I’m not sure why the Quarterly Essay people asked Waleed Aly – or indeed anyone on the academic left except Judy Brett – to write an essay on the ‘future of conservatism’ (semi-coherent op-ed abridgement here). While Aly claims some sympathy for philosophical conservatism, with quotes from Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott duly produced, his understanding of the contemporary Australian right is too limited to say anything insightful about its current state or future prospects.
One of his arguments is that ‘conservatism’ (or neo-conservatism, as he calls its recent Australian version) has been too influenced by ‘neo-liberalism’. But his 25-page account of ‘neo-liberalism’ is the usual reductio ad absurdum stuff: markets as the only organising principle and the only arbiters of social value. Aly offers no evidence that anyone in Australia believes this, much less anyone influential. Indeed, he admits that his ‘theoretical account’ is ‘artificially absolute’. But this is not as he thinks because ‘political imperatives’ mean neo-liberalism only ever found ‘compromised expression’. It is because nobody believed in ‘neo-liberalism’ defined this way in the first place.
‘Conservatives’ agreed to market reforms for the same reason social democrats agreed to market reforms: as pragmatic measures to improve economic performance. Markets as institutions can co-exist with a wide variety of beliefs. There is no inherent inconsistency involved in choosing to over-ride market freedoms or outcomes in particular circumstances. Contrary to what Aly thinks, even the people who I assume are the real-world inspiration for the academic construct ‘neo-liberalism’, classical liberals and libertarians, recognise various kinds of ‘market failures’ and accept that government can be needed to control them (even if they are far more sceptical than social democrats about what constitutes a market failure and about the government’s competence to fix them).
When Aly moves off ‘neo-liberalism’ there are quotations from real Australian political figures (plus one columnist, Janet Albrechtsen), and so evidence prevents the hyperbole accelerator being pressed right to the floor. But even here Aly cannot resist exaggeration. He introduces the statements of various Liberal politicians about ‘Australian values’ and criticisms of Islam as a ‘reactionary form of monoculturalism’. But there is of course a wide gulf between being concerned about the consequences of highly culturally diverse societies and trying to impose a monoculture. Clearly, a government that presided over record migration from non-European societies wasn’t trying to create a ‘monoculture’.
Aly gets some of the detail of his dicussion of the climate change issue wrong. If by ‘neo-liberal’ he means classical liberals or libertarians, he’s wrong that denial is their only option. In my political identity survey last year 10% of classical liberals and libertarians said that climate change was not happening (compared to 26% of conservatives – implausibly Aly thinks conservatives need to get rid of neo-liberals to come to a sensible view on climate change, rather than the other way around).
But the wide variety of views on what to do about climate change mean that this is an issue that belongs in a discussion of the future of right-of-centre politics in Australia. No option (of nothing, costs exceed benefits, ETS, carbon tax) had majority support in my survey. My personal experience is that this issue generates stronger intra-right passions than anything I have seen in my quarter century of involvement in both the Liberal Party and the intellectual right.
I’m really not sure how this issue will turn out. My best guess at this stage is that international negotiations will fail to produce anything like the cuts demanded by greens. This changes the domestic politics radically from what they look if the debate is structured as just being about the science. Costly emissions cuts for negligible environmental benefit will, as the government is already finding out, be a hard sell. The long-term politics may end up being about who can best deal with the consequences of climate change – indeed, this is already happening via the water debate in the southern states.
It’s not clear that conservatives (or classical liberals, for that matter) will be either highly internally divided or particularly disadvantaged in this kind of political debate, as they have been to date in acrimonious exchanges about the science.
Aly’s essay is doomed by his misunderstandings of right-of-centre politics. But even with a solid understanding of the present, political prediction is always a dangerous business. In the short period between when Aly completed his manuscript and when it appeared in print the political prospects of both Republicans in the US and Liberals in Australia have improved significantly. I still think the Coalition will lose this year’s federal election, but the political dynamics are much better than almost anyone expected just a year ago.