Opinion: Lessons from the failure of centre-liberal politics in Australia

Australian DemocratsIn an island not so far away, in a time not so long ago, a socially liberal centrist party met its end under circumstances eerily similar to those the Liberal Democrats now find themselves in. The sudden demise of the Australian Democrats is a tale from the antipodes that holds several lessons for the Lib Dems.

The Australian Democrats were the 3rd force in Australian politics between 1977 and 2008, frequently holding the balance of power in Australia’s elected upper house and achieving election at the state and local council level. They played a lead role in many of the civil liberties, environmental protection and democratic reform battles in Australia during that time. At their height in the late 1990s, the Democrats were vital for the conservative government of John Howard to pass its legislation in the upper house.

This position of influence proved to be a poisoned chalice. The passing of a consumption tax (the GST, equivalent to VAT), even though the Democrats amended and ‘softened’ it, was never forgiven. Within eight years the Democrats were reduced to rump of members with zero parliamentary representation.

The demise of the Democrats offers the Lib Dems several lessons.

Changing leaders doesn’t wash away the past.

Churn in leadership only caused the public to see the Democrats as both internally chaotic and as traitors to their centre-left ideals. It seems probable that this could apply in the UK if a left-leaning Lib Dem were to replace Nick Clegg as leader.

Drifting to the left won’t translate into more votes.

For the Democrats, doing this seemed logical after they had enraged the party’s left. Alas, post-GST, the party’s left didn’t buy it and began peeling away to join the less fiscally concerned Australian Greens.

Bottom line is – the left does not forgive easily, especially when there is a party on hand to promising social liberalism minus the fiscal ‘pain’. Post-Blairite Labour fits the bill, and will vacuum up the left-leaning voters it lost during their last term in government.

What’s left? Go for broke selling a liberal message.

A party that has both liberal economic and social views, but only campaigns on the latter, sets its supporters up for profound disappointment. The Australian Democrats failed to make a case for a truly liberal party and when it acted like one in parliament, supporters were aghast.

As The Economist detailed recently, many British fit the ‘socially liberal and economically responsible’ description that should make the Lib Dems their natural choice. Australian Democrats wrote-off embracing this liberal identify to their ruin, despite the warnings of several prominent members and parliamentarians.

It’s hard to sell a coherent message of liberalism in the age of sound-bytes, but focusing on this message may be the Lib Dems only hope.

* The author is politically restricted. He is an economist at a research institute.

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25 Comments

  • Interesting, very interesting. I did wonder why there was no ‘third force’ in Australian politics; it seems that they have gone the American way.

    I think all your lessons you highlight are valid, but while I agree we shouldn’t drift left, if our 2015 manifesto is anything like the 2010 version, we will appear to be much further left than we have been in government. That may not be a bad thing where our MPs rely on Labour tactical voters.

    I would be interested to know what you meant about ‘going for broke’ on the liberal message.

  • Surely it depends on whether the leadership change is one which offers genuine change.

    I would not be convinced by a change of leadership which still fails to support civil liberties.

    The lesson is not to keep the same leaders. The lesson is to offer change

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Aug '13 - 1:46pm

    Well we will never know what would have happened if the Australian Democrats had decided to be neoliberal once they were kicked out of office for being neoliberal.
    Looking at the bigger picture I think that all ideologies are struggling at the moment in Western countries and what is emerging are “none of the above” parties like UKIP which really are illiberal.

  • Interesting piece. Thanks .

  • So a party which was not a right wing economic party became one then got punished for it. But the fault isn’t the right wing of the party. No, the fault is those on the left.
    The party was never right wing to begin with, it was not somehow returning to its roots when it went right wing as this article suggests.

    ‘A party that has both liberal economic and social views, but only campaigns on the latter, sets its supporters up for profound disappointment’
    But the party, like the Lib Dems, didn’t have liberal i.e. neo liberal right wing economic views. The leadership did. All the difference in the world.

  • Daniel Carr 23rd Aug '13 - 3:41pm

    @Will Mann

    By going for broke I mean concentrating on the ‘strong economy, fair society’ message, plus adhering to a strong line on civil liberties. Just running as ‘Labour lite’ will not make the Lib Dems an attractive option for those who are traditional Labour voters that the Lib Dems have pinched off them over the Blair years.

    @Voter

    The Australian Democrats rotated through many leaders, some offered change, but none managed to sell a coherent message. The change has to be dramatic to break through and be believed by voters – rather hard when there is a public perception of lost credibility.

