Date created:6 August 2001
Last modified: 6 August 2001
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

Conservatism lost to Libs

Australian Financial Review

10 May 2001

Before the 1998 election, I observed that 'the future of the political landscape depends, in large measure, on who can best articulate a vision that appeals to conservative Australians'. In the three years since then, the backlash against radical free-market policies has intensified, but the vacuum in Australian conservativism has persisted.

Despite the frequency with which the name of Edmund Burke has been invoked recently, the intellectual tradition of conservatism finds no place in the Liberal party. The central Burkean idea, that social change should be gradual and organic, rather than rapid, top-down and rationalistic, is anathema to radical free-market reformers.

John Howard displays all the conservative vices, but none of the conservative virtues. He is rigid without being honourable, narrow-minded without being honest, and parochial without any real feeling of community. He champions the imagined ideal of the 1950s family, but shows no concern about the thousands of real families breaking down every day under the stresses generated by increasing inequality and radical free-market reform.

Howard's successful campaign against the republic showed Australian conservatism at its worst. The campaign appealed to fear of a republican future and disillusionment with the politicians of the present, while repudiating any attachment to the past in the form of Britain and the Queen. It was not so much 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' as 'better the devil you know'.

Howard's potential successors are similarly unattractive from a conservative viewpoint. Costello and Reith are free-market radicals in the Keating mould. Howard's own candidate, Tony Abbott, offers ostentatious young-fogeyism, a radical economic agenda, and a Keating-style bully-boy persona, about as unappealing a combination for ordinary conservative Australians as could be imagined.

The National Party has been meekly subservient to the Liberals. The needs and wishes of country Australians have been sacrificed to the harsh reality that National politicians can hold office only by clutching Liberal coat-tails.

It is scarcely surprising that the official conservative parties have lost large numbers of voters to One Nation. But One Nation has nothing to offer. Pauline Hanson herself is a shameless opportunist, who was, until she was dumped in 1996, an endorsed Liberal candidate supporting National Competition Policy, dairy deregulation and the privatisation of Telstra. Insofar as her party stands for anything, it is knee-jerk populism, and a desire to kick the major parties.

The only serious conservative in the government's ranks is Bob Katter, who has done his best to defend the values and traditional way of life of his constituents. For his pains, he has been denounced by his own side of politics as a maverick and a ratbag. Meanwhile, the official left has lumped him in with Hanson as a racist reactionary. In reality, Katter was Queensland's best Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and still attracts considerable Aboriginal support. When he and his father clashed with the darling of the chardonnay set, Paul Keating, it was Keating who resorted to a crude ethnic slur concerning their Afghan background.

It is, however, the Labor party that should be the natural choice of conservative Australians today. The Australian values that have been eroded in recent years - egalitarianism, solidarity and a fair go - are all central traditions of the labour movement.

Unfortunately, while Marxists are thin on the ground in the Labor party these days, the Marxist fallacy of inevitable historical progress still dominates Labor thinking. According to this fallacy, history inevitably flows in the right direction, so that it is good to be 'progressive' and bad to be 'conservative'. Even as they repudiate the policies of Chifley, Curtin and Whitlam, Labor's free-market modernizers claim to stand with them on the side of history and against the past.

Genuine conservatism favours gradual evolutionary change over radical reform based on plans and blueprints. In today's Australian context, this means seeking to restore and renovate the institutions of the Australian settlement put in place by Curtin and Chifley, including a primary commitment to full employment and government acceptance of responsibility for crucial physical infrastructure and human services.

Of course, it is impossible simply to return to the past. Moreover, it is important to confront the failures of the past, such as the racism entrenched in policies like White Australia and Aboriginal assimilation., But neither should we blindly embrace current trends such as unfettered neoliberal globalisation.

A genuinely conservative policy agenda would require sacrifice, particularly from upper-income earners who have prospered while Australian society as a whole has gone backwards. But most Australians would welcome a reassertion of the conservative values of society and community over the individual self-seeking represented by an unconstrained market economy.

Professor John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Senior Fellow based at the Australian National University and Queensland University of Technology. Professor John Quiggin is a Senior Research Fellow of the Australian Research Council, based at the Australian National University and Queensland University of Technology.

Read more articles from John Quiggin's home page

Go to John Quiggin's Weblog