2009 is a year dense with significant anniversaries. It is 150 years ago that the most important liberal tract of the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, was published in London. (It is also, by the way, the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the colony of Queensland although, sadly, the last time liberalism was in the ascendant in my state was about 120 years ago, during the administration of Sir Samuel Griffith.) It is the centenary of the birth of Isaiah Berlin – arguably the most important liberal thinker of the twentieth century and certainly the one whom I find most congenial. And it is, of course, the centenary of the Fusion of the Protectionist and Free Trade Parties in the Commonwealth Parliament, the event which created the political architecture of non-Labor politics, while internalizing within its unified structure the political fault lines which have defined our side of politics ever since.
Tonight, I want to make some observations about the history, current state and future direction of the political movement which in this country has always, through many twists and turns, ultimately traced its origins to Alfred Deakin. I want, in particular, to talk about the relationship between the Liberal Party and the liberal cause which inspired Deakin, just as it has inspired his successors. In recent years, Deakin’s reputation has suffered something of downward revision as, with the embrace of free market policies in the 1980s, the policy architecture that the Deakinites created during the first decade of the Federation, based on industrial protection, centralized wage fixing, and the other elements of what Paul Kelly famously called “the Australian settlement” has increasingly come to be seen as obsolete. Indeed, it was at a previous Deakin Lecture, on the 24th July 1986, that John Howard delivered the quietus to the Deakinite view of the Australian economy.
Of course, views about public policy change with every generation. While many of the policies for which Deakin and his allies were responsible were the product of an Australia which is now almost unrecognisably distant, his view of liberalism – and of the role of the Liberal Party as the custodian of Australian liberalism – is as modern and urgent today as some of his views about public policy seem obsolete. For to Deakin, as to every other great leader of Australian liberalism, the sovereign idea which inspires our side of politics has always been the same: our belief that the paramount public value is the freedom of the individual. Every leader of the Liberal Party has had his own way of expressing that great and simple idea. Anyone who has heard Malcolm Turnbull speak lately – for instance, at the Menzies Lecture two weeks ago - will remember his formula: we Liberals believe in a society in which every individual is free to do their best. A hundred years ago, Alfred Deakin was saying the same thing, in almost the very same words. This is what he told the House of Representatives on 21 June 1912, in a speech in which he outlined the Liberal Party’s vision for Australia:
“It means the full calling forth of all powers, abilities, qualities and characters of the people of Australia, not their suppression as citizens, not their dressing always in the same garb and being driven along the same road under the same whip. It means no such subjection. But, given fair conditions … within the means of Australia, each of its citizens living his or her own life, and doing the best for himself and herself.”
Whether it be those whom Deakin assembled in 1909 to form the first Commonwealth Liberal Party, or the forgotten people, or the Howard battlers, or the people to whom we reach out today, the essential message has never changed. As Malcolm Turnbull said in his Menzies Lecture, “the one golden thread which shines as bright today as it did in Menzies’ time is that of freedom.”
Whenever a political party goes into Opposition it will naturally, and appropriately, undergo a period of serious reflection about where it went wrong in the past, and where the path to its future lies. There are some who will say – and they have said so recently – that we must be brutally honest with ourselves, that we cannot sweep under the carpet the failings which led to our defeat, and that we must learn the lessons that the electorate has taught us. Others – most commonly, those who were important figures in the defeated Government – will rejoin that we must defend our legacy. Both are right. Opposition is about re-engineering a party’s thinking to address old problems with a fresh mind, as well as addressing new challenges unencumbered by the weight of old prejudices and certitudes. But essential to that is maintaining fidelity to our fundamental beliefs. As we go through that period of introspection, we must never forget one of the most important lessons of political history: that every Australian government is fundamentally different from those of its own political persuasion which went before. The Howard Government was fundamentally different from the Fraser Government – and, in many respects, certainly in economic policy, the better for being so. The Rudd Government is utterly different from the Hawke-Keating Government, which was, in its turn, a very different beast from Whitlam Government. As the Liberal Party examines itself during this period in Opposition, we can be as certain as it is possible to be in politics about one thing: the next Liberal Government will be very different from the Howard Government – and so it should be.
