Party of One


John Howard’s near record tenure as prime minister, whenever it ends, will leave a sizeable footprint both on the nation and on his own Liberal Party. Whatever one might think of Howard, it is an inescapable fact that he has dominated Australian political space in a way not seen since Robert Menzies was in his prime.

In seeking to sketch the landscape of the immediate post-Howard era it is perhaps useful to hark back to Menzies and his departure four decades ago, after 16 consecutive years as prime minister.


Menzies, of course, had the luxury of choosing both the time and manner of his exit, an option available to few, if any, of the other 24 prime ministers since Federation. The fact that he left office with his party intact, in government, and commanding a healthy majority ensured that from the Liberals’ point of view the transition to his successor, Harold Holt, was relatively seamless. While this made for a trouble-free handover, it also served to mask the underlying graying of a party that had been young back in 1949, and had seen no reason to recalibrate its basic settings or reinvigorate its personnel.

Holt had some modernising ideas of his own, but the Liberal Party as a whole saw no reason to change course. It was still, by and large, the party that Menzies had helped create, and was seemingly blind to emerging issues such as the youth vote and growing opposition to both the war in Vietnam and conscription. Indeed, there were those who even regretted the departure of Menzies (he was then 71), including the party’s federal president.

That the party failed to undertake any generational renewal became obvious in the uncertain years after Holt’s death, seen most clearly in the mediocrity of his successors and the unchallenged emergence of a renewed and vital Labor Party under Gough Whitlam. So much was the Liberal Party mired in the now remote past that it singularly failed to learn anything from the 7 per cent swing against it in the 1969 Federal Election, thus making it an easy target for a now confident Whitlam to pick it off, albeit narrowly, in 1972. It was by then a party of tired old men, increasingly out of touch, who somehow imagined that they would govern forever.

In 1967, Holt breathed life into his creaking government. He was youthful, dynamic and relaxed: a post-war Australian in the way that Menzies was pre-war. He was informal; he saw Asia as vital to Australia’s future and not as colonies which had got away; most importantly, he saw White Australia as distasteful as it was anachronistic. Alas, Holt’s tenure was cut short by an ill-judged dip in churning seas off Portsea. Gorton, while of a different mindset from both Menzies and Holt, was too undisciplined, too inconsistent and erratic to chart any sort of a discernible course. And then there was McMahon, who merely clung on until the end, a mere wisp of a ghost haunting the prime minister’s office, devoid of substance.

It was a shambles of a party that trudged unwillingly and sulkily to the opposition benches after Whitlam’s win, its remaining energies spent mostly in recrimination and finger-pointing, its former ministers, including McMahon himself, struggling even to use telephones in their offices and, without a public service, not even sure what policy was.

Will Howard leave behind anything so desolate? That will depend mostly on whether he goes with the party still in office or whether he leads it to defeat, a not unlikely outcome against a revivified Rudd-led ALP.

If he does a Menzies and steps down voluntarily, one might expect the party to regroup behind a new leader, be it Costello or Turnbull or even Nelson. The new leader, whoever it will be, will not be as socially conservative as Howard, more fresh (and probably younger) faces would be seen on the front bench, and some bold policy initiatives might be expected to distinguish the new reign from the old.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

On the other hand, should Howard lead his party to defeat, it will spark nothing less than civil war within the Liberal camp, possibly even calling into question the very existence, in its present form, of the party founded back in 1944. With the Liberals unlikely to gain government in NSW in March, this would mean that for the first time since its creation the Liberal Party would be out of government in every Australian jurisdiction, and feeling justifiably irrelevant.

It must be remembered in this context that the Liberal Party, far more than Labor, shapes itself according to its leader. Inevitably a long-term leader, and especially so when he is also prime minister, carries a heavy responsibility that is essentially a two-edged sword, depending on whether he succeeds or fails. Like Menzies before him, Howard has reshaped the Liberal Party according to his own brand of social conservatism, with a discernibly Sydney free-market strand that owes far more to George Reid than it does to Alfred Deakin in terms of Australian liberalism.

Howard’s ruthless purging of liberals from the party’s ranks, his persuasion of other former liberal Liberals, such as Ruddock and Vanstone, to toe the conservative line and his increasing reliance on US-style neo-conservatism essentially a supply-side economic package wrapped in morally conservative garb for nothing more than palatability will be seen by many Liberals, in the advent of defeat, as a political and philosophical cul-de-sac entirely of Howard’s making. It would be seen as a long way from the liberal idealism that infused and informed the party at its founding, and this will be recalled.

Howard has been, by his own admission, the most conservative Liberal leader ever; he has also presided over a party that now openly calls itself conservative (a term, incidentally, discouraged and shunned by Menzies when it was suggested as a name for the new party). The Georgious and the Moylans, who have courageously opposed some of the government’s more extreme measures in regard to immigration detention, will be expected to be vocal, as will the other more timid members who have opted, or been persuaded, so far to hold their tongues. They might even find a modicum of common cause with what remains of the Australian Democrats. It is not inconceivable that a realignment of sorts will take place, most probably involving the rise of a new centrist party. Is there, perhaps, a new Don Chipp in the wings biding his or her time? And it should not be forgotten that the moribund state of the Liberal Party in the states and territories is a tinder forest awaiting a solitary spark to ignite.

Such a realignment is by no means far-fetched. The non-Labor parties have seldom survived electoral defeat; the disintegration of the Liberals’ predecessor, the United Australia Party, was the example par excellence. Had Whitlam’s government not self-immolated in 1975 before it was sacked, another electoral defeat for the Liberals would have seen their simmering discontent escalate to schism. And, more recently, who can forget the long period of infighting and instability that followed Hawke’s victory in 1983? The leadership roundabout accurately reflected the party’s internal chaos Peacock, Howard, Peacock again, Hewson, Downer and Howard again. It was truly a revolving door of treachery and discontent that the Australian electorate rightly shunned.

Howard has more than just a fifth term riding on the 2007 election, as does the Liberal Party. The Liberals have a tendency to remember losses more than they remember wins. Malcolm Fraser won t
hree and lost one, and has never been forgiven.

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.