Liberalism in Australia

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This article gives an overview of liberalism in Australia. It is limited to liberal parties with substantial support, mainly proved by having had a representation in Parliament. The sign ⇒ means a reference to another party in that scheme. What constitutes a "liberal party" is by no means clear-cut in Australia. The extent to which liberal thought plays a role in the Liberal Party of Australia is a contentiously debated issue. The Australian Democrats and the Australian Progressive Alliance could be described as "liberal" in the way that word is understood in most countries.



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 of the Free Traders and the two wings of the 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 establishment base continued right until the formation of the present-day Liberal Party, founded in 1945 and led initially by Sir Robert Menzies.

The "wet" (moderate) and "dry" (conservative) wings of the Liberal party co-operated fairly harmoniously, but as conservative tendencies started to predominate, South Australian liberals broke off to form the Liberal Movement, later joined by other dissident small-l liberal forces to create the Australian Democrats. In modern times, monetarism and social conservatism are firmly in a position of dominance, as typified by party leader Prime Minister John Howard. Some "small-l liberals", such as Malcolm Turnbull find a home among the Liberal Party, but many, such as Greg Barns, have moved to the Democrats.

The Democrats, in turn, became fractured as under the leadership of Cheryl Kernot and Natasha Stott-Despoja the party moved towards the left. Party leader Meg Lees formed the more avowedly centrist Australian Progressive Alliance in 2003. In 2002 former Liberal Party candidate and Advisor to Prime Minister Howard Greg Barns joined the Australian Democrats, with the view of returning a strong liberal platform to the party. So far Barns has served in a support capacity in the last federal election and various state elections. Barns was disendorsed in 2002 by the Liberal Party following comments opposing Government action taken over the Tampa Affair. Barns is a strong advocate of human rights for Asylum seekers, and also supports the case for an Australian republic. He served as chair of the Australian Republican Movement 1999-2002.


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 each other in both social and economic approaches.

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

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 to Liberal Party of Australia

Free Trade Party

  • 1880s: The Free Trade Party is formed
  • 1909: The FTP merged with the ⇒ Protectionist Party into the ⇒ Commonwealth Liberal Party

From Liberal Reform Group to Australian Democrats

Australian Progressive Alliance

  • 2004: In the federal election of that year Meg Lees' campaign for senate re-election fails.

Liberal leaders

See also

External links



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