04/03/2009 - 22:00

Liberals fighting for their future

04/03/2009 - 22:00


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The federal Liberals may feel they’ve done it tough lately, but things could get a whole lot worse

Liberals fighting for their future

ONE-TIME Sydney lawyer, investment banker and now Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, believes his party needs reforming. What else is new?

That's exactly what was needed well before Mr Turnbull's time, as far back as the Malcolm Fraser years (1975-83).

Things didn't change much for the Liberals during Labor's reign across the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating era (1983-96).

And things definitely didn't improve during the big-taxing and centralising John Howard years (1996-2007).

The fact is, the Liberal Party has been in membership decline for decades, with increasing numbers of voters now seeing the onetime grassroots party - remember Robert Menzies' great one liner, "the forgotten people"? - as an institution that serves to benefit only those wanting to be politicians.

However, over those declining decades the party experienced two temporary spikes in membership.

The first was during the bout of public spending madness launched by former Sydney lawyer, Gough Whitlam (1972-75).

Another was prompted by the antics of that ever-vitriolic Sydneysider, Paul Keating (1991-96).

However, after each spike - followed by the Fraser and Howard eras respectively - enthusiasm for Liberalism again waned and the declining trajectory continued.

When viewed thus it's apparent that the only time the Liberal Party experiences short-lived membership revival is when Labor governments veer wildly off the rails.

Hardly a resounding endorsement.

But whenever Labor performs even moderately well, such as during much of the Hawke era (1983-91) or as it's presently being deemed by most voters, under Kevin Rudd, Liberalism's appeal keeps sliding.

Doubters should take note of South Australian Liberal powerbroker Nick Minchin, who foresaw Mr Turnbull's current difficulties back in 2005, prompting him to write a candid article for his party's national publication, Looking Forward.

His assessment is important, since he's the arch insider.

Before entering the Senate in 1993, he was director of the South Australian Liberal Party (1985-93) and held several positions in the party's federal secretariat, including deputy director (1977-83).

According to Senator Minchin, in 1949, when Robert Menzies won government, the party had nearly 200,000 members across 1,652 branches, or an average of about 120 per branch.

A third of a century later, in 1983, when the Fraser government fell and Australia's population had nearly doubled that of 1949, there were just more than 100,000 members.

That's a slump by a factor of four.

Twenty-one years later, in 2004 - the year Mr Turnbull entered parliament - when the population stood at about 20 million, membership was 80,000.

Incidentally, State Scene suspects that's an over-estimate because of the endemic nationwide malpractice of Liberal politicians stacking branches with friends and relatives.

"It 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," Senator Minchin wrote in Looking Forward.

"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 would be difficult to describe more succinctly the problems now facing Mr Turnbull and deputy, Julie Bishop.

"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," Senator Minchin continued.

"The donor base is shrinking and divisional staff numbers have been under long-term decline."

Little wonder Mr Turnbull feels compelled to return, even if only tentatively, to this old chestnut issue.

However, this deplorable state of affairs should be seen in context.

Firstly, Labor's membership level is also far from rosy.

Secondly, both parties' councils and agencies are completely dominated by their politicians, not dwindling rank-and-file members.

Thirdly, both are vulnerable to and dependent upon publicly untraceable lobbying, which includes dependence on big corporate donations.

And finally, increasing numbers of politicians - state and federal - hail from the ranks of politicians' parliamentary and electoral offices, that is, taxpayer-funded staffers, not branches or society at large.

Australia's increasingly entrenched political stratum is becoming a self-perpetuating taxpayer-financed class, far from being a representative body of voters.

Moreover, the fact that lawyers, like Mr Turnbull and Ms Bishop, continue to form a dominant group within their party makes it even less representative of society.

Mr Turnbull has other problems. He narrowly holds Sydney's swish seat of Wentworth.

To help ensure his electoral survival he feels compelled to adopt policy stances he believes are acceptable in this quite untypical seat that's inhabited by significant numbers of rich and super wealthy constituents.

Moreover, Ms Bishop, who represents swish Curtin, although careful about making too many policy pronouncements, shares a somewhat similar background that abounds with political correctness.

Little wonder a recent report on the moves to revamp the party began as follows.

"Malcolm Turnbull's attempts to recast the Liberal Party, including knocking off the sitting federal president, are threatening to throw the organisation into the turmoil and divisions of the disastrous Howard-Peacock rivalries of the 1980s," Denis Shanahan wrote in The Australian.

"The Opposition Leader is determined to revamp the Liberal Party but he is being accused by party members of doing away with links to the Howard-Costello years and behaving like a corporate raider in a company merger."

Where might all this end?

Firstly, the party simply bungles along and continues to steadily decline, as it's done for 40 or so years, and waits for Labor to stumble so another Liberal government can emerge by default.

That's the most likely outcome, especially if Liberal MPs stave off fracturing into warring personality-based factions.

Secondly, Mr Turnbull may show himself to be a managerial and inspirational whiz who reverses long-standing trends and eventually reforms his party, like Mr Menzies did during 1942-44, to again become a more representative, dynamic, and grass roots entity.

This is unlikely.

But there's a third, one that shouldn't be overlooked.

The Liberal Party could simply implode; vanish.

The 20th century's great Australian political milestones include Labor's three big splits: in 1917, over conscription; 1930-31 over the global financial crisis, called the Great Depression; and 1955-56, over Communist infiltration.

What about non-Labor's three generally ignored milestones?

Easily forgotten is the fact that non-Labor, rather than having ideological splits, has tended to simply implode and be replaced by a rejuvenated entity.

After World War I the Nationalist Party emerged from disparate conservative groups - with some Laborite MPs joining - to combat newly emerged socialistic and centralist Labor.

But it had vanished by 1931.

From those ashes emerged the United Australia Party - again with some Laborite MPs joining.

By 1944 it had also imploded.

And from these ashes arose an invigorated Liberal Party.

Mr Turnbull and Ms Bishop would do well to recall these precedents.



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