So if we are to be faithful to our legacy then what we should be defending is not merely the achievements of the most recent Liberal government – though defend them, of course, we should - but the entire legacy transmitted to us through the whole of the Australian liberal tradition, from its inception to its most recent expression. And if we are to plot a course for the future which is inspired by our most fundamental beliefs, I believe the most important single thing we must do is renew our commitment to the freedom of the individual, and restore that commitment to the very centre of our political value system: not one among several competing values, but the core value, from which our world view ultimately derives.
Now, Deakin had no difficulty with the notion that the business of the Liberal Party is the advancement of liberalism, and that the central task of liberalism, from which all else follows and upon which all else depends, is to maximize the freedom of the individual. Neither did his political legatee, Menzies. As Sir Paul Hasluck wrote of him,
“Menzies’ political thinking was in accord with the liberalism of Alfred Deakin and the liberalism of late nineteenth century England. … (A)lthough a traditionalist, Menzies was not a conservative in any doctrinal sense. I do not know what part he had in choosing the name ‘Liberal’ for the new party he formed and led but the name would certainly fit his political creed.”
In the second of the Forgotten People broadcasts, Menzies quotes extensively from On Liberty, which he describes as “full of freshness and truth”, and expressly adopts the most famously libertarian of all Mill’s theories - the so-called “self-protection” principle:
“(T)he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. … (T)he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
This, Menzies describes as “a pregnant truth … a good rule, not only of common law but of social morality.”
The Forgotten People speeches capture Menzies’ political soul, and much of his personality. There were, in fact, 37 in the series, and not all were devoted to politics – they extended to topics as diverse as “Sea Power”, “The Drink Problem” and even “The Importance of Cheerfulness”. Such has been their notoriety that they have tended to overshadow other important political testaments, perhaps the most important of which is his last address to the Liberal Party Federal Council in 1964, “Our Liberal Creed”. What is striking about that speech is that, in the afternoon light of his Prime Ministership and seasoned by almost two decades in office, the liberal values it affirms are virtually identical with Menzies’ expression of liberalism a quarter of a century earlier:
“We have been human, with a sense of human destiny and human responsibility. As the etymology of our name ‘Liberal’ indicates, we have stood for freedom. We have realised that men and women are not just ciphers in a calculation, but are individual human beings whose individual welfare and development must be the main concern of government … We have learned that the right answer is to set the individual free, to aim at equality of opportunity, to protect the individual against oppression, to create a society in which rights and duties are recognized and made effective.”
One of the keys to grasping the Menzian conception of liberalism is that he did not view the Liberal Party as a conservative party. Never once, in a lifetime of speeches, did he use the word because, while reverent in his respect for tradition, he did not see himself as a conservative. Although he had no time for what the British Liberal Party had become, unquestionably, as Hasluck points out, Menzies drew his political inspiration from the liberalism of nineteenth century England, and very much saw himself as a philosophical legatee of Gladstone (in whose honour Menzies’ older brother, Frank Gladstone Menzies, was named). In this, he was of a mind with Deakin, who had written “we are liberal always, radical often and never reactionary.” Menzies himself famously wrote of the creation of the Liberal Party, in words which very much echo Deakin’s, “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea.” The final resolution of the Canberra Conference in 1944, which Menzies himself moved and almost certainly drafted, was to establish the Liberal Party as “a federal body representing liberal thought.”
I am at pains to make this point because, over the past twenty years or so, there has been an attempt to dilute the Liberal Party’s commitment to liberalism. This was particularly so during the two periods of John Howard’s leadership. It was during the first of those periods, in 1987, that, faced with a lethal threat to the unity of the non-Labor cause by extreme conservative elements from Queensland (the more things change, the more they stay the same), then rallying under the banner of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, he declared “I am the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had” – a proposition which, I think, is true. The departure from the Liberal Party’s traditional liberal orthodoxy which Howard authored was little appreciated at the time – although a small number of us, including Tom Harley and me, sensing the changing direction of the party, formed a group called Liberal Forum in about 1984 to defend the Party’s liberal heritage. Liberal Forum – colloquially known as “The Black Hand” in consequence of a joke between Tom and me - still exists, principally in New South Wales, where its convenors over the years have included such notable Federal Liberals as Joe Hockey and Marise Payne.
