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June 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Alarm Bells Ringing In Howard's Broad Church

June 22, 2006

by Norman Abjorensen - Canberra Times

The Liberal Party might not know it yet, but it is in trouble. Real trouble.

Having been in government nationally for more than a decade now with a strong majority and a still popular leader - and no clearly discernible threat from the Beazley-led opposition - all should be looking rosy. But it isn't.

The tensions that have largely been kept in check by the stabilising mantle of power are now starting to be felt more strongly and are also becoming overt, as evidenced by this week's stand-off over proposed changes to immigration policy aimed at forcing all asylum-seekers arriving by boat to be detained offshore - and taking the cue from the United States and Guantanamo Bay, conveniently beyond the reach of Parliament and the law.

The gradual but accelerating drift to the right under Howard and his supporters is alarming those Liberals, albeit a dwindling minority, who really do not see themselves as conservatives.

And while many, such as the Prime Minister himself, like to speak of the Liberal Party as being a broad church, it is really a reluctant tolerance, and one owing more to pragmatic concerns and projecting a false semblance of unity than ideological conviction.

The fact is that the party has undergone a striking change in the decade under Howard: it has become, overtly, a conservative party, whereas in the past it merely had strong conservative tendencies within a broad liberal framework.

It is well to remember the extent to which Robert Menzies opposed the proposal in 1944 to call the new party that became the Liberal Party the Conservative Party.

He was later to write, "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 the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea."

No one could call the current Government progressive in any sense at all.

It is a party that now rejoices in the name conservative - the title bestowed on the publication of "ideas" launched last year by the now minister, Senator Santo Santoro. Menzies would have been horrified.

The move to the right was at first resisted by a few dissidents, but their number has grown as this week's revolt indicates. It is not merely an outbreak of unrest; it is a genuine fear among some at what the Liberal Party has become and where it is headed.

As long as it remains in power, all will be well. But if the electorate turns against it - and the workplace relations debate has the potential to do just that, as has the prospect of body bags arriving in Australia from increasingly risky foreign battlefields - the Liberals could quite conceivably lose in 2007 (by which time Mr Howard will have sniffed the wind and decamped). That will leave the party for the first time ever without a toehold in government anywhere (and it is electoral pie in the sky to really entertain the prospect of victory in NSW next year).

And herein lies the danger. Remove the mantle of office and the forces barely contained now will break asunder; the Liberal Party will be rent, and viciously so. The Liberals will most surely go their own way.

History has not been kind to the continuity of non-Labor groupings in Australia after defeat, the United Australia Party, for example, disintegrating quite spectacularly after it lost office in 1941.

And more recently, the 1970s saw the Liberals in opposition at national level for the first time in three decades, leading first to the Liberal Movement in South Australia and later to the Australian Democrats - disaffected Liberals all.

The current revolt is not a mere storm in the teacup; it is a veritable struggle for the soul of a deeply divided movement that has strayed far from the party envisaged by Menzies and been captured by a conservative tendency. The elusive middle ground is always the key to political success in Australia - but it is a shifting entity.

While the Liberal Party's self-styled conservatives argue that the electorate itself has moved to the right, it is a mistake to believe that this trend will become permanent.

Indeed, the electorate has shown itself to be wary of extremism, and the liberal voices of protest now being heard from within the Government will ring alarm bells among thoughtful voters.

The current situation coincides with a vacuum in the centre following the self-destruction of the Democrats and their certain disappearance at the next election. This might well provide an irresistible temptation for liberals who are now mightily outnumbered in a conservative party.

The days of the Liberal Party as currently constituted may well be numbered.

Dr Abjorensen's book, Leadership and the Liberal Revival, will be published in September. He teaches politics at the ANU.



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