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What's in a name?

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Monday 6 June 2005

Judith Brett, lecturer in politics, La Trobe University


What's in a name?  


Why is the Liberal Party called the Liberal Party? When non-labour supporters met in 1944 to form a new party, they had to choose a name. Robert Menzies explains that `We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea'. This was not the first time non-labour had had to choose a name.  


In contrast to the ALP which has had a continuous organisation since 1901, and a name which conveyed what it stood for, the Liberals have reformed four times, with three different names at the federal level and many more in the states. In 1909 when Alfred Deakin's Victorian based Liberals and George Reid's NSW based free traders came together to form the first united non-labour party they called themselves Liberals; in 1916 when Billy Hughes and other pro-conscriptionists left the Labor government to join with the opposition they called themselves Nationalists. It was the middle of a war, when pressure was strong to bury sectional differences in the interests of national unity. This party, the Nationalists lasted till the Depression, when it was again reformed after another infusion of Labor men that were worried about Labor's unorthodox financial practices, and the called themselves the United Australia Party.  


In 1944 when a discredited United Australia Party faced a popular Labor government led by John Curtin, the task was to find a name which conveyed clearly the values the new party would stand for. The need, as Menzies saw it, was for a name that was distinctive, and which scotched the idea that non-labour was a negative political force, without its own animating values and convictions. Non-labour, said Menzies, ‘had been put into the position of appearing to resist political and economic progress' and so had adopted the role `of the man who says "No"'. Thus it was easy for it to be branded as reactionary. But, he said, `there is no room in Australia for a party of reaction. There is no useful place for a party of negation'.  


The anxiety that they would be seen as conservatives who were simply reactive to the clear goals and identity of Labor has haunted the Liberals. In 1910 they tried referring to the ALP as `the Illiberal Party'. But the name never caught on. While the negative non-labour is often used for the Liberal Party and its predecessors, the Labor Party, by contrast is never described as non-Liberal.  


When I wrote my book on the Liberal Party, from Alfred Deakin to John Howard, I too had to decide on a name. I wanted one name, so as not to have to interrupt the narrative to explain an organisational detail, nor did I want to rely on clumsy phrases like the Liberal Party and its predecessors. But neither did I want to use the standard fall back of most previous historians and describe this tradition with the essentially negative term non-labour. I chose Liberals as this was the name the people who joined and supported Australia's major non-labour party had most often called themselves.  


There was, of course, always conservative. But to my mind it is deeply misleading to compare Australian Liberals with the British Conservatives; and I cringe every time I hear the distinguished ABC broadcaster Terry Lane, or anyone else for that matter, refer to them as the Tories. As one observer put it in 1876 `the old fashioned terms Liberal and Conservative were ... quite unsuited to our young middle class community, where we have no privileged classes, no ancient institutions demanding reform.' In Australia conservatism became identified with a relatively unreflective support for the way things are, as expressed in the oft-repeated slogan `If it ain’t broke, don't fix it', but it had shallow roots in this new country, and none of the intellectual underpinnings of British conservatism until it was destroyed by Thatcher. 


Liberal is the name the new party chose in 1944, going back to the name of Deakin's 1910 party. Rejecting names which claimed the national space for themselves, the Liberals chose a name which recognised that, whether they liked it or not, they were engaged in a continuing, partisan struggle for distinctiveness.  


Guests on this program:

Judith Brett  

Lecturer in Politics 

La Trobe University