In many ways, the Liberal Party has become a victim of its own success. Led to four consecutive federal election victories under John Howard, the party began to believe that the hard-conservatism he championed during this time was surely the best, and perhaps only path to electoral success. As a consequence, power within the party at the federal level was essentially ceded to the NSW right under his stewardship and the Young Liberals - the breeding ground for many of this generation's politicians - watched itself become hijacked by the same, far-right elements (watch). The electoral success of the Howard government can scarcely be called into question, but is there compelling evidence to suggest that such hard-conservativism genuinely resonates with the majority of the Australian population and should, as such, be retained by the current Liberal Party?
During the unbridled triumphalism of the Howard years, it became easy to forget the good fortune that facilitated his eventual legacy. Howard lost the popular vote in 1998 and was trailing in 2001 before he was handed the September 11th attacks and the Tampa scandal on a plate. Even the increasingly erratic Mark Latham had them running scared for a while, before his inevitable annihilation at the 2004 elections. As successful as Howard was at winning the support of "middle-Australia", his policies never really had the genuinely broad appeal that many in the party must have come to believe (compare the popularity of Howard's conservatism with the popularity of Reagan's conservatism, for instance). Conservative commentators - I'm looking at you Janet Albrechtsen - fanned the hype, gloating over middle-Australia's embrace of Howard's (and therefore her own) core (and non-core) values.
But is that really what was happening? Was Australia voting Liberal because it is a population of committed social-conservatives, or did a strong economy and a weak, fractured Labor Party merely paper over a broad skepticism that existed concerning the party's direction during these years?
The fortunes of the Liberal Party at the state level must surely shed some light on this question. Over the past decade, the Liberals have lost an unfathomable twenty-one consecutive state elections. This includes NSW last year - surely the state with the highest receptivity to the values of the Howard-era Liberal Party? - against a Labor Party severely weakened by a parade of public scandals. In Queensland, the party is facing a merger with the Nationals to stay afloat. In WA - the only state to vote Liberal in the federal election last year - they apparently can't produce a more popular leader than the bra-snapping, chair-sniffing "larakin" Troy Buswell. And in Victoria the party is being torn apart by factional in-fighting. The situation here, more than anywhere else, is illustrative of the current woes facing the party.
Incensed at the direction the party was headed under leader Ted Baillieu, the right-wing of the party fought back the only way right-wingers know how: with hysterical, vitriolic smear. For deigning to give in-principle support to such issues as the legalisation of abortion and euthanasia in the state, Baillieu was deemed "Red Ted" by the authors of an annonymous blog, now known to be Liberal Party staffers Simon Morgan, John Osborn and Luke Dixon. They also trashed other moderate Liberal Party politicians on the blog, including federal MP Petro Georgiou (one of the few during the Howard years to make a conscientious stand against the xenophobia that had begun to take hold in the party) who was described as a "waste of space" and senator Judith Troeth, who they described as "stupid" and as "having a face" like a "workhorse" (who said that high-brow political debate was dead?). But this is amateur stuff compared to the more forthright sentiments of campaign manager Susan Chandler, who was separately exposed as describing a candidate for her own party as a "greedy fucking Jew".
But the one that really got to me was sentiment of an email authored by the aforementioned Simon Morgan, in which he said: "Can someone... please fucking remind him (Bailleau) that this is the Liberal Party - the party of business". Is it though? Is that all the Liberal Party is now to its right-factions, the party of big-business (with perhaps some xenophobic nationalism thrown in for good measure)? The members of the right would certainly like to think so, but the imperitive for electoral success would tend to dictate otherwise: they've had their chance over the past decade and they have failed miserably. While the state Labor parties have comfortably occupied the soft-conservativism of the political middle-ground, the state Liberal parties have been led off the precipice of hard-conservativism by those who were themselves just following the lead of Howard.
Despite an endless sequence of electoral routs delivered at the hands of this philosophy of positioning the party further and further to the right of the ALP, Liberal party members like Jeremy Browne continue to peddle the delusion that "the public desperately wants a genuinely conservative choice", that self-identified "conservative Victorians" are in "the majority" and that the adoption of moderate policies makes the Liberal Party "unelectable". Thanks to the successes of hard-conservativism during the Howard years, apparently not even a decade of chronic obscurity at the state level can get these people to believe - even for a second - that their views represent no more than a small (albeit noisy) minority of the Australian community.
Australia is, of course, mildly conservative in disposition, but not to the extent that people like Jeremy imagine. We support border-control, but not the brutalisation of refugees. We support a unified nation, but not the homogenisation of our culture. We support the right to economic prosperity, but not at the expense of the rights of workers. So there is clearly a market for this brand of soft-conservativism, but the trouble is that the ALP - at state level for the past decade and now at the federal level too - have it completely cornered. As I have already said, the solution that the Liberal Party have offered up until now has simply been to move further and further to the right, but it's a path that increasingly few Australians have shown themselves willing to be led down. Given that, what is the solution for the Liberals?
Let us recall the foundations that Menzies founded the party on. In a speech given in October 1944, Menzies argued Australia should be country "in which there is free thought and free speech and free association", "in which no consideration of wealth or privilege will determine the education of either child or man" and "in which citizens are free to choose their own way of living and of life", along-side arguments for economic liberalism which - unlike the preceding arguments - have actually been preserved in the party's current ethos. The question is, why not return to these values? If the ALP is espousing a position of social conservativism and economic centralisation, surely there is room for a party that advocates liberalism, both social and economic? If the conservative right-wing of the party has failed to deliver it electoral success, surely it's time to give the moderates a chance?
Surely, to put it another way, it's time for the Liberal Party to become a liberal party?