Conservatives leave door open to progressive change

Opinion Article

2018 March, 9

There is truth in conservatism. Not the narrow preservation of inherited wealth but the importance of inherited social, cultural and religious institutions and traditions. 

Edmund Burke’s preference for the “small platoons” of society and our responsibilities to dead ancestors and unborn descendants is foundational. Conservatism speaks to our memory as peoples and cultures and lifts us out of our mundane material existence, offering answers to humankind’s great questions and life’s meaning. 

Ever since, as a 14-year-old, I embarked on a political letter-writing campaign from my Brisbane boarding school against the decision of the Hope Vale show committee to turn our annual show day, with its wide variety of events and activities for non-cowboys into exclusively a rodeo, I - realised the importance of conservatism. I had been a silent participant in the show committee’s Wednesday evening proceedings since I first accompanied my father as a small boy. I know small platoons. Alas, I lost the battle. 

There is truth in liberalism. Not remorseless, self-interested Institute of Public Affairs-style libertarianism, but because Adam Smith’s explanations of the driving engine of self-regard and the invisible hand of the market in Wealth of Nations, read together with his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, provide the best policy for the arrangement of modern societies. Markets sometimes fail but there is no denying the liberals’ argument in relation to their organising power. 

There is truth in socialism. Not because state control of the economy is correct or the welfare state an unqualified good but because redistribution of opportunity is fundamental to a good society. Redistribution will always be surer than philanthropy, and the means by which modern civilisations are built and sustained. At the same time the welfare state produces a class of statists who commandeer public institutions and resist much-needed reforms. 

Good societies are never exclusively conservative, liberal or socialist. Instead, they are an amalgam of each. Most individuals come to view themselves as harbouring one of these philosophical and political proclivities, but even if you describe yourself as socialist, you may harbour conservative instincts. Remember the traditional working class. Or if you are a liberal, you still support social opportunity. The Howard-Costello governments, while skewing favour to the middle class, were nevertheless great redistributors. 

Politics often means we end up reducing ourselves to one of these identities. Good societies produce the best mix through constant policy and political contestation. 

The other week Paul Kelly wrote a seminal piece about conservatism losing a succession of battles on many fronts (“Barnaby Joyce and the crisis of conservatism in Australia”, February 21). His argument in the wake of the Turnbull-Barnaby fracas was bracing: “This is an insight into the crisis of Australian conservatism. Where are its leaders? Where is its moral force? What happened to its institutional authority? Conservatives these days excel at drum-beating, making a lot of noise, writing a lot of articles and losing every substantial battle. They are fragmented, intellectually confused and strategically inept. Much of the nation is still conservative in its instincts but this constituency is denied inspiring or effective leadership.” 

He cites conservative losses on same-sex marriage; impending losses on religious freedom and euthanasia; defensiveness on coal, climate change, “gender politics” and “Western civilisation heritage”. One might think the latter fear so all-encompassing as to amount to the sky falling in, but there is indeed a Centre for Western Civilisation under development as we speak — the brainchild of Tony Abbott, who recently pointed out the importance of “for” in the title of the new centre. 

Putting aside hysteria, Kelly is right that conservatism is on the backfoot. My argument is conservative leaders and their followers have themselves to blame for their predicaments. They have set up their own reversals. 

They have done this by failing to maintain the distinction between genuine conservatism and bigotry and prejudice. There is such a thing as compassionate conservatism, but it has been overshadowed by a meanness in public conservatism, as if intolerance and offence-giving is a mark of courage and principle. Here I have in mind the contrast between someone like Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle. While Blainey was wrong about the “black armband” view of history, he is a world away from the incendiary polemic of Windschuttle. Christopher Pearson once pointed to Windschuttle’s origins in the hard left as the source of his extremism, and he was right. 

Windschuttle, Andrew Bolt, Gary Johns and so many more figures started in the left but after a Damascene conversion to the hard right (usually after their leftist sojourns reached a dead end), wound up more extreme in their views than their new associates. Earning their stripes with over-the-top zeal. Worldwide, this phenomenon played out with neo-conservatives celebrated because their rhetoric and polemic was more combative and effective in the culture wars. Leftists are more able haters than the right. Which is why a communist such as Windschuttle becomes a hero of Australian conservatism in the history wars and his personal history is conveniently erased. Others such as Bolt found a business model. 

In my experience, old-style conservatives are gracious and compassionate, able to insist on their principles without resorting to gratuitous offence and casual prejudice. But this has all changed. 

