The small-l Liberal must rise again

March 22, 2015

Vale Malcolm Fraser. Until his dying day, a small-l Liberal. A conservative supporter of the free market and a classic liberal on social policy. The Liberal Party needs more people in Fraser’s mould, or it risks becoming irrelevant over the coming decades.

When Fraser officially parted with his old Party in 2009, he said: ‘I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.’ It was a sad sentiment for its honesty. It is an unfortunate reality that the small-l Liberal is a dying breed in a party that has shifted to far right conservatism more akin to the Tea-Party Republican model rather than the progressive party Menzies envisaged.

There is a vacancy in Australian politics, in desperate need to be filled by a party that embraces both economic liberalism and social liberalism. It’s curious that a society increasingly affluent, diverse and tolerant does not have a political vehicle to advance its interests. We are earning more and we are living more lavish lifestyles. We are multicultural and tolerant of the individual choices of those among us.

Yet we are forced to choose between a centre-right party that supports the free market but denies social freedoms, and a centre-left party that pays lip service to social freedoms and is addicted to government largesse. No wonder Australian voters are disengaged. Our parties aren’t responding to the political market.

Fraser saw this and his former party allies would be foolish not to heed his message. As his passing marks the end of a political era, the party should take a moment to consider how it will engage the next generation.

It is strange that Gen Y and Gen X, often marked as self-obsessed narcissists with personal aspirations for fame and fortune, seem to not identify with Australia’s major political movement that celebrates aspirant individualism and entrepreneurship.

Some years ago, legend has it that Liberal Party membership reached nearly 200,000. What was once the largest political party in Australia now risks becoming irrelevant if it does not do more to engage younger voters.

This problem is not isolated to the Liberal Party, since party membership for both major parties continues to fall. Yet I would argue that disconnect between Gen Y and Gen X is more profound for Centre-Right parties than those of the Left.

My generation, Gen Y, is less likely to sign up to a stated set of political principles and remain loyal. In a world that is constantly shifting, our individuality and freedom to express it matters more than any party line. We are drawn more to issue based politics, and particularly, big ticket items such as the environment, human rights, and social equality take hold more than tired ideological debates around notions of class warfare and status.

We are generally worldly and open to other cultures – most of us have travelled overseas before we hit 25, and the concept of ‘foreigners’ seems strange when we’ve come accustomed to classrooms and workplaces featuring a variety of cultural backgrounds.

We do not concern ourselves, however complacent it might be, with the day to day struggle for survival. We are removed from the world our grandparents grew up in. Sure, we had a global recession, but most of us still managed to fit in Xbox, iPad, iPhone and part time job while the world economy went bananas.

In short, we are the children of neo-liberalism. The beneficiaries of open markets and global trade. Yet conversely, we are increasingly suspicious of the political movement that ushered in this new epoch. Why?

I suppose I am an exception to the rule. I joined the Liberal Party when I was 21 years old. However, my seven year association with the party has hardly been an active one. I feel disengaged and removed. The few branch meetings that I did attend were coffee and scone clubs for retirees and pensioners. I felt that attending such meetings were a waste of time. We young folk want to feel empowered, and isolated talk-fests about issues of import didn’t fit the instant satisfaction demand that something worthwhile had been achieved through debate.

The communication didn’t grab me either– too many letters in the mail and not even a branch facebook page. But worryingly for the Party is that most people my age or younger won’t even bother considering the membership papers, let alone signing them. They are much more likely to get on board a GetUp petition doing the rounds on social media, or even join the Australian Greens.

So what is to be done? The Party would do well to embrace its original ideals of social liberalism. It should focus on empowering citizens to participate in the market of ideas and business. Returning to the Menzian embrace of educational opportunity would be a start. It should welcome minorities, no matter where they are from or how they came here. It could be the face of grassroots campaigns to empower individuals to be their best selves. It could champion innovative businesses that embrace environmental sustainability. It could be an advocate for social freedoms that provide individuals with the power to pursue their needs and wants; same-sex marriage being an example. None of these ideas are contrary to the liberal ideal. In fact, they sit within the very heart of liberalism. The party that Bob Menzies and Malcolm Fraser wanted it to be.

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