John Howard said that he supported ‘modern conservatism in social policy’. I argued several years ago that this seemed to amount to more emphasis on facilitating the social institutions conservatives did like – such as supporting families through generous handouts – and less emphasis on prohibiting or penalising things conservatives did not like.
During the Howard years, however, there were anomalies in this approach, which Tony Abbott seems to be moving towards removing.
Earlier in the month, Abbott announced a paid parental leave scheme. While this didn’t go down very well in his party room, I argued that it fits with a ‘modern conservatism’ that recognises that married women work, and that this is a factor in both deciding to have children and in the care of their children. The social science case for giving women six months off to care for and bond with a newborn child is far stronger than the case for longer term income redistribution in favour of families.
Yesterday, though learning from his previous mistake of making major announcements without consulting colleagues, Abbott indicated support for improved legal recognition of gay relationships. As The Age reported:
”I’m in favour of stable, enduring relationships. I’m in favour of people keeping their commitments to people. I would be very sympathetic to some institutional arrangement which encouraged that across the board, rather than in just what might be described as the more common or traditional contexts,” he said. … He was ”very happy to look at” civil unions.
In the Joy FM interview from which this is taken, he puts this in a conservative context (at about the 19 minute mark):
“it is a very conservative position to want to encourage enduring stable relationships. What conservatism needs to do is to apply enduring values to the new reality of our time…[it is] important that we find ways of encouraging those enduring values to the different context of today.”
Though it seems counter-intuitive at first, support for gay civil unions and indeed marriage flows logically from the way conservatism has been developing. It is now about encouraging ‘enduring stable relationships’, and it makes no sense to exclude gays from that. The most likely alternatives – promiscuity or miserable sham marriages – hardly seem better from a ‘conservative’ perspective.
On small government grounds, I don’t support new taxes to finance parental leave. But I think Abbott is leading conservatives towards a more coherent version of ‘modern conservatism’.