03/04/2007 - 22:00

Liberals have lost their way

03/04/2007 - 22:00


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Predicting the demise of institutions – including political ones that have been with us for ages – is a risky exercise.

Predicting the demise of institutions – including political ones that have been with us for ages – is a risky exercise.

Australia’s 107-year-old national political scene has seen several parties come and go.

There’s even a case of one that went and returned after being off-stage for nearly 30-years.

State Scene refers, of course, to the Democratic Labor Party, which departed the political stage in the late 1970s but returned with a candidate winning a seat in the Victorian upper house last December.

The oldest of our parties is the Australian Labor Party, which parallels Australia’s federation.

It has split several times, lost many elections, abided by outdated and failed ideas – socialism, for instance – and had senior members allying themselves with dangerous international crackpot movements like communism.

Despite all that, it’s managed to stay afloat.

Labor’s survival isn’t difficult to understand.

It’s a social democratic party of the kind that were a key feature of the developed or Western world during the 20th century.

If not all, then most European countries have such a party.

Poland’s Solidarity movement, which emerged under communism – allegedly a pro-worker force – was essentially that, as is the US Democratic Party.

Social democratic parties were integral to industrialised economies, even if their top posts more often than not are held by middle, upper middle and even upper class types.

Failed post-war Labor leaders Dr Herb Evatt and Gough Whitlam were well-off lawyers.

Bob Hawke, like Kim Beazley, is a Rhodes scholar with neither ever having been at the hard end of a pick or shovel.

And Kevin Rudd, despite those suspect recollections of his and his family’s circumstances, was tertiary educated at taxpayers’ expense and served in the diplomatic corps, so was on a sizeable salary with all travel and other expenses paid.

After that, he became a senior Brisbane bureaucrat, thanks to the Labor Party, and moved into an inner city Brisbane federal seat due to that link. It’s unlikely his hands have ever had callouses.

The same applies to the failed Mark Latham, who never stopped talking about having grown up in Sydney’s working class Green Valley.

Yet he was taxpayer educated, including at university, worked on Mr Whitlam’s staff, was cared for by the NSW Labor Party, and quietly manoeuvred himself into Gough’s safe seat of Werriwa.

The last worker Labor had leading it was Ben Chifley, back in the 1940s.

When looking beyond Australia you’ll find Tony Blair, an Oxford University pal of former WA Labor premier, Geoff Gallop. Mr Blair’s father was an academic, having even taught in Adelaide, while Dr Gallop’s was a Geraldton company secretary.

This pattern of middle class types dominating the Labor Party is even witnessed across its ministerial ranks.

Look at WA Labor’s scene: Jim McGinty, union boss and lawyer; Alannah MacTiernan, Mark McGowan and Margaret Quirk, all lawyers…all like lawyers John Howard and Peter Costello.

WA Labor only has one manual worker in its parliamentary ranks – Collie’s MLA, Mick Murray.

Whenever State Scene considers Labor MPs’ backgrounds it is difficult not to conclude that that party is basically a vehicle for lawyers and other non-labouring types to become well-paid political bosses.

Furthermore, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish between many Liberals and Laborites.

If anyone can pick the difference between one-time ABC compere, Maxine McKew, and the Howard government’s super-centralist education minister and lawyer, Julie Bishop, please do.

Another great Australian political survivor is the National (once the Country) Party. Its demise has been predicted for decades, due primarily to the ongoing shift of population from the inland to coastal cities, towns and resorts.

Yet it’s still around, and one would be brave to contend it won’t be with us for some time yet.

Then there’s the Liberal Party.

Although electorally the most successful – in tandem with the National Party – since World War II, it’s the youngest of the three.

Its various predecessors – the Fusionist-Liberals (1909-17); the Nationalists (1917-31), who for a time were led by former Labor PM, Billy Hughes; and the United Australia Party (1931-44), also for a time led by an ex-Laborite, Joseph Lyons – were relatively short-lived political ventures.

The Liberal Party is 63 years old. But since Kevin Rudd’s emergence before Christmas, commentators have begun predicting its demise.

State Scene certainly believes the Liberals are set to lose the coming federal election.

Among other things, this would mean that Australia will for the first time be under complete Labor sway, with Labor administrations in every territory, state and nationally.

The nearest Labor’s come to this was in the mid-1940s, when it held federal government and all states except South Australia, which was under Liberal premier, Tom Playford.

Interestingly, the Coalition once held power right across the land.

That was during 1969-70, when every state and Canberra was conservative-controlled.

Oh, how things have changed over the past 37 years.

The Liberals and Nationals regained power in 1975 only after an extraordinary constitutional clash involving intervention by former Sydney lawyer, governor-general Sir John Kerr, someone who had a long association with NSW Labor.

In many ways the Liberals of the 1970s can be thankful Labor was led by Sydney lawyer, Gough Whitlam.

If someone more competent had been leader, who knows where the Liberal Party would be today?

Not widely realised is that former PM, Sir Robert Menzies, considered seriously what would happen after the Liberals’ collapse as a viable entity, and thought in terms of the creation of a new centre party.

And although former Liberal PM, Malcolm Fraser, now speaks more like a left-of-centre Laborite, before going that far leftwards he was concerned the Liberals may well be a spent force.

A question worth asking is, where could traditional Liberal backers go after a Howard defeat?

The problem the Liberal Party, in the post-Howard years, will have is that it will be left without any discernible Liberal values.

Many now contend that their MPs Australia-wide are simply office seekers who bear little or no resemblance to those from the late 1940s and early 1950s.

No-one any longer believes the Liberals back small government, low taxation, or federalism.

And the simple reason for that is that John Howard more than anyone has moved them into social democratic ideological waters – ever bigger government, high taxation, ever tighter central bureaucratic controls, and massive costly duplication of traditional state responsibilities, so Labor-style centralism.

Mr Howard’s only distinguishing feature is his support for Australia’s traditional backing of the Australian-American alliance – itself an innovation of Labor’s John Curtin.

Little wonder Mr Rudd is doing all possible to blur this with his ‘we’ll withdraw from Iraq’ one day, and ‘we’ll leave some soldiers in Iraq’ the next.

Rudd-led Labor knows it must be cautious in this regard because things could easily go dangerously haywire internationally.

On all else so far Mr Rudd has managed to sugar coat the past four months of Rudd-mania with basically Howard Liberals-style promises.

A post-Howard Liberal Party is set to be one that’s as confounded and confused as it was during the first half of the Whitlam government and throughout the entire period of Bob Hawke’s ascendancy.

It will have no ideological tenets to fall back upon to guide it because these were all scrapped by Mr Howard with no resistance whatsoever from his ministers or backbenchers.

And here Western Australians such as senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison, plus super-centralist education minister, Julie Bishop, are culpable.

The move from Fusion-Liberalism, to Nationalist, then to the United Australia Party during the first five decades of last century warrants being repeated before 2010.

In other words, a brand new centre-right party that actually stands for something more than just being in power for the sake of it will be needed; one that’s based on belief in limited government plus the Howard-style foreign policy.

Put bluntly, post-Howard centre-right successor MPs are unlikely to look back fondly on the big spending centralist domestic outcomes of his decade in power.


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