The Liberal Party has replaced an incumbent Labor governm ent on four occasions since its formation in 1944: in 1949, 1975, 1996 and 2013 under the leadership of Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard and Tony Abbott.
When Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott became prime minister they were all regarded, in modern parlance, as political conservatives. Some commentators today like to depict the Liberal Party founder as some kind of small-L liberal or moderate. This overlooks the fact Menzies committed Australian forces to the Korean, Malayan Emergency, Confrontation and Vietnam conflicts in the 1950s and 60s. He also introduced conscription for overseas service and toughened national security legislation.
It is true that after he won the December 1975 election, Fraser took what would be regarded today as a progressive approach on issues such as Aboriginal land rights, refugees and multiculturalism. But it is also true that, at the time, he was a strong supporter of the Australia-US alliance and a defender of Israel’s right to exist within secure borders.
Howard was the first Liberal leader to declare that the party had small-C conservative and small-L liberal roots. He did so when leader the first time around in the mid-1980s. Howard’s message was to acknowledge the importance of both traditions to the party founded by Menzies.
On any considered analysis, the result of the July 2 election is a disappointment to the right-of-centre of Australian politics. Sure, the Coalition survived with a majority of one — as Menzies did in 1961 — but the outcome in the Senate could have long-term deleterious effects for the Liberal Party and the Nationals. Malcolm Turnbull called an early election when the Coalition was at best equal to, if not slightly behind, Labor in the opinion polls. This was a risky venture when the election could have been held in October. What’s more, the early poll was a double dissolution that halved the quota needed for winning a Senate seat.
The Coalition, with support from the Greens, changed the Senate voting system. This meant none of the major parties could bring about a situation whereby Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party could be placed last on the Senate ticket in each state. Moreover, the Turnbull government went straight from a budget to an extraordinarily long eight-week campaign. This made it almost impos sible for the government to readily correct any unintended consequences of the budget.
The changes to the Senate voting system and the double dissolution made it possible for One Nation to have four senators elected — two in Queensland, one in NSW and one in Western Australia. On the system that prevailed in 2013, it is not clear One Nation’s 8.6 per cent primary vote in Queensland would have won a single Senate seat. However, under the electoral circumstances prevailing last month, Hanson and Malcolm Roberts got up.
One Nation’s success poses problems for the Coalition, particularly in Queensland and NSW. Hanson and Roberts, along with NSW senator-elect Brian Burston, will be able to use their offices and staff to target the Liberal National Party in Queensland and Liberals and Nationals in northern NSW. One Nation is also capable of winning support from traditional Labor voters.
It’s certainly possible that One Nation could win a Senate seat in Queensland during the next half Senate election scheduled for mid-2019. It’s even possible the party could prevail again in NSW or Western Australia provided it can increase its vote in each state by several percentage points.
Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott were always conscious of the threat to the Liberal Party from right-wing organisations. The first two were careful to distance themselves from the lunar-right populism of the anti-Semitic Eric Butler (1916-2006). Later, Howard tried to diminish Hanson’s influence by not directly engaging One Nation in debate. When a member of the Howard government, Abbott directly confronted Hanson. It was very much a “soft cop-hard cop” approach.
Now Hanson has returned to national politics at a time when her brand of right-wing populism has a certain appeal in many Western democracies. The 2016 election has also made it possible for the populist Nick Xenophon Team to win three Senate seats in South Australia with a lower vote than in 2013, when Xenophon alone was successful.
One Nation and NXT disagree on many social issues but have a similar outlook on the need for government to regulate the economy and prop up declining industries. Both parties are likely to win support on such issues from Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie.
It appears that the Turnbull government is likely to receive support for its economic agenda from two out of the nine micro-party representatives or inde–pendents in the Senate: David Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democratic Party in NSW and Bob Day’s Family First in South Australia. It’s possible that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party in Victoria will support parts of the Coalition’s economic agenda.
From the Coalition’s perspective, the central problem of the election result turns on the substantial drift of traditional voters to minor and primarily right-of-centre parties in the Senate.
When Menzies went close to defeat in 1961, he made gestures to conservative supporters. Hence, the decision before the 1963 election to provide commonwealth money for science blocks in both government and private schools. This was the first breakthrough in the long-term campaign by Catholics to get what was called state aid for Catholic schools.
Menzies wanted to ensure the continuing support, via prefer–ences, of the Democratic Labor Party and its many Catholic voters in Victoria and Queensland who voted ALP before the Labor split in the mid-1950s.
Fraser, Howard and Abbott also understood the need to stabilise the Liberal Party’s conservative base. The first task of the Turnbull government during the next three years is to continue in this tradition and to secure the conservative base that is under attack from not only its natural enemy on the left but from a fresh opponent on the right.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog is at www.theaustralian.com.au.