Almost seventy-five years ago, Sir Robert Menzies gave his famous “Forgotten People” address which balanced classical liberalism with social conservatism. He spoke of the middle class as the nation’s backbone, individual enterprise, governing for everyone and family as the cornerstone for society. This blueprint was to become the animating philosophy for the entire Australian conservative movement.
Whether it was Robert Menzies or John Howard, it is Liberal governments, following these timeless principles, who generate wealth, opportunity and progress.
But we cannot rest on our laurels. We live in an age of disruption—and politics is no exception. From Trump to Sanders, from Corbyn to Brexit, the tectonic plates of the political landscape are shifting. There is a loss of faith in public institutions, the political class and its program. People feel displaced by rapid changes in the global economy.
Establishment parties overseas are perceived as being on a unity ticket—of big government globalism, crony capitalism and minority fundamentalism. The frustrated centre is rejecting this elitist agenda and looking elsewhere for solutions—ending up in the arms of reactionary parties. Much of the success of these reactionaries has been their willingness to challenge political correctness and be a voice for the dispossessed.
Here in Australia, we have seen the minor party vote surge. This is a warning shot across the bow of the conservative establishment. There is a real danger here that, just as Uber disrupted the taxi industry, reactionary parties will displace the traditional conservative movement. Unless we adapt and innovate, we too risk the same fate as conservatives overseas. This is not something I want to see happen to my party.
We need to avoid being disrupted—or even better, become the disruptors ourselves. This is a complex issue and I don’t have all the answers—but I take a perspective as a politician and a belief that this is a conversation we need to have.
What we must do
I believe our problems start with a lack of clarity about our purpose. No one should be under any illusions as to the goals of the political Left. Their original aim of social justice, through helping the working class, has been left far behind. Today they cloak their politics in the sweet rhetoric of fairness, equality and tolerance—but their agenda is far from benign.
They are motivated now by a burning hostility to our culture and heritage. They are not seeking reform, but revolution. It’s no coincidence they want to redesign our flag, rewrite our anthem, remove Anzac Day, replace our Constitution, repudiate our Judeo-Christian heritage and rename our national day.
This reads like a checklist from my university days, but there are serious thinkers on the Left pushing every single one of these issues. The very things that make us who we are, are the very things they want to do away with. But for all their faults, they know their purpose—and they are ruthless in implementing it. So what is our purpose?
Some fifty years ago, Hayek said that “conservatism cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed in slowing things down, but it cannot prevent them.” A few weeks ago, Peter van Onselen wrote in the Australian that “conservatism in its purest form is about slowing down the pace of change”. This echoes William F. Buckley’s famous quote: “A conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling Stop!”
My personal view is that if our destiny is to be nothing more than the speed bump on the Left’s eventual road to victory, then all we are doing is wasting our time. We are not conservatives because we believe in doing the same things, only slower; we are conservatives because we believe in different things.
Our purpose is not just to oppose the agendas of others, but to propose agendas of our own. I believe conservatives have a dual mission—preserving the core of what is most important, while simultaneously innovating everything else.
What is most important are the institutions and values that make up our culture—freedom, faith, flag, family and free markets. This is our core and we should not be ashamed of preserving it. Our current prosperity is not the result of some giant cosmic accident. It is the social dividend from our conservative past.
We should reject the enlightened arrogance of revolutionaries, who only have the ability to pursue their destructive agenda by living off the capital they did not create. While the Left seek to destroy what they don’t like, we begin with gratitude for what is good, for what works, and then we seek to build on that foundation. What is tradition but inherited knowledge?
This is the essence of conservatism—the Burkean partnership between those who have gone, those who are present and those who are yet to come.
But around this permanent core, we should innovate everything else for the good. We should be leading the charge for renewable energy, boosting the start-up economy and promoting scientific innovation. We should be pushing for environmental stewardship, pioneering new models of service delivery and defining an agenda for the poor. And we should be addressing stagnating wages, providing twenty-first-century healthcare and a delivering a world-class education system.
These should be conservative issues and we are best placed to achieve them. Labor is a legacy party—wedded to outdated structures and weighed down by public-sector unions. In this sense, we are the true progressives, arguing for a future that works, built on the success of the past.
