The Turnbull ascension has prompted an enormous amount of soul-searching and critical commentary concerning the role of conservatism in Australian politics. Typically, the approach has been to portray those who feel betrayed by the Turnbull coup as turning to the ‘far right’ — or even the lunatic fringe, which is thought to be populated with a range of suspicious, even sinister, groups, including some that might be fronts for other forces and acting as agents provocateurs. Real or alleged association with certain of these groups might make conservative folk easy targets for a media anxious to discredit all those of a conservative inclination.
What doesn’t seem yet to have been adequately explored is the question of which conservatism(s) is (or are) appropriate to Australia in its present situation. Put another way, is there a sufficient unity of interest between those who pursue various conservative causes to make it possible for them to come together and serve as an effective force within or outside the Liberal Party?
We have been able to witness the significant power of the cross-benchers and minor parties in the Senate during the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd and Abbott/Turnbull regimes: some dilettante ideologues, or yokels, with minuscule proportions of the vote, get to wield more power, and gain much higher profiles, than most members elected directly, rather than via the electoral lottery of minor-party preferences. These latter unfortunates seem to be condemned to the backbench with a Whip and party organisation specifically tasked to keep them under control, make them do as they’re told.
It seems that the parliamentary system is signalling the end of the two-party system; indeed, is inviting its deconstruction into more specific interest groups and political parties committed to clear agendas that their representatives can constructively, consistently, and successfully pursue in the House and especially the Senate.
This suggests the path forward for conservatives is to ditch the Liberal Party and seek to establish a true Australian conservative party (under whatever name). This would then be tasked, obviously, with winning seats (either through election or welcoming defectors) and then negotiating with other parties on an agreed legislative agenda to be delivered in return for support for the governing party (assuming that the new conservative party doesn’t have an immediate majority!).
One suspects that this would appeal to existing and disgruntled parliamentarians who feel betrayed, are sick of being taken for granted and resent being herded like sheep. On the other hand, it will appall the existing party machines, lobby groups, special interest groups, and media kingpins who feel that they have the game stitched and under their control.
If such a strategy was to be pursued then the most important issue would be to establish a unifying conservative philosophy that would serve ideologically to bind the new party and its representatives, members, and supporters. And this, in turn, raises the question of what type(s) of conservatism are relevant to contemporary Australia. Obviously, this is not the place to go into detail about the history of conservative thought (however interesting that might be). Nevertheless the following points might serve as a starting point for further discussion.
Historically, modern Anglosphere conservatism goes back to Edmund Burke, whose thought was resurrected and codified by Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind (1953 and many editions since). Kirk was followed in is period by other American scholars like Richard Weaver, Peter Viereck, Eric Voegelin, and Robert Nisbet, who traced the deep historical roots of the crisis of modern society. Aspects of this Traditional Conservatism has in turn recently been reiterated in an Australian context by Cory Bernardi in The Conservative Revolution (2013). (incidentally, this became the target of a concerted campaign on Amazon.com by the fascist left designed to drive down its review ratings, revealing what sort of thing any new CP would be up against.)
Bernardi is attempting to introduce a sophisticated form of Traditional Conservatism into an Australian polity that historically hasn’t been well-informed by this type of philosophy. There appear to be a number of people inspired by this approach, and it should find a home in any new Australian conservative party.
Another form of conservatism is that shaped around a principled anti-communism/totalitarianism, and this rose to real prominence with onset of the Cold War. It linked up in America with Traditionalist Conservatism, and found its expression in Australia with the emergence of the DLP, supported by the National Civic Council and coordinated by Bob Santamaria, who took much of his inspiration from the (then) social teachings of the Catholic Church. This Anti-totalitarian Conservatism was extremely successful and might appear to be some sort of model, or inspiration, for a new conservative party (possibly informed by Bernardi’s work). On the other hand, given the Catholic dimension, it is not clear where the present Pope is taking the Church, its teachings and political allegiances.
A further and related form of conservatism is that which has emerged in reaction to the growing threat of radical Islamism and the supine position of most politicians and media outlets to this widely demonstrated threat. It is important to note that it is both the threat itself and the media and political reaction, or lack of it, that is driving this form of conservative response. This strain of activists feel their nation is under threat, and that their politicians, the media, and social institutions are blatantly and provocatively betraying them. Given the similarity of the threat being confronted in radical Islamism with earlier totalitarianisms, this form of Anti-totalitarian Conservatism can take some inspiration from the DLP and NCC.
It should also be noted that it appears this form of conservative response is an expression not of the contrived thought crime of ‘Islamophobia’ but of a more general collapse of trust in our politicians and the system. It would seem to have a natural home in a new conservative movement.
Another form of conservatism apparent in Australia is that which responds so positively to Andrew Bolt and the so-called ‘shock jocks’ of the right in Australian media. This seems best described as Populist Conservatism, and it seems to represent the type of pragmatic, common-sense, evolutionary form of conservatism that has historically been most successful in the Anglosphere countries. It links up naturally with the other forms of conservatism described above.
It has been notable that a lot of the criticism from the left has been directed at what leftists have taken to calling ‘Neo-conservatism’, apparently oblivious to the term’s actual meaning. This is an amalgam of liberal economics, conservative cultural stances, and an advocacy of aggressive American foreign policy designed to promote democracy. It was prominent during the Culture Wars and is often associated with the esoteric work of the American political philosopher Leo Strauss. It is highly interesting, but it’s idealism seems to have taken a hammering over the Middle-East debacle. It seems to have limited appeal at present, although it has appeal at the intellectual level.
Libertarianism is also an important tendency along the more general liberal-conservative philosophical continuum. In Australia it is represented by the IPA and commands considerable traction. Possibly its role within a viable conservative movement would be constrained by its libertarian position on important social issues, eg., same sex marriage, etc.
It is hoped that this little article (which is meant to be only a sketch) might help prompt some debate amongst those interested in the future of a viable conservative party in Australia, possibly with a view to eventually establishing a platform that might make such a party possible.