Steve Bracks on what the Lib­er­als face in ex­ile

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - Steve Bracks

World­wide, cen­tre-right po­lit­i­cal par­ties find them­selves in cri­sis. The mantra of free and open mar­kets cou­pled with in­di­vid­ual lib­erty is un­der threat from ex­treme right – not con­ser­va­tive – forces in­fil­trat­ing these once main­stream par­ties. Con­ser­va­tives would try to main­tain the sta­tus quo, pro­tect in­sti­tu­tions and re­sist chaos.

Whether it is the “Tea Party” in the United States Re­pub­li­can Party or na­tion­al­is­tic, anti-im­mi­gra­tion and fringe re­li­gious groups in the Aus­tralian Lib­eral Na­tional Party, there is a real move from the mod­er­ate cen­tre.

Real Lib­er­als are be­ing drowned out by a solid rightwing rump, aided and abet­ted by their favourite me­dia out­lets. As a con­se­quence, there is pol­icy at­ro­phy, at best; or dam­ag­ing, ret­ro­grade en­ergy, mi­gra­tion and civil lib­er­ties poli­cies, at worst.

These ex­treme right forces are an­gry at what Aus­tralia has be­come. They want to ur­gently turn back mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, run a dis­crim­i­na­tory im­mi­gra­tion pro­gram, block over­seas in­vest­ment and dis­man­tle the in­sti­tu­tions that pro­tect our plu­ral­ist so­ci­ety.

Lib­er­al­ism ap­pears to be dead, be­set by con­tin­ual cul­ture wars and mar­ket in­ter­ven­tions that are sup­pos­edly in the na­tional in­ter­est – such as Aus­tralia’s en­ergy pol­icy paral­y­sis and a con­tin­u­ing ob­ses­sion with coal.

This con­text helps ex­plain last week’s thump­ing vic­tory in Vic­to­ria by the An­drews La­bor gov­ern­ment, the lat­est in a string of suc­cesses for La­bor in the state over the past three decades. The shadow at­tor­ney-gen­eral, John Pe­sutto, may have summed it up best as he watched the elec­tion re­sults roll in live, sit­ting as a pan­el­list on the ABC: “Some­thing has gone hor­ri­bly wrong.”

Such was the alt-right in­fil­tra­tion of the Vic­to­rian Lib­eral branches, the party was in­ca­pable of mount­ing a co­her­ent state elec­tion pol­icy. Its nar­row­cast­ing to a “fear of crime” and an 11th-hour prom­ise on de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion meant the party com­pletely va­cated the ground on state is­sues to the An­drews gov­ern­ment. As much as, in the after­math, Lib­eral Party faith­fuls are at­tempt­ing to frame this re­sult as a “state elec­tion run on state is­sues”, it’s clear Matthew Guy and his party ran on the fed­eral play­book – fore­ground­ing so­cial pol­icy and law and or­der – and they were de­feated con­vinc­ingly.

The An­drews gov­ern­ment was the only ma­jor po­lit­i­cal party speak­ing to Vic­to­ri­ans about things that re­ally mat­tered to them – ed­u­ca­tion and the re­build­ing of the TAFE sys­tem; health and a royal com­mis­sion into men­tal health; tack­ling cli­mate change with a state 50 per cent re­new­able en­ergy tar­get; am­bi­tious in­fras­truc­ture projects to tackle pop­u­la­tion growth and con­ges­tion; and, mas­sive in­vest­ment into early child­hood de­vel­op­ment. In­deed, for the first time in liv­ing mem­ory, the Vic­to­rian Lib­er­als didn’t even have a co­her­ent ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy on of­fer.

In Vic­to­ria, the Lib­eral Party’s poli­cies turned away from the peo­ple Robert Men­zies de­scribed as the “back­bone of the na­tion”. Men­zies’ words, so favourably and of­ten quoted by those in the party he played such a key role in found­ing, seem pre­scient in the wash-up of this elec­tion: “Salary-earn­ers, shop­keep­ers, skilled ar­ti­sans, pro­fes­sional men and women, farm­ers and so on. These are, in the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sense, the mid­dle class … The case for the mid­dle class is the case for a dy­namic democ­racy as against the stag­nant one. Stag­nant wa­ters are level and in them the scum rises. Ac­tive wa­ters are never level: they toss and tum­ble and have crests and troughs; but the sci­en­tists tell us that they pu­rify them­selves in a few hun­dred yards.”

The new right-wing Lib­eral Party mem­bers in Vic­to­ria de­manded their “pound of flesh” as well, leav­ing Guy to an­nounce poli­cies for a re­turn of com­pul­sory re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion in gov­ern­ment schools, the clos­ing down of a suc­cess­ful su­per­vised in­jec­tion fa­cil­ity in Rich­mond and the can­celling of the Safe Schools pro­grams. They are hardly main­stream poli­cies, but he had to do it. Is this what the Lib­eral Party has come to?

There is lit­tle doubt the fall­out from the fed­eral lead­er­ship coup re­in­forced the be­lief for Vic­to­rian vot­ers that the Lib­eral Party was lurch­ing to the right. It was the only way you could pro­vide a plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for the re­moval of Mal­colm Turn­bull, the party’s best as­set in Vic­to­ria. The res­ig­na­tion this week of fed­eral Chisholm MP Ju­lia Banks from the Lib­eral Party is fur­ther ev­i­dence that the Lib­er­als’ right is driv­ing out pro­gres­sive party mem­bers.

