The False Face of Unity


The latest outbreak of internal bloodletting in the Labor Party might seem to many to be a destructive and unnecessary distraction that should be brought to a swift end. Certainly, the ALP’s leadership group is determined that internal ructions be papered over and some facsimile of a unified face be presented to the public as soon as possible. But the recent history of the Liberal Party suggests that this might not be the best course of action in the longer term.

The Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, similarly frustrated by its lack of Federal electoral success, was racked in the late 1980s by an internal purge that saw numerous sitting MPs lose their party pre-selection. The most notable of those removed from Federal Parliament was Ian MacPhee, a former Minister and a Shadow Minister at the time.

Thanks to Alan Moir.

The series of Victorian pre-selection battles that ran through 1988 and 1989 resulted in a group of soon-to-be prominent ‘dries’ entering Parliament, including David and Rod Kemp and Peter Costello. Simultaneously, Ian McLachlan entered Parliament from South Australia and John Stone joined the Senate via the unusual route of the National Party.

The newcomers had a common commitment to deregulated industrial relations in general and, more specifically shared a political heritage through their membership of the HR Nicholls Society. (The HR Nichols Society has not been much heard of in the past decade, but anyone who made the mistake of thinking it was now no more than the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question should have been disavowed of that belief by Senator Nick Minchin’s recent speech to a Society meeting. His reference to the group as ‘soul mates’ could not have made clearer its continued political potency.)

The changes that flowed from the pre-selection battles in the late 1980s were crucial in reshaping the nature of the Liberal Party and ultimately defining the Howard Government agenda for the past decade.

The Liberal Party once embraced a strong tradition of social moderation and defended individualism against institutional force. Representatives of that social philosophy are absent from the Liberal Party of John Howard. Individualism may appear as economic atomisation, but those types of individual rights to dignity that the moderate Liberal tradition once defended have effectively been purged. The countervailing voices of the ‘wets’ have been lost, so that the ‘dries’ are unchecked in driving forward their agenda. Elements of that agenda would once have been considered extreme, even in the Federal Liberal Party room, but today flow they undiluted straight into the statute books.

One of the earliest examples of the Old versus New Liberal Party occurred in the run up to Peter Costello’s first budget in 1996. While not quite a wet, John Moore as Industry Minister believed in a much more interventionist industry policy than the Treasurer and his Department. While it received little attention, the battle between Costello and Moore over programs such as the R&D tax concession and various industry programs was a defining moment. No Industry Minister since Moore has argued for systematic sector support, and the only examples of it have been in industries such as sugar where particular political pressures have demanded a response from the Prime Minister himself.

There is no shortage of present and former Liberal Party members shocked and appalled at the conduct of immigration policy, for example, yet they appear powerless to effect change in the style of government of their own Party. Even the mild form of dissent represented by Petro Georgiou is apparently enough to mark him out as vulnerable to being dumped in an interesting re-run of the 1988-89 events in Victoria.

So removed is the Liberal Party of 2006 from what it stood for for most of its history that even previous Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser finds himself estranged. Fraser’s pained comments in November last year about a Party unrecognisable from the one to which he devoted his life has drawn sneers from the present Liberal leadership. That in itself shows how far the Party has departed from its heritage respect for past heroes no longer even receives lip service.

Fraser is not alone in his observations, of course, as evidenced by Jeff Kennett’s recent defence of Georgiou. In saying Georgiou represents ‘the very real essence of Liberalism’ and warning about ‘narrowing the breadth of the church,’ Kennett points to the same concerns Fraser expressed. Kennett also warns that a too-narrow Party can expect to eventually pay an electoral price if it represents too narrow a section of the community.

Labor Party members are unlikely to feel much sympathy for their political enemy, but they would do well to consider what their Party might look like in 2020 if it engages in a similar narrowing of its parliamentary representatives.

The Labor Party of today has none of the great ideological divides of the past this is a Party generally aligned around market economics, with socialist command economy theories alive only in the titles given to the various groupings within the ALP.

The divisions nowadays are focused purely around control and patronage. Perversely, with divisions that appear increasingly personality-based rather than founded in different principles, the ability of the political ‘church’ to embrace peaceful co-existence seems weaker rather than stronger.

For example, it is difficult to understand what exactly Bill Shorten and Martin Pakula mean, in policy terms, when they say ‘renewal’ or ‘regeneration’ other than, perhaps, ‘we are more impressive than those we plan to replace.’ But clearly, those whom they have replaced (or sought to replace) were best defined as Crean- and Latham-backers or, at least, not supporters of Kim Beazley. There was no great ideological divide.

So while there might not be divisions around the fundamental questions of economic management in the modern Labor Party, there are still some profoundly important questions to be resolved.

Removing those individuals who represent one side of the argument might be one way of resolving an internal debate. But, as Jeff Kennett is again warning his own Party, it is a path that might lead nowhere. Disunity might be death, but does that mean diversity is weakness?

The public arguments of recent weeks might not be a ‘good look’ electorally, but papering over these debates to present a false face of unity is more likely to condemn the party to a slow death in the long run.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.