Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Brandis

Liberalism in 21st Century Australia

Brandis_speech Thanks to the Australian, we have full access to Senator George Brandis’s excellent speech “We Believe: The Liberal Party and the liberal cause”, delivered at the 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture in Melbourne on the 22nd October.

Though I urge you to go read the full speech, Brandis is perhaps at his best when he takes aim at the way liberalism was mishandled under John Howard:

John Howard did not see the Liberal Party as simply the custodian of the liberal cause. For Howard, it was as much a conservative party as a liberal party – indeed, with the passage of time, rather more the former than the latter….Now Deakin would never have said that, and Menzies never did. The “two traditions” theory was a specific contribution of John Howard’s. In diminishing the centrality of liberalism to the Liberal Party’s belief system, and balancing it against conservatism; in qualifying the Liberal Party’s commitment to the freedom of the individual as its core value, and weighing it against what he often called social cohesion, Howard made a profound departure from the tradition of Deakin and Menzies.

Brandis goes to great lengths to show the critical importance of liberalism to Deakin and Menzies. However, while philosophically he is right, these two men both made the same practical choice of binding their liberal instinct into a general anti-labor party that created Howard’s broad church approach. In many ways, both Brandis and Howard are right. By 1909 Deakin, wearied and bloodied after a decade leading the continent realised that his middle liberal way was being trampled by the adolescent labor party, and the aristocratic conservatives. His personal philosophy was much closer to Labor, but he could not abide their caucus control, and so chose to make peace with the conservatives and form a party ‘Fusion’ between the two anti-labor forces. This was a practical choice to ensure the survival of his MP’s, but sacrificing the dominant position of liberalism on the Anti-labor side to a more generic mix. Menzies likewise made a similar choice, knowing that a coalition was the only way to ensure they could keep Labor from power. It is this practical history that Howard claims informs the modern liberal party. Yet the Liberal party would be nothing if it was stripped of its liberal elements. Even Tony Abbott in his conservative manifesto ‘Battlelines’ can’t help himself from repeating many liberal ideas without seeming to notice the contradictions to his professed conservatism. Liberalism is the parties soul, it is as Brandis argues, the cause of its proud history

In every age, whenever liberalism and conservatism have come into contention, the victory of liberalism has enlarged the freedom of the individual, which later generations of conservatives have then joined with them in striving to defend. But every time, it was the liberals who were the animating spirit.

No fair analyst of the Liberal party could disagree with this claim. Menzies may have held onto power a long time in part due to conservative scaremongering, but winning power is not the same as using it, and Menzies books (Afternoon Light, Speech is of Time, Measure of the Years) all play up and look back favorably on his liberal actions, guiltily ignoring his more conservative indulgences* in the name of electoral success. Menzies is also an interesting liberal due to his rather Millian take on why freedom is important. Modern Liberals seem to see freedom as an end in itself, and while it is, Liberalism has a second reason for wanting as much individual freedom as possible. From the grandfather of Liberalism, J.S. Mill (again via Brandis’s speech)

“It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation

That is, freedom’s greatest reward is that it enables individuals to improve and develop themselves, to build their talents and skills, to flesh out and give style to their character. To become who they are, rather than who society might like them to be. It’s also a very powerful political message to the newest voting block: Gen-Y. As Possum Pollytics has detailed, Gen-Y is a quickly rising block that the Liberal party absolutely fails at marketing its message to. But if it was to recast its commitment to freedom as one based on allowing ambitious individuals, or creative individuals the space and opportunity to make of their own lives what they want (rather than being seen as just a stuffy desire to make life easier for businesses), then it could have great appeal to this group. Many of my friends, all solid labor voters looked anew at the party of Malcolm Turnbull when he took the leadership. They saw great appeal in his personal story of achievement, and waited to be given a reason to vote for him. Thus far, they havn’t seen anything like it, and are growing disillusioned. This is an argument Howard could never make, but Turnbull can. Freedom has always been re-defined by every era. In the 80’s it was to liberate societies from protectionism and welfare traps. Today it must be for individualism and towards human flourishing in our newly minted modern societies. This is not some new age spiritualism, it is an honest, humane and civillised approach to mankind, to quote Menzies who whilst Prime Minister wrote that:

