Liberalism not just for Liberals, says Labor MP

LABOR must embrace liberalism and open markets while keeping its commitment to egalitarianism to stymie a declining party membership, says one of the party's rising federal backbenchers.

Andrew Leigh, a former professor of economics at Australian National University and now member for the Canberra seat of Fraser, on Wednesday will give a lecture in Melbourne, saying: "The modern Liberal Party is not the party of liberalism. Instead, it is the creature of John Howard, and his intellectual heir Tony Abbott.

"That leaves social liberalism free for just one party: the ALP. It is time for Labor to grasp this mantle with both hands: becoming the party not just of egalitarianism, but also of liberalism."

Dr Leigh says since 2007, when it had 445 MPs in Australia's parliaments, Labor has lost 143 MPs. "At the same time, Labor is shedding members. In the 1950s, more than one in 100 adults were ALP members – now it is less than one in 300.

"I believe that our renewal may be found in an unlikely spot: becoming the party of egalitarianism and social liberalism. Liberalism means standing up for minority rights, and recognising that open markets are fundamental to boosting prosperity."

He says Labor has a strong history of liberalism, which underpinned reforms including broad-based income taxation under prime minister John Curtin; trade liberalisation and a floating dollar under Bob Hawke and carbon pricing and disability reform under Julia Gillard.

"Labor will always be the party of egalitarianism. But in also taking on the mantle of social liberalism, Labor would be stating our commitment to open markets as the most effective way of generating wealth . . . grounded in the reforms of Hawke and Keating – that tax cuts are preferable to middle-class welfare."

Dr Leigh says under John Howard "liberalism ceased to be the raison d'etre" of the Liberal Party when conservatism was embraced, and this has continued under Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

This story Liberalism not just for Liberals, says Labor MP first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.