Trust in politicians and in democracy is at an all-time low, as is trust in the judiciary. A 2018 national survey conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra found satisfaction with Australia’s democracy has more than halved between 2007 and 2018. In some communities, the level of political distrust and disillusionment was higher than 80 per cent. If trends continue, by 2025 less than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions. People are turning their backs on the very democratic system of governance that conferred upon them more freedom and economic prosperity than any other political system known to man.
Part of that loss of trust has been earned. When banks charge customers for services they didn’t provide, when politicians abuse the privilege of publicly paid expenses, when figures in the church fail to protect children from harm, such misconduct erodes trust, and rebuilding it is a slow process.
The fundamentals that have built this nation—the values that made Western civilisation the freest and most prosperous known to man—have been under attack for some time. This has a great deal to do with our inability to trust.
There has been a concerted effort among the academic class, and the media and intellectual class that flows from it, to paint the legacy of Western civilisation as little more than conquering and oppressing others, stripping them of their resources and dignity, and then abandoning them. If that were all Western civilisation stood for, then one could be forgiven for antipathy towards it. But this is a supremely negative rewriting of history. Such negativity underpins the sense of collective guilt that permeates the teaching of history and politics today.
The effectiveness of this intellectual effort to destroy trust in our institutions—coupled with the wrongdoing of some within them—has led to calls for greater regulation and control. Many call for more regulation of the banks—ignoring the fact that the last 1000 pages of legislation regulating their activities has achieved little—and many also call for more statutory interference with the churches. Politicians already face detailed reporting and transparency requirements.
In Queensland, a human rights act has recently been passed that essentially empowers judges to become arbiters of controversial questions about whose rights prevail in circumstances where there are competing rights. Those who cheered the passage of this Act played upon the notion that these matters should be above politics—as if politicians could not be trusted with them. And yet by conferring political decision-making upon the judiciary (a body without the check of regular elections) we can expect the public’s trust in it to be undermined further.
The implications are profound: when we don’t trust our institutions, there are calls for more regulation and control of them. The problem is that such moves inevitably limit our freedom, and don’t deal with the causes of the distrust.
This is compounded when freedom itself isn’t well understood in the general population. If we don’t know what freedom is, and why it matters, we may give it away too cheaply.
If we think of freedom as a system of obedience to the unenforceable, and as an expression of our choice to participate in a social contract to which we are not compelled, there is a deep link between freedom and self-restraint. Understanding freedom in this way highlights its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where God gave individuals free will so that they had the capacity to choose to honour God. No other tradition conceives of freedom in this way. This tradition of freedom is deeply individualistic, and honours the capacity and value of every man and woman.
Popular consciousness doesn’t really make a distinction at present between the notions of freedom from (or negative freedom, the idea that we should be free of the bad things, like slavery and oppression) and freedom for—that is, positive freedom. Making the case for the importance of those positive freedoms—freedom of thought, of conscience, of belief, of association and of speech—has never been harder.
The threats to freedom are both internal and external. External dangers to our freedom include the idea that others are coming for our freedoms, seeking to limit them either through the use of law or by ignoring the rule of law. The internal threats are real too, though they are perhaps harder to articulate. They are the internal corruption of freedom, so it is no longer coupled with self-restraint or self-discipline, but is instead a permissiveness or licence that descends into that which personally harms.
When we think of many of the social ills of our time that seem so hard to fix—addiction, poor mental health and the problem areas of child safety and inter-generational disadvantage—the internal corruption of freedom has a good deal to do with it.
We are still a land of great opportunity; but our lack of self-restraint is undermining social outcomes and true freedom. Our social tragedies highlight the crucial—yet too often ignored—relationship between rights and responsibilities.
People like rights for themselves. They feel virtuous when they talk about human rights—though those who do so most tend to care more about some rights (and particular people’s rights) than others. They are less keen on responsibilities—unless it is the kind of big-picture problem that, in their bleating, they are really asking someone else to deal with.
Think about hysterical calls for action on climate change from people who enjoy in abundance the fruits of our high-electricity, high-fuel-consumption age. Think about calls for other people to be taxed to pay for any number of “worthy” initiatives. But there is no mutual responsibility: the notion that, with the many rights we have, come personal responsibilities that go beyond ourselves.