“Without minds that are informed, toughened by exercise, broadened by enquiry and fearless in pursuing the truth wherever it may lead, we may never hope to have spirits untrammeled by blinding ignorance or distorting prejudice. And without free minds and free spirits our boasted civic freedoms becomes an empty shell” (Menzies 1958 page 218)

I want to end by quoting Hayek’s ‘why I am not a conservative’ which Brandis also quotes extensively. However while this line is used by Brandis and Hayek to attack conservatism, I think it is actually much more relevant for liberalism today:

…Let me … state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

I’ve often come to see Liberalism as akin to a shark, if it stops moving it suffocates. Liberalism today has been forced to become the defender of the status quo (or been taken in directions it is uncomfortable with as a tool of the wealthy and powerful), and in this backward looking, reactive stance it is an easy target. Until it can pivot onto a forward looking position, its calls for freedom will float past listeners ears unheard. While there is important work to be done reviving the history of liberalism, such as its importance to Deakin and Menzies and Australian history (i’ve always seen this country as a Republican-Liberal hybrid far more than the Libertarian-Liberalism that dominates the US, or the incremental Liberal-Traditionalism of the UK), its return to power is dependent upon a coherent, bold policy agenda. Such an agenda would need only 5-6 key policy changes. To be argued at every meeting, before every microphone, in every publication and household. It might look something like this

1. Reform welfare state – End churn of middle class welfare, significant cuts to tax cut, especially for poor.
2. Allow Euthanasia and full marriage equality.
3. End the war on drugs beginning with legalising marijuana and decriminalising use of others.
4. Make competition policy a priority. Break the clasp of the big end on town on the direction of economic liberalism.
5. Commit to transparent modern governance. Publish as much as possible online, have ombudsman to ensure population can see who gets what and when in every bill, every department, every budget handout.
6. Make ensuring privacy for individuals a key concern.

The exact nature or order of these policies is not important. What is important is having a clear, future driven platform to identify with modern liberalism in Australia. Liberals need to return to defining themselves, rather than as currently letting others define them (such as Prime Minister Rudd’s essay on Neoliberalism). Many elements will be contentious, some are 20+ years away from implementation, but the argument needs to be taken up and begun today. The clearer and shorter the case, the easier it will be to sell and settle into the minds of the voting public as an identifying feature. Only with such a clear image can it regain its rightful place as the “animating spirit” of modern societies, and lay claim to ownership of the 21st century as it has the 20th. The only way to prevent Liberalism sinking into status-quo stance inimical to conservatism is to give it a forward objective. Just as individuals are either on the up or the out, such a humanistic philosophy as liberalism must seek ever greater mountains to climb if it is to remain relevant. There are so many challenges still to be addressed.

* I don’t believe Menzies fits either a liberal or conservative approach, but unfortunately I can’t say why until i finish an academic paper I’m writing on the topic. Look for an announcement here in coming months about it. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I have to be until it’s published.

Words both old and new

Apologies for the low post count in recent days, but I’m under the hammer to deliver a few new chapters to work. But around the media have been two fascinating pieces: An inside peak into the PM’s inner sanctum at Parliament House, and a Liberal Senators efforts to seek a party resurrection through a return to its history.

As a sign of its confidence, it seems the government is finally willing to allow journalists to have a peak into the way the government operates when in Parliament house. In a long, interesting and yet strangely detail free piece Katharine Murphy spends the day with the PM’s Media Unit. Charting the young ‘alpha males’ (her term) who run the office it’s more west wing than the office, but still leaves them unilluminated.

