By John Humphreys
Last updated 13 December 2021.
The Liberal Democrats have been around for over 20 years now, which gives us a longer history than most other minor parties. It’s worth remembering that history. The story of the LibDems can be conveniently split into eras that align with different party presidents.
The first messy chapter was the “Humphreys era” (2001–04), which included our initial registration and campaigns for the ACT parliament. The party unofficially came to life in a flurry of activity in March 2001, when I released a party constitution, core principles, set of policies, plan for the coming year, and the forever controversial party name. Shortly afterwards we had our first party meeting at the Kingston Hotel, which included our future-Senator Duncan Spender. One of the enduring ironies of the LibDems is that the party was launched in Canberra, and most of the early members were public servants.
We managed to get registered just in time for the 2001 ACT election, where we ran candidates in all electorates and received 1% of the vote. Three years later we again ran across the territory and increased our vote slightly up to 1.3% of the vote. During these years we ran print and radio campaigns, letter boxed thousands of houses, held regular meetups, argued with early morning shock-jocks about drugs and tax, and gathered local and national media attention… all of which helped to slowly build our national network. During the 2001 campaign Duncan Spender and myself wrote and distributed a comprehensive policy manifesto (not available online; a few rare copies hidden in my garage), and another of our candidates (John Purnell-Webb) was fined $100 for smoking cannabis in front of the ACT legislative assembly. During one TV interview I was asked whether voters might confuse us with the Liberal Party, to which I answered that our supporters were too smart to accidentally vote for the Liberals.
During this time there was a brief merger with the Victorian-based People Power Party (run by Vern Hughes), branches set up in Sydney and Brisbane, and an early attempt at building a national executive… but most of the action was in Canberra. While we weren’t federally registered for the 2004 federal election, some of our members ran as candidates in QLD and NSW, with the most notable being future-MP Tim Quilty running for the Outdoor Recreation Party. It’s also worth mentioning Michael Sutcliffe as one of the unsung heroes who helped to keep the party on track during the early years. Michael would go on to be the President of LibDems QLD Division, and build an impressive team up in the sunshine state.
The 2nd chapter of the party was the “McAlary era” (2005–08), named after new President David McAlary, while I remained on as Vice President. Among other things, David was the leader when we endorsed a new party constitution, created a more effective National Executive, achieved federal registration, and he led the party in the 2008 ACT election.
The McAlary era saw an injection of new people, many of them from Sydney. Central among the new recruits were future-Senator David Leyonhjelm, future-President Peter Whelan, and lead 2007 Senate candidate (and current Vice-President) Terje Peterson. All three of these men were on the renewed 2007 National Executive, and were essential in building the party during these years. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their tireless efforts.
It’s not well known, but the party came close to getting Terje elected to the Senate back in 2007. For that election we had negotiated a dream set of preferences, and if we had received even half our average vote then Terje would have been elected and the party’s history would have been very different. Unfortunately, not only were we registered under the “wrong name” at the time, but even worse our Registered Officer accidentally applied to have the party only known by our acronym LDP on the 2007 ballot paper. The acronym meant nothing to most voters, and we received a very low vote… leaving the “Senator Terje” scenario to remain an interesting but unknown alternative history. These were our growing pains.
The 3rd chapter of our history was the “Whelan era” (2009–13) which marked the time when the party’s vote grew to our high-water mark under the leadership of the likable Peter Whelan. At the 2019 national convention Peter was recognised as one of the first inductees into the LibDem’s hall of fame. While we didn’t get anybody elected at the 2010 federal election, that was a breakthrough moment for the party as we achieved 1.8% of the nation-wide Senate vote, making us the 6th largest party in the country. For context, here is the top 10 from 2010:
- Liberal National
- Greens = 13.1%
- Family First = 2.1%
- Sex Party = 2.0%
- Liberal Democrats = 1.8%
- Shooters = 1.7%
- Democratic Labour = 1.1%
- Christians = 1.0%
- One Nation = 0.6%
An important part of this chapter was the involvement of “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery (who was our 2010 NSW Senate candidate), and our de-facto coalition with several other minor parties. Ever since our cooperation with the Outdoor Recreation Party in the 2004 federal election the two parties had continued to work closely, and by 2011 were effectively “sister parties”. Several LibDem members were also involved with the creation of the Smokers Rights’ Party, which became another “sister party”. Finally, we had a close working relationship with the Republican Party. None of these other parties still exist.
