The Liberal Party and a 1970s brutalist car park have many things in common

The Liberal Party and a 1970s brutalist car park have many things in common

April 15, 2023

Question: What’s the difference between a 1970s brutalist car park and the Liberal Party?

Answer: One is a regressive thing behind a purposeful facade; the other is a car park housed in an architecturally significant building.

Boom boom! Or maybe vroom vroom?

The 1970s brutalist car park in Carlton.Credit: Simon Schluter

Sometimes the mind goes in weird directions. And when I read in this masthead that the car park on the corner of Grattan and Cardigan streets, Carlton, received heritage listing, my thoughts immediately turned to … the Liberal Party. Driven out of power federally, and in every mainland state. In Victoria, after their historic loss in the Aston byelection, they’re effectively roadkill.

Try to follow this one, OK?

First, to the car park. Councillors at the City of Melbourne last week adopted the recommendations of the first independent review into Carlton’s architectural heritage since the 1990s. The former Royal Women’s Hospital car park is one of 24 new places the review thought should have heritage listing on aesthetic grounds – which doesn’t mean it’ll be spared the wrecking ball forever. Described as “striking, robust and bold”, the building is one of Melbourne’s finest examples of the brutalist form.

I love this mid-20th century style of architecture; its no-crap philosophy, laying bare a building’s materials, eschewing design. I love the raw, rough-surfaced concrete and exposed plumbing. “Large-scaled, highly sculptural and anti-graceful,” are some of brutalism’s features noted in the Carlton heritage report.

Compare the integrity of a building that doesn’t lie to the CBD’s ever-multiplying glass towers; ethereal, all shimmering surface. Like the glossy, abstract-noun heavy reports churned out in the offices within.

These city buildings are up themselves. They are the architectural embodiment of spin. Slick, and making lofty pronouncements – like we do on social media. Labor has perfected social media campaigning, the political strategists tell us. The Liberals struggle to nail it.

Brutalism sprang from utopian socialist ideas around liberating the workers. But I reckon if the contemporary Labor Party was a building, it would be less a brutalist monument than a gleaming CBD tower in which we see ourselves reflected. And unlike the corporate and professional classes around 50 years ago, the people who work in the CBD now will include a large number of Labor voters because university graduates lean leftwards politically. Labor has scaled beyond its socialist foundations.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have been scaling down – to the metaphorical basement. We can see the party’s internal plumbing, and it’s ungracefully bursting.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

John Pesutto is at loggerheads with Peter Dutton over who is to blame for the Aston loss and much else, too.

Shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser has resigned from the opposition cabinet, less than a week after the Liberals confirmed they would oppose an Indigenous voice in the Constitution. Leeser has said he would campaign for a Yes vote.

This came just days after former Coalition Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt quit in protest over Dutton’s rejection of the Voice to parliament. “I still believe in the Liberal Party values but I don’t believe in what the Liberals have become,” Wyatt has said.

Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer warned her party colleagues they must recover their ambition to be a viable alternative government, or else resign themselves to infighting and decay. The party, she says, is “at a crossroads”.

In the aftermath of the Liberals’ loss in Aston, Peter Dutton deflected criticism of his leadership, saying one of his biggest strengths had been holding the party together after its battering in the federal election.

Even without that unity narrative crumbling in the past week, it doesn’t change the reality that a sturdy exterior cannot redeem a party – or a building – if its overall purpose hasn’t shifted with the times. To return to the Carlton car park; in the era it was built, the motor car represented freedom and opportunity. It still does; even deep in Greens’ territory, a car park has its uses.

Nonetheless, a resident irate with the council’s decision on heritage listing argues – not unreasonably – that in an inner city well serviced with public transport, a car park is an invitation to persist with bad old polluting habits. Preserving such an anachronism, she says, is like “protecting a cigarette factory”.

To be brutally frank, at this moment the Liberal Party is like a heritage car park. It retains some (superficial) nostalgic appeal, but is otherwise functionally inert, outdated and moderately bad for public health. Cold and dingy on the inside, a magnet for shady types and other folks resistant to sunlight. A natural setting for the striking of dodgy deals. A space in which women tend to feel on edge. A holding pen in a holding pattern.

It doesn’t have to be this way. During the Kennett government, the slogan on number plates read, “Victoria on the Move” – the message was about new roads, yes, but it also conveyed a sense of dynamism and daring. The Liberals’ state leadership in Victoria and NSW want the party to lurch towards progressivism. But the ghosts of the Morrison government are yet to be exorcised. The Morrison government – lest we forget – sought to sway Liberal and marginal seat voters with commuter car parks. The bid failed.

So if the Liberal Party is a heritage car park, might it be capable of adaptation? Can it win from a fast-changing, socially progressive, climate-conscious electorate a reprieve from demolition?

Perhaps we might visualise the challenge this way: can the Liberal Party metamorphose from a car park into a cool exhibition space or dance venue?

Julie Szego is a regular columnist.

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