Flat White

The Liberals. The shrinking tribe

15 November 2021

4:32 PM

15 November 2021

4:32 PM

Before there were countries, there were tribes. In politics, there still is. Almost everyone identifies with a particular political tribe and, if even if one’s primary tribe is not one of the two contenders for government, most also identify more strongly with one of the major tribes than the other.  

Tribes began as extended family groups, but the more successful ones cooperated with other tribes for mutual benefit. Apart from intermarriage and trade, that meant confronting enemies. Even when the Roman Empire was at its peak, parts of what is now Germany remained unconquered because the Germanic tribes (which had endless internal squabbles) would unite at critical moments to repel the Romans.   

Australia’s two main political tribes are based around the Liberal and Labor parties. As elections approach they enlist supporters, expanding the tribe, to win government. You might think both parties would take a similar approach – expand the tribe, win a common objective – but you’d be wrong. While Labor brings in minor parties and interest groups to enlarge the tribe, the Liberals are inclined to do it all by themselves.  

The composition of the Labor tribe at election time not only includes the party itself but most unions, the Greens, Getup!, plus various left-leaning lobby and policy groups. Many would argue some in the media, including the ABC, SBS, Guardian and elements of Nine media also join up.  

This has significant consequences in our preferential voting system. Many Labor members of parliament owe their seats to Greens preferences, while many Greens senators are elected with Labor preferences. Other minor left-wing and single-issue parties also direct their preferences to Labor.  

Labor is quite pragmatic in its relationships with minor parties and never overly concerned about ideology. Despite our obvious policy differences my party, the Liberal Democrats, has always found Labor to be professional and receptive to negotiation. Moreover, quite a few of the Labor people with whom I have negotiated later became members of parliament while retaining an interest in preference negotiations. As a result, there is a close link between the parliamentary and political perspectives.  


The Liberal tribe is comprised of the party and its formal coalition partner, the Nationals, plus some business organisations. Certain media, including the Australian, The Spectator and Sky News, might offer support on particular issues. But it is a noticeably smaller tribe because, except for its coalition partner and the Christian Democrats in NSW, the Liberals regard virtually all other parties as mortal enemies.  

Furthermore, each state division of the party has its own approach to preferences, generally under the control of the State Director. This can have bizarre consequences; my party has often had less favourable treatment than parties with which the Liberals have nothing in common, and on one occasion was ranked lower than a micro party with blatantly national socialist policies. Few politicians get involved and there is little interest in negotiating with minor parties, irrespective of relationships in parliament.  The disconnect between the parliamentary and political perspectives is almost total.  

This was clearly shown in 2016 when the Federal Director of the Liberals sought to challenge my party’s name in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, claiming it was confusing voters and that a vote for us was a vote lost to them. In retaliation, we ran in the Canning by-election and preferenced Labor ahead of the Liberals. This prompted enormous indignation among many Liberals, particularly Andrew Hastie (the Liberal candidate), yet when they were told why we did it, they insisted that the two issues were unrelated.  

The legal action was only dropped when I told Malcolm Turnbull I would vote against all their legislation, noting that I had supported his party on nearly all their key bills to date. Even then, he could merely ask the Federal Director to drop it. 

To this day the attitude of the Liberals is that primary votes are all that matter, and a vote for minor parties is a vote lost to the Liberals. Labor’s view, that it’s the total vote of the tribe that matters, just isn’t part of the Liberal mindset.  

And now the Liberal Party has passed legislation to force the Liberal Democrats to change its name or be deregistered. They want exclusive ownership of the word liberal. Needless to say, the tribe will not benefit.  

If my party’s name was the Labor Democrats, we would be embraced as part of Labor’s tribe. Even if things became fractious, such as between Labor and the Greens, there would never be any doubt about wanting us on their side. And if we were to win seats, they would prefer it was us rather than someone from the Liberal tribe.  

If the Liberals followed Labor’s approach they would welcome parties like mine. Even if someone voted for us because we share a word in our name with the Liberal Party, they would ensure that those votes came back to them via preferences. They would also use their preferences to help elect our candidates rather than candidates from parties that are in the Labor tribe. It seems such an obvious point to make, yet they seem incapable of understanding it.  

Tribes have always succeeded by uniting against a common enemy. Labor reminds me of the Germanic tribes, mentioned earlier. The Liberal tribe seems more like the tribes of neighbouring Gaul (now France), which the Romans defeated. 

David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats 

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