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Let's return to Menzies' child

By Peter Baume - posted Monday, 19 September 2022

Some of us gave decades of our lives to the Liberal Party which was created in 1944 and which won government many times since then. It has been the most successful Party since World War II. Australians liked the combination of liberalism with conservatism that Menzies achieved.

When the Party was formed in Canberra it was called the Liberal Party although it contained many conservative elements. Menzies gave it that name deliberately. He said: "We took the name 'Liberal' because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in individual rights, and free enterprise and rejecting the socialist panacea". The Party departed from that original vision in the last forty years.

The Liberal Party has received a blunt and dramatic message from voters in the election of 2022. Those voters did not like the product. They did not like the message. They did not like, or trust, the Leader. What a trifecta! Voters abandoned the Party in large numbers. The Liberal Party managed to lose at least nine seats that it once considered "safe" and suffered major swings in other seats it held onto – for example, it held the seat of Bradfield, but suffered an enormous swing to the independent challenger there. It lost the support of voters in its own heartland. It completely misread the mood of the electorate.


For those watching there is little evidence so far that the Liberal Party has "heard" the message. There seems to be little evidence that the Liberal Party is having an honest and fearless post-mortem, that it is seeking to find ways to win back the support of the voters it lost. The contrast is with the Labor Party which held an honest and savage (and public) assessment of its election loss in 2019 – let us hope that the Liberal Party can do the same.

The current state of Liberal Party politics is pretty disgusting. For example, it failed to put candidates in many seats until very late – a former General Secretary taught me that "you don't fatten the pig on market day" – it seems that the Party forgot that message. Branch stacking is rampant and quite senior people are seen using dirty tricks.

At one time the Liberal Party of Australia included both conservatives and liberals. Now it is a conservative party – that is fine, if one is a conservative, but it is not fine for many others like me. It is the political centre which elects governments in Australia. The Liberal Party has abandoned the centre as it moved right – and has lost seats to those who filled the vacuum it left in the centre.

Liberal Party members and supporters are now old and the numbers are dropping fast. Those supporters come from a previous generation. The issues that attracted them to the Liberal Party have gone, and new issues have emerged, to which they are not adapting. The old are important, but they are not a viable political majority. Anyway, baby boomers (whose votes kept the Liberal Party strong) are now dying, and millennials already outnumber those baby boomers.

Barry Jones has written that the two traditional parties might be in terminal decline. He is probably right in what he says on this matter, just as he has been right on so many other matters. Twenty years ago, Christopher Puplick wrote a book "Is the Party over?" Puplick might have been like Cassandra - too early, with no-one hearing or heeding his important message. The young are not attracted to either major traditional Party, but they were "turned on" by the independents and the Greens.

Experience is that independents, once elected, tend to retain their seats – and most of the independents who won in 2022 were elected in formerly "safe" Liberal Party seats. Former Liberal voters, once they have switched a first time, are likely to vote for the same independents next time. In addition, it is likely that more independents will emerge to challenge more sitting members. Both major parties took their traditional supporters for granted. Both major parties tried, without success, to impose candidates chosen by other that proper pre-selection processes.


The Liberal post-mortem must occur urgently. The Party must identify reasons why young people and women should want to vote for it – at present, there is no such reason. Why should anyone return to a Party that does not speak for them, which does not value them, and which does not reflect their values or priorities, which does not address the issues that matter to them. A Party whose former Prime Minister insulted the educated and the affluent, just because they were educated and affluent.

Let us return to the Party Menzies created.


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About the Author

Professor Peter Baume is a former Australian politician. Baume was Professor of Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) from 1991 to 2000 and studied euthanasia, drug policy and evaluation. Since 2000, he has been an honorary research associate with the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. He was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1994 to 2006. He has also been Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Drug Agency. He was appointed a director of Sydney Water in 1998. Baume was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1992 in recognition of service to the Australian Parliament and upgraded to Companion in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours List. He received an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University in December 2004. He is also patron of The National Forum, publisher of On Line Opinion.

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