Renewing the fusion: How Australia’s conservatives and liberals can remain a united and potent force 

Tim Wilson, The New Social Contract: Renewing the Liberal Vision for Australia (Connor Court, 2020)

Small ‘l’ liberals can be as clear on the things they do say as they don’t say. Federal Liberal MP Tim Wilson, in The New Social Contract: Renewing the Liberal Vision for Australia (Connor Court, 2020), offers readers a keen example of this, while also casting light on the policy and philosophical tensions within the modern Liberal Party.

Wilson does well to highlight the traditions of Australian liberalism. He is entirely accurate on the need for reducing concentrations of power, a framework for individuals to live out their best lives and, importantly, the Menzian legacy of creating an ownership society. “It’s hard to think of a better brand than a liberal,” he observes correctly. “It stands for everything humanity aspires to: freedom, openness, tolerance, and empowerment.”[1]

Things not said

But there’s a nagging blind spot to Wilson’s application of liberal principles, especially when it comes to brokering a conservative offer to the modern Liberal cause. “Ideological conservatism simply has little to offer Australians,” Wilson writes, unfairly dismissing both the principles and issues propelling many modern-day Australian conservatives.[2]

While he argues convincingly on the need for housing affordability and tackling climate change, for example, absent are other issues where conservatives can bring sharpened and considered positions to public affairs – mitigating foreign interference, running a firm migration policy, building serious national defence capabilities, and sustaining an oft-missing but no less important kind of liberty – religious liberty. If liberalism attempts to be a standalone credo in facing the challenges of the twenty-first century then it risks being broadsided by excessively progressive and anti-democratic currents. Conservatism can take the wind out of these sales by restoring trust and competency to government – its capacity to complete fundamental tasks like keep costs down but also get the basics right.

Indeed, combined with Wilson’s liberal policy agenda, conservatives can offer a potent toolkit not only for policy reform but competent government and electoral appeal. Despite attempts to amplify distinctions between liberals and conservatives within the Liberal Party, a careful fusionism can continue to offer a potent force within Australian politics.

Defining liberalism and conservatism

“Modern Australian liberalism,” Wilson notes, “is focused on how to foster the environment for individuals to live out their best lives – respect for the equality and dignity of the individual, their freedom to take responsibility in pursuit of their life and enterprise, and the necessity of justice to respect that pursuit.”[3]

A conservative strongly agrees. But a conservative is also more likely to underline the word ‘responsibility’ in Wilson’s definition. Freedom – as most reasonable people agree – is not carte blanche to do what one pleases, but requires good manners, doing what we ought and not what we always like, and that important element of civic life – virtue.  As the great Benjamin Franklin said, “only virtuous people are capable of freedom.”[4] This of course implies that people – decent but with ‘crooked timber’ – aren’t always decent. Or, as James Madison memorably noted in the Federalist Papers, when commenting on the need for order, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”[5]

At its broadest sense, conservatism means a respect for the past, accumulated tradition and knowing what to keep. It also implies deferring, where possible, to small associations like the family or community groups beyond the reach of government. As the Australian writer Ona Grossnickle explains:

The conservative element in Australian Liberalism shows itself in respect for the past. It is conservative to the extent that it looks to the past to acknowledge contemporary circumstances. It is conservative to the extent that it looks to historical example to inform a present state of mind so that progress can be better informed.[6]

How does conservatism apply?

Granted, conservatism may seem abstract. And, to be fair, it is more of a ‘great tradition’ – to borrow from the late great conservative thinker Roger Scruton – versus a direct policy prescription for every policy challenge. But let’s look briefly at how a conservative philosophy might apply to the two political challenges Wilson notes are most pressing – housing affordability and climate change.

For housing affordability, conservatism points to something obvious but intensely difficult in practice – increasing housing supply. This simple conservative preservation of market principles is appropriate to address the skyrocketing and ‘beyond reach’ housing market now present in all our cities, states and territories, especially when supply and demand principles have been distorted for so long. Wilson – a former director at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) – will be familiar with the IPA’s work showing how planning approvals alone can add up to 300 percent to the cost of a block of land.[7] As the economist Andrew Stone recently noted in Restoring Hope: Practical Policies to Revitalise the Australian Economy, “The biggest thing that State and local governments can do to improve housing markets and affordability is to boost housing supply by easing unnecessary restrictions on new constructions”.[8] Reducing planning costs alone, I suggest, will do more to create an ‘ownership society’ than simply increasing home owner grants – not exactly the most dynamic or creative policy proposal.

Responding to climate change can be an uneasy place for conservatives. But even the most considered opponents of emissions reduction planning cannot help acknowledge the political, policy and social pressures of climate change response that governments now face – even John Howard, as far back as the 2007 federal election, responded to this reality by proposing an emissions trading scheme.

