Labor needs the Liberal Left


'Liberal Left' by Chris Johnston. Bill Shorten waters the withered 'Liberal Left' pot plant. On either side the Liberal Right plant is thriving and the Labor/Greens plant is small but sturdy.The fact that Liberal blue is the colour of Australian politics at the moment makes it all the more important that the Liberal Left speaks out. Call them what you like — social Liberals, moderates, progressives, centrists — the left of that party represents a distinctive strand in Australian politics. But they are very quiet at the moment while the voice of the Liberal Right is loud and confident.

The Liberal Left, by definition close to the centre of Australian public opinion, are the hope of everyone further to the Left of them, including Labor and Green voters, for this decade. The latter should not just hope that the Liberal Left is heard loud and clear, but they should respect and nurture this strand of liberalism.

Many of these centrist Liberals believe in the values encompassed in the various social movements that have so influenced Australian politics over the past 40 or 50 years. They are part of the environmental, women's and Indigenous rights movements, to name just a few.

These movements have been non-partisan and have drawn people from across the political landscape, not just from the political left. That is often forgotten.

In a party in which conservatives are dominant life is rarely easy for centrist Liberals. They are a cultural minority within their own party and can be criticised for rocking the boat when their party is on a roll. There is also some self-interest in promotion which may lead social Liberals to consciously want to fit in rather than stand out. The wider party membership is rarely much help either because they are more conservative than liberal.

At the moment conservative Liberals are taking free shots at the social ideals held by a minority of their own party. This is being led from the front by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. He praises foresters, not environmentalists, as the ultimate conservationists, and reintroduces knighthoods without consultation. It is almost as if the Liberal Left doesn't exist anymore. However, although some like Petro Georgiou and Judy Moylan have left Federal Parliament, plenty of its representatives do remain both at the federal and state level.

At the federal level, while George Brandis, Scott Morrison and company stride the limelight, those on the Liberal Left, like Malcolm Turnbull, must be hurting. So too must Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne, whose hard line on the budget and education respectively mask their Liberal Left credentials on a range of other issues.

At the state level, Queensland's Campbell Newman is the conservative Liberal poster boy, but many of his colleagues as state premiers hold much more centrist personal views, even if they are not always reflected in the actions of their governments. Colin Barnett, the Western Australian Premier, is in this category. So too is New South Wales Premier, Barry O'Farrell. The new Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman, despite his conservative family background, is a social Liberal on many issues.

It is true that Abbott has not severed altogether his ties with the Liberal Left and with the social movements, but there are few remaining links. He may still need their strong support both in the party and the wider community to advance some of his dearly-held schemes.

His generous paid parental leave scheme has some supporters within the women's movement, though plenty of critics too. If it gets through Parliament it will be one feminist movement memorial to him, despite his rejection of most of what the rest of the movement stands for, including advancement for women in government.

But the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians would be the greatest achievement that would make social Liberals proud. They have played a substantial role in the Indigenous rights movement through the efforts of notable progressive Liberals like Fred Chaney.

The Liberal Left should remember the influential role they have played alongside those on the Left in recent years and remain true to those values. Those further on the Left should respect and encourage those in the embattled centre of Australian politics.


John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, George Brandis, Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne



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Existing comments

The "centre" is an interesting concept. I always think of US blogger Charles Pierce's view on centrism: "There are three kinds of people who claim to be centrists in this country today. There are embarrassed Republicans. There are lazy people. And there are liars." I also think of friends who call themselves "centrists", as if whatever beliefs they hold are the perfect balance of all possible political beliefs. The "centre", of course, is a fairly amorphous concept. I feel like what's defined as the "centre" is moving to the right here in Australia, as if it's now "left" to believe in things like the right to fair employment conditions, the importance of caring for our environment, and our responsibility for citizens in need in other countries beyond our political interests. And that's not to even mention the difficulty in defining where someone who believes in the "seamless garment" of Catholic Social Teaching might sit on the spectrum.

Joseph Vine | 31 March 2014  

Christopher Pyne a centrist??? Surely the ultimate example of ugly political rudeness. I bet he was a bully at school.

Frank | 01 April 2014  

I suppose we all have our own definitions of 'left' and 'right', conservative and progressive, etc. For the life of me I can't describe anyone in the Liberal Party as a 'leftie', nor most from the Labor Party either.

Anna | 01 April 2014  

I have to say that Christopher Pyne in my view is witty, sharp, intelligent and gets straight to the point...always a gentleman who often points out devious & at times outright nasty manoeuvres by the Opposition bench. He is a pleasure to watch. He must have led the best debating team at school and wiped the floor of other teams..perhaps the writer has never belonged to a debating team!

Penny | 01 April 2014  

There is no Liberal left. Factions (which sadly now do exist in the Liberal Party) are about patronage and spoils rather than ideology. You get highly idiosyncratic combinations of views on social and economic issue within the Liberal Party, very often across factional lines. The so called "Religious Right" faction in NSW has socially conservative views but generally does not have economically liberal views. They have very moderate views on economic things and favour a good deal of regulation. Most of the notionally wet Liberals in NSW at least have starkly libertarian economic views. But these things are simply not consistent.

Adrian | 01 April 2014  

In my view Labor is closer to true conservatism these days than Abbott's kind of Liberal Party, which is radical, not conservative. Abbott and his people don't want to conserve anything: not human dignity, not the nation's health or intelligence, not the natural environment, not the planet itself.

Canberra Watcher | 01 April 2014  

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