Silence Of The Liberal Lambs: A Scathing Critique Of the NSW Liberals

unnamed-1-150x150-150x150 When the media policy becomes the story, perhaps it’s time to change the media policy, writes Alex Butterworth…

A motion at the upcoming New South Wales Young Liberal Council has drawn broad criticism from grass roots members of the Liberal Party across the nation. The motion is not about a controversial issue of policy; it is a censure motion, targeting a member of the Young Liberals for daring to have an opinion on policy, and for challenging Liberal members of parliament on policy, principles and values. It is symptomatic of a culture that seeks to silence robust policy debate. It is a culture that seemingly only exists in the New South Wales Liberal Party, while other states and territories actively encourage rigorous policy debate both inside and outside party forums.

While the party’s media policy is intended to limit negative media attention over internal party matters, it actually generates more negative media attention and stifles policy debate.

In this latest situation, Kerrod Gream, the Australia and New Zealand Chairman of Students for Liberty (ANZSFL), is accused of criticising the NSW Liberal Party’s brand and contravening the NSW Liberal Party’s media policy. Mr Gream leads the regional body of an impressive global organisation, with values and objectives that fit neatly into Sir Robert Menzies’ We Believe statement. As President of ANZSFL, he advocates small government, individualism, and free markets. ANZSFL is strictly non-partisan and welcomes members of all parties that believe in these values. In Mr Gream’s case, he is a member of the Liberal Party, because he sees it as the appropriate fit for his beliefs and values. Like many, he raises concerns when the party’s policy platform, or individual members of parliament, stray from the Menzies principles. However, some would rather that the NSW Liberal Party escape accountability for its failure to stick to the ideological principles which have served the party so well.

It is policy of the NSW Liberal Party that members “consider carefully any comments or statements they make on websites, social networking sites or blogs” so their comments “do not result in damage or cause embarrassment” to the party. While the party’s rules provide for ‘procedural fairness’ in the enforcement of this policy, the NSW Liberal Party Constitution overrides these procedural fairness provisions, and allows the State Director of the party to unilaterally suspend members of the party for a breach of the policy as determined by the State Director. No rights of appeal, no rights of reply, or right to representation: just suspension.

I have personally been targeted by these provisions over an article written for Menzies House earlier this year. In August this year, I called for the Liberal Party to retain its existing leader, Tony Abbott. This was in response to suggestions by other Liberal Party members on social media that we should make Julie Bishop Prime Minister. My article argued that Julie Bishop is an outstanding Foreign Minister and an excellent Deputy Liberal Leader, but that the traits that make her a great performer in these roles are the same traits that would stop her from being a great Prime Minister. My article did not rule out a Julie Bishop Prime Ministership, but simply set out the things that, in my opinion, would need to change for her to become Prime Minister and lead successfully.

Following publication of this article, I received a telephone call from the NSW Liberal Party State Director, Tony Nutt. One might have thought that the State Director of the NSW Liberal Party would have better things to do than monitor Facebook status updates of ordinary branch members, but apparently not. The consequence of that telephone conversation was my resignation from the New South Wales Division of the Liberal Party the next day. After 10 years as a member of the Liberal Party, with a Youth Meritorious Service Award medal on my shelf and a history of services across two states, I had to choose between saying what I really think, and being a member of the New South Wales Division. Contrary to the media policy’s intention, I am now free to say whatever I wish publicly. The threat of penalty for ‘overstepping the line’ is gone altogether, because it was used too liberally (pun intended) for a minor issue. Where I might have previously thought twice about writing an article such as this, I am now free to speak openly about matters, whether external or internal.

While other state and territory divisions of the party relish the challenge of policy debate, there is a chilling effect that occurs in New South Wales because of the media policy. The “tall poppies” who express a view are torn down. Others don’t dare to say anything for fear of a similar fate. Those who fight the culture are sidelined and pushed out, no matter how distinguished their past service to the party has been.

If the New South Wales Liberal Party wants to be a political force to be reckoned with, with policies to match, it can’t be an organisation of silent lambs. The party’s media policy must be reformed, if not abolished entirely.

Alex Butterworth is a technology lawyer and former president of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation, the Western Australian Young Liberals, the Western Australian Liberal Students and the Pearce Division of the WA Liberal Party.