To the conservative, no act of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership quite became him as the manner of his leaving it, only two years and two days after taking office. There was an almost short speech. There was an apologia. There was reference to the first Christian sermon preached in Australia and based on Psalm 116:12, ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his blessings to me?’ There was a certain nobility in Abbott’s leaving, albeit accompanied by media obituaries not just for the man but also for Australian conservatism, as if Abbott were the old soldier laying up the right’s colours in the regimental chapel (if not, as much of the assembled media seemed to desire, the disgraced colonel retiring to the back shed with a service revolver).
It is hard for conservatives not to see the Abbott prime ministership as a missed opportunity. Even Julia Gillard had a longer time in office than did Tony Abbott. Yet I would argue that Australian conservatism has a just cause, a successful history, and that the times will again suit Australian conservatism.
Australian conservatism: What it is and why it wins
The Australian conservatism of today does not result from any organised Australian movement of the sort that emerged from the American, French and other revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Australia’s history of being colonised by the British in 1788 ensured instead a constant role for the state in the form of the Crown, and over the succeeding century would see continuing grants by colonial authority of political representation and civic equality that would combine to make Australia’s right politics both different and disorganised. Unlike on the continent, there was no revolutionary movement upending the established order to be countered and repelled by the usual alliance of church, nobles, bourgeois, yeomanry and merchants. Unlike in the Americas, the colonial power was not oppressing a sufficient number of people to provoke any sustained, local revolt, with even Eureka being a rather tame rally of discontented, and not particularly agile, colonial disruptors.
Instead, for much of Australia’s history, the British colonial power was an agreed source of allegiance and identity, and Judeo-Christian morality an agreed source of societal values. The Australian frontier was no ‘new Eden’ for rugged individuals to make their own way, but, rather, a harsh place that demanded mutual support among all tiers of society, such support often occurring through a Crown that was a helper not an oppressor.1 The power of the state and the influence of religion, especially Christianity, would be supported by the new Australian Commonwealth slowly coming into being.
As a result, the late-nineteenth-century Federationists were contented Australian nationalists under the British Crown, and practical reformers, not rebels declaring a novus ordo seclorum. The Australia born in 1901 was no ‘city on a hill’, no ‘New Jerusalem’, no neoconservative ‘Freedomistan’, but, more practically, a nation-state formed peacefully by colonial peoples sharing a continent to address their common problems.2 There were no Putney debates, no white cockades, no Concords, no constituent assemblies, no Vendée armies, no Carlist revanchism, in this struggle. Instead, while there were gaggles of concerned citizens and advocates for various causes, there was no real challenge posed by Federation to the Crown or the established moral, social and economic order that would necessitate a conservative defence. To the contrary, as Cardinal Moran, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, put it bluntly, Federation was ‘the only means of preventing one or the other of the colonies from going right over to extreme socialism’.3
It is beyond my remit to say where, when and why, in the period since Federation, a distinctly Australian political conservatism came into full flowering. However, the First World War and its destructive aftermath, including the global rise of socialism and communism, which challenged not just the economic but the social order as well, provided the threat to which Australia’s right parties would slowly respond. Yet pre-Lyons and Menzies the Australian right-of-centre parties were united by little else than that they were opposed to Labor and, after 1917, opposed to socialism. There were no real philosophies and, in the absence of a revolutionary threat, what became Australia’s right parties proved to be adept, as Ian Hancock puts it, ‘at producing unexceptional declarations which gladden the spirit and lead nowhere’.4
But with the advent of the United Australia Party (UAP), led by Joseph Lyons, and then its successor, the curiously branded Liberal Party, led by its founder Robert Menzies, the Australian right had a political home. Lyons and Menzies also left governing legacies based around the maintenance of national solvency, national security and the defence of traditional values, which still drive their political successors, whatever more empathetic sloganeering to the contrary is engaged in from election to election.
