Collapse of the modern Liberal Party and Part two: The Howard battlers joined the party

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The crumbling of the Liberal Party can be traced back to John Howard’s leadership even in opposition, and his remaking of Menzies’ party in his own image

Mike Seccombe writes in The Saturday Paper

Part one: Collapse of the modern Liberal Party

The devolution of the federal Liberal Party has been a gradual process. Yet if one vignette sums it up, it was the scene on the streets of Manly, in the affluent, socially progressive seat of Warringah on Sydney’s northern beaches, three days before the election.

Katherine Deves, a woman with no significant Liberal history or serious policy credentials, was driven to politics only by her virulent opposition to transgender athletes. She was selected over the objections of local party members, at the behest of Scott Morrison, and was carefully kept away from media and public scrutiny for most of the campaign. Deves finally broke cover on that Wednesday street walk. With her was former prime minister John Howard.

They made an incongruous couple: Deves towering over Howard as she glided and he shambled along the footpath. He did most of the talking. She mostly smiled and nodded as he insisted her views about trans athletes were “not insensitive, it’s just a statement of the bleeding obvious”.

Howard must have known that Deves would not take a seat in parliament. Right from the start it was clear Warringah – taken from Tony Abbott by independent Zali Steggall in 2019 – was all but unwinnable. That is why a long line of potential candidates, including former premiers Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian, declined to run. Once Deves’ abhorrent social media posts came to light, describing transgender people as “surgically mutilated and sterilised”, among many other things, she was politically dead.

This raises the question of why Howard was sent out on the street with Deves, three days out from polling. The only plausible answer is that it was to ensure continued focus on the trans issue – actually a non-issue, given its irrelevance to the lives of most Australians. The object of the exercise was not to help Deves – she was beyond help – but to try to win votes in culturally conservative outer suburban and regional electorates. Howard was there to do what he always does better than anyone else in the party: foment division by escalating the culture wars. He did so no matter the cost to Liberal Party moderates facing challenges from progressive candidates for the votes of small-l liberal constituents.

Those moderate Liberals complained at the time, privately and in some cases publicly, that they were being thrown under the bus by the party’s right-wing leadership. They wanted Deves disendorsed. Now we see how right they were to be concerned. Nine moderate-held seats in the house of representatives were lost. Only six remain, plus another seven in the senate.

Among the seats lost were many once considered Liberal heartland: Goldstein, North Sydney, Mackellar, Wentworth and Curtin, now held by teal independents;  Bennelong, Higgins, Hasluck, Pearce, Tangney and Boothby, now held by Labor; Ryan and Brisbane, now held by the Greens. And of course, Kooyong, held for 32 years by the Liberal Party’s founder, Sir Robert Menzies, and for the past 12 by the former treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

In Frydenberg’s absence, the only contender for the leadership was the hard-right Peter Dutton. When he announced his frontbench this week, its members were drawn overwhelmingly from the right and centre-right factions of the party.

“It’s an unbelievable achievement that we lost Kooyong, Warringah, North Sydney, Wentworth, Goldstein, all those seats. That really took some doing. If you were a disaffected, small-l liberal, you had nowhere to go.”

Only a handful of moderates got frontbench spots, mostly in minor portfolios. The most senior of these were Simon Birmingham, shadow minister for Foreign Affairs; Paul Fletcher, Science and the Arts, the Digital Economy and Government Services and manager of opposition business in the house; and Jane Hume, who was given Finance, Public Service and special minister of state. Marise Payne, who initially resisted a spot, was persuaded to take the position of shadow cabinet secretary. Deputy leader Sussan Ley is nominally moderate, but over recent years has drifted closer to Morrison’s centre-right group.

And so we are left with a federal Liberal Party that is the most right-wing it has ever been, although Dutton has promised to be accommodating of a wider range of views than his predecessor.

“We aren’t the ‘Moderate Party’. We aren’t the ‘Conservative Party’,” Dutton said two weeks ago, as he confirmed his intention to become leader. “We are Liberals. We are the Liberal Party.”

Dutton echoed the words of Menzies, promising to work for the benefit of the “forgotten people” of middle Australia. But the party he leads is no longer the party of Menzies – it has not been for decades. Dr Peter Baume can attest to that.

Thirty-six years ago, Baume was a leading moderate light in the Liberal Party, then in opposition to the Hawke government. He was also the shadow minister responsible for the Status of Women. In June 1986, he delivered a powerful speech, tracing the history of discriminatory practices against women and calling for the introduction of legislation to give women equal employment opportunities.

