Tony Abbott is the most recent of the four Liberal leaders who have led the Liberal Party-Nationals Coalition to government from opposition. The others are Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies (1949), Malcolm Fraser (1975) and John Howard (1996). Consequently, Abbott has some authority to speak to Coalition supporters.
Discussing national politics during a podcast interview in the Australia’s Heartland series with the Institute of Public Affairs this week, Abbott criticised the decision of former Liberal National Party Queensland premier Campbell Newman to quit the Liberal Party. In Queensland, the Liberal Party is part of the LNP.
Earlier this month Newman formally announced that, having already resigned from the Liberal Party, he would run as a Senate candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Queensland at the next election. Abbott said he had a “lot of time” for Newman but described his decision as an “ugly breach”.
It is. A political party can be too tribal but a bit of tribalism helps to keep an organisation together. Since Labor came to office under Gough Whitlam in December 1972, the Liberal Party has had nine past leaders – Bill Snedden, Fraser, Andrew Peacock, Howard, John Hewson, Alexander Downer, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Abbott.
Fraser and Hewson quit the party after they left office and Turnbull has become one of the Coalition government’s most vocal critics. That’s a third of past Liberal Party leaders, a big number. Now joined by Newman at the state level. The past Liberal leaders who did not become prime minister – Snedden, Peacock, Hewson, Downer and Nelson – were all entitled to feel disappointed with their lot. But all except Hewson made a contribution to the party after they lost the leadership.
Abbott (who was defeated by Turnbull in a party room ballot) and Turnbull (who also was defeated in a party room ballot that his supporters like to call a coup) are entitled to feel disappointed at losing the prime ministership in 2015 and 2018 respectively. But Abbott campaigned strongly for the Coalition in 2016 and 2019.
In view of this, Abbott is entitled to speak out about Newman’s decision to run against not only his old party but also one of the LNP’s most promising young politicians – Amanda Stoker (the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General and Assistant Minister for Women in Scott Morrison’s government).
It would be foolish to predict the outcome of any election, including the next Senate election in Queensland. But it seems likely that the LNP and Labor will win two quotas each (at around 14 per cent a quota) – that is, four seats out of a possible six seats. If this occurs, then it is likely the LNP, One Nation (Pauline Hanson will top its ticket), the Greens and the Liberal Democrats will fight it out for the fifth and sixth positions. In such a scenario, Newman could win a seat at the expense of Stoker. This would hardly advance the conservative cause that Newman proclaims so loudly.
In a recent interview with Sky News, Newman was asked about the possibility of bringing about a situation whereby he replaces Stoker in the Senate. Newman responded that he would prefer to run against James McGrath.
Senator McGrath is on top of the LNP ticket (in his position as someone who sits in the Liberal party room in Canberra). Senator Matt Canavan is second (as someone who sits in the Nationals party room). No doubt Newman would prefer that McGrath were No.3 in the LNP ticket. But he isn’t.
Interviewed on the ABC’s 7.30 in late November 2018 following Julia Banks’s decision to quit the Liberal Party and join the independents soon after Morrison became prime minister, Howard said everything he had achieved in public life had been due to the Liberal Party. The same was true of Fraser and it is true of the likes of Hewson, Turnbull and Newman.
Kevin Newman (Campbell’s father) joined the Liberal Party when a middle-ranking officer in the Australian Army. He won the Tasmanian seat of Bass in 1975 and was a minister during the entire period of the Fraser government. Jocelyn Newman (Campbell’s mother) became a Liberal Party senator in 1986 and served as a cabinet minister in the Howard government before resigning in 2002.
All three Newmans have done good work for the Liberal Party. But without the Liberal Party, none would have become a political leader.
Campbell Newman’s move to the Liberal Democrats poses special problems for the Coalition. For starters, Newman is a national figure. Moreover, the title Liberal Democrats is capable of confusing voters, particularly those who do not follow politics closely. The term Liberal at the federal level in Australia goes back to the non-Labor government led by Joseph Cook in 1913.
The Liberal Party of Australia was founded in late 1944 and early 1945. It’s unreasonable that the term Liberal, which has been embraced by the LPA for more than seven decades, was usurped by the Liberal Democrats around a decade ago. This may or may not be changed by legislation. It seems unlikely that an entity calling itself the Labor Democrats would have been approved by the Australian Electoral Commission at the time.
It’s not at all certain that Newman will win a Senate seat. If he does, his fate will be to join the crossbench, which has influence but cannot implement policy. If the Liberal Democrats fail to succeed, as was the case with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, it is likely the Coalition side of politics will lose votes as preferences seep to the Labor Party.
Right now, many commentators on the centre-right of Australian politics, including some Sky News presenters, are disillusioned with the Morrison government. They would be advised to remember two things.
First, no one in a century has had to govern at a time of pandemic, when the federal government has limited powers with respect to internal borders, health, policing and the like. Second, the only alternative to a Coalition government is a Labor one or a Labor-Greens administration. Hence Abbott’s timely warning.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.