Press "Enter" to skip to content

Beyond Ideology: Speech By Tony Abbott

This is the text of a speech given by Tony Abbott, Liberal Member for Warringah and Federal Minister for Workplace Relations, to the Young Liberal Federal Conference.

In the speech, Abbott discusses the relationship between the liberal and conservative wings of the Liberal Party of Australia.

Speech by Tony Abbott to the Young Liberal Federal Conference.

Tony Abbott, Minister for Workplace RelationsThe Centenary of Federation should be an opportunity to celebrate what it means to be an Australian, to reflect on the achievements and disappointments of the past century and to consider how we can build on our strengths to improve the life of the nation in the years ahead.

It’s a curious fact that no significant Labor figure was a prominent Federation Father. The Labor Party suspected that the Federation project was an imperialist and capitalist plot – a bourgeois hoax, in Manning Clark’s phrase. Even so, the Centenary year will witness the 100th anniversary of the first meeting of the Federal Labor Caucus, a day before the anniversary of the first sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament on May 9, 1901. It would only be human nature for this to elicit another burst of Labor self-congratulation as the true keeper of the sacred flame of justice, compassion and concern for the underdog in Australian society.

Edmund Burke once defined a political party as people working for the national interest according to a particular principle on which they all agreed. The basic principle on which the Labor Party was founded was greater equality between masters and servants. The essential principle animating the Federation Fathers (whether conservative protectionists or liberal free traders, they mostly ended up in the first version of an Australian liberal party within a decade) was citizens’ greater freedom to pursue their individual destinies within the framework of a new nation.

Political principles generally serve better as ideals than imperatives. The most ardent libertarian would accept that a certain amount of equality (such as equality before the law) is necessary for meaningful freedom. Convinced egalitarians generally concede that freedom is a good thing as long as no-one is too successful at exploiting it. An issue to ponder during the Centenary year is Australians’ long-standing reluctance to support equality of outcomes ahead of an ideal of equal opportunity and whether Labor’s passion for levelling down was a peculiar by-product of the era of robber baron capitalism. Australians sometimes admire zealots but find it hard to vote for them. We seem to prefer leaders who temper their ideals with common sense to those who proclaim a rigid programme based on a single over-riding idea.

There is no local equivalent of the Statue of Liberty beckoning to the “poor huddled masses yearning to be free”, but the way we have turned a penal colony into one of the free-est, fairest and most prosperous societies on earth society should fill Australians with pride. This is a year when even the most sceptical partisan should savour our national achievements: limited government under the Crown and the role of the First AIF in the victories of 1918 as well as the secret ballot, votes for women, and the Harvester Case.

One hundred years ago, Australia reputedly had the world’s highest standard of living. But in Australia as elsewhere, the times were marked by horrendous industrial accidents, rudimentary systems of social support as rural and agrarian communities eroded under the impact of drought and economic change, and shocking contrasts between opulence and squalor as new wealth was unevenly enjoyed. As always, there were those who believed that the things Australians had in common outweighed anything that divided us. However, those who wanted to fight the class war had far more ammunition to justify their faith in revolutionary change.

Understandably enough, Labor’s cheer squad has tried to create a mythology which depicted opponents as self-interested, dupes of vested interests, or supporters of economic doctrines based on the survival of the fittest. The year ahead should be a time for fair-minded reappraisal of everything that has helped to make modern Australia, including the Liberal Party which, in one guise or another, has governed the country for two thirds of its existence as a nation.

In a country where big company CEOs earn ten times the prime minister’s salary and where the national leader is no more than first among equals, no-one (at least no-one in his right mind) would enter politics out of thrusting self-interest. Those who enjoy giving orders or seek the lifestyle of the rich and famous should not (and mostly don’t) enter politics. Almost without exception, people in parliament want to do good, to help others, to advance long-cherished ideals and to realise a calling which is more than a job, a hobby, an interest or a career.

If values were not more important than interests, politics would degenerate into a sordid calculation of how to rob Peter to pay Paul. Of course politicians are acutely interested in political advantage but the notion that voters typically succumb to a form of bribery reveals more contempt for the electorate than for politicians or political parties. Australian voters are no more inclined than others to believe that “what’s good for General Motors is good for America” which is why politicians go to such lengths to demonstrate that sectoral policies are good for everyone in the long term and really a way to secure the national interest.

One of the most enduring calumnies against the Liberal Party is that we are “the party of the rich”. In a democracy, siding with the rich against the poor is a recipe for permanent electoral failure – unless everyone earning above the median income of about $35,000 a year is judged to be “rich”. No-one would want to advantage people who are already doing well without, at the very least, idealising the creation of wealth in which case the argument is about competing ideals rather than competing interests. Quite apart from any ethical considerations, helping the rich (as opposed to helping the poor to become rich) is hardly going to win votes. As a political strategy, “soak the poor” makes even less sense than its opposite. The Labor Party, in fact, has always been much more effective at playing interest group politics but only because it’s been able to proclaim a secular equivalent of “blessed are the poor”.

