Conservatism from Deakin to Howard

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.

6 thoughts on “Conservatism from Deakin to Howard

  1. The question in your headline refers to the current state of the Liberal Party; yet the content refers to the Howard government as though it is currently in office, when it is as much a part of the past as those of Deakin, Fraser etc.

    The Liberal Party is now more conservative than it has been because it is fearful of changes which it is not implementing – changes to climate policy, telecommunications and immigration are vigorously resisted, not always coherently (a Liberal trait), without a view to an alternative policy other than the status quo – or more particularly, the status quo ante 2007.

    The Liberal Party at a state level has been dismissive of notions such as civil liberties (e.g. in support of increased surveillance of public spaces) and judicial discretion and independence in pursuit of law-and-order policies.

    There is some question as to the point where an Institution becomes so time-honoured that challenging or abolishing it becomes radical – are attacks on centralised arbitration radical, or conservative?


  2. Andrew E – I’ve changed the title. I should always write titles last, as a guard against the subject changing, as occurred here.

    It’s probably true that parties are more conservative in a situational sense in opposition; it generally goes with the territory since oppositions generally work to agendas set by the government and must distinguish themselves from the government. But in terms of the substantive conservative themes there is probably more variability during opposition years.

    I think you are right about state Liberal parties, but is this very different to history? There are exceptions (Hamer? Greiner?) but Liberals have long tried to occupy the law and order space. It supports Howard’s argument about the party being a custodian of the conservative tradition.

    Abolishing arbitratation was radical and liberal. Support for arbitration was conservative and left.


  3. If one is content to work to agendas set by the government, and if one can venture no agenda not set by the incumbent government, then why bother to oppose? Why represent one’s party as an alternative to the incumbent, rather than merely a supplement? A party wins government when it demonstrates that the government is not responding to situations as well as the opposition claim they could.

    Law and order goes beyond policing; there was a convention that criticism of the judiciary was unacceptable as they, like soldiers, were just engaged in unpleasant tasks on behalf of the state. This has gone; conservative oppositions bag judges to the point where the very notion of an apolitical and non-politicised judiciary is almost unsustainable. Personally I blame all those “conservative intellectuals” who started off as various form of Marxists, and whose long march has ended up in the dim and cobwebbed halls of the right.


  4. Andrew E – Of course oppositions should try to promote their own alternative, but given the imbalances of resources and power, and their role as critics of the government, inevitably much of what they do will be to oppose. It would be very rare for oppositions to dominate the agenda – the months after Fightback was launched are the only exception that comes to mind, greatly assisted by a recession and leadership tensions in a by-then old government. Given the eventual consequences of Fighback, that kind of agenda setting went out of political fashionn.

    Is your point about bagging the judiciary for or against my proposition that the Liberals have become less conservative over time? Insofar as this convention existed over-turning it is anti-conservative. On the substantive issue, while as always I prefer civilised criticism, there should not be any such convention. Judges have relatively low formal accountability in the political system, so criticism of them when they appear to have made misjudgments is sensible and desirable. This will all the more be the case if they are given wide powers under a charter of rights. They cannot make major political decisions and expect to escape criticism.


  5. Congratulations to the Alfred Deakin Trust for inviting Senator Brandis to deliver this year’s lecture. For a politician, he provided a very interesting speech, although I did find it unsatisfying.

    I understand the political point that Brandis was making, but I think he (along with many others), make a category error when comparing liberalism with conservatism.

    Conservatism, as defined by Brandis, is an ‘empty’ philosophy. It doesn’t contain a view about what a good society should look like, it simply wishes to conserve the current society. In this sense it is quite different from philosophies like liberalism or socialism or any other ‘ism’ that have reasonable concrete views about what a good society should look like.

    In this context, conservatism should be compared with progressivism. Like conservatism, progressivism is an empty philosophy that simply means progress towards some version of a good society. It doesn’t provide any content about what that good society looks like. Liberals, socialists, nationalist etc can all be progressives in their desire to move society towards their version of a good society and they can all be conservatives in their desire to preserve those parts of our current society that fit in with their version of a good society.

    Many people who are labelled conservative aren’t conservative as I have defined conservative. They generally have fairly concrete views about what makes a good society. Strong and stable families; protection of human life, particularly the unborn or terminally ill; and strong national defence are some examples of the more concrete views of a good society that are often labelled conservative. Clearly people who hold these views can be regarded as either conservative or progressive depending on whether they are defending current laws or proposing changes to the law.

    A more interesting debate for liberals is what should a good liberal society look like. Isaiah Berlin’s positive and negative liberty would be a good place to start. Or a discussion about whether J. S. Mills was a liberal or a socialist? Maybe replacing Alfred Deakin with George Reid as a source of inspiration for liberalism could be enlighting.

    Maybe the Deakin Trust could kick off this discussion in a future Lecture.


  6. Johno – Conservatism doesn’t have very much in it as a high-level concept in that it can mean very different beliefs and policies at different times or in different places. But I agree that conservatives in particular times and places do have identifiable substantive views and and they aren’t just ‘situational’ conservatives, who can be found anywhere on the ideological spectrum (common on the Australian left in the last 25 years, for example).

    One of the more interesting debates within liberalism is the extent to which liberals should try to shape a particular form of society and to what extent it should stick to policies such as limited government, markets and tolerance and just see what happens. A ‘conservative’ culture could (and did) co-exist with this.


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