Since the Coalition’s woeful election campaign, and Malcolm Turnbull’s less than brilliant result capped by his election night diatribe, Liberal members and supporters have been doing a lot of soul-searching.
What do we stand for? What do we believe in? How do we balance necessary social and economic change with preserving values and institutions we cherish?
And, above all, how do Liberals ensure that our great party, the party of Menzies and Howard, continues to be a relevant torchbearer for the values for the dual traditions of Burke and Mill?
To be sure, when one in four voters reject the major parties for the Greens, eponymous micro-parties and independents, there is a problem. If the Liberal party doesn’t appeal to enough people on the right, and their support leeches away from the Coalition, that clearly makes the Liberal challenge of being a strong party of government that much harder.
South Australian Senator and self-styled conservative Cory Bernardi believes he has the answer. Bernardi wants to weave disparate elements of disaffected Liberals and supporters of right-leaning micro-parties, including Family First and the Australian Liberty Alliance, into a broad conservative coalition. Here on Flat White and elsewhere, he has been advocating a new ginger group called Australian Conservatives; set up by him and presumably to operate under Bernardi’s personal leadership.
Whether Australian Conservatives is meant to be a philosophical sewing circle, a grand ideological movement, or the basis for a new political party with Bernardi at its head is unclear. Clearly, though, the aim is to collect the disaffected, create a database and use it for all it’s worth to pressure the Liberal leadership on hot-button ‘Conservative’ issues.
The problem with Conservatism as expressed many of these fringe right groups, however, is that it is not conservatism at all, at least not as I know it.
It advocates revolution, not evolution. Instead of reflecting tolerance and acceptance of differing points of view, golden threads which run through the political thought of both Burke and Mill, these fringe right groups advocate social and religious intolerance and think it somehow acceptable to peddle snake-oil solutions to complex social and political problems; acceptable and desirable. In paying court to them and their un-Australian values, Bernardi plays with philosophical and political fire.
I accept Bernardi’s contention that people flirting with the likes of One Nation, Australian Liberty Alliance and Rise Up Australia are lost souls, many of whom feel the Coalition parties – whether led by Turnbull, Abbott or even Howard – have failed them. But to reach out in a way that gives these ideological reptiles any legitimacy whatsoever is dangerous and foolhardy, and un-Liberal as well as un-Australian.
In his 2014 National Press Club address, Bernardi cited failed US presidential candidate Barry Goldwater as his hero. Goldwater, of course, was the bloke who once said proudly, and without irony, that ‘extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice’.
No Cory, extremism in the defence of liberty is a vice. A bloody big one. It destroys liberty, and reduces the dignity of society to the lowest common denominator of the rabble-rousers.
The groups who are taking succour from your efforts despise liberty – except as it applies to their own views and freedom to express them.
Bernardi is a senior Liberal. The Liberal Party has given him his public profile. It has just re-gifted him a safe seat in the Senate and a bully pulpit for his views.
By contrast I’m just a Speccie scribbler, and I think as myself as a small ‘c’ Burkean conservative with a touch of Mill’s respect for personal liberty and of Disraeli’s One Nation Toryism. Extremism of thought and action on both the far left and right are anathema to the likes of me, and core institutions like constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and, yes, ‘traditional’ marriage, are dearly-valued. To me Bernardi’s time, efforts and money would be far better be spent ensuring the Liberal party remains the broad church of Menzies and Howard, and that the truly conservative voices of its grassroots members and supporters are respected and listened to by parliamentary and party organisation leadership elites that subscribe to pollster Mark Textor’s unwisely-expressed views that ‘conservatives don’t matter’.
But Bernardi must also understand the Liberal party is a centre-right and not a hard right vehicle. His ideological adventurism repels moderate conservative Liberals like me. I believe the party should make common cause with, and ideally enfold, fellow centre-right travellers like Bob Day’s Family First and David Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democrats, which arguably are genuine parties of liberal political and economic thought, and are offering constructive channels of protest for disaffected Libs upset about the Liberal party’s loss of ideological conviction and failure to stand for anything besides contesting power. On that Bernardi does too.
Playing footsies with the likes of One Nation and ALA is, however, betraying the Liberal cause, not supporting it. By all means reach out from the Liberal camp to disaffected voters flirting with these alternatives, but any suggestion from a mainstream Liberal (if such Bernardi still is) that these intolerance-preachers have moral or ideological legitimacy is promoting extremism, not Conservatism.
If he is wants to be truly constructive, Bernardi instead should put his Australian Conservatives vanity project aside and work constructively with his parliamentary and wider Liberal friends and colleagues to renovate the Liberal party, broadening its flagging appeal through reflecting mainstream centre-right values and restraining its drifting too far to the Turnbull comfort zone of the priggish socially-progressive left. He can become the internal Liberal champion of sensible social and economic policies, and not agitate externally to the party – unless, of course, he plans to leave it himself.
And perhaps Bernardi should read more Burke, Mill and Disraeli, and less Tea Party or Trumpian tracts from the United States that don’t have a clue about what conservatism means?
Terry Barnes is a regular Spectator contributor and leader-writer, and former senior adviser to Tony Abbott