The Liberal Party turns 75 this Sunday. It was on Friday October 13, 1944 that – at the invitation of Robert Menzies – delegates assembled at Canberra’s (old) Masonic Hall to discuss the establishment of a nationwide political movement.
The conference commenced on a Friday and continued on Saturday and Monday. At the time, there were few Catholics in non-Labor political parties or organisations. In those days, it was Protestants who strictly observed the Christian sabbath as a day of rest. Hence the free day on Sunday.
By the Monday, it was accepted by delegates that they should match the Australian Labor Party’s “efficient Commonwealth-wide organisation”. It was agreed that the name of the new “unified organisation shall be the Liberal Party of Australia”.
There was another conference in Albury in mid-December 1944. Before that, Menzies ensured that he had the influential Australian Women’s National League (AWNL) in Victoria, under the leadership of May Couchman, onside. Menzies announced to the House of Representatives on February 21, 1945 that he was the leader, in opposition, of the Liberal Party of Australia.
The main non-Labor party at the national level had been previously called the United Australia Party. It had fared disastrously at the 1943 election, when John Curtin led Labor to victory. The newly formed Liberal Party lost in 1946 under the Menzies leadership but defeated Ben Chifley’s Labor government in 1949 and remained in office for 23 uninterrupted years. There is a message here for the contemporary Labor Party. In late 1944, the Liberal Party had scant support. By December 1949 it was in office.
On October 13 1994, Robert Menzies’ daughter Heather Henderson (no relation) launched my book Menzies Child: The Liberal Party of Australia on the occasion of the party’s 50th anniversary. At the time, the Liberals and Nationals (i.e. the Coalition) had been out of office for over 11 years during the successful prime ministerships of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
In October 1994, the Liberal Party’s immediate future looked dismal. But in January 1995 John Howard returned as leader and the Coalition prevailed over Labor at the March 1996 election. Howard became the second longest serving prime minister in Australian history – behind Menzies and ahead of Hawke – and the Coalition remained in office until November 2007.
Again, the lesson is that political parties in democracies can recover relatively quickly. Labor did so between Gough Whitlam’s devastating defeat in December 1975 and Hawke’s victory in March 1983.
Today Labor’s plight, at the national level, looks desperate. It has not won an election outright since Kevin Rudd’s victory over Howard in 2007. Under Julia Gillard’s leadership, Labor narrowly held on in 2010 but only to the extent of becoming a minority government. And then there were the losses in 2013, 2016 and 2019 to – respectively – Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.
As I wrote in my pre-election column on March 30, Labor has only won office from opposition on three occasions since the Second World War. Namely 1972, 1983 and 2007. On each occasion it had either a strong leader (Whitlam, Hawke) or a popular leader (Hawke, Rudd) or both (Hawke). Bill Shorten was neither particularly strong nor particularly popular. In view of this, it was not surprising that Shorten did not make it on May 18, despite the overwhelming expectation that he would do so.
So far, there have been five significant speeches by senior leading Labor figures on the May 2019 election. From back bencher Kim Carr, national president Wayne Swan and front benchers Mark Butler and Jim Chalmers and Joel Fitzgibbon. The first three were made in separate launches of the book Story of Our Country: Labor’s Vision for Australia (Connor Court) by British academic Adrian Pabst. The latter two at the “Light on the Hill Address” in Bathurst and The Sydney Institute respectively. Carr and Butler belong to the left faction, the others to Labor’s right faction.
All acknowledge the reality of the 2019 defeat. Carr, Swan, Chalmers and Fitzgibbon specifically accept that Labor lost contact with its traditional base over the last three years.
Swan is the most defiant in maintaining Labor’s pre-election class war attitude. As to defeat, Swan reckons that “sometimes you’ve got to take one for history and maybe, in a sense, we did that in May”. Butler concedes that climate change and energy, his area of responsibility, must be part of a thorough examination of the policy that Labor took to the 2019 election. But that’s all he says.
Perhaps the least insightful analysis is that provided by Chalmers, who – with (then) shadow treasurer Chris Bowen – was deeply involved in developing the tax and spend policies which Labor took to the 2019 election. Chalmers depicts Australian history as “defined by long periods of conservative torpor punctuated by bold, activist Labor leaders and governments”.
This not only overlooks the very real achievements of the governments led by Menzies, Fraser and Howard. But it also suggests that Chalmers regards the Australian electorate as foolish in consistently voting for torpor over bold government.
The most significant analysis is provided by Fitzgibbon, one of the few Labor MPs who has a rural seat and a background in small business. In his address last Wednesday, Fitzgibbon recognised Labor’s need to adapt to the fact that “Australians are inherently conservative” and the importance of understanding, for example, the interests of “coal miners and retired mineworkers”.
Fitzgibbon wants to modify Labor’s policy on emissions. And he has a useful suggestion for his colleagues on the left who are focused on the Twittersphere. He maintained that “many centre-left candidates and leaders find themselves flattered frankly for extolling lots of progressive views and they do hear a lot of applause” but added that “the silent majority are thinking something very different and we need to learn from that”.
In their time, Australia’s most successful politicians – Menzies, Hawke and Howard – all learnt about how Australians think. There is no reason why a future Labor leader cannot do likewise.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au