The figures who have shaped Australia’s two major political parties

But how did the modern Liberal and Labor parties get to where they are today, and who are the key figures that have shaped them?

From Gough Whitlam to Anthony Albanese, and Sir Robert Menzies to Scott Morrison, here’s a brief history of Australia’s two major parties that have taken turns in leading the country for decades.

The Liberal Party

The centre-right Liberal Party has been a dominant force in Australian politics, having remained in power for nine years since the 2013 federal election.

Liberal has stood in coalition with the National Party (formerly known as the Country Party) since its foundation in 1944.

By convention, the leader of the Liberal Party serves as prime minister when the Coalition is in government, and as leader of the opposition when the Coalition is not in power.

The leader of the National Party becomes deputy prime minister during periods of conservative government.


Sir Robert Menzies

Over the years, the Coalition has been served by many leaders, but former Liberal prime minister Sir Robert Menzies is Australia’s longest-serving prime minister.

One of the founders of the party, he held the position twice from 1939 to 1941 and 1949 to 1966 – a total of 18 years and five months.

Sir Robert was an advocate of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act – more commonly known as the “White Australia Policy”.

Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser was Liberal leader and prime minister from 1975 until 1983.

As Opposition leader, he blocked the passing of then Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam’s Budget bills through the Senate between October and November 1975.

That led to Governor-General Sir John Kerr withdrawing Mr Whitlam’s commission as prime minister on 11th November 1975 and installing Mr Fraser as interim prime minister.

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser was Liberal leader and prime minister from 1975 until 1983. Source: AAP / WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

While Mr Fraser was economically conservative, he was also considered socially progressive, extending Labor-initiated reforms such as the Family Court, the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service and declaring parts of the Great Barrier Reef as a marine park.

John Howard

The Coalition’s second-longest serving prime minister served as prime minister from 1996 to 2007.

Former Liberal prime minister John Howard.

John Howard was the Liberal Party’s second-longest serving prime minister. Source: AAP

His government introduced tough gun laws following the Port Arthur massacre, introducing reforms in industrial relations and taxation to lift Australia out of debt such as the goods and services tax (GST) and creating Australia’s controversial offshore processing system for asylum seekers.

Tony Abbott

But the stability of the Menzies and Howard eras fell apart in the years since Mr Howard lost the 2007 election to Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party, triggering a period in Australian political history of unstable leadership for both major parties.

It was Tony Abbott who led the Coalition back into government in September 2013.

“In three years’ time the carbon tax will be gone, boats will be stopped, the budget will be on track for a believable surplus, and the roads of the 21st century will finally be well underway,” Mr Abbott said.

But Mr Abbott was deposed as party leader and prime minister in a leadership challenge by Malcolm Turnbull in September 2015.

Malcolm Turnbull

Mr Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership and his role as prime minister after another leadership challenge in August 2018.
“To imagine that a government would be rocked by this sort of disloyalty and deliberate insurgency, is the best way to describe it – deliberate, destructive action,” Turnbull said.

The challenge by then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton led to two subsequent leadership spills.


Mr Turnbull won the first against Mr Dutton but didn’t stand in the second with then Treasurer Scott Morrison, who defeated Mr Dutton to become the Liberals’ (and Australia’s) third prime minister in less than two terms of government – the nation’s seventh since 2007.

Scott Morrison

It was Mr Morrison who led the Coalition to victory in the election campaign against the Labor Party in 2019.

“If you have a go in this country, you’ll get a go. There’s a fair go for those who have a go. That’s what fairness in Australia means,” Morrison said.

Polls and election pundits all backed a Labor win and there were suggestions Mr Morrison couldn’t overcome the damage done to the Liberal Party’s reputation by its leadership turmoil.

But Mr Morrison proved the doubters wrong with the electorate failing to warm to then Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who had led the Labor Party for six years.


Dr Peter Chen, senior lecturer in the government and international relations at the University of Sydney, said Liberal Party has always had divisions within its ranks since its formation in 1944.

“I think those things about credibility and party unity are going to be a major thing for the Liberals to deal with, leading into the election. And they’ve only got a few weeks to resolve that,” Dr Chen told SBS News.

The Labor Party

Growing out of the trade union movement before Federation, the centre-left Australian Labor Party (ALP) is the oldest party in the country.

Faced with economic depression in the 1890s, workers in Queensland decided they needed a political party to represent them and by 1899, the ALP had formed its first government.

Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam is perhaps the most iconic Labor prime minister, respected by supporters for his reforming agenda and made notorious by his dismissal by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr in 1975.

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam speaking to reporters after the dismissal.

Gough Whitlam is arguably the most iconic Labor prime minister. Source: SBS / , Hulton Archive

“May God save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General,” Mr Whitlam famously said.

Bob Hawke

Former Australian Council of Trade Unions boss Bob Hawke is Labor’s longest-serving prime minister, who held power from 1983 to 1991.
Mr Hawke led a government that introduced reforms to deregulate the Australian economy, including floating the dollar, while also overseeing a period of recession with unemployment reaching the highest level since the Great Depression.

Paul Keating

Mr Hawke lost the leadership after a bitter challenge by his treasurer Paul Keating, who claimed to have been promised the top job in a deal between the two, many years beforehand.

Paul Keating, 1990.

Paul Keating claims to have been promised the role of prime minister by Bob Hawke. Source: SBS

Kevin Rudd

The leadership rivalry returned soon after Kevin Rudd swept to power with a healthy majority in 2007.

Mr Rudd issued a national apology in 2008 to the generations of Indigenous children who had been forcibly removed from their families.


“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind. We say sorry,” Rudd said in 2007.

But the Rudd years were also known for acrimonious leadership challenges.

Kevin Rudd former Labor Prime Minister.

Former Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd. Source: SBS / , The Australian

Kevin Rudd resigned as leader of the Labor Party and prime minister in June 2010 after his deputy, Julia Gillard, signalled that she would challenge him.

Julia Gillard

Ms Gillard won a leadership ballot to depose Mr Rudd, making her Australia’s first woman prime minister.

She faced continued opposition from within her own party while also facing down then Liberal leader Tony Abbott.

“I rise to oppose the motion moved by the leader of the opposition and in so doing I say to the leader of the opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” Gillard said.
Mr Rudd challenged Ms Gillard for the leadership without success in February 2012 but in June 2013, Rudd took back Labor leadership and the prime ministership, leading the party to an election loss in September.

Bill Shorten

One man, who played key roles in these leadership struggles, was Bill Shorten who swung support between Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard.

Bill Shorten

Bill Shorten swung his support between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Source: AAP

Mr Shorten won the leadership himself after Labor’s loss in 2013 but his time ended abruptly after his loss at the 2019 election.

Anthony Albanese

The day after the 2019 election, Anthony Albanese was elected unopposed as leader of the Labor Party.
“There are two key issues that they need to campaign on – national security and economic management. And over the last 20 years or so, the Liberal-National Coalition has tended to be the party that is seen as being better on those issues,” Dr Chen told SBS News.

“And so Labor needs to work to say no, no, we are actually extremely competent in these core policy issues.”