But the following year, when Labor introduced the bill he had called for, his party’s leadership determined to vote against it. Baume and six others crossed the floor to vote with Labor. He later said his liberal principles “sat poorly with the increasingly dominant radical conservatism” of his party.

The leader of the party at the time was the same man who protected Deves in that Manly street walk: John Howard. He was the same leader who first diverged from the centrist line of Menzies, proudly declaring himself the most conservative leader the party had ever had.

Baume sees a clear through line from that long-ago declaration to the Liberal rout at this most recent election, from the leadership of Howard to the likes of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison and the hugely diminished benches Dutton now leads.

“There’s nothing wrong with him being a conservative. But there’s everything wrong with saying the party should become a conservative party. There’s a big difference between the two,” he says of Howard.

“It’s an unbelievable achievement that we lost Kooyong, Warringah, North Sydney, Wentworth, Goldstein, all those seats. That really took some doing. If you were a disaffected, small-l liberal, you had nowhere to go.”

Baume is 87 now and lives in Warringah. He voted for Zali Steggall.

The late 1970s and 1980s were a time of great political change, not only in Australia. The post-war economic orthodoxy was in the process of being supplanted by what in this country was called economic rationalism and elsewhere was known as Thatcherism, Reaganism or, in New Zealand, Rogernomics. It favoured a free-market economy, cutting tariffs and industry protection, the privatisation of state assets, lower direct taxation, higher indirect taxation and smaller government.

The Liberal government of the time was divided over these reforms between so-called “wets” and “dries”, with the latter grouping enthusiastic for change. Prominent among the dries was then treasurer Phillip Lynch, who hired a gun economist from the Reserve Bank to help his staff with policy. That was John Hewson.

When Lynch was forced to step aside following allegations of improper land dealings – he was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing – Howard replaced the treasurer and inherited Hewson, who says he was encouraged by then prime minister Malcolm Fraser to keep an eye on Howard.

“[Fraser] was very concerned about Howard,” Hewson says. “They never got on and he never trusted Howard.”

Hewson believed dry economics and progressive social policies could go together. Indeed, when Labor won government a few years later, in 1983, it showed that was the case. While the economic changes Bob Hawke and Paul Keating introduced were inevitably disruptive, they endeavoured to soften their impact – in sharp contrast to Howard’s ideological equivalents, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

In opposition, the Liberal Party fell into internecine war between its moderate elements – led by Andrew Peacock – and Howard and the social conservatives.

Menzies’ conceptualisation of the Liberal Party has family as one of its central tenets but, says Hewson, Howard’s ideal of what a family should look like failed to evolve from the 1940s. It did not account for different family structures, and particularly working women.

“He had this particular view of the family structure: male and female, father and mother, and 2.2 children. He was always enthusiastic about the idea of the family tax [which] legitimised income splitting between the parents,” Hewson says.

Issues of race and ethnicity also were prominent in Howard’s years in opposition. In 1986, for example, he virulently opposed sanctions on the apartheid regime of South Africa. While Howard did not go as far as Thatcher, who called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, he repeatedly talked down the prospects of ending white-minority rule.

In 1988 he released his “One Australia” migration and ethnic affairs policy, calling for an end to multiculturalism and opposing a treaty with Indigenous Australians. He argued that the rate of Asian immigration was too high and threatened Australia’s “social cohesion”.

Whatever else might be said of Howard, he was a stayer. Finally, in 1996, 22 years after entering parliament, he became prime minister.

Political wisdom holds that oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. The Australian electorate was, by then, tired of Labor and might well have thrown it out three years earlier but for fear of the daunting complexity of the Fightback policy offering of John Hewson.

The 1996 poll also produced the shock election of a disendorsed Liberal from Queensland, Pauline Hanson, whose campaign focused on stirring resentment among working-class voters against the imagined privileges enjoyed by Indigenous Australians and Asian immigrants.

She was widely, immediately condemned, but not by Howard. The newly elected prime minister, who had declared that “the times will suit me”, eventually offered a mild rebuke of Hanson – perhaps because he shared some of her prejudices, perhaps because he saw opportunity to divide and conquer.

Howard was a master practitioner of the politics of division, seeking advantage in fighting culture wars. He railed against what he called the “black-armband view” of history. He steadfastly refused to offer an apology for the forced removal of the Stolen Generations. He ran a scare campaign against land rights, memorably appearing on ABC TV with a large map in September 1997.

