The Liberal Party has been Australia’s most successful political organisation since the end of World War II. In this time, it has been led by Australia’s two longest-serving prime ministers, Robert Menzies (16 years) and John Howard (close to 12 years), who are followed by Labor’s Bob Hawke (close to nine years) and the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Fraser (seven years) in terms of political longevity.
Also the Coalition, led by the Liberal Party, has been in government for several long terms: December 1949 to December 1972, November 1975 to March 1983, March 1996 to November 2007, and September 2013 to today. Labor’s best effort is March 1983 to March 1996 followed by December 2007 to September 2013.
In spite of this, the Liberal Party has had numerous internal divisions, along with prominent internal dissenters. In this period, the party had eight elected prime ministers: Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton, Malcolm Fraser, Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. Holt died in office and Morrison is the incumbent. Of the remainder, Gorton, Fraser and Turnbull became public critics of the party that made it possible for them to become prime minister. Menzies, Howard and Abbott – whatever their personal views – remained loyal. That’s a strike rate of only 50/50.
Labor has had five post-World War II prime ministers: Gough Whitlam, Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. All were publicly loyal to the Labor Party, except at the time when Rudd sniped at the incumbent Gillard. That’s a strike rate of close to 100 to zero. All this seems to suggest that internal division and criticism is not necessarily fatal to political success. It’s a question of how it is managed.
The Australian Labor Party has a far more authoritarian structure than its principal opponent. Since the interpretation of what was termed “the pledge” a century ago, Labor parliamentarians committed themselves to always vote in accordance with the decision of the parliamentary partyroom – the caucus. Anyone who crosses the floor to vote with a non-Labor government or opposition faces immediate expulsion from the ALP. The Liberal Party and the Nationals have no such rule.
Then there is the ALP’s organisational structure which, ultimately, gives authority to the national executive. This makes it possible for the ALP at the national level to resolve internal conflicts, including contested preselections.
The Liberal Party’s federal executive has much less authority in this area. Hence, the current dispute within the party about confirming preselections (including a number of sitting candidates) in the NSW division.
Whatever the weaknesses of the looser organisational structure of the Liberal Party, Howard has said in private that it usually works reasonably well. His point is this. The most damaging divisions in a major political party in the modern era occurred with what is termed the Labor Split of 1955.
What happened is that, driven by its erratic leader Bert Evatt (who led Labor to election defeats in 1951, 1954 and 1955), the ALP national executive sacked the Victorian state executive. In time, the Victorian ALP split with literally thousands of anti-communists (many, but by no means all, Catholics) either quitting or being expelled. The Victorian Labor government fell – Labor was not to return to office in Victoria until 1982.
The breakaways, in turn, formed the Democratic Labor Party which directed its preferences to the Coalition. The Liberal Party survived the close federal elections in 1961 (under Menzies’ leadership) and 1969 (under Gorton’s leadership) on account of DLP preferences.
Howard’s position is that it was Labor’s strong national organisation that made it possible for its national executive to dismiss a state branch which led to the Labor Split. This could not have happened in the Liberal Party at the time and probably could not occur today. For its part, Labor eventually learned the lessons of the Labor Split, which made possible Labor’s return to office in December 1972 under Whitlam. The national powers are still there. But the days of a strong pro-communist left in the ALP have passed.
It is difficult to think of a Liberal Party leader who has faced a greater challenge than Morrison. At his National Press Club address in Canberra last week, Simon Holmes a Court, who heads the Climate 200 organisation, declared that the “Voices of” independents he is supporting are opposed to the “major parties”.
It’s just that this well-off group of primarily professional women is only running in seats held by Liberal Party MPs. Some of the “Voices of” candidates have had direct links to Labor while some have green/left activists supporting their campaigns.
Taking all facts into consideration, it would seem that in the event of a hung parliament, any successful “Voices of” candidates would support a Labor government, with or without Greens support. That’s a real problem for the Coalition. So is the fact that, judged by their recent statements, Turnbull and former Liberal Party leader John Hewson are hostile to Morrison and, presumably, not supportive of his return to office.
In view of this, it is beyond time that the NSW Liberal Party groups, some call them factions, resolves the current situation whereby candidates have not been formally preselected for such Liberal held seats as Bennelong, Farrer, Mitchell and North Sydney, and such potentially winnable seats as Dobell, Eden Monaro, Hughes, Parramatta and, possibly, Warringah.
For starters, high-profile Liberal MPs like Alex Hawke (Mitchell), Sussan Ley (Farrer) and Trent Zimmerman (North Sydney) deserve instant preselection. For the rest, it would make sense for the Liberals to select well-known locals capable of advancing the party’s cause in their electorates — in the brief time available until the election. .
In an electoral system based on compulsory voting, it’s likely the voters who will decide the election have yet to make up their minds. Moreover, such electors are probably not aware of the views of a Turnbull or a Holmes a Court – or even of the divisions within the NSW Liberal Party machine. Failure to resolve this matter quickly will surely increase the likelihood of a majority or, more likely, minority Labor government.