John Howard did not see the Liberal Party as simply the custodian of the liberal cause. For Howard, it was as much a conservative party as a liberal party – indeed, with the passage of time, rather more the former than the latter. Early in his Prime Ministership, when he delivered the Robert Menzies Lecture in 1996, on the topic “The Liberal Tradition”, he said:
“Menzies knew the importance for Australian Liberalism to draw upon both the classical liberal as well as the conservative political traditions. … He believed in a liberal political tradition that encompassed both Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill – a tradition which I have described in contemporary terms as the broad church of Australian Liberalism.”
Although that is an available interpretation of Menzies’ political attitudes, it is not supported by anything that Menzies ever actually said or wrote. The other thing to note about this observation is that Howard regards Mill and Burke as representing different strands of the liberal tradition, rather than different political traditions – a view supported by the fact, often forgotten, that Burke was a Whig.
In the Inaugural Prime Ministers on Prime Ministers Lecture in 1997, the emphasis is somewhat different:
“The Liberal Party of Australia, my Party, is a very special animal amongst centre/right political parties around the world. It is not exclusively a Liberal Party in the European sense of that word, nor is it a Conservative Party, in the European or American definition of that term. It is a combination of both. It is the custodian of the Conservative tradition in Australian politics. It is also the custodian of the progressive Liberal tradition in the Australian polity and although people may think there is something contradictory about that, when you think about it there really isn’t.”
Now Deakin would never have said that, and Menzies never did. The “two traditions” theory was a specific contribution of John Howard’s. In diminishing the centrality of liberalism to the Liberal Party’s belief system, and balancing it against conservatism; in qualifying the Liberal Party’s commitment to the freedom of the individual as its core value, and weighing it against what he often called social cohesion, Howard made a profound departure from the tradition of Deakin and Menzies. Not only did he formalize the Liberal Party’s adoption of conservatism as a philosophical source, he even allocated areas of public policy between conservatism and liberalism: he was an “economic liberal” but a “social conservative” - and, it must be said, the balancing of economic liberalism and social conservatism served the Howard Government well for a time. But this awkward blending of two different systems of values was very much a reflection of John Howard’s own personal values, shared by no other significant Liberal leader. Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton, Malcolm Fraser were all happy to describe themselves simply as liberals. Howard was the first who did not see himself, and was uncomfortable to be seen, purely in the liberal tradition.
Of course, there have always been conservative as well as liberal elements within the Liberal Party – that is part of the legacy of the Fusion. But the Howard Government was the first during which the Party came to describe itself as a conservative party, and conservative social attitudes influenced many – I believe too many – of its policies and attitudes. I do not want to overstate the point. Howard, particularly after he returned to the leadership in 1995, was shrewd enough to give the liberals in the Party – people such as Philip Ruddock, Robert Hill, Amanda Vanstone and, towards the end, Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull – a seat at the table: something he had denied them, to his cost, during his first period of leadership. Nevertheless, they were, and knew themselves to be, a minority in Cabinet.
Recently, Howard’s own political legatee, my friend and colleague Tony Abbott, has taken up the cause of making the Liberal Party more conservative still. In his recent book Battlelines, Tony suggests that outsiders make a mistake about the Liberal Party when “they read too much into its name and assume that it has a doctrinaire commitment to a particular concept of freedom. ... From its beginning, the party has been Liberal in name but not just liberal in nature.” He argues that “there could be a strong case for a merged party at the national level. ‘Liberal National’ might actually be a better description of the party’s overall orientation than simply ‘Liberal’.” It will surprise no one if I tell you that, as the different philosophical approaches of the Liberal Party and the National Party become more evident every day, and having observed at close quarters the consequences of such a merger locally in my own state, a nationwide merger is something against which I would counsel in the strongest possible terms. Consistently with the Howard “broad church” theory, Tony goes on to observe “Perhaps it’s enough to say that in some circumstances freedom and in other circumstances a set of rules is the most effective way to encourage people to be their best selves.” Now not only is this a terrible false antithesis – there is no inconsistency between the values of a liberal polity and the values of the rule of law, indeed a liberal polity depends upon the faithful observance of the rule of law by all, including governments – but it provides no guidance whatever to the resolution of a difficult case, where the freedom of the individual suggests one outcome, and conservative social values, which seek to intrude upon the freedom of the individual, suggest the opposite.