Joseph Lyons, as well as his wife Dame Enid Lyons, stood for and embodied a local conservatism of sobriety, prudence, strong family values and the local equivalent of the ‘happy warrior’, confronting the challenges of the Depression and an ever-worsening international situation. Lyons also stood for sound national finances and hard money, and commenced Australia’s rearmament in the 1930s.5
Robert Menzies, meanwhile, collected together the remnants of the UAP and other right parties during the Second World War to form the Liberal Party, and made the case for a society built on the values of the ‘Forgotten People’.6 Menzies celebrated the unfashionable values of the bourgeoisie, in quintessentially conservative terms, as well as the importance of the individual preserving his or her independence from the growing state and the prevailing culture, from ‘the cult of false values’ and ‘the emotions of a crowd’. While no de Maistre or Burke, Menzies was a mid-twentieth-century representative of conservatism’s instinctual disdain for following mobs or, worse, the enlightened betters of modern society.7
Inspired by Judeo-Christian values and a classical tradition, the guiding conservative principle, in Australia and elsewhere, is less ideological than, to adopt the biblical metaphors, to be both the watchman who keeps the city, hopefully not in vain,8 and the good steward of the nation and its resources. The whole polity and its enduring interests are the guiding cause of the true conservative—not some class interest, nor a gaggle of well-meaning ideas, or special interest grievances. The early Liberal parties in New South Wales stated their ‘guiding principle’ as being ‘to serve all of the people all of the time’.9 The Edwardian Tory F.E. Smith put it this way: ‘The view of modern as of ancient Toryism is that the interests of the State and of the community must at all costs be safeguarded.’10 The conservative, in Periclean terms, fixes their eyes on the nation and on what makes it great: a spirit of adventure tempered by an acceptance of duty and refusal to fail generations that have gone before.11
While there is no conservative manifesto, for conserving is a habit not a program, true conservatives agree with Pope Benedict XVI that ‘justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics’—and justice does not mean here equality or faddish righteousness.12 Rather, in Sir Robert Peel’s words, for the conservative legislator, justice means ‘the just and impartial consideration of what is due to all interests’.13 Justice, like duty, derives from a stern morality of obligations owed among individuals, and forms the only true basis for the Burkean partnership, not among contemporaries, but between the generations, dead, living and unborn, of that one whole national family. And justice and partnership are impossible without loyalty: to one’s family, one’s spouse, one’s community, one’s nation.
While conservatism and its virtues—prudence, loyalty, justice, doing one’s duty—may appear dour and inflexible, it is the conservative’s veneration of the public interest that allows also for wise and not infrequent departures from precedent to enable fair compromise, in order for national progress to be made.14 It was the Duke of Wellington who delivered full Catholic emancipation, Disraeli who extended the vote to the working classes, the Tories who passed the Factories Act, Lincoln who freed the slaves and reunified America. But, to follow Lord Salisbury, the conservative approach to change remains to reform proven abuses, not to demolish and build Utopia.15
As indicated by its name, Australia’s Liberal Party is not, doctrinally, an avowedly conservative party, but it has been a sceptic of utopian reforms, a protector of the constitution and the political vehicle for Australian conservatives, as was the UAP before it. The Liberal Party is a broad church of classical liberals and conservatives.16 Before the creation of the United Australia Party and the instauration of the Lyons government, the Australian parties of the right were a motley assortment of nationalists, conservatives, free-traders, protectionists, temperance advocates, conscriptionists, wowsers, old and new guarders, as well as free-thinking liberals. The Australian conservative lineage cannot be accused of a lack of diversity. Nonetheless, once the Australian right came together—under the pressures of the Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War—under Lyons and then Menzies, conservatives finally had a political home. Australia’s right parties were also most electorally successful under avowedly conservative leaders: Lyons, Menzies, Howard and, yes, Abbott. (While the liberal mantle has been claimed for Menzies, it is hard to accept that a lifelong supporter of the Crown, the exclusion and interning of communists, conscription, censorship, a public Christianity, and who ended his life voting DLP, was an advocate for the permissive society.)17 Australia’s successive right-of-centre parties have been dominant nationally, governing at federal level for the vast majority of the federation’s 115 years, include almost a decade of this century. As the former Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane commented:
Australia had both a conservative party, namely the Liberals, and a broader social conservative movement or tendency. When these two entities were in lockstep—in particular when the Liberal leader was also the informal leader of the movement—the party generally won elections. When they diverged, and a social liberal led the party, it usually lost.18
Notwithstanding electoral successes, true conservatives would agree with the Raztingerian maxim that ‘Truth is not determined by majority vote’ and with Menzies’ disdain for ‘the crowd’. At the same time, however, electoral victories, while not of any magisterial authority, have something of a sensus fidelium about them and indicate the Australian people’s innate if non-ideological conservatism. Indeed, so fertile has the electoral ground been for Australian conservatism that, since the Second World War, the ALP has only won office federally when shifting decisively to the centre (e.g. Whitlam, Hawke) and even adopting the conservative argot (Rudd). I pass over the sui generis 1993 election, as in that case, there is a question as to what the real conservative choice was in that poll.
