Review – Quarterly Essay 37: What’s Right? The future of conservatism in Australia

What’s Right? The future of conservatism in Australia
Waleed Aly
Black Inc.

Quarterly essay 37Malcolm Fraser has officially resigned his membership of the Liberal Party, believing that the party has moved too far to the right, claiming it is no longer a liberal party, but a conservative party.

Waleed Aly might disagree. In the latest Quarterly Essay, What’s Right? The future of conservatism in Australia, Aly questions our use of the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ in daily political discourse, arguing that they are meaningless terms. He provides an outline of the history and philosophy behind conservative and liberal politics, and wonders at how far they have come today from their roots. It is an engaging essay. It is intelligent and restrained, but impassioned and considered.

Aly defines liberalism as being the political position of valuing the individual, and believing that the state should protect individual rights. He defines conservatism as rejecting revolutionary change, and as believing in organic change and in the value of established institutions. These two political positions can happily coexist.

The problem arises for those conservatives who, like John Howard, over the years aligned themselves with neoliberalism; that is, a new version of liberalism that holds that the individual exists within the context of the market. An individual’s worth comes to be their ability to produce and consume. The institutions that the conservatives had for so long valued (family for instance) don’t have any intrinsic value under neoliberalism, only a market value. So the fact that WorkChoices had such emphasis on encouraging a ‘flexible’ work environment (which, for institutions like the family, is predominantly read as ‘insecurity’ or ‘instability’) meant that Howard’s actions as a conservative and his actions as a neoliberal were in opposition.

I have read Quarterly Essays over the years and have always thought the most satisfying ones were the ones that engaged directly with specific current issues and politics. The Essays are able to do this in a way that text books are unable to, simply by nature of the medium. They are written and published in a short amount of time, and launched into a commercial rather than academic market; relevance is a priority.

Aly relates neoconservative philosophies directly to decisions made around citizenship tests and compares them against the contradictory neoliberal position of expanding migration for economic purposes. He looks at Abbott’s recent climate change policy and posits his free-market, ‘business as usual’ emissions intensity policy against his philosophically contradictory and very un-liberal proposal of a state-funded grants scheme to support emissions reductions.

But, for all that, I was left with a feeling that this essay and its ensuing discussion would ultimately fail to have any real impact on politics in this country. I don’t exist in the academic realm. I work for people who are on minimum wage and afraid of getting the sack if they ask for more. I imagine them at election time tallying up the two political parties and voting for one over the other because one particular tax cut suits them best or they need the childcare rebate being promised by the other. I cannot imagine that Aly’s call to arms for a return to liberal conservatism will be heeded by those who are in a position to take action – that is, by our political leaders. Why make a fundamental change if there are easier ways to get votes?

Aly acknowledges the ‘broad church’ that the Liberal Party advertise themselves to be. He acknowledges the divisions between streams of members (those neoconservatives like Abetz, Andrews and Bishop contrasting with the more liberal like Pyne, Hockey and Hunt). Given the disparity of views within the Liberal Party, moving to new approaches and new (or back to old) philosophies is too risky. Turnbull is evidence enough: the man lost his leadership because his politics on climate change were too strikingly different from his fellow members – and this in spite of the fact that the Australian constituency consistently poll in favour of action on the issue.

Where is there room for this return to liberal conservatism? Is it in the form of a new political party? It seems unlikely, though given Turnbull’s recent indication of a return to politics, and his considerable wealth, perhaps this is an opportunity. Is it too late to abandon neoconservatism? Are we as a society already too much a servant to the market? Could we even get ourselves into a position where we could abandon neoliberalism without society collapsing?

Aly writes that ‘In the long term, ideas matter more than party politics’. I’m not sure that this is the case for our politicians. Have we forgotten the grand ideas that politicians announce on Sunday night telly to convince us to vote for them – the backflips, the compromises, the quiet deals behind closed doors; the core and non-core promises, the gospel and non-gospel truth? The Party politics (finding allies, thwarting foes, striking deals) is rampant. For us as voters and community members, such philosophical ideas are important as they teach us about how we got to be here politically.

But ultimately, for my minimum wage earners, are the labels – conservative or liberal, socialist or neoliberal – really relevant? Does the history of a political philosophy matter to those people who vote for Rudd because he seemed like a nice man or like Abbott because he’s a straight shooter? Does it matter that Left and Right are definable only in broad common terms? Does it matter that Howard once called himself ‘the most conservative leader the Liberals have ever had’ if he wasn’t a true conservative?