The problem with trying to blend two different political value systems with different philosophical antecedents is that although they may arrive at a common conclusion – and in modern democracies, liberalism and conservatism usually do – they do so by different directions arising from different premises. A liberal is perfectly well able to reconcile the essential question of political philosophy – when must the freedom of the individual yield to the claims of society? – within liberalism’s own frame of reference: following Mill, he will say, when the exercise of the freedom of one individual impedes the freedom of others. Equally, a conservative will also be able to provide a ready – if different – answer to the same dilemma from within conservatism’s own social traditions: he will say, the freedom of the individual must yield to prevailing social attitudes, in which personal freedom is but one but not necessarily the most important value. But when one tries to bring both liberal and conservative values together, there is no anterior or higher common principle, according to which we can determine whether the question is to be decided according to the outcome dictated by liberal values, prioritizing the rights of the individual, or conservative values, preferring the claims of society. Where the rights of individuals come into conflict with the claims of society, according to what set of principles are we to decide which prevails over the other?
In advanced democracies such as Australia, the important differences between liberalism and conservatism tend to be obscured by two things: the inconsistent and often confusing use of language, and the fact that the ultimate conclusions of conservatives and liberals are so often the same.
In the first place, the words “liberal” and “conservative” mean different things to different people. At the time of the Fusion, those who supported the party of Reid and Cook were commonly described as “conservatives”, because they opposed the State interference in economic affairs which was championed by the progressives of the time. Today, for the very same reason, we see them as economic liberals. Deakin, although self-described and historically regarded as a liberal, was the author of protectionist economic policies which were thought progressive (and therefore liberal) in his day, but which, certainly by the 1980s, had come to represent all that was antiquated about the Australian economy, the defence of which was conservatism of the worst sort. Equally, the economic reforms of the Howard Government – the greatest of John Howard’s many achievements – were often decried as conservatism by those on the Left, when in fact they were a triumph of economic liberalism. In the United States, the movement associated with William F Buckley Jr and Irving Kristol which is commonly called “neo-conservatism”, when properly understood reveals itself to be nothing more than a fine, full-throated avowal of the freedom of the individual – in other words, liberalism in the sense we in Australia would use the word – while the contemporary American usage of the word “liberal” is ineradicably bound up with intrusive government, political correctness, and moral relativism. Kevin Rudd may have done more to damage the clarity of language than perhaps any other Australian political leader, but at least he has done it one good service: by popularizing the word “neoliberalism”, he has reminded everyone that the economic reforms of the last 30 years were the product of the liberal, not the conservative tradition.
Aside from the confusion of language, there is a deeper reason why liberalism and conservatism are so often confused. Australia is a successful liberal democracy, its success the fruit of a century dominated by Liberal governments and their precursors. Our public values – personal freedom, toleration of diversity, equality of opportunity, the rule of law – are liberal values. In striving to preserve them, the Liberal Party shares the conservative’s instinctive suspicion of change – but not his reasons. Defence of a liberal society is the defence of liberalism, not conservatism, but in that endeavour, liberals and conservatives will find common cause. This is the point made by F A Hayek in his superb essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, which forms the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, from which I hope I may be forgiven for quoting at length:
“At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty (he was writing in 1959), those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change. … But, though the position I have tried to define is … often described as ‘conservative’, it is very different to that to which this name has been traditionally attached. There is danger in the confused condition which brings the defenders of liberty and the true conservatives together in common opposition to developments which threaten their different ideals equally.
…Let me … state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.
…Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement. But the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still. … (I)t has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions…
The difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that … it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established … but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.”