The second thing that happened is so-called conservatives, while railing against the victimhood of the leftist tribes, are themselves pushing their own victimhood. They want to present themselves as victims deserving of special treatment as much as the left does its various constituencies. As much as they decry the political correctness of the left — which descends into such great absurdities that Jonathan Swift could never have conjured them — they ignore Robert Hughes’s identification of “patriotic correctness” in his 1993 book Culture of Complaint as the right’s own equal and opposite PC. 

Today they decry the “identity politics” of the leftists while implicitly pushing their own liberal, male identity that happens to be Anglo and white. The Centre for Western Civilisation is the apotheosis of this reverse identity politics. 

I tell my mob victimhood is no good for us. How about conservative leaders tell their own mob the same thing? 

And while we’re at it, I will tell my mob of the great value of our Western inheritance. How about Abbott and John Howard tell their mob about the great value of Eastern and Middle Eastern civilisations and, indeed, the civilisation that survived on this continent for 60 millennia? That many civilisations now bequeath to the world great achievements? 

The third aspect of conservatism in Australia that has weakened it is that it has developed a virulent form of obscurantism among its followers: head in the sand, impervious to reason, and a relentless certitude in the correctness of their view. A pestilent irrationality has taken hold of conservative discourse in this country that is highly ideological and resistant to science and reason. Just because the leftists have their own stupidities does not excuse this practice. 

Climate change is the exemplar of obscurantism. Even if aspects of the science are still unclear, climate denialism is now a form of cultish religion for Australian conservatives. Dumb green advocates brought this destructive ideological impasse about, but that does not excuse conservatives abandoning conservatism in relation to the environment. 

Conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton argued in his 2012 book Green Philosophy that conservatives should properly be conservationists. Whatever the arguments we can have about the science, “giving the planet the benefit of the doubt”, as News Corpexecutive chairman Rupert Murdoch once put it, is the proper conservative approach. Conservatives should be the first ones concerned about the obligations we owe our ancestors and our future unborn, and take care of our homes. Green advocates should perhaps read more Scruton than Clive Hamilton. So should so-called conservatives. At least the writing is much better. 

Conservatives let extremists and populist opportunists become their leaders, who are actually reactionary rather than conservative. Like my old mate Abbott, whose concerns are less philosophical than political, driving wedges into the electorate for fleeting advantage. 

And where does this lead?

To defeat, as with same-sex marriage. When Howard was prime minister he did not properly deal with same-sex marriage. Instead he deferred justice by amending the Marriage Act to exclude same-sex marriage, but this did not solve religious freedom. In 2004 Howard made the issue opposition to same-sex marriage when it should have been about ensuring religious freedom. Had Howard distinguished between religious and secular marriage rather than samesex and heterosexual marriage — and allowed freedom of choice for couples and for churches — the 2017 plebiscite would not have been necessary. 

Instead, as Kelly now rues, the question of religious freedom hangs in the balance and conservatives have blundered. 

In relation to euthanasia, Paul Keating’s appeals to Victorian legislators are the most compelling arguments against changing the law. No conservative has come anywhere near Keating’s cogency, based in humanism rather than religious conservatism. Like Kelly, I sense the turning tide and fear a large mistake will be made.

On coal, it was Howard and his minister for resources, Nick Minchin, in respect of climate change, who brought us to where we are today: without effective climate change action and without energy security. Instead of conservatism in relation to climate as well as the economy (protecting the environment requires a strong economy), we have had a vicious ideological war between win-at-all-cost tribes on both sides of the divide. 

And for the advocates of coal who counted their gains when Howard and Minchin ruled, they now face electors in capital cities who increasingly think coal should be eradicated from the energy equation. If this hostility to coal is simplistic and potentially destructive of our energy security, then conservatives brought this about through their failure to properly grapple with climate change. They did this with so-called Liberals, perversely resisting markets for carbon abatement. 

If by inspiring and effective leadership Kelly hopes the latent constituency for conservatism may find a new Howard, then he is mistaken. Howard deferred major crises of conservatism, such as same-sex marriage and religious freedom, climate change and energy security, rather than resolving them. 

In the hubris of ascendancy he secured short-term political wins while kicking too many cans down the road. Howard did this with the republic and the country’s British heritage. As Malcolm Turnbull may have done with indigenous recognition and empowerment. 

By these failures, Australia’s conservative leaders have made conservatism vulnerable to a rising tide of progressive change, not all of which will strike the equilibrium a good society needs.

Conservatives leave door open to progressive change