Liberalism in Australia

Liberalism in Australia dates back to the earliest pioneers of the area, and has maintained a strong foothold to this day. Liberalism in the country is primarily represented by the centre-right Liberal Party.[1] The Liberal Party is a fusion of liberal and conservative forces and are affiliated with the conservative centre-right International Democrat Union.[1] The term "little-l liberal" is often used to distinguish philosophical liberals from members of the Liberal Party.

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Some of the earliest pioneers of the federation movement, men such as Alfred Deakin, came under the influence of David Syme of The Age. Other influencers of federalism included Samuel Griffith who while initially was seen as a supporter of the labour movement became partisan against the Labour movement with his legal intervention in the 1891 Australian Shearers' strike. While all of these men were generally self-described "liberals" their understanding of liberalism differed substantially. Deakin in particular was considered a radical who was disliked by both the traditional conservative Tory of the city and the squatting class of Australia. The degree of progressive sentiments also varied from colony to colony: social liberals such as David Syme were prominent in Victoria while others were prominent in 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, composed 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. Malcolm Fraser, quoting from Menzies' memoir, Afternoon Light, 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.[2]

However, previous Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, is reported to have described himself the most conservative leader the Liberal Party had ever had.[3]

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[4][5] 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.[6] Former Prime Minister John Howard in a 2005 speech described the modern position:[7]

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[8][9] and Malcolm Turnbull were Cabinet ministers in the Howard government. Christopher Pyne , George Brandis and Bruce Billson served in the outer ministry. In 2018, members of this grouping made up the substantial majority of senior cabinet and ministry positions in the government of small-l liberal Turnbull. At the state level, "small-l liberals" have substantial influence particularly in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

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.


The governments of Menzies (1949–1966), Gorton (1968–1971) Fraser (1975–1983) and Howard (1996–2007) differed from each other in both social and economic approaches.

Unifying threads of Australian liberalism, have included:


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

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

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 Commonwealth Liberal Party and ALP dissidents to 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 several ALP dissidents led by Joseph Lyons to form the United Australia Party.
  • 1944: The United Australia Party merges with the Australian Women's National League and several other groups to form the Liberal Party of Australia.

From Liberal Party of Australia dissidents to Australian Democrats

Australian Democrats offshoots

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 Democratic Party

Liberal leaders

See also


  1. Monsma and Soper, p. 95.
  2. "Malcolm Fraser". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2004-05-20. Archived from the original on 2010-07-16. Retrieved 2009-10-07.
  3. "John Howard And The Conservative Tradition". Retrieved 2009-10-07.
  4. Andrews, Cameron (2002-07-29). "Wither the Democrats". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  5. "Only vision will snare Lees the small-l voters". Sydney Morning Herald. 2003-05-02. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  6. "TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP ADDRESS TO THE 'AUSTRALIA UNLIMITED ROUNDTABLE'". Vicnet. 2007-02-09. Archived from the original on 2008-07-06. Retrieved 2009-10-07.
  7. "". Retrieved 2009-10-07.
  8. "Joe Hockey - Speeches - Maiden Speech". 1997-10-20. Archived from the original on 2009-09-14. Retrieved 2009-10-08.
  9. Dodson, Louise (2004-10-23). "Labor bickers as PM opts for slow change". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-08.
  10. "Predicted Senate results for NSW". 8 September 2013. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
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