This week the Liberal Party of Australia turns 75. And like most milestones, it encourages a bit of reflection. In the national broadsheet, The Australian, Troy Bramston has done a series of interviews with the four living Liberal prime ministers: their reflections, achievements, plans for the future and brushes with denial (or collisions in some cases) make for great reading.
John Howard’s almost 12 years in the top job marked the second Golden Age of the party. Those heady times saw a cocktail of double-breasted jackets, secure borders, low unemployment, strong economic growth, strong private investment, and low-interest rates. In his reflections, Howard notes that membership of the Liberal Party had fallen from approximately 200,000 in the 1950s to some 50,000 now and decries the rise of factionalism within the party. Being ‘financial’ may not be a great expense but most people would rather go out for steak, chips and a pony on a Wednesday night than have little say in the preselection of candidates and the direction of party policy, as the hacks stitch up the jobs for their mates, their minions and their spawn. It’s illiberal and undemocratic, and frankly, if people wanted to wallow in the filth of institutionalized factionalism, they’d just join the ALP.
Turnbull in his interview blamed denialists for the increase in power prices. You would think, that a leader who has done his birthday on energy policy (twice) would just let that one go. The media loved Turnbull because he came from the same elitist ‘Labor with French cuffs and Harbor views’ circles as they did. The Australian voter wanted none of it and they made that clear in 2016. Turnbull can keep calling himself ‘practical’ but repetition doesn’t signal truth. The electorate and a big proportion of the grassroots membership didn’t buy Turnbull because they saw a leader who had nothing in common with the priorities and struggles of the ordinary person and no interest in learning. With the backdrop of the worst drought in living history, he was determined to drop $444 million on a Great Barrier Reef interest group. He turned tone-deafness into a vocation.
Abbott’s prime ministership was a roller coaster of solid policy successes and avoidable policy calamities. He stopped the boats and repealed the carbon tax and mining tax. But he absolutely did not need to give Prince Phillip a knighthood. It might have tickled older, plummier-voiced dinner-party conservatives but the rest of us remained stumped by that move. That bull ride came to a screaming halt in 2015, according to Abbott, because of Turnbull’s ambitions. That is partly true but let’s not pretend like the government was snuffed out in its prime. It was a government drunk on a Tuesday afternoon: legless, in denial and sad to watch.
Each prime ministers’ opinion about what the Liberal party represents illustrates the diversity of their backgrounds, characters and pathways to parliament. When I think of the Liberal Party, I think of a healthy serving of classical liberalism with a sprinkle of conservatism. You know, just enough of the ‘responsible parent’ to keep everyone clothed and the show on the road. Howard speaks proudly of the broad church, though he and Abbott describe themselves as conservative. Turnbull describes himself as a moderate and Menzies as progressive (query how thrilled Menzies would’ve been with drag queen storytime). But I think Morrison summed it up best as a balance between stability, sovereignty and enterprise with freedom and choice.
In a practical sense, what does this mean?
Well, that’s the thing. It comes down to being practical, regardless of where you sit in the board church. That’s because practicality resonates with ‘the forgotten people’, ‘Howard’s battlers’, the ‘quiet Australians’ or whatever else you want to call the garden-variety Liberal voter. The Liberal Party was founded on principles, not interests. It’s a party of people who want a fair say and a fair go and are prepared to put in a fair effort. They want the government to balance the lifting and the leaning, the rights and the responsibilities and the risk and reward. Unfortunately, that intention doesn’t always translate to leadership and policy, but it’s a good yardstick to see how far we have strayed from where we should be.
And then there is the future: where are we going and who is taking us there? The old guard are, and should be, valued for their wisdom and experience but they need cede some territory to allow the party to modernize. It’s not about changing our principles, we just need to upgrade from an F J Holden to something that at least has power steering and electric windows. It’s about developing policy using those tried and tested principles through the prism of the modern world; it’s welcoming new ideas without leaping into them in a foolhardy way.
And the light at the end of the tunnel is our current PM. He holds just enough tension on the reins to keep the party focused but not so much as to stifle. He comes across as the everyday bloke that everyday people can relate to. Troy Bramston describes the Morrison government perfectly by calling it ‘values-driven but also methodical and pragmatic’. If Scott Morrison can hold that balance, we are in good hands.
So, the party faithful will descend on Canberra later this week to mark the occasion. And with the division and ructions of recent years, there will be celebrations and congratulations with a side-serve of side-eye.
I don’t envy the people doing the seating plan. I just hope they have a couple of Italian weddings under their belt.
Caroline Di Russo is a lawyer, businesswomen and unrepentant nerd.
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