“Et tu, Brute?” to borrow from Shakespeare’s account of Julius Caesar’s reaction when he learnt that the previously loyal Brutus had joined his enemies.
On Wednesday, the Nine newspapers ran an opinion piece by Fred Chaney, who served as a minister in Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government and was deputy Liberal Party leader from 1989 to 1990. It was headed “The party I served has lost its way”.
Chaney declared: “This time, I will vote for Climate 200 independent Kate Chaney, who is also my niece.” She is contesting the Liberal Party seat of Curtin against the sitting member Celia Hammond. Chaney’s only previous involvement in party politics took place last year when she was briefly a member of the Labor Party. Now Chaney is one of the multi-millionaire Simon Holmes a Court’s independents.
Fred Chaney’s intervention in the 2022 election campaign attained some media attention – especially within Nine media and the ABC. On Wednesday he did a 10-minute (soft) interview with Patricia Karvelas on ABC Radio National Breakfast. He accused the Scott Morrison Coalition of “an appalling failure of government” and declared that Australia is “not a democratic system, it’s an autocracy”. Somewhat hyperbolic, to be sure.
Chaney retired as the member for the Perth seat of Pearce in February 1993. He resigned from the Liberal Party two year later. All up, he was a Liberal Party parliamentarian from 1974 until 1993 – 16 years in the Senate and the remainder in the House of Representatives.
It was a great career for a Perth lawyer, whose father had also served in the House of Representatives. Without the Liberal Party, Fred Chaney would not have become a prominent politician. But he is now campaigning against the party that made his brilliant career possible.
Chaney’s critique of the current Coalition can be found in his Nine article, his Radio National interview, plus an article he wrote for the local Post newspaper that was published on April 30. According to Chaney, he joined the Liberal Party in 1958 and was proud to have done so. At the time, Robert Menzies was Liberal Party leader and prime minister of Australia. Chaney was happy to belong to the Liberal Party in Menzies’ time. He did not regard the party as having lost its way when Menzies committed Australian forces to defend the non-communist government in South Vietnam in 1965.
Likewise, Chaney was happy to serve the Liberal Party in the government led by Malcolm Fraser, which had come to office following the dismissal of the Whitlam government by the governor-general in November 1975.
The Liberal Party has only won office from opposition on four occasions since it was formed in 1944 – by Menzies (1949), Fraser (who won a stunning victory in the 1975 election), John Howard (1996) and Tony Abbott (2013). All were political conservatives, not what are now termed “moderates”.
Chaney’s current articles and comments lack detail. He is critical of the Liberal Party and “its Coalition partner” (the Nationals) on “climate change”, “refugees”, “the government’s Robodebt debacle”, along with the “almost glacial progress being made” to put to the electorate a constitutional referendum to create a “Voice to parliament” for Indigenous Australians.
There is little doubt Chaney believes in all those issues. Yet he is not on record as criticising the Coalition on any of these matters during the time of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership between September 2015 and August 2018.
On April 6, Howard launched a small book at The Sydney Institute on Margaret Guilfoyle, the Liberal senator for Victoria who was the first woman in Australian national politics to be a minister in charge of a department. After speaking about Guilfoyle’s lifelong loyalty to the Liberal Party, Howard added: “I would never have got within a bull’s roar of being the member for Bennelong if I hadn’t carried a Liberal endorsement.”
Meanwhile John Hewson, the one-time Liberal Party member for Wentworth who led the Coalition to defeat in the 1993 election, writes a weekly column in the left-wing The Saturday Paper. Week after week, he bags Morrison and the government he leads. Hewson’s political career would not have been possible without the Liberal Party and its supporters who raised funds, knocked on doors and distributed flyers on his behalf.
And then there is the late Malcolm Fraser, who was prime minister between November 1975 and March 1983. After retiring from politics, he not only quit the Liberal Party but ended up seeming to support the Greens. Fraser never expressed gratitude to the party that made him Australia’s 22nd prime minister.
And now there is former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. On my count, on three occasions this year, he has received long and soft interviews with Karvelas on Radio National where he has criticised the Morrison government. Most recently, Turnbull praised the Holmes a Court independent candidate more than the sitting Liberal member Dave Sharma in the seat of Wentworth.
Yesterday, Turnbull gave an early copy of his speech in Washington DC to the ABC. His message seemed to be that the best way to prevent a conservative takeover of the Liberal Party is for the “teal” independents to defeat Liberal moderates like Sharma. Really.
It’s difficult enough for an incumbent government to win a fourth term in office – made all the more so during times of drought, fire, floods and pandemic. But the Coalition faces this plus a conga line of disillusioned ex-Liberals.
Howard, the late Andrew Peacock, Alexander Downer and Abbott remained publicly loyal to the party that made their successful political careers possible. But not the likes of Chaney.
On Thursday, the West Australian reported that Kate Chaney still refuses to reveal whether she would support the Coalition or Labor if there was a hung parliament after the May 21 election. This is despite the fact, as the paper reported, that she is “much more aligned to Anthony Albanese and Labor” than to Morrison and the Coalition.
It’s possible, just possible, that Chaney (supported by her uncle) can make an Albanese government a reality. In which case it would be a matter of “Et tu, Fred?”– from a political conservative perspective at least.