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Formation of the Liberal Party of Australia

Formation of the Liberal Party of Australia
Background to the Formation
Menzies’ Letter
The Canberra Conference: 13-16 October 1944
The Albury Conference: 14-16 December, 1944
Philosophy and Policy - Menzies’ Statement of 1945

Formation of the Liberal Party of Australia

The Liberal Party of Australia was born on 16 October 1944 after a three-day conference in a small hall not far from Parliament House in Canberra.

Background to the Formation

The three key factors in forming the Liberal Party in 1944 were:

  • The leadership of R.G. Menzies Industrial strikes
  • Labor’s proposals for the 1944 referendum.

As background, two sequences of events were significant: First, there was a series of industrial strikes, causing great loss of production and considerable public inconvenience. Newspapers warned of ‘industrial anarchy’ and of the ‘white-anteing of democratic institutions’, while the Federal Labor government seemed unable or unwilling to act. The issue of political censorship further stirred Non-Labor groups when editions of Sydney newspapers were seized on the instructions of the Minister for News and Information.

Secondly, there was the government’s decision to submit the ‘Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights’ proposal to the people at a referendum held on 19 August 1944. The proposed constitutional amendment would have provided guarantees of freedom of speech and religion and safeguards against abuse of delegated legislation, but the electors were asked to accept or reject all the proposals in their entirety.

The second, third and seventh of the ‘Fourteen Points’ in the proposals, however, would have given the Commonwealth Parliament powers for five years after the cessation of hostilities to control employment, marketing and the production and distribution of goods.

These moves brought unity to non-Labor forces in a way that nothing else could have done. A massive campaign was launched under the leadership of Robert Menzies, leader of the Opposition. The referendum proposals were defeated in four states and by an overall vote of 2,305,418 to 1,963,400. The electoral defeat of the United Australia Party only a year earlier was put aside. Menzies declared that the referendum had demonstrated that Australians were “not prepared to accept socialism as the pathway to human happiness” and announced that he intended to take advantage of the situation generated by the referendum campaign to seek to establish a new and comprehensive political movement.

Menzies' Letter

The impetus to the Liberal Party formation was a letter written by Robert Menzies to a number of groups around Australia. In early September, only weeks after the referendum, Menzies wrote a letter to the leaders of various non-Labor organisations. He said:

“The time seems opportune for an effort to secure unity of action and organisation among those political groups which stand for a liberal, progressive policy and are opposed to Socialism with its bureaucratic administration and restriction of personal freedom.

“The Australian Labor Party has an efficient Commonwealth wide organisation. To resist effectively those aspects of Labor policy to which we are opposed, and to gain the public support enabling governments sympathetic to our views to be formed, we must match Labor’s organisation with an Australian organisation of our own. This organisation should possess an Australian policy and have the closest contact with its Parliamentary leaders and representatives.

“I therefore invite you to be present at a conference to be held at Canberra on October 13th, 14th and 16th.

“I sincerely hope that you will participate in a full and frank discussion. You will be entirely free to make your own decisions and will not, of course, be bound by any majority of other persons.

“It is possible that a further conference will be found necessary after our first discussion has taken place, but my colleagues and I believe it to be most desirable that those of us who share the same broad political beliefs should first see if a basis can be found for unity.

“A successful outcome to such discussion might quickly and completely alter the current of Australian politics”.

The Canberra Conference: 13-16 October 1944

The meeting of various groups in Canberra was crucial. This meeting:

  • Decided the name of the Party Appointed a provisional executive Decided on the basic structures of the Party
  • Agreed to hold a further meeting in Albury.

Menzies, along with leading figures of the Opposition, Commonwealth and State Parliamentarians and representatives of groups from all States attended the Conference at Canberra. There were eighty delegates at the conference, eleven of them women. They represented eighteen political and other organisations all of which were opposed to the Labor Party and its socialist policies.

The listing of the various organisations represented is illustrative of the character of non-Labor politics at the time: note too, that none had interstate or Federal affiliations -

Australian Women’s National League, Victoria
Australian Women’s National League, Tasmania
Queensland Women’s Electoral League
Institute of Public Affairs, NSW and Victoria
Australian Constitutional League, Victoria, Tasmania and WA
Democratic Party, NSW
Liberal Democratic Party of Australia, NSW
Liberal and Country League of South Australia
Kooyong Citizens’ Association, Victoria
Country-National Organisation of Queensland
United Australian Organisation, Victoria
Nationalist Party, Victoria
Services and Citizens Party, Victoria
United Australia and Nationalist Organisation of Tasmania
National Party of Western Australia
United Australia Party (Fed).

Menzies dominated the conference as his vision for Australia and his command of issues convinced delegates of his capacity for leadership. In his opening address Menzies surveyed the problems of non-Labor forces and contrasted this with the Labor Party: “The Labor Party, though its policy and administration are repugnant to us, it is not something which exists under a different name and with a different set-up in each State. It is the Australian Labor Party.

Its membership depends upon common considerations all over the Continent. It has State branches and local branches. It has State Executives and a Federal Executive. It has all over Australia a system of journals so effective that it has been my experience that the same point of view in almost the same words will be produced by a Labor supporter in Bunbury as by one in Rockhampton.

