Wither the Liberals?

Ian Marsh, Australian National University

Judith Brett Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2003 (272 pp). ISBN 0-52153-634-0 (paperback) RRP $37.95.

Over the years, the Liberal Party has attracted much less scholarly attention than its Labor cousin. Yet liberalism is the dominant ideological current in Australian political life: under one or other party label, liberals have held power at the federal level in Australia for 69 of the 102 years since Federation. Alfred Deakin was the primary architect of the policy frameworks that guided Australian economic and social development from 1909 to 1983. The election of the Hawke Labor government in 1983 marked the turn from collectivism to neo-liberalism. This conservative worldview, championed in one or another version by both major parties, is now the radical ideology in Australian public life. Judith Brett’s study of the Liberal Party is thus timely and welcome. It is a challenging addition to a regrettably thin shelf.

Brett’s study explores retrospective and prospective themes. Her retrospective theme is a history of the party organisations that have carried the liberal label. Here Brett’s review of leaders, values, and programs underpins her reflections on the components of liberal ideology and the sources of the party’s success. For Brett, party success is explained by links between liberalism and a particular component of Australian society: the Protestant ‘moral middle class’, the seedbed of liberal values and aspirations, and the foundation of the party’s political support.

The post-1960s secularisation of Australian society means that the moral middle class has largely disappeared. This leads to Brett’s second—prospective—theme, which speculates on the party’s (and Australia’s) political future. This presents a conundrum. The social base of the Liberal party is no more, yet the party endures. Where are its social moorings now? What future is there for a party (and a politics) that is largely disconnected from the society it purportedly serves?

Brett’s retrospective story is about the four organisations that have championed Australian liberalism. The founding moment was 1909. Prior to this date two groups represented liberalism in the Australian parliament. One, the social liberals, was led by Alfred Deakin. The other, the classical liberals, was led by George Reid. In 1909 these groups merged under Deakin’s leadership to present a united front to Labor.

A second formation occurred in 1916 when W. M. Hughes, then Labor prime minister, defected over his party’s opposition to conscription. This ultimately resulted in the formation of the National Party. Significant for her later argument, 20 of the 23 Labor members who crossed the floor with Hughes were Protestants.

A third mutation occurred after 1931 when Joseph Lyons, formerly Treasurer in the Scullin government, defected from Labor over its response to the Great Depression. His more radical Labor colleagues sought to repudiate British bondholders. Lyons championed ‘sound finance’. From this split emerged the United Australia Party, which governed for most of the 1930s, before finally collapsing at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The final organisational development occurred in 1944 when Robert Menzies founded the modern Liberal Party. Menzies accomplished what had eluded all his predecessors—he established a durable national organisation. His own considerable political talents created a Liberal Party conservative in foreign policy, ruthlessly opportunistic in domestic affairs, but very much in the Deakinite (social-liberal) political tradition.

In Brett’s reading this is a moral odyssey. Interest is evanescent. Moral outlooks are durable. They are the source of directions, horizons, aspirations and preferences. She argues that the moral outlooks of Australian liberalism grew out of, and were embedded in Protestantism, not capitalist or petit bourgeois classes. Thus Australian liberalism involved the projection of a ‘moral community whose members were identified by the possession of particular moral qualities, political values and social skills’ (p. 8). This is her first large claim—one that challenges much of the existing history and sociology of Australian political development. Brett aims to provide not only ‘a history of the tradition of thinking carried by these parties’ but also an account of ‘the slowly shifting relationship between dominant political ideas and people’s lived day-to-day experiences’ (p. ix).

To realise her purpose, Brett considers four questions. First, what are the links between the various beliefs and values that liberals have championed? Second, how have contradictions between these beliefs and values been resolved? Third, how has the liberal tradition responded to challenges thrown up by its Labor rivals? And fourth, what is the shifting relationship between the party’s core values and beliefs and the lived experience and self-understandings of its supporters?


