state seats. This partly reflects demographic change, but also the takeover of the Victorian Liberal Party by the extreme right. The great Melbourne middle class, which was once well represented by Bob Menzies and D*ck Hamer, is now being offered Scott Morrison, Matthew Guy and Peter Dutton, and they are saying, no thanks.
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Don’t get me wrong, Charles as many on the far left are very scary and are walking closer to a “murdering humans is acceptable” point – I feel that Chris Delforce and ideologues like him are real life Taren Capel (the “Doctor Who” villain) wannabes.
It is long past time for those in authority that you and I both know to have the big kids’ trousers on to stop treating Lee Rhiannon, Shoebridge, Jordon Steele-John et al as nice, or even rational.
True or false, this is irrelevant to the subject under discussion.
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J-D, I am not going to be told what i should say by you until you cut out the jerk persona.
I’m not telling you what you should write. I’m just pointing out that what you did write was irrelevant to the discussion.If you don’t like my pointing out that your comments are irrelevant, then I suggest the obvious solution is for you to refrain from making irrelevant comments, but it’s not within my power to compel you to do so. Charles Richardson, as our host, is the only person who has the ability to prevent my comments from being published (on the grounds of judging my persona jerky or on any other) or to prevent your comments from being published (on the grounds of judging them irrelevant or on any other), and so far has chosen to do neither of those things.