The Liberal Party of Australia was founded in 1944, with the first branch being established in Canberra, 1949.
The catalysts for the establishment of branch of the Liberal Party in the ACT was the creation of the new ACT seat in Federal Parliament and the determination of Liberal-minded Territorians to field a candidate at the 1949 general elections.
The inaugural meeting of the Branch was held at the Albert Hall on 27 January 1949. Of the 54 people present, 42 immediately signed up as members. Malcolm Moir, an architect and President of the Canberra Chamber of Commerce, was elected president.
1949 also saw the formation of the Canberra Women’s Branch of the Liberal Party. The inaugural meeting, convened by Mrs Mary Stevenson, was held on 29 June. Mrs G Thomas was elected president.
By 1961 there were three Liberal Party branches in the ACT – Canberra, Canberra City and North Canberra – which collectively comprised what was known as the ACT Electorate Conference. However, a membership of 150 prompted serious reflection about the Party’s capacity to contest upcoming ACT Advisory Council and Federal elections. The three branches were collapsed into one (the ‘Canberra Branch’) and it was not until 1966 that another branch was created, with the establishment of the Woden Valley Branch.
A Young Liberal branch had been operating in Canberra since at least 1962, with Divisional status conferred by the Federal Young Liberals in 1980. The Young Liberals have since continued to play an active and important role in the Division since then and have been prominent in the Federal Young Liberal Movement.
In 1974 the Legislative Assembly replaced the old Advisory Council. The Liberals did extraordinarily well in the first Assembly elections held that year, winning seven seats, compared with three for Labor. 1976 saw the ACT become a Division of the Liberal Party of Australia in its own right with Margaret Reid being elected as the Division’s first President. 1976 also marked the formation of ‘Liberal Action’ (later renamed the Women’s Forum), under the leadership of Helen Steele.
1975 saw the election of the first Canberra Liberal members to Federal Parliament with John Haslam being elected to the seat of Canberra and John Knight taking one of the two newly established Senate seats for the ACT. Following John Knight’s untimely death in 1981 Margaret Reid was appointed to fill the Senate vacancy. Margaret Reid remained as a Senator until 2003 serving as President of the Senate from 1996 to 2002.
The electorate of Canberra was retained by the Liberals in 1977, however the late 1970s and early 80s saw a series of disappointments. The Party’s vote collapsed in the 1979 House of Assembly elections and the seat of Canberra was lost in the 1980 Federal election in a general swing away from the Fraser Government.
By 1986 the Party had occupied its newly constructed premises in Deakin House. The foresight of the Party’s management in acquiring its real estate holdings has helped earn it a well-deserved reputation as financially sound.
The 1990s saw the current system of interest and electorate branches created, with a move away from the previous reliance on area branches. Members were given the right to directly take part in pre-selection voting and council and policy meetings.
From its beginning the ACT Liberal Party actively supported the push for more local control over local affairs. Following ACT self-government in 1989, it was not long before the ACT had its first Liberal Chief Minister with Trevor Kaine leading an alliance Government of the Liberal Party and the Residents Rally until 1991.
In early 1995, the Labor establishment received a shock when Brendan Smyth won the seat of Canberra at a by-election with a 16.7% swing that was hailed as ‘bigger than Bass’.
In the 1995 Assembly elections, Kate Carnell led the newly branded Canberra Liberals to election victory, a success she repeated in 1998. This was a remarkable achievement in what had long been considered a Labor town. The Carnell Government established a record of dynamism and achievement that delivered Canberra six and a half years of quality government.
Following Kate Carnell’s resignation in 2000, Gary Humphries succeeded her as Chief Minister. However, the Liberal Party was unable to hold Government in the 2001 elections. While the Liberal Party retained its seven seats despite a 6.2% swing, the replacement of conservative-minded independents by left-leaning parties determined to deliver government into the hands of their ideological brethren, resulted in the Labor Party returning to Government.
Since 2001, the governing Labor administrations of Stanhope, Gallagher and Barr, have found the Canberra Liberals are an effective Opposition that has opposed their fiscally irresponsible policies and many aspects of their nanny state social agenda.
Since the loss of ACT Government in 2001, there have undoubtedly been some trying years in the wilderness of opposition. However, the 2012 ACT election, under the leadership of Zed Seselja, saw the best result ever for the Canberra Liberals in terms of seats and votes. The Liberal Party gained a swing of 7.3% and the highest number of votes of any party, beating Labor on primary votes. With 8 seats, including 3 of the 5 seats in the electorate of Brindabella, and the Liberal campaign decimating the Greens, the Canberra Liberals only narrowly missed out on forming Government. Following Zed Seselja’s replacement of Gary Humphries as Senator in 2013, Jeremy Hanson became leader of the ACT Parliamentary Party.
The 2016 election saw the Canberra Liberals contest a newly expanded ACT assembly of 25 members. Despite an active and hard hitting campaign focusing on the cost of the tram, exorbitant rates increases and a lack accountability in the Barr Labor Government, the Labor-Green alliance retained power. However the election saw five of the 11 seats the Canberra Liberals won go to female candidates. Following the untimely passing of long serving Liberal MLA Steve Dozspot in November 2017, Ms Candice Burch was elected on count back to fill the vacancy, resulting in the Canberra Liberals having the first female majority Liberal party room in Australia. Following the election, Alistair Coe also replaced Jeremy Hanson as leader of the ACT Parliamentary Party.
Federally, Gary Humphries replaced Margaret Reid in the Senate in 2003 serving until 2013, when he was replaced by Zed Seselja. From the later 1990s, the Democrats and then the Greens have made a concerted and well-funded effort to take the Senate seat from the Canberra Liberals, challenges that have been comprehensively seen off.
In July 2018 the Australian Electoral Commission announced the redistribution of federal electoral boundaries in the ACT which resulted in the ACT gaining a third House of Representative seat named Bean. Following a vote of the party membership, the Canberra Liberals adopted a Branch model to align with the five Territory electorates of Brindabella, Kurrajong, Murrumbidgee, Ginninderra and Yerrabi. 2018 also saw the Division continue with its program of administrative reform to better meet the requirements of 21st century campaigning and the higher level of accountability expected from a modern political party.