Part of the reason conservatives struggle with purpose is because we struggle with vision. We know what a future left-wing society would look like because they keep telling us about it. The reality is, the Left do vision well. I was one of the people who panned Kevin Rudd for his 2020 summit. But at least he had one—and it produced some ideas like the NDIS which are being implemented today.
But what would a conservative summit look like? Many conservatives feel more comfortable talking about the past than focusing the future. We need to paint a compelling vision of a conservative future—and bring people with us on the journey. It must be positive, hopeful and optimistic, telling people what we are for, not simply what we are against. And it must be built on our values of freedom, opportunity and human dignity.
But don’t get me wrong. One of the reasons I know this is an issue is that it is hard to articulate a conservative vision. We are not in the habit of doing it and but do we need to turn our minds to it. This is something we have done here in New South Wales.
Now our government is not perfect. But when we took office, we said we wanted to “Make New South Wales Number One again”—and we have. We said we wanted to make New South Wales “the new state of business” by building new infrastructure. Infrastructure which will be the foundation for productive communities and social prosperity.
After the last election, the Premier identified a number of initiatives to make our state a better place to live and work: things like keeping our communities safe, delivering better services and doing more to protect the vulnerable, those who have slipped through the cracks—and now we are delivering on these as well.
A vision is more than just the economy—it is a picture of the type of society we want. Culture is important, art is important, heritage is important. These are the things which give us our shared identity. As one conservative writer recently put it, beauty is more important than efficiency. When there is no vision, the saying goes, the people perish. The same applies to political movements as well.
The battle of ideas
The real crisis in conservative politics is our unwillingness to engage in the battle of ideas, to take up the challenge intellectually to our opponents. As John Howard has said, “It is not just important to win elections, it is also important to win arguments.” Too often we accept without question the ideological premises of the Left, unwilling to mount a counter-argument. This is why, often even when we are in government, we are rarely in power.
When I look across the aisle in Parliament, I see passion for new ideas. For example, Labor have established an online news site called the Labor Herald. Their conferences have “Fringe Events”. And their intellectuals are active in other forums like the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. In contrast, there is no Liberal Herald, Liberal Fringe Events or Conservative Festival of Dangerous Ideas.
We are fortunate to have think-tanks such as the CIS, IPA and MRC, and publications like the Spectator and Quadrant, who punch well above their weight. But the reality is the conservative movement is dwarfed by the Left when it comes to intellectual engagement.
In the US, CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference—is famous for showcasing candidates and providing thought leadership. Maybe it’s time we held an annual CPAC here in Australia, with conservatives attending from across the country and overseas as well.
Our agenda must be based on and led by, new ideas. We need an “ideas boom” in the conservative movement. It must be proactive, not merely reacting to the ideas of others. And there must be a moral energy to our cause where we talk about values, not just policies.
This cannot just be an abstract exercise. We must look to the work of reform conservatives who are relating conservative values to the practical realities of everyday life.
Our poverty of ideas is reflected in a poverty of language. We used terms like “lifters and leaners”. The “taxed and taxed nots”. These might go down well at a Liberal State Electoral Council meeting—but they strike the average punter as sterile and heartless.
The Left talk about emotion, fairness, hope, change—and we talk about economies, tax rates and GDP. We are not just an economy—we are a community, a nation, a people—but listening to us speak, people might think money is all we care about. By only talking in economic terms, we risk being seen as just the clean-up crew for Labor’s economic mess. And all we become is the funding arm for Labor’s cultural Marxism.
We also talk about “small government”, as if it were some kind of holy grail. This is a classic example of confusing the ends with the means. Yes, we believe in small government—but that’s because we firstly believe in good government. As British Prime Minister Theresa May said recently, it’s time we conservatives started talking about the good that governments can do.
Small, lean and focused governments are good because they can deliver the services and programs we need more effectively. They also leave space for what really makes our communities tick—families, civic groups and small businesses. Small government, strong economies and balanced budgets aren’t the end goal. They are but a means to secure more freedom, better opportunity and human flourishing.
We must change our language to speak to hearts, as well as minds. Instead of talking just about the economy, we must talk about people first—how we are empowering individuals, families and communities to reach their potential.
The American political scientist Arthur C. Brooks has written that we must turn from being a protest movement into a social movement—to fight for people, not against things. This is already part of our DNA here in Australia. Let me quote:
This country has great obligations to the weak, the sick, the unfortunate. It must give them all the sustenance and support it can … to every good citizen the state owes not only a chance in life but a self-respecting life.
That wasn’t a socialist politician. It was Sir Robert Menzies. We must follow the example of Menzies and communicate authentically conservative policies that will improve the lives of all people in a way they can relate to. In other words, as Brooks says, we must share what is written on the conservative heart.
Sometimes our movement also seems too willing to surrender its principles on key issues. Increasingly what we are seeing today is the mobilisation of state power to attack the sacred foundations of our democratic contract. Things like the rights of freedom of thought, speech, expression and association.
It’s telling that modern-day conservatives can stand by and do nothing about section 18C. What happened to Andrew Bolt, Bill Leak and the students at QUT is not a peripheral issue—it goes to the very core of what we believe in. We live in a pluralistic society and I have zero tolerance for racism. But I also have zero tolerance for people being subjected to secret trials by highly paid government bureaucrats, for simply expressing opinions that other people disagree with.
I am strong supporter of Israel and I know some of my Jewish friends have concerns about section 18C. However, this law is being used for political purposes. While people are blaming the human rights machinery, it is a Liberal government that is presiding over this system and seems unwilling or unable to end it.
The rights to life, liberty and property are the foundation upon which everything else is built. Conservatism gives liberty its virtue. Classical liberalism gives us the freedom to be conservative. If we do not stand for these values, we stand for nothing.
As the home of the centre-Right tradition in this country, the Liberal Party is most susceptible to the kind of disruption we are seeing overseas. While many in the Republican Party complain about Donald Trump, he is a product of their own creation. They embraced an elite big-business agenda, shut out their base and did not respond to the growing disillusionment around them.
Here, we are in real danger of forgetting the Forgotten People ourselves, and we must not make that mistake. There is and always will be a centre-Right vote in this country. That doesn’t mean the Liberal Party will always be its natural home. Just like the Republicans, we are vulnerable to disruption if we do not reflect the concerns of our base and represent its ideas.
The establishment has reacted to the rise of alternative candidates like Trump, Sanders and Corbyn by further tightening its grip on power and centralising control. It blames the base for these candidates, taking no responsibility itself for putting the pursuit of power above the pursuit of principle.
To win elections, you have to appeal to the middle ground. But you always lock in your base first. Unless you have the base behind you, you can’t even get through the gate to fight for the middle ground.
We should not be scared of our own base. They are crying out for thought leadership and alternative policies. Conservative politicians are there to serve and represent, not control and exclude.
Some people in our party have said that plebiscites are the answer. I believe in democratisation—but plebiscites are not a panacea for what ails the Liberal Party. Rather they are one of a series of reforms that we need to make in order to avoid being disrupted and displaced.
What we really need now are centre-Right politicians responding to, motivating and inspiring our base. This will lead to the demise of the reactionaries because people will regain their faith in the political class once again.
The world is changing around us. A new political force is rising in this landscape. We can either tap into the energy and the passion of those calling for change—or we can be overwhelmed by it.
We must disrupt—or we will be disrupted. This is not something I want to see happen to the Liberal Party. That’s why we need a Conservative Spring, where the authentic voices of mainstream Australia are heard—especially in the Liberal Party.
We must rediscover our purpose, inspire with our vision, engage in the battle of ideas, speak to people’s hearts, stand for what is true and embrace the dynamism of our base. To channel Menzies, we are at our best when we are striving for what we believe in and governing for the benefit of all. If we do this, the times, once again, will suit us.
Dominic Perrottet MP is Deputy Leader of the NSW Parliamentary Liberal Party. This is the edited text of a speech he gave to the Menzies Research Centre in November, 2016.
 Liberals & Power, The Road Ahead, 2008, p76
 The Conservative Heart, Arthur C Brooks