“This,” he told Kerry O’Brien, “shows 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia coloured brown on this map. Now, the Labor Party and the Democrats are effectively saying that the Aboriginal people of Australia should have the potential right of veto over further development of 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia. Now, that is a very simple message. I think the Australian people will understand that message.”

The incident illustrated his political genius: it was a simplistic interpretation of reality, by which he managed to mislead without actually lying.

Howard went on to become Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister after Menzies. But he came very close to leading a one-term government. The Coalition lost 14 seats in 1998 and a leaked post-election review by party president Shane Stone said the government was perceived as being mean, tricky and out of touch.

It might have lost in 2001, too, but for a bit of luck. In August the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 433 rescued refugees, mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan, sought to bring them to Australia. Howard seized the chance to make it a national security issue, sending SAS troops to board the ship.

When Islamic terrorists struck the United States on September 11, 2001, Howard happened to be in Washington. He pledged to join the US in its war on terror – and for a November election fought on border security. Around that election, he coined his most indelible line: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

 

Howard was lucky. He was also lucky to fight the next election against a hyper-aggressive and somewhat unhinged Labor leader in Mark Latham. He was lucky to be prime minister through an unprecedented resources boom, during which money flowed into Treasury coffers almost faster than his government could give it away in tax cuts and middle-class welfare payments.

As to his legacy? Most commonly enumerated as lasting policy are his introduction of the goods and services tax and the implementation of strict gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. Most Australians, most Liberals, were wholly supportive. The bravery came from Tim Fischer, the leader of the Nationals, whose constituents needed their guns.

What else? His government halved the rate of capital gains tax, thereby fuelling the housing price boom that persists to this day, which turned homes from being simply places to live into financial investments. He cultivated anti-intellectualism and relentlessly attacked the national broadcaster. He courted the religious right. He pandered to vested interests in the mining sector and ignored the environment and climate change. He imported divisive electioneering methods such as push-polling and dog-whistling from America. He remade the party of Menzies in his own image.

“The modern Liberal Party was really founded on the idea of a very deliberate kind of coming together of conservative and liberal strands in the culture,” says Professor Frank Bongiorno, a political and cultural historian at the Australian National University. “Menzies was very insistent on that. It was very much based on the notions of democratic participation and a sense of post-war idealism … that the war had been fought for individual liberties and the gesture towards the new ways of economic management and the welfare state, and basically he pragmatically supported them. It was based on this notion that it was a democratic, participatory party.”

But that is not what Howard left. Under him there was little tolerance for diversity of opinion. It was a tenet of the Menzies party, for example, that Liberals could vote with their consciences and cross the floor of parliament. In all Howard’s 11 years in power, though, former chief minister of the ACT Gary Humphries says he was the only Liberal who did. Humphries made the move to federal politics and now says he wishes he had not, so stultifying was the control of the right wing.

As for being a grassroots party, Bongiorno says Menzies would be appalled at the tight control exercised over candidates by party leaders, the idea that “politics is for professionals and everyone else should basically just butt out”.

Sarah Maddison, a professor of politics and director of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne, says Menzies would not countenance the politics of division and the culture wars that came to characterise the party under Howard and the leaders who followed him.

“Howard unleashed it,” she says, “and his successors, like Tony Abbott, pushed that boat out as far as they could. And when that didn’t go so well for him, still, no one in the party was listening. And so we ended up with someone as shallow and meaningless as Scott Morrison.”

The question now is whether the Liberal Party can recover.

This is part one of a two-part series. Read Part two: The Howard battlers joined the party.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as “Part one: Collapse of the modern Liberal Party”.

Politics

Part two: The Howard battlers joined the party

After John Howard’s loss, the Liberal Party was transformed again, with branches taken over by religious sects, and the voters he targeted from a distance becoming members.

In defeat, Scott Morrison finally managed to unify his party. Almost everyone, it seems, blames him for their loss.

The former Liberal member for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, who lost the blue-ribbon seat to independent Allegra Spender, spoke of the “visceral” dislike of Morrison he encountered while campaigning. Voters, he said, felt Morrison “was too religious”.

He continued, “They didn’t like that he carried coal into parliament one time. They didn’t believe his sincerity on climate change … They didn’t like our handling of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations, and Grace Tame.”

You hear variations of the same theme from lots of Liberals, from Labor, and in the media analysis. It was all down to Morrison’s character, and perhaps a bit of Barnaby Joyce.