“The result of this unanimity and cohesion on the organisational side has been that the disunities which exist in Labor circles are usually below the surface, are not advertised, as so have nothing like the public effect that is produced by the well-advertised minor differences of opinion that may exist in our own ranks.

“When I consider the structure of the Australian Labor Party and realise that the political warfare to which we have been committed for a long time past by no choice of our own is a struggle between political armies, I am driven to wonder how we could ever imagine that a concerted force under one command and with one staff is to be defeated by divided units under separate commands, and with no general staff”.

Menzies then reviewed the eight main defects of the non-Labor Parties. He followed this by saying:

“I am not optimistic enough to suppose that all of these matters can be brought to finality in one conference, the members of which are in many cases not authorised to bind their organisations. But at least I hope that two things can be done:

“The first is that we should declare our common belief that one organisation, Australian-wide in character, should be set up. The second is that we should express our common adherence to the broad outlines of a liberal and progressive faith, which will have in it the foundation upon which a new generation can really hope to build a new Australia.

“When I refer to “one” organisation, do let me emphasise that I am not merely proposing that existing bodies should by a process of negotiation and compromise go into some form of uneasy partnership. The truth is, and I want to say it quite plainly, that too may of the people whom we want to see interested in politics from our viewpoint have either no interest in the existing organisations or in many cases an actual hostility to them.

“It is not practical to expect such people to sink their ideas and join up with some body which fails to satisfy them. The real hope - and it is a great hope - is that a new movement should be brought into existence, that existing organisations should so far as practicable go out of existence in its favour, that all persons joining the new movement should do so on an equal footing, and that through branch executives, State Councils, State Executives and a Federal Executive, all democratically chosen, every joining member should feel that he or she has an effective chance of influencing both policy and organisation.

“In a word, a new movement must come into existence unhandicapped by vested political or personal interests of any kind.

“I am not so foolish as to believe that it is a reflection upon any of us that we have for years been prepared to devote our time to politics while most people have ignored them, and I therefore believe many of those active and prominent in a new movement will inevitably be drawn from the ranks of those who have worked so hard in the past.

“But what we must look for, and it is a matter of desperate importance to our society, is a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and national progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen, though not through the dull and deadening process of Socialism”.

Following Menzies’ address on the opening day, two committees were appointed: one to report on the name and objectives for a new party and the other to consider party organisation.

The Canberra Conference, after some debate, agreed upon the name ‘Liberal Party of Australia’ - the name preferred by Menzies, appointed a provisional executive and agreed to hold a further conference at Albury (on the border of NSW and Victoria) two months later.

At the conclusion of the Conference, Menzies issued a press statement, which reported on progress achieved, including the appointment of a provisional Federal Executive:

“After reaching its decisions on name and objectives the Conference proceeded to consider the procedural steps necessary for the constitution of the new organisation...

But it was agreed as a matter of general guidance that there should be a Federal organisation with a branch (later called a ‘Division’) in each State, that there should be a Federal Council comprising seven delegates from each State branch of whom a majority should not be members of Parliament, together with the leader of the Parliamentary Party in each Federal House, and there should be a Federal Executive comprising equal State representation. It was also agreed that the various necessary committees should be established.

The Conference decided that there should be a joint Federal standing committee on Federal policy, consisting of equal numbers of members of Parliament and non-Parliamentary members of the Federal Council together with the Federal leader of the Parliamentary Party who would be Chairman. All States would be represented on this Committee.

Two other decisions recommended the formation of a permanent secretariat at Canberra and substantial autonomy on the part of State branches in relation to State organisation and affairs. A provisional executive committee was appointed to assist in carrying out the desires of the Conference and to fix on this provisional executive were chosen by members of the Conference from that State.

The next steps will be that the delegates to this conference will report back to their respective organisations and recommend that the decisions of this Conference be carried into effect. When this has been done and it is hoped it will be completed in the next few weeks, the further plenary Conference will be held. At this the new Party will be formally constituted, and a constitution adopted. Branches will then be formed and the machinery of the constitution will operate.

There was a unanimous spirit of goodwill and co-operation. It is quite true that many important steps remain to be taken, but I am confident that the organisations represented at this gathering will be guided and enthused by their representatives, and that as a result a great and powerful body of Australian public opinion which for some time has felt itself dissipated by internal differences will become vocal and effective”.