According to Brett, the beliefs and values that make up the liberal tradition hang together through the fusion of four primary elements. Three are moral. The first, and grounding principle, asserts the primacy of the individual. In Brett’s account, Australian liberalism is wholly individualistic. But it is a benign individualism—we are far from Hobbes’ world. Catholic pessimism and Protestant predestination, traditions that have created the authentic, albeit various, conservatisms of Catholic Europe, the United States, or High Tory Britain do not figure. Australian individualism is optimistic—expressed in a demotic civic state unscarred by original secular or theological sin. Brett quotes to great effect the inter-war influence of the poet laureate of this narrative, Walter Murdoch, the John Laws or Alan Jones of his time. Murdoch’s prosaic homilies on the domestic and civic virtues of service, independence, family, and responsibility gave secular expression to Australia’s (provincial) Protestant imagination. Tony Abbott may be the first prominent political figure to speak from a darker vision of human destiny.

Second, the moral character of citizenship endowed the liberal parties with a distinctive outlook: ‘To join the Labor Party and sign the pledge was to give up one of the things that made them human: freedom of conscience, independence of judgement, control over moral integrity and character … the self’s chief attributes and achievement’ (p. 40–41).

Neo-liberalism is now the radical ideology in Australian public life.

Third, the relation of citizens to each other reflected an ideal of community ‘whose members are identified by the possession of particular moral qualities, political values and social skills’ (p. 8). This romantic vision had its roots in Rousseau. It is a vision of a harmony of interests between members of an inclusive community, albeit one for which particular qualities constitute the entry ticket. This vision profoundly coloured liberal attitudes to social and labour relations. Via subterranean paths and deviations, this vision has surfaced most recently (and perversely) in Pauline Hanson’s fish and chip shop.

A fourth strand in this moral firmament expressed discomfort with group based identification: ‘A political society based on the fiction that society is a free association of individuals has no easy place for identity politics, for political demands which flow from social differences’ (p. 56). Brett links this to the larger sectarian divide, which figured as a background source of social cleavage for so much of her story. Unlike Protestants who entered politics first as citizens, ‘there was no legitimate place for Roman Catholics as Catholics within the polity’ (p. 54).

The political element in this mix of values concerned the primacy of parliament and freedom of parliamentary proceedings from outside influence. This projected the norm of individual independence onto the parliamentary stage, which the Liberals repeatedly used as a weapon against Labor.


Brett’s second theme concerns the way liberalism has solved contradictions between individualism and the imperatives of organisation and disciplined collective action. Her answer: strong leadership. The party’s various ‘foundings’ are one expression of this. Absolute loyalty to the leader is another. I can personally attest to its power. When Fraser expelled Whitlam from office, I worked on research for the Federal Secretariat. Only one senior party figure, Timothy Pascoe, then Federal Director of the Liberal Party and a party outsider, had the courage to tell Fraser that his tenure would be tainted and that by waiting twelve months, power could be his by legitimate means. Among the parliamentary party only the independently minded Alan Missan expressed similar doubts—and he was persuaded by otherwise decent colleagues to tow the line. Perhaps the cult of leadership helps explain the implacable way Liberal leaders have pursued power. Both Menzies and Howard ruthlessly transgressed the standards of their mendacious profession and, in the latter case, also brazenly corrupted the public service (see, for example, Marr & Wilkinson 2002). For his part, Fraser gained office on promises he could never fulfil.

Did these people secretly fear for their hold on the leadership? Did their insecurity require (and justify) extreme action? Another explanation is that the cult of leadership means senior party members are socialised to surrender their prized freedom of conscience. The leaders’ judgement binds all—until he is overthrown. Surely this is an ambiguous condition for a party that ostensibly vaunts independence of conscience and that has so ferociously criticised Labor’s delegate notion of representation?

Whatever the truth, the Liberal organisation that Menzies founded allowed minimal scope for real policy debate. Deviation from the leader’s views was tantamount to disloyalty. Particularly convincing evidence lies in the struggle for the party’s soul in the period between 1983 and 1996. Over this period, the leadership changed six times. The ‘dries’, the disloyal faction of the Fraser years, but now the victors, exact a peculiarly Liberal revenge in outlawing their former master.


If leadership changes resolve conflicts over values, changes in party names are one way that the liberal tradition has responded to its rivals, particularly in moments of crisis. On the one hand, the populist names ‘National’, and ‘United Australia’ gestured to a claim to represent all Australians. But these names also implied a conservative stance since they seemed to assert the primacy of the status quo. On the other hand, ‘Liberal’ implied a positive vision of the nation’s future. Brett does not discuss Deakin’s insistence on the use of the term ‘Commonwealth’ in his naming of the first liberal party, an addition that, with its reference to the Levellers and the English Civil War, might have further complicated this story.