During the 1980s, and particularly after John Hewson became Liberal leader in 1990, unsympathetic commentators claimed that the party was divided between “conservative liberals” in the pragmatic tradition of Bob Menzies and doctrinaire free-market liberals harking back to 19th century social Darwinism. Hewson, in fact, was one of Australian politics’ rare visionaries, prepared to challenge the power of vested interest, inertia and force of political habit with what he believed to be right. As the ultimate realisation of much of the Fightback! agenda shows, Hewson’s intellectual drive has left a lasting political legacy.

The unfairness of Labor’s critique at that time is demonstrated by the fact that the achievements of the Hawke Government (financial de-regulation, a floating exchange rate, tariff cuts and privatisation) mostly amounted to adopting the Liberal Party’s policy agenda (if not necessarily its constant practice in government). Since 1983, the Accord has been the biggest policy initiative to originate entirely within the ALP – and the Keating Government all-but-reformed it out of existence under constant intellectual pressure from the then Opposition. Between 1983 and 1996, the Liberal Party was the most effective back seat driver in Australian political history because of its willingness to entertain and debate new ideas which subsequently became political orthodoxy.

Still, the success of a political party is not generally determined by its ability to devise new policy but by its ability to represent values, ideals and instincts which touch people’s hearts. Successful political leadership makes vigorous use of new ideas but is ultimately “beyond ideology” because it involves winning allies as much as winning arguments. John Howard’s success since 1995 has rested on the fact that the ideological tags Labor has tried to pin on him just won’t stick.

Howard has perceived and addressed the party’s chief historical failing which has been too few ideals rather than too few ideas. He has tackled the moral deficit as well as the budget deficit. John Maynard Keynes famously proclaimed the power of ideas over vested interests even in the case of “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences”. By any standards, this has been a government of ideas but Howard has ensured that we cannot be portrayed, in Keynes’ imagery, as “the slaves of some defunct economist” rather than practical problem solvers.

Keynes also quipped that when circumstances changed, he changed his mind. Political parties need to change their policies but keep their principles. They also need to be wary of “absolutising” any of them. They must understand how consistency can become “the hobgoblin of tiny minds”, that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing and the extent to which unintended consequences dominate human interaction. The fact that key policies and actions of the Howard Government make sense in terms of individualism and market forces but embody other values too is a strength rather than a weakness.

Gun control was the Howard Government’s most unexpected achievement and defies political stereotyping. Disarming the population could be seen as a genuflection to our British roots and a rejection of Americanism. It could equally be seen as a denial of people’s right to equality with government officials. It could be seen as a blow against indiscriminate violence against individuals; or as confirming the State’s monopoly over force. In fact, there seem to have been no complex rationalisations at work here – just a conviction that (outside the military) Australians had no possible cause to use semi-automatic weapons and a determination to try to prevent more massacres.

Likewise, the liberation of East Timor cannot be put into an ideological pigeonhole. It was intervention in support of fundamental human rights. It was an assertion of Australian power. It was action at the behest of the United Nations. It was a projection of Australian values. It was resistance to military regimes. It was support for armed liberation movements. There were left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative and even reactionary ways to justify Australia’s bid, in essence, to be a good neighbour in difficult circumstances. It was about as ideological as the actions of Simpson with his donkey.

Tax reform is the Government’s greatest political achievement. It was a radical reform, wholly different from conservative incrementalism where a few basic principles can be discerned in reactions to events. To bank on success where Hewson, Hawke and Keating had all failed was a huge political gamble. Tax reform might have been a crusade – but it can hardly have been an ideological one in any simple sense given that much the same policy had been supported at one time or another by such temperamentally and philosophically different leaders.

One of the most curious features of the Hawke/Keating years was the repeated spectacle of a government claiming to be of the workers, by the workers for the workers boasting about how it had reduced workers’ wages. After falling by 5 per cent between 1983 and 1996, the real wages of low paid workers have increased by over 9 per cent under the Howard Government’s more flexible wages system (and that’s according to ACTU figures). Paying them more is a strange way to attack the workers. Conversely, insisting that workers need to be represented by union officials in any discussion about their wages and conditions is a strange (and, to put it at its most kindly, an anachronistic) way to uphold the dignity of labour.

When the Government introduced Work for the Dole, all the usual suspects said it was “punishing the victim”. But what was supposed to be ideology run rampant has turned out to be an expression of the near universal instinct that doing something is better than doing nothing and that to get a fair go you’ve got to give a fair go. A policy which the Labor Party once called “almost evil” has turned out to have 91 per cent support in the general community (according to recent government research) and 85 per cent support among people on Newstart.

