NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
The Liberal Party faces moment of truth
, April 4, 2009
The Liberal Party has not only deteriorated at the top; things are even worse at the lower ranks, writes Joseph Poprzeczny.Sixty-seven years after Sir Robert Menzies moved to form the Liberal Party to combat socialism and centralism, the party finds itself in a predicament.
Its leaders, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, are increasingly perceived as being well qualified for middle-rank posts in a Kevin Rudd-led Labor ministry. Nothing about either distinguishes them from most Rudd ministers. Both are left-of-centre Liberals.
To make matters worse, the man most likely to replace Turnbull, former party deputy leader and Treasurer, Peter Costello, has no alternative vision for his party or Australia.
All are lawyers - hardly representative of Australian society at large.
None of this is surprising since Turnbull and Costello appear less interested in ideas (apart from their common support for the republic) than in positions. Turnbull years ago reportedly approached two senior Labor politicians, Kim Beazley and Nick Bolkus, to canvass gaining Labor pre-selection.
Ms Bishop's road to Canberra was different. It was helped by her association with the WA Liberal Party's now-defunct Crichton-Browne faction, which in turn owed something to her long de facto relationship with former Senator Ross Lightfoot, a key factional member.
A distinguishing feature of that WA faction's members who gained safe federal seats - notably, Howard Government ministers, Senators Chris Ellison and Ian Campbell - is that they did not sufficiently champion what the faction ostensibly ideologically embraced: low taxes and states' rights.
Whenever the Howard Government legislated to further boost Canberra's powers, a dominant feature of the years 1996-2007, both federal parliamentarians obediently fell in line. Nor has Ms Bishop ever shown herself willing to buck creeping centralism.
This across-the-board ideological de-authorisation of the Menzies Liberal Party means it is now locked into endless tussles involving vote-buying, and thus the pursuit of ever bigger government and more power to Canberra. Clearly it is on a treadmill from which its leadership doesn't know how to get off.
All that the party-room number-crunchers for the rival Turnbull and Costello camps can therefore do is put their career considerations ahead of all else and hope that by 2010 or 2013, or later, voters eventually tire of the Rudd Labor Government, as they so obviously tired of the Howard Coalition Government by 2007. That's what Australian national politics has come to.
This is a far cry from the 1940s when Menzies succeeded in uniting various groups to oppose Labor-style centralism and socialism and to champion Australia's federal constitution and an economy based on property ownership and the freeing up of enterprise.
In recent years, the Liberal Party has not only deteriorated at the top; things are even worse at the lower ranks. And the one who best describes this is the federal parliamentary party's arch-insider, South Australian Senator Nick Minchin.
Four years ago he wrote a surprisingly candid article in the party's national publication, Looking Forward
. He disclosed that, in 1949, when Robert Menzies returned to power, his recently-formed Liberal Party had nearly 200,000 members in 1,652 branches - an average of about 120 members per branch.
In 1983, when Australia's population was about double that of 1949, the Liberals had just over 100,000 members - about half that of 1949 - so down by a factor of four in proportion to the population.
In 2005, when the population was about 20 million, membership had shrunk to 80,000. This is in all likelihood an over-estimation, since so many Liberal MPs stack branches with friends and relatives so as not to be toppled at pre-selection contests.
Minchin wrote: "In may be possible to win elections from government with a limited membership, but when we are next in opposition federally, we will confront serious competitive disadvantages.
"Weighing up alongside Labor are allied battalions of well-funded unions, noisy self-interested pressure groups, a sympathetic media, an opinionated host of academics divorced from all reality, developers with close relationships to Labor-controlled councils, and a big business community increasingly nervous about offending Labor state governments."
It should be emphasised that Minchin wrote all this when the Liberals were at the height of their power federally and when the Howard Government looked unbeatable.Alarming
Minchin continued: "The financial position of many divisions has been alarming in the past two decades, with three states facing severe crises and some party buildings sold to maintain solvency.
"The donor base is shrinking and divisional staff numbers have been under long-term decline. Campaign staff are often the first to go..."
Clearly, it matters little whether Turnbull or Costello is leader since none of the issues Minchin has highlighted is likely to change.
The only thing with which Liberals can console themselves is that the Labor Party's internal problems across Australia are no better - perhaps even worse.- Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and freelance writer.