Saturday, January 24, 2009

“FINDING OUR WAY BACK”: Young Liberal Movement Speech

Senator Mitch Fifield





"We’re an opposition. We should be in the business of frustrating bad policy ... Our duty is to oppose policies we know will destroy jobs ... We will not win by being Labor-lite. We will not win by tacking left. And we should never abandon responsible economic policy in the pursuit of political gain ... Running away from what we have always stood for will not regain the trust of the Australian people. It is wrong and the public will grant us no reward for abandoning principle ... "

This morning I would like to make a few observations about opposition. But let me be clear. I do not want us to perfect opposition. Some state oppositions have made an art form of it. I have no interest in being in opposition beyond the next election.

Since November 2007 we’ve been grieving.

Our Parliamentary Party has traversed the well known stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, hopefully, acceptance. [1]

Well, how are we faring?

Serious grieving, psychologists will tell you, usually lasts a year. [2] It typically involves crying, despair, pain, sorrow, disorganisation, intense searching and yearning. Apart from the crying, that sounds pretty much like our first year of opposition.

And at the end of last year we witnessed the final stage of this.


I am referring to the Liberal/National scrap in the aftermath of the votes on the carbon sink motion and Labor’s infrastructure legislation.

At that time there were unedifying exchanges between Coalition colleagues with some Liberals seriously suggesting that the Federal Coalition split.

The argument put forward was that the Liberal Party would be better off without the Nationals unless there is always unanimity on policy.

It is an argument borne out of a misunderstanding of the relationship between the two parties and a failure to appreciate the full electoral benefits of coalition.

The simple fact is if we are not in Coalition, we can’t win. We won’t win. If we are not in Coalition at the next election we may as well not bother turning up. 1987 is a case in point, where the coalition split caused by the Joh for PM push cost John Howard any chance of victory.

And in the wake of the creation of the LNP there are also real practical difficulties in attempting to dissolve the Coalition. Why? Because the Queensland Nationals are now members of the Queensland Division of the Liberal Party of Australia. We could formally end the Coalition, but 6 (including CLP) out of 14 Nationals would have the right to sit in the Liberal Party Room.

All of us get frustrated at times when our Coalition partner disagrees with our position on particular issues. I personally felt very disappointed when some Nationals opposed our voluntary student unionism legislation.

But such issues should not cause us to forget all the times the National Party has been a strong team player in the Coalition. The previous Coalition Government was able to enact several important reforms which were not popular with the National Party base, including the full sale of Telstra and the tightening of gun controls. These reforms were possible only because the Nationals stuck with us.

We need to recognise that the Coalition consists of two distinct, proud non-Labor parties with their own histories and traditions. We should accept we are with the Nationals. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. Nothing will be gained by scapegoating the Nationals for our polling woes.

Voting differently to the Liberal Party on a couple of relatively minor issues from time to time is no reason to cut ties. Coalition, as opposed to merger or separation, remains the best way to corral the non-Labor vote.

Ultimately, we have a successful partnership because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Make no mistake. The Coalition is the bedrock of electoral success.


With that behind us the Opposition is in the rebuilding phase.

As Menzies said in The Measure of the Years, opposition could be a very productive time for a political party:

I found that opposition provided not only a great and enthralling opportunity to create a new and cohesive national party, but also an obligation to rethink policies, to look forward, to devise a body of ideas at once sound and progressive…[3]

It is not the job solely of a leader to turn our fortunes around. It is a collective responsibility.

But to achieve this we have to embrace our role as an opposition.

Our two main tasks are to hold the Government to account and to present ourselves as a viable alternative for voters at the next election.

I believe we are making a good fist of that first task, with Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership on the global financial crisis a standout example.

Although it is still early days, we have a lot of work to do on the second task.

In order to take the best possible policies to the next election, we need to have full, open and honest debate within the Party.

Policy development is not a task just for the shadow ministry. All of us - the parliamentary party, the organisational party, the Young Liberal Movement - must make a contribution. And the backbench too has an important role to play.

But first there must be a culture shift.

Disagreements on policy within the Party must cease to be seen as divisions but rather accepted as a natural part of the process. Discipline and unity are not inconsistent with rigorous debate.

As a party we have become perhaps a little timid in debate. A little scared of ideas. A little scared to state an opinion.

Why? For fear we may be labelled as not being a team player. Labelled a maverick. Afraid the press may run a story about disunity and ill discipline.

Unity is a political virtue, but it should not be elevated above debate.

It is neither realistic nor desirable for policy formation to take place solely in some mythical, hermetically-sealed party room.

It is worth having sometimes inelegant debate to ensure we arrive at policy positions that enjoy broad support in all sections of the Party.

Now is the time to clear away the rubble of defeat and re-build our policy platform on the foundations of our Party’s enduring values – small government, individual freedom and free enterprise.

But it won’t be enough to merely support these concepts in principle. We must give them form through policy.


One of the areas in which we need debate within the Party is industrial relations.

Our approach to it is crucial if we are to regain our credentials as the party best able to manage the economy. Although the last election wasn’t squarely focussed on the economy, inevitably Australian politics always returns to economic management.

Immediately after the last election, it seemed like industrial relations policy would not play a major role this parliamentary term. After all, the Shadow Cabinet declared WorkChoices dead in December 2007. [4]

Indeed, most of us probably expected that Labor would move quickly to overturn WorkChoices, with minimal Opposition dissent, and then move on. This is essentially what happened with Labor’s transitional Forward with Fairness legislation.

But since then three things have happened.

