Liberal Party of Australia

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This article concerns the modern Australian political party. For the Australian Liberal party active from 1909 to 1916, see Commonwealth Liberal Party.
Liberal Party of Australia
Leader John Howard
Founded 1945
Headquarters Cnr Blackall & Macquarie St
Barton ACT 2600
Political Ideology neo-liberal or conservative
International Affiliation International Democrat Union
Website Liberal Party of Australia
See also Politics of Australia

Political parties

The Liberal Party of Australia is an Australian liberal conservative 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. A Conservative youth group Menzies had set up, the Young Nationalists, was also merged into the new party. It became the Liberal Party's youth division, the Young Liberals.

In federal politics, the Liberal Party has held power since winning government in 1996, and governs in its traditional coalition with the National Party. In state politics, however, the reverse applies: the Liberals and Nationals are in opposition in all Australian states and territories.



The Liberal Party is generally an advocate of economic liberalism and support of free markets. However, during the Menzies era the party was quite interventionist in its economic policy and maintained Australia's high tarrif levels. It should be noted that at this time, the Liberal's coalition partner, the Country Party had considerable influence over the Government's economic policies. Since the 1980s the party has moved further to the Right, developing a strong New Right element in its platforms and policies.

Socially, the Liberal Party is a Conservative party, although it has a minority social liberal wing.

In general the Liberal Party has been seen as taking a tough line on law and order issues at Federal and State levels. It has also strongly supported the Australia's traditional alliances with the United States and the United Kingdom, sometimes at the cost of relations with Australia's Asian neighbours.


The Liberals' immediate predecessor was the United Australia Party, formed in 1931. The UAP, led by Menzies, disintegrated after suffering a heavy defeat in the 1943 elections. More broadly, the party's ideological ancestry stretched back to the anti-Labor groupings in the first Commonwealth Parliaments. 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 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 were defeated by Labor under Gough Whitlam in 1972. After the dismissal of 1975 they returned to office under the Prime Ministership of Malcolm Fraser, and stayed in power for eight years. Losing government in 1983 to the ALP led 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 Labor 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 Liberal-National Coalition.

Throughout their history, the Liberals have been the party of the middle class (whom Menzies, in the era of the party's formation called "the forgotten people"), though such class-based voting patterns are no longer as clear as they once were. In the 1970s left-wing middle class emerged that 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 in Australia has long been a Liberal preoccupation and raison d'etre. Anti-communism was successfully exploited through the 1950s and 1960s by Robert Menzies and his political 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.

Domestically, Menzies presided over a fairly regulated economy 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 market deregulation, privatisation of public utilities, and reductions in the size of government programs and thus, tax cuts. This program has been largely implemented since the election of the Howard government in 1996, although certain reforms were pre-empted by the Hawke/Keating Labor governments of the 1980's/early 1990's.

Socially, the party has wavered between what is termed "small-l liberalism" and social conservatism. The current leader, Howard, is in most respects socially conservative. His most likely successor, Peter Costello, is potentially more liberal on some issues. Other Liberal state and federal governments have also been more liberal, particularly in Victoria and South Australia.

The Liberal Party's organisation is dominated by the six state divisions, reflecting the party's original commitment to a federalised system of government (a commitment which was strongly maintained by all Liberal governments until 1983, but has been to a large extent abandoned by the Howard government, which has shown strong centralising tendencies). 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, although Liberal party members do have a degree of influence over party policy.

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, with only internal dissent within the Coalition presenting an obstacle to the implementation of the decisions of the Liberal cabinet.

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; the most notable current example being the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman.

Liberal Federal Leaders since 1945

List of Liberal Party of Australia leaders by time served

Liberal State Parliamentary Leaders

Past Liberal Premiers

See also

External links

Further reading

  • 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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