What Happened to Australia’s Liberal Party?

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What Happened to Australia’s Liberal Party?

The party’s internal meltdown is rooted in the tensions inherent to its liberal and conservative roots.

What Happened to Australia’s Liberal Party?

Australia’s new Prime Minister Scott Morrison, right, gestures while speaking with Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Josh Frydenberg during their first press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, Aug. 24, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Taylor)

Last week, Australia’s governing Liberal Party had an internal meltdown. An insurgent faction within the party sought to remove their party leader — who also happened to be the country’s prime minister — and replace him with one of their own. After much backroom conniving and amateur bumbling, they succeeded in the first of these aims — the removal of Malcolm Turnbull from the prime ministership — but they failed in the second part: installing their own man, Peter Dutton, into the position. Instead a third candidate, Scott Morrison, found himself as the country’s new leader, and became a band-aid that may only temporarily stem the party’s internal conflicts.

Such internal party schisms, and the hostile replacement of leaders, have become a norm within Australian politics. Morrison is the country’s sixth prime minister since 2010. For such a peaceful and prosperous country it is an intriguing glitch. Yet unlike the personality politics that saw the removal of sitting Labor Party Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, for the Liberal Party these leadership battles are part of a deep ideological divide within the party. This divide among Australia’s Liberals is a consequence of the country’s unique political history, and is emblematic of the current existential crisis within conservative movements worldwide.

Unlike in countries with similar Westminster parliamentary systems, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, where traditionally liberal and conservative forces remained separate political entities, in Australia, they merged. Due to the strength of the labor movement in the country, liberal and conservative forces — after much fluidity, shape-shifting, and recalibrating — fused into a single party in 1944; the Liberal Party. However, as with all compacts formed on the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” this alliance of political ideals and approaches maintained significant internal tensions, with last week’s dispute highlighting the now potentially untenable nature of this political alliance.

As Norman Abjorensen from the Australian National University has argued, as a party formed from an array of anti-Labor forces, the Liberal Party has never truly understood its role outside of simply opposing Labor. This is where it gains its bearings, but when the party attempts to construct a narrative about exactly what it is for then tensions start to arise. This counterforce to Labor arose due to a shared belief in free enterprise by all the party’s interest groups. Yet with Labor having long since abandoned its socialist roots, and the global existential threat of communism having collapsed, these interest groups within the party now lack a genuine common purpose, and as a result tensions between them are becoming more pronounced.

Malcolm Turnbull has been a lighting rod for these tensions. As chairman of the Australian Republican Movement in the 1990s, he has been perpetually seen as an imposter in the party by its more conservative elements. His modern and cosmopolitan outlook, as well as his advocacy for progressive causes, went to the core of the philosophical tensions between the party’s liberal and conservative worldviews. While leader of the opposition in 2009, his desire to cooperate with the Labor Party over an emissions trading scheme was deemed unacceptable to much of the party, due to both his willingness to cooperate with Labor, and to take climate change seriously. He was subsequently replaced as Liberal Party leader by the climate change denialist Tony Abbott.

It is no coincidence that Turnbull’s removal from the party leadership for the second time last week was also inspired by a new attempt to create a structure around Australia’s carbon emissions. For the party’s restive conservatives, any attempt to limit Australia’s carbon emissions — no matter how superficial — is unacceptable. This is the issue that has most exposed the competing worldviews within the Liberal Party, and it is the main reason why Morrison’s prime ministership will only be a temporary reprieve from the party’s internal turmoil.

For British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, conservatism is not a political ideology, but a disposition: a social psychology that attaches itself to concepts that are believed to preserve security and stability.

Threats to these core concepts induce anxiety, and so the shifts in human behavior required to combat the forecasted consequences of climate change are deemed too difficult to address. It is a deeply existential crisis for the Liberal Party’s conservatives, and one they stubbornly refuse to confront. Yet for those in the party of a more adaptable disposition, acknowledging evidence and seeking solutions is an easier proposition. There are market opportunities in renewable energy; a society’s wealth doesn’t need to be affected, just repositioned.