Firstly, the Government’s Fair Work legislation goes much further than Labor’s election policy with a massive shift of power back to the unions.

Reopening the doors of every Australian workplace to unions and giving them access to the personal details of employees will not boost confidence. Allowing unions to engage in pattern bargaining will not create jobs, it will destroy them.

Indeed, there is little doubt that uncertainty about the regulatory and economic environment following passage of Labor’s legislation is a major factor in the announcements of significant job shedding this past week.

Secondly, the economic landscape has changed dramatically. Unlike 2007, we are now facing rising unemployment, slowing growth and a collapse in business and consumer confidence. Labor’s industrial policies will increase unemployment and damage business. As the Minerals Council of Australia has stated:

“… it would unravel many of the advances secured by previous workplace relations reform. It would reverse a steady trend toward increased labour market flexibility… just as the Australian economy faces its most critical challenge for at least a generation.” [5]

Thirdly, there is a reassessment by many in the Coalition as to the wisdom of having been so quick to abandon our core principles on workplace relations after the election.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, the brand and policy iteration known as “WorkChoices” is dead.

But what should never die, and never fall from Coalition policy, is our commitment to the right of individuals to negotiate without unwanted union involvement and the right of an individual to sell their own labour according to terms they choose.
In other words, the essence of our 1997 legislation. How radical were those reforms? Well, Cheryl Kernot and the Democrats supported them.

The Coalition’s position on the Government’s Fair Work Bill is that we won’t seek:

“…to frustrate the Government’s election commitment to implement its ‘Forward with Fairness’ election policy.” [6]

This reflects the Party Room concern that unless we allow passage of Labor’s legislation, the Government will campaign at the next election on WorkChoices.

But let’s take a reality check.

It doesn’t matter whether we support Labor’s changes or oppose them – Labor will still go to the next election saying the Coalition wants to re-introduce WorkChoices.

Don’t be fooled for a second. Even if Labor’s legislation passes without dissent, Labor will campaign that we have a secret IR agenda.

You can bet that Karl Bitar is already cutting the TV ads and desk-topping the mail-out material. But Labor campaign tactics and rhetoric should not influence our policy.

Sure, Labor demand we “get out of the way” and point to mandate theory.

But I never heard Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard or Wayne Swan agreeing to respect Coalition mandates after elections in 1996, 1998, 2001 or 2004.

Did Labor respect our mandate to balance the budget and pay down their debt?

Did Labor respect our mandate to reform the IR system in 1996?

Did Labor respect our mandate to implement the new tax system and the GST?

Did Labor respect our mandate to sell Telstra?

Labor never once recognised our mandate.

Indeed Labor would cite the separate mandate of the Senate. That there was a constituency that they were elected to represent. That the Senate was a house of review. That they should amend and block bad legislation. The then Opposition Leader in the Senate, Chris Evans said,

“The Senate has both a right and a responsibility to debate and review legislation… it is our responsibility to provide an alternative view of legislation, to speak out when we think things are wrong and to fight for those people whose interests we represent.” [7]

Nick Sherry went further saying,

Whether or not this government has a majority in the Senate and whether or not the Liberal government won the last election, the Labor Party are not required to say, ‘Oh, well, we’re just going to roll over, agree to everything the Government has announced and do nothing for the next three years.’ That is not the approach in a democracy.” [8]

We should take the same approach.

The Coalition should never relinquish the legislative opportunity to defeat bad legislation, regardless of whether the measure in question is within Labor policy or beyond it.

Such an opportunity approaches in the Senate.

We’re an opposition. We should be in the business of frustrating bad policy.

Our duty is to oppose policies we know will destroy jobs.

Our duty is to oppose legislation that will diminish individual rights.

Espousing freedom of the individual, freedom of association and expressing concern about jobs is meaningless if we are not going to stand up for the right of someone to sell their own labour on terms agreed by them without union interference.

Let’s have confidence in our principles. Let’s have confidence in our capacity to make our case.

We will not win by being Labor-lite. We will not win by tacking left. And we should never abandon responsible economic policy in the pursuit of political gain.

Let’s not make the mistake of drafting our policies in response to the circumstances of the last election. Let’s not make the mistake Labor made after 1996 of failing to defend our economic reforms.

Running away from what we have always stood for will not regain the trust of the Australian people. It is wrong and the public will grant us no reward for abandoning principle.

That was one of the Coalition’s great strengths in office. People didn’t always agree with us, but they knew where we stood. They respected our conviction.


The answer to the question "why should we vote for you" is to be found in a party's philosophy with policy as its expression.

Our best chance at the next election lies in being true to ourselves and our beliefs, presenting the Australian people with a clear alternative.

If we do this we will give ourselves every chance of taking back Government in 2010 and making Malcolm Turnbull Prime Minister.

Thank you

[1] Kübler-Ross, E (1969), On Death and Dying, Macmillan, New York
[1] Weber, Z.A. (2001) Good Grief. Double Bay: Margaret Gee
[1] Menzies, Sir R.G. (1970), The Measure of the Years, Cassell Australia Ltd, p.16
[1] Transcript of Joint Press Conference, The Hon Brendan Nelson MP & The Hon Julie Bishop MP, 19/12/2007
[1] Minerals Council of Australia, Submission to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee Inquiry into the Fair Work Bill 2008, p.2
[1] Media Statement, The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, 25/11/2008
[1] Senator Chris Evans, Senate Hansard, 14 June 2005[1] Senator Nick Sherry, Senate Hansard, 16 June 2005

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