Identity politics plays an important role in the confusion about rights, responsibilities and freedom, and it is at the core of postmodernist thinking, whether called anti-colonialism, critical theory or something else. In its search for a power agenda in everything, identity politics badges every human relationship as one between victim and oppressor. Its solution is to identify victims of injustice (often in past generations rather than in the present) and elevate them over others, who because of their oppressor status are supposed to accept present punishment for past misdeeds.
This is toxic on many levels. The victim develops a sense of entitlement to elevated status, and if it is not given, whether by government or others, it confirms victimhood. It is deeply disempowering to the victims, who come to believe they are not capable of transcending their minority status. It also breeds resentment in those who are unjustly branded oppressors, based on historical misdeeds or history rewritten ungenerously. And it makes our society tribal: adhering to allegiances to groups based on skin colour, sexuality or gender.
The Jewish people have understood the disempowerment of victimhood. Though the Holocaust would have given the greatest possible justification for such an attitude, their cultural leaders understood that victimhood is self-defeating. This has played a large role in the great success of the Jewish community, despite its small size. Imagine the benefits if such resilience was developed in, for example, our indigenous community.
The elevation of particular tribes over others, as well as their story of victimhood over the history or ideas of others, is used to justify restraints upon free speech that today are greater than we have ever seen before in this nation. That confinement operates socially as well as legally. Not only can you be dragged before a tribunal for expressing a perspective that confronts the worldview of a protected minority class; you can also expect to be hauled before your human resources manager for being insufficiently politically correct at work, or attacked on social media and elsewhere for failing to conform.
The effect is to silence people whose views don’t align with the new elite. However, this creates the impression that the identity politics agenda is the accepted norm—and deepens the well of silence.
What has always been the strength of Australian society has been that, as Robert Menzies put it in his first “Forgotten People” speech: “The things that unite Australians are infinitely more important and enduring than the things that divide us.” That was true in his time, and even as recently as during John Howard’s time as Prime Minister. But the way identity politics seeks to separate and dehumanise tribes within our society threatens our social cohesion. Taken to its extreme, it has the potential to descend into violence, of the kind that has become civil war in more tribally oriented nations. Indeed, we have seen shades of that on university campuses already, where groups of students find a particular idea so offensive to their identity group that they feel entitled to demand the firing of those who expose them to that challenging idea; or worse, to riot violently on campus to prevent those ideas from being expressed.
These extreme reactions to mere ideas—whether it is the kind of emotional crushing we see of those who need a safe space in which to recover with the help of Play-Doh and puppy cuddles, or the violent reactions we see at the other extreme—demonstrate the dangers before us.
The right to freedom of conscience, to believe and to express that belief, is the core of what it means to be a free human being. That should be enough to make most people willing to fight for it. And yet, in a nation where we did not in the first place get these freedoms through battle or the spilling of blood (though many have since fought in wars in their defence), it is easy to take them for granted.
We have to ask why such a toxic ideology has flourished. Part of the answer is that we for too long assumed that Menzies’s grand statement was a truth so self-evident as to be incapable of change. Another is that the neo-Marxist Left have been very effective in their march through the institutions. Identity politics boomed in the fertile climate of the 1960s and 1970s, when the women’s rights movement, the growing understanding of the poor way in which many minorities had been treated and the aftermath of the Second World War combined to give that “collective guilt” approach some appeal. Though we were given plenty of warning in an academic sense, we didn’t heed it until the results became apparent.
The dominance of our universities has controlled the thinking of at least two generations of young people, as well as the teacher class that now educates at the pre-school, primary and secondary level, and the media that frames the way we understand the political debates of our time. Efforts to remedy “structural disadvantage” are now corrupted into a mechanism to promote a radical minority elite into more powerful positions, and to tear down those who represent old power structures.
Indicative of the times is the way in which this march has captured the modern Labor Party. The Labor Party of old is gone. It was the party that appealed to working-class people like my grandparents, promising to help the poor with its belief in universalism—the idea that we are all deeply equal—and the primacy of the traditional family.