Menzies' treatment of Labor's Communist links was a ruthless overstatement.

Since name changes are no longer available, the Liberals have used two other generic strategies to differentiate themselves from their Labor rivals. One is to label Labor as the party of the union bosses or the special interests. In the late 1950s, Labor’s Parliamentary Leader and Deputy were infamously photographed waiting outside a meeting room in which the Federal Executive was deliberating. The parliamentary leaders were not then ex officio members of this body. Menzies used this picture to fulminate against the ‘thirty-six faceless men’, the members of the Federal Executive who allegedly controlled Labor. Howard used an analogous theme against Keating when he accused Labor of being in liege to the special interests. By contrast, Howard’s slogan in 1996 was a promise to govern ‘for all of us’.

These appeals to our underlying unity reflect a deep current in our political culture. I have always been attracted by Peter Bower’s description of this as a kind of ‘perverse romanticism’:

There is an ephemeral timelessness about the desire of Australians for the ideal party that will govern Australia fairly and wisely for all Australians. Australian politics are driven by a perverse romanticism that few Australians are willing to acknowledge because it runs counter to the preferred national persona of treating all things political with an arid cynicism, better suited to a race that has lived in a hard dry country for two hundred years (Bower 1990).

The other strategy Liberal leaders have favoured is to traduce their opponents. In retrospect, Menzies’ treatment of Labor’s Communist links was a ruthless overstatement—but immensely effective domestic politics. Howard exploited the refugee issue no less shamelessly and to similar effect at the last election.


To answer her fourth question, Brett explores the links between the party organisation and its social base or, in her terms, ‘the shifting relationship between core values and beliefs and the lived experience and self-understandings of its supporters’ (p. ix). She argues that, at least at the outset, liberalism expressed underlying middle class aspirations and values whose genesis lay in Protestantism. Indeed Australian liberalism is, in her account, ‘embedded’ in Protestantism. She further argues: ‘The fundamental position of individual choice and moral agency in the Protestant imagination makes it pre-sociological in a way the Catholic imagination is not’ (p. 56).

Brett makes a powerful case for the links between Protestantism and liberalism, buttressed by a large volume of statistical and other evidence. Weber has classically explored this genealogy and Brett describes an Australian variant. In the process, she evokes the Protestant-Catholic divide, a cleavage in Australia that was, in her account (and until the 1960s), even more salient and bitter than that of social class.

Brett’s horizons are defined by liberalism’s British progenitors.

But politics and religion are different enterprises. Closer attention to the texts that mediated the transitions between sacred and the mundane worlds might have introduced a subtler account. Locke is one (background) source and Bentham another. In colonial Australia, free trade and radical liberals constituted the rival political groupings. On one side were Cobden, the anti-Corn Law League, and Manchester; on the other were Chartism, List, J. S. Mill, and T. H. Green. This latter current licensed the formation of such social movements as the anti-sweating league, women’s electoral leagues, and temperance and single tax movements. Marian Sawer (2003) has recently explored aspects of this radical or social liberal legacy, arguing that the ‘fusion’ between free traders and protectionists (that is, between classical and radical liberals) was uneasy well before the eruptions of the 1983–1996 period.

Attention to both the radical and social liberal currents in the liberal tradition might have tempered Brett’s claims that liberalism does not recognise the legitimacy of social units beyond individuals and that liberalism is pre-sociological. Both these propositions are true of the classical, but not of the radical or social liberal mutations of liberalism. For example, in On Liberty, John Stuart Mill clearly recognises the claims of social categories other than individuals (for example, women and trade unions). If the ultimate moral ground remains the unique individual, organised action with like-minded fellow citizens is one means of achieving it. Indeed, Mill argues freedom of expression is not sufficient as a touchstone of liberty. On the contrary, he enjoins freedom of life styles as the only path if repressive convention is to be defeated. The post-1960s social movements perfectly realise this aspiration in, for example, women’s liberation and gay pride.

Further, Brett’s horizons are defined by liberalism’s British progenitors. This is perfectly legitimate and fruitful, but deeper perspectives on Australian liberalism might be generated by wider comparisons—for example, the America of Tocqueville or Hartz. According to Tocqueville, the modern political project is distinguished by the primacy it accords to political equality. He luminously explores the first complete flowering of political equality, in the United States. He traces its permutations and vicissitudes through family life, society, culture, politics, religion, and intellectual life in a masterpiece of sociology before that discipline was officially invented.

