Leaving aside for a moment the question (very ably posed by LibDems South Australia President James Hol) of when exactly the Liberal Democrats became known as a right-wing party, former Senator Bob Day’s diagnosis of the state of modern minor party politics to the right of the Greens is characteristically sharp. 

Henry Kissenger once said of Germany that it was ‘too big for Europe, and too small for the world’; so too do the political parties hovering between 2.5% and 4.5% of the federal Senate vote glance suspiciously at one another even as they cast a wistful eye towards Canberra.

I agree with Day’s assessment that the Australian minor party landscape of the centre and right have shared interests, in particular a shared enemy in the Liberal and ALP cabal whose determination to protect their political turf may soon make Whigs of my party (sorry Kenelm, it won’t happen).

Former Senator Day challenged readers to explain to him why the Coalition would raise barriers to entry for non-left minor parties, and I would gladly take him up on that gauntlet. The simple truth is that the Coalition is more afraid of having its ideological bankruptcy permanently exposed by former Senators like he and David Leyonhjelm than it is of temporarily losing seats to the left in the ebb and flow of electoral cycles.

It is crucial to realise, and to explain to our members and the voters we ask to support us, that we are the barbarians at the gates of Canberra!

All of this makes discussion of co-operation between parties like One Nation, United Australia Party, and the Liberal Democrats, more than mere idle musing, and I know as I read Bob’s words that he is serious. So in this reply, I outline why this has yet to happen, what barriers may need to be overcome, and how this process could begin.

Discussion of an alliance of minor parties and greater co-operation, in particular at a Federal level, is nothing new. Founder and former president of the Liberal Democrats John Humphreys has long said that some kind of pragmatic alliance would be a way around the ever more formidable Great Wall of Canberra.

An arrangement whereby key minor parties ran a joint ticket in each state for the Senate at the next Federal election, determining who would have number 1 spot by negotiation could allow a group of parties together to break through where each would fail or underperform alone.

So why hasn’t this already happened?

The first is that we are often our own worst enemies. Like the best game theory experiments, each party holds out hope that this election will be the election they become the next Greens in terms of electoral success and representation. The incentives not to co-operate, at least on the surface, are strong, and the consequences for betrayal high in the minds of those navigating fraught terrain.

The second is a fear that co-operation might lead to a loss of individual party autonomy or policy independence. The Liberal Democrats, for example, hold views on drug reform that might make Family First or One Nation baulk. The party is not, nor have we ever been, conservative. However, though I am proud to say that unlike a broad church I was formerly a part of, many conservative libertarians find a welcome home in our party.  

These challenges and the psychology that underlie them are rational. In a zero sum mindset, it is easy to perceive only risk and negative consequence, while losing sight of possible benefit. However the impact that even half the number of senators that Bob Day suggests is possible would be immeasurable, as not too distant political history has shown.

Greater co-operation and the ability to recognize and leverage opportunities for shared interests to be realized requires a cultivation of personal relationships. This is true at all levels of our parties; at the grassroots membership, the organising level, and the political leadership.

Without knowing each other better, accepting vulnerability, and taking risks, trust cannot be built. There is an element of boldness required to take a step into the unknown, and if we are to turn our combined arms against our bipartisan oppressors rather than brandish them at one another, someone must be first to place them back into the holster.

As Australia’s foremost libertarian party, the Liberal Democrats are ready to try.

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