Since the 1980s the Liberal Party has been dominated by the big personalities that were able to impose their will across the party.
The federal parliamentary party has fought on both philosophical and personal differences — the “wets” and the “dries”, Howard versus Peacock and then Howard versus Costello.
In Victoria there has been the ongoing battle between Kennett and Costello. While recognising both men’s enormous contribution to Victoria, Australia and Liberal politics — they are now men of the past, and so should be their battles.
On the policy front, the party has largely converged on the principles that guide economic policy. What differences remain between liberal factions are minor.
But on social policy the party is increasingly polarised into two groups — social conservatives driven by a minority, but vocal, religious infiltration; and the substantial majority who want a more progressive social liberalism that reflects contemporary Australian society.\
In fact, among Liberals under 40 there is a strong convergence of values that supports a classical liberal, or libertarian, approach of free markets and a free, open and pluralist society. And their values are closely associated with those of their non-party peers.
Among younger Australians, respecting choice is central to their values. But the Howard government was either unaware of or unable to adjust to the major shifts in social attitudes in the past decade.
The Howard government’s philosophical perspective was frozen in 1996, and it paid the price for it. For example, while census data shows that the number of “working families” is declining, the Howard government took swathes of childless people’s tax dollars to prop them up.
Equally, the Howard government foolishly failed to recognise in law the basic dignity of same-sex couples, despite their broad acceptance within Australian society.
The future of the Liberal Party is through inclusion. Looking to the future, the party needs to develop a contemporary, progressive liberalism that resonates with the electorate. With the inevitable attrition of MPs after the election, the next generation of Liberals will bring with them their more representative policy positions to support the Liberal brand.
The next generation of Australians coming through are the most truly natural liberal generation in modern Australian history. Social research emphasises the coming generation’s belief in a free market and a free society with individual responsibility central to their way of life. Equally, their liberalism is organic.
Their openness to market capitalism comes from growing up in a dynamic capitalist society that has provided for the material wealth of them and their peers.
Similarly, their sympathy with social liberalism is a consequence of being raised in a diverse and multicultural society, and having travelled extensively. They have grown up looking for traits that unite not divide them from the diverse range of people with whom they interact.
Individual responsibility is also central to younger Australians’ attitudes. Research by the Centre for Social Change at Queensland University of Technology argues that younger Australians demonstrate the highest participation rate in civic activism since those born at the start of the last century. The Liberal Party needs to harness the political opportunity that Australia’s next generation provides.
First, the party should never be ashamed of its history. Every government makes mistakes. One of the specialities of Labor is to revise history to extol its virtues and demonise Liberal governments.
But the Howard government’s legacy has been to bring economic responsibility back into favour. Without it, Rudd would never be able to deliver the social and environmental programs he now plans to implement.
Second, the Liberal Party should promote generational change within its organisational and parliamentary ranks. Doing so will allow liberal philosophy to evolve to a more progressive liberalism, which involves dumping social conservatism and becoming more closely aligned with community attitudes.
Third, the party needs to explain its philosophy to the community. Opposition is about more than just opposing the government of the day. Oppositions need to go back to basics and explain the philosophy that underpins their party’s existence. Liberalism is about the primacy of individual responsibility and action over the collectivism of government fiat. Above all it respects choice.
In recent election campaigns the Liberal Party shied away from arguing in favour of smaller government and foolishly fought on Labor’s turf. The Liberal Party can never win an election auction fought on who can best spend recurrent government expenditure. By explaining the philosophy underpinning the party the opposition can then communicate to the electorate how it has come to its policy positions.
Finally, the party must work to engage younger Australians. They are the largest generation to enter the workforce since the baby boomers and will be a significant voting demographic for at least the next three generations. Considering younger Australians’ attitudes heavily align with classical liberal thought, the party’s job must be to join the dots between their values and how they line up against a revitalised, progressive liberalism.