Liberals and ‘liberalism’ from 1984 to 2009

With the Liberals in opposition debate has raged as to the party’s future direction. The debate is often phrased as one of ‘liberals’ vs. ‘conservatives’. Tony Abbott’s recent book, which I still have to read, has been hailed as an intervention on the conservative side and Senator George Brandis has set himself up as the defender of liberal values. There is often debate on whether ideological conflicts within Australian political parties are actually that significant: do they merely disguise a struggle of ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups? The truth is somewhat in-between. Brandis was involved in the Liberals’ post-1983 debate and was an editor in 1984 of Liberals face the future, a collection of essays which mostly argued the ‘wet’ position in the emerging Liberal party debate. It is interesting to compare the lead article on ‘Liberal values’ co-authored by Brandis and his co-editors Tom Harley and Don Markwell with Brandis’ recent Alfred Deakin lecture. In 2009 Brandis is keen to reject what he sees as the Howard-Abbott position that liberalism is a partial philosophy to be restricted to economic management. But the discussion is curiously abstract, mostly Brandis quotes hn Stuart Mill, and is happy to praise the economic record of the Howard government as an application of Liberal values.  Brandis evokes a ‘conservative’ spectre but he is unwilling to criticise any specific policies of the Howard government. There is no discussion of social policy. The 1984 essay is much more an essay in social liberalism, the authors reject libertarianism and argue that freedom of itself is not the ‘ultimate value’ of liberalism which is rather that ‘all individuals have an equal right to determine and pursue their ends’. Brandis in 2009 devotes much energy to the rather pointless argument that Menzies was a ‘liberal’, it is matter of fact that Menzies called himself a ‘liberal’ but what did this mean? In fact Menzies’ policy views varied widely across his career, perhaps he is best understood as a follower of Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatism, if Menzies had been a British politician he would have been a Liberal in 1910 and a Conservative (probably not even a National Liberal) by 1935. Baldwin once was seen as the patron saint of Tory moderates but in the 1970s the contributors to Conservative Essays disagreed and saw him as closer to the hard-right tradition of Lord Salisbury. Menzies too can be cited as a model for the right in a sense that Deakin (or Disraeli?) could not. In 2009 Brandis insists that the Liberals are ‘liberal’ but can identify no other parties elsewhere in the world that are ‘liberal’ in the same sense. Brandis’ two essays reveal that from 1984 to 2009 conservatism replaced economic libertarianism as the dynamic force within the Liberal party, more pragmatic Liberals remained a significant force but they largely lacked a positive ideology of their own once social liberalism had been repudiated.

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