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Liberal Party of Australia
- This article concerns the modern Australian political party. For the Australian Liberal party active from 1909 to 1916, see Commonwealth Liberal Party.
The Liberal Party of Australia is an Australian political party. Since its foundation in 1945 it has been the dominant party of the centre-right in Australia and competes with the centre-left Australian Labor Party for political office, both at the federal level and in the Australian states and territories.
The Liberal Party was founded on 31 August, 1945, after Robert Menzies called a conference in 1944 of conservative parties and other groups opposed to the ruling Australian Labor Party. The Liberal Party absorbed several former conservative parties, principally the United Australia Party. The Australian Women's National League , a powerful conservative women's organisation, also merged with the new party.
The Liberal Party, despite its name, is basically a conservative party, although it has a minority "liberal" wing. Since the 1980s the party has moved to the right, developing a strong neo-liberal element in their platforms and policies, particularly with respect to trade.
More broadly, the party's ideological ancestry stretched back to the anti-Labor groupings in the first Commonwealth Parliament. The Commonwealth Liberal Party was a fusion of the non-Labor parties in 1909 in response to Labor's growing electoral prominence. Menzies deliberately chose the name "Liberal" in reference to this, and in claiming inheritance from Sir Alfred Deakin.
In 1949 Menzies led the Liberals to victory, and they stayed in office for a record 23 years. After the retirement of Menzies in 1966 and the death of his successor, Harold Holt, in 1967, the Liberals went into decline, and they were defeated by Labor under Gough Whitlam in 1972. They returned to power after only three years under Malcolm Fraser, and stayed in office for eight years. Defeated again in 1983 by Bob Hawke, the Liberals lost five elections in a row under four different leaders before returning to power in 1996 under John Howard.
At the state level, the Liberals have been dominant for long periods in all states except Queensland, where they have been subordinate to the National Party (not to be confused with the old Nationalist Party). The Liberals were in power in Victoria from 1955 (the election in which they defeated John Cain Sr) to 1982 (in which they were defeated by the last Labour Premier's son, John Cain Jr) and in South Australia (under several names) from 1932 to 1965. Since the 1980s, however, the Liberals have become increasingly unsuccessful in state elections. The most radically conservative Liberal premier, Jeff Kennett of Victoria, was defeated in 1999, and as of 2005, no Australian state or territory government is run by the Coalition.
Throughout their history, the Liberals have been the party of the urban middle-class, though such class-based voting patterns are no longer as clear as they once were. In the 1970s a left-wing middle-class emerged, which no longer voted Liberal. One effect of this was the success of a breakaway party, the Australian Democrats, founded in 1977 by former Liberal minister Don Chipp and members of minor liberal parties. On the other hand, the Liberals have done increasingly well among working-class voters in recent years. In country areas they either compete heavily or have a truce with the Nationals, depending on various factors.
Strong opposition to socialism and communism has always been a Liberal preoccupation. Anti-communism was successfully exploited through the 1950s and 1960s by Robert Menzies and his successors. Menzies went so far as to unsuccessfully attempt to ban the Communist Party in 1951. Menzies was an ardent royalist, devoted towards maintaining Australia as a constitutional monarchy. Nowadays, the party is divided, with some Liberals, such as Peter Costello, being minimalist republicans while others, such as John Howard and Tony Abbott remain devout monarchists. The Liberals have also positioned themselves as the party most committed to the alliance with the United States, though this has not always been to their advantage.
Domestically, Menzies presided over a paternalistic state in which utilities were publicly owned, and commercial activity was highly regulated through centralised wage-fixing and high tariff protection. It was not until the late 1970s and through their period out of power federally in the 1980s that the party came to be dominated by what was known as the "New Right" - a Thatcher-inspired or neo-liberal group who advocated sweeping deregulation, privatisation of public utilities, and reductions in the size of government programs and thus tax cuts.
Socially, the party has wavered between what is termed "small-l liberalism" and social conservatism. The current leader, Howard, is in most respects extremely socially conservative. His most likely successor, Peter Costello, is more liberal on some issues. Other Liberal state and federal governments have also been more liberal, particularly in Victoria and South Australia. In general terms, however, the Australian Democrats are closer to the usual, international meaning of the word "liberal".
The Liberal Party's organisation is dominated by the six state divisions, reflecting the party's commitment to a federalised system of government (perhaps their most strongly held policy and certainly one of the few that has remained since the party's creation). Menzies deliberately created a weak national party machine and strong state divisions. Party policy is made almost entirely by the parliamentary parties, not by the party's rank-and-file members.
In the 2004 Federal elections the party strengthened its majority in the Lower House and, with its coalition partners, became the first federal government in twenty years to gain an absolute majority in the Senate. They will therefore be able to pass legislation without the need to negotiate with independents or minor parties; it remains to be seen how this power will be used.
While the party holds government federally, it does not in any of the states or territories. Furthermore, it does not officially contest most local government elections, although many members do run for office in local government as independents.
Liberal Federal Leaders since 1945
- Robert Menzies 1945-1966 (Prime Minister 1949-66)
- Harold Holt 1966-1967 (Prime Minister 1966-67)
- John Gorton 1968-1971 (Prime Minister 1968-71)
- William McMahon 1971-1972 (Prime Minister 1971-72)
- Billy Snedden 1973-1975
- Malcolm Fraser 1975-1983 (Prime Minister 1975-83)
- Andrew Peacock 1983-1985
- John Howard 1985-1989
- Andrew Peacock 1989-1990
- Dr John Hewson 1990-1994
- Alexander Downer 1994-1995
- John Howard since 1995 (Prime Minister since 1996)
Liberal State Parliamentary Leaders
- John Brogden (New South Wales)
- Robert Doyle (Victoria)
- Bob Quinn (Queensland)
- Matt Birney (Western Australia)
- Rob Kerin (South Australia, Premier 2001-02)
- Rene Hidding (Tasmania)
Past Liberal Premiers
- Robert Askin (New South Wales 1965-75)
- Henry Bolte (Victoria 1955-72)
- David Brand (Western Australia 1959-71)
- Dean Brown (South Australia 1993-96)
- Charles Court (Western Australia 1971-82)
- Richard Court (Western Australia 1993-2001)
- John Fahey (New South Wales 1992-95)
- Nick Greiner (New South Wales 1988-92)
- Ray Groom (Tasmania 1992-96)
- Robin Gray (Tasmania 1982-89)
- Steele Hall (South Australia 1968-70)
- Rupert Hamer (Victoria 1972-81)
- Jeff Kennett (Victoria 1992-99)
- John Olsen (South Australia 1996-2001)
- Tom Playford (South Australia 1938-65)
- Tony Rundle (Tasmania 1996-98)
- Lindsay Thompson (Victoria 1981-82)
- David Tonkin (South Australia 1979-82)
- Liberal Party of Australia
- The Liberal Party is anything but (critical commentary)
- Liberal Party of Australia ephemera digitised and held by the National Library of Australia
- Gerard Henderson, Menzies' Child: The Liberal Party of Australia 1944-1994, Allen and Unwin, 1994
- Dean Jaensch, The Liberals, Allen and Unwin, 1994
- John Nethercote (ed), Liberalism and the Australian Federation, Federation Press, 2001
- Marian Simms, A Liberal Nation: The Liberal Party and Australian Politics, Hale and Iremonger, 1982
- Graeme Starr, The Liberal Party of Australia: A Documentary History, Drummond/Heinemann, 1980
- How will humanity survive the 21st century? (January 22, 2005). The Canberra Times, p. 16.
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