Back in 2005, Nick Gruen wrote a useful post about the components he liked of the three ideological elements of our political culture: liberalism, conservatism and social democracy. In practice, all major political parties tend to be a mix of the three, but with differing emphasis.
I’d call Labor conservative liberal social democrats; social democracy placed as the noun because that I think is the party’s animating force. People join Labor because they want more equality. Some can be quite conservative and others quite liberal on social issues, and Labor has in the past proven itself capable of major liberal economic reforms. Rudd proclaims himself an ‘economic conservative’. But these ideas complement or modify the party’s social democracy, rather than being the core of what Labor is about.
Under Howard, the Liberals have been social democratic liberal conservatives. For him, conservative ideas were most important – family, Queen and country, so conservatism is the noun. While I think the argument that Menzies was more liberal than Howard is nonsense, this is not because liberal ideas are what drove the former PM, but because he largely took as given the large social changes of the last 40 years.
In some ways, as I argued this time last year, the surprising aspect of Howard has been his social democratic leanings – his interest in Australian egalitarianism and the belief that social cohesion depends partly on income redistribution. But social democracy is the adjective; income redistribution has been aimed at supporting families in particular rather than lower-income Australians in general. And unlike self-described social democrats, Howard has (at least in theory) been acutely aware of the dangers of welfare dependency.
All of these ideologies will continue to play a role in the post-Howard Liberal Party. I suspect conservatism will still be the noun, what motivates most of the rank-and-file and many MPs, and social democracy’s place is secure out of political necessity even where it is not viewed with much ideological enthusiasm. The question for people like me is to what extent the adjectival power of liberalism can be revived within the party.
Liberalism is dead in industrial relations; much has been achieved since the 1980s but the public wants no more and is now deeply conservative on the issue. It’s alive in education – people are choosing alternatives to public education, but again we hit very powerful conservatism on more radical measures (the record of public education in helping the poor is so bad that I don’t think it deserves to be called social democratic, and support for it owes more to conservatism – Andrew Leigh and I will be discussing this in a blog debate next week). In health too, people are ideologically wedded to the public system even while fleeing to private hospitals themselves.
There are political feasibility challenges for the Liberal Party in these issues, though Labor’s ideological commitment to permanently dysfunctional public services gives them chronic problems that Liberals can exploit in a ‘we are better managers’ sense.
The area where I see possibilities is tax. It is in a down part of the issue cycle now, but I expect it will recover. Political stereotypes favour the Liberals on tax. It is a crucial policy battle for those of us who want a strong and independent civil society. It is funding with strings attached as much as prescriptive legislation that is taking the nanny state further and further into the lives of Australians.
I’d prefer the Liberal Party to be social democratic conservative liberals, taking on Labor’s conservative liberal social democrats. But given where we are at, social democratic more-liberal conservatives is probably more realistic.