As the saying goes, it’s invariably unwise to make predictions – especially about the future.
Today the Liberal Party, but not its Coalition colleague the Nationals, is in a dreadful shape. But the same was true of the Liberals under Robert Menzies’ leadership, following the loss to the Ben Chifley-led Labor Party at the 1946 election. But Menzies went on to win the next seven elections before retiring from politics in January 1966.
The Liberal Party also went through a crisis in the mid-1980s, soon after Labor’s Bob Hawke defeated the Coalition’s Malcolm Fraser at the March 1983 election. Not long after Hawke was re-elected in December 1984, the Joh for Canberra movement took place.
This involved the attempt, in early 1987, by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the Nationals’ premier in Queensland, to replace John Howard as opposition leader. The campaign collapsed, but not before splitting the Coalition for a while and causing damage to Howard. But Howard returned to lead the Coalition to four election victories.
Likewise, Labor’s future looked grim between its loss in 1949 and return to office in December 1972 – especially in the years after the disastrous Labor Split in the mid-1950s (which mainly affected Victoria and Queensland). But recovery did take place, as it did after Labor’s devastating election defeats in 1975, 1996 and 2013.
The Liberal Party’s contemporary problems are obvious. First up, it lost some of its top talent to the teal independents – namely Josh Frydenberg and Tim Wilson (in Victoria), Jason Falinski, Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman (NSW), Celia Hammond (Western Australia) and Zed Seselja (who held an ACT Senate seat).
Then there is the reality that most of the above presented as “moderate” or “new” Liberals and their defeat changed what Howard has referred to as the balance between the political small-L liberals and conservatives in the Liberal Party of Australia. Moreover, all were good media performers.
Some valid comparisons have been made to today’s Liberal Party and the post-Split Labor Party. But there are differences.
The Democratic Labor Party broke away from/was expelled by the Australian Labor Party and gave its first-preference vote to the Coalition. The DLP did not win any House of Representatives seats from Labor but did have some success in the Senate.
The DLP’s aim was to keep Labor out of office until the party reformed and abandoned some of its left-wing, even pro-communist left, positions. In time, Labor did reform.
The teals’ aim in May this year was to achieve a balance-of-power position in the House of Representatives. It failed to do so.
The task of the Liberal Party’s leader, Peter Dutton, is to hold the organisation until there is a change in the political mood in Australia. So far he has done well.
Interviewed on ABC television’s Insiders last Sunday, Dutton rejected the view of Liberal Party Senate leader Simon Birmingham that the party’s vice-president Teena McQueen should resign. This followed her comment at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference Australia that it was a “good thing” that a “lot of those lefties” in the Liberal Party “are gone” following the election in May.
There is a simple Liberal Party test by which to judge the efficacy of McQueen’s statement. Namely, would Howard or Menzies ever welcome the Coalition losing seats to left-liberal inclined independents who were hostile to a Coalition government? The answer is an obvious no.
Dutton’s position with respect to McQueen is clear – “she’s expressed a view; she has made a mistake … it won’t happen again”. Any move against McQueen would raise the issue about former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Party membership.
Sure, McQueen spoke disparagingly of some former Liberal parliamentarians after they lost their seats. But, as Aaron Patrick documents in Ego: Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party’s Civil War (HarperCollins, 2022), Turnbull was a constant, if not obsessive, public critic of the Coalition government before the election.
At the May election, the Liberal Party lost seats to Labor and the Greens. But the teal independents did the most damage. Even so, of the successful teals, only one attained a two-party-preferred vote of more than 53 per cent – Allegra Spender in Wentworth (Sharma’s former seat).
For all the media hype, the likes of Monique Ryan, Zoe Daniel, Sophie Scamps, Kylea Tink and Kate Chaney hold seats on margins from 52.9 per cent to 51.3 per cent. And David Pocock had a narrow victory in the ACT Senate race. All won last May on the back of preferences – overwhelmingly from Labor and the Greens.
Simon Holmes a Court has recently written an account of his role, as convener of Climate 200, in arranging financial support for the teal independents. Titled The Big Teal, it is part of the series produced by Louise Adler at Monash University Publishing written primarily by left-of-centre or “progressive” authors.
The Big Teal is part autobiography and part political. The author, while condemning “ad hominem barbs”, engages in quite a few of his own – his targets include Howard, Frydenberg and journalist Chris Kenny. However, the central part of Holmes a Court’s book turns on his comment that what he calls action on climate change was central to the teals’ success.
And there lies the Liberal Party’s opportunity. If the Labor government can honour its election promise to deliver cheaper energy bills, then the teals and independents should do well at the next election. But if the cost of electricity and gas ramps up, the political situation could well change.
There have never been more renewables in the Australian energy system and prices have never been higher in recent decades. The teals and other independents want carbon dioxide emissions reduced at a faster rate than promised by the Albanese government.
It may well be that Australia adapts to the current energy price rise and the threat of blackouts. If so, Labor will start firm favourites to win the 2025 election. If not, the Coalition is in with at least a chance. In the meantime, the task of the Liberal Party is to hold together until when, or perhaps if, political circumstances change.