The ABC of the Abbott government: Anything but conservative
For the good of Australian conservatism, it is important to distinguish it from whatever ideas drove the Abbott government into the darkest political abyss. First, political conservatism is about good and orderly government, conducted ideally by the right people for the right purposes, applying Alexander Hamilton’s yardstick that the ‘true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration’.19 Regrettably, the Abbott government carried on the worst habits of the Rudd–Gillard years, resulting in a party-room revolt against the prime minister’s own office. This was most unconservative.
Second, the Abbott government’s budgets were unwise and unfair. While national solvency is a priority, it is best achieved by reformism in the general, not by isolated targeting of vulnerable sectors of the population. While no numerate person doubted that Australia’s financial position, after Rudd–Gillard–Rudd, needed urgent repair, especially on the spending side, this case was never coherently made by Abbott’s government. Despite an obvious problem, the then prime minister and treasurer found themselves the victims of their own pre-election ambush, when they promised no spending cuts and no new taxes. It was as if solvency would be achieved by simply briefing a new accounting firm. This was delusional, if it was ever believed, and treated the Australian people as if they were fools. Rather than trust the people, in the manner of a wartime Churchill taking the besieged public into his confidence, the Abbott government misled the public about what clearly needed to be done. It was as if Australia had the third term of Kevin Rudd, ending with the same embarrassing results.
The Abbott government’s economic priorities were indecipherable. Rather than reform a taxation system that punitively taxes work and saving—two conservative virtues—or, more boldly, embark on eliminating wasteful federal spending by reducing federal departments, such as education and health when the Commonwealth runs neither schools nor hospitals, the Abbott government instead targeted its own people. Since Lyons’ time at least, conservatives have consistently championed the traditional family, but the newly elected Abbott government opted to cut support provided to families where one parent worked and another looked after young children. If there is one societal group that should be the beneficiary of conservative support, it is the traditional family. And if there is one Liberal leader who should have defended the traditional family, it was the self-described ‘Captain Catholic’. While a conservative saying this may invite the censure of a media obsessed with confusing the unusual with the norm, no conservative should care, especially as it is the right policy to pursue.
Similarly, the adoption of the Menzian language of ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’ was entirely at odds with what Menzies intended, reducing Menzies’ lifters to mean only higher income earners, positioning the rich as akin to Stakhanovite heroes of the new economism. That Menzian ‘lifting’ became so quickly synonymous with money—in a government led by, of all people, a former seminarian who has worked all his life to help others less fortunate in his own community—added to the sense that the Abbott government suffered incurable moral dysphoria. There was never any serious effort to emphasise national unity and togetherness of the kind that is most needed when economic or national security threats abound. There was, instead, an almost quaint idea that the spontaneous order of the market would replicate itself in the political realm, that repeatedly uttering ‘Team Australia’, a worthy goal in itself, would make it so.
Third, the Pyne changes to Australia’s absurdly bloated universities were diabolically stupid and caused enormous disquiet among the faithful. These policies were aimed solely at further indebting students so as to realise the Ivy League fantasies of (usually Labor-aligned) vice-chancellors. No-one was warned about, let alone voted for, these proposals in 2013. Nothing was asked of the tertiary education apparatchiks in return for these fee rises, a rare demographic for any conservative leader to seek out. Unsurprisingly, the (usually Liberal voting) parents of students turned on the Abbott government for having betrayed the trust of those pursuing that most quintessentially conservative value, one generation wanting better for the next. For some reason the Turnbull government has continued with the plan to indebt students and families to prop up the sandstone soviets.
Fourth, the Abbott government reduced the pay and attempted to reduce the allowances of the armed forces at a time when its members are in harm’s way.20. It is difficult to see any conservative politician, anywhere, agreeing to so flagrant a breach of trust as this one. Worse, the reduction in the armed forces’ conditions of service occurred at the same time as revelations of politicians engaging in widespread rorting of travel entitlements. The Abbott government chose, symbolically, to defend the more notorious rorting politicians rather than remedy the iniquity done to Australian defence personnel. It is little wonder, then, that by the end of the Abbott government, the voters were no longer listening, if not in open revolt.
