The NSW Liberals’ Self-Destructive Internal Campaign

by on 20 October, 2015

11008068_10155751799055227_8539700716839453238_nTim Andrews discusses Liberal Party values and freedom of speech – with a very large “I told you so” from his past:

The Liberal Party of Australia – from its very inception – has prided itself on its committment to individual freedom. It lies at the core of the Party’s beliefs  and affects not just the party’s philosophy of government, but internal organisational structure. In stark contrast to the Australian Labor Party, where all members must pledge their support for the party platform and policies, Liberal Party parliamentarians have consistently enjoyed the right to cross the floor over any issue, and to express dissent in party platforms. Indeed, Since the days when Menzies created the Liberal Party, ‘the concept that an individual parliamentary member had the right to a conscience vote became central to party lore“. As Prime Minister McMahon stated, the ‘Liberal party member is not prepared to surrender his personal judgment to the Party machine or to the corporate Parliamentary Party’

Even prior to existence of the contemorary Liberal Party, its antecedent, the Commonwealth Liberal Party, was founded upon similar lines. As Alfred Deakin told its inagural meeting: “In contrast to Labor’s tightly disciplined ‘machine’, the Commonwealth Liberal Party is ‘free union of free members’. ‘We do not turn out our citizens are mere duplicates in politics. They remain free. We unite them upon a broad national programme, conserving their independence. To “join the Labor Party and sign the pledge was to give up one of the things that made them human: freedom of conscience, independence of judgement, control over moral integrity and character”

It is with this proud history in mind that many Liberal Members greeted with dismay a motion presented to Young Liberal State Council calling for the expulsion of a member for criticising certain party policies in NSW he believed contrary to Liberal Party values. 

At a time when the ability to speak dissenting voices is under considerable attack in our society, with contrary viewpoints suppressed in the media, at universities, and in society at large, seeing this same culture appearing to have taken over elements of the Liberal Party is concerning to say the least. And what does it say about the security of the Liberals that rather than trying to convince someone they disagree with, and win the battle of ideas, they attempt to simply shut out dissent through expulsion. Is this a sign of a healthy and strong movement? One confident that they are right? I think the history of such matters has a lot to say about the answer to that…

However it is concerning not just because it is contrary to Liberal values. It is concerning because it is fundamentally politically stupid and self-defeating.

As political campaigning has developed in the digital era, one-size-fits all centralised party messaging is no longer sustainable as a long-term campaigning structure. It is only through embracing – and managing – diversity that in the long term parties on the right shall be able to prosper, something taken on board particularly with the UK Conservatives at the last election.

We are already seeing the negative effects of centralisation and excessive party discipline here. Ii is fairly universally acknowledged that one of the major failings of the Abbott Government,  which ultimately contribued significantly to his downfall,  was the centralisation of all decision making in his office, and stifling of dissenting voices. When every single parliamentary staff member had to be approved by the PMO, when disagreeing could lead to dismissal, the result was inevitable –  a a lack of ability to adapt, and respond flexibly to new challenges as they arose, and ultimately failure.

As often seen in centralised regimes, what is perceived as strength is actually brittleness, and ultimately shatters.  In the same way that it is the flexible buildings that survive earthquakes, while the ‘strong’ ones crumble unable to adapt, the same is true in politics. 

While I am no longer a member of the Liberal Party, and have not been for a number of years, it saddens me to see an organisation I still have a lot of love for act in a manner that is utimately so self-defeating.

And doubly so – because I predicted this very thing.

In early 2009, when the new media guidelines were institutioned for the NSW Division of the Liberal Party, I was still a member of the Division, although was living in DC at the time. Being in the hub of where cutting-edge centre-right campaigning was, and highly involved in the DC centre-right online campaigning community, I was horrified not just by how this policy could be abused, but by how damaging it was to the Party’s long-term electoral prospects. Attepting to stop its implementation, I was repeatedly told “Tim, you are worrying about nothing. This will be limited only to people who comment on internal preselections and the like. It will never be used to stop members speaking out in disagreement with the party”.

I did not accept those assurances – and the events of last week seem to have vindicated my position.

Given at the time I extensively commented on Liberal Party campaigning, policy, and strategy, on my personal blog, I felt I was unable to do so under the new guidelines, so when these reforms were enacted. As such  I wrote the following letter to Mark Neeham, then the State Director of the Liberal Party, requesting exemption from the policy, and tendering my resignation if this was not provided. I wish to note I have only the utmost respect for Mark, and in many ways he dragged Liberal Party campaigning forward a generation in NSW. I am aware this directive did not come from him, and in no way blame him for it, and the fact that he is no longer involved in Liberal Party Campaign leadership is a great loss to the party.

Here is the email I sent. I would like to think it is even more true now than it is then.

