Resignations of prominent Liberal Party members last month highlight deep rifts within the party. They bring to ten the areas of failure which taken together suggest the party is in terminal decline. Alan Austin reports.
1. Resignations and defections
Martin Hamilton-Smith is a former leader of the South Australian Liberal Party and regarded as its most capable parliamentarian. This week he joined a long list of respected MPs and elder statesmen who have found they can no longer stay within the Liberal Party of Australia as it currently operates.
Hamilton-Smith is now an independent member of South Australia’s Labor cabinet.
One of the more notable Queensland Liberal National MPs was Dr Chris Davis, a past president of the Australian Medical Association’s Queensland branch and chairman of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
He could no longer stomach the direction Liberal National Party (LNP) premier Campbell Newman was taking the government. He protested over several issues, including changes to the Crime and Misconduct Commission, and finally resigned as assistant health minister.
Davis was the fourth minister in the dysfunctional Newman government to resign or be sacked this year.
Other prominent Liberals in the procession of recent deserters include former prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, whose disgust at the party’s current state has become an internet phenomenon:
The list continues:
NT Country Liberal Party MPs Alison Anderson, Larissa Lee and Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu; Robert Brokenshire who left to join Family First in South Australia; Carl Judge in Queensland who joined the new Palmer United Party last year; and Clive Palmer himself, formerly the LNP's biggest donor, who resigned after a series of disputes to form his own party.
We will come to the other nine issues pointing to terminal affliction shortly.
But first, a short detour through history.
Australia’s first dominant Federal party was the Protectionist Party, formed in 1889. It held government from 1901 to 1904 and from 1905 to 1908 with Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin as prime ministers.
The Nationalist Party, formed by Billy Hughes in 1917, governed for almost 13 years from 1917 to 1929.
The United Australia Party ruled for most of the period from 1931 to 1941.
All have since disappeared, although major policies continued in other party structures.
Reasons for their demise vary. Commonalities appear to be internal divisions, shifting away from serving mainstream community interests and the presence of a strong alternative political force.
So the fact that the Liberal Party has been successful for some decades is no guarantee it will remain. Indeed, there are definite signs that its downfall may be imminent.
2. Internal dissent
The second area of evident dysfunction is the growing number of open divisions among those who have stayed within the party.
The former scientist asked:
Jensen slated Lib over not understanding how science works with video
“Where is the coherent, co-ordinated approach to science policy?”
And while Abbott was meeting with miners on Thursday, his communications minister Malcolm Turnbull was holding a private meeting with rival party leader Clive Palmer and mysterious others.
3. Abandonment of honesty and integrity
The mainstream media are now – at long last – highlighting these as well.
4. Abandonment of governing in the interests of all
5. Abandonment of racial fairness
One of the few promises Abbott seems intent on honouring is changing the racial vilification laws to allow racism and bigotry to flourish.
6. Abandonment of all pretence to consistency
The latest prominent Liberal to come under fire for serial hypocrisy is Treasurer Joe Hockey.
His first two backflips – immediately after taking office – related to debt and the budget deficit. Having campaigned relentlessly on reducing both, his first move as treasurer was to increase the debt and abolish the debt ceiling.
Then, in last month’s budget, according to the ABC fact checkers, the deficit is now actually double Treasury’s forecast under Labor.
Hockey was earlier exposed as a hypocrite for weeping in Parliament in 2012 over the threat – not at that time a reality – that unaccompanied refugee children would be incarcerated in offshore detention centres. There are no tears now, however, now his government has realised that threat.
And then this week videos have emerged of a younger Joe Hockey — a strident student activist, opposing university fees. But now, having secured his own free degree, he is content to allow a deregulated university system to expropriate from students however much they like.
Other prominent Liberals whose hypocrisy has been exposed include immigration minister Scott Morrison, education minister Christopher Pyne, foreign minister Julie Bishop, attorney general George Brandis and, of course, Abbott himself multiple times.
7. Corruption allegations and findings
Victorian state balance-of-power MP, Geoff Shaw, was charged last year by Victoria Police with 23 counts of obtaining financial benefit by deception and one charge of misconduct in public office. The public prosecutor dropped formal charges in December, however, referring the matter to a parliamentary privileges committee.
The government-dominated committee found Shaw lacked ‘diligence’ in contrast to the Labor members who claimed the misuse of his government vehicle was ‘wilful’ and, therefore, in contempt of Parliament. In a shock announcement that threatens the Napthine government’s grip on power, former speaker, Ken Smith has pledged to cross the floor to support Labor in a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Geoff Shaw.
Assistant Federal Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos has stepped aside pending further ICAC inquiries.
Queensland Liberal National MP, Scott Driscoll, failed to declare his business interests and financial connections when he entered parliament in 2012. A Privileges Committee Inquiry recommended he be expelled from parliament. He resigned first.
The Liberal Party accepts funding from undisclosed sources through associated entities like the Institute of Public Affairs, which are not required to reveal their donors. Donors who wish to hide from public view can also launder their donations through trusts such as the Free Enterprise Foundation, the Cormack Foundation and the Greenfields Foundation.
Whilst the Liberal Party no longer accepts donations from the tobacco industry, its junior Coalition partner, the Nationals, have refused to rule it out.
8. Refusal to deal with endemic corruption
The Greens have proposed a national anti-corruption authority and a national lobbying watchdog.
The Liberal Party is opposed to both.
9. Heightened media scrutiny
The mainstream media has now fractured over promoting Abbott as Australia’s saviour.
Before the election, News Corporation, ABC News and Current Affairs and Fairfax outlets all boosted Abbott and the Coalition shamelessly.
This has changed significantly with Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age now beginning to run critical analyses of the Abbott government.
The Age this week openly mocked Abbott’s government with
‘Tony Abbott is a liar: It's a mathematical truth’.
ABC news also now allows critiques of government policy, notably by its fact checker unit, although remains firmly pro-Coalition overall.
10. Abandonment by the electorate
Opinion polling shows the Abbott Government to have the lowest level of voter support just eight months into the honeymoon period of any regime since polling began.
The by-election for Scott Driscoll’s seat of Redcliffe in February resulted in a 17.2% swing to Labor.
It appears likely the Abbott Government will last only one term.
But will the fallout from this budget mark the beginning of the end of the Liberal Party as well?
Upcoming by-elections and state elections – of which there are several – will be highly instructive.