THE Liberal Party and its Twentieth Century Precursors

The Liberals' team for the Senate, 1950 (AOT, PH30/1/2621)

Until the early years of the twentieth century non-socialist forces in Tasmanian politics had been groupings of more or less like-minded individuals. They often had high-sounding names (for example, Liberal Progressive League, Tasmanian Democratic League); generally their stated principles were equally impressive, but their organisations ephemeral.

In 1904 Elliot Lewis established the National Association, but it was regarded as reactionary and in 1907 changed its name to the Progressive League. Lewis was Premier in 1909, but the League disappeared after failure at the 1909 election. Its successor was the Tasmanian Liberal League, founded later in 1909 in conjunction with the Tasmanian Farmers and Stockowners Association, and described as 'really a fusion of groups with varying ideas'. It became an effective political party, and in 1917 affiliated with the Australian Liberal Union. When Hughes left the Labor Party and formed the National Party, the League became the Tasmanian National Federation. It shared government with the Labor Party: premiers were Lewis (190912), AE Solomon (191214), Walter Lee (19161922, 1923), JB Hayes (19223) and John McPhee (192834). Despite Lyons' having formed the United Australia Party in 1931, the name 'National' seems to have continued in Tasmania until 1941, when the listing is 'United Australia and National Organisation'. In 1945 the party came under the umbrella of the new Liberal Party of Australia.

Robert Menzies was the founder of the Liberal Party of Australia. His purpose was to establish a single cohesive force to counter what he saw as the 'massive monolithic unity of the Labour Party'. The Party's philosophy recognised 'the economic responsibilities of the state to assist in preventing the recurrence of large-scale unemployment by appropriate economic and monetary measures; to secure, through social legislation, a decent and reasonable measure of economic security and material well-being for all responsible citizens; and to succeed in both of these purposes by creating a state of affairs which would encourage the enterprise, resourcefulness, and efficiency of individuals and to lead to the greatest possible output of the needed goods and services'.

The Party structure was to be federal in nature; State Division had autonomy on state matters, but federal matters were the concern of a federal executive. Local branches elected members to an Electorate Committee, a State Council and a State Executive. Delegates to the Federal Council were elected by the State Council. There were women's groups and Young Liberal branches. The platform was established by the organisation, but matters of policy were the province of the parliamentary party. Relations between these two bodies were to prove flexible, and often dependent upon personalities, but parliamentarians have always enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, which they justify as reflecting their responsibility to their electors.

The Tasmanian Division was formed at a meeting in Hobart on 13 February 1945. The first state candidates stood at the 1946 election. Most were ex-servicemen. The organisation recruited them by arguing that in the services they had been fighting for freedom, and it was now their duty 'to finish the job'. Sir Angus Bethune wrote that many were dedicated to having the Party win, but did not expect or want to be elected themselves! Maybe this somewhat amateurish approach had something to do with the Party's failure for so long to topple the Labor governments led by Cosgrove and Reece, despite the recurrent scandals and instability which might have been thought symptomatic of a regime in decline. Not until 1969 was the Labor Party ousted and then only with the support of the Centre Party's sole Member of the House of Assembly, Kevin Lyons. The Bethune government was cut short by the defection of Lyons, which precipitated an election in 1972 at which the Labor Party was successful.

In 1982 the Liberal Party, led by Robin Gray, was returned to government on a platform of commitment to building the Gordon-below-Franklin hydro-electric power scheme. This was eventually frustrated by the commonwealth government, but the Party remained in office until 1989. Its course after the 1986 election was increasingly bedevilled by disputes with conservationists and problems of financial management, and it was finally displaced by a minority Labor government supported by the Greens. In 1992 and 1996 the Liberal Party again won power, but held office only until the election of the first Bacon Labor government in 1998.

Further reading: P Weller, 'The organization of early non-Labor parties in Tasmania', THRAPP 18/4, 1971; R Lucadou-Wells, 50 year history of the Liberal Party (Tasmanian Division), Hobart, 1994;

Max Bingham