Flat White

Edmund Burke down under

11 July 2018

1:11 PM

11 July 2018

1:11 PM

Accepting the Edmund Burke Award in November 2016, John Howard paid homage to the eighteenth century Anglo-Irish statesman, remarking that “the legacy of Burke is a precious one”. Close to both the champion of free trade Adam Smith and the Evangelical humanitarian William Wilberforce, Edmund Burke (1730-1797) represented a standard-bearer for the Whig tradition of British liberalism that took root in Australian soil.

As such, Edmund Burke and his legacy matters profoundly to the evolution of modern Australia and its conception of freedom and democracy, as we have been reminded by the recent visit of one of the latest analyses of his life and ideas, the independently-minded Conservative MP, Jesse Norman. Combining personal liberty with social order, the philosophy of Burke has exerted an enduring influence on the Australian centre-right from the colonial era of W C Wentworth to the Liberal Party of the modern age.

Indeed the Australian Federation and the Constitution on which it is based are indebted to Burkean principles. According to Professor Gregory Melleuish, Burke influenced the great constitutional founders, particularly Henry Parkes, Samuel Griffith, Edmund Barton, and Alfred Deakin, who largely adhered to a Whig philosophy of progress and reform guided by tradition and historical precedent. By setting a relatively high threshold for the constitution to be altered by a popular referendum, the drafters reflected Burke’s caution about inserting new and untested provisions.

In the early years of Federation, the influence of Burke’s philosophy was evident in both the free trade and protectionist stands of early twentieth-century Australian liberalism. Australia’s early prime ministers imbibed Burke’s spirit in their common fidelity to British constitutional liberty and their belief in the Australian Commonwealth as a community of individuals bound together by reciprocal rights

In the mid-twentieth century, the founder of the modern Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, represented the Australian Liberal tradition of Deakin and also the British Whig liberalism of Burke. Eschewing the old politics of sectionalism and class conflict, Menzies vowed to make his new party one for all Australians. This approach was thoroughly Burkean as the Whig statesman had held that all parliamentarians, whatever their constituency and party politics, were elected to represent the interests of the whole nation. As Prime Minister in the post-war years, Menzies presided over a government that went beyond the collectives of class, race and gender to promote greater opportunities for all individuals.

In his vocal opposition to communism during the Cold War, Menzies’ critique of the Marxist ideology owed much to the anti-revolutionary principles espoused by Burke in his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France. While both men each contended with different movements in different times and contexts. Burke and Menzies nonetheless believed that Jacobinism and communism respectively were anathema to social order, class harmony, religious observance and the received customs and manners of civil society.


In his public life, Menzies followed the example of Burke by emphasising the importance of “manners” and moral character to the social capital and civility of society. Indeed for Burke, manners formed the basis of all laws.

Like Burke, Menzies rejected an atomistic individualism. For Burke, the individual citizen was a member of a society with a common culture and set of traditions, with duties arising from one’s position therein. In a similar vein, Menzies reminded Australia’s citizens that they were their “brother’s keeper” and “members of one another”.

With the departure of Menzies as Prime Minister in January 1966, the Burkean traditions in the Liberal Party were far from extinguished. Successive leaders from Harold Holt to John Gorton, William McMahon and Malcolm Fraser espoused Burkean principles and typically adopted a measured, gradualist approach to necessary economic and social change such as the dismantling of the White Australia Policy.

Another champion of Burke’s philosophy emerged with the election of John Howard as prime minister in 1996. Of all Australian prime ministers to date; Howard is the one to have most frequently cited Edmund Burke, at least on the public record. Invoking Burke, Howard argued that the Liberal Party has typically balanced the necessity for change with the imperative of continuity, citing Burke’s dictum that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”.

Howard, like Burke and Menzies before him, maintained government was not there to serve sectional interests, but rather the long-term interest of the nation as a whole. In so doing, it would draw upon the very institutions of society that Burke famously described as the “little platoons” to which individuals belonged. These featured prominently in Howard’s approach, particularly in the areas of social welfare and indigenous empowerment.

While individual freedom was obviously a key tenet of Howard’s political philosophy, he, like Burke, emphasised the individual’s responsibility to society. A critical element of this was his government’s principle of “mutual obligation” underpinning initiatives such as “Work for the Dole”.

In the tradition of Burke and Menzies, Howard stressed the importance of society and culture being guided by the wisdom of history. Howard brought the Anglo-Irish statesman’s approach to bear on favouring the preservation of traditional institutions such as the constitutional monarchy and the family.

The ascendency of Tony Abbott to the Liberal leadership in 2009, and later to the prime ministership in 2013, arguably reinforced the Burkean tradition in the Liberal Party. As prime minister, Abbott identified himself closely with many of Howard’s Burkean ideas of mutual obligation, volunteerism and a prudent approach to change. Burke’s legacy is acknowledged also by the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, even though his own expression of Liberalism is seen by some to align more closely with the tradition of John Stuart Mill than that of Burke.

With the centre-right in Australia and overseas presently at risk of either capitulating to the political correctness of the left or being gripped by shallow populism on the right, the need to recover the historically-rooted, conservative-liberal principles of Edmund Burke has never been more important.

David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre and is the editor of Menzies: The Forgotten Speeches and Howard: The Art of Persuasion, Selected Speeches.

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