Saturday, May 27, 2006

COMMENT: Looking Back Liberally

During a recent spring clean, I happened to stumble across the Summer 2001 edition of Liberally Speaking, the NSW Liberal Party newsletter.

The focus of the issue was on the 2001 election result, in which the Coalition secured a majority of at least 10 seats over all other parties and independents.

On page 3 was a list of all seats and the swings involved. Les Osmond in Blaxland scored a phenomenal 6.5% swing on a 2-party preferred basis. Mind swings were posted against Bronwyn Bishop and Brendan Nelson.

Yet what really interested me was the photo album in the centre pages. Here were a range of persons I remember regularly ripping each other to pieces during state council meetings and at internal party ballots.

From the left were John Ryan, Phil Ruddock, Chris McDiven, Patricia Forsythe, Bob Baldwin, Peter King and Helen Coonan. From the right were Tony Abbott, David Doust, John Howard and Rachel Merton.

Ben Franklin and the NSW Young Libs ran the flying squad whose job it was to be available on short notice to assist any campaign or candidate in need of assistance. The Young Libs were exciting and a genuinely fun crowd, prepared to help even if they didn’t agree with you.

The ALP could rely on union hacks to campaign for their struggling candidates on short notice. We never had union backing. But we always had the Young Libs.

I remember running for Reid and receiving a call from Senator Marise Payne’s office the night before offering access to the flying squad. Looking back, I wish I had taken them up on their offer. My swing could have been higher.

Why do I mention all this? Because the newsletter took me back to a time when the Young Libs were a campaigning force. Whether you were wet or dry, you could rely on the Young Lib wets to help.

Today, the Young Lib dries will only help you if you belong to the right faction or because you attend church. The takeover of the Young Libs by the Religious Right (RR) has taken away that cutting edge campaigning that the NSW Young Libs were always famous for.

The refusal of Alex Hawke’s Young Libs to support John Brogden’s campaign is ample evidence that they are not unconditional about their support for the Party. Ben Franklin didn’t agree with Ross Cameron on a lot of things. But Ben Franklin was happy to lead the flying squad to help Cameron keep his seat. Alex Hawke, on the other hand, wasn’t keen for John Brogden to become Premier of NSW.

Back in the mid-1990’s, I never had much time for the small “l” liberals (even if I probably agreed with them on most things). But one thing I will always give them credit for. They were enthusiastic and vibrant. And they were basically nice people. They tended to value friendships and relationships more than people on our side.

And now we see the divisive politics of the RR pushing even their natural allies away. When the Religious Right are even prepared to roll devout Christians like Wayne Merton, it is time to start worrying and acting.

If Peter Debnam is to have any hope of becoming Premier, he really has no option but to stop appeasing the RR. He has done the right thing by standing by sitting MP’s subject to RR challenge. What he also needs to do is reign in the rhetoric of RR activists who use all kinds of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric on e-mail groups (and in anonymous posts on this blog) and who sprout this nonsense to journalists.

The people of NSW need to have a choice between the ALP and the Coalition. They don’t want to be faced with a choice between the ALP and the Christian Democrats. If concerned Liberal Party members don’t watch out, they might their party becoming unelectable. In which case, even 10 of Ben Franklin’s flying squads won’t be able to help.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf