Even when Victorian Labor governments are inept and dysfunctional, as they always are, the Liberals have found it difficult to gain, and then retain, power. This is because they are little different from the ALP.
The idea that Victoria is a “natural” Liberal state can be put down to the concurrence of three brilliant political operators — Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte and the late B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria, leader of the Movement, which evolved into the National Civic Council (NCC). The domination of these strong men of Victorian politics cemented Liberal rule at the federal level from 1949 to 1972. The Liberals held power in Victoria from 1955 to 1982.
The long reigns of Menzies and Bolte disguised the fact that a good proportion of both Liberal voters and parliamentarians were more akin to Bolte’s left-leaning successor, Rupert (“Dick”) Hamer, than they were to Bolte. Bolte alienated many people, especially the Anglo-Celts, when he ordered the hanging of a deranged small-time criminal, Ronald Ryan. Bolte is still widely reviled among Liberals, showing just how ungrateful they are.
The Victorian Liberal Party’s problem is to gain and then hold power. It survived for only one term, under premiers Ted Baillieu and Denis Napthine, before being beaten in the November 29 election last year by the ALP led by Daniel Andrews, who might be described as having undergone a charisma-bypass.
The Liberals based almost their entire campaign on an ambitious $5.3 billion plan to build the East West Link, an 18-kilometre tollway, including a 4.4-kilometre tunnel, connecting Melbourne’s western suburbs to the Eastern Freeway.
Unfortunately, the voters could see neither the necessity for it nor what net benefit they would derive from such a huge outlay of taxpayers’ money.
Mayor of the City of Yarra, Jackie Fristacky, led a vigorous campaign against the tunnel, which she said would have turned her city into an unending traffic jam. The Liberals’ campaign for the tunnel turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation.
After their defeat last year, Victorian Liberals are confronted by a choice. They can either be a conservative party or they can continue as a group of economic and social “wets” in coalition with any surviving conservative elements in the party.
The influential wets within the Victorian Liberal Party have always had considerable power. Dick Hamer was the most notorious, but at least he proved to be an election-winner. Senator Alan Missen was yet another pre-eminent leader of the wet faction. Petro Giorgio, former state director of the Liberal Party, had a lacklustre parliamentary career, but his promotion of his brand of wet politics remained persuasive.
Sir Robert Menzies and the others who founded the Liberal Party did not intend that it should house only conservatives. The Liberal Party came into being as an alternative to Labor. The Victorian Liberal heartland was, and remains, the electorates of Higgins, Kooyong and, to a lesser extent, Goldstein.
Whereas, in Western Australia the Liberal Party is a party based on belief in free enterprise and liberty, in Victoria the Liberal Party is perceived to be based on class. The numerous cocktail parties, dinners and fund-raisers tend to consolidate influence within a narrow group. The Liberal Party has virtually no representation in the lower house of the Victorian parliament from the less prosperous west of the city.
People confuse the Liberal Party with the British Conservative Party and the United States Republican Party. The Republican Party has become more doctrinaire conservative. The Liberal Party of Australia has always had a soft left-wing. This is because non-Labor politics, especially in Victoria, has its roots in Deakinite liberalism.
Alfred Deakin, one of the fathers of Australian federation, was the country’s second prime minister. He epitomised the politics of the day. He sponsored socially progressive legislation and sought to retain tariff protection for Victoria’s factories.
Deakin also had a professional relationship with David Syme, publisher of The Age, which remains Victoria’s most influential newspaper, though weakened by the ravages of online journalism. Syme supported “progressive” politicians, and Deakin began his journalistic career as a contributor to The Age.
The tariff issue remained a centrepiece of Victorian politics until protectionism was dismantled by the Hawke-Keating Labor government. The Age for many years remained staunchly protectionist. Strangely enough, The Age, despite its predominantly left-wing outlook, was, and remains, the paper of the upper classes, while Murdoch’s conservative Herald Sun is usually anti-Labor.
Deakin, as a representative of Victoria, promoted the continuation of the protective tariff. He participated in the Fusion government of the Protections and Free Traders, which united the non-Labor forces. Deakin, however, retained his progressive social policies, which have remained a constituent element of Victorian politics to this day. For instance, former Liberal Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge was an enthusiastic supporter of the Labor government’s disability services program.
The Liberals will not win and retain power until they differentiate themselves from the ALP. The ineptness of their last campaign shows that they have no idea how to appeal to voters who detest Labor but can’t bring themselves to vote Liberal. The real loser is Victoria, because it is saddled with political incompetents.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.