This February marks an important anniversary in our nation’s electoral history – but for some reason it appears the centenary has approached with remarkably little fanfare from the enduring, occasionally fractious, political couple.
February 9, 2023, marks the centenary of the Coalition Agreement, a milestone in conservative politics that we should note – if only because no one else seems to be doing so.
A hundred years of non-Labor co-operation, with the Coalition in government for almost two-thirds of that time, has profoundly changed the country – even if some cracks are starting to show in the long-standing arrangement.
The 70th and 75th anniversaries of the Liberal Party did not go unnoticed in 2014 and 2019, as Liberal parliamentarians funded a bust of party founder Bob Menzies; an annual dinner was inaugurated; John Howard published his book The Menzies Era; two MPs bought 600 copies of Menzies’ collected speeches; and a commemorative coffee mug was sold.
In 2020, the Nationals marked the centenary of the Country Party’s founding with a historical re-enactment and a gala dinner, and the National Capital Authority unveiled a statue of long-standing Country Party leader Sir John McEwen.
By contrast, little has been said about this month marking the 100th anniversary of the Coalition Agreement.
In February 1923, the forebears of the Liberal and National parties – then called the Nationalist Party and the Country Party – struck the Coalition Agreement for the first time.
David Littleproud and Peter Dutton, the current keepers of the Coalition flame. Photo: AAP
Their agreement toppled prime minister Billy Hughes, who was intolerable to the Country Party, and installed Stanley Bruce in his place.
With interruptions, the Coalition has survived to this day.
Admittedly, the past 12 months have given the Liberal and National parties little to celebrate.
Community independents won a swathe of blue-ribbon Liberal seats, including Menzies’ seat of Kooyong, aided by a climate policy seemingly written by hardball-playing Nationals.
After the election, senior Liberal Simon Birmingham said reflection was needed if the Coalition were to stay together.
Unlike the Liberals, the Nationals kept their seats at the federal level – although they have since lost Andrew Gee to the crossbench – but at the state level the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, independents and even Greens have won seats off the Nationals.
At the state level, four Coalition governments in the past decade were voted out after just one term – the worst run for a party by that measure since the Great Depression era.
But the longevity of the Coalition Agreement is also a reminder that rural and regional, conservative and business interests will endure.
Like the ship of Theseus, the Coalition agreement has survived the collapse of the Nationalist Party and the (original) United Australia Party, and the rebranding of the Country Party as the National Party.
It has been proclaimed dead many times, but always non-Labor forces have found common interest against one of the strongest and oldest labour parties in the world.
We should celebrate the collaboration and compromise that has kept the Coalition alive.
Recent elections have seen fear-mongering about ‘minority government’, but Australia’s most successful political party – the Liberal Party – almost always governs in minority.
Minor party parliamentarians like John Anderson, Barnaby Joyce and Bridget McKenzie have rounded out the Liberal Party’s skillset, and the willing – if sometimes performative – policy wrangling between the parties has ensured regional and rural Australians feel seen.
Bridget McKenzie was one of four Nationals on a subcommittee that thrashed out the National Party’s climate demands in the past. Photo: Getty
Labor and the Greens could learn from the political benefits that come from collaborative government.
One political benefit is that each party has a ready scapegoat in its Coalition partner.
Moderate Liberals have blamed the Nationals for the Coalition’s decades-long failure to fully address climate change – even though climate deniers Nick Minchin and Cory Bernardi, climate “agnostic” John Howard and climate “weathervane” Tony Abbott were Liberals, and in 2017 over half of Liberal MPs were apparently “solid sceptics” on climate change.
In truth, the Nationals are not consistently further right wing than the Liberals.
It is the Liberal Party that preselected Pauline Hanson (though it disendorsed her before the election) and Bernardi, and kept vaccination conspiracy theorist Craig Kelly until he left on his own terms.
Liberals whipped up fear about a Sudanese-Australian crime wave in Melbourne and called the appearance of a drag queen on a children’s show “grooming”.
The Nationals are a convenient excuse for the Liberal Party to claim its hands are tied. The Liberals tied the knots themselves.
Coalition parliamentarians also tie their own hands by failing to cross the floor on matters of principle.
The right to cross the floor supposedly separates Liberals and Nationals from their Labor colleagues, but in the last Parliament only Bass MP Bridget Archer consistently exercised that right.
On important, popular issues like an anti-corruption commission, her colleagues flinched.
Even Barnaby Joyce, who famously crossed the floor 28 times during his Senate career, is a minnow compared to Liberal senators Reg Wright and Ian Wood, who crossed the floor 280 times between them in the 1950s to 1970s.
When the Gillard government depended on independents and the Greens to form a minority government, it released the agreements so the public could judge them for themselves.
The Coalition Agreement is secret. We saw the harm hidden deals can do when deputy PM Barnaby Joyce failed to challenge Scott Morrison on his secret ministries because Morrison might withdraw the ad hoc agreement for a fifth National in the cabinet.
The parties could help restore trust in the Coalition by committing to release any Coalition Agreement between the parties.
There are no signs that the Liberal and National parties are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the most successful political alliance since Federation.
In the absence of any formalities from the Coalition itself, we should still mark the occasion.
A hundred years of the Coalition is a chance to reflect on the profound ways in which the political right has reshaped our country, and living proof that minority government can deliver stable, popular and long-term government.
A century on, it is the Labor Party that has more to gain from coalition-building and the Liberals and Nationals who may benefit from a divorce.
Bill Browne is director of the Democracy and Accountability Program at The Australia Institute.