Seventy-five years ago this week, a Canberra meeting convened by Robert Menzies decided to establish a new political party, the Liberal party of Australia. The then Mr Menzies became its first parliamentary leader, before in late 1949 going on to serve as prime minister until early 1966.
The Liberal party has been in national office for fifty of its seventy-five years. For most of that time it has governed solidly from the sensible centre-right, representing mainstream Australians who Sir Robert called the ‘forgotten people’ and who evolved into ‘Howard’s battlers’, ‘Tony’s tradies’ and now Scott Morrison’s ‘quiet Australians’. Notwithstanding its talent for periodic leadership immolations, the Libs have governed for those who just get on with their jobs, raise families, and want economic prosperity ahead of ideology and virtue-signalling.
Since 1944, Australia’s population has more than tripled, our economy has boomed from a few billion pounds to trillions of dollars, and our nation’s culture and lifestyle has become the envy or the world – so much so that people come from a myriad of cultures and ethnic backgrounds to assimilate themselves into it. And, grounded in the Enlightenment traditions of Burkean conservatism and classical liberalism, it generally has governed carefully and responsibly for all, not just noisy sectional interests. ‘For the many, not the few’ may be the socialist slogan du jour, but surely it applies far more truly to a pragmatic, mainstream conservative Liberal party.
Yet let’s not forget that it was a Liberal government that ended the White Australia policy and drove the 1967 referendum that forever changed the lot of Aborigines for the better. It was a Liberal government that first opened university education to all and opened trade engagement with Asia. It was the Liberal party under John Howard which, first in constructive opposition and then in government, ensured long-overdue economic restructuring that kick-started what is now almost 30 years of continuous economic growth. And it was a Liberal government that, in 2013, took back sovereignty over our borders from people smugglers. Not a bad record of enlightened progress.
Back in 1994, when the Liberals turned 50 in their second decade of opposition and Labor seemingly had a long-term lock on government, academic Judith Brett predicted the party would not make its centenary. Just after winning May’s ‘unwinnable’ election, with its Labor opponents in disarray and another term or two of government looking highly likely, one may be forgiven for thinking Professor Brett, no friend of the Liberal party, talked rubbish. Liberals, however, should not forget that, had it not been for Bill Shorten’s and Labor’s overweening complacency and hubris, they would most likely have been in opposition for a very long time and, thanks to Malcolm Turnbull’s egotistical determination to put his ambition ahead of the best interests of the party, Liberals would have gone into opposition’s wilderness at war with themselves and facing an existential crisis.
To reach that 2044 centenary, and to ensure the quiet Australians have the pragmatic, sensible, mainstream government they crave, Mr Morrison therefore must encourage fellow Liberals to celebrate their achievements soberly, not gloatingly. If Liberal MPs believe they won the 2019 election rather than that Mr Shorten lost it, and fail to heed the lesson of the party’s leadership upheavals and crises of direction of the last decade – especially the rise and fall of Malcolm Turnbull – then the party still risks losing the future as much as it has won the past.
Banquo’s miserable ghost
To mark the Liberal anniversary, the Australian has run extended interviews by Troy Bramston with the four living Liberal PMs, Howard, Turnbull, Abbott and Morrison. Three of them highlighted how they saw themselves as servants of the Liberal party, and how much they owed to fellow Liberals who gave them the chance to serve in our highest political office.
Only Mr Turnbull made clear that, for him, le Parti, c’est moi. A year on from his second self-destruction, Mr Turnbull is still under the apparent delusion his brilliance was wasted on those he led. All the disasters of his leadership were somebody else’s fault, and his tin ear for Liberal values and traditions was obvious in what he told Mr Bramston. Mr Turnbull once spoke of other former PMs as ‘miserable ghosts’: but it is he, joining apostates Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson, who is the Banquo’s ghost of the Libs’ anniversary party.