Edmund Burke seems to have gone out of fashion a bit, and as a man who still listens to Oasis I should know. Which is a shame because the current debate on marriage equality could use a little input from the father of modern conservatism.
I doubt the Prime Minister remembers his Edmund Burke, if he ever bothered to read him at all in between university social climbing and denying allegations of murdering his girlfriend’s cat. (My lawyers assisted me with the drafting of that sentence). But the Spectator is a socially responsible organ, so a small refresher course is available below free of charge.
“It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative”, said Burke, “to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.
“But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
The thing is, parliament matters. Parliament is where the action is. For all that it might suit one outcome or another to pursue a plebiscite on marriage now, the point is — as Burke understood — that the process matters more than the result. The Menzies government held a parliamentary vote on the Marriage Act in 1961, the Whitlam government a parliamentary vote on its reforms in 1974. Howard held a parliamentary vote on the Marriage Act in 2003. And, not inconsequentially, all three were conscience votes, too.
The supremacy of parliament is a fundamentally conservative idea. The Brexit vote was a powerful statement precisely because it reaffirmed the supremacy of parliament over the unelected, unaccountable poltroons of the EU muppetocracy. It was a vote of the little people to reclaim their parliament’s sovereign right to decide their own laws in their own way. It didn’t usurp parliamentary representation – to the contrary, it returned power to Westminster. It was, in every way, a conservative revolution.
By contrast, Turnbull’s marriage plebiscite is about as anti-conservative as it’s possible to imagine. The supremacy of parliament? Nope. The judgement of your elected representative? Nah. Fiscal responsibility? Not on your life — $200 million of taxpayers’ money urinated up against the wall to assuage the social consciences of latte-drinking Bond Street bankers and their rhyming slang.
Whether the press gallery understand it or the Liberal Party want to admit it, on this question Bill Shorten is now more fundamentally conservative than his opposition.
And as a lesser media outlet observed last week, what is the point of Malcolm Turnbull anymore?
He has no public credibility to sell the government’s agenda with. He has no agenda of his own to use government to achieve. It’s not that he’s a liberal in a conservative party, it’s that in a party of the ideologically committed he’s a political vacuum. And he can’t be sacked for fear of a resignation, a by-election in Wentworth and a lost majority.
Speaking of which, the likely winner of the prime ministerial booby prize would be Julie Bishop. At least, Julie Bishop certainly seems to think so. But always the bridesmaid and never the bride isn’t a wonderful selling point, and neither is the sort of Bishop Liberalism that plays well in the only WA seat — Curtin — to have voted in favour of a republic. (There’s a pattern emerging here, Watson). Bishop might have Latika Bourke’s vote but she’d be hard up winning too many others.
From the vantage point of serious conservatism, it’s depressing stuff all round. A conservative could be forgiven for thinking that we might as well have a Labor government that has at least some principles instead of a Liberal government that has no principles at all. Labor learnt the hard way that sometimes you just have to take your medicine from the voting public, sort yourselves out internally and come back rebuilt and renewed.
As far as genuine conservatives are concerned, this government is finished. And if conservatism is undermined from within by populist plebiscites and the devalued currency of a successful banker turned failed politician, then it has no future whatsoever in Australian life. Conservatism, after all, is far more important than Malcolm Turnbull.
Luke Walladge is a former senior Labor staffer