Divided They Fall

Australian politics is broken, but will true progressives heed the call and form a new party? Something’s gotta give, writes Felix Donovan.

Mr Popularity: 63 per cent of Australians want Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal Party again. But could he? Source: Fairfax Media
Mr Popularity: 63 per cent of Australians want Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal Party again. But could he? Source: Fairfax Media

A quick quiz: below are eight statements on four different issues made by politicians from either the Australian Labor Party or the Liberal Party.


Climate Change

“A war is being waged on scientists by those opposed to taking action to cut emissions”

“I am hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change”

Foreign Investment

“I am inspired by Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’”

“It would rarely be in Australia’s national interest to allow a foreign government or its agencies to control an Australian business”

Immigration Policy

“I want to wreck the people-
smuggling business…and expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy when faced with a difficult problem does not make you a racist’”

“This is about a humane treatment of asylum seekers, a more humane
detention policy”

Gay Marriage

“Love is love, and people shouldn’t be discriminated against”

“The only people who really want this are the Greens and they are extreme”

Guess which statement belongs to which party.  Maybe the climate change quotes are too obviously Turnbull and Abbott, or perhaps Gillard’s dog-whistle on asylum seekers isn’t as selectively audible as she’d like it to be, but the game is quite easy to see through.

The bottom four quotes are indeed solely from Labor Party figures, and the top four are exclusively Liberal Party MP quotations. The point is this: the divisions within Australia’s dominant political parties are more significant than the divisions between them. Divided they stand, but for how long?

The Labor Party confronts a crisis made of two distinct and competing political bases. The Party has its roots in the revolutionary workers’ movements of the 1890s; a decade set apart for its mass-scale miners’ and shearers’ strikes.

The Labor Party was born of a desire to represent those workers’ interests in a more constructive, conciliatory style. It began as a democratic socialist party, and one half of the party has stayed true to its roots. That is the half that sounds like Wayne Swan when he’s talking about Clive Palmer, and looks like Paul Howes at an AWU rally. As a base, it believes the unions are integral to the process politics of Labor, and that industrial relations should be top of its policy agenda.

Until the 1960s, Labor was unreservedly a workers’ party. At its National Conferences of the 1940s, discussion centred on whether to nationalise the banks and the goal of full employment.

Then came the culture wars, the Vietnam War protests, Whitlam, the environmentalists, and Paul Keating (who confided in an aide that he was happy to lose the votes of ‘blue collar workers with red necks’). The left broadened, and by the 2011 National Conference, the debates that ignited the hall were over gay marriage, a carbon tax, and what kind of foreign policy Labor should embrace.

These issues are the priorities of Labor’s second base, the environmentally and socially progressive, and largely economically liberal, ‘new left’. They resent the place of unions in the party, prefer Tanya Plibersek to Wayne Swan, and describe themselves as ‘swing voters’ – that is, between Labor and the Greens. The contest between the two Labor bases for supremacy within the Party is only heightened by a swath of issues that divide Labor neatly along ‘base’ lines. The carbon tax, for example, financially hurts the industrial base at the same time as it is celebrated as bold and necessary by the new left base.

The Liberal Party, meanwhile, is faced with the challenge of two competing ideologies, only sometimes reconcilable. The first is conservatism: the political philosophy that dates back to Edmund Burke’s horrified reaction to the French Revolution. The events of 1789 so abhorred him as the revolutionaries sought to forge an entirely new system of government; a project that denied the simple truth that we should ‘derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers.’

Conservatives are firmly anti-utopian and believe that societies are able to function because they have been organically created over many hundreds or thousands of years. They revere tradition and are suspicious of dramatic change.

To a conservative, one of the Khmer Rouge’s greatest crimes in Cambodia was announcing in 1975 that it was the Year Zero; that history could start again. It was also the root of their megalomaniacal death marches. Menzies was, of course, Australia’s great conservative prime minister. He opposed Chifley’s ambitious economic schemes, and held fast to the British alliance. Every one of Tony Abbott’s less opportunistic impulses is conservative.

But Menzies did not found a conservative party, he founded a liberal conservative party. Liberalism, the Liberal Party’s second philosophical tenet, is premised on the sovereignty of the individual. It seeks to achieve a situation in which the individual is free from the chains of government tyranny. Liberalism is not adverse to utopian language or action; tradition is of no worth unless it is a liberal tradition.

