Tony Abbott has announced his intention to stay in politics in order to protect and promote what he calls “liberal conservative values.” He claims his values are at the very heart of Liberal Party philosophy. Meanwhile Cory Bernardi seeks to trump this by asserting that his new party is the one true home of Australian conservatism. What this latest ideological imbroglio points to is the fact that the Australian Liberal Party has always been an unconsummated marriage between liberalism and conservatism. Perhaps Liberal Party supporters need reminding that nearly all unconsummated marriages end up in bitter divorce.
The conservative tradition in Western political philosophy is widely misunderstood, no more so than in Australia. Contemporary Australian claimants to the conservative mantle (for example, Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Cory Bernardi, George Christensen, Barry O’Sullivan) favour right wing extremist views trying to combine a reactionary form of moral authoritarianism with a dogmatic version economic rationalism. They seek to cloak this befuddled thinking in conservative respectability.
The moral authoritarianism they cling to (note, for example, their hostility to same-sex marriage) echoes much of the Catholic fundamentalism of the late B.A. Santamaria. Their economic rationalism, which totally contradicts Santamaria’s anti-capitalist Catholicism, is the very antithesis of true conservative political thought. To call their brand of politics “conservative” is to pervert and undermine one of the great civilizing traditions in Western political theory.
Conservatism is a political tradition that profoundly respects and seeks to learn from the evolving lessons of cultural history. This perspective drove the thinking of the eighteenth century Irish philosopher and British politician Edmund Burke, arguably the most influential founder of modern conservative thought.
In the British parliament Burke courageously championed independence for Ireland from British colonial rule, pointing to the impressive historical integrity of Irish culture that was being ignorantly patronized, belittled and bulldozed by British landlords, military officers, and politicians. For him there was no such notion as a cozy “Anglosphere,” only an arrogant empire.
British Tories and their cronies in Ireland at the time ignored Burke’s arguments and so the whole tragedy of the struggle for Irish independence ground on for many violent years. Had Burkean ideas been followed in answering the Irish question, Britain and Ireland could have developed a flourishing regional partnership, there would have been no IRA, and the Northern Ireland problem now looming as Brexit gathers its clumsy momentum would be non-existent. Will the Tories never learn?
It is noteworthy too that Burke sided with the American revolutionaries in their demands for independence from Britain in the eighteenth century. He agreed with their democratic claim to no taxation without representation. He understood the reasons for the French Revolution but condemned the mob violence and terror it unleashed. He was a bitter opponent of capital punishment and called for the repeal of laws discriminating against religious minorities, including long suffering Catholics in Britain.
Anyone who thinks conservatives can’t be in the vanguard of progressive politics should read Burke’s speeches in the British parliament and his essays on history and the importance of sound moral thinking in politics. Where is the evidence that Australia’s Tories read anything of philosophical and historical substance?
Conservatives honour social and political institutions forged in the furnace of human experience over many generations. They argue that changing these institutions needs to be done adaptively, cautiously, in accord with the cultural developments in the wider society. The utter disregard of the likes of Abbott, Abetz and co. for the cultural shift that has occurred in latter-day Australia on the issue of same-gender marriage vividly illustrated how out of touch they are with genuine conservative thinking.
Conservatives have an intuitive concern for the physical environment. In architecture, art, music, as well as the natural landscape, they value the awesome expressiveness of human experience and agricultural husbandry down the ages. They are especially sensitive to changes in the climate and when seasons start to erupt. They deeply respect scientific authority. So those who cling to climate change denialism while appropriating a conservative label are in fact faux conservatives.
Conservatives understand the fragile nature of human societies and the important relationships they embrace and nurture. They know full well that societies are founded on the way people care about each other, respecting and valuing each other. They celebrate the organic ties between individuals, families, communities and whole societies and countries. A properly functioning welfare state for example would be entirely understandable to a truly committed conservative politician.
Consider how the conservative view of an organically inter-related society contradicts the Thatcherian dictum: “There is no such thing as society!” True conservatives recoil in horror from such blasphemy. Hence a view of the social economy that celebrates only self-regarding individuals is anathema to genuine conservative thought. Economic rationalism – the crude neoliberal doctrine that emphasizes deregulation of the economy and the celebration of greed – bears no relationship to anything that can be identified in the conservative canon.
Those Australian politicians claiming to advance conservatism in our day have failed completely to make the case that they belong to the great conservative political tradition. They are counterfeit conservatives – dangerous wall-eyed radicals bent on imposing a falangist polity on the Australian body politic. Resisting this has become an obligation for us all.
Dr Allan Patience is a principal fellow in political science in the University of Melbourne.