Australian liberalism is conservative in sense Disraeli would appreciate

Today in The Australian

A dogma, Groucho Marx might have said, is a man’s best friend. After all, no one could deny that a fixed set of beliefs can sustain good combat, soothe defeat and simplify hard choices.

About Henry Ergas

Henry Ergas AO is a columnist for The Australian. From 2009 to 2015 he was Senior Economic Adviser to Deloitte Australia and from 2009 to 2017 was Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility. He joined SMART and Deloitte after working as a consultant economist at NECG, CRA International and Concept Economics. Prior to that, he was an economist at the OECD in Paris from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. At the OECD, he headed the Secretary-General’s Task Force on Structural Adjustment (1984-1987), which concentrated on improving the efficiency of government policies in a wide range of areas, and was subsequently Counsellor for Structural Policy in the Economics Department. He has taught at a range of universities, undertaken a number of government inquiries and served as a Lay Member of the New Zealand High Court. In 2016, he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia.
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15 Responses to Australian liberalism is conservative in sense Disraeli would appreciate

  1. From the article:

    A dogma, Groucho Marx might have said, is a man’s best friend. After all, no one could deny that a fixed set of beliefs can sustain good combat, soothe defeat and simplify hard choices.

    But in democratic politics, the blinkers dogmas impose are the surest road to ruin.

    Malcolm Turnbull was therefore right, in his recent Disraeli Prize oration, to raise the fundamental question of what the Liberal Party stands for. And the mere fact that his speech fuelled yet more debilitating infighting does not detract from the importance of the issues he raised.

    If principles are blinkers, then the ony thing we can say here is that the Liberal Party ‘stands for’ nothing.

    But Labor’s determination to imitate the sea squirt — which starts life swimming with the aid of a brain but once it finds a home, ­digests the now redundant organ and basks in the life of a vegetable — cannot excuse the Liberal Party from re-engaging with its history, values and principles.

    To say that is not to suggest those form a monolithic whole, whose meaning can be discerned by consulting a sacred source. For all his enormous merits, Menzies was not a prophet, and nothing he wrote or said amounts to holy writ.

    Indeed, it is hard to conceive of an approach more antithetical to liberalism than the belief that, as Isaiah Berlin put it, “somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of the uncorrupted man, there is a final solution” to the practical problems of governing.

    Sure, sure, but a set of principles or dogmas don’t constitute a ‘final solution’ when practically applied to this or that situation.

    It is precisely because liberalism dismisses that Promethean conceit that it respects institutions that have stood the test of time, rejects grand projects of social transformation and accepts the inevitability of trade-offs between equally meritorious ends.

    Since when is respecting institutions that have successfully ordered human affairs for generations constituted a Promethean conceit? Alternatively, isn’t seeking to dismantle such institutions a ‘grand project of social transformation’.

    Rather, in resisting the temptation to put too high a hope on political achievement, it contents itself, as Michael Oakeshott suggested, with providing a framework for “the gradual readjustment of human relationships by fallible men”.

    Isn’t that what principles do? Provide a framework that can be gradually readjusted in terms of what they mean in this or that circumstance, to the extent that this does justice to the human relationships of fallible men.

    In the postwar world, the threat of communism created a natural fault line; today’s adversaries are less sharply defined. Australian society is also far more heterogeneous, and has lost all sense of a shared past or a common future.

    It’s hard to imagine what sort of polity Australia is if it no longer has a shared past or common future.

    Yet it is equally certain that no one better understood that, as Disraeli himself put it, “Great politicians must feel comfortable both in themselves and in their times.”

    Whatever his flaws, he forced the Tories to adapt to a society reshaped by the Industrial Revolution; and his greatest political achievements — the Reform Act of 1867, which gave ordinary working men the vote, and the avalanche of social legislation that followed it — reflected a conviction that workers, far from wishing to destroy society, were natural conservatives, united in their respect for national institutions and in the aspiration for a better future.

    In that sense, Australian liberalism has also always been conservative: not in trying to preserve the past but in balancing continuity and change, stability and aspiration, self-reliance and mutual assistance.

    Reasserting its core principles requires lucidity, not dogma, and mature reflection, not personal attacks.

    I don’t doubt for a moment that a politician must adapt to changing circumstances, but many of those circumstances that currently afflict us are self-induced, and Turnbull seems completely unaware of what is in his power to correct or ameliorate, and what is not.

  2. RobK

    Thanks Dover. I couldn’t have said it better.

  3. H B Bear

    I have a feeling I will be disagreeing with Henry yet again when I venture out to pick up the paper. Defending Lord Waffleworth isn’t always wrong but it rarely is.

