James Walter


Australians are ‘good at elections’ as Judith Brett has persuasively argued. Our practices of mandatory and preferential voting have saved us from the institutional entrenchment of extremes of opinion that have surfaced in the public domain, and that have pushed parties and politics in, say, the United States, to brinkmanship over positions far removed from mainstream attitudes. 

Yet there has long been simmering dissatisfaction with our major parties. The capacity of communities to pull together in the face of the pandemic, bushfires and floods highlighted the disparity between the collective purpose of people at large, and the divisive, polarized combat politics of party politics.

Advocacy coalitions and community activists coalesced around party failure to respond adequately to the strength of feeling about, and demand for action on, climate change, integrity, Indigenous recognition, market failure in housing, the national emergency response, manifest inequality, gender parity, and inclusiveness.

Inadequate responses to such demands have shown the parties as not fit for purpose. And since they have been incapable of internal reform, in 2022 the electorate has done it for them by directing votes elsewhere – to support community representatives who do speak for issues of primary concern – and using the distribution of their preferences to send unmistakable messages to the major parties about behaviour, processes and leadership. The result has been transformative, a voter revolution.

The major parties will survive, for now. Despite the fall in first preferences, no other challenger comes near the vote that each still garners. But given electoral imperatives, what options do they have now, and what will it mean for party institutions and leadership? And will abject failure, for either, mean inexorable decline?

The Liberal Party is in the most precarious position. Its situation is as dire as that facing the shattered remnants of the United Australia Party-led Coalition that collapsed in 1941, ushering in the John Curtin- and Ben Chifley-led ALP governments. They presided over what Stuart Macintyre describes as ‘Australia’s boldest experiment‘– a period of transformative reform that set up Australia for the managed prosperity of post-war decades.

National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136260982

At the same time, Robert Menzies rebuilt what became the modern Liberal Party on the ruins of the UAP. It was done at a remove from the then Country Party. Indeed, the Country Party’s disdain for Menzies had sundered the Coalition during Menzies’ earlier term as prime minister (1939-1941). But Robert Menzies proved a remarkable Opposition leader, able to reorganize the relations between federal and state party organizations, then to reformulate the very idea of what a Liberal Party should be and to use his rhetorical gifts in parliament, the press and on the stump to mobilize a new constituency: the ‘forgotten people’.

For Menzies, this was not a confected PR gimmick, but arose from his belief in a community with a moral commitment to liberty, enterprise and individual initiative, but which lacked the resources and influence of the wealthy on one hand, and the organizational strength of the labour movement on the other. Judith Brett has called them ‘the moral middle class’.

Significantly, Menzies was careful to spell out that his was a liberal, not a conservative, party. His view was that we should always look first to private enterprise, but ‘where government action or control has seemed to us to be the best answer to a practical problem, we have adopted that answer’.

The contemporary Liberal Party has, like the UAP last century, lost its base and abandoned any philosophy that now equates with what majority opinion demands. There is no consensus on what it stands for. It has wrecked the moral bond that Menzies thought unified his followers. It is divided between those who lament that it has left its heartland supporters and must now ‘rediscover’ its constituency, and others who insist that its failure was in abandoning its strength as a party of the right.

Internecine warfare has already commenced. On one side former party elders, such a Fred Chaney join with senior Liberals from the now much diminished moderate wing, such as Simon Birmingham and successful state MPs such as Matt Kean to argue for acknowledgement of the demands represented by the community independents who have decimated the Party’s hold on its ‘traditional’ seats. But their capacity to determine federal party leadership has been shattered by their losses to the ‘teal’ independents.

Against them are advocates for ‘strong leadership’ and a more sustained commitment to moving the Liberal Party even further right. They now dominate the parliamentary party and will elect Peter Dutton as Party Leader. Their barrackers in the Murdoch media, despite the failure of their efforts to ensure the return of the Coalition, will provide a strident chorus of ‘resistance’ to everything the 2022 election represents.

Capitulating to the right would be disastrous: the people have spoken. It would not only represent resistance to majority opinion on issues of immediate concern, but also a repudiation of Menzies’ careful attempts to differentiate liberal from conservative values, to champion individual enterprise and yet allow for state action when that provides the best solution to what we now call wicked problems. Will Peter Dutton – a warrior of the right – or anyone else in the remnant Party have the creative and communicative capacity to rethink what the Party stands for now in a way that appeals to the constituency it has lost, as Menzies did?

Despite the euphoria of victory, the Labor Party too needs to heed the lessons of history. Given the modesty of its policy ambitions, the scale of the economic problems it has inherited, and the uncertain state of the world, it may be on the precipice that confronted James Scullin when he brought Labor to victory in 1929, at the advent of the Great Depression. Labor cannot, as Scullin did, capitulate to the orthodoxy of the moment at the cost of the people it represents: this too will demand creative adaptation.

Such adaptation will not be served by a public service now depleted and demoralized by years of ‘efficiency dividends‘ and resort to market solutions. Former senior public servants have been the most trenchant critics of the ‘decade of drift’ imposed upon the APS by party politics. The public service must be rebuilt as a matter of urgency. But in the interim, there should be recognition that researchers, community activists, and civil society agencies have suggested answers for all the problems that are now top of mind, from climate action, to integrity, Indigenous recognition, taxation reform and housing. There needs to be a mobilization of the intelligentsia on a scale matching that initiated by Curtin and Chifley in the 1940s. In the longer term, this demands a reinvestment in higher education and research, another sector recently subject to Coalition depredation. But it also requires adroit leadership – the convincing mobilization of expert opinion in response to community needs rather than a technocratic imposition from above.

Image credit: David Moir, via AAP Photos.

Nor can Labor be heedless of the fate of the Gillard government, whose legislative achievements in minority government exceeded those of any successor administration to date and yet whose leadership was undermined from within and assailed so viciously from without that it survived only three years: not long enough for some of its important measures to be bedded down or rendered secure from Tony Abbott’s mission to destroy all of Labor’s works. Labor must deliver on its promise of a policy platform for the long term.

That will require not what has become the conventional conception of strong (alpha-male) leadership, but a consensus builder. A leader capable of orchestrating the many others and multiple skills – some of them in parties other than the governing party – to be united in the collective enterprise of solving our problems. Transparency – straight talking about what is to be done, why, and who will benefit – will be essential. Only if those who are most anxious about change are reached in this way can Labor prevent an erosion of support in the suburbs.

Anthony Albanese has talked of just such matters, not least in his address to the Party faithful on winning the election. He won’t be able to do it alone: his cabinet colleagues must take responsibility and be out and about, speaking of their roles and objectives without the constant stage direction of the Prime Minister’s office.

Yet, inevitably, attention will focus on the leader. Despite a campaign that had deficiencies, Albanese may well develop a capacity for direct engagement with the people like that which enabled Joe Lyons to win successive elections in the 1930s, rather than the showboat, one-man-band performance that some thought made Scott Morrison such a ‘formidable campaigner’, but that ultimately saw him crash and burn.

There is much to hope for, and much to be done within and between the parties, if the next parliament is to deliver what the electorate has so passionately demanded.

James Walter
James Walter

Professor James Walter is Emeritus Professor of Political Science in the School of Social Sciences.

He has broad interests in Australian politics and history. He holds a B.A. (Hons) and a Ph.D from the University of Melbourne, and an M.A from La Trobe.