By John Humphreys
July 23 2019.
The Liberal Democrats have been around for over 18 years now, which gives us a longer history than most other minor parties. It’s worth remembering that history.
The pre-history of the party goes back to 1999, when I started looking around for a libertarian or classical liberal party to join. My initial assumption was that the party must already exist, so I just needed to do some networking and searching and then I could join a pre-existing team. Alas. Two years later it was clear that Australia didn’t have a libertarian party. After a few more months of planning (and taking inspiration from the New Zealand ACT Party), I finally pulled the trigger in March 2001 with the release of a party constitution, core set of policies, game plan, 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 Lib-Dems is that the party was launched in Canberra, and most of the early members were public servants.
The story of the Lib-Dems 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 first two campaigns for the ACT parliament, where we received 1% in 2001 and 1.3% in 2004. We ran print and radio campaigns, letter boxed thousands of houses, held regular meet-ups, 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 weed 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.
A quick comment on the name: Our party is often accused of trying to trick Liberal voters into supporting us, but this is wrong for a number of reasons. First, that was never the motivation… indeed, our name was more inspired by the “Australian Democrats”. At the time they were the main 3rd party, and had evolved from being liberal-ish to left-wing, so I wanted to suggest that we were a “more liberal” version of their style of 3rd party politics. A second motivation was to be accurate with our name, and I think our party is the genuine flagbearer for liberal philosophy. A third motivation was situation specific: I was a young-looking 22 year old with unconventional ideas, and I didn’t want the media and public to discount us as student political hacks. I thought (and still think) that our name gets the right balance of being serious, accurate, and giving roughly the right vibe.
Back on topic. During this time there was a brief merger with the Victorian-based People Power Party (run by Vern Hughes), and branches set up in Sydney and Brisbane, but most of the action was in Canberra. While we weren’t federally registered for the 2004 federal election, some of our members still 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 Lib-Dems QLD, 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 person responsible for arranging the party logo that we still use today, and he led the party in the 2008 ACT election.
It was this stage in the party’s history that we were federally registered, though the process wasn’t easy, and it’s worth telling the story. Back in 2001 both the Liberals and Democrats had objected to our party’s registration. I wrote our response, arguing that the words “liberal” and “democratic” were generic political terms that couldn’t be owned by any one party, and that parties like the “liberals for forests” and “Democratic Labour Party” already showed that multiple parties could use generic political terms without drama. We won that argument. Unfortunately, in 2007 the Australian Electoral Commission said that they would ignore the previous finding and refuse our registration unless we changed our name. With the 2007 election imminent, we briefly changed name to the “Liberty and Democracy Party” as a stop-gap measure. Shortly after the 2007 election we applied to get our original name back, and building on the 2001 precedent, we were successful.
The McAlary era saw an injection of new people, many of them from Sydney. Central among the new recruits were future-President Peter Whelan, future-Senator David Leyonhjelm, and lead 2007 Senate candidate Terje Peterson. These names should be familiar to anybody active in libertarian politics, and the party owes them a huge debt of gratitude for their tireless efforts.
It’s not well known, but the party came close to getting Terje Petersen 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 did we have the wrong name, 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 the party 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 hugely popular Peter Whelan. At the 2019 national convention Peter was recognised as one of the first inductees into the Lib-Dem’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:
1. Liberal National
3. Greens = 13.1%
4. Family First = 2.1%
5. Sex Party = 2.0%
6. Liberal Democrats = 1.8%
7. Shooters = 1.7%
8. Democratic Labour = 1.1%
9. Christians = 1.0%
10. 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 Lib-Dem members were also heavily 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.
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 constitutional change and new federal structure are still being debated today.
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:
1. Liberal Nationals
3. Greens = 8.7%
4. Palmer = 4.9%
5. Liberal Democrats = 3.9%
6. Xenophon = 1.9%
7. Sex Party = 1.4%
8. Family First = 1.1%
9. Shooters = 1.0%
10. 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 the party 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 outsiders could reasonable think of this as the “Leyonhjelm era”. For many people reading this history, the Buckley/Leyonhjelm era will probably be the first time you heard of the party. The 2013 success lead 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 libertarians 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 vote rise to 2.1% in the 2016 ACT 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:
1. Liberal National
3. Greens = 8.7%
4. One Nation = 4.3%
5. Xenophon = 3.3%
6. Liberal Democrats = 2.2%
7. Hinch’s Justice = 1.9%
8. Shooters = 1.4%
9. Family First = 1.4%
10. 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 in 2016 was more in line with the vote we receive in other elections around the country, and was still a solid result.
The next few years saw a period of growth and evolution in the party. 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). This 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 a mix of personal styles and priorities, they are united by a shared libertarian philosophy and agenda.
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, the credible 2.5% received in the 2018 SA election, and several more local council victories. This was also the time period 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 Helen Dale, Anne Kerr, Andrew Cooper, Stuart Hatch, Les Hughes, Michael Noack, Catherine Buckley, Nicholas Umashev, Nathan Thomason, Dean McCrae, Nicola Wright, 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 era” (2019-) under the leadership of Andrew Cooper. This chapter has only just started, but has already produced plenty of change and drama due to a couple of elections earlier this year. Unfortunately, despite our successes in WA and VIC, the party faced a setback in NSW. David Leyonhjelm chose to resign from the Senate to run as the lead Lib-Dem candidate at the 2019 NSW election, but the party just fell short of the required vote, and so David was not elected. 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 be the 9th biggest party in the country:
1. Liberal Nationals
3. Greens = 10.2%
4. One Nation = 5.4%
5. Palmer = 2.4%
6. HEMP = 1.8%
7. Shooters = 1.7%
8. Animals = 1.3%
9. Liberal Democrats = 1.2%
10. Democratic Labour = 1.0%
Given the new voting rules, we knew that we would likely lose our Senate spot. However, the unexpected loss in the NSW election and the drop of our national vote down to 1.2% have 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, and above all we should avoid sliding into petty point-scoring or public shit-fights.
In my not-quite-humble opinion, the drop in our party vote wasn’t caused by Leyonhjelm or the federal executive or any party member, but rather it is (mostly) a consequence of the challenging political environment. The rise of the SJW-left has sparked a retaliatory rise in anti-SJW politics and culture wars. This change has been good for some other minor parties, but it doesn’t really help a libertarian party. This is a moment for rebuilding and preparing for the next chapters, and hopefully we can work together constructively to support our excellent new batch of MPs and volunteers. With Aaron Stonehouse, David Limbrick and Tim Quilty continuing to represent libertarian politics across Australian politics, and a top-quality new office led by Kirsty O’Sullivan, we have a great basis from which to build.