In today’s Australia, many conservatives seek to preserve the most radical and egalitarian structures in human history – the liberal institutions which emerged over the past 400 years to underpin the freedoms and prosperity ordinary people enjoy.
This is an unseen reversal in today’s politics. The people who seek to conserve institutions and the rule of law are in fact radical and egalitarian in historical terms. Those that seek to "reform" – Labor and their Left supporters – inevitably argue for greater centralised and bureaucratic control that directs and limits people’s choices and prosperity.
In this way the Labor Party and the broad Left have become the new forces of reaction. They, and their allies in media and academia, are driving a more powerful, more intrusive and more moralising government. A government free of the limits set by liberal institutions such as free speech, freedom of contract, and conventions such as equality before the law, an agreed private sphere – the right to be left alone – and avoidance of conflict of interest.
And they are doing so in a way that has led to a new aristocracy of Leftist insiders who slide easily between university, union, staffer, NGO, bureaucracy, media and MP roles – all while cloaking themselves in false compassion for people they will never work alongside.
Certainly, the Liberal party has its share of old school conservatives. It also has its share of big government paternalists who’d fit right in at dinner parties in Carlton or Balmain. Far more important, however, is that all Liberals seek to conserve those historically unprecedented liberal institutions that led to the most radical outcome in human history: opportunity for ordinary people, not just those connected to the ruling party.
As a transparent part of election positioning, recently in The Australian MP Andrew Leigh sought to redefine classical liberalism as a kind of floppy, politically correct assertion of positive rights that we owe other people. This is part of an ongoing propaganda campaign. It is a view that conveniently overlooks those more fundamental rights that protect us from the tyranny of both government and social majorities. Freedom of thought, conscience, religion, speech, contract, of use of one’s property, and from uncompensated confiscation, violence and theft, and myriad others. Many of these are under direct attack from, of all places, Mr Leigh’s own government.
Contrary to Mr Leigh’s assertion, while Liberal embrace of the last 400 years may be a type of Burkean preservation, its content is pure John Stuart Mill.
Contrast this with what the Labor Party is actively trying to do. It seeks to restrict what we say to what the ruling class wants to hear; to restrict what we eat and drink to what the ruling class thinks is good for us; to tell us how much energy we should consume; to define "offensive" in terms that privilege one group over another; to tell our shopkeepers whom they can hire and how they can manage; to reduce the private sphere to little more than the bedroom; to skew our tribunals by appointing those who are part of its ruling class; to tell us that belief in our culture and history is unacceptable; to tell people what their religious conventions should be; to use government to deliver services as a matter of ideology, not practicality.
And, in the pattern of ruling classes everywhere, to hand out legal, financial or social privileges to sectional interests.
Mr Leigh claims Labor is the party of egalitarianism. If it were once, it is no more. That much is clear to this former ALP member. It is now the party of a new ruling class, all about connections and sectional privilege, populated by lifelong insiders with no connection to the people who sustain their lifestyles.
His cookie-cutter equivalence between egalitarianism and unionism reeks of pre-election spin next to the exploitative reality of the Health Services Union, the AWU story, the proven thuggery of the CFMEU, the way public sector unions raid the Treasury, taxpayers and clients, and the quasi-dynastic nature of union and ALP leadership.
In recent past Labor has imported US Democrat memes to Australia, from the rhetoric of class conflict to claims of misogyny, and it will continue to do so leading up to the election. Mr Leigh’s equation of the Left’s social agenda with social liberalism and minority protection in general is another of them.
In the absence of competence or trust in government in an election year, ALP campaigning is clearly aiming to smear the opposition as exploiters, bigots or fools. But disagreeing on bad social policy or pointing out likely bad consequences does not make someone illiberal. Rather, it is the essence of good government.
To re-use a term introduced by the Left, this spin relies on symbolic issues as a dog whistle. The Left implies that any difference in policy attitudes is hateful merely by the fact of disagreeing with their orthodoxy. That there may be legitimate reasons for doing so, particularly in the practical consequences of social policy, is irrelevant to the intent to smear.
Take, for example, Mr Leigh’s concern over the use of the word “illegal” for people who arrive without legal authority. Here it is used as some kind of marker of illiberalism, even though it is factually correct and used in the UNHRC guidelines, which recognise that asylum seekers may enter a country illegally. The debate over the word is irrelevant for determining policy — but it makes for a great Leftist dog whistle.
It is easy to smear people who are focused on practical consequences. Just list opposition to social and legal gestures much supported by ruling class hangers-on, gestures either of no practical effect, or failing utterly in the aim of reducing disadvantage. Consider republicanism, recent suggested extensions to discrimination law, increases in education spending with no effect on outcomes, and Labor’s history in indigenous policy. These are not practical, socially liberal policies that lead to real change – they are sops to Labor’s ruling class, restrictions on people’s capacity to disagree, or look-over-there media management.
However, by far the most revealing aspect of this misrepresentation of liberalism, and the smear-and-fear approach to election-year communications, is just how desperate Labor is to politicise group identity, emotion and morality in the absence of real policy competence.
James Falk stood as the Liberal candidate for Balmain