The abysmal budgets, policies and chaos of the Abbott government were but symptoms of a much broader problem: the right’s parliamentary ranks now mimic Labor and increasingly comprise ex-staffers, lobbyists and political hacks. It was said of the House of Commons after the First World War that its benches were filled by a ‘high percentage of hard-headed men, mostly on the make’,21 and one sees this description as no less true of the Australian Parliament today.
Amid the disaster of the Abbott government, the enduring strength of conservative ideas can be seen in the speed with which new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accepted his predecessor’s positions on marriage and on climate change. That Malcolm Turnbull would so willingly adopt the conservative orthodoxy—at the risk of infuriating a supportive media on two of its most deeply held causes—reflects the reality that, however named, the Liberal Party remains at heart a conservative party.
Securing a future
I believe there has never been a better time to be an Australian conservative. My modest suggestions for Australian conservatism are as follows.
As the conservative cause is right and just, we fight on. In particular, conservatives should continue to fight the culture war’s ‘good fights’ on moral and social issues, come what may. While pollsters can argue about whether there is still a ‘silent majority’, a true conservative should never opt for silence, especially out of fear that she or he is in a minority. If one opposes abortion on demand, the redefining of marriage, euthanasia, pornography, the coarsening and sexualisation of seemingly everything, or is concerned by other moral issues, then speak out, clearly and vociferously. There is no honour in silence or a pre-emptive capitulation. There is no virtue in expecting others to fight the good fight. There is much joy to be had in contending for not just righteous but daringly unfashionable ideas. Be not afraid, conservatives!
Prosperity for all. It is critical that conservatives have an economic doctrine for the whole nation and, in particular, stand always for the public and not special interest. If the true Tory stands for the whole nation as against special interests, then this stand must be maintained in economic no less than in social policies. The interests of capital will not always accord with, nor the interests of labour always be opposed to, the welfare of the nation. This may see conservatives embrace tax reform that focuses on lowering taxes for individuals rather than corporations, and rewarding savers and the frugal rather than consumers and borrowers. A conservative economic policy would also take steps to ensure young people accumulate capital and assets as soon as they can, rather than be perpetual renters and debtors. There is no future for a political conservatism that does not first ensure as many people as possible have something of their own to conserve.
Such a conservative economic policy would also emphasise the importance of prudent central banking and hard money, in particular, to ensure the soundness of the currency in which workers are paid their wages and salaries and to prevent asset bubbles. Finally, those ‘agile’ liberals most eager for another battle over working conditions should note, with due realism, that in the last 25 years the Australian people have rejected both John Hewson’s ‘Fightback!’ policy blueprint and John Howard’s Work Choices industrial relations reform, and have seen off pretenders drunk on econometric wonkery such as Peter Costello. Conservatives win when they govern for all and they lose when they adopt what Menzies called the ‘old and selfish notions of laissez-faire’.22 This is not just an economic but also a moral matter. Conservatism has a proud history of being for the entire nation, as F.E. Smith noted over a century ago:
The Conservative Party is the parent of trade unionism, just as it is the author of the Factory Acts. At every stage in the history of the nineteenth century it is to Toryism that trade unionism has looked for help and support against the oppressions of the Manchester School of liberalism which cared nothing for the interests of the state, and regarded men as brute beasts whose labour could be bought and sold at the cheapest price, irrespective of all other considerations.23
Some of that old but ever-youthful Tory spirit is needed again, in the twenty-first century, the idea that governing is ‘for all of us’.
Conservatives should always endeavour to support the unity and camaraderie of the national family. In this regard, conservatives should support the formal recognition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Conservatives respect history and heritage, and in this country no-one’s heritage and history should be more respected than that of Indigenous Australia. It is past time to give our Indigenous brothers and sisters the recognition that they have been too long denied. Similarly, conservatives should defend the religious faiths of all Australians, particularly our Muslim citizens, as we do our Jewish and Christian citizens. We have no religious tests in this country and we should not countenance their imposition now. Conservatives should also recall that any restriction on Islamic religious freedom will soon find its way to other faiths—and that this path too often leads to the guillotine or the gulag. The ‘freedom’-inspired reforms of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are of marginal utility for whatever libertarian cause is being pushed, and prudence, as opposed to absolutism, would be a better guide on this issue. Certainly, Malcolm Turnbull’s instincts were more sound and conservative on the ‘freedom agenda’ than those pursuing this gambit. What is conservative about promoting divisions in a pluralistic society? Rather, like St Paul and the London Irish Rifles, our motto should be ‘Who shall separate us?’24
If conservatives wish to contribute to the good of their Liberal Party, then they must press for reforms of the party and the electoral system to enhance its ability to attract qualified and able representatives of the whole of the party. Increasingly, the right of Australian politics reflects the worst of NSW Labor, with former lobbyists, ex-staffers, and other mendacious supplicants purporting to represent the party of traditional values, merit, enterprise and smaller government. It is unsurprising that people who have spent their whole ‘working’ lives with their and/or their clients’ snouts in various public troughs cannot find the gusto to reform the state. The world of 2016 is complex, quick-moving and demands parliamentarians who can legislate for the long-term interests of the whole nation.
