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Laboring under delusions about liberalism

By Chris Lewis - posted Friday, 19 November 2010


There are a number of problems with Andrew Leigh's recent article titled "Labor is more liberal than the Liberals.

First, there is Leigh's suggestion that Alfred Deakin's progressive liberalism would find a natural home in the Australian Labor Party if he was around today, and that Howard and Abbott are more in tune with the political philosophy of Edmund Burke than John Stuart Mill. On logic alone, it is impossible (and arguably futile) to predict how past individuals and thinkers would act or write today in a totally different era and context.

Second, and following on from the first point, Leigh offers a version of progressive policies that downplays the reality that many Australians have a different view of just what certain policies should be.

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In other words, just what is termed progressive may vary in different periods. For instance, when Deakin was prime minister government intervention was viewed as being crucial to uphold the national interest, as illustrated by the White Australia policy and industry protection, yet freer trade become more accepted in recent decades.

Similarly, just as demand for social welfare services increased from the 1960s, so most Australians supported the Howard government's effort to encourage mutual obligation for many social welfare recipients.

Sure the Howard government may appear as being obstructive to many causes of importance to the social fabric of the Australian nation, such as reconciliation, refugees, monarchy and multiculturalism, but the Howard government often upheld policies in line with significant public concern.

As many polls indicate from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, many Australians were concerned about the level and type of immigration (preferring skilled immigrants and less family reunion), and wanted greater cultural integration.

In fact, February 1996 AGB McNair and Morgan Gallup polls also indicate that many were attracted to the Coalition because of campaign promises made in relation to health, the environment, welfare fraud, taxation of money earned from savings, immigration, and its declaration that it would maintain Medicare given the widespread popularity of this universal health-care system.

In any case, was the Howard government really that conservative and socially inept given that environmental and social expenditure reached record levels during its four terms, albeit that no one could imply any government's record was perfect?

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OECD data reveals that income inequality in Australia did not worsen between the mid-1980s and mid-2000s, in contrast to the majority of OECD nations, and Australia (2005) remained just one of four OECD nations where the gap in income between the richest and poorest regions was less than double.

And just as immigration numbers to Australia again increased as the economy improved and unemployment declined, Australia retained one of the world's highest per capita immigration inflows between 1997 and 2006. Further, of the 149,000 immigrant arrivals in 2007–08, 65,000 (40 per cent) came from Asia (compared to 25 per cent in 1994-95), along with 8,200 from North Africa and the Middle East and 10,600 from sub-Saharan Africa.

Leigh also suggests that Labor is more liberal in economic terms than the Coalition with his statement that the Coalition's refuses to support market-based mechanisms to address climate change.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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