Liberalism in Australia

Liberalism in Australia


The earliest pioneers of the federation movement, men such as Alfred Deakin and Samuel Griffith, were generally self-described "liberals". The degree of progressive sentiment varied from colony to colony: social liberals were prominent in Victoria and South Australia, for instance. At any rate, Australia's parliamentary institutions, especially at a national level, were brand-new, so it was difficult for anyone to be labelled "conservative" in a traditional sense. The two largest political parties, the Free Trade Party and the Protectionist Party, could both loosely be described as "liberal" in the terms of the time. They were moderates with a strong belief in parliamentary institutions, financially orthodox and attached to the British Empire, with a distaste for radicalism. The third major political force was the trade union movement represented by Australian Labor Party. The rise in popularity of the Labor party began to become the major pre-occupation of these two other parties.

In the early stages of the parliament, the Labor party engaged in a partnership with the more radical Protectionists, but Labor's wide-ranging policies for social reform met with only lukewarm support from most Protectionists. Fear of socialism became widespread among the ranks of the establishment, and as the question of tariffs was settled, there was increasing pressure on the non-Labor parliamentary forces to unite in opposition to Labor.

The result was the Fusion in 1909, comprised of Joseph Cook's Anti-Socialist Party (formerly Free Trade Party), and conservative Protectionists. The Fusion soon began calling itself the Liberal Party, proclaiming its adherence to classical liberalism. After Deakin's departure, the fervent anti-socialist Joseph Cook became leader of the party and it became the dominant right-wing force in Australian politics.

The pattern of a non-Labor party defining itself as "liberal" rather than "conservative" and deriving support from a middle-class base continued to the formation of the present-day Liberal Party, founded in 1945 and led initially by Sir Robert Menzies. In his memoir, "Afternoon Light", Menzies described the decision to call the Party Liberal in these terms, "We chose the word 'Liberal' because we want to be a progressive party, in no way conservative, in no way reactionary"." [] However, the last Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, once described his own government as the "most conservative government Australia has ever had".

The "wet" (moderate) and "dry" (conservative) wings of the Liberal party co-operated fairly harmoniously, but in the early 1970s as conservatives started to dominate in South Australia liberals led by Steele Hall broke off to form the Liberal Movement. In 1977, other dissident "small-l liberal" forces led by Don Chipp created the Australian Democrats.

Contemporary Australian liberalism

From the early 1990s, monetarism and social conservatism has characterised the Liberal Party's actions in Government and policy development. [] Former Prime Minister John Howard in a 2005 speech described the modern position: "The Liberal Party is a broad church. You sometimes have to get the builders in to put in the extra pew on both sides of the aisle to make sure that everybody is accommodated. But it is a broad church and we should never as members of the Liberal Party of Australia lose sight of the fact that we are the trustees of two great political traditions. We are, of course, the custodian of the classical liberal tradition within our society, Australian Liberals should revere the contribution of John Stuart Mill to political thought. We are also the custodians of the conservative tradition in our community. And if you look at the history of the Liberal Party it is at its best when it balances and blends those two traditions. Mill and Burke are interwoven into the history and the practice and the experience of our political party." []

Federal "small-l liberals", such as Joe Hockey [] [] and Malcolm Turnbull were Cabinet ministers in the Howard government. Christopher Pyne, George Brandis and Bruce Billson served in the outer ministry, while others such as Petro Georgiou and Marise Payne are active in policy formation. At the state level, "small-l liberals" have substantial influence particularly in Victoria and South Australia Fact|date=December 2007.

The Democrats, fractured under the leadership of Cheryl Kernot and Natasha Stott-Despoja, moved to the left. Party leader Meg Lees formed the more avowedly centrist Australian Progressive Alliance in 2003. In 2002, Tasmanian Liberal candidate Greg Barns was disendorsed following comments opposing Government action taken over the Tampa Affair. Barns joined the Australian Democrats, with the view of returning a strong liberal platform to the party.


Liberalism in Australia has been notably lacking in a coherent philosophical underpinning: it is strongly pragmatic, rather than ideological, defined chiefly in antithesis to Labor. The governments of Menzies, Fraser and Howard differ from each other in both social and economic approaches.

Insofar as there is a unifying thread running through Australian liberalism, it has been based on:

*Support for private enterprise. Previous Liberal party governments, especially under pressure from the Country Party in safeguarding its agricultural base, have been interventionist to varying degrees; but the current climate is very much in favour of deregulation and supply-side economics.
*Opposition to major changes to the Australian Constitution. Once again, this varies: the Democrats, and quite a few Liberal Party members, support a republic. The Liberals and Democrats have shown much more affection for the Senate than has Labor.
*In foreign affairs, loyalty to Australia's major allied partner (the United Kingdom before World War II, the United States afterward), sometimes to the detriment of multilateralism. "Small-l" liberals often tend to repudiate this aspect: the Democrats were strongly critical of both Iraq Wars and Fraser, despite supporting it while in office, has called for an end to the ANZUS alliance.
*Attitudes ranging from mild to extreme antipathy towards the trade union movement.

Again, all these currents are only apparent inasmuch as they are a point of difference with Labor: advancing these ideas to deride Labor as socialist, unpatriotic, or under the thrall of powerful unions.

