On Friday Postmodern Conservatism in Australia co-author Matthew Sharpe left in the comments thread a large number of responses to my original post on his book. My responses on the main issue of how to characterise recent Australian conservatism:
On whether we have “postmodern” conservatism:
The main claim is that Howard’s appeal to ‘our values’, the ‘mainstream’ is relativist. It relies on the idea that ‘our values’ ‘are not ours because they are just, but just because they are ours.’
When conservatives criticise ‘relativism’ they are usually attacking the idea that all cultures are equal. A better description of the conservative argument here would be ‘particularist’ – the idea that our culture has value at least partly because it is ours, because of our historical experience. It is consistent with – and usually implies or expressly states – the idea that our culture is better than other cultures, which is not a ‘relativist’ notion. All conservatives have a particularist element to their thought (though as I noted in a slightly different context, complicated when the particular culture they are preserving has universal elements to them, liberalism and Christianity being the two most important in the West). So I am not convinced that calling contemporary conservatives ‘postmodern’ clarifies their thinking or distinguishes them from past Australian conservatives.
On religion, our argument is that a renewed religiosity (preferably Christian or Jewish, but more or less denominationally blind between Catholics and Protestants etc.) did emerge as important in the Howard years…
You give a few examples of greater use of religious institutions to achieve government goals. In none of these cases was there any restriction to Christians or Jews. In the major examples – private schools and the Job Network – secular institutions could also participate. Even in the case of the school chaplain program (a daft idea, I agree) schools could employ secular support workers if no chaplain could be employed.
the 2007 citizenship tests explicitly asks new Australians to identify our culture as built on the ‘Judaeo-Christian’ heritage,
On this, you fell (as I did originally) for a News Ltd concoction. The actual questions are not disclosed so far as I am aware, but the guide book for the test says, in the context of a list of liberal values, that Judeo-Christian ethics are one of the influences on them, a plausible historical claim that does not remotely lead to the conclusion that the state is promoting more religion or favouring any particular religion or religions.
You would be hard pressed to deny that nationalism was a key tenet of Howard’s government, down to that notorious tracksuit of his.
Patriotism, yes there was quite a lot of that. Unpatriotic conservatism is rare. And if you are serious about integrating forces in society (as conservatives are) it is hard to go past it. Love of country has been one of the most powerful uniting sentiments observed in history, one that in practice has helped transcend differences and division in society. In Australia, patriotic sentiment is strong among both those born here and those born overseas. I think you are right that Howard saw this as threatened by some aspects of multiculturalism and ‘black armband’ history, but wrong to interpret this as making
membership of the Australian community dependent on a shared definition of the good life. (p.177)
What is the stronger evidence on this point? An imaginative reading between the lines of culture wars rhetoric, or a huge and very diverse migration program, support for religious schools of every variety, and the absence of any laws limiting cultural diversity?
Overall, I think you and your co-author relied too heavily on conventional left interpretations of the Howard years, and over-used foreign compared to local conservative texts in trying to create an intellectual framework. This is understandable – our local conservatives are not generally deep or systematic thinkers. But because conservatism is particularistic, local differences can matter a lot. The United States is a far more religious country than Australia, and its conservatism reflects that and misled you. A closer examination of the evidence may have pointed to other conclusions, or at least a more nuanced account.