A few times, walking through, watched furtively by onlookers, flanked by Harris and Kelly, I fancy I’ve fallen into an episode of Entourage. The running joke in the office and among the senior ministers drifting in and out for tactics is I am there to do a profile of Harris. When I mention the Entourage sensation to one person, he immediately casts Harris as ”Turtle” – the wannabe driver to the A-List Hollywood star in the HBO series.

A reception area divides the apparatchiks from the departmental liaison officers, who scurry about in the pre-question time period, and the speechwriters, Tim Dixon and former journalist Maria Hawthorne. The speech-writing pod has a think-tank vibe: there is a designer chair, and Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama look down from walls that are otherwise packed with books. Across from them is a private dining hall, a monstrosity of the 1980s, complete with mirrored panelling. Back a bit is the sitting room, where a television crew from A Current Affair is camped out patiently, waiting for three minutes with Rudd.

Meanwhile, Mark Davis offers up the plan for the Ground Floor ministerial wing as a sure fire guide to who is in and out in the Rudd Government:

Front and centre, naturally, is the PMO – the Prime Minister’s office, an L-shaped suite of offices housing Kevin Rudd and his advisers. Next door is his deputy, Julia Gillard; behind her and also immediately next to the PMO is the Treasurer, Wayne Swan. Across a corridor is the Transport Minister and left-wing factional chief, Anthony Albanese.

But most interesting of all is the location of Mark Arbib, the NSW Right factional chief who became Employment Participation Minister in Rudd’s frontbench reshuffle in June. Arbib is the only junior minister domiciled on the ministerial wing’s ground floor…

Both a worth read for political junkies. Of more substance however is some more media attention for Liberal Senator George Brandis’s efforts to re-cast the history of Australian politics. There is an old saying that winners write the history, which is often interpreted in a military sense: once the fight is done only those left standing will be able to say what happened. But politically it is better seen as ‘those who write the history will be the winners’. Those parties or individuals who ignore or sideline their history are constantly at the mercy of the opposition who will define them in ways they do not seek or enjoy (As John Howard did to Labor for the better part of a decade), Brandis, easily one of the top 2-3 smartest men in parliament is instead turning his gaze on his own party with a rather odd formulation:

In May this year, Brandis lamented that nothing was organised to celebrate the centenary of the fusion – the event on May 27, 1909, when the two non-Labor parties – Alfred Deakin’s Protectionist Party and George Reid’s Free Traders – merged. To Brandis, this was the origin of today’s Liberal Party which, although formally established by Menzies in 1944, has drawn from ”a long Australian tradition of liberal and anti-socialist politics”.

In an subsequent essay for the Spectator magazine, The Party that Forgot its Past, Brandis said the Liberal Party ”did not spring from the mind of Menzies like Athena from the brow of Zeus”. The Liberals risked being a ”one-hero party”, its history the ”veneration of an icon frozen in time”. ”Great though Menzies’ achievement was in reconstructing the non-Labor side of politics, what he created was a new party structure, not a new set of political values.

Brandis raises a good point, though I’m not quite sure its the one he is seeking to make. Brandis is seeking to use this history to re-claim the strong strand of liberalism for the Liberal Party, by reminding them theirs is a history beyond the conservatives Menzies, Fraser and Howard. But instead the story of Fusion best demonstrates that Australian politics is governed not by ideological debates, but by the forces of Labor and Anti-Labor. What unites the non-labor parties has always been what they oppose rather than what they hold in common. Today it is the same story, with the only reason the Nationals have to sit with the Liberals is their united hatred of Labor.

Unfortunately the Spectator piece seems to be down at the moment, but Brandis at least deserves credit for seeking party renewal in the pages of history. Indeed while there are many conservative accounts of Australian history (Kelly’s “The March of Patriots” being the most recent), there is prescious little about the Liberal party and especially Liberalism in Australia. It is a great story un-told (one i’d once planned as a PhD project, and would like to return to one day). If the Liberal party was actually liberal (and smart) it would have men such as Brandis front and center, but it doesn’t leaving him with the free time to speculate on the absent history. A good effort, but likely to be one soon forgotten.