The future in doubt
No election result is a certainty in advance but all the evidence suggests that the federal government will suffer a heavy loss whenever the poll is held. Even so, the Liberals would expect to return to office when the electoral cycle next turns. No doubt that will happen but the future of the party in the longer term is open to more doubt. Consider the following disadvantages that it now faces in the context of the Australian political process, most acutely at the federal level.
Ideology of the electorate. In many ways the Liberals are now a centre party facing a centre-left electorate. This is not to say that most members of the community share the views of Labor and the Greens but they do largely accept, unlike many of their American counterparts, that government expenditure should be generally increased in almost every area and that greater government regulation of almost every activity presents no problems. It all seems a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s when Menzies made considerable political capital during election campaigns by questioning Labor’s – then very modest – spending proposals by asking constantly ‘Where is the money coming from?’
Although the Liberals have for many years in the post-Menzies era presided over increased government expenditure and increased government regulation – which is why they are not a centre-right party – they have historically been the party of fiscal responsibility and they can never out-promise Labor and the Greens in this territory. Despite their views on the role of government, most Australians do not consider that they should be taxed to pay for government expenditure, assuming that the funds can be provided by large corporations and wealthy individuals, not realising how unrealistic such a proposition is. In addition, a long period of consistent economic growth in Australia has left the electorate with the view that this is the norm and so removed economic management as an election issue. This is a particular problem for the Liberals because it was one area where they were traditionally seen to have stronger credentials for government than their opponents. But the very success of the Australian economy over a long period of time has dissipated this aura of financial skills.
Defeat in the culture wars. The Liberals have been comprehensively vanquished in the culture wars, having lost the ability to influence most public institutions and many private ones across the country. Their policies are derided in much of the media, in universities, in literary festivals, in legal professional bodies and in schools. Most persons in public life and many of those in the boardrooms of large corporations have adopted a politically correct mantra that includes open borders, climate catastrophe and hostility to freedom of speech. They have a deep antipathy to the Liberals and, although their views are not shared by the general populace, they have made some impact on the community generally by reason of their access to the media and their constant repetition of the politically correct position on every issue.
One consequence of all this is that the Liberals have become the unfashionable half of the two-party system. In the 1950s-60s the Liberals were the respectable party and Labor had a slightly disreputable and bohemian flavour to it. But the wheel has turned and Labor and the Greens now appear more glamorous alternatives, particularly in the eyes of younger voters.
The business sector provides nothing like the support for the Liberal policies, even those that advantage them, in comparison with the unions’ efforts on behalf of Labor. This is partly because the business community is frightened of both Labor and the unions whereas the unions are frightened of nothing, knowing that there is nothing that a Liberal government can do to affect them.
No support from third parties. The Liberals almost invariably need to secure an absolute majority of seats in the House of Representatives – and even in the lower houses of State parliaments – because they cannot rely on any of the minor parties or independents to provide support in forming a government. Naturally the Greens might be expected to support Labor but most independents have the same tendency, as was evidenced during the period of the Gillard government. There has always been some scope for independents in the smaller state electorates but this has also been an increasing trend at the federal level, with there now being six independents in the House of Representatives, a significant number in the event of a close election result.
Stymied by the Senate. The Senate voting system ensures the election of enough minor parties and independents to prevent either of the main parties gaining a majority in their own right. Labor, however, can usually depend on the Greens to pass its legislation whereas the Liberals struggle to implement their policies despite endless negotiations with the non-Green crossbenchers and this inevitably affects public perceptions of their effectiveness in government.
Financial imbalance. Where the business sector is wary of providing open endorsement for the Liberals, the unions have no such inhibitions. The CFMMEU alone will spend $10 million in the next federal election campaign.
Out-gunned on the ground. The Liberals cannot match Labor’s campaigns on the ground in marginal seats where swarms of union members and fellow travellers from GetUp door knock, operate phone banks and staff polling booths. These are semi-professional political operatives, trained and experienced in these kinds of exercises – a very different kind of campaigner from the ordinary Liberal party branch member. Just one example of how the campaigns between the two parties are really a contest between professionals on one side and amateurs on the other.
The weakening of one of the two major parties is hardly a good development for our political system. The Liberals’ period of one-party rule from 1949-72 demonstrated some of the problems that this brings with it. But they are now the side that is in danger of losing their long-held position in national politics.