AUSTRALIAN POLITICS: by Professor David Flint AMNews Weekly
A successful conservative party ready to rebuild
, November 22, 2008
Professor David Flint AM argues that the Liberal Party should neither be ideologically driven nor try to copy Labor. Instead, it should seek to represent Australia's "forgotten people" with whose support Menzies built the original Liberal Party.The Liberal Party has never been an ideological party. The contrast with Labor could not be clearer. And yet it was only by presenting himself as leading a party little different from the Liberals that Kevin Rudd was able to win the November 2007 election.
The Liberal Party seeks to apply in government those mainstream values, values that are spectacularly different from the ideological theories which Labor, particularly the Labor left, embraces from time to time.
The warning long ago by the Liberal Party's great founder, Sir Robert Menzies, is as relevant today as it was in 1942. This was that the Liberals should not to be seen as just attacking the "worst mistakes of Labor", but to be offering a defined and alternative policy. That policy should be one that the mainstream will instantly recognise as a commonsense solution.
Liberals should not try to copy the Labor Party. They should not seek to become another raucous exchange in which money, power, influence and votes are traded between a gaggle of factions on the inside and a range of hungry power bases on the outside. Nor should they be mesmerised by the bewildering succession of neo-socialist postmodern ideologies so fashionable with the Labor left, and which the Labor Party must give some credence in its factional deals.
Labor, particularly the Labor left, is always ready and willing to make the necessary suspension of disbelief to endorse some new ideological fashion. Like the old serial The Search for the Golden Boomerang
, the Labor left is permanently engaged in the search for some elusive silver bullet. An egregious example is the way Labor - and not just the left - still clings to an ideological and failed indigenous policy that involves isolating the indigenous people, making them dependent, setting them in aspic, socialising them with collectivist land titles and dooming them to lead lives of "existential aimlessness".
The next round of Coalition governments should not fall under the influence of what may be called the "lockstep" malaise. This is a frequently observed unwillingness or inability in a conservative government to reverse the unacceptable policies of its socialist predecessor. One example was the federal government led by Malcolm Fraser, who had created a major political crisis to obtain office, but who then left too many of his predecessors' policies in place.Mainstream values
What then are the mainstream values that should continue to guide the Liberal Party? Although not exclusive to them, they are held most strongly by the party's natural constituency. This constituency was famously identified more than half a century ago by Robert Menzies as the "forgotten people".
With the decline in trade-union membership, the Liberals' natural constituency has spread far beyond the forgotten people, the old middle-class. This natural constituency has now become the majority. They and their families are everywhere - in small business and on farms, the self-funded retirees and those who aspire to fund their retirement, the contractors who were once employees and, of course, the tenants who are in a neo-feudal relationship with the shopping centres.
They also include new ranks of the forgotten. They are the accident victims deprived of adequate compensation by Labor-dominated state parliaments acting in the interests of insurance companies. They are the farmers and other landowners subjected to draconian controls or denied proper fire protection, all of which is more to do with capturing the Greens vote than any genuine concern with the environment. They are those whose way of life has been permanently damaged because of pandering to big developers.
They are also the victims of crime resulting from the failure of state governments to deliver proper standards of law and order, those left to support the drug-dependent resulting from misguided harm-minimisation programs, and those who have suffered because of the inability of state governments to deliver essential services to an adequate level. They are above all those who have done their duty to the nation or their families and have since been abandoned.
They are all forgotten, and they are looking for a party whose mission in office is to rule in good faith as governments once did - for the peace, order and good government of Australia, not for some permanent round of backdoor factional deals and favours to the sometimes insatiable power bases.
Labor's interest in these people is forced, transitory and opportunistic; the party's real interest is elsewhere. Nor are they often the interest or concern of the mainstream media, which for the last decade were far more interested in wringing out every ounce of sympathy about the "victims" of Howard-government policies.
But this rank and file remain, as Menzies saw them, the backbone of the nation, independent and frugal. And, unlike the elites, they still do not feel the need to proclaim their moral superiority over their fellows or to reconstruct society according to some newly discovered neo-socialist theory.