From this position, it’s conceded some regulation may be required to at least help reduce emissions. Roger Scruton noted the potential need for a “flat rate carbon tax” in his 2012 Green Philosophy. “The more you emit,” wrote Scruton, “the more you pay”.[9] But a more detailed position, a decade on from the endless persistence of emissions trading scheme and carbon taxing proposals, suggests that a slightly nuanced regulatory approach to the environment – one that much more openly defers to capitalism and technology, and not to the punitive sanction of industries, appears much more optimal.

Indeed, technology and innovation are now not only ‘fit for purpose’ for climate change response but the only thing that actually works in reducing emissions. In 2021, this deference to innovation is the reasonable and balanced position that Prime Minister Scott Morrison now finds himself in – not wiping out industries through commitments to international targets but exploring creative decarbonisation solutions that include, for example, soil experimentation. Nuclear energy and clean coal also offer practical ways to reduce emissions, and these should be added to any future so-called ‘energy mix’.

When applied within a wider environmental response framework, a conservative climate change response looks a great deal like what MIT Professor Andrew McAfee describes in More from Less – “Reducing pollution, reducing greenhouse gases, promoting nuclear energy, preserving species and habitats, promoting genetically modified organisms, funding basic research, promoting markets, competition, and work.”[10]

Granted, these might not seem like conservative responses to climate change and housing. Indeed, they defer to practicality – something that has been missing in the perception of conservatism as an unbending ethos, driving toward the future by looking ‘through the rear-view mirror’. Part of conservatism’s lack of charm is not the ‘pizza’, to borrow from former US Congressman Eric Cantor, but the ‘pizza box’ – the packaging that conservatism comes in, it’s marketing ‘reps’ and how it’s sold.

Things (also) not said

But what about other issues, such as strong borders, limiting foreign interference, managing Australia’s migration programme, defence and religious liberty?  It must be said that liberals don’t not care about these challenges – it’s just that they’re not channelled in the same way.

As American academic Arthur Brooks writes in Love Your Enemies, “Liberals are not less moral; they simply have fewer moral foundations. According to [Professor Jonathan] Haidt’s research, ‘Liberals have a kind of a two-channel, or two-foundation morality” while “conservatives have more of a… five-channel morality.’”[11] It is an instructive point, especially when thinking of the ‘broad church’ of the Liberal Party, and the continued need for a cohesive Party unit and platform.

When discussing the above issues conservatives – with their ‘multi-channel’ thinking – appear more rigid and unbending. This may have something to do with the fact that solutions to the above challenges, from offshore detention to religious liberty, tend to require stern commitments rather than ‘give and take’. Mandatory offshore detention, for example, virtually ended Australia’s illegal maritime arrivals. A strong military is designed not just to keep up appearances but, in no uncertain terms, be geared for war. And a robust federal migration programme is likely to receive much greater public endorsement when, as John Howard stated, ‘we decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. In our sensitive modern discussion, these might be ‘fighting words’ for some. But they remain important principles that guarantee and underpin our democratic and free society.

Religious liberty and religious freedom are slightly different but still require an unyielding commitment to freedom. As a number of recent examples point out, the Liberal Party appears the only mainstream party serious about sustaining religious liberty. As Queensland Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker noted of Labor’s Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill:

If passed, this bill would force religious schools to censor those parts of their religious teaching that had the potential to offend someone with a sexual identity that conflicted with them. It would reach into the pulpit, the Sunday school, the youth group, and of course the classroom, and demand that centuries-old teachings be modified to comply with modern mores.[12]

Classical liberals and conservatives certainly merge over respecting points of view, good manners, and common law. Both, however, aren’t likely to respect hurt feelings, which appears the starting point for many modern concerns over free speech. This fusion of liberalism and conservatism, especially around same sex marriage, is perfectly captured by American commentator Dave Rubin – “a dude,” Rubin describes himself, “who happens to be married to a dude.”[13] As Rubin wrote in The National Post:

Part of being a true, classical liberal is accepting that many people have fundamental objections to homosexuality because of their religious faith. You might not like their views — hey, you might even think they’re pretty old-fashioned — but that’s irrelevant. Like you, these people are entitled to their own outlook… It only becomes a problem if they try to stop you from exercising your equal rights under the law.[14]

A commitment to equality before the law must be one core foundation that modern liberals and conservatives aspire to, as it is the only commitment that guarantees freedom.

The bid for competency

On some issues, I hope, I’ve at least made some case for showing that there’s more propelling liberals and conservatives together than driving them apart. This isn’t the way the modern media, or outside observers, or dare I say even some current federal Liberal MPs, might treat these two philosophical positions. It is often perplexing to many journalists how two people – one, for example, a farmer from regional Australia and, say, an inner city uni-student – might share individual values and feel the urge to sign up to the Liberal Party and spend their spare time letter-box dropping and road-siding. A ‘rift’ in the Party often emerges as easy media commentary to show a Party in disarray, struggling to energise supporters and orient tactics and strategy.

