The most significant idea that John Howard has contributed to our understanding of liberalism in Australia has been his characterisation of the Liberal Party of Australia as a ‘broad church’ comprised of liberals and conservatives. According to Howard, it contains those who look back to John Stuart Mill and those who trace their political ideas to Edmund Burke.
The broad church is a metaphor taken from the ecclesiastical realm, and in particular from the history of the Church of England. In the wake of the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century the church attempted to be as comprehensive as possible, which is to say that it sought to encompass a variety of theological viewpoints and liturgical practices under a shared umbrella.
It did so by laying less emphasis on the fine points of theology and more on shared practices and understandings. This did not, however, prevent significant differences within the church on matters of a theological nature. By the nineteenth century the three major groups within the Church of England were the High Church or Tractarians, the Low Church or Evangelicals and the Broad Church or those who tended towards theological liberalism.
Howard’s idea of broad church seems to be an attempt to transfer the idea of comprehension into the political sphere. Yet it conflated two things that are quite distinct. One is the idea of comprehension, or the need to keep potentially warring factions together within the tent so that they can at least attempt to live together. The other is an exposition of what can be understood as the English cultural tradition that favours practice over the desire to cultivate a theoretical and intellectual approach to the world, the secular equivalent of the liberal broad church.
The two do overlap; comprehension works best when individuals are willing to exert self-restraint and avoid extremes. This means respecting the reality that those with whom they disagree do so in good faith. The ‘rage of party’, be it in church or state, can be a terrible thing and something to be avoided. It is much easier to dampen down such conflict if there can be agreement based on practice and implicit understandings, if everyone is gentle in their behaviour.
The Liberal Party of Menzies was a party of comprehension in that it encompassed many non-Labor groups but was also informed by the political ideals of the ‘broad church’ in the sense that Menzies, as an Anglophile, idolised the English cultural tradition of practical thinking. It was not overtly ideological but relied, I think, on appealing to the shared values and practices of its members.
Robert Menzies was not an ideologue. He did not espouse an abstract creed to which the label ‘liberalism’ can be attached. In his one comprehensive statement of principles, the Forgotten People published in 1942, Menzies was as interested in the family as in the individual. He talked about freedom rather than liberty, and the only appearance of the word ‘liberty’ in the work comes in one chapter when Menzies discusses John Stuart Mill.1 But then, W.M. Hughes had also discussed Mill and liberty favourably in his early twentieth-century manifesto The Case for Labor.2 At the same time, it is worth noting that Menzies’ enthusiasm for the family was more than matched by Labor leader Arthur Calwell, who came very close to defeating Menzies at the 1961 election.3
Menzies understood that it was far more effective for a Liberal leader to place emphasis on his anti-socialist credentials than to give expositions on the fine points of liberalism. Liberalism, for Menzies as for many liberals of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australia, had its roots in a practical approach to politics. After he had been in office for a long period, he would come to identify liberalism with ‘good government’.
The huge advantage of playing down intellectual niceties and viewing politics through the lens of ‘the practical’ is that it dampens down the sorts of intellectual differences that bedevil political and religious organisations. Human beings appear to have a natural disposition to disagree about a whole range of matters and then to squabble about those disagreements. Menzies was in the tradition Britain had bequeathed to Australia that downplayed the role of ideas and of intellectuals. This aversion to abstract theorising can be seen very clearly in the debates of the federation conventions of the 1890s. The men who drew up the Commonwealth Constitution were practical men seeking to resolve practical issues.4
This aversion to abstract theorising, truly a mark of the broad church, was a consequence of the ‘rage of party’ in religion and politics that had engulfed England in the seventeenth century. Conflict could be minimised by the creation of a culture of politeness that developed means of dealing with contentious issues (and a brutal legal code for the lower orders). As an Anglo-phile, Menzies came to having an almost idolatrous regard for the style and culture of English politics.5
Malcolm Fraser was the last Liberal prime minister in the style of Menzies. He is sometimes derided for not taking advantage of his control of the Senate between 1975 and 1980 to push through an economically liberal agenda. That only makes sense if one assumes that the Liberal Party was addicted to an abstract theory of liberalism.
Howard’s characterisation of the Liberal Party has two dimensions. The first is the metaphor of the broad church. The second is that the Liberal Party is the party of liberalism and social conservatism, of John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke. What exactly does this mean? At one level ‘Mill’ and ‘Burke’ simply stand as symbols of conservatism and liberalism. Another question is which Burke and which Mill, as both wrote a large number of works over a number of years.
