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Should Australia's Liberal Party be more conservative?

By Chris Lewis - posted Tuesday, 14 July 2020

On Line Opinion recently published a piece by Paul Collits which argued that, because centre right parties in Australia do not represent mainstream conservative views, a new conservative force is needed to help "make Australia great again" by "not selling off the farm, putting Australia first, respecting tradition and family values, and pushing back against politically correct madness".

While I agree that conservative voices are crucial to any effective liberal democracy, as part of my longstanding belief that extensive debate must discuss the strengths and weaknesses of all political perspectives, the reality is that there is simply not enough Australian conservatives to warrant their own party in terms of being a political force.

Despite a number of political forces having emerged in Australia in recent decades to represent some policy positions more typical of a conservative outlook, such as One Nation and the Clive Palmer Party, their popularity is often brief and may fade very fast once the major parties address their more justified concerns, or expose their shortcomings.


And, while some disillusioned conservatives were angered by Turnbull replacing Abbott as prime minister in 2015, with some giving their support to other "conservative' parties" (such as Family First, the Australian Liberty Alliance, Fred Nile's Christian Democrats, the Shooters and Fishers Party, and the Australian Conservatives), the Liberal Party remains unchallenged as Australia's major centre-right party.

Consistent with the reality that the Liberal Party continues to remain a "broad church", as acknowledged by John Howard and Tony Abbott, a conservative force will find it extremely difficult to overcome the reality that many Liberals also support progressive policies. This may include a decent social welfare system that requires a higher level of taxation than otherwise would be the case, policies intended to address Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, and a more interventionist approach to the coronavirus to help avoid overloading the medical system and save lives.

With longstanding debate over key issues in Australia's liberal democracy, where many diverse views are expressed from different perspectives, many conservative arguments have become or remain out of touch with majority public opinion. This includes the most recent referendum where a clear majority supported the rights of all Australians to marry, regardless of gender.

Conservatives may disagree with Australia's policy mix, but it may be argued that Australia's economic and social policy mix has produced a far more tolerant and accepting society than makes opposing voices less likely to emerge and/or succeed.

In contrast, the US has much greater income inequality which may ensure that American society continues to bicker over issues such as race, religion and social policy to a greater extent, with a much more volatile social environment increasing the prospect of a more radical conservative leader to emerge, as seen by the rise of the unconventional Donald Trump.

An Australian prime minster is unlike a US president who can devise his own legislation and/or veto Congressional bills, he or she has to negotiate with cabinet and party and then win support in both the House of Representatives and Senate, with the latter often subject to the deciding votes of minor parties.


And, given that most of the 151 House of Representatives at the 2019 federal election were in New South Wales and Victoria with 47 and 38, two of the more progressive states, it was also far more sensible for the Liberal Party to elect Morrison as leader rather than the Queensland conservative Peter Dutton in order for the Coalition to maximise its vote and ultimately win a majority of seats.

Hence, just as the rise of a political renegade like Trump is much more likely in the US because of much greater social division, so the likelihood of a strong conservative leader in Australia is tempered by the need for greater policy consensus due to Australia's political system.

This does not mean that Australia is not capable of policy change towards the right, depending upon the particular context of the day. For instance, increasing assertiveness by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may enhance conservative arguments that challenge Australia's reliance upon freer trade, and/or promote the need for a much more aggressive approach to help counter the CCP's aims which are far removed from any shared commitment to principles associated with liberalism.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, 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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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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