Rocco Loiacono The Spectator Australia 13 August 2022
Reading Morning Double Shot Editor Terry Barnes’ piece on Friday made me think of the history of the Liberal party and how, since the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies, it has made the same mistakes. Terry wrote of how the Liberals federally ‘lost office after being flown into the ground by Malcolm Turnbull and then Scott Morrison, two Prime Ministers who saw the Liberal Party as a vehicle for personal ambition and took from it far more than they gave’.
Remember how the Liberals had to get rid of Tony Abbott in 2015 because of the 30 consecutive disastrous Newspolls, only for them to turn a 34 seat majority into near-minority government? The Miserable Ghost, of course, actually held the record of 32 consecutive dire Newspolls when he was Opposition Leader, which, as Prime Minister, he subsequently smashed (to 38).
It is this obsession that the Liberals have with style over substance, for example, a lack of conviction, that has historically been their worst enemy, and is a big part of their current malaise.
Following the drowning of Prime Minister Harold Holt in December 1967, it fell to the Liberals to choose a new leader. Treasurer William McMahon’s ambitions were thwarted by then Country Party leader John McEwen, who made it clear that neither he nor his party colleagues would serve under McMahon. The choice then became one between then Foreign Minister Paul Hasluck and then-Senate leader John Gorton.
The late David Barnett recounts candidly in John Howard: Prime Minister (Viking, 1997) how the contest unfolded between the ‘raffish’ Gorton and ‘solid and thoughtful’ Hasluck, who ‘had a low opinion of many members of what had been his old vocation, journalism’.
‘Hasluck went first, because of his image problem. The party wanted someone who could get along with the media. Gorton, however, was popular with the media. He was a junior minister, untested in the House, whose leadership abilities were a complete unknown. In the naive belief that Gorton’s image would survive the transition to the prime ministership, and that his popularity with the media would persist once he was in the Lodge, the Liberals chose Gorton.’
History shows that, with Gorton at the helm, the Liberals nearly lost government in the 1969 election, going from a majority of 38 seats to 9, and only then on the back of DLP preferences. This outcome paved the road to eventual defeat in 1972 under Billy McMahon. The Liberal party president in Victoria at the time of Gorton’s prime ministership, Sir John Anderson, speaking to Pru Goward in her 1994 ABC documentary on the Liberals, wondered how it was that Gorton ever got into the party, since he ‘didn’t have the same ideas, standards and principles’ as the Liberal party.
After 1972, the Liberals chose Billy Snedden, one of the Victorian ‘small-l liberals’ that Menzies decried in his 1974 letter to his daughter, Heather Henderson, yet it wasn’t until the Liberals turned to Malcolm Fraser, who at the time was from the conservative wing of the party, in 1975 that Australians entrusted them with government, and in a landslide.
This disease of picking those so-called moderates who would be seemingly ‘popular’ with the media afflicted the Liberals throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As Barnett describes:
‘They had twice made Peacock leader, because he was more ‘popular’ than (John) Howard, because he had the right image, because, like (Bob) Hawke, he had charisma, and because he got on well with the media.’
The centre of the Coalition policy in the 1990 election was an ‘Economic Action Plan’, whose central element was making child-care costs tax deductible. In Barnett’s words:
‘This shifted the case for electing the Coalition from the promise of better economic management, which was the Coalition’s traditional justification, to social justice and compassion, to put it at its highest, or just bribing sectional groups with other people’s money, to put it at its lowest, which was the ALP’s traditional justification. Like charisma politics, the strong implications of embracing an ALP social agenda were that the Coalition parties did not believe any longer in what they stood for.’
As it turned out, the Liberals lost a very winnable election in 1990 and then turned, not to John Howard, but to the politically inexperienced John Hewson, because, ‘He was young, easy and approachable. The media liked him. He had a good image, like Gorton and Peacock.’ Unfortunately, all this did Hewson no good when he had his ‘birthday cake’ moment where he could not explain easily and simply how the central element of his economic policy, the GST would work, and Australians decided they could not vote for something not only they, but its chief architect, could not understand.
It wasn’t until the Liberal wets finally realised that they needed the conservative John Howard, not only to hold their seats but to win government, that the party was able to return to, and stay in, government. It wasn’t until the Liberals turned to the conservative Tony Abbott that they were able to win government, and convincingly.
David Barnett’s book should be compulsory reading for all in the Liberal party, and Pru Goward’s five-part documentary should be compulsory viewing. They have not dated at all and contain advice the party would be well advised to heed.
At the start of the first part of the documentary, the formation of the Liberals is discussed. Its predecessor, the United Australia Party, fell apart for many reasons, one being because it was too close to big business. Alexander Downer recounts a discussion he had with his father, arguably Australia’s best Immigration Minister in its history, the man who dismantled the White Australia Policy, Sir Alick Downer, who told his son:
‘Never listen to the advice of business people. They are not wise people. They’re people who are self-serving. I think my father’s views on business very much reflected Menzies’ views as well.’
These words are just as applicable (with the exception of Gina Rinehart) to CEOs and others who run big corporations in Australia today. The Liberals could do worse than stop pandering to their Wokeness and remember that Menzies founded the party not for them, but for the ‘forgotten people’, in other words, the vast majority of common sense, centre-right, silent Australians, taken advantage of by every political party in turn.
Dr Rocco Loiacono is a Senior Lecturer at Curtin University Law School. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Curtin University.