This was also the era when the party faced a “constitutional crisis” of sorts. The South Australian division of the party went rogue by holding on to membership lists and fees and attempting to create a separate party. The crisis was eventually resolved, though the consequent constitutional change and new party structure were (and remain) controversial.
In 2012 the party again ran in the ACT election, receiving an average of 1.5% per electorate. In the same year we achieved our first local council victories, and shortly afterwards Clinton Mead was elected as the first Liberal Democrat Mayor in Australia (in Campbelltown, NSW). These crucial middle years culminated at the 2013 federal election. Minor party success rests on hard work and good luck, and in 2013 the political gods smiled on us by giving us the first column in the massive NSW Senate ballot. This boosted our vote significantly, catapulting David Leyonhjelm into the Senate, and putting our party on the national stage. This result made us the 5th biggest party in the country:
- Liberal Nationals
- Greens = 8.7%
- Palmer = 4.9%
- Liberal Democrats = 3.9%
- Xenophon = 1.9%
- Sex Party = 1.4%
- Family First = 1.1%
- Shooters = 1.0%
- Christians = 0.9%
Many people deserve to share the credit for these years. A complete list would require a longer history, but in addition to the names mentioned above, the party now also benefited from superstar local candidate Ben Buckley, the rockabilly trouble-maker Gabe Buckley (no relation), the hero of South Australia Michael Gameau, and former Workers Party stalwart Jim Fryar.
The 4th chapter of our party’s history was the “Buckley era” (2014–18), under the leadership of National President Gabe Buckley. This period overlaps with David Leyonhjelm’s time in the Senate, so could equally be known as the “Leyonhjelm era”. For many people reading this history, the Buckley/Leyonhjelm years may be the first time you heard of the party. The 2013 success led to a significant boost in media coverage and public profile for the party, resulting in an influx of new members, as well as cash. These were exciting times and a steep learning curve for everybody involved, and in my opinion Senator David Leyonhjelm did a pretty good job at representing libertarian ideas in a difficult political environment.
This chapter saw the party get registered in South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, and New South Wales. Early state-based results were mixed, with the party only getting 0.6% in the 2014 SA election, but achieving an impressive 3.1% in the 2014 VIC election, and seeing our ACT vote rise from 1.5% to 2.1% in the 2016 territory election.
The next challenge for the party came at the 2016 federal election, which saw our support drop from 3.9% in 2013 down to 2.2% in 2016. Thanks to the double-dissolution voting rules, this was enough to get David Leyonhjelm re-elected in NSW, and Gabe Buckley very nearly got elected in QLD, only narrowly missing out to One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts. Our party was again the 6th biggest party in the country, overtaking Palmer and his splinter groups but falling behind One Nation and Xenophon:
- Liberal National
- Greens = 8.7%
- One Nation = 4.3%
- Xenophon = 3.3%
- Liberal Democrats = 2.2%
- Hinch’s Justice = 1.9%
- Shooters = 1.4%
- Family First = 1.4%
- Christians = 1.2%
While critics could point to the drop in vote as a step backwards, it should be remembered that the high 2013 results included a significant boost from the NSW donkey vote. The 2.2% vote we received in 2016 was in line with our average performance and was still a solid result.
The next few years saw a period of growth and evolution in the party. At the local level Tim Quilty was elected to the Wodonga Council in 2016 and Sam Gunning was elected to the North Sydney Council in 2017. At the state level, the party celebrated the important victory of Aaron Stonehouse in the 2017 WA election (with 1.8% of the vote), and then the dual victories of David Limbrick and Tim Quilty in the 2018 VIC election (with 2.5% of the vote). These victories made us one of the best represented minor parties in Australia. Some minor parties struggle once they have more than one representative. In contrast, even though our various MPs have had a mix of personal styles and priorities, they are united by a shared libertarian philosophy and agenda, and none of them have split from the party.
Senator Leyonhjelm continued to raise the profile of the party by contributing to several important debates and forcefully defending himself from media controversies. There was also the impressive 2nd place by John Gray in the Fremantle by-election and the credible 2.5% received in the 2018 SA election. This was also the time when former Labor leader Mark Latham and former Labor President Warren Mundine flirted with our party, sparking passionate discussion and strong opinions among members and party leaders.