  • Daniel Carr 23rd Aug '13 - 4:05pm

    @Dave

    The GST that was passed was hardly right-wing economics, most countries have consumption taxes, and Australia’s is pretty low at 10%. It’s a reform that gave the government the necessary revenue to get through the GST by providing stimulus without running into excessive debt levels.

    The Australian Democrats shifted significantly to the left over their 30 year existence. Many of the founders were active in business and held liberal economic outlooks. The initial leader, Don Chipp, was a former Liberal Party (the name of the Conservative party in Australia) minister. Only problem was that Chipp and the founders never really laid out an ideological position for the party – simply sticking to a “we’re middle of the road centrists” line that really gave no clue to members as to what positions the party would take on the economy.

    Those in the party who held liberal views spent too little time explaining and articulating them to voters and supporters – viewed in a liberal perspective, which factors in how tight public finances can be, the decision around the GST is sound, just as the tuition fees system change was. Both decisions caught the public out, and elicited a fair bit of anger, as prior to these decisions neither party had really been in a position to influence economic decision making. As such, neither were really know for it, or articulated what they’d do when in office – a dangerous move that the party made.

    I see your point re the leadership though. The party should have done more to stop the top marginal tax rate from being reduced to 45%, and tried to chalk up some more victories to prove they believed in balanced budgets, but not off the backs of the poorest in society. I hope the next manifesto reflects this.

  • Daniel Carr 23rd Aug '13 - 4:17pm

    @Geoffrey Payne

    “Looking at the bigger picture I think that all ideologies are struggling at the moment in Western countries and what is emerging are “none of the above” parties like UKIP which really are illiberal.”

    The exact same thing is now happening in Australia. Both the Australian equivalents of Labour (Labor) and the Conservatives (Liberal Party) have been running exceptionally populist campaigns in the lead-up to the September 7 election.

    The Conservative Party here is campaigning on abolishing a fledgling emissions trading scheme, giving mining companies a tax break, is running a scare campaign on invasion by foreigner refugees, and has retained a party position that whips members into voting against gay marriage (it’s been tabled by the Australian Greens a few times over the last few years).

    Labor has caved into the fear-mongering on immigration, and has now almost matched the conservative policy on the issue.

    More dramatic still has been the rise of small right-wing parties that have a very similar message to UKIP – it will be interesting to see how they fare in the imminent federal election (Katter’s Australia Party and One Nation have the highest chances of gaining seats).

  • David Evans 23rd Aug '13 - 4:34pm

    So I wonder, who could have possibly thought that it would be a good idea to get an Australian to write a homily telling us all that there is no alternative to the people who got us into this mess and the policies that got us into this mess.

    I wonder if they ever thought it was a good idea to ask an Australian prior to 2010 to write a piece pointing out the danger of a lurch to the right when going into government.

    Would the person responsible like to own up?

  • David Allen 23rd Aug '13 - 6:17pm

    Hmm. So – If you’ve messed up royally by adopting Plan A, then the only way to salvation is to push Plan A even harder. Going for Plan B can’t possibly work. (Maybe this author would argue that the Catholics should similarly take the bold approach, and go out and canonise Jimmy Savile?)

    Take it from somebody from a faraway country of which we know little. This means that the somebody can make his own interpretation of what went on in his faraway country, and the chances are nobody will know enough to argue.

    Hang about a while, cobber, though. Our correspondent from Oz did say:

    “For the Democrats, (drilling to the left) seemed logical after they had enraged the party’s left. Alas, post-GST, the party’s left didn’t buy it and began peeling away to join the less fiscally concerned Australian Greens. Bottom line is – the left does not forgive easily…”

    Well, it does rather sound, doesn’t it, as if the “drill to the left” was too half-hearted, perhaps not really sincere?

    Perhaps the better lesson would be, don’t just trim at the edges? Don’t change the leader like Foot to Kinnock, signalling a gentle trim. Make a change comparable with Foot to Blair, promising a complete reversal of the previous disaster.