In the case of Mill, the answer seems to be the one who wrote On Liberty. When this book was published in 1859 the Sydney Morning Herald, the Argus and the Empire all devoted editorials to it.6 The extent to which their invocation of liberty was specifically Millian is a separate issue. Certainly, the harm principle is hardwired into Australian culture but it is certain that other positions held by Mill, including his desire to give the educated members of society multiple votes, and his depiction of ‘Orientals’ as passive and avaricious and hence not deserving of self-government, are deservedly forgotten. As noted, Menzies has a single, though extended, discussion of On Liberty in The Forgotten People in defence of freedom of speech.
The case of Edmund Burke is more complex. Unlike Mill, Burke does not appear to have been a hero of colonial Australia, except for those of Irish extraction. Politicians with an Irish background such as Bede Dalley and Paddy Glynn can be found delivering lectures on Burke.7 However, Burke exerted considerable influence on Australian politics as the chief advocate of the trustee model of political representation. The only time Menzies discusses Burke in The Forgotten People is in defence of the trustee model:
Next, we have increasingly misunderstood and debased the function of the member of Parliament. We have treated him as a paid delegate to run our errands and obey our wishes, and not as a representative, bound, as Edmund Burke so nobly said, to bring his ‘matured judgment’ to the service of his electors. We encourage our members of Parliament to tremble at the thought of a hostile public meeting, and expect them to flutter in the breeze caused by thousands of printed forms demanding this or that, and signed with suitable threats by carefully canvassed voters.8
Burke’s influence in Australia as a political thinker has related more to the workings of representative government and the role of parties in politics than in defending conservatism as a set of political beliefs. Hence, Menzies’ Labor rival, Arthur Calwell, could quote Burke on this issue in Labor’s Role in Modern Society.9 This use of Burke is illustrated by Malcolm Fraser who, in 1987, linked Menzies with both Mill and Burke, but in quite a different fashion to the way in which Howard would just a few years later. Again, Fraser quotes the early Burke, the Burke who was very much a Whig:
In the search for balance Menzies was well aware of two conflicting requirements. One was well expressed by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty: ‘as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tends spontaneously to disappear but on the contrary to grow more and more formidable’.
The second was forcefully expressed by Edmund Burke in 1774, speaking at Bristol he said: ‘the only liberty I mean is the liberty connected with order, that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them’.
The first quotation expresses the dangers of government involvement, the second expresses the necessity of such involvement.10
Fraser was making the point that good government involves individual liberty and public authority working together to attain the public good. Liberalism and conservatism are not antagonists, they are simply two necessary aspects of good governance. This is not a statement about ideology but the practical workings of government. They strike me as a position with which Menzies would agree.
Howard’s understanding of Mill and Burke, and of liberalism and conservatism, is quite different. The broad church metaphor was not about what was required to ensure good government but ideology, and the need for the Liberal Party to ensure that liberals and conservatives can co-exist in the party even if they have many differences. It is an acceptance that the Liberal Party is not a homogeneous entity but a collection of people with different outlooks:
The Liberal Party is a broad church. You sometimes have to get the builders in to put in the extra pew on both sides of the aisle to make sure that everybody is accommodated. But it is a broad church and we should never as members of the Liberal Party of Australia lose sight of the fact that we are the trustees of two great political traditions. We are, of course, the custodian of the classical liberal tradition within our society. Australian Liberals should revere the contribution of John Stuart Mill to political thought. We are also the custodians of the conservative tradition in our community. And if you look at the history of the Liberal Party it is at its best when it balances and blends those two traditions. Mill and Burke are inter-woven into the history and the practice and the experience of our political party.11
The church needs some ‘more pews’ to accommodate the diversity encompassed by the party. Although Howard invokes both Mill and Burke, there is no indication of what specific ideas they represent beyond that of classical liberalism and conservatism. Burke, a very complex figure, is reduced to a ‘conservative’. This is quite different to the Fraser argument that good government requires elements of the ideas of both Burke and Mill; their role is to correct each other’s deficiencies. On this basis, the political leader can exercise judgement with the aim of attaining the public good. Menzies was a powerful advocate of politics as an art; political leaders act with prudence and the key to good government is the exercise of phronesis or practical wisdom. This means making use of the insights of both Mill and Burke according to circumstance. Howard replaces this notion with what is a version of identity politics; there are conservatives and there are liberals and the problem for the Liberals is to ensure that these two camps get along with each other. This is an ideological understanding of politics.
How did the binary of liberal and conservative come into being? Certainly, Menzies did not use the term ‘conservative’. As argued above, when liberals in Australia looked to Burke it was Burke the Whig who interested them, rather than Burke the conservative. Even in the Liberal Party, the earlier division between ‘wets’ and ‘dries’ of the 1970s and 1980s cannot be construed in terms of liberals versus conservatives.