Behind the scenes there was a new batch of dedicated volunteers, activists, and staffers who joined the old guard to help keep the party on track. Some notable additions included Nathan Thomason, Helen Dale, Anne Kerr, Andrew Cooper, Stuart Hatch, Les Hughes, Michael Noack, Catherine Buckley, Nicholas Umashev, Dean McCrae, Nicola Wright, Kate Fantinel, Jacob Gower, Abe Salt, and apologies to the many others I’ve missed. The influx of excellent new volunteers, candidates and MPs gave the party more depth, and helped us to appeal to a broader audience.
The 5th chapter of the party is the “Cooper/Russell era” (2019-20), with Andrew Cooper and Lloyd Russell each serving one year as President. These were tumultuous years, and the party suffered a couple of setbacks.
David Leyonhjelm chose to resign from the Senate to run as the lead LibDems candidate at the 2019 NSW election. Unfortunately, despite a credible 3.2% primary vote, we didn’t pick up enough preferences and narrowly missed out on the final spot. Despite this unfortunate end to his political career, David will always be remembered for being the first Liberal Democrat Senator, and his tireless efforts in supporting the party.
In the Senate, David was replaced by his long-time staffer Duncan Spender. Despite only having a handful of weeks to make an impact, Duncan impressed everybody with his tireless campaigning, eloquent advocacy of liberty, and a memorable maiden speech. It wasn’t enough though, and in the 2019 federal election we lost our Senate spot, and dropped down to the 9th biggest party in the country:
- Liberal Nationals
- Greens = 10.2%
- One Nation = 5.4%
- Palmer = 2.4%
- HEMP = 1.8%
- Shooters = 1.7%
- Animals = 1.3%
- Liberal Democrats = 1.2%
- Democratic Labour = 1.0%
Given the new voting rules, we knew that we would likely lose our Senate spot. Nonetheless, the unexpected loss in the NSW state election and the drop of our national vote down to 1.2% sparked some introspection and finger-pointing. It’s always good to learn from our mistakes, but we should avoid the temptation to overinterpret the fluctuations of politics. The 2019 elections were dominated by culture war issues, which benefited some other minor parties but weren’t ideal for a classical liberal party of principle.
By 2020 normal politics was giving way to Covid-mania, and a new National Executive had to wrestle with some difficult internal conflict and a steep learning curve. The WA division also saw some tough times, ending with a disappointing election in early 2021 where Aaron Stonehouse narrowly missed out on re-election. To add insult to injury the party was forced to delay our 2021 national conference due to Covid restrictions.
Despite the setbacks, the Victorian party stayed strong, with the MPs being ably supported by the excellent efforts of Ash Blackwell, Rob McCathie, Angus Ward, Dean Rossiter, Chloe Glasson, Lachlan Christie, and newly elected Councillors Paul Barker (Surf Shire) & Olga Quilty (Wodonga). It’s also worth paying homage to the hard work of Bede Mudge, Anthony Bull, Richard Davies, Sam Lee, Rob Cribb, and the notable return of Terje Petersen to the National Executive.
The 6th and current chapter of the party started at our May 2021 national conference, with the party going “back to the future” in generously giving me another stint as National President. Already this brief chapter has been full of excitement, unprecedented party growth, and complex challenges.
The recent party growth has been driven by the outstanding performance of our Victorian MPs, combined with an influx of excellent new party members, and a federal policy reset. David Limbrick and Tim Quilty are now seen as leaders in the anti-lockdown and anti-mandate movement, with David being referred to as the real leader of the Victorian opposition. They have been joined by some high-profile new recruits including Campbell Newman, John Ruddick, Ross Cameron, Tom Switzer, Renee Gorman, Tim Andrews, Topher Field, and many other great and good freedom-fighters across the country. The announcement of our Covid policy was our largest single day of fundraising and membership growth in the party’s history, and the subsequent release of the Freedom Manifesto has positioned our party as principled thought-leaders in this moment when the country so desperately needs real leadership.
Trouble remains. Our recent growth has sparked a reaction, with the Liberal/National government passing unprecedented new legislation with lightning speed that directly threatens our party. Suffice to say, we will not be giving up without a fight… though the bigger battle is against power-hungry politicians that continue to sell out small business and individual liberty in a naïve pursuit of perfect safety. There is a growing movement in Australia that is losing trust in the major parties and looking for a new direction. The Liberal Democrats stand ready to provide a sensible, principled, and solution-focused alternative that can provide real leadership towards a freer future. Join us.