The Liberal Party often describes itself as ‘a broad church’, particularly when its parliamentarians are expressing different views. It is to be expected that political parties will contain within them people with different views on some issues but it seems the Liberal Party has a basic philosophical dilemma.
John Howard famously described himself as ‘an economic liberal and a social conservative’ and referred to the philosophic traditions of John Stuart Mill (considered the ‘father’ of liberalism) and Edmund Burke (the ’father’ of conservatism) for those positions:
Mill and Burke are interwoven into the history and the practice and the experience of our political party.
The words of Mill emphasise the central role of the individual:
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it.
In that regard, speaking at the launch of The Conservative
at Parliament House on 8 September 2005, Howard said:
… we are a party that is committed to the role of the individual. … If you look for evidence of the classic liberal tradition within our embrace and within our activity, we think of our commitment to labour market reform. … labour market reform is about transferring power from institutions to individuals.
When working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs during the Howard years, it became quite apparent that we were not supposed to talk about ‘Aboriginal communities’. The whole government approach to both white and non-white people was about individuals and families. But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (including Noel Pearson who had some influence with that government for a while) spoke of families and communities, not individuals. The overlap of course was families but even that was understood in different ways with the government thinking in terms of nuclear families and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in terms of extended families. Little wonder there was not common ground on most issues.
And in Battlelines
Tony Abbot put it this way, echoing Mill:
… the Liberal Party is concerned about the rights, responsibilities, opportunities and place in society of each person. We want each person to be empowered, as far as reasonably possible, to live the life he or she thinks best.
In his book, Abbott also refers to Howard’s approach to policy:
… policy should meet three criteria: does it strengthen the family, give individuals more incentive and hope, and give preference to private over government enterprise?
The last element captures what has become the modern neoliberal approach of small government and a fervent belief in competitive capitalism, that private enterprise will always provide better outcomes than government services.
The more extreme version of this approach is captured by Senator Leyonhjelm when he opposes mandatory wearing of bicycle helmets and measures to reduce smoking — it is not government’s role to protect people from themselves, as this amounts to the ‘nanny state’ (although it ignores the cost to the wider community of such behaviours). Although not a member of the Liberal Party, there are a number in the party who share such views.
Edmund Burke was not initially seen as a conservative. As part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, he supported greater freedom in Ireland and opposed the British war against the American colonists. It was his reaction to the French Revolution that ultimately was to make him the ‘father’ of modern conservatism but that was also consistent with some of his earlier works. He rejected the idea of a ‘social contract’, as espoused by Hobbes and Locke, suggesting instead that the relationship between individuals and the state was a product of history and while change could occur it should be gradual — as it had been throughout history. The ‘natural law’ was a result of that evolutionary process but also based on god’s law as that was reflected in ‘man’ as a creation of god. From that he supported the institutions of society: so he could support the role of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches (although favouring the Anglican). What he disliked about the direction of the French Revolution was that it was based on a ‘vision’ of society and was making enforced changes to achieve that, rather than allowing a gradual and natural evolution. (He accepted England’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 primarily because it returned England to its traditional form of governance and society.)
In the same speech referred to earlier in 2005, Howard laid out his conservative credentials:
I am sceptical of radical reform in society. In fact, I’ve been a profound opponent of radically changing the social context in which we live. As Liberals we support and respect the greatest institution in our society, and that is the family. There is no institution that provides more emotional support and reassurance to the individual than the family. There is no institution incidentally which is a more efficient deliverer of social welfare than a united, affectionate, functioning family. It’s the best social welfare policy that mankind has ever devised.
Tony Abbott, when Health Minister in the Howard government, also clearly expounded the conservative approach to change (from speech notes at the Queensland Press Club, August 2005):
… the Howard government has never shirked fundamental reform, if it is necessary to solve serious problems. By the same token, conservative governments don’t lightly make systemic changes. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “if it is broke, fix it, don’t throw it away” are good conservative instincts … To some extent at least, nearly all reforms end up illustrating the iron law of unintended consequences. The theoretical benefits of structural change need to be weighed against the real costs of the disruption which significant change always entails.
Abbott continued his very conservative social position when prime minister with his deliberate procrastination over marriage equality for non-heterosexual couples, his expressed discomfort with homosexuality and his views on the role of women:
What the housewives of Australia need to understand, as they do the ironing, is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price - and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up.
And he believes passionately in the importance of Western and christian values
Western civilisation came to this country in 1788 and I’m proud of that …
But, like Howard, he adopted a liberal (or neoliberal) economic approach. As he is reported to have written recently
The government’s economic narrative had been clear from the beginning — lower taxes, less regulation and higher productivity.
Each is a neoliberal approach offering less government involvement and keeping wages down, as productivity in the neoliberal world is chiefly measured by the input price of labour.