The dream of greater personal freedom is probably the Liberal Party’s nearest equivalent to a “light on the hill” but if it is our pre-eminent value it is, like the prime minister in a Westminster system, first among equals. It might be the value, ideal and instinct which commands the broadest loyalty and evokes the widest sympathy among Liberal Party members but it is not the only one and cannot always prevail. Above all, it cannot be systematised or converted into an ideology without losing the human context in which its appeal is most deeply felt.

Notwithstanding their frequent inability to articulate them, men and women live by ideals. Shared ideals and enduring values are what turn crowds into communities and peoples into societies and ultimately civilisations. They form the bonds of kinship and common purpose which constitute the social fabric and which allow diverse individuals to find a sense of place and belonging in something which transcends themselves.

When it is not an undergraduate exercise in mental gymnastics (as in “Is the Liberal Party really liberal or really conservative? Discuss”), the so-called tension between “liberals” and “conservatives” turns out to have far more to do with political jockeying than with serious philosophical conflict. Instinctive liberals don’t need very much appreciation of history or of real life to understand that no-one succeeds on his own and that freedom can only be achieved by an individual-in-community. It is impossible to be free outside a context of stability and order. Without law, freedom degenerates into anarchy. Similarly, anyone with a sense of history’s lessons learnt the hard way understands that conserving anything requires the freedom to adapt and evolve.

In a world where nothing exists in isolation and everything is connected, “liberalism” and “conservatism” turn out to be complementary values. The difference between a “liberal” and a “conservative” is not that one values freedom and the other doesn’t or even that one asserts and the other denies that freedom comes first. The difference between the ways liberals and conservatives value freedom is, perhaps, more the difference between love at first sight and the love which grows over time.

Internal debate about whether the Liberal Party is fundamentally liberal or conservative usually misses the real point: that the party is destined to be, as Howard says, a “broad church”. In retirement, Sir Robert Menzies recalled: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise”. But this seeming repudiation of conservatism follows the statement: “we were adopting no analogy to the Liberal Party in the United Kingdom” and precedes Menzies’ clear distinction between Australian and American usage where, he said, “the word ‘liberal’ is used in contra-distinction to the word ‘conservative’”.

As Gerard Henderson has pointed out in his history of the Liberal Party, sometimes Menzies sounded like a laissez-faire liberal (when, for instance, in his 1949 election policy speech he celebrated the “best people in this community…owing nothing to anybody”). At other times, he sounded like a Burkean conservative (such as when he evoked “homes material, homes human and homes spiritual” in his 1942 “Forgotten People” broadcast).

Malcolm Fraser began a 1980 speech to the South Australian division of the party with a passage reminiscent of John Stuart Mill’s famous statement On Liberty. “Ours is a liberal Government holding liberal principles”, he declared. “It believes…that to the maximum extent compatible with a cohesive and stable society people should be free to make their own decisions concerning their lives and the disposal of their own resources…That is the ideal to be aimed for and any deviation from it requires special justification”.

Fraser’s conclusion, however, was that “once liberal institutions are installed in a society, a government which wishes to preserve them must be in some sense conservative”. Conservatism, he said, “stresses the need for a framework of stability, continuity and order, not only as something desirable in itself but as a necessary condition of a free society”. “The art of handling this tension” he declared, “of finding that creative balance between the forces of freedom and the forces of continuity, which alone allows a society to advance is the true art of government in a country like ours”. This conservatism, he said, was not a “reactionary…radical right phenomenon”, but a concern to preserve continuity, to ensure that hard-won gains are not carelessly lost, (and) to integrate elements of the old and the new”.

People who see themselves as political “liberals” and those who see themselves as political “conservatives” should not be adversaries struggling for the soul of the main non-Labor party. Not only do liberal and conservative political philosophies live in a kind of symbiosis but the presence of both traditions inside the party significantly broadens its electoral appeal.

There is, of course, a difference between a conservative temperament and a set of conservative political values. A conservative-minded person is disposed to prefer the settled to the controversial, the familiar to the new and the least possible change necessary to remedy a problem. A conservative political party, by contrast, can embark on drastic change provided it’s designed to restore a people’s values and traditions. A conservative-minded person need not, for instance, be drawn to sport, religion or music at all but, if he is, will tend to prefer Test matches to one day cricket, the King James Bible to its successors and the Beatles to Kylie Minogue.

There are conservative-minded people in every political party. A conservative communist, for instance, might lament the decline of Russia and call for its restoration based on a revived understanding of Marxist principles. A conservative member of the ALP might have his faith shaken every time Labor supports a new social experiment. In this sense, a conservative disposition, though not identical with political conservatism, is certainly its strong ally and a breeding ground for its potential supporters.

The generally happy marriage between liberal and conservative thinking inside the Liberal Party has been a source of intellectual vitality and political strength. A Liberal Party which is liberal conservative should have more to offer a wider range of voters than a Liberal Party which is just liberal.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024