On July 10th, Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the centre- right Liberal party, delivered a provocative speech in London. His intended audience, though, was not in the room. Rather, he directed his missive at conservative critics in his own party, who would have read his remarks with interest over their Vegemite toast the next morning. Atop his list of detractors is former prime minister Tony Abbott, who Turnbull toppled in a party room coup in September 2015. Turnbull scraped over the line in an election ten months later. Abbott, defender of the conservative strand within the Liberals, remains bitter about losing his job. In recent months, despite promising not to undermine Turnbull’s government, Abbott has become more expressive, arguing the Liberals are losing touch with conservative voters. At the heart of this squabble is a battle for the soul of the party. Is it primarily a conservative party, as Abbott contends, or is it more in line with Turnbull’s thinking: a moderate party with liberal leanings?
In 1944, opposition leader Robert Menzies (pictured) cobbled together a group of parties who shared his vision for Australia’s post-war future. The three-day meeting in a small hall in Canberra, the capital, gave birth to the Liberal Party. The new kids on the block emphasised the importance of individual liberty as a bulwark against the rising influence of socialism. Menzies also had a deep and, by today’s standards, embarrassing love for tradition. He famously gushed over Queen Elizabeth, Australia’s official head of state, when the British monarch visited her Antipodean isle in 1963. Menzies, prime minister from 1939-41 before being ousted by centre-left Labor leader John Curtin, staged a remarkable comeback by leading his Liberal party to victory in 1949. Sir Robert would remain prime minister for 17 years, earning the title of Australia’s longest serving leader, and a knighthood.
“We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise and rejecting the socialist panacea,” said Menzies. In a sense, the party is conservative via its origins as anti-socialist. And, perhaps, Menzies knew that many Australians like to appear liberal but deep down are actually conservative. What can’t be mistaken, however, is that Menzies’ Australia was a conservative place, in tune with other western nations yearning for stability after years of war and economic upheaval. Echoing Sir Robert, Turnbull, as many leaders do, highlighted the words that suit his own agenda. During his recent London address at Policy Exchange, a think tank, Turnbull said Menzies went to “great pains” not to call the party “conservative”. It should be noted, Turnbull, while supporting free-markets and traditionally conservative economic positions, is the most socially progressive Liberal leader the country has seen. He supports same-sex marriage, tougher action on climate change, and wants Australia to become a republic. But the Sydney-sider is held hostage to conservatives in his party who would move against him if he allows his progressive colours to glow too brightly.
The philosophy of Pig Iron Bob, as Menzies was kindly nicknamed by contemporary critics, is best summed up by his most successful heir. “The Liberal Party is a broad church,” says John Howard, Australia’s second longest serving leader. Howard, who ruled the Liberals in government from 1996-07, says the party is custodians of John Stewart Mill’s classical liberalism as well as Edmund Burke’s conservativeness. The party is at its best when it blends these two traditions, he says. Messrs Turnbull and Abbott might do well to remember that.
Top photo: Australia's longest serving prime minister and founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies. Credit: Stuart MacGladrie