“My sen­si­ble cen­trist val­ues, be­lief in eco­nomic re­spon­si­bil­ity and fo­cus on al­ways putting the peo­ple first and act­ing in the na­tion’s in­ter­est have not changed,” Banks said in her res­ig­na­tion speech. “The Lib­eral Party has changed, largely due to the ac­tions of the re­ac­tionary and re­gres­sive right wing who talk about them­selves rather than lis­ten­ing to the peo­ple.”

On Tues­day, Daniel An­drews an­nounced his front­bench – and re­vealed that the se­cond An­drews min­istry will achieve gen­der equal­ity with a cab­i­net that’s 50 per cent women. This sort of rep­re­sen­ta­tion seems a world away from the Vic­to­rian Lib­eral Party and its fed­eral coun­ter­part, which will have just 11 fe­male MPs in the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives when Ju­lia Banks moves to the cross­bench.

On Sky News, an­other fed­eral Lib­eral MP, Tim Wil­son, re­layed Vic­to­ri­ans’ sen­ti­ment on elec­tion day. “I sat there on polling booths and ev­ery se­cond per­son ei­ther gave you deadly si­lence, which is a very cold deadly si­lence, or there were peo­ple men­tion­ing en­ergy, cli­mate or the de­pos­ing of the prime min­is­ter,” he said.

“This is not the path to elec­toral suc­cess,” Lib­eral sen­a­tor Scott Ryan, the pres­i­dent of the se­nate, said after the Vic­to­rian re­sult. “And I’m sick of be­ing lec­tured to by peo­ple who aren’t mem­bers of the party, by peo­ple who have never stood on polling booths, about what it means to be a real Lib­eral.”

In­deed, what is now hap­pen­ing to the Lib­eral Party – at least at the state level in Vic­to­ria – is rem­i­nis­cent of the split Vic­to­rian La­bor went through after the 1950s, which re­sulted in 27 years of con­tin­u­ous op­po­si­tion.

The split rad­i­calised Vic­to­rian La­bor and ham­pered our abil­ity to speak to Vic­to­ri­ans on main­stream is­sues. Sounds fa­mil­iar.

Sixty years later, it is the Lib­eral Party suf­fer­ing the same in­ter­nal ten­sions – be­tween their alt-right and small “l” lib­eral mem­bers, at­ro­phy­ing their party, nar­row­ing their base and hin­der­ing their abil­ity to speak to main­stream Vic­to­ri­ans.

A prime ex­am­ple of this came in the midst of the Vic­to­rian elec­tion, when the Lib­er­als se­lected a branch mem­ber, Mer­a­lyn Klein, as their can­di­date for the mar­ginal seat of Yan Yean, only for Klein to ap­pear in an anti-Mus­lim video with Aus­tralian Lib­erty Al­liance pres­i­dent Avi Yem­ini. The far-right ALA posted the video on­line, and Klein was asked to re­sign from the Lib­er­als. But she re­mained on the bal­lot pa­per.

The Vic­to­rian Lib­er­als have long boasted about be­ing the “jewel in the Lib­eral crown”. It is now ev­i­dent they are los­ing their lus­tre. Los­ing eight of the past 11 Vic­to­rian elec­tions, al­low­ing La­bor to gov­ern in Vic­to­ria for three-quar­ters of the oc­ca­sions since 1982, is ev­i­dence of the tar­nished crown. It’s more a crown of thorns.

The re­al­ity is the Vic­to­rian Lib­er­als were never bril­liant – rather La­bor was di­vided and un­electable up un­til 1982. Yet the legacy of this pe­riod was to leave a mis­placed self-con­fi­dence among Vic­to­rian Lib­er­als. Their view was, and ar­guably still is, that they were the de­fault gov­ern­ment in Vic­to­ria. While La­bor may oc­ca­sion­ally win, it would al­ways fal­ter even­tu­ally, bring­ing the Lib­er­als eas­ily back into gov­ern­ment.

Last week’s con­clu­sive elec­tion win by the

An­drews La­bor gov­ern­ment should jolt the Lib­er­als out of this self-sat­is­fied lethargy. In the wake of this “blood­bath” elec­tion, Matthew Guy has re­signed the lead­er­ship, while party pres­i­dent Michael Kroger finds him­self un­der in­tense scru­tiny. There is a real pos­si­bil­ity of re­set for the Vic­to­rian Lib­er­als. And it is not as though it is un­clear what needs to change. As Scott Ryan said: “What we need to do is say the Lib­eral Party has peo­ple with var­i­ous views, and all of those views can be ac­com­mo­dated, and in­ter­nally the idea of com­pro­mise is ac­tu­ally a good thing.”

Yet there is no sign of any pre­pared­ness to change. No will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise. That would re­quire change to both pol­icy and peo­ple. The very change Vic­to­rian La­bor un­der­took in the 1980s, which has re­sulted in Vic­to­ria be­ing the most La­bor of all states in Aus­tralia.


STEVE BRACKS was La­bor pre­mier of Vic­to­ria from 1999-2007.

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