Liberalism Down Under

Australians recently went to the polls and elected a Liberal government. Unfortunately, Down Under the Liberal Party is a conservative body firmly fixed on the centre right of Aussie politics who with their allies the Nationals (previously known as the Country Party) have been in power for the majority of the country’s history. If it isn’t them in office, it’s Labor.

So what is the current state of our particular brand of liberalism in this part of the Commonwealth? Australia uses AV for the lower houses of its Federal and State parliaments while Upper Houses or Senates use STV, and the latter results in a large number of parties contesting those elections, given the increased chance of gaining a seat via a PR system.

There is a party called the Liberal Democrats, and they have secured the election of a senator and representatives in a couple of state bodies but they are a classical liberal bunch, more right libertarian than social liberal.

The only parties that can be described as centrist or social liberal are the Centre Alliance and the Democrats. The former, founded in 2013 as the Nick Xenophon team, currently have one seat in the Federal House of Representatives and two in the Senate. A presence in the Senate is important because it gives a party some clout, due to the fact that all legislation has to be agreed by it prior to becoming law. Given that it is elected using the aforementioned STV, the cross bench senators nearly always holds the balance of power.

It was that situation that caused problems for the Democrats, a party formed in 1977 with the stated intention of ‘Keeping the B*stards honest’. They built a following that gave them a solid group of senators between 1980 and 2004 before their support for a controversial tax proposed by the Liberal government of John Howard resulted in electoral meltdown. They are still plugging away and stood candidates in this years Federal election but judging by their results it is going to be a hard road ahead.

So Aussie politics is pretty polarised with right and left grouped in two big parties with the Greens very much the third force. It begs the question as to why the forces of social liberalism are so weak. Is it due to the demographics of this great nation or is it something else?

I would love to hear the opinions of other British Liberals.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • Thank you, David, for an interesting article. Bob Menzies did not found the Liberal Party in 1944 simply as a Conservative Party. He aimed for a fusion of Mill and Burke and for the party to ‘stand for a liberal progressive policy and opposed to socialism with its bureaucratic administration and restriction of personal freedom’. Unfortunately, it’s now become seriously right-wing with a few folk whom we would recognise as Liberals desperately hanging on. I was working for one such MP in the Victorian State election last November and I met some Liberal members who regard the current leadership as “headbangers”. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser resigned from the Party in 2009 and I believe that another leader, Alan Peacocke, has also done so. I had always regarded Fraser as pretty right-wing but I met a former Liberal (now a Green Party member) who extolled Fraser’s pursuit of multi-culturalism.

    I’m not saying that the Australian Liberal Party was ever a Liberal Party in our sense but it was never intended to be what it has become. I think it’s fate is similar to that of the Republicans in the States and the Tories in the UK.

  • Gordon Lishman 4th Sep '19 - 12:16pm

    You’re quite right, Dave. There are interesting similarities with other countries including Canada, New Zealand and India. In Canada, the Liberals have been have been the natural party of government; a united Conservative Party is a recent innovation and they didn’t get a coherent Labour Party linked to a wider labour movement because the Liberals successfully occupied that territory – something we failed to do in the UK.

    Partly, I think it’s because parties develop in response to the big choices and the political context. Federalism, for instance, has very much affected Canadian party development.

    During the twentieth century, the choice was seen as a labour v capital issue, influenced by class. As demonstrated in the recent EU Parliament elections and as Macron has argued, that division fails to match the big issues the world now faces – open societies, migration, climate change, social justice – don’t match those alternatives and we are seeing convulsions in party systems to come to terms with twenty-first century reality.

    I had some discussions in Australia with both academics and some politicians over 20 years ago to see what possibilities there might be. The general view was that Labour tribalism was a major reason for the absence of development. There was some possibility for development of a liberal entity amongst some people in the Liberal Party – in Victoria as I recall at that time – but the core problem was the challenge of getting a foothold in a binary system (demonstrated, as you say, by the Democrats).

    I don’t think there’s much likelihood of change in the near future, but the current parties are evolving to a limited extent.

  • David Warren 4th Sep '19 - 1:11pm

    Thanks for the comment Gordon.

    The decline of the Democrats is a real tragedy because they were a centrist party with a strong presence in the senate for a number of years. As I stated in the article that is a key position because unlike here in the UK the Australian Senate has to agree all legislation. Failure to do that can create deadlock which happened back in 1972 bringing about the fall of the Whitlam government.

    The Greens are the third party these days and with 9 members in a 76 seat chamber where the government parties have 35 they hold the balance of power.

  • Paul Barker 4th Sep '19 - 5:42pm

    What do Liberals call themselves in a Country where the Word itself has been hijacked ?

  • I am a lifelong UK born and raised Liberal (now Lib Dem supporter). I have lived, and continue to live ‘downunder’ for almost 25 years and share the sadness of David Warren over the demise of the Democrats. Accordingly, I tend to vote either Labor or Green over here, without much enthusiasm.

  • Peter Martin 5th Sep '19 - 4:06am

    @ Paul Barker,

    “What do Liberals call themselves in a Country where the Word itself has been hijacked ?”

    The question is if the word has been hijacked by the Americans who tend towards a more leftish use of the term, or the Australians who have their own rightward use. The Australians aren’t alone. Liberalism in Europe is very right wing in an economic sense. Liberals represent the strand of capitalism that doesn’t want to restrained by nationalistic and social issues. They simply get in the way of making money.

    So a Liberal, or liberal, would, for example, side with the left on questions of race and sexuality. Who cares about all that if all races and sexual orientations are equally good workers and customers? Why have national borders if they interfere with trade? On the other hand they probably wouldn’t side with the left on such matters as trade unionism or workers rights.

  • “I’m not saying that the Australian Liberal Party was ever a Liberal Party in our sense but it was never intended to be what it has become. I think it’s fate is similar to that of the Republicans in the States and the Tories in the UK” – you cannot put the Tories and the Republicans in the same sentence. The Tories have always been a party of King and aristocrats. On the other hand, The Republican Party was founded as an abolitionist progressive force. It was never intended to be the Party of Reagan, let alone the Party of Trump.

    “Federalism, for instance, has very much affected Canadian party development” – obviously. You can see a Liberal-dominated Eastern Canada and Conservative-dominated Western Canada (well, liberal politics is basically non-existent in Alberta).

  • And honestly, the Canadian Conservatives make the British Tories look sane in comparison. The CPC has become increasingly crazy over the years.
    This troll post actually contains some truth about what the CPC really is in recent years.

  • David Warren 5th Sep '19 - 10:20am


    Must be interesting voting in those senate elections with the exceptionally long ballot papers!

    I think if I lived in Oz my vote would go to smaller parties depending on which ones were standing. The success of the Greens shows there is space for a third force.

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