I think the economic and financial reforms instituted by the Hawke government in the 1980s and Keating’s ‘Big Picture’ of the early 1990s become crucial. It is sometimes forgotten the condemnation the Hawke–Keating reforms of the 1980s attracted not only from the left but also the right. One thinks here of the volume Shutdown edited by John Carroll and Robert Manne. Then Keating’s ‘Big Picture’ inaugurated a set of cultural reforms as important in their own way as those launched in 1983. At the same time, the grand plan of Liberal leader John Hewson, ‘Fightback!’ seemed to threaten to lift the economic reforms of the 1980s to a whole new level. And this was all happening in the context of the effects of the ‘recession we had to have’.
It was evident in the 1980s that the old Menzian liberal outlook based on politics as an art and liberalism as good government was in trouble and this was matched by leadership problems in the Liberal Party following the departure of Malcolm Fraser. It was apparent that, in the new political environment created by the Hawke–Keating reforms, a reformulation of the ideals appropriate for a Liberal Party operating in this new world was needed. It was Howard who provided that reformulation.
In 1985, B.A. Santamaria argued that there needed to be a major shift in the politics of the non-Labor parties. Santamaria considered that the Liberal Party had run its course, a view he ascribed to Menzies in the 1970s. He cited the view of Archie Cameron, a one-time leader of the Country Party, that Menzies was ‘at heart a “socialist” but too much of a snob to belong to the Labor Party’.12 The Liberal Party had been Menzies’ creation but, claimed Santamaria, by the 1980s it lacked a coherent political philosophy.
What really interested Santamaria, however, was the transformation of the Labor Party. He considered the ALP to be ‘increasingly a party of teachers, social workers, lawyers’, of those who relied for employment on the ‘public purse’.13 This is interesting because it seems to be the case that when Menzies expanded the universities it was in the expectation that he was creating a Liberal voting constituency. Even Nick Cater considers the failure of the Liberals to capture these progressive liberals in the 1960s was crucial for the path the party subsequently took.14
Santamaria contended that the Liberal Party did not have the qualities required to do battle with this transformed Labor Party and the values it espoused. He proposed the possibility of a new political party composed of the ‘traditionalist’ elements of the Liberal Party, the National Party and ‘the moderate and anti-extremist section of the blue-collar working class’.15 This party would espouse the values of family and patriotism.
One can discern in Santamaria’s analysis what would now be understood as the ‘conservative’ position in Australian politics, today found spread across the Liberal Party, the LNP, the National Party and various minor parties. Despite his expectations, this group has not coalesced and come to constitute a party. It may well be that John Howard’s ‘broad church’ is the reason why this has not occurred. In the early 1990s Santamaria was involved in a scheme, along with John Carroll and Robert Manne, to create a new political party that came to nothing when Malcolm Fraser declined to be involved as he still considered himself to be a liberal.16
Was Howard aware of these developments occurring, as they did, in the context of ‘Fightback!’? My instinct says yes. It is interesting that in a 1994 article for Quadrant, written at a time when it looked as if his leadership aspirations were over, Howard claims the conservative mantle for the Liberal Party along with the liberal inheritance as the two major constituents of the Liberal ‘broad church’. He claims it as part of the Menzies heritage in language that is delightfully ambiguous:
There is nothing, either in the statements of Menzies when the party was formed, or in his subsequent conduct as leader, to suggest that he did not see the Liberal Party as inter alia the principal custodian of mainstream conservative values in Australia.17
By ‘conservatism’ Howard means ‘social conservatism’, which is how he describes himself in the next paragraph. One has only to read the memoirs of Arthur Calwell to see how questionable the view that historically the Liberal Party was the ‘principal custodian of mainstream conservative values in Australia’ is. In a chapter on the ‘permissive society’ Calwell has this to say: ‘Our so-called democratic society panders to the selfish, the licentious and the avaricious; it glorifies crime, exploits sex and encourages violence.’18
He then launches into a defence of large families. The Labor Party, during the Menzies era, was as much the defender of social conservatism as the Liberals. Donald Horne, in The Lucky Country, wanted to consign both Menzies and Calwell to the rubbish tip of history.19 Having failed in the 1960s to win over what was expected to be the new liberal constituency of the university educated, the Liberal Party was faced with the issue of its relationship with those who were socially conservative. At the same time, as the ALP became increasingly a party of professional progressives, those who had sympathy for the views of Calwell, and Calwell’s bête noire, Santamaria, needed to find a home.