What Hayek captures in the long passage which I have quoted is the central ethical problem of conservatism: its relativistic nature. As one of conservatism’s most articulate contemporary exponents, Andrew Sullivan, says “We see the world from where we are, and our understanding of the universe is intrinsically rooted in time and place.” The American scholar Samuel P Huntington described conservatism as a “positional ideology” which may be “employed to justify any established social order, no matter where or when it exists, against fundamental challenge to its nature or being … The essence of conservatism is the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.” It was thus possible, as Huntington points out, for conservatism’s most eloquent exponent, Edmund Burke, simultaneously to “defend Whig institutions in England, democratic institutions in America, autocratic institutions in France, and Hindu institutions in India”, because “(h)e was concerned not with the substance of institutions but with their preservation.” Elevating to a virtue its distrust of what it commonly calls dogmatism, and favouring scepticism about social change over the question of the desirability of change, conservatism lacks a set of a priori principles against which to assess the justness of a society; the fitness of its legal, economic and social arrangements; and the direction of reform. Conservatism has a deeply sophisticated, and in many ways attractive, theory of the nature of society but, in its hostility to what Sullivan calls “the arrogant Reason of the Enlightenment”, it lacks the moral clarity to make the most fundamental judgments about right and wrong.
Liberalism, which one of my colleagues recently described as “the Enlightenment’s most authentic political creation”, has such a central guiding principle – respect for the freedom of the individual, his dignity and his autonomy; his right, so far as is consistent with the equal rights of others, to make his own choices and be the architect of his own life. But the essentially ambulatory nature of conservatism means that, while in one era it may share territory with those whose political beliefs spring from a profound respect for the freedom of the individual, in a different place or time it may set its face against those very same values.
In the words of Huntington:
“Just as the aristocrats were the conservatives in Prussia in 1820 and slaveowners were the conservatives in 1850, so the liberals must be the conservatives in America today … In preserving the achievements of American liberalism, American liberals have no recourse but to turn to conservatism.”
And so it is that, while today liberals and conservatives adopt common positions, the very reason that we are now united in defending a society whose fundamental values are liberal is because of the victories liberals won over conservatives in decades and centuries past in the cause of advancing the freedom of the individual.
It rather reminds me of Anthony Trollope’s description of Phineas Finn’s attempt to introduce legislation to protect Irish tenant farmers:
“And now,” said Mr Monk, as he again walked home with Phineas, “the pity is that we are not a bit nearer tenant-right than we were before.”
“But we are nearer to it.”
“In one sense, yes. Such a debate and such a majority will make men think. But no; - think is too high a word; as a rule men don’t think. But it will make them believe there is something in it. Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable; - and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.”
“It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.”
“The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr Monk, - “taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.”
Despite their differences, there is one thing about which liberals and conservatives will always be in agreement: their shared hostility to ideologies which seek to impose a pattern on human conduct, and seek to bend human beings into shape in the service of a determinist theory of history or some rationalist notion of perfectibility. Isaiah Berlin once wrote:
“(T)he goal of life is life itself … (T)o sacrifice the present to some vague and unpredictable future is a form of delusion which leads to the destruction of all that alone is valuable in men and societies – to the gratuitous sacrifice of the flesh and blood of live human beings upon the altar of idealised abstractions.
The purpose of the struggle for liberty is not liberty tomorrow, it is liberty today, the liberty of living individuals with their own individual ends … which are sacred to them. To crush their freedom, their pursuits, to ruin their ends for the sake of some vague felicity in the future which cannot be guaranteed, about which we know nothing, which is simply the product of some enormous metaphysical construction that itself rests upon sand, for which there is no logical, or empirical, or any other rational guarantee – to do that is in the first place blind, because the future is uncertain; and in the second place vicious, because it offends against the only moral values we know; because it tramples on human demands in the name of abstractions … fanatical generalisations, mystical sounds, idolised sets of words.”
Some conservative theorists, however, treat liberalism itself as an ideology which seeks to impose a libretto upon history. This is an error which, for instance, Andrew Sullivan makes when he argues that Marxism, neoconservatism, Hegelianism, Christian fundamentalism and secular liberalism are all alike in assuming that history has, in his words, a meta-narrative. Following Michael Oakeshott, he argues:
“The most essential quality of human history … is contingency. … History is not a process, an unfolding of a single, coherent narrative. It is, rather, a series of countless human events; it is a story of decisions made to act, of choices which can go either way; and could have gone either way – or many ways, none of which can be safely predicted in advance. It is a story of human freedom, of choice in the context of ultimate uncertainty. It has no direction.”
