Is Australian conservatism in good hands? Maybe so

BOOK REVIEW: Damien Freeman, Abbott’s Right: The conservative tradition from Menzies to Abbott, Melbourne University Press, 28 August 2017

It is often said that conservatives are stuck in the past. But for over centuries many leading conservative thinkers and practitioners have made clear the necessity of change.

‘A state without the means of some change,’ the eighteenth century conservative Edmund Burke famously wrote, ‘is without the means of its own conservation.’ In 2002, amid the golden jubilee Queen Elizabeth II – perhaps no greater modern Western symbol of cascading tradition – noted that ‘if a jubilee becomes a moment to define an age, then for me we must speak of change – its breadth and accelerating pace over these years.’[1] Tony Abbott, a leading Australian conservative political practitioner over the past three decades, further reminds us that ‘[t]he past is to guide us and to inspire us, not to shackle us.’[2]

It is in Abbott’s Right that Australian lawyer Damien Freeman illuminates these points, clearly bringing together the essence of conservatism, change, the individual, community, free markets and public policy. For a studied conservative (all pretension aside) there isn’t anything too groundbreaking in Freeman’s book, however there is no other work I am aware of that brings together thinkers like Burke and Disraeli with Australian conservative political operators like Menzies or Abbott. For this he is commended.

Conservatism places a huge premium on the individual, however, it is not a not a game of raw selfishness – another common misconception – but an individual vigor that actually locates strength in community. Conservative approaches to public policy ‘takes human flourishing to lie in individuals living as part of communities,’ writes Freeman, ‘and so attaches significance to both individual freedom and communal institutions.’[3] Hence conservatives look ‘for policies that are guided by the past, rather than by abstract ideas of utopian visions.’[4]

The persistence of a ‘utopian vision’ by Left progressive politics, and a news media cycle constantly prodding for grievance, clearly forces many conservatives to play a defensive game, which explains their un-budging and reactionary perception. In a time of unprecedented welfare spending to cure inequality, for example, or in the ascendance of identity politics or political correctness, conservatives must constantly stand up for economic liberty, free speech and the rights of the individual to pursue self-interest and self-improvement while not dismantling time-honoured truths. It is not an easy path.

‘The lesson of recent history is that real progress is always built on clear fundamentals,’ said Abbott as prime minister in 2014. ‘You can’t spend what you haven’t got; no country has ever taxed or subsidised its way to prosperity; you don’t address debt and deficit with yet more debt and deficit; and profit is not a dirty word because success in business is something to be proud of.’[5]

Commerce aside, the next round of social squabbling surrounding LGBTQI, spurred on by the recent factionalising debate for same sex marriage, will place further pressure on conservatives to espouse the benefits of not only the traditional family unit but, once again, make clear that we are individuals first before we part of any group. Conservatives need to remind people that this is an appeal that, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or private sexual orientation, actually binds communities together rather than forcing them apart.

Not entirely examined by Freeman is looking around the corner – the future of conservatism in Australia. Granted, with the challenges listed above, conservatives may seem under siege. But there is a sense of camouflaged optimism for Australian conservatism, not so much in formal politics and public policy but in the emergence of appetite for customs, laws and traditions among individuals and the everyday Australians who live their lives but don’t write blogs, appear on the ABC, produce podcasts or serve in academia.

Indeed, the sudden astronomical popularity of people like Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, or commentators like Douglas Murray, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan or Dave Rubin, reveals something about a general non-mainstream Western appetite for depth in public discussion. It further shows a rejection of easy answers to complex social problems or, at very least, the base mainstream appeal to safe spaces, identity politics and trigger warnings.

While there isn’t a clear sign that these trends are emerging in Australia it is hard not to be curious about some early signs. Peterson, whose 2018 Australian tour near-instantly sold out, shows there is a reservoir for appealing to time-honoured individual traditions of self-help, meaning, better choices, responsibility, adventure and human nature on the Australian continent – themes rarely harvested in Australian public discussion. As Peterson recently stated on The Rubin Report the messages he puts forward in his new book 12 Rules for Life and his YouTube lectures are not new but simply a distillation of traditional and classical thinkers throughout history. What better example is there of conservative messages garnering such a positive reception? The greeting Peterson’s work has received, along with his now famous rejection of political correctness in an interview with BBC journalist Cathy Newman, is tapping a wider trend that should be watched closely in the coming years.

Realistically, to observe such a trend does not mean that the next generation of Australians will be rushing to join the Liberal Party, or to stand at the barricade with people like Cory Bernardi or Tony Abbott. However, it does show that many Australians are likely searching for a bit more depth, or at least decency, in their public discussion than what is currently provided by mainstream thinking or public commentary. In this respect, Damien Freeman’s Abbott’s Right is a very good place to start.

[1] Damien Freeman, Abbott’s Right: The conservative tradition from Menzies to Abbott, Melbourne University Press, 28 August 2017, 55

[2] 41

[3] 7

[4] Ibid

[5] Tony Abbott, ‘This Year’s G20: getting the fundamentals right,’ accessed 15 February 2018

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