The timeline

From Protectionist Party and Free Trade Party to (Commonwealth) Liberal Party

*1880s: The Protectionist Party and Free Trade Party are formed.
*1906: The Free Trade Party is renamed the Anti-Socialist Party.
*1908: The Protectionists and Anti-Socialists merge into the Commonwealth Liberal Party (The Fusion).

From Australian Women's National League to Liberal Party of Australia

*1904: The Australian Women's National League is founded.
*1945: The Australian Women's National League becomes part of the Liberal Party.

From state farmers' parties to National Party of Australia

*Early 1900s: State farming organisations form, including Victorian Farmers Union and Farmers and Settlers Association of Western Australia.
*1913: Country Party founded by the WA organisation.
*1917-19: Other state farmers' parties form in Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and NSW.
*1920: These farmers parties join together and form the Australian Country Party.
*1932: South Australian branch merges with the Liberal Federation to become the Liberal and Country League.
*1963: The Country Party's South Australian branch splits, the LCL losing Country Party affiliation.
*1974: NT branch disaffiliates and merges with the NT branch of the Liberal Party of Australia (Liberals) to form the Country Liberal Party
*1975: Country Party changes name to National Country Party (NCP).
*1979: Country Liberal Party affiliates with NCP (also with the Liberals).
*1982: NCP changes name to National Party of Australia (NPA).

From Australian Liberal Union to Liberal Party of Australia

*?: Australian Liberal Union (ALU)
*?: ALU affiliates with the Free Trade Party (later known as the Anti-Socialist Party)
*1908: ALU affiliates with the Commonwealth Liberal Party as the Anti-Socialist Party merges to form it.
*1917: Liberal Federation formed by merging the South Australian Liberal Union with the SA part of the new Nationalist Party of Australia. The Federation affiliates with the Nationalists.
*1932: The Liberal Federation merges with the South Australian branch of the Country Party to form the Liberal and Country League (LCL).
*?: The LCL affiliates with the Country Party.
*?: The LCL affiliates with the United Australia Party (UAP).
*1944: The LCL loses UAP affiliation with its end, and takes up affiliation with its successor the Liberal Party of Australia.
*1963: The Country Party's South Australian branch splits, the LCL losing Country Party affiliation.
*1973: The Liberal Movement (LM) secedes from the LCL.
*1976: The LM merges with the LCL.
*1977: The New LM secedes from the LCL, and the LCL takes the "Liberal Party of Australia" name.

From People's Liberal Party and ALP dissidents to Nationalist Party of Australia

*1916: The Australian Labor Party (ALP) expels Billy Hughes and others. They form the National Labor Party
*1917: The People's Liberal Party merges with the National Labor Party to form the Nationalist Party of Australia.

From Nationalist Party of Australia and ALP dissidents to Liberal Party of Australia

*1929: Billy Hughes and others are expelled from the Nationalist Party of Australia. In 1930 they form the Australian Party.
*1932: The Nationalist party joins with the Australian Party and anti-socialist dissidents of the ALP to form the United Australia Party.
*1944: The United Australia Party dissolves and becomes part of the Liberal Party of Australia.

From Liberal Party of Australia dissidents to Australian Democrats

*1966: The Liberal Reform Group seceded from the conservative Liberal Party of Australia.
*1969: The Group is renamed Liberal Reform Movement, then Australia Party later that year.
*1976: The New LM secedes from the Liberal and Country League.
*1977: The AP and the New LM join with dissident members of the Liberal Party of Australia to form the Australian Democrats.

Australian Democrats offshoots

*1992: Janet Powell forms the Janet Powell Independents' Network. Dissolved in 1993.
*2003: Meg Lees forms the Australian Progressive Alliance. Dissolved in 2005.

From Country Party and Liberal Party of Australia dissidents to Country Liberal Party

*1974: The NT branches of the Country Party and the Country Liberal Party secede from their parent parties and merge to form the Country Liberal Party.
*1979: The Country Liberal Party affiliates with the National Country Party and the Liberal Party of Australia.

Liberal leaders

*Protectionist, Fusion: Alfred Deakin
*Fusion/Liberal Party: Joseph Cook
*Liberal Party of Australia: Robert Menzies - Harold Holt - John Gorton - William McMahon - Billy Snedden - Malcolm Fraser - Andrew Peacock - John Hewson - Alexander Downer - John Howard - Brendan Nelson - Malcolm Turnbull
*Australian Democrats: Don Chipp - Janine Haines - Cheryl Kernot - Meg Lees - Natasha Stott Despoja - Andrew Bartlett - Lyn Allison

ee also

* History of Australia
* Politics of Australia
* List of political parties in Australia

External links

* [ Australian Liberalism: The Continuing Vision] by Victor Perton (LPA state MP)
* [ Greg Barns writes a regular column at Online Opinion]
* [ Libertarian Society of Australia]
* [ ABC Radio National's Hindsight - An attitude of mind and faith: liberalism in Australian political history]
* [ ABC Radio National's Lingua Franca - George Megalogenis on the words 'liberal' and 'conservative']


* [] , [] Example uses of the phrase from "The Sydney Morning Herald".

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