We represent all the people, not just the ones who voted for us, but the ones who voted against us. And the real thing we have to produce is not only national prosperity but national unity.
With these words Robert Menzies accepted the responsibility of victory at the 1949 election, for the Liberal Party of Australia and its coalition partner, the Country Party. On the Movietone news footage his hair is already white, his heavy black eyebrows and jowls unmistakable. By the time he retires from office in early 1966 he will be seventy-two, the grand old man of the Liberals who delivered his party its longest run of political success.
For the major parties electoral politics is about the tension between unity and division. To put itself forward to govern the country, a party must be a plausible representative of the country as a whole. Yet in the adversarial politics of our system of parliamentary government, it must also compete, and present itself strongly as a representative of some interests and values and not others. It must rally its supporters and attack its opponents, and so speak the angry, self-righteous language of division as well as the reassurances of unity. Thus, at the end of the election, when the battle’s been won, the party leader who is to become prime minister will reassure the nation that he will govern on behalf of them all, not just those who voted for him. This is an election-night ritual, but it can be more or less convincingly done. Menzies did it seven more times before he retired. In 1963, after his last election, he delivered the same message on television, thanking the ladies and gentlemen for the victory and again promising to govern for all. Menzies delivered the message seated alone at a desk, looking straight down the camera into the Saturday-night lounge rooms of the nation. There was none of the triumphalist hullabaloo of the election-night victory party to remind that this was all about winning and losing; there were no journalists present to ask awkward questions; there was no flicking of the eyes from the camera to the party faithful and back again. His voice was calm, intimate and reassuring, and he spoke only to you.
When Menzies led the Coalition to victory in December 1949, the Liberal Party of Australia was just short of five years old. It had been formed officially in early 1945, although the crucial decisions were made in the previous year. The Australian Labor Party, first under John Curtin and then under Ben Chifley, had led Australia through the war after taking office in 1941. It was a popular and effective wartime government, but made some bad mistakes afterwards. When Labor lost, no one, and certainly not those in the Liberal Party, foresaw the length of time it would spend in opposition.
At its foundation, the Liberal Party did not represent a new political force. It was not like the Greens, or the Labor Party in its early days, bringing new ideas and new social identities into the parliament. Rather, it was a new organisational form for ideas and political identities that had been central to Australian politics since Federation. The first Liberal Party emerged from Fusion in 1909 when Alfred Deakin’s Victorian Liberals joined with George Reid’s New South Wales free traders turned conservatives to present a united front against the newly powerful Labor Party. The 1910 election, which Labor won, consolidated the basic shape of the Australian party system, which still holds today.
In 1916, when Labor split over conscription, Prime Minister Billy Hughes and other pro-conscriptionists left to form a Nationalist government. A Nationalist Party quickly followed, which governed throughout the 1920s. When Labor split again in the Depression over how to manage the nation’s finances, Treasurer Joseph Lyons led a small band across the party divide and the Nationalists re-formed to accommodate them. Honest Joe Lyons became the leader of the United Australia Party and soon after Prime Minister of Australia. The United Australia Party governed until 1941, when it was defeated on the floor of parliament and John Curtin was asked to form a government.
At the first two re-formations, names were chosen (Nationalists, United Australia Party) which put the new party forward as representing the nation as a whole and the presence of some ex-Labor men gave this claim temporary plausibility. The catalyst for the 1945 re-formation was different. By the early 1940s the United Australia Party was a discredited shambles and new parties were proliferating to compete for the non-labour vote. At the 1943 election the UAP received only 16 per cent of the vote. Menzies argued that the new party needed a name that was distinctive, that would show that it stood for something, in the same way that Labor’s values showed in its name.
We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party … in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea.
Non-labour’s many names has always made writing non-labour’s history difficult. Narratives have to be interrupted to explain an organisational change, and the rhetoric of new beginnings has obscured continuities. In particular the new beginning of the Liberal Party in 1945 has discouraged larger histories. Because the United Australia Party was discredited, the Liberal Party was keen to establish its distance from it. There were marked differences between the new and the old parties, particularly in organisation, but there was also a great deal of continuity. Core arguments and political values were continuous, as were the groups the parties looked to for electoral support. Historians have often used the term “non-labour” to describe this continuous political tradition, but it is a negative name, and can lead to thinking that this tradition is primarily negative and oppositional, playing the role, as Menzies described it, of “the man who says ‘No’” in an Australian politics led by Labor. When I wrote a history of the major non-labour parties in twentieth-century Australia, I decided to call their supporters Liberals, as this was the name they had most often called themselves.
What then is the political tradition that the Liberal Party carries? It is the belief that it is the proper representative and guardian of the nation’s interest. Here is Alfred Deakin, launching the first Commonwealth Liberal Party in the Melbourne Town Hall in 1909:
This is not a policy aimed at the interests of any class. It is a national policy addressing itself in a practical manner to the practical needs of the people of Australia today.
And here is John Howard almost ninety years later in his 1996 Menzies Lecture:
The Liberal Party has never been a party of privilege or sectional interests or narrow prejudice … Liberalism has focused on national interests rather than sectional interests.
David Kemp, adviser to Malcolm Fraser and minister in Howard’s governments, elaborated in a piece written after the Liberals lost the 1993 election:
The Liberal Party’s strength has always been the fact that it is not the voice of any narrow vested interests but a party genuinely of individual people, of the unorganised majorities. It can only be effective when it expresses their concerns and their values. These embrace the nature of Australian society and its history. They embrace such issues as the unity and constitutional stability of the country, which are now under threat.
Kemp refers here to Labor’s moves to change the flag and make Australia a republic, two issues, he says, which will “divide generations of Austra-lians from each other in a way that will take decades to repair”.
The party of the class, the section, the part, the party that introduces conflict and division into the heart of the nation, is of course the Australian Labor Party. Labor is the Liberals’ fundamental opponent, and it is not possible to understand the Liberals without also understanding something of the history of Labor. The Liberal and Labor parties are like two boxers in a never-ending fight; the feints and blows of one only make sense if we also know where the other is aiming and which are the hits that land, even if at times one boxer pretends he has the show all to himself. In an interview for a Sunday paper, Victorian Liberal leader Robert Doyle said that he was reading my book Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class with “great anger”. “I find it astonishing”, he said, “that this historian wanted to write a book about the Liberals and in paragraph two mentions the ALP.” But it can’t be otherwise. The first Liberal Party came into being as a direct consequence of the actions of Labor, and they have faced each other across the parliament and the electorate ever since.
This is an extract from Judith Brett's Quarterly Essay, Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party's Australia. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY