Reconciling Liberalism and Conservatism

In January, Labor MP Andrew Leigh joined the ranks of those who seek to rewrite the definition and history of liberalism in Australia. His article in the Australian on January 10 attempted to commandeer some of the liberal heritage for the ALP and impose an outsider’s interpretation of Australian Liberalism.

Leigh asserted that the ALP has a more legitimate claim to the small “l” liberal label. It is a contention which demonstrates his complete misunderstanding of the Liberal Party and of Australian Liberalism, its wide appeal and its progressive nature, which sits comfortably with its conservative elements, despite his protestations to the contrary.

As the Australian academic Judith Brett has pointed out (in Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class), the term “small ‘l’ liberal” was created during the late 1960s and 1970s when civil society was being fractured and law and order were under threat from anti-war protests, draft dodgers and civil disobedience. In this turbulent era Brett considers the small “l” liberal epithet was

an indication of the gap which had opened up during [Robert] Menzies’ final years between the values and experiences of the new middle class and the Liberal Party, a gap which was widened, particularly for the young, by the anti-war movement’s challenge to the authority of the state.

At the time, the Liberal Party experienced the deep scepticism the youth of the day brought to various realms of social authority. This breakdown in civil society was not unique to Australia, and it is important to remember that contextual circumstances explain historical occurrences. Leigh and his colleagues would do well to relearn this lesson.

The repugnancy of Leigh’s article lies in the way it attempts to create an artificial schism across the spectrum of Australian Liberals between the so-called small “l”—liberal or progressive—versus big “L”—conservative or moderate—variants. Like many of his ALP colleagues and left-leaning commentators, Leigh mistakenly believes there is inherent conflict within the Liberal Party. Faced with Tony Abbott’s leadership they cry more fiercely than ever that the Liberal Party is more conservative than liberal and therefore must be an unworkable conundrum. Leigh and his colleagues have trouble reconciling liberalism with conservatism. Consequently, they claim the Liberal Party stands for contradictions.

This is an old argument, one which is often pulled out by ALP ministers to try and gain political leverage. Chris Bowen tried it by calling the Liberal Party “unashamedly a conservative party” in a Sydney Morning Herald article on June 18, 2008, and contending that the Party had “vacated the mantle of being a liberal party”. Bowen and Leigh would have their audience believe that the Liberal Party has prostituted its values. Moreover, by only invoking the Alfred Deakin liberal heritage, they claim Australian Liberals hold little respect for their legacy, and they would have us suppose that the Liberal Party has mislaid its historical compass. (This is ironic given that Bowen and Leigh want to point out that the Liberal Party is not being progressive enough, yet deride it for not paying enough heed to its traditions and conservatively conforming to the past.)

But perhaps the strongest evidence for Leigh’s provincial logic is his insistence that the Liberal Party under Tony Abbott is “more a party of Edmund Burke than John Stuart Mill”. This argument fails to recognise that the Liberal Party has never purported to be more Mill than Burke, or vice versa. Liberalism in Australia has uniquely combined both Mill and Burke—amongst others—to create the most successful Australian political party. Australian Liberalism seeks to create government that is a better servant of the people.

Both progressives and moderates of Australian Liberalism want more individual autonomy and smaller government with less intervention upon the individual. This is the true essence of liberalism. This is what all liberals—small “l” or big “L”—want. It is what the greats of Australian Liberalism, Menzies and Howard, recognised. Mill’s philosophies sit at the heart of the liberal ideology and a conservative tradition which both acknowledge that “mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”.

Those who have trouble reconciling liberalism with conservatism should break from their prejudice and read Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, in which they will discover one of the best explanations of how the Liberal Party manages to create, if not harmony between liberalism and conservatism, at least a constructive competition so that when in government it can better pursue the Australian national interest. The idea that conservatives are rigid and backward is plainly wrong. As Abbott articulates, “a political conservative can promote change, provided it’s to realise a country’s best values and aspirations”.

Howard’s Lazarus Rising also succinctly and neatly explains that the Liberal Party’s “special strength” lies in its “duality”:

To me the Liberal Party of Australia has always been the custodian of both the conservative and classical liberal traditions in the Australian polity … it should be wary of those individuals or groups who parade the view that only one of those two philosophical thought streams represents “true” Australian Liberalism.

The broad and elastic philosophies enshrined in Australian Liberalism have demonstrated that Menzies was right to create a Liberal Party which would one day become a “broad church” so that as many people as possible—small “l” and big “L”—could feel comfortable in the Liberal Party. It has also been Australian Liberalism’s emphasis and priority of Australian values—such as the “fair go”, equal opportunity, and competition—and promoting the “Australian way of life” which have assisted its transcendent nature.