The rise and dominance of Labor’s Left faction mean that the neo-Marxist agenda is now firmly Labor’s, and identity politics is its cheap road to power. The new elite—exclusive and “woke”—in fact has disdain for the traditional family, seeking to break it down with new genders, new family forms and greater dependence on the state for the roles that family used to play in education, in sharing values, and in care for those in need. Hence, there is some irony in the fact that Labor’s historical rise was in reaction to a conservative elite, harking back to a feudal order.
In the modern world, only the conservative side of politics now seems willing to fight for universalism. This represents a fascinating shift; it also represents our best road out of this horrible mess.
It will take courage from all in the Liberal Party to confront wrong-headedness whenever it is seen, and to reconnect with the fundamental values of being a classical liberal or conservative. That leadership is important because those silenced, shamed Australians who know the new order is wrong will take heart and become braver when we create the space for them to do so.
The role of women in politics and in the Liberal Party offers an opportunity to lead. There’s often talk about women’s role in the Party, and canvassing of the need for gender quotas. I see very little attempt made by those who support quotas on my side to reconcile that belief with the reality that it reflects an acceptance and incorporation of identity politics into our very structure. When we do that, we hollow out the very core of who we are. That doesn’t work electorally, nor in reality.
But universality—the deep respect for the dignity of every individual, on an equal basis before the law—that is a good fit for who we are. It shows how far the political parties have moved—that universality and respect for family have a home in the Liberal and National parties that they no longer have in Labor.
It is also a road forward for us politically. We have an opportunity to build a new covenant with the people who would once have been Labor’s people, but whose values just don’t fit any more. Our belief in universality and the value of a strong family as a bulwark against the big state will appeal if we make the effort to share it in a way that transcends superficial partisan notions of “red good, blue bad”, and vice versa. That depth of communication, that willingness to speak frankly for the tradies, nurses, labourers, hairdressers, small business men and women in our community, will pay dividends.
To use the language coined by Matthew Lesh in his book Democracy in a Divided Australia, we have a chance to build our trust with the “outsiders”, as Labor chases the smaller but currently more powerful group of “inners” of this new elite.
This task should lie with politicians; but we must not forget that politics is always downstream of culture. That means political efforts must aim to reshape culture in a way that respects fundamental freedoms. It also means that everyone who contributes to culture must play their role.
It’s heartening to see some literary backlash against the imposition of rules forbidding “cultural appropriation”—the idea that you are only qualified to write about characters with whom you share experience. We shape our culture by connecting better to the cultural institutions in our community and helping them develop a culture of valuing our freedoms, and of universality.
Everyone in corporate Australia has a role to play—and it’s time for those with influence in this sphere to show some courage about pushing back against the flow of identity politics into corporate life. There can be no more jumping on identity-politics bandwagons, as we saw in the same-sex-marriage debate, or more recently in major mining companies’ push for a constitutionally entrenched indigenous voice to parliament. No more enforcement of the double-speak of politically correct language in the workplace. No more threats from the ASX to demand listed companies justify their “social licence to operate” by virtue-signalling on the pet issues of the Left—shareholder interests be damned. No more businesses caving in to demands to endorse politically correct views, pressured by social media trolling to remove advertising from news outlets that dare to publish perspectives that deviate from leftist orthodoxy—in other words, financial penalties for operating a free press. No more skewed gender-sensitivity training imposed by university administrations. No more acceptance by doctors of censorship that defies biology.
It won’t be easy. The difficulty of the task is proportionate to our past complacency. But take heart—the fact that such massive cultural change was achieved in a matter of around fifty years means it can be undone over the next fifty years. But the task requires dogged commitment.
Basic human freedoms are under attack. They include freedom of conscience—the right to think and believe for yourself—and its corollaries, the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of speech. What you believe isn’t worth much if you have no right to gather and share it with others.
We must fight for these freedoms because without them we are not truly free human beings, with the dignity of the individual that is the foundation of Western civilisation. Without them, history tells us, tyranny follows.
By doing so, we can take back the reins of public debate, and share the benefits of our fundamental freedoms with a new generation, and a broader range, of Australians.
Amanda Stoker is a Liberal National Party Senator for Queensland. This article is based on a speech she gave at the Centre for Independent Studies in February.