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Finding a place for liberalism inside the Liberal Party

The loss of former Premier Steele Hall and former minister Jennifer Cashmore has caused Chelsey Potter to reflect on why she is a Liberal.

Jun 14, 2024, updated Jun 14, 2024
Potter wants to see Menzie's values of encouraging the strong and protecting the weak returned to the Liberal Party. Photo: Morgan Sette

Potter wants to see Menzie's values of encouraging the strong and protecting the weak returned to the Liberal Party. Photo: Morgan Sette

You’re not a Liberal.

In recent years, I’ve heard it more and more.

Lately, almost daily.

From a mate as he slides over a welcome post-work wine. Or a perplexed colleague who has just discovered my employment history.

From kind, supportive strangers on social media or long-term friends who wonder why I’d still bother.

Hell, I’m certain there are some Liberal members who whisper it amongst themselves.

Well, this week seems as good a time as ever to get into it.

After all, this period should give our party pause. The loss of former Premier Steele Hall, along with former Minister Jennifer Cashmore, earlier this week is cause for genuine reflection – not just nice, comfortable words about legacies.

Steele Hall and Jennifer Cashmore. Photos supplied

In losing these giants of centre-right politics, we should each ask ourselves, what kind of Liberal am I?

And, more importantly, what kind of Liberals should we be?

For my generation, the era of Hall and Cashmore, amongst others, has always held a particular kind of lore. In many ways, it was a golden age of activist Liberal politics.

Yes, some of us may have forgotten that concept. And no, the words are not mutually exclusive.

Hall’s extraordinary career has been well canvassed by all sides of politics. It was a career steeped in integrity, from significant electoral reform – at his own great, infamous political cost – and championing visionary projects across infrastructure and the arts, to name a few.

Cashmore was a peerless operator in the advancement of women, renowned for her dogged search for answers before the historic State Bank collapse and ultimately became known as the “green conscience” of our party. In almost all respects, she was ahead of her time.

Theirs was a service marked by balance and boldness. A pursuit of ideas and ideals.

They each crossed floors. They asked questions. They sought better for their party, the Parliament and South Australians. They were more than sufficient in spine and immersed in principle.

Hall and Cashmore were the embodiment of what Menzies, in his seminal roll call of Liberal values, called the great human freedoms: to think; to speak; to choose; to be ambitious; to be independent.

They were keen believers in social justice, encouraging the strong and protecting the weak, in Menzies’ 1954 parlance – liberty, flexibility and progress.

Those are Liberal values. That might surprise a few voters.

It might surprise a few party members too.

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Now that they’ve left us, along with the likes of David Tonkin and others, it might seem that their ilk, and that time in our party, have slipped through our fingers. Now to only be found in the pages of a book.

I, for one, am not ready for the extinction of this kind of Liberal. Nor, I believe, is an electorate looking for something more.

In the early seventies, Hall struggled to find his place as a Liberal, leading to the creation of the short-lived small-l Liberal Movement.

Ultimately, he would go on to find homes on both sides of the party – moderate and conservative – at one time or another.

Today, many of us are also trying to find our home in the party or on our side of politics.

I know I am.

While a revised Liberal Movement is occasionally canvassed by media and general mischief makers alike, Hall’s story and Cashmore’s career show liberalism can have a place in the Liberal Party.

Even today.

It has a place in a party where compassion still sits comfortably in company with pragmatism.

Alongside the day-to-day thrust of retail politics, sweeping vision.

In the place of fearmongering or political click-bait, bold conviction.

A party where to disagree isn’t to be difficult, where independent thought is celebrated and innovation is rewarded. One that isn’t threatened by new ideas. One that isn’t too proud to learn – or listen.

A party where true progress, not prostrating, is championed. A party that is connected to community, and one that reflects it. One that is prepared to fight.

One where strong, intelligent women have a place, in preselection, in the party room and at the despatch box.

If that is what a Liberal can still be, then I am one.

And, in amongst their incredible achievements in office, that may ultimately be the true legacy of Steele Hall and Jennifer Cashmore.

Because they were, there remain Liberals like me.

Chelsey Potter is a former Liberal staffer, an advocate for safe political workplaces and a proponent of increased women’s representation in parliaments. She has run campaigns for both independent and Liberal women candidates.

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