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A Liberal Party in the 21st Century

By Sean Jacobs - posted Monday, 21 October 2019

"Unless we have ideas to offer we cannot develop a real sense of conviction, a real instinct of political faith, and this election will be just one more election on top of those which have gone. Just one more election will never do."  Robert Menzies, Founder of the Australian Liberal Party, 1894-1978

The battle for ideas

A sensible political party should be as contemplative in victory as in defeat.

The 2019 expectation-defying coalition victory offers optimism for a party that places the highest premium on individual and private sector initiative, basic freedoms, strong communities and a thriving parliamentary democracy.


Yet it is our times, and not political calculation, that demand little rest. The politics of left and right are being eclipsed by the politics of culture and identity. Today's debate on the role of government is not so much about size but effectiveness. And while the progressive parties appear incapable of offering a compelling vision for the future, let alone presenting a picture of competence, the charm of easy politics should never see them discounted as a formidable foe.

There is also an ongoing and constant element of introspection required for future Liberal governments, oppositions and party members. How do Liberal principles and ideas apply? What is being done as a party to attract and persuade Australians? How are Liberal policies better, or can they be better, than the other team's?

Australian governments and political parties today operate in a much more contested space than in living political memory. A rolling and principled liberal and conservative policy agenda will have at its core the things that Australians instinctively believe in – strong and prosperous individuals, thriving communities, a rewarding economy, and a nation proud of its heritage.

In practical policy terms this means giving individuals and commerce space to flourish, opening up new frontiers, making life easier for families, delivering dignity to people, and restoring Australia's confidence of its place in the region and the world.

The dignity of work and children

There are few immediate examples of where these principles intersect, or are more-needed, than the increasing unaffordability of childcare.

Each year parents put half of Australian children into some form of childcare. Yet waiting lists can be as high as two years and, since 2011, costs have gone up by over 20 per cent. By outpacing inflation, increasing costs have put obvious pressure on family budgets while undermining options for parents to either look after their children or return to work. And taxpayers, in a bid to keep costs down, will pay around $10 billion on childcare subsidies over the next four years.


Whenever we see a problem like this – constrained supply, upward costs and more stress on the public purse – the usual culprits are special interests or regulation. Mandatory staff-to-child ratios and qualification rules for childcare workers, put in place by national Labor governments, have added around $1.2 billion to childcare costs in Australia.

If childcare objectives are to strengthen unions and squeeze out smaller non-unionised providers then tighter regulations make sense. But these are not Liberal objectives, which are to ease costs on families, create choices for parents, and enable providers to meet parental and community needs. Despite the false cloaking of 'worker rights' it's important not to lose sight of fundamentals – that unions exist for unions and not for children, parents or families.

Decades ago, politicians like Hawke and Keating, or Howard and Costello, would've relished the general character of taking on this policy and political challenge. A principled Liberal response would sensibly ease staff-to-child ratios and childcare provider qualification rules. As any parent can attest – raising and caring for children doesn't require a certificate or union endorsement. Uncompromising on safety, sound Liberal reform not only eases costs, creates choice and encourages workforce participation but ensures the billions spent on childcare each year is put to good use.

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This article was first published on Sean Jacobs.

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About the Author

Sean Jacobs is a former public servant, political adviser and international aid worker. He currently lives in Brisbane.

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