Fortunately for Menzies’ Party, Western civilisation is built upon mostly liberal traditions. But conservatism and liberalism become more unnatural bedfellows on questions such as gay marriage, or government involvement in the economy – including parental leave schemes and foreign investment. Edmund Burke and Adam Smith didn’t always see eye-to-eye. We shouldn’t expect Abbott and Turnbull to either.

It is not only the issues of the day that have aggravated tensions within the parties. Increased media attention, devoted to interrogating issues of process and fetishising conflict, is also responsible for burgeoning rifts. The tendency of the parties (particularly Labor) to strangulate and punish dissent, which leads to leaks and embittered MPs, further compounds the divisions.

It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that we’ve witnessed more leadership spills on the government and opposition benches in the past five years than in any five-year period before; or that the approval ratings of both party leaders are in a perennial slump; or that policies once considered fundamental are suddenly peripheral and dropped from the agenda; or that independents and minor parties are growing in power and electoral pull. Australian politics has never been like Camelot, but rarely have we seen such a level of dysfunction, chaos, and lack of consensus.

Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.


There’s a chance the old parties will just muddle through. But there’s an equally significant chance they won’t. Democracies don’t tolerate dysfunction for long; political failings are attributed to the establishment, and the public exacts revenge on the major parties. Think of the success of the Tea Party in the American 2010 midterms, or of the totalitarian fringes of Athens. History is replete with examples of popular disenchantment leading to political eruption. Where the political status quo is broken, it is replaced, or changed unrecognisably.

Australia certainly doesn’t need a Tea Party, or Europe’s far right, but it could do with a Liberal Democratic Party. A genuinely liberal political bloc drawing on the progressive elements of the Labor Party and the John Stuart Mill devotees of the Liberal Party could break through the torpor of the status quo, and deliver the two major parties from debilitating intra-party contests. Which would have the distinct advantage of leaving them to be what they really are: a social democratic party and a conservative party.

But more than that, a political party with an authentically liberal pedigree would properly represent an increasingly number of Australians who subscribe to neither Labor’s illiberal economic doctrines or the Liberals’ archaic social policies. Its agenda would take the Economist magazines’ economic policies, the social views of a citizen of San Francisco, and tell the nation to keep calm about the boats. And, judging by a straw poll of Q&A audience members and tweeters, it would be led by Malcolm Turnbull.

There is, then, a smoldering political bonfire. Who will light the bilious kindling? While the public may desire change, they have proven themselves to be far less than adequate activists. John Howard’s diagnosis of the Australian electorate holds water: comfortable and relaxed, apathetic and sceptical of ideology or unabashed conviction.

Our nation wasn’t forged in the fire of revolution or war, but in the quiet workings of a few pragmatic men in 1900. The Vietnam War protests are no exception to the rule of apathy when compared to their American counterparts; the Iraq War protests perhaps shouldn’t even be given the dignity of that plurality, so quickly did they dissipate and cease altogether. Any call to action in Australia has been met with a sturdy, reliable response: leave it to the Greeks. Public dissatisfaction will grow, but not spill over. That dissatisfaction, however, does provide an electoral incentive for action that is recognised by Canberra’s politicos.

To a generation weaned on American rhetoric, the suggestion that political change must originate from the political elite is anathema. But this is not America; and from Canberra springs the only genuine hope of action. There are other avenues, but a Turnbull defection seems the most likely elite political transformation. The heady mix of audacity and ambition Turnbull possesses may give him the impetus to resign from the Abbott-led Liberal Party and begin his own.

There is a real possibility he would be joined in such a move by some of the 40 colleagues who supported him at the last leadership spill, and also by Labor dissidents who are frustrated by sinking polls and union encroachment on party process. That kind of transformation is not unprecedented; a very similar merger of liberal Conservative Party members and MPs who had lost faith in the Labour Party created the Liberal Democratic Party in the UK in 1988.

It is a tautology, but a troubling one: If nothing changes, we will just see more of the same. Politics in Australia is inchoate and broken because the parties themselves have failed the most basic stress test of a political party: have a consistent base, and a defining ideology. Stand on something, and for something. Neither the Liberals nor Labor can lay claim to that. And until we get parties that can, Australian politics will continue on its way in being a little bit shit.