“The most irrelevant lobby in the country today are the libertarians arguing there is no case for lockdowns anywhere of any scale,” declared Paul Kelly, the doyen of Australian conservative political commentary, in July.
However, anti-government anger is growing as Australians confront the realities of a dismally slow vaccination rollout and ongoing lockdowns. The right-wing libertarians of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hope to convert that sentiment into the votes they need to win seats in state and federal parliaments.
Just a few days prior to Kelly’s declaration, his colleague at Rupert Murdoch’s conservative broadsheet the Australian, Janet Albrechtsen, set the hares running. She argued that widespread disaffection with the Liberal Party’s pandemic response, both federally and in New South Wales, has led to the rejuvenation of the LDP, “the little start-up that never took off.” If, Albrectsen argued, they mobilize serious intellectual firepower and keep out the weirdos and gun nuts, the LDP can force the Liberals to remain true to the values they claim to uphold.
Australia’s low coronavirus case numbers have been the envy of much of the world. These numbers were kept down partly by the strict and lengthy lockdowns that Australians have endured, including a fresh round that are ongoing in NSW, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory. Yet lockdown skepticism is on the rise, as are criticisms of the often heavy-handed means with which they are implemented. It remains to be seen whether the LDP can capitalize on this sentiment.
Who Are the Liberal Democrats?
Libertarianism is very much a niche movement in Australian politics. The Liberal Democratic Party was founded in Canberra in 2001 by twenty-two-year-old economics graduate John Humphreys. Then a junior policy analyst in the Commonwealth Treasury, Humphreys despaired that there was no political party that aligned with his libertarian views. Ironically, given the party’s anti-statist bent, in its early years it drew support primarily from Canberra public servants.
LDP members and supporters use the terms “classical liberal” and “libertarian” interchangeably. Chris Berg, formerly of the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and author of a book on libertarianism, believes the distinction is insignificant. “Both philosophies believe that public policy should be designed to maximise free markets and civil liberties,” he wrote in 2018. “That is, governments should get out of both the wallet and the bedroom.”
However, the differing terms do point to genuine fault lines within the LDP. On one side are the Hayekian classical liberals, who are principally concerned with free markets, low taxation, and property rights. Many of this persuasion find a comfortable home in the Liberal Party — for example, Berg’s former IPA colleagues James Paterson and Tim Wilson.
On the other side are the social and cultural libertarians, who are more intensely focused on the freedom of the individual to do what he or she pleases, as long as it harms no one else. They strongly support liberalizing drug laws, for example, putting them at odds with the more conservatively inclined wing. Internal divisions like these are common to all political parties, however, and the LDP’s factions have had enough in common to keep the party going for twenty years.
In this time, the LDP has only notched up minor electoral successes. Its high watermark came in 2013, when David Leyonhjelm was elected to the federal Senate with 9.5 percent of the vote in NSW. Even so, LDP partisans acknowledge that Leyonhjelm benefited from being placed first on the ballot paper. Additionally, some voters likely confused the LDP with the similarly named Liberal Party. Generally, the LDP tends to win between 1 and 3 percent of the vote.
At the state level, the party achieved successes in 2017 and 2018, with one candidate elected in Western Australia (WA) and two in Victoria. In 2019, however, Leyonhjelm resigned from the Senate to contest a seat in the NSW parliament. He failed. In the federal election that followed shortly after, Leyonhjelm’s Senate replacement was unable to reclaim his seat.
Just this year, the LDP lost its seat in WA, leaving the two Victorians, David Limbrick and Tim Quilty, as the only LDP members in any Australian parliament. This raises the question: Where can the LDP go from here?
Having stepped down as president of the LDP in 2004, Humphreys reassumed the position in May 2021. For much of the past twenty years, he has played a leading role building Australia’s libertarian movement, through think tanks and advocacy groups such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Australian Libertarian Society.
Following Humphreys’s return, along with what Albrechtsen described as some “serious financial backing,” the LDP coordinated a rapid series of announcements that the right-wing media have taken up with relish.
First, the Australian edition of the Spectator broke the not-exactly-bombshell news that the little-known Liberal Party activist John Ruddick had quit the party to run as an LDP candidate. Former Liberal senator (and leader of the failed minor party the Australian Conservatives) Cory Bernardi then used his platform on Sky News to advocate for the LDP. Embracing his inner Lenin, Bernardi argued that Australia needs “a vanguard to stick up for the liberty loving citizens who are actually sceptical about an all-powerful government.”
The Spectator soon endorsed Bernardi and Albrechtsen’s argument in an editorial. This was followed by a gushing interview on Sky News’ Outsiders, hosted by Rowan Dean, who is also the Australian editor of the Spectator.
Next, former Queensland premier Campbell Newman entered the fray. He dropped the news to the Australian that he had quit the Liberal National Party (LNP) and was considering running for the federal Senate as an LDP candidate. As he put it, he wants to “apply a blowtorch to people who seek to restrict our liberties and freedoms.”