In Howard’s 1996 Menzies Lecture he spoke of the importance of history in understanding the “continuity and evolution” of the liberal political philosophy; he spoke of lessons learnt from the past and of understanding the achievement of predecessors. From this point the pragmatism derived within Australian Liberalism from both its conservative and liberal elements can become clear. The conservative element in Australian Liberalism shows itself in respect for the past. It is conservative to the extent that it looks to the past to acknowledge contemporary circumstances. It is conservative to the extent that it looks to historical example to inform a present state of mind so that progress can be better informed. The saying, “We need to know where we came from to know where we are going” combines both the continuity and evolution Howard spoke of, thus comfortably offering refuge in the Liberal Party for both progress and conservatism.

There is a prevalent notion that conservatives are rigid, cannot adapt to change and have a general aversion to progress. The example of Australian Liberalism, however, demonstrates otherwise. So-called conservative prime ministers, especially Howard, have advanced the nation in the most dramatic and successful manner. From workplace reform, to tax and economic reforms, to a foreign policy more imbued with Australian leadership, the empirical evidence favours an interpretation of the progressive conservative.

Howard’s Menzies Lecture also cautioned that Australian Liberalism should never be caught in the position in which it “is left to be interpreted by those who are opposed to the values that inspired it”. Bowen’s and Leigh’s articles confirm that Australian Liberals should constantly bear this warning in mind. Such commentators claim the ALP is more worthy of certain parts of the Australian liberal heritage when that is clearly not the case. Furthermore, they rewrite the history of Australian Liberalism by judging where they feel true liberalism in Australian society was created, often under false premises and often simply to advance their own argument.

For example, Leigh claimed that Deakin is “most closely associated with liberalism” in Australia. It is a statement that totally rewrites the history of Australian Liberalism, since Leigh did not once mention the modern Liberal Party’s founder, Menzies. Bowen also mentions the “Alfred Deakin legacy”, again failing to mention Menzies. While Deakin is closely associated with Australian Liberalism it is from the perspective of one among many of the liberal founders of Australian Federation and as the initiator of the Commonwealth Liberal Party, not the Liberal Party of Australia. Although Deakin was making a stand in his time for individual judgment and integrity, in the modern Liberal Party his legacy weighs less than that of Menzies.

Howard said in his 1996 lecture that Menzies was “the Founding Father of modern Australian Liberalism”, and that his understanding that Australian Liberalism needed to draw “on both the classical liberal as well as the conservative political traditions” meant that the Liberal Party would retain relevance well into the future. As former Liberal MP David Kemp writes (in The Liberals: A Short History of Liberalism in Victoria and Australia), the history of the Liberal Party shows that it has been “most successful when [it has] involved people broadly in the party and its causes. It is one of [the Party’s] great competitive strengths over Labor with its narrow sectional organisation.”

Australian Liberals desire a greater good, one which has the qualities of an objective right, since serving national interests is the only way a government can best ensure voters can respect and maintain its governing legitimacy. According to Edmund Burke, government serves its citizens, not the other way around.

Liberal values have sat, and continue to sit, very comfortably in the Australian psyche. For example, Howard spoke of “individual freedom, choice, diversity, opportunity, and the importance of strong families and communities as bulwarks against the intrusive power of the state”. Being let alone and able to pursue individual interests and aspirations without government meddling are also hallmarks of both liberalism and Australian culture.

Those like Leigh and Bowen who feel that Australian Liberalism does not respect equality forget that, to a greater extent than other Australian political philosophies, Liberalism anchors equality in the fact that it seeks to permit to all Australians the ability to pursue individual freedom without direction from an intrusive government. It gives Australians the equality of opportunity, which is so much more enhancing to both the self and the nation than equality of outcome.

Next time Leigh, Bowen, or any other political commentator wishes to criticise the Liberal Party for being inconsistent or paradoxical, or thinks it would be better to call it the “conservative party”, they should consider that the historical success of the Party is owing to its broad appeal and the scope of voices generated from liberal and conservative ideas. It means that, while, on the façade, progressives might appear to sit at the opposite side from conservatives and moderates, Australian Liberalism has created a place for liberals, big “L” and small “l”, to feel that they can voice their opinions, and have their opinions heard and respected, provided the individual and liberty are kept paramount.

Leigh, Bowen and others are worried by the fact that they face a robust political opponent in the form of Australian Liberalism, and its broad appeal clearly irritates their own narrow philosophy. The American academic Leo P. Ribuffo, in his somewhat humorous 2011 article “Twenty Suggestions for Studying the Right Now That Studying the Right is Trendy”, cautions us that “demonising the Right, however emotionally satisfying or professionally advantageous, distorts our understanding of the past and present”. Let us bear this caution in mind, and others presented here, so that history is not abused and the rights of the Australian Right are upheld.

Ona Grossnickle recently completed a Masters of International Relations at the University of Melbourne.

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