12 April 2023
It’s not difficult to determine that the Liberal Party appears in trouble.
With wall-to-wall red states minus Tasmania, a popular Labor prime minister, and a presently unpopular Liberal leader, blue politics is on the ropes.
Many are now speaking of a permanent Liberal decline – even a potential UAP-style split – while strong voices have emerged for the Liberals to rewire their politics to be more appealing to progressive causes.
Yet it’s times like these where some perspective is important.
First, the Liberal Party has been here before.
In 2007, at the end of John Howard’s decade-plus in government, Kevin Rudd’s meteoric rise made Labor appear unstoppable. A lonely then-Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman became the most senior Liberal figure in the country.
Tony Abbott claimed two Labor leaders, won the prime ministership, enacted genuinely game-changing policies, and laid out a blue mat for nine years of Liberal national leadership.
Newman elevated himself to the Premier of Queensland.
Governments, according to John Howard, simply have ‘shelf lives’ – an important point to keep in mind when thinking hard about ‘where it went wrong’ and calls emerge to entirely re-string the orchestra.
This of course doesn’t mean it’s time for Liberals to sit back and wait it out – there is serious reform needed that I touch on below.
But it does illustrate how a rising tide (as well as a receding one) can change the voting landscape, despite the most tactical and hard-working efforts of Liberal MPs and their devoted supporters.
How many of us have seen capable, intelligent Liberal members lose their seats at the last federal (and even state) election – not to stellar opposing candidates with practical ideas – but simply because there was an element of ‘change’ in the air.
It is heartbreaking and disappointing, while also requiring yet more Liberal discipline, ranging from what ideas to promote to the tactics to deploy, the candidates to select and what policies to adjust.
The Liberal Party, in my view, still has the most potent mix to last the political test of time – sound values and principles that meet the challenges of the day.
These are values and principles that promote strong and prosperous individuals, thriving communities, a rewarding economy, and a nation proud of its heritage.
Liberals in trying times constantly soul search and go back to Menzies.
Others lapse into the time-worn argument of how ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ the party should be – or even how much Menzies was one or the other.
Both are good but slightly misguided discussions.
I sense for Menzies, or for anyone serious about advancing the Liberal cause, the goal ultimately remains this – government should create the settings for people to do well.
In practical policy terms this means giving individuals and commerce space to flourish, opening up new frontiers through constant deregulation, making life easier for families, delivering dignity to people, and restoring Australia’s confidence of its place in the region and the world.
We can see the need for these objectives in arresting the costs of housing, childcare and energy, through to the reform of federation – the true ‘index patient’ of better government – and keeping strong borders, mitigating foreign interference and deepening alliances, while also enhancing national interests.
Aside from the policy arena, it is important to note that, for centre-right parties, the world can seem in freefall.
A constant challenge to norms and the family unit, identity fluidity, a social and corporate arena seemingly attached to moralising at the expense of most other considerations, and a mainstream media that makes it utterly difficult to elevate traditional values, creates all the settings for everyday Australians – dare I say Liberal or otherwise – to perceive an unlevel playing field.
Liberals, however, need to play fair by protecting free speech, preserving judicial independence, creating decent laws, and keeping the scaffolding of the state legitimate and not predatory.
If this in itself can be sustained, Menzies would be proud.
Australians, after all, are not the sum of their politics but the sum of themselves – something I sense that Menzies understood and most Liberals comprehend.
And I suspect, without over-egging the mantra of ‘what Menzies would do’, it befits a legacy of creating the settings for people to do well and prosper in a modern world, no matter how socially under siege they feel.
Indeed, to see how easily things can slowly go wrong we need only look to the United States, where an alarming growth in selective free speech and government action is fraying the country apart from its inside out, while foreign policy pressures from Iran, an atomising Afghanistan and Iraq, and a throbbing Russia and China create only more offshore headaches to the world order.
Finally, Labor won in Australia because it simply stayed the course. There was nothing strongly appealing in its platform.
And politics, as Tony Abbott said when in a similar position a decade ago, is sometimes simply being better than the other bloke.
All of this, I hope, gives some sustenance but also perspective to Liberal politics – and anyone seeking optimism for the future of our country – in the short to medium term.
Sean Jacobs is the author of three books and writes at www.seanjacobs.com.au.