  • paul barker 23rd Aug '13 - 6:39pm

    An interesting article but I cant see that its very relevant to our position. What it has mostly done is give our pessimists another chance to repeat that “We are doomed”.
    I dont want to play down the blows we have taken but Politics is competitive & our rivals have taken worse.
    The Tories are having fun but their membership has fallen below 100,000, this for a Party that once had Millions.
    Labour have had a rotten couple of weeks but its nothing compared to whats to come. I must have read at least 20 articles on Labours woes but not one has even mentioned TheSpecial Conference next March. Journalists & Bloggers both seem to assume that Millibands proposed reforms are largely symbolic & will go through on the nod. In fact the changes amount to the end of Labour as it was originally founded in 1900 & could well face vehement opposition.
    My beleif is that the glue that holds Labour together is weakening & there exists a strong possibility they will fall apart.

  • Mark Smulian 23rd Aug '13 - 7:56pm

    An interesting article and there may be lessons to learn, but wasn’t there a bit more to the demise of the Australian Democrats than their position in a coalition?
    I visited Australia in 2002 when the Democrats provided a daily soap opera on newspaper front pages with, if I recall correctly, their then leader Natasha Stott-Despoja and the party’s two most prominent senators each trying to throw out the other.
    This sort of thing tends to send parties into tailspins and the party shed most of the elected representatives in the following decade.
    When I looked out of curiosity at the Australian Democrats website this week it would appear things only got worse after that.
    There are two rival websites for the Australian Democrats, each with entirely different officers, and news reports suggest the party is embroiled in a dispute with the electoral authorities about who may validly nominate its candidates.
    I’m sure Daniel is right when he says the lack of ideological definition in Australian Democrats didn’t help, but personal squabbles appear to have done much of the damage, not whether the party was relatively ‘right’ or ‘left’.

  • @ David Allen

    “Hmm. So – If you’ve messed up royally by adopting Plan A, then the only way to salvation is to push Plan A even harder. Going for Plan B can’t possibly work. (Maybe this author would argue that the Catholics should similarly take the bold approach, and go out and canonise Jimmy Savile?)”

    Clearly not what is being said.

    “Perhaps the better lesson would be, don’t just trim at the edges? Don’t change the leader like Foot to Kinnock, signaling a gentle trim. Make a change comparable with Foot to Blair, promising a complete reversal of the previous disaster.”

    Do you believe that Blair would have won 1987? Not likely, by the time Foot (well really Benn) had taken the Labour party down the rabbit hole off to the left it was always going to be a climb back.

    There is Civil Liberties issues on which the party has gone very quiet on. That has to change. Also one thing we should copy from the Tories is streamlining the message. The last manifesto was well thought out in concept (4 priorities that dominate the start of the document). But stupid distractions that turn up (signed pledges on tuition fees that first appears in the manifesto on something like page 38). Focus on cutting tax for the poorest & civil liberties.

    Also promising to spend like a drunken sailor will not wash, it isn’t possible and won’t be credible to voters.

  • I am not convinced there are parallels between the Australian Democrats and the Liberal Democrats. While the Liberal Democrats were formed in 1987 they can trace their history back to the Liberal Party (founded c. 1859 and the Whigs c. seventeenth century) The Australian Democrats were formed in 1977 by the merger of two parties formed in the 1960’s and 70’s. I believe they never had representation in the House of Representatives and in 1999 had 9 members in the Senate. They never achieved more than 13% of the national vote. The party seems to be very split after 1999. Therefore while their demise might be because of their support for GST it might be because of their troubled leadership, which included a leader assaulting a Senator from another party in the Senate while drunk.

  • Daniel Carr 24th Aug '13 - 6:34am

    @ Mark Smulian

    Good points. The Democrats had personality conflicts of epic proportions. A friend who was on the staff of one of the Senators described a situation where many of the Senators hated one another. A lot of this animosity seems to have been driven by a lack of ideological clarity, which the party substituted for with ‘personality politics’ in which the most popular Australian Democrat Senator at any one moment would be voted into the leadership, only to be cast out in favour of another once they failed to raise the party’s polling.

    @ Amalric made similar points about individuals causing these difficulties rather than a drift to the left.

    To clarify, I’m not saying drifting to the left is BAD per se, just making the observation that doing it got the Australian Democrats nowhere. Fundamentally, what I’m saying is that when people are confused about what you stand for, it’s damn hard to get them to vote for you, especially if you’ve recently done something which doesn’t ‘gel’ with the preconceptions people have about a party.

    If there’s one point I’m trying to make here, it’s to spend more time articulating what liberalism is all about, and explaining that social and economic liberalism aren’t disconnected and opposing ideas – rather they are coherent outlooks that have a common philosophical starting point.