  4. Snoopy

    Since when is respecting institutions that have successfully ordered human affairs for generations constituted a Promethean conceit? Alternatively, isn’t seeking to dismantle such institutions a ‘grand project of social transformation’.

    Dover, I think you have misread Henry, here. His reference to Promethean conceit refers to the previous paragraph.

    Indeed, it is hard to conceive of an approach more antithetical to liberalism than the belief that, as Isaiah Berlin put it, “somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of the uncorrupted man, there is a final solution” to the practical problems of governing.

  5. max

    The conservative moment has no map, no rudder, and not much common sense. It never has.

    At the heart of the conservative movement there is a philosophical and moral void. It is a movement whose leaders do not take seriously either political philosophy or ethics. Its intellectuals have been unable to develop a systematic yet compelling case for a conservative political agenda. There is no conservative agenda, other than this: “Throw the rascals out!”

    https://www.lewrockwell.com/2015/10/gary-north/conservatism-is-a-total-flop/

  6. incoherent rambler

    In the Master of Wrongology stakes, methinks ‘enry shades PVO.

    Never mind, ‘enry will surely produce many documents over the next decade explaining the disappearance of the Liberal party.

  7. Roger

    Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.

    Inside a dog it’s too dark to read.

    Groucho Marx

  8. Roger

    It’s hard to imagine what sort of polity Australia is if it no longer has a shared past or common future.

    Do try to keep up, dover.

    The ABS proclaimed it in their recent census report:

    “Australia is a nation of nations.”

  9. alexnoaholdmate

    Is the argument here that society is changing and that the role of conservatives is to manage that change and seek to mitigate its worst effects?

    If so, it’s been tried before – that was the Tory role in the UK for thirty-five years of after World War II. Thirty-five years of decline, with the Tories agreeing with Labour that the all-encompassing welfare state was the way of the future but “let’s at least try and keep things civil, shall we?”

    It didn’t work, it bankrupted the nation, it led to a decline in social values that the UK has never recovered from – you can’t unscramble an egg, after all – and it nearly destroyed the UK as a modern world power, until the advent of Thatcher.

    And even Thatcher, for all her best efforts, was only capable of “hiding the decline” for a while.

    If the conservative side of politics seeks to define itself by what it isn’t and what it opposes, it will never be anything but a soft-left brake on the end of Western civilisation. If we’re meant to vote for the Liberals because they “aren’t Labor”, but they’ll still end up enacting Labor policies anyway – though perhaps at a slightly less outrageous level – then what’s the point?

    I’d rather take the quick bullet to the head than a slow, lingering death, myself.

    The entire Labor/Liberal philosophy of government is the same – that government’s role is to intrude in your life, and to tax you to pay for someone else’s spending. That government is meant to be an active force in your life, not a passive umpire that holds the ring for you to build your own world.

    The only difference is the Liberals like to pretend they’ll do you slowly – and they’ve more or-or-less given up even that pretence anyway.

  10. Dover, I think you have misread Henry, here. His reference to Promethean conceit refers to the previous paragraph.

    Yes, you are right there Snoopy.

  11. alexnoaholdmate

    A conservative today is probably much closer in temperament and political views to a Gladstonian Liberal than to a Disraelian conservative.

    Churchill made much of the fact that the Conservatives had become the party of free trade and individual freedoms, as opposed to the rump of the old Liberals – who tended to vote (or at least lend moral support) to the new Labour political force.

    And he would know – he dumped the Cons for the Libs and then went back to the Cons. “Anyone can rat,” he said, “but it take a certain amount ingenuity to re-rat.”

  12. alexnoaholdmate

    And there’s a lesson there for our Liberal Party too. In 1918, the Liberal Party was in power in the UK. They tried to build a government of “National Unity” and rule from the centre.

    They had their lunch eaten by Labour for not being progressive enough, and by the Conservatives for abdicating their free-trade stance.

    Result? By 1920 they were more-or-less dead, and the new paradigm – Labour vs Tories – took over.

    The public doesn’t want wishy-washy. It wants parties of one stripe or another that are clear about what they stand for. They wants a choice.

  13. Winter has come

    ‘Putting the fun into fundamentalist dogma’
    Reverend Lovejoy – The Simpsons

  14. Robber Baron

    How about we elect some free-market capitalists that not only believe in capitalism and limited government, but actually progress these beliefs in parliament and when in power.

    Evedything else is a distraction.

  15. True Aussie

    It’s hard to imagine what sort of polity Australia is if it no longer has a shared past or common future.

    That has always been the inevitable outcome of multiculturalism. You were all warned and you chose to ignore it.

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