But the Liberal’s chief rallying point, I believe, might be less about issues, as important as they are, and more about conduct – how government performs. This goes above and beyond party lines. Competent and honest government, after all, are critical for overall democratic legitimacy. Wilson only briefly alludes to this point, citing the Australian Futures Project’s “perfect candidate for the twenty-first century… focused on keeping the cost of living down, climate, health, education, and honest government (italics mine)..”[15]

Restoring honesty and competency to government must be a key priority for the Liberal Party. I see three reasons. First, as most government-watchers can confirm, competent government requires an ever-vigilant political tiller. There is a reason why the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s point – “The natural progress of things is for the government to gain ground and for liberty to yield”[16] – remains a timeless observation. Each of us have our own examples – a café owner waiting 520 days for an outdoor dining permit, for example, or the hundreds of thousands of pages of regulation that now dominate local, state and federal regulations in the name of environmental protection. Liberals can not only trim down the excesses of government but make government more effective.

Second, competency remains an area of comparative advantage for the Liberal Party. There is a flat footedness to modern Labor, arising from it’s embrace of progressivism at the expense of blue collar workers, and the decades-long vacation of sound intellectual ideas driving Labor policies. This accompanies the noticeable tipping point when we crossed the precipice from Howard’s eleven years of stable, competent and trustworthy government to Kevin Rudd, whose time underscored a complete antithesis to the previous decade. Australians not only lost trust in government but Rudd, defaulting on everything from the NBN to illegal maritime arrivals, lit the fuse for the revolving-door prime ministership – a glum democratic feature we are now well-known for overseas. If the Liberal Party returns to at least within Howard’s orbit of ‘underpromise and overdeliver’ it can secure not only Party strength but democratic improvement.

The third reason driving the need for trust and competency in government, and in turn a greater combination of liberalism and conservatism, comes from looking out into the world. Wilson cites Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who observes that “the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the overwhelming majority of the population.”[17] Putin is not the only one who thinks this. And the unsteadiness with liberalism is certainly not confined to Russia. Brexit, Trump and so on seemingly grew – and increasingly grows – from an unease with ‘elites’ and the excessive thrusting of a progressive agenda upon everyday people. While progressivism may not be entirely synonymous with liberalism – at least of the kind that Wilson and others convincingly stand up for – it is none the less perceived as part of the same package, in the same way that conservatism appears locked in the past.

Liberalism should not stand alone in facing the challenges of the twenty-first century. Authoritarianism is a very real risk. Conservatism can dampen the appeal of Putin-like politics by restoring trust and competency to government – its capacity to complete fundamental tasks like keep costs down but also get the basics right – keeping borders tight, defence strong, observing universal freedoms and sustaining migration at a sensible and reasonable rate.

Conclusion 

My worry with leaving conservatism aside, especially in applying a liberalist approach to Australia’s policy challenges, is that it not only misrepresents conservatism but it has the capacity to open up sizeable incompetencies in government. It also misses a whole group of people – everyday Australians – who can offer valid, battle and time-tested positions to both government and opposition.

The aim of this piece has not been to show that conservatism is the ‘true path’ of centre-right government in Australia. Indeed, many conservatives I know – and liberals – will contest the claims I’ve made. This is good. And the debate is almost the entire point in itself – no philosophy should pronounce to ‘know it all’ as the core locomotive of the Liberal Party. As John Howard wrote in Lazarus Rising, “Australians should be wary of those individuals or groups who parade the view that only one of those two philosophical thought streams represents ‘true’ Australian Liberalism.”[18] Equally, as David Kemp has noted, the Party is historically “most successful when [it has] involved people broadly in the party and its causes. It is one of [the Party’s] great competitive strengths over Labor with its narrow sectional organisation.”[19] A fusionism can bring people together. It is a fascinating appeal. And one that Wilson deserves great credit for illuminating.

Image source: ABC/AAP/Daniel Munoz

References

[1] Tim Wilson, The New Social Contract, Connor Court, Redland Bay, 2020, 2.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] 17-18.

[4] ‘Letter: Constitution has kept U.S. in order’, The Daily Journal, 21 September 2016.

[5] ‘Federalist Papers: Primary Documents in American History’, Library of Congress.

[6] Ona Grossnickle, ‘Reconciling Liberalism and Conservatism,’ Quadrant, 2 April 2013.

[7] Alan Moran, ‘The Impact of Government Land Regulation,’ Address to the 6th Annual Housing Congress, Brisbane, 28 June 2011.

[8] Andrew Stone, Restoring Hope: Practical Policies to Revitalise the Australian Economy, Quadrant Books, Sydney, 2020, 550.

[9] Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy, Atlantic Books, London, 2012, 387.

[10] Andrew McAfee, More from Less, Simon & Schuster, Sydney, 2019, 266-277.

[11] David Brooks, Love Your Enemies, Kindle Edition.

[12] Amanda Stoker, ‘A major party to protect our religious freedom,’ Eternity News.

[13] Dave Rubin, ‘Dave Rubin: The case for gay marriage — and opposition to it,’ National Post, 8 May 2020.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Wilson, 120.

[16] ‘From Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 27 May 1788’, Founders Online.

[17] Ibid, 65.

[18] Kemp in Grossnickle, Op cit.

[19] Ibid.

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