While the Prime Minister’s performance, and the recent attempted spill motion, has been cause for much chatter about the Liberal Party’s leadership, there is in fact a deeper existential crisis within the party that needs to be explored.
The “Broad Church” of the Liberal Party that John Howard extolled contains two main philosophical traditions; classical liberalism and classical conservatism.
While modern populist political promotion has packaged these two traditions as a coherent philosophy in itself, this is not the case. Up until the global rise of Labour movement in the early 20th century, conservatism and liberalism were opposing forces – the reverence for tradition vs the constant improvement of institutions via merit. The two formed an electoral alliance after World War II to counter the spread of a common enemy of Communism.
But of course, anyone who believes that the enemy of their enemy is their friend has a very superficial outlook on life, and is bound to find themselves in an existential crisis sooner or later.
Which is where the Liberal Party, and similar “fusionist” parties around the world, now find themselves.
The 20th Century and the beginning of 21st has been a period of exponential change for humans; technologically, socially and cultural.
Fuelling this exponential change has been the increased freedom with which humans have had to exchange ideas with each other. As new technologies enhance our ability to communicate, newer technologies are formed. From car to aeroplane, from radio to the internet, to the sum of human knowledge now carried in our pockets.
But as you can see from just these technologies, their arrival also brings massive social and cultural change along with them; greater movement, greater interaction, greater exposure to non-traditional concepts. For those with conservative predilections, who are naturally suspicious of change, this can be uncomfortable, but for liberalism this is taken in stride (“The Left” has its own gripes with modernity, although that is a piece for another time).
Which makes the modern conservative adoption of a classically liberal ideas such as the free market and individual liberty perplexing. It is fair to conclude that the freer the trade (exchange), the greater the change.
In fact it would be suitable to suggest that the free market is cosmopolitanism itself; the ever increasing closeness and overlap of groups and individuals exchanging, embracing, learning from, and morphing their ideas. An awkward prospect for those who value tradition.
The 2009 leadership contest between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott was something a personification of this current existential crisis in the party. While on the surface it was simply a battle between climate “realists” and “deniers” within the party, this forms a proxy for much greater fault-lines.
I would suggest that climate denialism itself is a proxy for an inability to handle a changing world. A cloud for conservatives to yell at due to being distressed with the pace of change with a buffet of global, social and cultural issues. From the decline of the nation-state to the rise of women.
With this exponential change being fuelled by economic and structural liberalism, to advocate these ideas alongside social conservatism and reverence for tradition is not just contradictory, but frankly, masochistic.
During John Howard’s Prime Ministership, he believed promoting “traditional values” and ramping up nationalist sentiment provided people with “points of anchorage” in this era of great change. Yet this advocacy is moving people in two different directions. Clinging to “traditional values” in an era of greater social change, and clinging to the nation in an era of global integration.
There is also a school of thought that suggests by maintaining these two philosophical traditions within the one party it prevents the rise of a far-right party (culturally and economically protectionist) within the country.
Yet these are lazy perspectives to hold; a lack of desire to explain ideas to the public, and a patronising lack of faith in the public’s ability to understand them. It also assumes that certain prejudices cannot be altered through increased knowledge, and instead need to be thrown the occasional bone. Yet these bones have grown increasingly large, undermining the country’s responsibility and reputation.
The public have a sense that there is something amiss in our current major political parties. The drop in major party support is not just due to the adolescence and lack of talent of the major party politicians. It is also due to the package of ideas they espouse no longer representing the public’s worldview.
Jeremy Browne, MP for the UK’s Liberal-Democrats, promotes a holistic and philosophically consistent view he calls “360º Liberalism”, in basic terms; the combination of economic and social liberalism. Presently, he explains, the public throughout the West hold mostly consistent liberal views, they understand the connections. As a result, Labour have embraced the market, and the Tories try to restrain their social and cultural prejudices. Although the party they both now make attempts to mimic haven’t been able to take advantage of this age of liberalism (Browne puts this down to the salesmanship of the Lib-Dems).
Australia, obviously, lacks such a voting option. Bar the maximalist wing of liberalism in our own Liberal-Democrats. Who despite gains, and important public contributions, still cling to romantic dogma distasteful to the general public. Ignoring that most liberal of concepts; rational pragmatism.
Yet, we are not without certain MPs who have an understanding of this holistic view of liberalism. Labor MPs such as Chris Bowen and Andrew Leigh understand the connection between economic liberalism and greater human interaction, understanding, and change. And of course, so does Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull is not “left-wing” as conservatives suspicious of him deride. Any labelling of him as such is simply spite and jealousy for Turnbull’s ability to grasp the outcomes of the liberal economic ideas he advocates.
With Turnbull’s popularity with the public, many within the Liberal Party fear what instead they should embrace; the split of the party itself. This occurrence would free conservatives to abandon the liberal structures that are causing them such grief.
Contrary to what they presently advocate, conservative outcomes would require a far greater role for the defensive, slow moving behemoth that is the state (surely a natural ally of theirs?). Currently, the market (civil society) is well ahead of the state with an issue like gay marriage, opposition to which is a prominent conservative marker. A show such as Modern Family being shown in prime time is both a reflection of society’s values, and an educational tool. The only way to for conservatives to counter this would be through market intervention.
With the Liberal Party’s current leadership problems, and its philosophical tensions, the question needs to be asked: why should this current “team” exist in perpetuity? Fusionism completed its task 1989. It is, like many of those who advocate it, now a relic.
The world has changed substantially in this past quarter of a century, and it is now greatly exposing this conflict within the Liberal Party’s “Broad Church”. While it will take courage and commitment to split the party and realign Australia’s political options, the ground has never been so fertile for such change. I suspect the voting public will be far more forgiving than those in power to whom this split would threaten.
This article originally appeared on The University of Queensland’s Online Opinion site 25/03/2015