Hartz (1955) offers another perspective on the modern project of political equality. He traces its unfolding in and through America’s distinctive political culture. Two elements give his story compelling explanatory power. First, Hartz is alive to the significance and consequences of the absence of a medieval past—a theme that Manning Clark obliquely addresses in his great history of Australia. Second, Hartz locates the nucleus of American political culture in Locke and the preoccupations of the 18th century. David Malouf (2002) has written briefly but suggestively on this theme, but locating Australia’s point of departure in the preoccupations of the 19th century. Australian liberalism is ripe for such an exegesis.


One might also argue with Brett about her reading of political causality. This can be conceived in top down, bottom up, outside-inside terms or in a patchwork of reciprocal patterns. A closer specification of each pattern might have revealed more of present dynamics. Brett’s reading is bottom up—from Protestantism to the liberal parties. Now, she wonders, what future can there be for a party that speaks from no distinctive social base?

Yet there is the fact of John Howard’s success. Her account of this development is convincing—and underlines future uncertainties. She writes persuasively of his ‘fluency in the language of vernacular nationalism’. But Howard is a paradoxical figure in Australian politics. His origins in the moral middle class socialised him into its aspirations and anxieties. His political skills converted this into rhetoric for the times. But how durable is Howard’s way? Will it be frayed by events? Alternatively, can Peter Costello’s urbane Congregationalism or Tony Abbott’s Catholic pessimism sustain a rhetoric that could connect modern Australians equally powerfully with their deeper atavisms and identifications? Or will Mark Latham, who seems also to speak from a vantage point analogous to Howard’s, craft a (neo-liberal) rhetoric that can trump the populism of his liberal rivals?

Howard is a paradoxical figure in Australian politics.

These questions arise naturally from a bottom-up reading of political causality. A top down reading suggests a different dynamic and a different kind of politics. For example, the present elite consensus between the major parties leaves minimal opportunities for the electorate to express their disaffection. This top down form of political causality, theorised for example by John Zaller (1992), is currently dominant. Howard’s Liberals and their Labor rivals tacitly agree about the broad direction of economic strategy, thereby leaving social issues as the only arena for partisan difference. Here Howard’s wedge tactics fracture Labor’s core constituency.

But this pattern is not immutable. Labor may turn to its own traditions and find a new collectivist language. It is hard to see the signs—but it might happen. Alternatively, events may defeat neo-liberalism. A severe recession or an external threat may have a galvanising and reconstituting impact, as in Brett’s accounts of the realignments that were precipitated by the events of 1916 and 1931.

My own bet is on another pattern. If tacit bipartisanship on the economy continues, more Australians may express their disenchantment with the whole farcical spectacle by turning to minor parties. The Senate provides an effective outlet for these possibilities, one which, I have argued elsewhere (Marsh 1995), makes regime change seem possible.

Brett’s own account might have concluded on a less puzzling (if no less sure) note with more attention to such scenarios, which have some sanction in contemporary comparative literatures. For example, Peter Mair (1997) has discussed the emergence of an ideal type he christens a ‘cartel’ party. He has described the populist (and wedge) patterns of political mobilisation that are its handmaiden. Meantime, Susan Pharr and colleagues (2000) have described the ‘disaffected democrats’ who are its progeny. But this would take the story into other realms.

Brett’s account deserves to be widely read. Her writing is stylish and accessible. Her story is rich in detail and convincingly structured. Above all, she provides insights into the dialectic of Australian identity that deserve to figure much more prominently in reflections on the kind of people we are and might aspire to be.


Bower, P. 1990, ‘A guide to protest voting’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 March.

Hartz, L. 1955, The Liberal Idea in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution, Harcourt Brace and World, New York.

Mair, P. 1997, Party System Change, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Malouf, D. 2002, ‘What we think of America’, Granta, Spring, pp. 58–61.

Marr D. & Wilkinson, M. 2002, Dark Victory, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.

Marsh, I. 1995, Beyond the Two Party System, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Pharr, S., Putnam, R. & Dalton, R. J. 2000, Disaffected Democracies, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Sawer, M. 2003, The Ethical State: Social Liberalism in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Zaller, J. 1992, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Ian Marsh is a Senior Fellow in the Political Science Program at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.