Yet this is no different from what Isaiah Berlin says. The one political philosophy – or ideology, if you will – which is not susceptible to the criticism that it is willing to crush human beings by seeking to impose a pattern upon history, is liberalism. For the very point of liberalism is to maximize the freedom of every individual, to liberate them from whatever threatens their autonomy or inhibits their freedom of choice, whether it be the pattern of existing social customs - which a conservative would generally support - or the patterns in the minds of metaphysicians, utopians and historical determinists - in opposition to which conservatives and liberals unite. And so we come back to the essential flaw of conservatism – its ethical relativism. A conservative, no less than a liberal, is horrified by the thought that human beings might be crushed in the name of an abstraction, yet we often find him indifferent, or even an apologist, when human beings are actually being crushed by an existing political system or social order.
In one of his earliest recorded speeches, “What is Liberalism?”, on 18 March 1895, Deakin answered that question by saying that it is the spirit of liberty, and traced that spirit through the centuries. He reminded his audience that it was liberals who achieved the extension of the suffrage in the great Reform Act of 1832, liberals who championed the emancipation of Roman Catholics two years later, liberals under the banner of Wilberforce who abolished the slave trade. In every case, they did so in the face of conservative opposition. Those famous victories are remote from the modern world. Yet it was within the lifetime of many people in this room that liberals in America passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, in the teeth of conservative resistance, and in the 1970s that liberal opinion across the world, led by a great Australian Liberal, Malcolm Fraser, marshalled the sanctions that saw the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, while conservatives in the Liberal Party fought him tooth and nail. It was liberals who advanced the rights of women, while conservatives resisted; liberals like Petro Georgiou who championed – and who continue to champion – the interests of ethnic minorities, while conservatives resisted; liberals who argued for an end to discrimination against people because of their sexuality, while conservatives resisted. Every one of those reforms extended the bounds of human freedom, gave individual men and women greater autonomy, wider choice, more respect for their dignity. Every one of them was a liberal victory which conservatives opposed at the time, but – at least in most cases – today defend. In the more prosaic area of economic policy, it was when John Howard’s liberalizing instincts were to the forefront that he and Peter Costello achieved the great reforms which will forever distinguish their government, which conservatives in the Labor Party and the trade union movement fought against with all of their might. In every age, whenever liberalism and conservatism have come into contention, the victory of liberalism has enlarged the freedom of the individual, which later generations of conservatives have then joined with them in striving to defend. But every time, it was the liberals who were the animating spirit.
John Howard said “although people may think there is something contradictory” about the Liberal Party embracing both the liberal and conservative traditions, “when you think about it there really isn’t.” Well, there usually isn’t. But there are points of tension when there is and, as we know, in politics it is the points of tension that matter. The points of tension occur when the rights of individuals or minorities come into conflict with existing laws and prevailing social customs. When this occurs – as it did, on occasions, during the Howard Government itself – merely weighing the rights of the individual in a balance against the mainstream attitudes of society is not an adequate response for a liberal. As Mill put it:
“(T)here is … in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation; and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable. The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or fellow citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase.”
It is for liberals to provide that “strong barrier of moral conviction”; to stand between the individual and society and to assert the rights of the individual whenever the pressures, demands or prejudices of the social mainstream would diminish them. That is liberalism’s historic role, and it is that conviction which has animated every liberal reform which has extended the boundaries of human freedom. For as Mill also said:
“It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation. … To give any fair play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity … (W)hatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it be called and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.”
More than 25 years ago, flush with the supreme confidence in our own ability to set the world to rights which is the badge of university students through the ages, Tom Harley and I collaborated with another friend, Don Markwell, to produce a book about the future of the Liberal Party. The book was called Liberals Face the Future, and we introduced it with an essay which began with these words:
“For hundreds of years, men have fought and died for liberal values. Today, Australian liberals are fortunate to live in a society which is relatively congenial to their beliefs. The danger of congeniality is complacency: it is all too easy to take the hard-won achievements of liberalism for granted; all too easy to forget what it is that makes us liberals.”
It is still all too easy to forget what it is that makes us liberals, and in the quarter century that has passed since we wrote those words, the Liberal Party has sometimes forgotten it too. Sometimes - but not, I am glad to say, very often. It is time once again to renew our commitment to that which makes us Liberals. Menzies said it best in five simple words: “We have stood for freedom.” That is our legacy. That is our purpose as a political movement. That, as Malcolm Turnbull put it, is the golden thread of our history. And that is the path to our future.