The 2019 federal election was the 46th since federation. Labor has won 14 of those elections and the Liberal party and its direct ancestors have now won 32. Such a lopsided scoreboard is unusual in modern democracies. Over the same period there have been 29 US presidential elections. Republicans have won 15 and Democrats 14. The UK record is identical – 29 general elections since 1901 with the Conservatives winning 15 and Labour/Liberal winning 14.
Disappointingly for the ALP, Liberal party dominance is strengthening. In the last nine elections the Liberals have won seven. The two the ALP did win have an asterisk. In 2007 Kevin Rudd convinced Australia his policy agenda was broadly similar to John Howard’s and in 2010 Tony Abbott was robbed when two former National MPs cum independents sided with the ALP.
Why do Australians so prefer Liberal federal government?
In his 1964 book, The Founding of New Societies, Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz wrestled with the question of why the nations that had evolved out of colonies founded by European ex-pats each had distinctive political characters. Hartz writes, ‘when a part of a European nation is detached from the whole of it, and hurled outwards onto new soil, it loses the stimulus toward change that the whole provides.’ The theory is that the political mindset of the early colonial settlers is permanently imprinted and indeed constrains the political character of the nation.
Maybe like nations, the character of political parties is similarly imprinted with an unchangeable DNA at its founding. Labor was born to protect the political interests of trade unions in the wake of the Great Shearers Strike in 1891. Ever since, Australia’s centre-left party has been shackled to unions making it a step too far for progressive voters in leafy suburbs to vote Labor. In the United States, demographically identical leafy suburbs are voting for the Democratic party and the only significant difference is that Labor is entwined with unions – and Democrats are not. To its electoral detriment, Labor is stuck with unions because of its founding.
From Federation to Menzies the non-Labor side of politics was organisationally messy. Consequently, the various preincarnations of the Liberal party lacked a coherent and sustaining reason to exist.
Our first decade was dominated by intense personal and policy differences between Protectionist Alfred Deakin and Free Trader George Reid. Reid saw early that while the two parties on the right bickered the Labor party was building steam. In the 1901 election Labor won just 14 out of 75 seats. In 1903 their tally grew to 22 and in 1906 it was 26. Labor was an incoming tide.
Reid pleaded with Deakin for political unity against the socialist menace. But Deakin was ever distrustful of Reid and resisted until Reid pledged to retire from parliament if Deakin agreed to unity. They’d left it too late however and the newly merged Commonwealth Liberal party (CLP) was smashed by Labor at the 1910 election. The CLP was a fusion of two disparate elements with little in common besides being anti-Labor. It was incapable of settling on a founding creed. Its identity was further complicated during the first world war when several Labor leaders (including Prime Minister Billy Hughes) defected to the CLP on the proviso it be rebadged the nondescript ‘Nationalist Party’ and that Hughes remained PM. That merger was a political success, governing until 1929; but with ex-Free Traders, ex-Protectionists and now ex-Laborites all jumbled up, the Nationalist party had even less of a raison d’être.
In 1931 history repeated itself. The Labor government’s Treasurer Joe Lyons defected to the Nationalists on the proviso it be renamed the United Australia Party and that Lyons become its leader.
The UAP was also a political success. The federal election of 1931 was the biggest 2PP win in Australian history – 58.5 per cent. The UAP had two more impressive election victories but it too had no founding ethos that kept it fighting whether in power or not. In opposition the UAP imploded and in 1943 the UAP won just 14 seats out of 75.
After that loss Menzies set about building a professional nationwide political organisation. Menzies also gave the Liberal party a defining creed – unashamedly robust defence of free enterprise. Menzies had not previously been a free enterprise evangelist but he was by the mid-1940’s. The global backdrop was the dramatic days of the early Cold War. The ALP governments of John Curtin and Ben Chifley were popular but one European democracy after another was being stamped out by the Soviets and free enterprise made not only illegal but punishable by gulag.
The virus soon spread to Australia’s doorstep with communist movements springing up across Asia. The ALP was anti-communist but communists targeted and tainted the ALP. At his 1946 campaign launch Menzies asked, ‘Or shall we build upon Liberal democracy, which passionately believes that the war was fought to overthrow the authoritarian state; that there can be no national progress except through the efforts of the individual?’
Across the factional spectrum all Liberals are united in wanting a smaller state and bigger individuals. Even when a Liberal leader does little to advance the free market their rhetoric at least pays lip service to the founding creed. Bill Shorten’s central campaign phrase was ‘the top end of town.’ Voters knew what that meant – wealth distribution. They rejected it at the ballot box as they usually do.
The Liberal party has successfully convinced enough Australians that its commitment to free enterprise is the best policy setting for a better Australia.
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