The Liberal Party has a habit of disappointing its former leaders. BA Santamaria used to claim that Robert Menzies voted for the DLP in his later years. John Gorton hated Malcolm Fraser so much that he quit the Liberals and sat as an independent (though he rejoined the party in later life). While I don’t think John Hewson actually quit the party, his denunciations of John Howard were often fierce. And now comes the unsurprising news that Malcolm Fraser has resigned his party membership.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, to lose one leader may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose four looks like carelessness. Maybe my history is deficient, but I don’t think Labor has had a confirmed lost leader since Billy Hughes the best part of a century ago, though Mark Latham was certainly disillusioned with politics in general.
On conventional understandings of the Liberal Party, this is perhaps not too surprising. More than Labor, the Liberal Party has had an ideologically vague base that has allowed its leaders to shape the party in their own image. As I noted in discussing my own relationship with the party, in the time I’ve been involved it has stood for Australian Settlement minus the White Australia policy (Fraser), vacuous soft-right progressivism (Peacock), suburban conservatism (Howard), free-market liberalism (Hewson), upper-class conservatism with bad jokes (Downer), everything-depending-on-what-day-of-the week-it was (Nelson), market-leaning social liberalism (Turnbull) and now Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism.
It must be very frustrating to former leaders, and especially former Prime Ministers who enjoyed tight control over the party, to see their beliefs discarded by their successors. Arguably Fraser’s experience has been more bruising than most. Long before he publicly turned on the party, it turned on him. In the 1980s, I like many Liberal activists subscribed to the often-made ‘wasted Fraser years’ thesis (while I certainly don’t regard him as a great Prime Minister, I do now think that this criticism was too harsh).
There have been calls over the years to have Fraser expelled from the party. I’ve always opposed this on ‘broad church’ grounds – there are a wide variety of views consistent with the party’s history and support base, and I think Fraser’s opinions fit within this range. On the other hand Fraser hasn’t been an asset to the party for a very long time – for various reasons not since the early 1980s – so his departure is no loss.