On which leg does the Liberal Party stand?

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.

What do you think?

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Florence Howarth

16/03/2016I find it hard to believe we are not social animals that require a society and all it entails to survive, to grow. A society as individuals we play many roles. Yes the family is important but is not where it ends. As we progress through life, our needs change. No one can prosper as an individual without interaction, reliance and company of other individuals.

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16/03/2016Ken Thank you for your most informative piece. The history of the Liberal Party explains much of its behaviour. From Howard onwards, we have heard it described [i]ad nauseam[/i] as [i]‘a broad church’[/i], which seems to me a polite way of saying that the Liberal party is in reality two parties: the conservatives, some of whom are best described as reactionaries, and the moderates who are [i]“concerned about the rights, responsibilities, opportunities and place in society of each person”[/i] and believe in [i]“small government and a fervent belief in competitive capitalism, that private enterprise will always provide better outcomes than government services”[/i]. Of course there is overlap of beliefs between the two groups, but recently we have seen them at loggerheads. The reactionaries have set themselves against Malcolm Turnbull’s centrist and more ‘liberal’ views. They threaten and bully him. Only today, we see them rejecting the review of the Safe Schools program that recommends several changes but does not call for the program to be scrapped or defunded. The [i]SMH[/i] reports that conservative opponents of Safe Schools have quickly gone on the attack, branding the review by University of Western Australia Emeritus Professor Bill Louden as a "joke", a "stitch up" and a "fraud". This is exactly what we expected. They not only refuse to give up defending their reactionary views, they insist others adopt them too. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/conservative-mps-angry-after-safe-schools-review-finds-program-should-not-be-scrapped-20160315-gnjzgf.html The schism between these groups, so different in their belief systems, has the potential for ripping apart the Liberal Party, and the Coalition with it. We know there are factions in all major parties, between which views differ, but the disparity is nowhere more obvious and destructive than in the contemporary Liberal Party. Some reactionaries are so radical in their views that they would prefer to lose the next election if that could bring about a purging of the moderates. They want a pure conservative party that will preserve conservative values at all costs, literally! Watch the next few months for these destructive forces in the Liberal Party to be unleashed. Thank you Ken for your thoughtful piece.


16/03/2016Florence, thank you for your comment. I agree that it is difficult to comprehend a political philiosophy that ignores society and community and places the individual above all. But that is where the liberals and the neoliberal economists come from. When you think about it, it is a philosophy favouring business and the wealthy. As an individual, I can make money running my business but only if I treat all my workers as individuals and ignore their social interactions -- such as forming a union. I had better stop there or I will start a rant that is as long as my article.


16/03/2016Ad One thing I thought about after the article was complete is the example of English politics. There, the liberal and conservative positions have remained embedded in separate parties. The only time they came together (when Cameron and Clegg had to form a coalition) was not very successful, so why should a liberal and conservative coaltion work in Australia? it can only do so if both sides are willing to compromise on some issues and in the current climate that has become less likely. So it is not a natural coalition of ideas and, as I pointed out in the article, only came about in Australia as a way of stopping 'socialist' Labor from keeping government for long periods.

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16/03/2016Ken You make a good point about the coming together of Liberal Democrat Clegg and Tory Cameron in a Coalition. It did not work. The public did not like it much either. I wonder if our Liberal Party will disintegrate likewise. The current disagreement over the Safe Schools program is a stark example of how the differences between conservatives and liberals is playing out. The Bernardi/Abetz/Christensen clique are refusing to accept the report and are demanding Simon Birmingham resign if he doesn't order another assessment. Safe Schools is to stamp out homophobic bullying, but these guys are not averse to bullying those who support the anti-bullying program.

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17/03/2016Ken There is now open warfare between the conservatives and the Liberal moderates over 'Safe Schools'. Turnbull has an existential crisis on his hands. If he loses the battle, he and the LNP are doomed. And we are the losers. Your piece is so timely.


17/03/2016Ad, yes the conservatives are really standing their ground on social issues and upholding 'traditional' values. As I suggested, there is no sign of compromise.