There was certainly much for Labor to attack: Morrison’s propensity for ducking responsibility and blaming others when things went wrong; the inadequacy of his response to the pandemic, bushfires, floods, climate change and the cost-of-living crisis; his picking of gratuitous fights with Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia over lockdowns; his lack of awareness or interest in the concerns of women; his encouragement of pork-barrelling and the corruption of government process; and his general lack of candour, empathy and competence.

In his post-election analysis at the National Press Club on Wednesday, the Labor Party’s national secretary and campaign director, Paul Erickson, went through all these failings in great, damning detail. He also stressed, contrary to popular wisdom, that the fault lay not just with Morrison.

“Scott Morrison may have come to personify these failures, but they are institutional and collective, not individual,” he said. “They were actively prosecuted by senior cabinet ministers and all Coalition leaders, including the two men then seen as the only likely successors to Scott Morrison – Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton.”

If anything, Erickson cast his net too narrowly by restricting his criticism to the Morrison government. The fact is voters are moving away from the Coalition – particularly the Liberal Party – not only at the federal level but in every jurisdiction in Australia. They began doing it well before Scott Morrison became prime minister.

This suggests Morrison is only a symptom of something that has afflicted conservative politics for a long time and now has cast it into rapid, maybe even terminal, decline. The conservative side of politics has collapsed before. The Liberal Party, after all, was constructed from the wreckage of the United Australia Party.

Ian McAuley, a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, provides some hard numerical evidence of that decline. He has compiled the numbers on the vote share of both Labor and the Coalition parties for the past 20 federal, state and territory elections, back to 2014.

Labor’s primary vote – that is, before the distribution of preferences – fell in nine of those elections, but by less than two points on average. This was roughly consistent with the long-term decline in the vote share of the major parties over almost half a century.

The Coalition, in contrast, saw its vote share fall in 19 of those 20 elections, by an average of almost 12 points.

“The exception was the Queensland election in 2020, when the One Nation vote came back to the Coalition. But it lost the election anyway,” McAuley says.

“I never got from Menzies what I feel about listening to modern Liberals, which is a contempt for the other. It’s a really, really harsh, harsh attitude – that your political opponents are the enemy. It’s completely wrong. Your political opponents are people with different opinions.”

The biggest fall in the Labor vote share was 4.4 points in the May 2021 Tasmanian election. There were bigger swings than that on nine occasions for the Coalition. In the case of Western Australia, the Liberal vote plunged 15.9 points in 2017 and another 9.9 in 2021.

The consequences are evident in Australia’s parliaments. The only state in which the conservatives hold a majority is Tasmania, and even then it is of just one seat. The Coalition is in tenuous minority government in New South Wales. Everywhere else it is in opposition. In the west there are only two surviving Liberal members in the lower house.

At last month’s federal election, the Liberals received just 23.9 per cent of first preference votes, down 4.3 points from three years ago.

The numbers tell of a party in existential crisis, but they don’t say how it came to be there. Doing that requires close study of the Liberals over the past several decades.

Emeritus Professor Judith Brett, political scientist and historian at La Trobe University, traces it back to the time of the Howard government and its adoption of the tactics of the United States Republican Party, which had made a political art form of stoking the fears and prejudices of “disengaged, angry, lower-working-class people”.

Those divisive tactics included belligerent rhetoric, personal smear campaigns, push polling, the drumming up of wedge issues, and so-called dog whistling, particularly on race, says another political scientist, Dr James Murphy of Swinburne University.

Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, the pollster-strategists, were instrumental in importing similar tactics for the use of the political right to this country, and subsequently to the Tories in Britain and right-wing parties elsewhere.

An early example of these tactics, says Murphy, was seen in the 1992 Queensland campaign, overseen by Crosby, against the Goss Labor government. The campaign involved claims Labor had blood on its hands after a prisoner out on early release committed a murder. This replicated the 1988 campaign run by the US Republicans against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, blaming him for crimes committed by convicts allowed out of prison on weekend furloughs in Massachusetts, the state of which he was governor.

A standout Australian example of this stoking of prejudice was the children overboard affair, which saw the promulgation of the lie that asylum seekers who were trying to gain access to protection in Australia had deliberately thrown their own children into the sea. Howard rode to a win in the 2001 election by wildly exaggerating the threat posed to this country by a relatively small number of boat arrivals, even conflating the asylum seekers with the Islamist extremists they were, in reality, fleeing.

