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Real liberals search in vain for a political party to call their own

Date

Michael Cornish

As the Liberal Party adopts more conservative policies, the modern social and economic liberal now has no one to vote for.

I am a liberal. I have always been a liberal. Just not necessarily a Liberal with a big "L". In fact, as a small "l" liberal, I could not bring myself to vote for an illiberal-looking Abbott-led Liberal party. My faith in a liberal Liberal Party has been further dented by the recent - now infamously regressive and inequitable - budget.  

The modern social and economic liberal now has no one to vote for.

Increasingly it appears that the Liberals now stand for a conservatism that has deserted its long-standing allegiance to liberalism and equality of opportunity for all. 

The Labor Party is schizophrenic on liberalism. Since it gave its trailblazing support for a moderated economic rationalism under Hawke and Keating, the party still backslides on the successful model of regulated, free-market capitalism, occasionally giving off whiffs of protectionism and dabbling in corporate welfare. Parts of the party still represent the vestiges of that conservative working-class mindset that wants to filter the internet, that rejects compassion for refugees out of the fear of job-stealing hordes, and is suspicious of all-too-modern notions of marriage equality. The Labor Party is neither fully socially nor economically progressive.

The Greens set a squarely liberal tone on social and environmental issues, but has a proclivity for a retro, central-planning style economics. The Palmer United Party represents a person rather than an ideology, so is yet to be a serious political choice. So where is the party with both liberal social and economic policies?

Of course, the Liberal Party has always had its conservative wing. John Howard famously declared that he “was the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had.” However, even Menzies - who created the party and has been held out ever since as the conservative defender of an Australia that sees itself as an outpost of the British Empire - even he never described himself as a conservative, and was steeped instead in the British liberal tradition of John Stuart Mills and Jeremy Bentham.

But what does it mean to be a liberal? It means erring on the side of caution when considering how far government control should extend over the lives of its citizens. It promotes meritocracy and enterprise.  However, a liberal also understands that the provision of tax-funded public goods - infrastructure, education, health, and a social safety net for those who need it - is an investment not in society as some abstract concept but an investment into a vast collection of individuals. Being a liberal is about empowering the individual, but not at the expense of other individuals. It means desiring a market economy, but not a market society.

So where has this liberal Liberal Party gone, and what has Tony Abbott replaced it with? The Liberals are still full of hard-working parliamentarians who believe in a better Australia, so caustic one-liners like ‘in the pocket of business’ do not do the party justice. But increasingly it appears that the Liberals now stand for a conservatism that has deserted its long-standing allegiance to liberalism and equality of opportunity for all. It appears to have discarded the recognition that in order to empower those individuals who seek to succeed, you must put up with the unfortunate necessity of a few dole-bludgers.

Let us hope that the party can reclaim its own title. It is not too late. And the name helps. As David Marr once wrote, “it’s just too confusing to tell people to despise liberals and vote Liberal.” Time for the Liberals to put the liberal back into their own party.

Michael Cornish is a Visiting Lecturer at both the School of Economics and School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide.

7 comments so far

  • "The Liberals are still full of hard-working parliamentarians who believe in a better Australia,"

    This may be so, but these 'moderate' liberals are still going along with the extreme inequities championed by an "illiberal-looking Abbott-led Liberal party." It seems that any values they believe in have been traded off for a pay packet.

    Commenter
    comment
    Date and time
    June 18, 2014, 7:06AM
    • Having grown up in a liberal Liberal family, with various family members involved in the creation of the Liberal party, I am dismayed at the direction Howard and Abbott, amongst others, have led the party. There is no way I can vote for them, and their extreme conservative views and policies.

      I would love to see the creation of a liberal, not conservative, party

      Commenter
      Jans
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 11:12AM
      • Has the Liberal party breached the Trade Practices Act via their false advertising? Clearly they are are not liberal, they are just conservatives pretending to be liberal.

        Is it time for the Coalition to be made of three parties, the Liberals, the Nationals, and the Real liberals. I know who I'd vote for.

        Commenter
        Cynic
        Date and time
        June 18, 2014, 12:04PM
        • Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.

          Commenter
          Maiya
          Date and time
          June 18, 2014, 1:56PM
          • I fully agree that the Liberal party is far from liberal in their thinking, but this is not new to any observer and therefore why is it suddenly topical?
            I wonder why 'journalism' goes through phases where nothing is analysed and just cliques written, to suddenly having journalists writing pieces like this, the NBN is now being more professionally understood and analysed, climate change seems to be losing the 50:50 bias the press maintained, until recently.

            Commenter
            Ray
            Date and time
            June 18, 2014, 2:20PM
            • As a swinging voter over the years I have voted both labor and liberal depending upon the policies of the day.

              The ideological right wing stupidity of the current coalition, epitomised by the incompetent and socially unfair budget, also leaves me with no voting choice.

              I will never vote for a party who shows all the signs of tearing up the Australian social contract and seemingly wants to drive this country towards the US social outcome of 50 million living in poverty.

              Commenter
              Jasa380
              Date and time
              June 18, 2014, 5:31PM
              • If people like Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer can start their own parties why not Malcolm Turnbull or others with true liberal values? From talking to people from all backgrounds I hear the depth of antipathy to Abbott and his Hard Right colleagues. But no matter how bad the polls get for Abbott, the Liberal Party won't consider Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership again. I am a Liberal voter but can not vote for the present Party. Nor can I consider voting for the moribund Labor Party. Australia is in desperate need of a third way. I think the electorate is desperate for leadership not ideologues.

                Commenter
                JHB
                Date and time
                June 18, 2014, 9:51PM

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