George Brandis’s Deakin lecture is now online, courtesy The Australian.
One of his points was that John Howard was the first Liberal leader to expressly incorporate conservatism into the party ideology, describing the Liberal Party as the heir to both the conservative and liberal traditions in Australia, and himself as a social conservative and economic liberal.
So far as I can recall that it a correct observation about party rhetoric. What I am less sure of is that Howard – despite his own occasional claim to the contrary – was actually an unusually conservative Liberal prime minister.
Important elements of Liberal ideology from Deakin to Menzies owe more to conservative than liberal thinking, even if neither Deakin nor Menzies ever labelled them as such.
The stand-out example of this is the White Australia Policy. Take this passage from Afred Deakin on the WAP (quoted in Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty):
The unity of Australia is nothing if that does not imply a united race. A united race means not only that its members can intermix, intermarry and associate … but implies one inspired by the same ideas … of people possessing the same general cast of character, tone of thought, the same constitutional training and traditions..
It’s not just the concern with social cohesion that marks this as conservative, it is the particular take on how that is achieved: through a high level of social conformity. Of course liberals don’t want social conflict, but their distinctive contribution to the issues of social diversity is tolerance, not conformity.
From my reading of WAP histories most leading politicians of the era were not simple-mind racists. They did not believe that other races or cultures were inherently inferior. But they did fear the social conflict that could come if races and cultures mixed in Australia, and had little faith in the capacity of tolerance to keep conflict in check.
We had to wait for retirement of Menzies before we could begin dismantling the WAP, and though Fraser was the stronger ‘anti-racist’, it was Howard as PM who really put the tolerance theory to the test as he expanded the migration program. A few grumbles about Muslims aside, most ‘conservatives’ are now far more positive about non-Anglo migrants than the ostensible ‘liberals’ of earlier generations.
Other important policies of the Deakin to Fraser eras, such as centralised industrial relations and protectionism, also owe little to liberalism. They can be reconciled with a nationalistic conservatism or with progressivism, but only with great difficulty with the core liberal ideas and principles.
From this perspective, the rhetorical shift towards conservatism under Howard was larger than the policy shift.