Fear has been used by the Coalition against its political opponents ever since. To take one set of examples, Professor George Williams, former dean of law at UNSW Sydney, counts 92 counterterrorism laws introduced in this country since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

“It’s been rightly described as hyperlegislation,” says Williams. “It goes well beyond what you find in the United Kingdom, the United States. And that doesn’t even cover the many laws on boat arrivals, asylum seekers, or more recently, foreign influence and interference.”

Of course, the threats are real. But, he says, the purpose of much of this legislative activity went beyond simply addressing the issue. The aim was to “set a narrative” that only a conservative government was sufficiently tough to deal with it. Essentially, it was to wedge Labor and win votes.

Initially, it worked. Over time, however, as the terrorist threat has receded in the public imagination, Williams says, “it just isn’t the vote winner it was”.

Before the recent election, Murphy notes, the government’s attack on Labor shifted to focus on a new external threat: China. The claim was that the Chinese Communist Party wanted Labor to win because it would be weaker in its dealings with the superpower. Morrison went so far as to label Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, a “Manchurian candidate” – that is, an agent of an enemy power.

This was not a cleverly calculated effort to wedge Labor. It was more forlorn than that. It was, says Murphy, a “dead cat”. In its determination to shift the debate away from its own failings, Morrison and Peter Dutton threw a metaphorical dead cat on the table as a distraction. But it served only to show how bereft the government was of any plan of its own to deal with China. Or anything else, for that matter. All it offered was negativity.

Fred Chaney, a former leading light in the Liberal Party, sees its current “desperate” state as a direct consequence of its long drift to the ideological right and its adoption of the politics of division during the Howard years.

Chaney served 19 years in the federal parliament, from 1974 to 1993, first as a senator for Western Australia and then as the member for Pearce, which fell to Labor last month. He served as a minister under Malcolm Fraser and as deputy leader of the party under Andrew Peacock. He had a reputation for integrity and was well-regarded by both sides of politics.

He also is the uncle of Kate Chaney, the moderate independent who won Curtin at the election, after a 12.8 per cent swing away from the Liberal incumbent. Fred Chaney quit the Liberals in 1995 and these days laments what has become of the party of Menzies.

“I never got from Menzies what I feel about listening to modern Liberals, which is a contempt for the other. It’s a really, really harsh, harsh attitude – that your political opponents are the enemy. It’s completely wrong. Your political opponents are people with different opinions.”

He finds the divisiveness of contemporary politics “really offensive and, I think, very, very counterproductive”.

“I would hope that what we’ve got now with a third of the voters voting for this Coalition, the third voting for the Labor Party, and … a big crossbench, it’s an opportunity for the parliament to really go back to taking its role seriously, as both a legislative body and as a body which holds government to account and which acts as a clearing house for ideas.”

That’s the hope. The fear is that the Coalition will not change its hyperpartisan, divisive ways.

“The natural tendency of the opposition,” Chaney says, “on the precedent of Tony Abbott, on the precedent of Scott Morrison and on the precedent of Dutton so far, is that they will resume seeing their role as conducting guerilla warfare against the government, right or wrong.”

Even if Dutton, the hard man of the hard right, were minded to try to shift the party back closer to the centre, he would face enormous difficulties, says John Warhurst, emeritus professor of political science at Australian National University.

Warhurst ticks off the Liberals’ many woes: organisational problems relating to both selections of candidates and funding, particularly now the party has lost so much support among the affluent and progressive; continuing culture wars; the weakness of the moderates; and the difficulties of being in coalition with the Nationals, particularly in relation to climate change policy.

“And,” says Warhurst, “the new element, which I’ve never seen before, is the rise of the extreme right within the Liberal Party. You know, in a really scary, Trumpian sort of way, which I don’t think existed even under Howard. That sort of global conspiracy stuff.

“The Christensens and the Kellys have departed now, of course, but there is still this sort of leaching of the Liberal right into the UAP and One Nation. When you listen to people like Alex Antic, from South Australia, or Gerard Rennick, from Queensland, you wonder how the whole thing can hold together.”

It is not just a problem at the federal level. In Queensland, for example, the decision was made in 2008 to merge the Liberals and Nationals, which, says Warhurst, “only submerged the moderates even more”.

In Western Australia, after the wipeout of the 2021 election, a number of Liberal Party members, including one of the two surviving MPs, David Honey, warned that branch stacking by conservative evangelical churches was driving away traditional supporters and threatened to consign the party to “the electoral wilderness forever”. The reality is that there are but two factions in the west now: the religious right and the secular right.

