Firstly, consider the parallels.
When Bob Hawke brought Labor to power, seven and a half years after the trauma of the Whitlam Dismissal, conservatives were deeply demoralised. They held office in just two states: Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Coalition in Queensland and Robin Gray’s Liberals in Tasmania. Importantly, Malcolm Fraser had been a significant disappointment. But rather than mourn his defeat, most conservatives lamented his lack of achievement in office.
Conservatives were similarly demoralised when Anthony Albanese won last year’s federal election, eight and a half years after another generational Labor trauma: the failed Rudd and Gillard governments. Again, conservatives were left in charge of only two states — Dominic Perrottet’s Coalition in New South Wales and Jeremy Rockliff’s Liberals in Tasmania. And for differing reasons, the governments of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison had failed to live up to expectations.
So what did each generation of conservatives do next?
The first thing any professional political party does after an election defeat is conduct a review. In 1983, the Liberal Party’s committee of review was led by its NSW president, John Valder. Importantly, the committee did not limit itself to investigating organisational, administrative and campaigning issues — it set about provoking the party into policy change.
Thus, the Valder report wholeheartedly endorsed the free market economic revolution that had taken hold in Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s United States. Fraser had initially been supportive of this movement, even hosting neoliberal intellectuals such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman at the Lodge, but was unwilling to implement its policies in office. The Valder report was deeply critical of Fraser for this, and its interpretation was shared widely across the party.
The Valder report was followed in 1984 by a parliamentary policy review, led by John Howard. Key policy proposals included: economic and financial deregulation; cuts to tax, spending and tariffs; and privatisation of state assets. Both the organisational and parliamentary wings of the party were now embracing the core tenets of neoliberalism.
In 2022, the Liberal Party’s post-election review was led by Brian Loughnane and Senator Jane Hume. In contrast with the Valder report, Loughnane and Hume have very little to say about policy directions. They identify the challenge of facing independent teal candidates in the centre and minor parties on the right, but offer no suggestions as to how to defeat them, beyond the sort of ordinary preparation that should be standard for any serious party.
The Liberal Party’s deep disconnect from the Australian people and the world of ideas is starkest when the report dances around the prospect of thinking about policy. Recommendation 38 is to “conduct work to develop policy proposals, that are developed consistent with the party’s values, are tangible, implementable, and relevant to the current mainstream public debate”.
How will this be ensured? Why, with Recommendation 49, of course: “undertake a ‘deep-dive values study’ on the attitudes and values of the Australian community”.
Fraser’s Liberals took the fight to him in office, criticised him publicly afterwards, and were inspired by his failures to advance new ideas. Morrison’s Liberals stood by while he tried to turn the party into a policy-free one-man show, and have offered only limp criticism since. Critically, they have no new policy ideas.
The ‘New Right’
The 1980s Liberals were also under extraordinary pressure from external “New Right” individuals and organisations. As David Kemp — himself a participant in the process — wrote:
Over the decade to 1985 something akin to a broad, though not unified, liberal movement came into existence with political and intellectual leaders, publicists and pamphleteers, journalists and commentators, policy support in the public bureaucracy and in private ‘think-tanks’, interest group mobilisation and an apparently expanding base of mass support.
Particularly prominent at this time was the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which was established in the 1940s alongside the Liberal Party but was revived in 1982 and transformed into a more radical proponent of economic and social reform. The Centre for Independent Studies, founded by Greg Lindsay in his backyard shed in 1976, pushed similar arguments, as did a variety of smaller groups, most of which have long disbanded.
This intellectual activism was helped along by sympathetic reporting in The Australian Financial Review, The Australian and The Bulletin. Such external pressure paid off. By the end of the 1980s, the economic “dries” had comprehensively outgunned the moderate “wets” within the Liberal Party, laying the groundwork for the economically liberal, socially conservative Howard government.
Today’s Liberal Party is also subjected to intense external pressure, but little of it could be described as constructive. Can the Liberal Party build an election-winning coalition based on the inane culture war rantings of Sky News’ Outsiders? Or the obsessive hatred for First Nations peoples that spews out of Quadrant magazine?
Long-standing conservative institutions that once reached broader audiences are now little more than hard-right propaganda outfits. The IPA is a Gina Rinehart-funded vessel for pretending that Tony Abbott is still relevant. The Australian continues to publish many of the same relics from the 1980s whose ideas are long past their use-by date, with a bit of scaremongering thrown in about rampant wokeness and youth crime to keep its ageing readership on guard.
In the 1980s, the Liberal Party was in the electoral doldrums, a situation made worse by the leadership battle between Howard and Andrew Peacock. But in the background, significant policy innovation occurred, with the support of critical friends outside of parliamentary politics. Crucially, as the neoliberal revolution took hold around the world, Liberal thinking was in step with the times.
Today, the Liberals are in the doldrums again. At a time of acute economic and environmental crisis, who on the right is prepared to undertake the equivalent intellectual work that will point the direction for the next Coalition government?
This article was first published in Crikey.com.au - How did Australia’s conservative movement lose its way?
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