The contest for the philosophical soul of the Liberal Party seems as old as the hills when one recalls the skirmishes of the 1980s between “wets” and “dries”, or the more recent tussles between “moderates” and “conservatives”. This perennial struggle raised its head only again this past week between George Brandis and Tony Abbott.
In a recent Fairfax Media column, “George Brandis’ bizarre journey”, the former attorney-general is reported to have bristled “at John Howard’s description of the Liberals as a party that had always been a ‘broad church’ encompassing a liberal strand and a conservative one”. Brandis noted that “Robert Menzies very deliberately chose to name his creation “the Liberal party” as his memoirs note, “in the British classical liberal tradition, the tradition of Gladstone, not Disraeli”. After crediting Turnbull, Fraser and Holt as true heirs to this tradition, Brandis singled out Howard as being the first Liberal leader to bring “the conservative influence to bear”.
Turning to Howard’s immediate successor as Liberal prime minister, Brandis claimed that “Abbott’s leadership was probably the only time that the Liberal Party in government pursued a set of policies so ideologically right-wing”. As evidence of this, Brandis cited Abbott’s “reluctance to embrace multiculturalism as out of sync with modern Australian values”, and held that “the trenchant resistance” to same-sex marriage “was increasingly out of touch with community values”. According to the former government Leader of the Senate, conservatives are now trying to hijack the party and “attempts to make it a more right-wing party have never ended well”.
Refusing to allow his former colleague’s barbs to go straight to the keeper, Abbott took to Twitter to remark that: “George Brandis has begun his ambassadorship with a partisan attack that rewrites history. How could the Liberal Party under my leadership have been “ideologically right-wing” when I had him as part of the leadership group?”
Throughout his public career, George Brandis has been one of the great thinkers of Australian politics, making many valuable, scholarly contributions to Liberal Party philosophy. As a devotee of the nineteenth-century British liberal, John Stuart Mill, Brandis has done much to nourish the classical liberal tradition of Australia’s great centre-right party.
Revealing his solid grasp of liberal history, Brandis is absolutely correct to identify Menzies as a “liberal” in the tradition of the British Liberal prime minister, E W Gladstone. Menzies’ close colleague, Paul Hasluck, observed that Menzies saw himself as the political heir to the Victorian statesman. Humane and reforming yet deferential to the Crown and the constitution, the Gladstonian Liberals of late Victorian England had a laudable track-record in advancing the cause of human dignity and freedom.
Accordingly, when Menzies took the word ‘Liberal’ for his new party in 1944, he consciously assumed the mantle of the old English Liberals to realise the same ideals of individual dignity, freedom and opportunity for twentieth-century Australia.
The explicitly liberal creed of Menzies, however, did not imply any rejection or disdain for the inherited traditions of the past. As the philosophical descendant of Edmund Burke, who similarly identified himself as a Whig rather than a Tory, Menzies saw no tension between advancing the cause of individual freedom and progress while safeguarding traditions such as the Crown and Westminster democracy, the Australian constitution, the rule of law, the Judeo-Christian ethic, the family, private property, free enterprise and the alliance with the United States. Like Burke, Menzies believed the maintenance of a nation’s traditions provided the essential precondition for personal liberty to flourish and social progress to ensue.
Given this instinct of Menzies’ liberalism to conserve the best of the past, it would, therefore, be ahistorical to suggest that John Howard’s appeal to conservative principles as opposition leader, and later, as prime minister represented an aberration from the liberal tradition of Menzies. Between Menzies’ time and Howard’s period in public life, the received understanding of liberalism undeniably changed in public discourse. With the rise of the new social movements, postmodernism and the shift towards moral relativism, it could no longer be assumed that an avowed “Liberal” axiomatically stood for the traditional principles of Menzies.
Indeed while still alive, the Liberal patriarch already saw the writing on the wall when he observed in 1974 that the “little ‘l’ liberals” had abandoned the principles on which his Party was founded. Hence by the 1980s and 90s, Howard had employed “conservative” as the most apposite word to describe nothing more than the attachment of many ordinary Liberals to the time-honoured traditions of constitutional monarchy, flag, family, faith and objective moral truth. In short, Howard added “conservative” to the matrix of Liberal thought in a way that would not have been necessary for Menzies in his own time.
In a similar vein, it would be erroneous to view former prime minister Abbott and his policies as a right-wing deviation from the Liberal course. To be sure, Abbott frequently gave muscular expression to his convictions and policies, yet in essence, they stood wholly within the Liberal tradition. By abolishing the carbon and mining taxes, the Abbott government demonstrated its commitment to the Liberal objectives of greater economic freedom and leaner government. At the same time moreover, its approach to citizenship, national security and the question of marriage simply reflected the Liberal preference for tried-and-tested cultural mores over social engineering.
In one of his last public speeches, Menzies affirmed that “principles do not change” even though the circumstances to which they are applied can and do change. In light of the firm principles undergirding Menzies’ own Liberalism, Howard and Abbott may be much closer to the Liberal founder than sometimes thought. In not only buttressing the social and economic liberty of individuals but also the institutions that give them order, purpose and belonging, they can join Turnbull and his other predecessors in assuming the mantle of true Menzies Liberals.
David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre and is the author of Howard: The Art of Persuasion, Selected Speeches to be released next month.
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