Features Australia

The great, needless Liberal fault line

30 September 2017

9:00 AM

30 September 2017

9:00 AM

One thing the same-sex marriage debate has done, for better or worse, is to highlight the deep differences within Australia’s non-Left thought and government, and within the Liberal party in particular.

It has caused a predictable split in the party which until now, as John Howard emphasised many times, aimed to be the standard-bearer of both the liberal and conservative traditions in Australia.

This was not only understandable, but both morally admirable and politically astute. It has to a great extent given Australian governance the best of both worlds: the enterprise, tolerance and freedom of liberalism, and the stability and carefully-guarded heritages of conservatism which together have given us long-term, rising living standards. But mishandled, it could turn into a ticking bomb for Australia’s political culture.

We should have been alerted (well, some of us were) by the sheer meaninglessness of Turnbull’s promise on grabbing power that he would lead ‘a thoroughly Liberal government’. I can think of at least a dozen definitions for the term ‘liberal’ in political science, none of which correspond to the milieu Turnbull has created, unless it means returning to Keynesean high-taxation and high-spending and at best ignoring the leftist onslaught in every aspect of our culture.


When Robert Menzies put the modern Liberal party together out of the fragments of the pre-existing non-Labor parties and other right-and-centre organisations, he is said to have hit upon the name ‘Liberal’ rather than ‘Conservative’ because the latter was in bad odour from the British Conservative Party’s pre-war appeasement of Hitler. He was a cautious reformer, but a steadfast believer in the British connection and conservative traditions. To make the matter more complicated, many of those who would come to make up or support the new party as the Cold War deepened were refugees from the charnel house of Europe. Stalin’s gulag was still in full blast, and in Poland and East Germany some Nazi concentration camps had seen merely a change in the guards’ uniforms. Incidents culminating in the Korean War would confirm for many the ruthlessly aggressive nature of communism. Many of the new party’s members were ex-servicemen.

The contribution which refugees from Nazism and Communism made to the Liberal party and to cultural opposition to the totalitarian Left in Australia has not been studied much academically, apart from by the late Professor Patrick O’Brien, yet it was very real. It was a contribution not only to the Liberal Party but also, very considerably, to the anti-totalitarian Left, with powerful intellects like Frank Knopfelmacher and Richard Krygier, founder of Quadrant. As well as being a business party, the Liberal party was unequivocally opposed to communism and gained some moral stature thereby. In government it would later offer generous support to refugees from Hungary and then Vietnam. Anyway, the Liberal party from its foundation was a coalition of several different groups, held together by a common commitment to anti-totalitarianism. These included:

The Burkean Conservatives, who valued tradition, the flag, the Monarchy, the British connection etc., and saw society as an organic thing to be reformed with caution and care for both the past and the future. They traced their values back (even if unaware of it), to Edmund Burke and his warnings in the 18th Century against totalitarian revolution and against social engineering, the re-jigging of society and ‘simple solutions’. Turnbull has shown no interest in them or in cultural politics as a whole. In the same-sex marriage debate these form a core of the No supporters. They believe SSM will have a negative effcct not only on any children involved, but on society. They see SSM as a leftist weapon to destroy the family.There are also those who believe on religious grounds that marriage is sacred and SSM to be a blasphemous parody of it.

The Libertarians, who believe ‘Nothing should be either forbidden or compulsory unless it has to be,’ and, obviously, believe that what individuals do is their own business if it does not affect others. Many of these, particularly younger ones, are influenced to some degree by Ayn Rand, as Malcolm Fraser was, bizarrely, once supposed to be. The free-market think tanks have played an important role in the more balanced economic education of the best and brightest.

Turnbull has shown hardly any interest in them either: under the present government intervention in society has increased, along with taxes and spending. Cory Bernardi warned ‘The Turnbull government will pay tax-payer-funded subsidies to private media organisations on the condition they engage in “civic and public-interest journalism”’ – an idea no libertarian could support. However some, but by no means all, of this group form a core of the Yes support in the Liberal party. Speaking recently on a Yes unity ticket with Labor and the Greens, Christopher Pyne said that the No side wanted Australians to be frightened of the ‘otherness in our community,’ adding: ‘That has been a hallmark of ultra-conservatives for centuries, to sow fear.’ He obviously doesn’t mind insulting a large part of the party’s natural support-base and one wonders if he would include Menzies in this.

There is also an argument for opposing SSM on libertarian grounds – that it will impinge on the religious freedom of those opposing it, and one for supporting it on conservative grounds – that marriage is a conservative institution and should be extended (there is also an argument that the whole thing has become insufferably boring). Given that the party has held together and accommodated both the liberal and conservative outlooks, while holding government for most of the time since its foundation, with more astute leadership the split in the liberal-conservative ranks today may not have been necessary. After all, Burke and the proto-economic libertarian Adam Smith were friends, in complete agreement with one another’s writings, and probably punished Dr Johnson’s claret together at his club.

Outside the Liberal Party quite different ideological groups make up the Yes supporters of the Left and its overarching project. To suggest this is the only fault-line in the Liberal Party would be a great over-simplification, though it is the one relevant today. There are other divisions, and in the one individual.

The challenge for the Liberal party, if it is to survive (I don’t say retain government, I say survive), is to repair the split, and return to its historic and until now very successful role as Australia’s liberal and conservative party in the spirits of those ‘great twin heroes’ Burke and Smith.

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