Reluctant liberals


With the ascent of Senator Lyn Allison to the leadership of the Australian Democrats, and with a poor election result behind them, the Party has an ideal opportunity to re-establish itself as a key player on the Australian political landscape by representing a group of voters for whom there is no natural home.

On its formation twenty seven years ago, the Democrats’ initial appeal was to genuine liberals. The Party’s commitment to human rights, broad constitutional reform, a balance between employer and employee and a welfare system that contains as much carrot as it does stick are liberal ideals.

The challenge for the Democrats today is to convince those Australians who cherish liberal values that it is the best voice to influence the body politic on their behalf. This means the Democrats should perhaps focus their efforts in areas such as Sydney’s North Shore, Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, and regional Australia – where the ‘reluctant Liberals’, as I termed them in my book, What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party? last year, reside.

The ‘reluctant Liberal’ is typically university-educated, in a professional occupation (or has been in one at some point in time), and has voted for the Liberal Party for most of his or her voting life. Their essential values are shaped by a belief in Australia as a progressive country and they believe that the world can be a more equal place through the application of free and fair trade. They typically acknowledge the role of government in ensuring that there is a safety net to protect those who slip through the cracks of our economic and social structures. These are people who are not afraid of change, are not nostalgic about returning to a mythical golden age, and believe that Australia should have constitutional symbols appropriate to our place in the world.

The ‘reluctant Liberal’ is comfortable with a twenty-first century liberalism in which individuals possess a collection of rights and obligations to other individuals and, in some cases, institutions. This is a liberalism which encapsulates the notion that our community has an obligation, in fact an inalienable duty, to ensure that it enhances social cohesion and militates against the distortions and harshness that is sometimes created by the market.

And it is a liberalism that acknowledges that the traditional nation state should not become an inward looking fortress, because this is incompatible with the freer movement of capital and people. The role of national governments is to cooperate regionally and globally to create the conditions for political and economic self-determination for peoples.

This is liberalism that encourages diversity, tolerance and humanity. It is liberalism that accepts diverse forms of life which must be tolerated so long as they do not offend the core criteria of equality, liberty and equity.

In essence, this philosophical framework provides a basis for a genuinely attractive liberal force that provides an alternative to the materialist, populist-conservative politics of the Howard Liberals, the ‘me-tooism’ of the ALP and the hard leftist stance of the Greens.

Why wouldn’t the ‘reluctant Liberal’ vote for an ALP led by the likes of a Paul Keating or a Mark Latham? A Party that takes risks, embraces progressive policy and seeks to carve out an identity for Australia that is not largely dependent on rigid and clichéd alliances with the US and the UK.

Essentially, because the ALP contains within it a deeply conservative and illiberal vein. Represented by the Catholic right, the old left and the opportunist middle, these forces ensure that Labor is prepared to jettison human rights and openness to appease sectional interests and to garner conservative votes.

When Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon stood before a few hundred right wing Christians in Canberra prior to this year’s election, and received their thundering applause for delivering the message that the ALP would support the Howard government’s anti-gay marriage legislation, she confirmed why the ALP is not to be taken seriously as a progressive political force.

And when newly appointed Shadow Immigration spokesman Laurie Ferguson cast aspersions on the claims of asylum seekers in his first comments after the election, he did likewise.

The other major strategic issue for the Democrats is that the ‘reluctant Liberals’ are generally over the age of forty. It is this group that carries on their car windows ‘Not Happy John’ stickers, and joins community and advocacy groups.

But what of first times voters and those in their twenties and thirties? The sons and daughters of the ‘reluctant Liberals’. This is a group that often supports the Greens. They are perceived, as one first time voter from Perth’s leafy western suburbs told me recently, to be ‘cool’. Direct action, anti-establishment rhetoric and simple sloganeering are all attractive propositions to the young left leaning voter who is politically engaged.

The Democrats must appeal to this group. One way of doing this would be to study carefully and borrow from the fascinating campaign of Democrat presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

Dr Dean was the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination until the liberal press and political establishment mowed him down after he lost in the New Hampshire primary and let out a passionate, primal scream that was considered too unbecoming for a party that selected the patrician and earnest John Kerry.

Dean’s campaign used the internet extensively. It engaged with young voters in an unprecedented way. The reason? Jonathan Zaff, the CEO of the Washington based think-tank and advocacy group 18to35 noted that ‘Dean, alone among the Democratic aspirants, is perceived by his youthful constituents as being sincere in his efforts to address their needs he is walking the walk by enlisting young adults in substantive components of his campaign. These campaigners aren’t just licking stamps Dean is actually engaging the talents of young adults in his campaign and speaking to young adults about issues about which young adults care most Dean’s young campaigners and followers, in turn, are responding to him.’

Applying this strategy of substantive engagement to the Democrats will be more difficult given the Party’s limited resources and media exposure. But it could do worse than ensure it has a good spread of high profile young people as spokespeople for the Party and in positions of leadership.

Again, adopting the Dean technique, listening closely to the desires and aspirations of young people will help the Party be seen as a ‘natural voice’ for the next generation of Australians. The Democrats can engage with pressure groups, youth advocacy organisations and local issue campaigns where younger Australians tend to be politically involved.

Utilising the Internet to bring younger Australians together in communities is also important. The Dean campaign used computer software to allow groups of like minded people in communities across America to meet in cafés, bars and homes “ younger voters found this appealing because it gave them a chance to socialise and be politically engaged at the same time.

The liberal values for which the Democrats unambiguously stand, are as appealing to younger Australians as they are to those over fifty. It’s simply a question of making them relevant to younger people and ensuring they are able to input and speak about these values and the policies that derive from them that is important.

In a practical sense, how might Democrat policy be shaped to attract liberal voters?

In a paper published last April by the Toronto based Caledon Institute of Social Policy, Sherri Torjman articulates some interesting ideas for twenty firstt century liberalism. Her discourse – The New Liberalism: Ideas and Ideals – focuses on the ‘promotion of human wellbeing’ as a key liberal value. By this she means that in contrast to the conservative and Blairite view of the world, the state must continue to directly invest in social programs on a long term and sustainable basis.

Torjman believes that liberals must focus on strengthening the concept of the ‘public good’ – an idea shunned by the Liberal Party and only spasmodically heeded by the ALP.

Policies such as government provision of low income housing, direct income payments to low-income parents on behalf of children, multi-disciplinary health practices, and a strong holistic system of early childhood development services are all policies that accentuate the importance of the ‘public good’ and enhance ‘human wellbeing.’

The Australian Democrats need to adopt these themes of the ‘public good’ and ‘human wellbeing’ and ensure that the Australian people understand this is what distinguishes this political force from other parties on the landscape.

The Australian Democrats is the natural home for twenty first century liberalism. The Democrats now have an opportunity to repackage their core values and beliefs as liberal – perhaps the party should be known as the Liberal Democrats, or even the New Liberals – and provide a home for that group of Australians whose philosophical outlook is so poorly represented today.

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