Once these conflicting dispositions are recognized, it is easy to see how a number of internal conflicts within the party are enhanced, particularly in regards to shifting social or cultural norms. In an era of such rapid technological, economic, organizational, and social change, the politics of nostalgia become a highly potent force for those of a conservative disposition. The solid ground of the past is comfortable; it provides the safety of known knowns. Those who are a better able to accommodate  these shifts are viewed with suspicion, and seen as in collusion with radical forces attempting to undermine long-held traditions. This political approach then becomes one of resentment and hostility, where even political allies are viewed as a fifth column.

That is why these restive forces within the party felt they needed to rapidly seize control, and why their choice of operative to do so was Peter Dutton. As has become a norm in a number of countries worldwide, anxious constituencies are finding renewed attraction to the concept of a “strong leader.” Through this perspective, in a world deemed to be naturally chaotic and insecure, governance needs to be conducted via the fist. Dutton — a former policeman who had come to prominence as the uncompromising minister for immigration and border protection (a name in itself indicative of this worldview) — is a fist. With all the rapid social change, shifting structural norms, the “lack of common sense,” and the enemies within, Dutton’s tough guy demeanor issues the promise to make Australia great again.

This perspective also highlights another deep conflict within the Liberal Party (and one disrupting conservative parties worldwide). Selling themselves as Australia’s party of freedom, they are also the party most susceptible to authoritarian sentiment: quick to favor a heightened security apparatus, and infusing government departments with a culture of suspicion toward people. This ideological confusion, the desire for both liberty and strict conformity, demonstrates a messy conflict between the ideals the party advocates, the public atmosphere it creates, and the constituencies it attempts to pursue. Furthermore, it drives a deep wedge through the party as its liberal and conservative elements struggle to adhere to the same principles.

Throughout its history, these two wings of the Liberal Party have found one broad harmony beyond their opposition to the Labor Party. With liberalism being the philosophical tradition that drove Australia’s inherited institutions, and conservatism being the disposition that sought to defend these institutions, the party could find ways to smooth over its inherent tensions. Yet as conservatism has began to morph from a disposition into a rigid identity group, rather than cautious stewards of an existing order, the party’s conservatives have instead become increasingly hostile to it.

Deeply invested in the country’s culture wars, elements within the party have become obsessed with the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC), universities, the justice system, and the country’s internal make-up. Flirting with this perspective places these actors firmly in the realm of similar global populist movements. In a recent edition of the Journal of Democracy, William Galston wrote of this variety of populism that it understands democracy in “a straightforward fashion as the exercise of majoritarian power. It is skeptical, however, about constitutionalism, insofar as formal, bounded institutions and procedures impede majorities from working their will. It takes an even dimmer view of liberal protections for individuals and minority groups.”

For the Liberal Party, this brings into question whether it can continue to be considered a responsible actor in Australia’s governance. Is the party able to restrain the reactionary sentiment within it, or will it be overwhelmed instead?  This is not only an issue of domestic stability, but a problem that will infect the country’s international relations as well.

There are growing calls from populists within the party to follow the lead of U.S President Donald Trump and withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. This would be highly detrimental to the country’s relationships with its Pacific neighbors, in particular, which deem the climate change issue a primary, existential concern. The country’s international reputation as a consistent and trustworthy actor, and its claim to be heightening its engagement in the Pacific, would be undermined unless the party is able to reign in these forces.

However, it is more than likely that the party’s reactionary insurgents will be further aggravated by their inability to seize full control of the Liberal Party last week. Their resentful sense of victimhood and oppositional instincts will only be subdued temporarily. At present it is probable that the Liberal Party will suffer a considerable defeat at the next election (to be held by November 2019). This is bound to exacerbate the tensions within the party. Although throughout its history the Liberal Party has been an incredibly successful political entity, it is more than likely that losing power will result in the party collapsing under the weight of its considerable, and increasing, contradictions, and ceasing to exist in its current form.