Why is there no liberal party?

Last weekend, Don Arthur asked ‘why is there no liberal party?’ By which he meant, why is there no significant political party supporting social and economic freedom?

I’ll leave the deep reasons to one side. But the proximate reason is that the constituency for such a party is very small. So small that I probably know a large proportion of them personally.

The 2010 Australian Election Survey isn’t quite designed to explore the electoral realities. But it has a number of questions that are reasonably open to classifying the answers as ‘liberal’ or ‘not liberal’.

1. Size of government
I deemed agreeing with the proposition that ‘there are more things the government should be doing’ as non-liberal and ‘the less government the better’ as liberal. Liberals=25%.

2. Tax and spend
In response to the question ‘if the government had a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, which do you think it should do?’ I deemed a liberal response as agreeing or strongly agreeing with lower tax. Liberals=37%.

3. Censorship
I deemed the liberal answer to the statement ‘the right to show nudity and sex in films and magazines’ as ‘not gone far enough’ or ‘not gone nearly far enough’. Liberals=9%. Though in this case ‘about right’ is probably a defensible response from a liberal perspective, on about 45%.

4. Drugs
For the proposition, ‘the smoking of marijuana should NOT be a criminal offence’ I deemed the liberal answers as agree or strongly agree. Liberals=28%.

5. Immigration
This is more difficult to classify. I took the liberal answers to ‘Do you think the number of immigrants allowed into Australia nowadays should be reduced or increased?’ as increased a lot or a little. Liberals=11%.

6. Income redistribution
The AES question ‘income and wealth should be redistributed towards ordinary working people’ is not ideal; someone could agree with it in general terms but still think there should be less redistribution than now. But with this caveat I took disagreeing with it as a liberal – or at least classical liberal – response. Liberals=19%.

But the test of a social-economic liberal constituency is not just whether there are some liberal propositions that can win significant public support. It is whether there are enough people with liberal views across a range of issues.

The table below shows the proportion of liberal responses to the six issues. The one person who gave six out of six and the nine people who gave five out of six were rounded down to 0%. Saying three or more liberal answers makes a liberal gets us to 13%, with rounding. That’s half the proportion who gave liberal answers to zero of the six questions. Australians say they don’t like politicians much, but they have a strong belief in government shaping the social and economic structures of Australian society.

14 thoughts on “Why is there no liberal party?

  1. “I’ll leave the deep reasons to one side.”

    As noted, the Troppo thread went rather of course, but looking at your list, one possible reason is that people are generally fairly happy with what they have now and thus feel no need for any major changes.
    This is especially so here because our governments have been comparatively moderate on all of the issues posed by the questions. For example, we’re obviously taxed a lot less than most European countries, and I think this is the comparison that people make (cf. with Asia). I also think that for things like censorship, we’re pretty liberal — so much so that if a particular film gets banned or cut for some reason, then we hear about it. I’m sure we could allow more things, but I doubt too many people would actually benefit from this given that the internet now pretty much sets the standards for this and so what you can’t find here you can find on bit torrent anyway within reasonable limitiations (i.e., basically you can find anything that isn’t banned essentially everywhere, for what would be considered reasonable reasons by even fairly liberal people).

    Thus if you are asking a comparative question like those that you pose, people may be interpreting this as “would you like a more liberal government than the liberal government now?”.

    So there may be more liberal people out there than you think. Of your questions, for example I take the following baselines.

    1) Size of Government. We are comparatively liberal to any baseline country that people like (e.g., the UK).
    2) Tax and Spend. We are moderate on social serives, including very cheap on the unemployed.
    3) Censorship. We have liberal censorship laws already (albeit complex ones no-one apart from censors knows about).
    4) Drugs. We have somewhat liberal laws for pot (i.e., it is decriminalized), and we certainly don’t stick people in jail for minor offences. Perhaps I will put this one in the moderate category.
    5) Immigrants. I’m not sure how to evaluate this either, but we take more immigrants per head of population than almost any other rich country.
    6) Income distribution. We already have a reasonably high gini coefficient. Are we not liberal enough on this already?


  2. The Liberal Democratic Party has over 2,500 members and is growing steadily, with online membership now available.

    At the 2010 federal election we came close to getting a Senator elected in NSW, being second last party standing after preference distribution.

    No doubt we could do more, and the word “significant” is clearly ambiguous, but in my view the basic proposition is false. We are liberal and we’re significant.

    We’d be even more significant if all the classical liberals joined rather than sitting back complaining.


  3. Conrad – I think those are all fair points (though possessing small quantities of cannabis has light penalties rather than decriminalisation in the major jurisdictions). My main point in response is that political parties always exist relative to the current status quo.
    David L complains that many classical liberals won’t support the party that wants to represent them. I think the post shows why for those who want influence on government, but I take the point that their refusal to join helps make their critique of the LDP a reality.


  4. Surely there is a vey basic problem here related to surveys and the questions asked?

    “I deemed agreeing with the proposition that ‘there are more things the government should be doing’ as non-liberal and ‘the less government the better’ as liberal. Liberals=25%”

    Ummm hello but these questionas are not comparable! Was there a question for “there are better things the Guvmint should be doing?” Or even “less things” or “other things”?

    Your post does neither yourself or the survey any intellectual credit?


  5. The migrant question is difficult because it doesn’t say whether we would be increasing them under our current system of support or not. Given the current way we handle migrants and assylum seekers, do you support an increase?


  6. The migration question also assumes a capped migration program, which still exists for permanent migration, but not for important categories of long-term but temporary migration, including international students and work visas. In annual arrivals, these are now much bigger than the permanent migration program, with the the latter increasingly made up of the long-terms converting to a permanent status.