These labels help us to talk about politics and economy, but the thing that matters to voters – working families, Aussie battlers, whatever cliché we want to use – is what a politician says or does, and not whether he is being true to a school of political thought. Must a politician act and work within an historical political framework to be effective? Must they abide by the rules of one doctrine or another? Sure, it would give them a logic and consistency that would serve them well over their careers, but given the rough and tumble of politics, I suspect few politicians would last long enough to worry about it.

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  1. Hi Louise. Thanks for taking the time to write this post which I found rather sad and disillusioned in tone. I don’t mean that as a criticism in any way because I know many people share a certain pessimism, even cynicism, about the current political situation. My take, for what it’s worth, is that we need to be careful to keep our disillusionment in check and the best way to do that is to consider the consequences of a wholesale loss of faith in the political culture. Such a condition would be perilous because it would open up the possibility of an authoritarian alternative, promulgated by a no-nonsense- -let’s-get-the-country-sorted-backslapping kind of rhetoric of the simplistic kind favoured by Mr Joyce and Mr Abbott.

    On the subjects of the usefulness or not of left-right dichotomies in political discourse and the viral nature of neoliberalism, I strongly recommend the work of John Ralston Saul
    whose Massey Lectures (1995?) are published as The Unconscious Civilisation. He has written several books since but this book analyses the origins and promotion of the corporatist, managerial mindset that has created many of the problems we are currently confronting and that you allude to. Saul has a sober but upbeat approach that I find reinforces hope and provides pointers to meaningful change.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post, Louise.

  2. Hi Louise,

    I’m trying to think through some of these issues for a piece for the Overland anniversary, and so found your piece very interesting. A few points.

    ‘He provides an outline of the history and philosophy behind conservative and liberal politics, and wonders at how far they have come today from their roots.’

    If he merely discusses the political spectrum in terms of conservatism and liberalism (and I haven’t read the QE — I’m just going from the description above), it’s little wonder that he finds terms like Left and Right meaningless. The whole point of the Australian Left since at least the 1890s was to transcend both conservatism and liberalism with a class based alternative. That’s the significance of the emergency of Labourism in both Britain and Australia: it marks the collapse of the Whig/Tory dominance of the political sphere.
    As for the distinction between neo-conservatism and the traditions of the Liberal Party, I guess on one level it’s true enough. But it becomes very dangerous when it forms the basis for a political strategy. That is, all through the Howard years, we’d hear moderates squeaking about how the Prime Minister was a radical rather than a real conservative, and the implication was always that we could make common cause with wavering elements within the Liberal Party, who were always about to jump ship (but somehow never quite did).

    Yes, neo-conservatism might have different philosophical roots but what’s more important is how easily it co-exists with the traditional right. It’s not just that the Bush gang consisted equal parts of social conservatives, free traders and neo-cons, it’s also that Howardism was at least as legitimate a part of the Australian Liberal Party as the so-called ‘wets’ he displaced.

    Moreover, this ‘beyond left and right’ stuff always seems to me to be about a search for some kind of magical shortcut. The infatuation with Nick Clegg provides a good illustration. In the last weeks before the election, all kinds of people who should have known better began wittering about how the Liberal Democrats represented a new style of politics, about how they’d move beyond the old polarities, and so on and so forth. What was the result? A Tory government.

    The point is that the political issues signposted by the phrases ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ can’t simply be wished away. Most obviously, there is the fundamental opposition between labour and capital, an opposition that, precisely because it is binary, forces political disputes into familiar polarities.

    To stay in Britain for a moment, this front cover of the Independent is quite interesting.

    The graphic represents the extent of the economic debt. As part of the government, the Lib Dems will now be responsible for enforcing cuts — cuts that will almost certainly go beyond anything that Thatcher carried out. It’s precisely the kind of situation that brings a political polarisation along Left-Right lines. A government wielding a razor to that extent looks like any other government wielding a razor, irrespective of how nice Nick Clegg looks in a suit.

    This is turning into a bit of a rant but it seems to me what would be more useful would be a re-examination of the Left’s history, so as to sort out what can be discarded and what remains crucial. But that’s a subject for another post.

  3. I have only skimmed through Aly’s thesis, but it strikes me that he is trying to create some ideal types that don’t capture the nuance of divisions between different sections of elite, right-wing opinion. This allows him to claim some preferred, “nicer”, conservative tradition without having to deal with the reality of the class basis of elite conservatism.

    I’ve found some of Richard Seymour’s recent posts on the conservative tradition (undoubtedly because he’s just written a book on David Cameron) illuminating:

    As my forthcoming Overland article on the Greens suggests, like Jeff I’m no fan of “neither left nor right” either.

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