The Albury Conference: 14-16 December, 1944

The Albury Conference
  • Formally agreed on the structure of the Party Adopted a provisional federal constitution
  • Appointed an interim federal executive

Delegates agreed:

  1. The organisation would be constructed on the Federal system, in which the maximum autonomy would remain with each State organisation whilst establishing a central body to co-ordinate all States and to afford a means of expression to an all-Australia policy. A Federal Secretariat would be constituted for the purposes of co-ordination, research, publicity and assistance to the Federal Parliamentary Party.
  2. Each State organisation would be under the control of a State Council constituted by representatives elected annually in a manner determined by each State.
  3. A Federal Council would consist of seven representatives appointed annually by each State Council together with the Federal Parliamentary Leader and the Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the Senate.
  4. Branches of not less than 25 members (later amended to 20) would constitute the basis of the organisation in each State.
  5. Joint Standing Committees on Policy would be appointed in each State and in the Federal sphere, consisting of equal numbers of Parliamentary and non-Parliamentary members under the chairmanship of the Parliamentary Leader. The purpose of such committees would be, firstly, to consider all matters affecting the Party’s Platform and report thereon to the State or Federal Council, and secondly, to advise the Parliamentary Party upon any matters affecting the implementation of the platform. This represented an important step towards establishing close liaison between the Parliamentary Party, State and Federal, and the organisation, whilst recognising their respective functions and rights.
  6. The Party would raise and control its own funds. In other words, it would not look to any particular body or bodies to raise money for it, but would obtain its requirements from voluntary subscribers on as wide a basis as possible. In this manner the Party would be free of any possibility of control from outside itself and would determine its own destiny”.

Menzies closed the Albury Conference with an elaboration of the principles on which the Party was built and with the presentation of certain organisational goals. “...There are certain features of what we have done. I shall summarise them.

In the first place, we have brought into existence for the first time in the history of Australia, the Liberal Party of Australia. As I said in Canberra we have existed for too many years as a series of separate State organisations. This is the first occasion on which those of, broadly speaking, our political way of thought have established themselves on an Australian footing.

That is a tremendous step. It is a vital step, because I do not believe that with the growing importance of national politics anything short of an Australian political organisation is fit to give expression to the ideas and inmost thoughts of hundreds of thousands of Australian citizens..

.” Menzies then discussed some of the major issues confronting the new party including members and policy; the place of women in the organisation; relations with the Country Party; securing candidates; political education; and responsibilities of business. He closed by saying:

“We are going through a period of political adversity. It will be the best thing that ever happened to us. We shall fight back, we shall think back, get long-term views, summon our courage and stir our imagination. In that case we shall win - and if we win I believe we shall save Australia”.

Two months later Menzies in Parliament officially announced the formation of the new Party:

“I have to announce that, in consequence of the formation of the Liberal Party of Australia, those who sit with me in the House desire to be known in the future as members of the Liberal Party”.

Philosophy and Policy - Menzies’ Statement of 1945

Robert Menzies was very clear in his views of the path that Australia and Australians needed to follow and he expressed his convictions on many occasions. While the issues in Australian politics and society may have changed since 1944, the basic principles espoused by Menzies then are essentially the objectives of the Party today.

Menzies delivered the following address to the inaugural Federal Council in August 1945.

“My purpose and duty is to put before you and through you to the people of this country the broad views of the Liberal Party of Australia upon some of the more important questions now arising. Not all of them. It is not possible in one speech or in one evening to deal with the immense variety of important subjects, but something constructive can be said on seven or eight leading questions...

Before dealing with specific problems, however, there are some preliminary matters to be stated:

There is a good deal of confusion, some of it deliberately created, about the Liberal approach to “private enterprise”.

The expression is unfortunate since to some minds it appears to suggest that private interests are being preferred to public benefit. If the expression connotes “each for himself and the devil take the hindmost”, with no provision against depressions, with big monopolies running free and injuring the consumer, with an absence of proper Government controls and Government liabilities, then it is something, which Liberalism cannot support.

But when we Liberals speak of “private enterprise” or “free enterprise” or the like we are laying emphasis upon the element of initiative for reward which we believe to be the great dynamic of material human progress. We believe in security, but we believe also in progress because upon progress and advancement of material standards in this country all security depends; in raising living standards we are not disposed to fight a rearguard action against social disaster. We believe in fuller and better lives for every citizen; in better houses and schools and furniture and food and clothing, because it is in these things and not in mere terms of money that the real standard of living is to be found.

None of these things can be attained unless we have increased, cheaper and more effective production. And this in turn depends, we believe, upon the encouragement, recognition and reward of extra skill and extra effort, whether they be those of employer or employee.

We do not stand for some mutual hostility between the Government and the private citizen in business. We believe in the co-operation of Government and citizen, the Government formulating and enforcing social and industrial obligations, preserving true and fair competition by a strict control of all monopolistic tendency; co-operating with business in long range planning, while business itself supplies the drive and ambition and progress without which security will become a mere sham and living standards will fall, not rise.

In a few words, Liberalism proposes to march down the middle of the road. Its watch words will be:

A fair deal and a good opportunity for everybody; no privilege, if by privilege we mean advantage, except for the industrious and skilful;

A sound and appropriate education for every child, whatever the economic condition of its parents; generous provision for every citizen against the chances and disasters of life; High pay for high endeavor.

To us, Australia is not eighteen million people to be thought about and ordered about and legislated about as a mere mass. To us, Australia is eighteen million individuals, the progress of each of whom is a priceless asset to Australia, and the honest contribution of each of whom is the essential foundation of all good community life. It is therefore to the preserving of the freedom of the citizen, his mind, his body, and his spirit, that Liberalism dedicates itself. Only from genuinely free, progressive, diligent and encouraged individuals can a really powerful nation be built”.

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