Conservatives must insist that representatives, senators and holders of Crown offices are of high calibre rather than factional hacks and time servers. Honest, good government demands the ethos of Cincinnatus, such that politicians, when they have finished their term, return to an honest living outside politics rather than seek to continue to profit from their former offices as lobbyists, influence peddlers or ‘government relations’ entrepreneurs. There is much merit in some form of primary system being introduced, so that the faithful have a say in their candidate and a wider array of qualified and experienced candidates can offer themselves for public service.
These are just some modest suggestions by one Australian conservative. Other conservatives will no doubt have their own ideas to contribute. It is important that as many conservative voices be heard and ideas debated.
Menzies concluded his ‘Forgotten People’ broadcasts by proposing a vision of an Australia that, borrowing from Tennyson’s Ulysses, is ‘a community of people whose motto shall be, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.’ We conservatives could do worse than adopt Menzies’ adage that ‘there lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: there gloom the dark, broad seas’.
It is only the eternal values of prudence, duty, loyalty and unity, with sound conservatives at the helm, that will see the good ship Australia safe in the rough seas that most certainly lie ahead.
- See Michael Evans, ‘Intimate Strangers: The Land of the Free and the Land of the Fair’, Quadrant, January–February 2016, p. 11.
- See J.M. Ward, The State and the People, Federation Press, Sydney, 2001, pp. 54–5.
- James G. Murtaugh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1946, p. 163.
- Ian Hancock, The Liberals: The NSW Division 1945–2000, Federation Press, Sydney, 2007, p. 5.
- See Anne Henderson, Joseph Lyons: The People’s Prime Minister, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2011, pp. 396–9.6
- Robert Menzies, ‘Forgotten People’ broadcast of 22 May 1942, <http://www.liberals.net/theforgottenpeople.htm>.
- See Owen Harries’ observations of Menzies in Sally Warhaft (ed.), Well May We Say: The Speeches that Made Australia, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2004, p. 520.
- Psalm 127:1.
- Hancock, The Liberals, p. 13.
- F.E. Smith, Introduction, Industrial Unrest, 1914: A Practical Solution; The Report of the Unionist Social Reform Committee, Forgotten Books, London, originally published 1914, <http://www.forgottenbooks.com/readbook_text/Industrial_Unrest_1914_1000812285/11>
- Pericles’ ‘Funeral Oration’, in Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book II, para. 43.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 25 December 2005.
- Sir Robert Peel, The Tamworth Manifesto, 18 December 1834.
- See Robert Menzies, Afternoon Light, Cassell, Melbourne, 1967, p. 286.
- Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1999, pp. 282–3.
- John Howard, Lazarus Rising, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2010, pp. 654–5.
- See Gerard Henderson, ‘Why Menzies still Matters’, Quadrant, December 2008, <https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2008/12/why-menzies-still-matters/>.
- Brian Loughnane, quoted in John O’Sullivan, ‘Chronicle’, Quadrant, October 2015, p. 6.
- Alexander Hamilton, Federalist, no. 68.
- See <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/defence/pm-abandons-controversial-cuts-to-adf-allowances/news-story/74bccb5389ab286d33f1d0d5a8f7d171>; and <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-04/defence-force-offered-higher-2pc-pay-increase/6279422>.
- Lord Davidson, quoted at <http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=1969-11-21a.1643.1>.
- Menzies, ‘Forgotten People’ broadcast, 22 May 1942.
- Smith, Introduction; see also John Campbell, F.E. Smith: First Earl of Birkenhead, Jonathan Cape, London, 1983, p. 365.
- Romans 8:35; regimental motto of the London Irish Rifles and the Irish Guards among others: Quis separabit?
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