Commenter Ute Man asks
At what point would Andrew Norton abandon the Liberal party …. Surely the Abbott inspired lunacy that encouraged Barnaby Joyce to publically voice his CEC conspiracies was a breaking point for anybody who even pretended to be rational. … Surely, at this point, it is impossible for the “last classical liberal” to deny the four-square conservatism (or idiocy, I can’t decide) of Abbott and his unannounced, unfunded policies to continue to support this party. Or are you just another prisoner to tribalism?
I’ve had many questions like this over the years. After all, in the thirty or so years that I have been a Liberal supporter the party has stood for the Australian Settlement minus the White Australia policy (Fraser), vacuous soft-right progressivism (Peacock), suburban conservatism (Howard), free-market liberalism (Hewson), upper-class conservatism with bad jokes (Downer), everything-depending-on-what-day-of-the week-it was (Nelson), market-leaning social liberalism (Turnbull) and now Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism. At the state level, the party often seems to stand for nothing at all, or at least there is no theme I can extract from their ad hoc point scoring against Labor.
Clearly for those – like much of the Australian Left – who see politics as self-expression, as part of showing what kind of person they are, this ideological variety would be intolerable. Indeed, with this view on politics involvement with any major party would be impossible, since both major parties are ‘broad church’ institutions incorporating a wide range of interests and beliefs. Which group is most dominant, or at least most obvious, will change over time with their numbers in the party, their skill, the political cycle, and luck.
While I do enjoy reading about and discussing classical liberal ideas even when there is no contemporary political relevance, I also think that classical liberals should get involved in real-world current politics. Given that classical liberals are a tiny minority of the electorate, I don’t think setting up a classical liberal party is likely to be a successful strategy. The alternative is to join one of the major parties. We are never likely to see a classical liberal government, but classical liberals can help nudge broad-church parties in a classical liberal direction.
But which party? The answer to that question is not as clear as I would like it to be. The Liberal Party has fewer ideological obstacles to supporting smaller government, but the actual historical record, at least since the 1980s, is more mixed, largely due to the Hawke and Keating governments.
For many classical liberals, it will come down to matters of personal history. I formed my party allegiances in a middle-class Liberal voting family, at the time church attending, both kids at private school, both parents working in the private sector, in the aftermath of the Whitlam government, at a time when strikes caused almost weekly disruption in Australia. The chances of such a person being a Labor supporter were very low, and unsurprisingly I did not become one. Friends with different personal histories joined the ALP. In this sense, Ute Man is right that there is a ‘tribal’ aspect to political loyalties. Allegiances are based on much more than just ideological fit.
Clearly I am not going to go off in a huff just because the latest leader has policies I don’t agree with – especially as we are likely to be several Liberal leaders away from a Liberal PM anyway. But would there be a point where I quit the Liberals completely? I would find it very hard to walk away after being involved for so long. I think it is only likely to happen at some major turning point in centre-right politics – like 1908-09 or the early 1940s – when circumstances dictated that we need to start again with some new form of political organisation.