Newman is the son of two former Liberal federal ministers and was a popular mayor of Brisbane before becoming premier of Queensland in a landslide election victory in 2012, in which the LNP won seventy-eight out of eighty-nine seats. However, he managed to squander this enormous advantage in the space of just one three-year term, losing power to the Labor Party in 2015.
Shortly after Newman’s tease, former Liberal MP Ross Cameron also announced his defection to the LDP. This may have been bigger news had Cameron not been voted out of parliament in disgrace in 2004 following revelations about multiple extramarital affairs. He has spent much of his post-parliamentary career parading himself on Sky News as a racist, a homophobe, and a moon enthusiast. The “serious intellectual firepower” that Albrechtsen called for is clearly yet to materialize.
At this point, the conservative old guard at the Australian felt the need to step in to settle things down. In a typically bombastic editorial, the broadsheet cautioned that Ruddick, Newman, and Cameron’s treachery would only serve to deliver a disastrous outcome, namely, a Labor-Greens government.
Since then, Newman confirmed his candidacy with the backing of Tim Andrews, an Australian Grover Norquist who spends his days fighting tax increases. The founder of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, Andrews is the key figure behind the annual Friedman Conference, alongside Humphreys. The Friedman Conference has been instrumental in connecting libertarians across the country. On the day of Newman’s statement, Andrews announced that he would be joining the LDP to his more than four thousand Facebook followers, urging them to do the same.
Mainstream or Fringe?
These developments demonstrate that libertarians are agreed about the need to pressure the Liberals. However, it is not entirely clear what strategy the LDP will adopt to win the support of disaffected voters. Those still wedded to neoliberal-era economics — Janet Albrechtsen and Campbell Newman, for example — want to add opposition to pandemic restrictions to the usual orthodoxies about reining in government spending.
The more radically inclined have taken their cues from recent right-wing populist successes. They want a clearer, simpler message. “We will be running an anti-lockdown message like Nigel Farage’s single-message campaign on Brexit,” says Cameron. Ruddick agrees, stating that ending “COVID-mania” will be the main campaign theme. As he told Sky News,
Come the first of December, once everyone’s had an opportunity to get vaxxed — if they want to get vaxxed — we go back to complete normality. No more QR codes, no restrictions in any way.
Vaccination might be the most delicate of all issues for the LDP. Authorities have fined both Ruddick and Limbrick for attending anti-lockdown protests, which are usually populated by high numbers of anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists. The Liberal Democrats have used careful messaging to try to balance an awareness that mass vaccination is our best way out of lockdowns with their desire to appeal to anti-vaxxers. Ruddick told the Guardian that the LDP is “neutral” on vaccination. Limbrick is on record opposing the possible imposition of travel or other restrictions on unvaccinated people.
Although the LDP is a marginal force, the party’s strategy will have major implications for the Liberal-National Coalition. The Coalition performs best when it manages to isolate fringe forces to its right and incorporate their supporters, as former Prime Minister John Howard did with Pauline Hanson’s far-right insurgency in the late 1990s. Ever since, the Coalition has generally preferred to court hard-right candidates and voters, preferring to keep them inside the tent rather than throwing bombs from outside.
This strategy is not without risks. Liberal MP Craig Kelly quit the party in February after Prime Minister Scott Morrison criticized his quack views on vaccination and alternative therapies. This might have been a relief for Morrison if it weren’t for the Coalition’s razor-thin parliamentary majority. More recently, both sides of parliament united to condemn another government member, George Christensen, for his idiotic comments on masks, lockdowns, and vaccine passports.
It remains to be seen whether the Coalition can continue to appease libertarian and hard-right elements, while maintaining its commitment to managing capitalism and the health crisis, including by authoritarian means. Whether the Coalition can manage this tension will go some way to determining its electoral fortunes in the forthcoming federal election.
Humphreys and his allies once seemed satisfied with the LDP’s meager electoral returns and libertarianism’s niche status in Australia. Now, however, they have announced a plan “to take the Liberal Democrats from a 2 per cent party to a 10 per cent party over coming elections.” Can they do it?
Chris Berg believes that increasing anger about some of the most dramatic suppression of civil liberties in living memory presents an enormous opportunity. He believes the LDP can succeed if it can steer clear of anti-vaxxers and the hard-right elements that populate libertarian circles, and instead rely on relatively mainstream figures to sell the party’s message.
In 2018, left-wing journalist Guy Rundle wrote that David Leyonhjelm’s strange neuroses served only “to discredit libertarianism as a real political philosophy.” It’s possible, as Rundle argued, that the crackpot element in the Australian libertarian movement will continue to alienate mainstream voters.
However, this is not certain. To quote twentieth-century Australian intellectual Donald Horne, “when times are cracked, the crackpot can become king.” The next federal election could be the LDP’s chance to make its presence felt in Australian politics.