Dan Rowden

17/03/2016Interesting article and informative background material. I've always tended to see the "factions" within the Liberal Party in terms of a Christian/Mill dichotomy, as crude as any such dichotomy is going to be. I think it's quite reasonable to suggest that a battle royale is in evidence within the Party between its philosophical confederacies. It happens from time to time, especially if it's being driven by a figure as dissolute as Abbott. I do, wonder, however, whether such internal divisions mean much outside of those occasions when they clash head-on (like now). The truest "broad church" in this nation's political landscape is the Labor Party. There are more philosophic and ideological factions and "divisions" in the Labor Party than you could poke a proverbial at. In the face of that, rather than speak of divisional problems we tend to characterise that diversity as evidence of Labor's democratic nature. I find that reasonable enough but I'm unable to withhold that same charity from the Liberals. Basically, I don't think the factional nature of the Liberal Party, such as it is, means much in the general course of things. That said, when those factions find themselves at loggerheads, as they do currently, I can only find pleasure in the fact of it. At least in the context of an election year. Outside of that context it's probably something too horrible to find pleasure in because it must inevitably lead to dysfunctional government and politick. Perhaps the most fascinating, and for Australians, the most important question regarding this current conservative conflict, is that of who will emerge victorious and stand as the driving philosophic force for the Liberal Party into the future. With that question in mind, I have to pray to a God I don't believe in that Turnbull will find some fortitude from somewhere and consign the Christian combatants to the backbench where they belong.

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17/03/2016Dan Rowden Welcome to [i]The Political Sword[/i] and thank you for your comment. Do come again. To me, your final paragraph rings true: "[i]Perhaps the most fascinating, and for Australians, the most important question regarding this current conservative conflict, is that of who will emerge victorious and stand as the driving philosophic force for the Liberal Party into the future. With that question in mind, I have to pray to a God I don't believe in that Turnbull will find some fortitude from somewhere and consign the Christian combatants to the backbench where they belong."[/i]


18/03/2016Dan Welcome to TPS and thank you very much for your comment. Your Christian/Mill division in the Liberals is basically right as western/christian values are central to the conservative position. It is just a matter of words and it's not worth being pedantic about. I think a major difference with the range of ideologies and philosophies in the Labor party is that they are really variations on a theme. Each thread is about government intervention to achieve desired outcomes and it is the extent of changes and the speed at which they should be achieved that seems to be the basic difference in Labor's varied ideologies. By contrast, liberalism and conservatism do have some basic differences (not just variations on a theme). As I pointed out in my earlier comment, the two traditions have remained in separate political parties in England. As to who comes out on top in the current Liberal party, much may depend on the election. Ever since the Howard years, the number of moderates or liberals in the Liberal Party has been reducing. We would need a few more moderates elected at the upcoming election to have some hope of a return to a moderate Liberal approach -- on the other hand, one has to consider that the conservatives, even if in a minority, will be strident in the their demands. They seem to believe that their philosophy is more important than the views of the electorate. Yes, I think zealots is the word for that approach. It really does not bode well for the future of the Liberals.


18/03/2016Dan A PS to my earlier comment as I meant also to reply to your point about whether or not this really matters. I believe it does because it underpins policy approaches as we saw with the 2014 budget. And, as we are seeing now, that Turnbull is unable to undo some of the worst of Abbott's policies because the conservatives are pulling the strings. In politics, there is a lot of pragmatism, but at the moment the conservatives are displaying little pragmatism and insisting on pursuing their philosophically driven policy agenda. That's why I think the underlying philosophical positions do matter.


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19/03/2016Happy Birthday Ad astra hope you had a great day :)

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25/03/2016Talk Turkey and Jason [b]Many thanks for your birthday greetings, which I have just now discovered on the iPad while sitting in the car looking at the beach and checking recent posts.[/b] I had a splendid birthday extending over the weekend, and have still more celebrations planned with relatives this coming weekend. The older one gets, the more special birthdays become!
How many Rabbits do I have if I have 3 Oranges?