—–Original Message—–
From: Tim Andrews [mailto:timintheus@gmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, 24 February 2009 12:34 PM
To: director@nsw.liberal.org.au
Subject: Media and Online Protocol

Dear Mark,

I am writing to you in relation to the updated Media and Online Protocols of the Liberal Party of Australia (NSW Division).

The purpose of my email is two-fold. Firstly, I wish to formally request carte-blanche authorisation for all comments made by me on my personal blog, on facebook, and on any other online medium where I choose to comment. Secondly, I wish to pass on my very, very serious misgivings about this policy and ask you to reconsider. This new policy, whilst no doubt well intentioned, is misguided for two reasons.

Firstly, it is complete anathema to the principles of individual freedoms that the Liberal Party is based upon: we might as well have on our membership form “Join the Liberal Party, lose your freedom of speech”. Stifling freedom of speech has been a hallmark of the ALP, never of us.

Secondly, and of more lasting consequence, it runs completely contrary to the campaigning strategies we ought be adopting as we move to the next election. Centre-right political parties and organisations throughout the world are moving to adopt web 2.0 campaigning techniques, which are based upon notions of decentralised power, grassroots mobalisation, and the erosion of top-down command-and -control styles of campaigning. Indeed, one of the advantages of working at ATR in Washington DC is that I am at the hub of the coalition of the Centre Right and New Media Exchanges, and I can see the amazing results that such decentralisation can achieve – and how much we can learn from our American compatriots. There is no doubt whatsoever that such decentralisation, and the engagement of people in two-way dialogue and criticism is the way of the future. It is the only way we can empower our next generation of voters, mobilise them, and win elections.
Unfortunately, this policy sets us BACK and goes completely in the wrong direction to where we need to go. Rather than moving to a two-way ‘conversation’ model, it entrenches top-down bureaucratic management. Rather than empowering people, it disenfranchises them. Rather than getting people to join the party, members shall leave in droves. It is a policy which in the long term shall not be sustainable, and the only result shall be that the ALP shall have an even further headstart on us when it comes to campaigning.

There is little doubt that my personal blog (insidethemindoftim.wordpress.com)  is in violation of these new guidelines. Even under the most narrow construction (and, with all due respect, they are rather vague and ambiguous from a legal perspective), I am clearly in breach. As such, I wish formal authorization to continue whilst this policy is being reviewed. I also note that membership of facebook groups, comments on policy motions – all prevalent on facebook – are also in breech. I seek authorisation to continue exercising my freedom of speech there. Finally, I wish to authorisation to continue engaging with the online community at large by commenting on Twitter, on other blogs and other online media forums on matters which may be liberal party matters, political campaigning matters, or my thoughts on preselection candidates.

If you do not feel that you are able to grant my request, then, with a heavy heart, I must formally tender my resignation from the NSW Division (and seek interstate membership in another Division). I have been a member of the NSW Division just shy of 10 years now. I have campaigned in elections for 13 – since I was 12 years old. In that time I have been a branch president, senate selector, state council delegate, Vice-President Policy of the Young Liberals (2006-2008 as well as Activities Director and Membership Officer). I have served as President of the Sydney University Liberal Club, and was elected unanimously for two terms as President of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation. I have dedicated much of my life to serving the NSW Division, a Division I truly love, and one which I would not wish to leave. Unfortunately, if this policy stands, I shall have no choice. I shall, obviously, continue to work for the NSW Division in whatever capacity I can. I recently organized a speaker to come to address young liberals and liberal students on political campaignin to come to Sydney in early April – at no cost to us, and I shall continue to administer this program. I shall also continue organising the Federal young Liberal exchange to the United States for the elections later this year. Please do not think that if forced to leave the division as a formal member, I shall cease giving it my utmost support. I note, however, that if this is the case, I shall feel compelled to share this email on my blog, to set out my justification, and to warn other Liberals of the dangers they face for exercising their freedom of speech.

From the bottom of my heart I urge you to embrace 21st century campaigning, and rescind this policy.

Please do note hesitate to contact me on +1 202 386 2901 if you wish to discuss this via phone as opposed to email.

I look forward to your prompt response.
Yours in Liberalism,
Tim Andrews

I did, in fact, get the authorisation I sought, and as such remained a member for another 3 years when other factors led me to move on. It isa sad to see, however, that everything I feared has now come to pass.

Tim Andrews is the Founder of Menzies House and Executive Director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance

2 thoughts on “The NSW Liberals’ Self-Destructive Internal Campaign

  1. What a silly little article. The party elders like Alex Hawke and Alan Jones laugh at such nonsense – sometimes I even see them from my closet!

  2. Good on you for sticking up for principle Tim. We need more of it, particularly at the top of the parliamentary party!

Leave a Reply