Howard’s genius was to redefine the Liberal Party as a ‘broad church’ and to argue that it had always been the ‘principal custodian of mainstream conservative values in Australia’, even if this had not been the case. He combined this with the idea that it was the party of both J.S. Mill and Edmund Burke. In this way, he could prevent the emergence of the sort of party that Santamaria had envisaged, a party that would have spelled the demise of the Liberal Party. This is also why he was so wary of the eruption of Pauline Hanson onto the political stage. It must be said that the Howard ‘broad church’ strategy was a success. One Nation was neutered. Nothing resembling Santamaria’s proposed party has come into being.
But there has been a cost. This goes back to the original point about Howard’s eccentric use of the term ‘broad church’. In the Church of England, the broad church comprised those who were neither evangelicals nor Tractarians; they were non-dogmatic and averse to rigid theological formulae. As a practitioner of the art of politics, Menzies was the quintessential ‘broad church liberal’.20 Menzies was able to keep in line those who were too dogmatic in their adherence to either Mill or Burke.
One could argue that ‘broad church liberalism’ has shrunk in the Liberal Party while Millians and Burkeans have not only grown in number but also become more disputatious. The broad church has become a tent within which fights can take place. In all of this, Howard is fighting desperately for the Liberal Party, the party to which he has devoted his life. He wants to see it continue as part of the Australian political landscape; he wants to provide it with a good and decent historical pedigree that runs from Menzies to himself and beyond. This means keeping everyone within the tent. It should be added that he has been extremely successful in this regard, both in his time as prime minister and in his work as a historian since his retirement.
The problem is that in the present age in many countries, and in response to changing circumstances, old parties are dying and new ones are emerging. In Australia in the twentieth century, the Liberal Party of 1909 became the Nationalist Party and then the United Australia Party before Menzies relaunched the Liberal Party in 1944. The sorts of changes discussed by Santamaria in the 1980s have, in many ways, transformed the Australian political landscape. Despite his best efforts the question must be asked: is Howard fighting a losing battle? Has the Liberal Party of Menzies indeed run its course? •
Greg Melleuish is a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong. He has written widely on Australian liberalism and conservatism.
- R.G. Menzies, The Forgotten People, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1943, pp. 13–15.
- William Morris Hughes, The Case for Labor, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1970 , pp. 59–65.
- A.A. Calwell, Be just and fear not, Lloyd O’Neil, Melbourne, 1972, p. 243.
- Stephen A. Chavura and Gregory Melleuish, ‘Conservative instinct in Australian political thought: The Federation debates, 1890–1898’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 513–28.
- Robert Gordon Menzies, ‘The English Tradition’, in his Speech is of Time, Cassell, London, 1958, pp. 33–41.
- Argus, ‘John Stuart Mill on Liberty’, 18 May 1859; Empire, 26 March 1860; Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 1859.
- ‘The Life of Edmund Burke: Lecture by the Hon. W.B. Dalley’, Freeman’s Journal, 6 January 1883, p. 17; ‘Edmund Burke: Lecture by Mr Glynn,’ Southern Cross, 19 November 1987, p. 5.
- Menzies, Forgotten People, p. 178.
- A.A. Calwell, Labor’s Role in Modern Society, Cheshire–Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1965, pp. 39–40.
- Malcolm Fraser, The Daniel Mannix Memorial Lecture, Sir Robert Menzies: In Search of a Balance, <https://archives.unimelb.edu.au/explore/collections/malcolmfraser/resources/postparliamentspeeches/the-daniel-mannix-memorial-lecture-sir-robert-menzies-in-search-of-balance>, accessed 9 November 2018.
- John Howard, address at the launch of the publication The Conservative, Parliament House, Canberra, 2005, <https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-21912>.
- B.A. Santamaria, ‘Labor and Liberals: Reflections on Australia’s Political Future’, in his Australia at the Crossroads, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1987, p. 68.
- Santamaria, ‘Labor and Liberals’, p. 71.
- Nick Cater, The Lucky Country and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2013, pp. 134–50.
- Santamaria, ‘Labor and Liberals’, p. 79.
- Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2015, p. 719.
- John Howard, ‘Some Thoughts on Liberal Party Philosophy in the 1990s’, Quadrant, vol. 38, nos 7–8, July–August 1994, p. 22.
- Calwell, Be just and fear not, p. 243
- Donald Horne, The Lucky Country, Penguin, Melbourne, 2005 , p. 193.
- Robert Gordon Menzies, ‘Politics as an Art’, in his Speech is of Time, pp. 183–92.
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