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George Brandis' liberalism

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28 October 2009 10:45

There's a spirited debate going on between two senior Liberals — Tony Abbott MP and Senator George Brandis — about the Liberal Party's philosophy and origins. In an earlier post I examined Tony Abbott's contribution to this debate, with particular emphasis on his foreign policy views, and today I want to have a look at Brandis' Alfred Deakin lecture, delivered last week in Melbourne.

Abbott is the big 'C' conservative in this debate and Brandis favours liberalism. It's a division which Brandis says has defined the right side of Australian politics since the precusor the modern Liberal Party was formed 100 years ago.

Brandis' speech is actually quite ambitious. He not only wants to undo the perception John Howard created of the Liberal Party being the home of both Australian liberalism and Australian conservatism, he also wants to claim the major social and political advances of the last century for liberalism. Conservatives merely stood in the way of such change:

...it was liberals who achieved the extension of the suffrage in the great Reform Act of 1832, liberals who championed the emancipation of Roman Catholics two years later, liberals under the banner of Wilberforce who abolished the slave trade. In every case, they did so in the face of conservative opposition. Those famous victories are remote from the modern world. Yet it was within the lifetime of many people in this room that liberals in America passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, in the teeth of conservative resistance, and in the 1970s that liberal opinion across the world, led by a great Australian Liberal, Malcolm Fraser, marshalled the sanctions that saw the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, while conservatives in the Liberal Party fought him tooth and nail. It was liberals who advanced the rights of women, while conservatives resisted; liberals like Petro Georgiou who championed – and who continue to champion – the interests of ethnic minorities, while conservatives resisted; liberals who argued for an end to discrimination against people because of their sexuality, while conservatives resisted. Every one of those reforms extended the bounds of human freedom, gave individual men and women greater autonomy, wider choice, more respect for their dignity. Every one of them was a liberal victory which conservatives opposed at the time, but – at least in most cases – today defend.

There's a kernel of a good argument here but Brandis goes too far in painting conservatives as mere reactionaries who oppose all reform. After all, it was the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who insisted that 'a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation'. It's just that conservatives would prefer political reform to be organic, emerging from what Michael Oakeshott called the 'intimations' of society, rather than being based on an abstract notion of human freedom.

Still, Brandis is right to say that conservatives will generally be extremely cautious about reform, and this does occasionally blind them to social injustices. But although Brandis wants to claim the Liberal Party for the liberals, he might reflect on the value such conservative caution might have had around the Howard Cabinet table. As the quote above demonstrates, Brandis isn't shy about liberalism's achievements, but nor is he very discriminating, for he wants to claim neo-conservatism as a liberal idea too:

In the United States, the movement associated with William F Buckley Jr and Irving Kristol which is commonly called “neo-conservatism”, when properly understood reveals itself to be nothing more than a fine, full-throated avowal of the freedom of the individual...

This is a very incomplete and I think inaccurate description of neo-conservatism, which in its modern guise has associated itself with some deeply illiberal ideas and causes such as torture and indefinite detention. But it does capture something of the flavour of George W Bush's foreign policy, which sought to 'support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.'

This is a revolutionary doctrine that offends against almost every instinct a conservative has. And when the Bush Administration tried to put this doctrine into practise by invading Iraq and attempting to transform the politics of the entire Middle East, it was embarking on a project that ought to have mortified conservatives, who are wary of government activism and the liberal tendency to overstate the power of human reason to overcome deeply ingrained traditions and cultural norms.

So when it comes to the Howard Government's decision-making about the Iraq war, where were the Liberal Party's conservatives? It seems they were actually lining up in favour of the Iraq war, which to my mind suggests they had at least momentarily abandoned their conservatism.

The point here is that, if Brandis wants to argue that conservatives have merely stood in the way of important social reform, he needs also to acknowledge that conservatism can act as a useful check on the excesses of liberalism. To save itself from the error of the Iraq war, the Howard Government actually needed to rediscover its conservative prejudices, not leave them behind in favour of a single-minded devotion to liberalism.

 Image courtesy of the Liberal Party.

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