Turnbull arrived as prime minister, professing both liberal social and economic views. It was a little more old-style Liberal and an approach that caught the public’s attention after the very conservative social values of Howard and Abbott. But, to date, he has disappointed by maintaining Abbott’s conservative social policies.
How can the Liberals wind these two strands of thought into a single political philosophy? On the surface, it would seem that there are some inconsistencies between the two: liberalism emphasises the right of the individual to make their own decisions meaning ‘small government’ and minimal government regulation and, as Howard claimed about labour market reform, giving more power to individuals over institutions.
In October 2014, when the Mining Tax was repealed, the legislation also included slowing the process to increase superannuation for workers. Senator Lazarus, then speaking for PUP which had agreed to the changes, and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, both emphasised that this gave individuals more money in their own pocket
. Cormann went so far as to suggest people could now decide what to do with their extra money
"This is not an adverse, unexpected change as it will leave Australian workers with more of their own money pre-retirement which they can spend on paying down their mortgage, spend on other matters or save for their retirement through superannuation as they see fit," Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told the Senate.
That is a classic liberal, or now neoliberal, approach.
The conservative, however, emphasises traditional values, slow incremental change and the maintenance of society’s institutions.
Back in 2001, then Treasurer Costello, gave a hint of the Liberal link between liberalism and conservatism by suggesting that reduced government involvement (liberalism) left more space for society’s established institutions (conservatism):
… we ought to get governments out as far as possible, out of family lives, you ought to let non-government institutions of society, like the family and the school and the community and the church take a lot of slack.
So, is that the key to the Liberals’ combination of liberalism and conservatism? It may work if both sides of that divide take a moderate position but it appears that in more recent times both the liberals/neoliberals and conservatives have taken more strident positions within their respective philosophies. That makes the combination of the positions within the Liberals that much more difficult.
The conservative side is represented by Senator Cory Bernardi
Society will always do better where citizens have a belief in justice, honour and private morality. Where individuals are reduced to the satisfaction of personal appetites society will decline. The need to preserve society is at the very heart of conservatism and the absolute moral truths that are required for this preservation are not subject to change.
Today, despite different backgrounds, those of us who are willing to respect the traditions and history of this country can join together under one national banner as Australians. this is the kind of unity that the conservative will embrace, not the superficial and divisive ‘diversity’ talk of the radical, who prefers to constantly re-create the nation according to some momentary fashionable utopian image and denounces all patriotic sentiment as jingoistic and bigoted. [emphasis added]
More recently, in regard to the Safe Schools program
Senator Cory Bernardi told the ABC the program was seeing children "being bullied and intimidated into complying with a radical program".
"It's not about gender, it's not about sexuality," he said.
"It makes everyone fall into line with a political agenda.
"Our schools should be places of learning, not indoctrination."
Although Bernardi’s views are now considered more extreme, they are entirely consistent with the Burkean tradition, emphasising traditional values and dismissing utopian visions of society.
By way of contrast, if we go back a little in Australian political history, it could be argued that until the 1980s Australia adopted a conservative
economic approach, with tariff protection for our industries. Both Labor and Liberal supported that approach. The Liberals had a more liberal approach to social issues and Labor sometimes adopted more radical social policies. Currently, it could be said that the Nationals now represent both conservative economic and social positions. Since the 1980s, Labor has also adopted a more liberal/neoliberal economic policy but remains more committed to a radical or progressive position on some social issues, meaning that it is more willing to undertake government intervention to support social outcomes.
Have the Liberals adopted conservative social policies because Labor now mostly shares the neoliberal economic approach and that is less a point of differentiation between the parties? Did it have to express such views to stand apart? It does use its liberal philosophy to oppose Labor’s interventionist approach but underpins its opposition with its conservative philosophy — that is, the individual should be free to make their own decisions but within the framework of the traditional values and institutions (which some would argue, as in the marriage equality debate, actually restricts the freedom of the individual).
So which leg do the Liberals really stand on? Are they liberal or conservative? Or, as John Howard professed, do they jump from leg to leg depending whether it is a social or economic issue? Are the two approaches really compatible? We do have to remember that, historically, the liberal and conservative traditions in Australia drew together not for any reason of a logical marriage of ideas but to present a united front against the ‘socialism’ of the Labor party which was considered more dangerous than the differences between the liberal and conservative philosophies.
The modern versions of liberalism and conservatism seem to have moved from middle of the road positions to more extreme positions making the matching of the two philosophies more difficult and that seems to be reflected in the current problems and disagreements within the Liberal party.
While those more extreme positions remain in play, it will be difficult for the Liberal party to present a united front. It may remain a ‘broad church’ but it will be a church divided.