Whither the modern Liberal Party? Australia’s key conservative political party has now been out of power federally for four years. For much of that time it has struggled to come to terms with its opposition status. It narrowly lost the 2010 election, despite a strong campaign by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and in some aspects of its party organisation, such as fundraising, still trails the Labor Party.
For all of this, at the end of 2011, the Liberal Party is far and away the healthiest political party in Australia. The party is in power in Australia’s two largest states, New South Wales and Victoria, as well as Australia’s most prosperous state, Western Australia. It looks likely to be elected in Queensland early in 2012 too.
Federally, the Liberal Party under Tony Abbott is the more popular of the two major parties. It polled the most primary votes of any party in the 2010 election, and has led in the polls ever since. Under Abbott, the Coalition has proved to be a strong opposition, regularly embarrassing the Government (which admittedly scores its fair share of own goals) and presenting a robust alternative government to voters.
In politicians such as Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop and Joe Hockey, it enjoys frontbenchers with national political recognition and effective media performance. It also enjoys a strong crop of younger talent, in politicians such as Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O’Dwyer, Simon Birmingham and Alex Hawke.
Organisationally, the Liberal Party is arguably better aligned to the everyday concerns and interest of the broader Australian electorate than the ALP. The party membership is certainly older and whiter than Australia in general, but the Liberal Party has done a better job of engaging with multicultural Australia and civil society than many give it credit for. On many booths on general election days, you can see plenty of young Australians from diverse backgrounds in blue Liberal t-shirts, handing out how-to-vote cards.
The Liberal Party doesn’t suffer from nearly as much factional infighting as the ALP.
Unlike Labor, the Liberal Party is not a feudal cabal of warring factions; nor is it ruled by union powerbrokers or faceless men. There are factions, of course, and the branch stacking and internal powerplays can be every bit as brutal as in Labor. But political alliances inside the party tend to be more fluid, and the party does a much better job of concealing its internal squabbles from voters.
Strong Liberal leaders also tend to inspire more support and loyalty than their Labor counterparts. This can sometimes lead to sclerosis, as in the final years of John Howard’s reign, but it also means that once a strong leader is found, parliamentary Liberals tend to unite around him. (It almost always is a man, Isobel Redmond excepted).
Philosophically, the Liberal message continues to resonate with many sections of middle Australia, even if the party itself has largely turned its back on the Deakinite traditions championed by its founder, Robert Menzies.
The modern Liberal Party is chiefly a champion of liberty, especially economic liberty, and it is at its most naturally confident when espousing the values of business interests and the right of entrepreneurs to make money unfettered by government regulations or union action. These core values of individual liberty and small government may not necessarily be reflected in every policy platform, but the party is reasonably consistent in what it stands for and most Liberal members can articulate, even if only in a few disconnected soundbites, why they joined the Liberal Party. Business of course remains a key recruiting ground for the party, but the law, the professions and even the emergency services furnish plenty of candidates.
Intellectually, the Liberal message finds itself at its most dissonant when attempting to reconcile individual liberties with conservative social values. Liberals gravitate to the right on most contested social issues, such as gay marriage, abortion and asylum seekers. This sometimes leads to a conflict between those who value enterprise and freedom and those who value tradition and the family unit.
The problem is that global capitalism and the power of unfettered free markets are not, in general, beneficial to the social and civic bonds that tie us together. Indeed, as even conservative thinkers like Michael Oakeshott have recognised, capital has a great tendency to erode social and family connections, dissolving everything in a commoditised sea of consumption. This is one reason, incidentally, why Liberals are often most intellectually comfortable with the lofty ideal of the family small business, because it neatly conflates the two great ideals of Liberal thinking.
Generally speaking, there are three ways out for the conservative who wants also to embrace capitalism.
The first is out-and-out liberatarianism. Libertarians easily solve the problem of the social corrosion inherent in capitalism by denying there is anything much valuable in society in the first place. In its extreme form of Ayn Rand worship, libertarianism becomes a kind of cult of capitalism, in which brave and strong entrepreneurs wrestle with the lazy and morally weak masses to drag society into a new era of prosperity and progress. Libertarians are commonly found in the think-tanks and policy institutes to the right of centre, but the popularity of true libertarianism in broader society is small.
The second solution is roughly the Turnbull solution, which we might call classical liberalism. Under this formula, the so-called "wet" Liberals who look back to Menzies and Deakin, and beyond them to Mill and Locke, posit a universe in which rights are balanced against social responsibilities, and in which free enterprise is balanced by the sinews of civil society and the moral responsibility of the businessman and the entrepreneur. This type of Liberal is uncomfortable with anti-immigrant policies, restrictions on media freedom and big-government, pro-family conservative policies like Family Tax Benefit and the Baby Bonus.
The third solution for the conservative worried about the radical change inevitably wreaked by unfettered markets is populism. This, roughly, is the program mapped out by Tony Abbott in his book Battlelines. Populism in this context means an uneasy chimera of free market, small government rhetoric with pro-family, socially conservative moral crusading. Hence, law and order is a winning issue (even if it means depriving many citizens of their individual liberty) because it can be portrayed as a morally correct action. The same is true with border protection and asylum seekers.
Almost by definition, populism doesn’t have to be intellectually consistent, which makes it a handy and flexible position for the skilled politician. A libertarian or classical liberal might find themselves quite uncomfortable with a policy like Direct Action, which seeks to impose a big government solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A populist doesn’t have to worry about such qualms, and can instead revel in the right-wing talkback glory of questioning the validity of climate science.
This final issue, climate science, or rather, the status of rational intellectual inquiry, represents the real potential schism for the modern conservative movement in this and other Western nations. As the old name for environmentalism — conservation — implies, environmentalism is entirely compatible with conservative beliefs. Indeed, it could be argued that green ideas like the precautionary principle can be traced directly back to Edmund Burke’s beliefs in prudence. And yet, for reasons that have everything to do with the culture wars over social issues that developed in the latter quarter of the 20th century, modern conservatives nurse deep animosities toward the environmental movement. In the case of climate science, these animosities have been allowed to spill over into a quixotic attack on the principles of peer-reviewed science itself, a quite astonishing development for a movement that, in its economic beliefs, clings tightly to the legacy of the Enlightenment.
The problem of how to continue the capitalist engine without destroying the earth is a problem that now confronts all those who profess a belief in the value of business, enterprise and the importance of "the economy". Because climate science is a century-long global issue that will come to define the geopolitical shape of the 21st century world, conservatives (no more than progressives) don’t have the luxury of just wishing climate change will go away.
As Sir Nicholas Stern famous observed, climate change is the greatest market failure in history, so anyone who professes belief in markets will need to find a way to reconcile their beliefs with the damage markets are doing to the planet and the welfare of future generations. It certainly is possible to formulate an eminently neo-liberal climate change policy — this, after all, is essentially what Labor’s emissions trading system is — but to do so, one first needs to accept the scientific reality, and to campaign for reform on an issue that is deeply unpopular with much of the conservative base.
But climate change is a very big and very long-term issue. Conservatives also have the luxury that progressive parties generally lack, which is that they often don’t have to be about big issues at all. All politics is local, as they say, and Liberal parliamentarians often excel at the school fete level of political engagement. Somebody has to represent the interests of the business community and the people who will never vote Labor or Green. Simply by being this party, the Liberals have a built-in political power base they will almost certainly hold on to for decades.
In summary, the state of the Liberal Party is one of rude health. The natural party of government in Australia expects to govern again in 2013, and there is every chance currently that it will succeed.
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