The 2015 Liberal leadership challenge saw the champion of the conservative wing of the party defeated by the most prominent liberal. The Minister of Defence and veteran of the Howard government Kevin Andrews stood for the position of deputy with no prospect of victory but to demonstrate the existence of a strong conservative core in the party of Robert Menzies.
Kevin Andrews is not a well-known face in Australian public life but he has been around for as long as Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten. More often than not, what little people know about him is usually associated with his strong Christian conservative views on marriage, abortion, and euthanasia.
Craig Emerson once described Kevin Andrews as the Liberal Party's chief policy architect. The Guardian columnist David Marr in 2013 disparaged Tony Abbott's decision to include Andrews in his cabinet as Minister of Social Services, one of the most complicated portfolios. Michelle Grattan described him as 'modest' and a 'bit of a loner'.
Andrews became the intellectual champion for the Liberal Party's renewed commitment to economic liberalism and industrial relations reform. And it is these issues that have most defined Andrews' experience in government. The counterintuitive thing about Andrews is that the public emphasis on his socially conservative positons goes wholly against what he has achieved in politics.
His focus has been on economics where he drove workplace reforms, advocated in favour of immigration, established the Australian Building and Construction Commission and proposed an extensive simplification of the welfare system. When it comes to social and moral issues Andrews was not only not successful but he rarely made any push to change laws in favour of a conservative ethos.
Andrews is often mischaracterised as being opposed to the social and economic agenda of the Australian Labor Party. Andrews' actions in government demonstrate that he has absorbed much of the neoclassical economic revolution that drove the economic reforms of the 1980s.
This demonstrates the essential mistake made by critics of Kevin Andrews, they essentialise a socially conservative agenda that hasn't eventuated as the most telling description of the man and his impact.
Paul Keating deviated from much of his own party by recognizing the un-competitiveness and unviability of Australia's large industrial units, where trade unions were prime placed to maximise support from employees. Andrews likewise did not see a sure future in these sorts of industries and favoured more competitive smaller scale operations that were more individually driven and more profit conscious. The Pauline Hanson faction was noted mostly for its racial and communitarian rhetoric but it's largely forgotten that it shared much in common with the anti-economic rationalism of the DLP.
Something that distracts from the substantive record of Andrews is the conflation of his beliefs and those like him with rather dubious external forces. In article after article decrying the conservative faction of the Coalition, political commentators draw specious comparisons with the American Christian right and its relationship with the Republican Party. This also occurs in conversations about conservatism in Canada and the United Kingdom.
We have seen this with references to the Tea Party in Australian politics with figures like Mike Secombe declaring that the 'far-right' of the Liberal Party is effectively an Australian Tea Party. The Tea Party is a coalition of Republican conservatives who have organised so effectively that they shifted the GOP to the right and created a running battle for scores of primary contests that have seen masses of moderate Republicans replaced by more conservative challengers. Now none of that has occurred on the right of Australian politics. But it suits the agenda of certain non-conservative commentators to cast politicians with whom they disagree as equivalents of extreme and ludicrous figures in the United States.
Kevin Andrews does not oppose immigration or the provision of state benefits to recent arrivals. He merely wants to lessen the amount in total. Unlike in America, government provided healthcare is a long established part of Australia and no one is calling for its abolition or even serious reductions in healthcare spending. Extending tax concessions to private insurance providers is one thing but it is not the same as the scrapping of Medicare. The American populist right is strongly in favour of access to guns and the socially conservative Lyons Forum supported tougher gun laws. And if Secombe sees an equivalent of the anti-abortion, pro-creationist, anti-immigration rhetoric of the Tea Party and Christian right in Australia he has yet to point out where this has overturned the present consensus.
In his maiden speech to parliament after his election in 1991 Andrews emphasizes the scourge of unemployment and the underperforming economic conditions of the time but little if anything on moral issues. Tellingly he affirms the free trade agenda of the government of the day and the importance of Asia to Australia's economic future. By comparison ultra-conservative figures in the United States tend to be hostile to free trade and strengthening economic partnerships with Asia.
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