When the history of the 43rd Australian Parliament is written, it’s fair to say liberalism won’t rate much of a mention.
Though the Liberal Party’s abandonment of liberalism was sufficient to see former PM Malcolm Fraser resign, and embolden a select few Labor MPs to push in a “social liberal” direction, no party consistently stood for economic responsibility, social freedoms and democratic reform.
Though Malcolm Turnbull still serves as a frustration valve for moderates in his party, he’s been increasingly tight-lipped after losing the leadership. But there’s been another liberal at work this parliament.
A former Nationals MP from a regional constituency, retiring Independent MP Rob Oakeshott is an unlikely flag bearer for the liberal tradition. Describing himself as “economically conservative and socially progressive”, Oakeshott admits to not doing due diligence on the party he originally joined. The conservative line the Nationals pushed on drug policy and the republic eventually led him to quit and stand as an Independent.
As an Independent, his views seem to have increasingly shifted towards what former Liberal adviser Greg Barns describes as “genuine liberalism”: a commitment to individual freedom, parliamentary reform and a belief in the superiority of markets over government intervention.
The legislative and advocacy legacy Oakeshott leaves is certainly in keeping with these ideals.
On economic matters, Oakeshott has shown a preference for prudent deregulation and use of market mechanisms, making the Liberal record look positively statist in comparison. He backed the deregulators — ironically comprising the Greens, ALP and crossbenchers sans Bob Katter — against the Liberal National parties in the vote on wheat export deregulation back in 2012.
On responding to climate change, Oakeshott has again forged a liberal path. William Gladstone, the towering British Liberal Prime Minister of the late 19th century, described the principle of his liberal party as “trust in the people, only qualified by prudence.” Averting the consequences of climate change with a carbon price is classic Gladstonian liberalism: prudent and efficient.
Discouraging the ALP from pursuing the harebrained “citizens assembly” and “clash for clunkers” policies taken to the 2010 election, Oakeshott and the crossbenchers secured the reform that had eluded both Turnbull and Rudd. Backed by the liberal Economist magazine, more economically literate former Liberal leaders, and the overwhelming majority of economists, pricing carbon is hardly the antithesis of economic liberalism that many in the Liberal Party make it out to be. Liberal thinkers from Frederick Hayek to John Maynard Keynes recognised that rational empiricism is foundational to a liberal outlook — it’s a shame many on the Liberal side of politics have forgot this.
Then again, rational argument hasn’t exactly been a hallmark of this parliament. This is particularly evident in the realm of budget management and tax reform. Though pundits have spent the last six years obsessing over the date by which surplus will be reached, of greater concern are forecasts by the Grattan Institute and Treasury which predict future Australian governments saddled with growing debts as they struggle to cover rising health and ageing spending.
This future, only a decade or two off, should frighten conservatives and progressives alike. Alas, the public has not heard a peep from the major parties about how this impending crisis will be tackled.
Oakeshott admits he didn’t achieve all he hoped on tax reform. Still, he was one of the few parliamentarians willing to engage with this prickly issue. In his opening remarks to the 2011 Tax Summit — an event arising from his agreement with Julia Gillard – he spoke of the need for a “sense of aggression and urgency in modernising our tax and transfer system, no matter how unpopular certain decisions might have to be”. To this end he has canvassed raising the GST, congestion taxes, and reevaluating spending, placing him firmly in the liberal tradition of prudent fiscal management.
When Wayne Swan released his last budget in May, Oakeshott gave a lengthy interview on Meet the Press discussing his views:
“We are in this parallel universe debate that is really more focused on the cyclical issues… my concern is that we have a better debate around the structural issues that are at the heart of our standard of living. Tax reform needs to happen. Spending reform needs to happen. That’s where the real debate needs to be.”
Oakeshott’s quest for parliamentary reform mirrors the commitment that British Liberals have had in rendering parliament more accountable to voters. While he erred in handing legislative power back to cabinet after the Williams v Commonwealth decision put the brakes on federal cash being distributed without legislation, the reforms to tighten Question Time answers, allow greater room for private members bills and that the creation of the Parliamentary Budget Office will strengthen future parliaments.
In his support for marriage equality and opposition to the attempted ramming through of Stephen Conroy’s media laws, Oakeshott showed a consistency on civil liberties and cool judgment that escaped others in the chamber.
Though the Liberal Party may trumpet its curious brand of liberalism loudly, it is the quiet liberalism of Robert Oakeshott that should be noted in the history books.
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