Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Deakin

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.

Affable Alfred

Today marks the 153rd birthday of Alfred Deakin. ‘Affable Alfred’ as he was known departed us 90 years ago, (though mentally was going quiet some years before that), but for any who value Australia, the Australian political system and way of life, he can not be forgotten.

Back in early 2000-2001 the taskforce set up to celebrate the centenary of Australian Federation, ran add’s asking ‘what sort of a nation would forget its first PM’, but whilst Barton is a notable figure, a more important question would be how could we have forgotten the man who established Australia as we know it today. Whilst he doesn’t always appear on lists of Australia’s founding fathers (Parkes, Barton and Wentworth usually dominate), no man can make a better claim for having laid the foundation of modern Australia than Alfred Deakin.

Deakin was a barrister, journalist and scholar before entering Parliament at age 23. He was instrumental in the development of advanced irrigation techniques in Australia, having traveled to India and the United States to learn their techniques both ancient and modern. Whilst having every opportunity of staying on to become Victorian Premier, in the 1890’s Deakin turned his attention to Federation and was one of the leading advocates. Whilst parochial Victorians contend he ought to have been our first PM, Barton was probably the better choice. A former cricket umpire, he brought an order and stability to the chamber for the first 2 years that was sorely desired in later times. Meanwhile, his first choice as colleague and deputy Alfred Deakin undertook the real work of the government, introducing most of its major pieces of legislation such as the White Australia Policy. In September 1903, Barton resigned as PM for a spot on the high court, and Deakin became PM. He was to be PM three times, covering the entire first decade of Parliament. He introduced protectionism for Australian industries, copyright law, quarantine protection, established the census and meterology bureau and as I mentioned recently was instrumental in kick starting Australian foreign policy and development of its own defence force.

The Prime Minister and Deputy in 1901. Deakin on Right

The Prime Minister and Deputy in 1901. Deakin on Right

It took Australia over 80 years to move beyond some of his key policies such as protectionism and White Australia, yet in political organisation his influence is still keenly at work. Today we see debates about whether the Liberals should move in a moderate or conservative direction, with Deakin brought up as the archetypal Small-L liberal character they should emulate. In 1904 he voluntarily resigned as PM (no election was called) and allowed the Labor government under Chris Watson to take office. This hugely significant and generous move both forced Labor to become more professional by giving them a taste of the demands of office, also brought them instant credibility paving the way for their wholehearted involvement within the political process of Australia. Had this move not taken place, the Labour movement may have decided peaceful political engagement was useless and turned to more radical means, by keeping them inside the process, within sight of government, Deakin (who was somewhat sympathetic) guaranteed their peaceful, pragmatic form.

Deakin however lead the Protectionist Party (the opposition were the Free Trade party, with labor the minority ‘3rd cricket team’ of the chamber in Deakin’s unbeatable phrase) who were slowly dwindling in strength. In 1908 however he decided that a merger had to happen, both for the stability of the Australian government, and the political pressures of the day. Deakin was closer in ideology to the Labor party, however rejecting their caucus driven system (and they in turn rejecting his liberalism) he turned to the free trade party to form the ‘Fusion’ Party. The first major non-labor party setting up the essential two party system in Australia as it remains today. The possibility that Deakin could have sided with Labor remains one of the great ‘what if’s’ of Australian history, tantalizing in its prospects for all those who’s sympathies lie in between the two parties, supporting neither the union wing of labor, nor the conservative wing of non-labor. If you have ever cursed or praised the two party system in Australia, or marveled at it’s century long stability as a democracy (a rare rare feat in this world) then it is Deakin to whom you owe recognition.

He visited London twice in a representative role, in 1900 helping persuade the British Imperial parliament to support the passage of the Australian Constitution Bill, and later as Prime Minister. He wow’ed English audiences both times with his rhetoric and oratory, being regarded, as one of the best ever heard by a generation of English aristocrats and politicians who had only recently witnessed the passing of the likes of Disraeli and Gladstone. Deakin however was much more than just a politician, an intellectuals mind with a spiritual bent, he was a great reader and scholar, and remained a keen commentator for much of his time in parliament. Indeed whilst PM (and completely unknown to his colleagues) he often filed anonymous commentary for the London Times, even giving his own actions a whack when he had made mistakes or failed to anticipate his colleagues intentions. His penmanship was only discovered long after he had retired from federal parliament. His other works such as his recollection of the story of federation, remain some of the key documents in Australian political history, and keen visitors can even still read his extensive diaries at the National Library of Australia in Canberra (though be warned, his writing is rather hard to read at first!).

This anecdote to me reveals another crucial and charming feature of Deakin’s life and mind. Despite all his achievements and successes, perhaps unrivaled in Australian political history, politics was always a distraction for Deakin. Had the pressures of the colony and his compatriots not invaded, he would have been much happier to have simply lived as a poet, scholar and writer, quiet and alone in his study. In 1908 whilst PM, whilst deciding the future of Australian politics he wrote:

‘Measuring happiness by quantityt its fullest source for me has come from books. A life of activity and of considerable public adventure and reward with all its delights and ambitions, has so far as I can judge yielded less than reading…more and more the height, depth and breadth of life I have led in and through letters expands as I recall it, until I wonder whether I have not lived more, and more intensely in and through books’

Whilst Howard and Rudd are both big readers, (and the latter clearly likes to put pen to paper) can you imagine either political animal making such a claim. Both men live lives entirely obsessed with politics, with anything else seemingly reduced to its ability to help or hinder their political interests. Deakin however, whose achievements dominate both of them combined however was always slightly torn between the demands of the public and his own wish for a private meditative life, as a writer and scholar if not mystic. The last PM to have even seemingly wished for a private non-political life, Paul Keating was pilloried for his love of classical music and French architecture; just imagine what today’s press would make of a man who claimed to see spirits and communicate with the other side, or who wrote poetry.

Deakin may not offer many great policy lessons to current politicians, but in the art of politics, and of the good life there is few finer figures to view and emulate. He was, always, true to his own views and values, willing to play the game, but also happy to walk away from it all should it have required a compromise too far. he voluntarily gave up or refused power on several occasions in both the victorian and national parliaments*, awaiting the right opportunity, keenly aware of the streaming passage of time, taking him away from his study, his home life, his books and his thoughts. Yet when brought into the public he rarely failed to charm, delight and impress, not just a statesman who held his country together in its rocky first decade, but by all including his enemies long recognised and respected as a kind and gentle man. That too is his legacy, and part of the great Australian tradition, which decries the intolerant, shallow attitudes which seem to proliferate in this mcmansion new Australia. It is for these reasons that today, August 3 2009, 153 years after Deakin was born, we ought to remember his legacy for each of us individually, and for this country at large.

* In 1879 when first elected, Deakin resigned on his very first day in the Parliament due to complaints of a shortage of ballot papers in some areas of his electorate. He told the parliament ‘If I am the representative of the majority of electors… I will be returned again. If I am not their representative I have no right here’. He was soon returned. This his very first office for a very ambitious young man. But power without honour was no power at all for him.