  7. At least via popular opinion, I would have thought Malcolm Turnbull was the status quo, which means that the Libs are existing in a more conservative state right now (or probably a more populist state, although it’s hard to know what Abbott would actually do).

    I also think the problem for the LDP is obvious — if you want a more liberal Australia, then you are probably better off trying to change the Liberal party than starting a whole new party and waiting in hope for a lifetime or three (it worked for Kennett, although he came in at a time when things really needed solutions). I imagine Garrett had the same dilemma when joining the Labor party instead of the Greens.

    The other problem they seem to have is the same problem as the Greens — it appears they basically attract a loony fringe that doesn’t care less about empirical evidence. For example, both the healthcare and the education system up to the university level are actually very good in Australia, despite the whining. So it’s obvious why you wouldn’t want change those too much too quickly. They’re also very similar to places in Asia, where they are almost the only thing the governments do pay for, so presumably even very economically liberal thinkers think that pure free market solutions are not going to work with these. But instead we here “let’s privatize it all” for health, which of course even most liberal people should see the problems with, or “let’s use vouchers for schools”, which is no solution to anything based on empirical data. But because you have too many zealots, you must put ideology before reality. Other things like their 30/30 tax plan are poorly specified it’s hard to know what to make of them.


  8. Andrew and the commenters have established why, if there was a liberal party, it would not be very large. A political party does not have to be large in order to exist or to have its members elected to parliament. Nowhere above is a convincing case made why there is no liberal party at all.

    Traditionally, liberals have been found within the Liberal Party and the Democrats. The latter organisation died beneath them, and in the former their choices have been to accept the rightward drift or leave. Neither have resulted in the development of a liberal party to participate in the political process. There is a political market going begging but no-one could be bothered doing the groundwork required to make it happen.

    The LDP are starting but have a way to go, and what David L hopes is a call to arms may either help boost his party or entrench the very resentments and differences he would seek to overcome.

    I disagree strongly with Conrad’s idea that the way things are is the best they can be, or are even adequate. It does reflect a complacency that liberals are powerless to counter.


  9. Andrew, hope you are well and the new role is working out. BTW – sorry about the spam email to you (and others), I only got my hotamail back the other day and realised as I was locked out.

    On topic, we’ve had this discussion before and I think Keating is very much a liberal in a way that we know the modern use of that term. I note that classical liberalism, may have a narrower interpretation, for example, they would deplore his superannuation views and his focus on enterprise bargaining as opposed to individualism, but more broadly Keating is a liberal in the wider view. I think, even Howard’s conservatism had real limits to it in that he didn’t encourage debates about censorship etc etc. For example, he would be more circumspect that Abbott here I think.

    It also seems to me that arguments about the size of government are too narrow, it is the effect of governments. For example, I think the effect of government is good in Australia (as it stands now – as opposed to say 1977 even though a tax to GDP ratio won’t have altered much over that whole period), we have lower rate of inequality relative to most others and also low rates of taxation. Therefore, within that framework, even a classical liberal would be brave to ‘slash and burn’ program spending without regard to effect. I have also raised repeatedly how it is the Liberal party that have extended welfare scope far more than Labor over the years, note our debate on the 2004 tax and welfare changes and the Latham approach which was much more akin to the economic orthodoxy for which you are known. It is almost as though, Labor (without overt control from unions) could be largely a liberal force within that wider definition (as opposed to the classical liberal).

    Dawkins for example, did a massive amount to begin liberal reform on a whole range of fronts. I suppose the economic crisis of 80s and the need to ‘pay our way’ in the world dove a government toward actions which were revolutionary in thinking but limited in scope. But here is the other point, Australians are a pragmatic people first, we do reform well in my view because it happens over many years, not just in fits and starts like New Zealand, or the UK. The US has no reformist zeal as it is too disparate to generate that cohesion outside of foreign policy.

    There is a reason that Hewson lost and it wasn’t because he was too liberal, he just couldn’t generate a pragmatic version for people to start with and get comfortable with. I note they never would have gone for all of Fightback!, but it is realistic to think he could have dione a lot with a large majority if he’d been more willing to take narrower ‘liberal’ change that better protected the vulnerable.

    I’d also suggest that the liberal wings of both Labor (say Dawkins/Tanner types) and Liberal (Turnbull) could form a reasonably cohesive group if they could. In which case it is hard to say how many votes such a powerful coalition of figures could generate. Perhaps not government but certainly a lot of inner city votes for senate and perhaps HoR. The main reason for no such realignments occurring are the lures of office and campaign finance. It then for liberals becomes about which party has the liberal inclination of choice on which you can divide. Those inclined to ‘fairness’ as well or with cultural history in the labor movement/background on their market thinking go Labor. Those who are more inclined to ‘individualism’ or with other cultural history such as a petrol station owners son with hostility to unions go Liberal.


  10. Corin – I agree that there have been liberalising politicians, and I have always thought that specific liberalising campaigns can work (and have). But in the general population, political thinking generally does not match the big ideologies, and particularly not liberalism.


  11. Andrew, that’s true, but I also think you take a narrower view of liberalism, particularly when it can also be seen as a socially reformist force, for example, many liberals can care deeply about inequality and have measures for it within a market economy. My own view is that liberalism is shaped by pragmatism as it has to be and indeed its lack of rigidity is its great streangth and weakness. I tend to think you use the word as a exclusive term which I don’t fully accept. For example, to link liberalism mainly to shrinking the state, misses that crucial change in 20th century liberalism.


  12. Regarding your last sentence, and with an eye to the political parties that do generate significant support, it should probably rather be something like:

    Australians say they don’t like politicians much, but they have a strong belief in government shaping either the social or economic structures of Australian society.


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