For humans and other creatures, mortality is a fact of life (and death). Some institutions, however, exhibit indications of eternal life – for the moment at least. The Catholic Church and some monarchies come to mind, but even their future is far from clear.
After the Liberal Party’s defeat at the Aston by-election in eastern suburban Melbourne last Saturday, secular prophets have emerged once again to foreshadow the party’s death. Sure, this may occur in the short to medium term, but it is unlikely.
The Liberal Party of Australia was formed in late 1944-early 1945 due primarily to the charisma and organisational ability of its inaugural leader, Robert Menzies. It was created following the demise of the United Australia Party, which governed Australia between early 1932 and mid-1941. Joseph Lyons was its first leader. Following his death in office in April 1939, he was succeeded by Menzies.
Menzies led the Liberal Party to a devastating loss to Labor led by Ben Chifley in September 1946. But he won the December 1949 election and retired from politics in January 1966, after 16 consecutive years as prime minister.
No one predicted the early demise of the Liberal Party in the 1940s. But the left-wing cry “You’ll never win with Menzies” was heard throughout the land. A false prophecy if ever there were one.
Menzies was succeeded by Harold Holt (who died in office), John Gorton and William McMahon (who was defeated by Labor’s Gough Whitlam in December 1972). After the Coalition’s defeat, there were predictions that the Liberal Party was doomed. But Malcolm Fraser led the Coalition back into office in late 1975.
Fraser lost office to Labor’s Bob Hawke in March 1983 and Hawke was followed in December 1991 by Paul Keating, who occupied the Lodge until March 1996. In June 1984, anti-communist activist and commentator BA Santamaria declared the Liberals were “finished”. In July 1993 Judith Brett, co-editor of the left-wing Arena Magazine, wrote that the Liberal Party in the 1990s “seems doomed”. Around this time the cry was heard that “You’ll never win with Howard”. In March 1996, John Howard led the Coalition to victory over Labor and went on to become the second longest serving Australian prime minister after Menzies.
When Kevin Rudd led Labor to victory in December 2007, the future of the Liberal Party was again speculated about and the view emerged that Tony Abbott was unelectable. But he led the Coalition to a big victory in 2013.
There is no doubt that after Labor’s win in May last year – and the success of the teal independents in winning six seats from the Liberal Party in some of Australia’s most affluent electorates in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth – the Liberal Party is at a low ebb indeed.
This is likely to remain so while Anthony Albanese remains popular along with his government. This was the case with Hawke after 1983 for quite some time. But not with Whitlam or Rudd after 1972 and 2007, respectively, both of whom also enjoyed brief political honeymoons.
Being opposition leader is never an easy lot. It’s not clear whether Peter Dutton will lead the Coalition back into office. But neither is it obvious that he will be replaced any time soon. The four Liberal leaders who won government from opposition – Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott – were all strong leaders who had the courage to stand for clear principles that were strongly opposed by sections within the community.
Certainly, the Liberal Party is losing support among younger voters, women, Australians with tertiary degrees and some of the wealthy. But they, like the rest of the community, are affected by the nation’s economic performance. If the economy falters or if energy prices surge and power supplies become unreliable then any opposition would be in with a chance.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the contemporary Liberal Party is former Coalition prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. He has seemingly automatic access to what Americans would call the ABC’s bully pulpit. Especially the Radio National Breakfast program.
Last Monday, in the wake of the Aston by-election, Turnbull received a long, soft and almost interruption-free interview with presenter Patricia Karvelas on Breakfast. He declared that, since he was replaced by Scott Morrison as prime minister in August 2018, the Liberal Party had moved increasingly to the right.
But has it? There was little difference between the Coalition and Labor as to the policies presented at last year’s election. The Morrison government’s commitment to carbon dioxide emissions was more extensive than that of the Turnbull government. And it was Turnbull, as the incumbent prime minister, who described the proposed Indigenous voice to parliament as a “third chamber” – a position he has since walked back.
Turnbull told Karvelas the Liberal Party “has gone backwards dramatically” since he was replaced as leader. She did not raise the point that the Liberal Party’s current predicament was due, in part at least, to the fact Turnbull lost 14 seats at the 2016 election and barely scraped back into office. The Coalition won narrowly in May 2019 but suffered a big defeat three years later.
Another ABC Liberal fave is Bridget Archer, the member for Bass in northern Tasmania. In a soft interview with Karvelas on March 23, Archer indicated that the Liberal Party was going too far to the right on several issues, including climate policy.
Last year, Archer experienced a 1 per cent swing to her after dropping primary votes. Gavin Pearce, the Liberal MP in the neighbouring seat of Braddon, attained a 6.2 per cent swing to him, including a substantial increase in his primary votes. Pearce is not wont to cross the floor and is rarely, if ever, heard on Radio National.
The Liberal Party failure in Aston last Saturday is perhaps best viewed as a continuation of the poor result it experienced in the Victorian state election in November last year. These are dark days for the Liberal Party, especially in Melbourne. But not quite the apocalypse, it would seem.