Future dim for splintered Liberals


Liberal Party of AustraliaThe modern Liberal Party now contains deeper and wider ideological divisions than the Labor Party. This will be true regardless of who emerges as leader today. This is a relatively new development but it has been building for two or three decades at least.

That is the prime cause of the current party troubles. There are other factors too. There is a question mark over Malcolm Turnbull's leadership qualities and people skills. There is disagreement about the merits of climate change science. There is an element of harking back to the good old days in government. There is strategic thinking about the electoral consequences of amending or opposing the Rudd government's ETS legislation.

But the rancour and hostility with which the internal debate has been conducted suggests that more is involved than these other factors. Some Liberal MPs have called the ructions a battle for the ideological soul of the Liberal Party. That sort of thinking is unhealthy for the party.

Traditionally Labor has been the more ideologically splintered of the major parties, combining, for instance, secular socialists and religious believers working side by side. It has had a tradition of strong discipline, based on a pledge signed by all party candidates to submit to the majority will of Caucus; partly to reflect the collective ethos and partly to hold together highly fractious factions. Even so Federal Labor has suffered three major splits, the last in the 1950s.

The Liberals on the other hand have always played down party discipline and emphasised the individuality and conscience of its parliamentarians. They have long boasted of a tradition of tolerating dissent to a greater extent than Labor. Statistics on crossing the floor in parliament collated by the Parliamentary Library support this view.

But an unspoken premise of Liberal internal operations has always been that the ideological divisions within the party, even between conservatives and liberals, were not as divisive as those found within Labor. Rather the public image that the Liberals have liked to project since Menzies has been one of practical men and women approaching each issue on its merits regardless of ideological presuppositions.

Both parties have been smug about their respective beliefs and the differences between them. Labor boasts about solidarity and the Liberals boast about individual conscience.

Lack of discipline and deep ideological differences are really testing the Liberals at the moment. While ideological differences are declining within Labor they are growing among the federal Liberals. It is not that Labor MPs don't fight bitterly among themselves; of course they do. But the fights these days are more about ambition and personality conflicts than pure ideology. The factions are now less ideological. Left and Right Labor factions unite over policies and even over leaders.

Perhaps the Liberals have always been more ideological and divided than public appearances suggest. However the trend since the battles between the Wets and the Dries in the 1970s and 1980s suggests not. The competing ideological positions within the party are now more deeply ingrained.

The next year will be a critical test of the organisation and ethos of the party. The question is whether the party and the leadership, whoever that is, can survive such deep differences of philosophy without fragmenting. A broad church must always have respect for every shade of opinion.

The Liberals will be judged by the electorate not just on their position on an emissions trading scheme, but on how they resolve issues and work together within the parliamentary party. One traditional political maxim is disunity is death. Another is that if you can't manage yourselves then you can't manage the country. If these maxims hold true then the Liberals will pay a substantial price for their disunity at the next federal election.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and at The Flinders University of South Australia. He is Deputy Chair of the Board of Catholic Social Services Australia.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Liberal Party, Coalition, Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Nick Minchin, Tony Abbot



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Existing comments

The physical truth of rapid climate change (rather than the million-year time frame that Professor Plimer mistakenly brings to this geologically immediate crisis) is an issue for which conversance with ideology is irrelevant.

Noting that concern with rising carbon dioxide lead to US President Johnson calling a summit to consider the issue in the 1960s, Nick Minchin's fancy of a "communist plot" says much, not only about his poor grasp of history, but of his moral and intellectual incapacity to face the issue.

Similarly, Steve Fielding's proposed Royal Commission into the Science of Climate Change would need to merely review a refresher course in high-school science to leave him in no doubt as to the reality of this crisis ... or we can wish him a long enough life to make the observations himself.

It is out of clay such as this that our decision makers are fashioned. Surely they can be moulded into vessels for wisdom?
David Arthur | 01 December 2009

It's patently clear that the current ruckus in the Liberal ranks highlights the value system that they stand for. A value system that is out of step with a changing world. In their world, the Liberals would never conceive the idea of an African-American as a president of the world' most powerful nation.

In their world, the notion of human right to all is often mixed and sullied by rank and social status. Their belief is all about the preservation of self, an assumption about birthright (theirs)and Christendom's most worshipped creed, ambition. Therefore, it's not surprising that they'd put a dollar value against climate change.

Alex Njoo | 01 December 2009

Wishful thinking on the part of John Warhurst all because Turnbull handled so many issues so poorly. Now the leadership decision has been made the Liberals will fall into line under Tony Abbott and the party will do better than some people think ... or hope.
Nathan Socci | 01 December 2009

Does the present Labor government in practice have any ideological internal differences? It would seem not. Its Members seem not at all free to have any other opinion than that of their leader to whom they have seemingly handed all power. The environment and climate change in general; Aboriginal Affairs notably including the extension of the NT Intervention which the Uniting Church have been brave enough to name as the most pressing human rights issue in Australia today and ongoing extension of interference into the rights of the poorest - black and white - in our nation to Social Security Entitlements ... None of these and other pressing concerns seem to have met with any internal opposition. Certainly not at the Labor Party Convention. Is anyone in practice in the current Labor Government interested in 'fighting bitterly' - I agree maybe over 'ambition and personality conflicts'. Is this why we elected them. Such a puzzle at the promise we hoped for as different individuals were elected. Certainly human rights including Aboriginal rights, the Australian fair go and the survival of the globe are subjects for which current Labor needs even one Petro Georgio.
Michele Madigan | 01 December 2009


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