    I’m not on the ground in the UK, so I can’t tell what difference (if any) the ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ mantra is making, but at least that motto makes sense given what the Lib Dems have done in government. Trying to run away from one’s record in government and campaign in the manner the party used to would seem to be an unlikely path to success.

  • Daniel Carr 24th Aug '13 - 6:51am

    On a separate note – the most worrying thing I’ve seen (and I am very sympathetic to the party, and would join in a second if I was living in the UK), is the stance taken on civil liberties by those in government. Secret Courts and now the whole Miranda/Guardian affair would be bad news for the members of the Tories or Labour if their party were solely responsible – I assume it’s going to be far worse for Lib Dem membership.

  • Indeed it should be.

  • IMHO if you are the third party in politics you are there to stop polarization of politics, and if the third party ever gets into any sort of argument which leads to a polarized political make-up the electorate will respond.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Aug '13 - 4:52pm

    A very good case study, but I don’t feel you have made yourself clear. You mention The Economist, which I am sure would want us to be on the right economically, and then you mention “stronger economy, fairer society”, which is purely centrist.

    So to clarify, do you think we should be centrist economically and socially liberal, or on the right economically and socially liberal? Or purely centrist? I know it is hard to separate economics from social issues, but I think this is important for political positioning.

  • David Allen 24th Aug '13 - 8:16pm

    “Fundamentally, what I’m saying is that when people are confused about what you stand for, it’s damn hard to get them to vote for you, especially if you’ve recently done something which doesn’t ‘gel’ with the preconceptions people have about a party.”

    I think Daniel Carr’s “lessons” have become clearer and more helpful after his additional postings, and the comment above is the one to take home.

    If I was a supporter of the Clegg Coup, I would wish to spin that to advantage. I would argue that by now, Clegg has made it pretty clear that he likes to work with Conservatives. So, we should formalise that. Like most small parties in Europe who are successful coalition partners, we should stop trying to play the “equidistance” game, stop pretending that we might swap sides any time soon, and fit ourselves into a bloc of two or more parties who are de facto allies. Sure, we would differentiate ourselves from the Tories, so as to advertise something distinctive to the bloc as a whole. Civil liberties would be a natural issue (or would have been until recently!). So would the idea that we will mildly temper the Tory drive for increasing social inequality. So, perhaps, would be competing with UKIP for Cameron’s favour, and thereby battling for Europe. But fundamentally, we would find our home on the Right.

    Is that where we want to be? Clearly for many, it is.

    But if we don’t want that – Daniel Carr’s lesson is that we can’t fudge the question. Replacing Clegg with a nice centrist type – Ed Davey comes to mind – who would move away from the Right, but not to any very clear position anywhere else, is the sort of fudge we could all too easily be attracted to. Carr’s lesson is that that wouldn’t work.

    If we want to avoid becoming part of the Right – Then we must have a palace revolution, a leader very different from Clegg, someone prepared to repudiate the recent past, with a clearly new direction. It should be analogous to the shock repeal of Clause 4 by which Blair announced his new direction for Labour. Nothing less will work.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Sep '13 - 12:22pm

    We should be very cautious about drawing lessons from this story. In the first place, Australian politics is very different from the UK’s and more similar to Ireland’s (where the Progressive Democrats had a similar fate). Just look at how Lynton Crosby’s tactics of slur, fear-mongering and personal denigration, so effective in Australia, have failed ignominiously in the UK, where such things may work at local level but at national level leave people thinking, “I don’t want this lot saying these nasty things as my government.”

    Secondly, it may well be the Democrats were not very much like the Liberal Democrats. Their policy positions sound roughly similar, but they certainly had no long history or traditional Liberal bastions and may have lacked other characteristics too (community politics?). Perhaps one lesson might be not just to rely on being seen as reasonable people in the middle and not being either of the traditional bigger parties, but to cherish more distinctive characteristics.

    They seem to have held the balance on and off and exerted limited power for some time before their final rapid decline, so one message may be about how you play your cards. I also suspect there is a trigger point in the decline of a party (for whatever causes) at which bouncing back becomes very difficult. The old Liberal Party had several reverses, such as 1970 and 1979, but they were not catastrophic. After the merger we survived the “Dead Parrot” period when our poll ratings were massively lower than now, thanks not only to Paddy Ashdown’s leadership but also to continuing local strength. But if not only the media and most of the public, but also the party members and activists, think the decline is terminal, it will be.

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