11 April 2023
These are dark days for the Liberal Party. Labor governments now dominate the Australian continent while deeply divided Oppositions are in the political doldrums. When safe seats like Aston suffer big by-election defeats, some Liberal backbenchers are bound to wet their beds.
However, notwithstanding the very real problems that afflict today’s party – just what is the point of the Liberals? It’s facile to over-read the significance of by-elections and to conclude, as many members of the Fourth Estate do, that Australia is set irrevocably on a ‘progressive’ direction. Anyone who follows modern politics knows that political predictions are as reliable as a 12-month weather forecast.
As Queen Elizabeth – played brilliantly by Helen Mirren in the Oscar-winning film The Queen – told the young and energetic Tony Blair, political circumstances can change ‘quite suddenly, and without warning’. Her late Majesty was right.
In 1997, the UK Prime Minister was the hero of the hour: having captivated the British electorate, he captured the moment of Dianna’s death by lamenting the passing of ‘the people’s princess’. But six years later, Blair presided over a deeply unpopular war and was given the pariah treatment in his own country. No modern British Prime Minister has left office eventually left office more disliked and distrusted.
The Blair odyssey reminds one of many famous episodes in political history when seemingly invincible leaders and governments are brought down in the most spectacular and unpredictable ways.
Take Richard Nixon. In 1972 ‘Tricky Dick’ won 49 out of 50 states in one of the largest landslides in American history: the Democrat candidate, the darling of the hippies and metropolitan sophisticates, was roundly defeated and demoralised. Yet in less than two years, Nixon resigned in disgrace and two years later a little-known peanut farmer from Georgia won the White House.
After America’s Gulf War victory in early 1991, George Bush Sr’s approval ratings surged about 90 per cent. The Democrat front-runner was so sure the Republican President was unbeatable that he pulled out of the election race, instead setting his sights on 1996. Yet a year later, in 1992, the war hero Bush lost to a womanising, draft -dodging, marijuana-smoking governor of a backwater state.
Australian politics is even more magical!
Following Gough Whitlam’s election in 1972, the Liberal party had barely registered a pulse under the hapless leader Billy Snedden. The conventional wisdom was that Labor would be in power for a very long time. So disillusioned with his successors was party founder, Robert Menzies, it’s unlikely he voted Liberal in the early to mid-70s.
‘The idiots who now run the Liberal Party will drive me around the bend,’ he privately lamented in 1974. ‘The so-called little-l liberals who run the Victorian Liberal party believe in nothing but still believe in anything if they think it worth a few votes. The whole thing is quite tragic.’ (Sound familiar?) Snedden was, among other things, ‘politically, an idiot. He always says the wrong thing, at the wrong time’.
Yet a year later, Malcolm Fraser came from nowhere to defeat Whitlam in the one of the greatest electoral landslides – only to repeat the effort two years later, in 1977.
Fast-forward to 1993. Following the Coalition’s fifth consecutive election loss, the eminent historian Judith Brett declared: ‘The Liberal Party in the 1990s seems doomed.’ A year later, in 1994, NSW Liberal senator Chris Puplick warned the party was ‘still seen as exclusionist, hostile to new ideas and new people and too concerned with trying to bring back the “good old days”.’ Yet within two years John Howard, who’d been widely dismissed as yesterday’s man, annihilated Paul Keating, defeated Labor in three more elections, and stayed in power for about a dozen years.
In 2006, Howard and the Liberals were on top of the highest mountain while the Labor Party sunk in the deepest valley. The Wall Street Journal editorialised: ‘Somewhere, Ronald Reagan is smiling.’ And yet a year later Howard lost power to a nerd from Nambour who dined on his own ear wax.
Kevin Rudd himself was then in the political stratosphere for a couple of years before his own deputy Julia Gillard toppled him in one of those premeditated and ruthless coups that made Australian politics a global joke. The Labor Party then resembled nothing so much as a pub brawl: the assassin herself was ultimately fatally knifed – by the very man she backstabbed a few years earlier.
Tony Abbott faced a barrage of nasty media and intellectual criticism. Shortly after he won the Liberal leadership in late 2009, the distinguished intellectual Robert Manne predicted ‘the destruction of the Liberal Party’ because the party’s ‘troglodyte-denialist wing’ was in control. Laurie Oakes, the then doyen of the Canberra press gallery, predicted Abbott as leader would be ‘electoral poison’. Brett warned that ‘the Liberals risk becoming a down-market protest party of angry old men in the outer suburbs.’
Yet within a few months, the ‘troglodyte-chief’ knocked off Rudd and his signature emissions trading scheme policy before pushing Gillard’s Labor into minority government. He went on to win a landslide election three years later on a pledge to repeal the carbon tax.
Abbott was eventually dispatched by Malcolm Turnbull, and the media had a field day lionising the new Liberal (sic) leader as the ‘new Whitlam.’ The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly predicted: ‘Malcolm – who like Beyonce is known universally by his first name – will be the longest-serving prime minister since Menzies. Possibly ever.’ A new era of progressive reform beckoned.
However, it was not long before Turnbull himself came to resemble old Billy Snedden: adrift and at the mercy of events. As a result, his enemies circled, and he was also defenestrated. Mind you, to say that the knives came out for Turnbull would be wrong. Some never put them away in the first place!
Then there’s 2019. For months leading up to the election, the polls and betting markets pointed to a convincing Labor victory. Scott Morrison couldn’t possibly win: the evangelical coal-cuddler was the wrong man for his times. Yet that election will go down as the most dramatic failure of discernment in the history of Australian punditry.
The point here is that in politics, as the late Queen knew all too well, the circumstances can change quickly, and without warning. As for the Liberal party, when the moment of truth arrives, it turns the pundits’ kiss of death into mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And as for widely mocked and dismissed leaders, low expectations are priceless political assets.
Bear all this in mind when you hear the journos and intellectuals hail a new progressive era in Australia and warn that Peter Dutton and the Liberals are out of touch with the zeitgeist. Chances are that the zeitgeist is out of touch with the lives and real concerns of voters – especially when the circumstances change.
Tom Switzer, a former editor of Spectator Australia, is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.