South Australia, too, has seen an incursion by the Christian right. And although the government was dominated by moderates, it was white-anted by a whispering campaign about then premier Steven Marshall, says a senior party source. Coupled with a series of scandals about rorting of expenses, defections by conservatives, and a protracted campaign against “Premier Marshmallow” on Murdoch’s Sky News, this whispering contributed to the party’s defeat in March.

The story repeats with minor variations in Victoria: culture wars, branch stacking involving churches, and a right wing that is both dominant and politically inept.

In the biggest state, NSW, the reckoning continues over the actions of Morrison and his co-religionist, Alex Hawke, to override the party membership and hand-pick candidates, infamously including Katherine Deves, whose transphobic commentary made her unelectable against Zali Steggall in socially progressive Warringah. Only this week, David Elliott, a prominent member of Morrison’s socially conservative faction, accused the NSW treasurer, moderate Matt Kean, of “treachery” during the federal election for text-messaging a journalist with the suggestion they question Morrison about Deves.

In the ACT, the Liberal Party has been in opposition for more than 20 years. At the federal election, with the defeat of Senator Zed Seselja by independent David Pocock, it became the first jurisdiction in Australia to return no MP or senator from the conservative side. The reason is not hard to fathom: Seselja is an arch right-winger and Canberra is a progressive place.

Not since Howard, says Judith Brett, has the Coalition produced a government with any sort of positive agenda. “Under Abbott all they ever did was undo things that Labor had done. And Morrison’s was just – nothing.”

She suggests that until the party discovers its purpose, it will fail to recruit electable candidates. To do so, it must also work out who exactly its constituency is.

Menzies’ vision was of a party that represented the “forgotten people” who were neither part of the organised labour movement nor protected by great wealth. The reality is Australia has changed vastly in social and cultural terms since Menzies and even since Howard. The party they both led has failed to keep up.

Since taking over the leadership, Dutton has echoed Menzies’ phrase “forgotten people”, but has identified them only as the owners of small businesses – ironically, one group the Liberals did not forget, whom they plied with tax cuts, asset writeoffs and subsidies.

Dutton and his party might start by looking at the changed demographics of the Australian electorate, particularly at what the data says about women, given the fact women are grossly under-represented in the ranks of the party.

Professional women now outnumber male tradesmen. As of last year, Bureau of Statistics data show that about half of all women aged 25 to 44 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. For men it was less than 40 per cent. Women were better educated across all age groups. Overall, 42 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 74 had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Back in the 1990s, says Dr Sarah Cameron, of the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences, women tended more conservative, politically, then men. Now they are more left-wing – particularly younger women.

Women make up the greater proportion of union members as well. They are also concentrated in the caring professions and are poorly paid.

“At the last election, the Australian Election Study showed, the most important issue for men was management of the economy,” Cameron says, “whereas for women in the last election the top issue was health. And that’s an issue area where Labor has a strong advantage over the Coalition.”

Religiosity has also declined among women, as among the broader population.

It was no coincidence that the so-called teal candidates and their supporters were overwhelmingly female.

It is worth noting, too, that when Peter Dutton engineered a spill against Malcolm Turnbull almost four years ago, arguably the best candidate was eliminated first: Julie Bishop. Instead, it came down to a contest between two hyperaggressive, right-wing alpha males, Morrison and Dutton.

The Liberal Party famously has a “woman problem”. But it is more than that: it has a younger person problem and an educated person problem.

Decades ago, John Howard set out to use culture wars as a means to harvest the votes of uncultured people. He went off to stoke prejudice and appeal to what Kim Beazley, in his concession speech after losing the Tampa election, called the “dark angels of our nation”. He tried to convince the politically disengaged that politics was mostly a matter of being tough in response to problems that actually required nuance.

It was not a problem so long as those target groups simply voted for his party. But then they joined it. They became candidates and gradually came to wield real power in the party. Eventually, two of them followed him in becoming prime minister: Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison.

John Warhurst wonders if there is any way back for what was once the party of Menzies. He points to the history of the break-up of the United Australia Party.

“Maybe the lesson there is you’ve got to die and be reborn, that you’ve got to fragment [to] such an extent that you go through [the]hell of opposition, and then you get the emergence of the Liberal Party.”

By which, of course, he means an actually liberal party.

This is part two of a two-part series. Read Part one: Collapse of the modern Liberal Party.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as “After John Howard’s loss, the Liberal Party was transformed again, with branches taken over by religious sects, and the voters he targeted from a distance becoming members.”.