Where Did All the Big-L Libs Go?


On Saturday, the New South Wales Liberals lost yet another State election. Their coalition partners, the National Party, picked up two seats from the ALP. The Libs picked up zero. Yes, they picked up the seats of Manly and Pittwater from Independents. They might even pick up the new seat of Goulburn. But where it really mattered, the Libs fell short.

In seats such as Miranda the ALP and the Libs were neck and neck on primary votes, this probably had more to do with the Greens giving preferences to Labor. But you cannot blame a devastating election loss on a minor Party’s preferences. There’s something rotting away at the core of what used to be the Party of middle Australia.

The fact is that (in NSW, at least, and more and more so federally) the Liberal Party is fast becoming a larger faction of the Christian Democrats.

Decades ago, when a conservative NSW Liberal MP wanted to become even more conservative they would leave the Party. That’s what the late Jim Cameron (father of former Federal MP Ross Cameron) did. He knew the Liberal Party was too broad a church for anyone who wanted its policy processes and outcomes to resemble a synod. When he needed to go further to the Right, Cameron had the decency to leave the Libs and join Fred Nile in what was then the Call to Australia Party.

Now, things are different. The NSW Right has taken over the Liberal Party, turning it almost literally into a church. Conservative Liberals have moved so far to the Right that even poor Fred Nile must differentiate himself by spouting about Muslims what certain German politicians were spouting about Jews during the 1930s.

Until 2002, the NSW Liberals were dominated by the small-l faction known as ‘The Group.’ The Group were in power when I joined my first branch (the Bankstown Young Liberals) in 1993. At that time, John Hewson had just snatched defeat from the claws of victory in a Federal election  that Paul Keating gloated over as a victory ‘for the true believers.’

I soon became a true believer in the conservative wing of the Liberal Party. I found myself surrounded by socially conservative powerbrokers, many of them committed Christians. This was nothing alien to me I had gone to an Anglican school surrounded by conservative Christians.

In 1995, at a factional meeting of the Young Liberal conservatives, I met a Sydney solicitor named David Clarke. David was a strong conservative and a former Anglican who had converted to Catholicism. David’s wife had been a student leader of the Democratic Labor Party. When the DLP seemed to fold in 1978, Mr and Mrs Clarke were two of many disciples of Bob Santamaria (one of the prime movers in the DLP) who came across to the Liberal Party.

As far as David was concerned, the Group represented the ultimate evil. They supported policies that were alien to conservative Big-L Liberals they supported nasty things like gay marriage, gays adopting children and gays having a lowered age of consent. It was as if Liberal Party policy should have been all about (or against) gays.

And what alternative did we conservative Libs have to the Group? Well, for ‘Clarkey’ (as we called him) it meant we wanted socially conservative policies. We wanted to rule the Party. And we were prepared to pay the ultimate price.

Right-wing Young Libs were quite happy to cost the Party elections and by-elections if it meant victory in internal ballots. We actively sabotaged Group initiatives even if they might have assisted the Party as a whole.

For instance, if a Group candidate managed to win pre-selection for an important by-election, and if bodies were needed on polling day, we would promise to turn up, and then do a no-show.

Worse still, we would often leak things to journalists if we knew it would damage a leader or MP we weren’t very fond of. During the last days of Hewson’s leadership, a non-factional Young Liberal branch organised a harbour cruise in Sydney with Hewson as the star guest. Hewson was having a private discussion with various people when one of our chaps overheard him saying that, if the Party could not keep its factionalism under check, it might be time to form another Party.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The next day, our chap rang a few journalists. Within 48 hours, Hewson’s call for a breakaway non-conservative Liberal Party had hit the headlines. Within a week, Hewson fell to the ‘dream team’ of Alexander Downer and Peter Costello.

Of course, in many cases, the Group did the same. They also had a ‘winner takes all’ mentality to internal Party ballots. When they won, they took everything. They were also happy to leak to the press about (non-Group) conservative MPs and Party figures.

In those days, the Group were able to defeat the Right over and over again for a variety of reasons but the main reason was that many key Group apparatchiks worked in the offices of factionally aligned MPs who allowed them to use resources for internal politicking and branch stacking. On the other hand, very few in the conservative wing had staffer positions. Most of us worked in private-sector jobs, and we had to do our politicking after hours. Further, conservative MPs rarely hired conservative factional warriors often preferring to hire members of the Group whom they felt they could win over.

Many conservatives were dismayed when Federal member for Waringah, Tony Abbott, hired a staffer who had been a Group-alligned candidate for Manly in the 1995 State election. Yes, in those days, David Oldfield was regarded as a member of the Group! But when John Fahey lost that NSW election, a host of Group staffers were suddenly out of work, the pool of staffer jobs was smaller and so, it was much harder to find a job getting paid to stack branches.

This factional war blew out completely after John Howard won the 1996 Federal election. The NSW Right saw Howard as one of their own. The Group never supported Howard. Indeed, they openly despised him. Now many ex-Groupsters were coming over to the Right, generally in the hope of securing staffer positions. So, what used to be the conservative wing of the Liberals was flooded with converts of convenience.

And, as in religion, so in factional politics: the converts always made a point of being overly zealous.

The converts tried to out-Right the old guard of the NSW Right. Eventually they succeeded. A large number of them supported David Clarke when he ran for pre-selection for a winnable spot on the Coalition’s Upper House ticket in 2003.

I can’t blame Clarkey for trying desperately to get into the Upper House at this time. Like many personal injury lawyers, he saw his bread and butter diminishing by the day, as Premier Bob Carr showed his commitment to workers’ rights by slashing worker entitlements under workers compensation legislation. Carr then did the same for motor accident and public liability claims. Many vulnerable and blameless victims were affected, as was the Sydney personal injury lawyers’ club.

I’d probably have done the same thing as Clarkey, if I were in his position. However, many in the old guard of the conservative wing had politically matured and no longer saw politics as just a game of factional football. We realised that, for all their ‘progressive’ social policies, the Group actually made the Party electable.

But for old factional warhorses like Clarke
y, politics was still more about defeating the internal enemy, rather than the ALP. And it seemed that many of those around Clarke were prepared to ride along with him on the back of his ideological zeal.

I predict, however, that these opportunists will stab Clarkey in the back at some stage. A number have already started sharpening their knives and will happily jump on the Barry O’Farrell bandwagon. (Apologies for the mixed metaphors!)

If the NSW Liberals are to have any hope of winning a future State election, they have to move beyond narrow conservatism. State politics is less about ideology and more about providing services. And despite what Clarkey and his stalwarts might believe, trains and hospitals and schools won’t stop operating if allegedly ‘nasty homosexuals’ are in charge.

The alternative is for the Libs and Nats to add an extra Party to the Coalition the Christian Democrats. Then we can have a Conservative Trinity that would make all the Right ideological noise (but keep the ALP in power for another 12 years).

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