Their values were handed down to them by their parents, their families, their schools and their religion. They draw on and are inspired by the institutions and values that came with and resulted from the very foundation of this nation. These are, briefly, the rule of law, our Judeo-Christian values, and that surprisingly early gift, unprecedented in any other empire, representative democracy under the Westminster system.
Our founding fathers also bequeathed us a gift that has been terribly abused by some of our politicians and judges, the gift of Federation. To remain true to Menzies, the Liberal Party must stay in touch with these values and present policies that advance the interests and aspirations of the rank and file.
The values of the rank and file are, of course, also those of many of our leading businesspeople, but that does not mean that the Liberal Party is the party of the rich and powerful. Big business is not even a Liberal power base. Big business as a whole has few loyalties - businesspeople know there is little they can to determine who will govern, and that they will have to live with any and every government.
With no sense of loyalty, big business has little to learn from Talleyrand. Paraphrasing Lord Palmerston, big business would say that it has no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. It is its interests that are eternal and perpetual, and it is these interests that it follows coldly and without any sense of loyalty. Proof of this was provided by the Business Council of Australia in its first submission to the new Rudd government, which contained a "devastating critique" of the Howard government.
Indeed, Labor is now not only the preferred party in certain sectors of big business; it is even the chosen instrument of some in advancing their interests. This is even when the agenda is against the interests of those whom their spin-doctors have renamed the nation's "working families". Examples include the decisions taken by Labor governments to assist generously by contract, administrative favours, regulation or statute, certain property developers, insurance companies, the gambling industry and the hotel industry.
Liberals have always had a justifiable pride in who we Australians are, where we came from and the history of our nation. They have been in the forefront of resisting attempts to rewrite history and impose what Geoffrey Blainey has called the "black armband" view of history. Liberals instinctively understand that the present and future generations are entitled to be educated about the story of our nation.
Liberals also have a strong faith in our constitutional system. This was described succinctly and eloquently by Bolingbroke as "that assemblage of laws, institutions and customs, derived from certain fixed principles of reason, directed to certain fixed objects of public good, that compose the general system, according to which the community hath agreed to be governed".
The heart of modern constitutionalism is, as it were, a triptych. In one panel there is the rule of law, in the centre, representative democracy, and on the other side, a compelling array of checks and balances, bicameralism, the Australian Crown, the courts. Those checks and balances exist to foil attempts to concentrate power unduly and to prevent serious abuses of that power.Constitutional heritage
Menzies would undoubtedly have agreed that the essence of our constitutional heritage is well summarised in the Preamble to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. This recites the fact that the Australian people in each of the several states, "humbly relying on the blessings of Almighty God", had agreed to unite in "one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown" and under the constitution.
A return to the original intention of the Constitution would bring to an end the states' addiction, their unaccountable dependence on Canberra. Why is that important or even relevant? Until that is achieved, the states will remain analogous to the young and healthy welfare-dependent - they will be irresponsible and increasingly incompetent.
Unless and until the states become once again accountable to their electorates for the money they obtain, they will be unable to provide the services the people are entitled to expect. By increasing the federal largesse, and handing over the GST revenues, the problem has only been exacerbated. What is happening in New South Wales today is an indication of the direction of the future governance of the states.
Liberals should also be in the forefront in restoring the checks and balances inherent in the Westminster system, in particular in the traditional separation of powers. This means that Liberals should vigorously oppose the introduction of a bill of rights, which would effectively hand the power to legislate to unelected judges, thus corrupting the judges by politicising them.
Liberals know that an independent non-political public service is one of the jewels of the Westminster system. They should do what they failed to do when last in office in Canberra - they should reverse rather than join in the politicisation of the top echelons of the public service.
At the same time they should reduce judicial supervision of public service and executive decision-making. This has reached the point where too many government decisions are now being replaced by the decisions of unelected judicial officers. There is a place for review, but not as wide as it now is.
A courageous party will offer policies that the rank and file will immediately recognise as restoring governance to the high standards that once prevailed and leaving the people to decide on such matters, which are no business of government.- Professor David Flint AM is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and Australian Broadcasting Authority. This article is an edited extract from Professor Flint's chapter in Peter van Onselen (ed.), Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead (Melbourne University Press). RRP: $37.00.