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Liberal leadership irrelevant while Labor remains directionless

By Nick Ferrett - posted Friday, 9 May 2003

This journal has just published an article by Greg Barns in which he suggests the end of the Liberal Party in circumstances where Tony Abbott is the leader. He doesn't explain why this might be so - he just says it then points out a whole lot of things about Tony Abbott that he doesn't like.

The Liberal Party includes in its "We Believe" statement the assertion that the class war is a false war. There is another false war which is more publicised than fought in the Liberal Party these days, between the conservatives and the liberals. Greg is one of the antagonists in the false war.

He wrote fairly recently that he departed the Liberal Party to join the Democrats because the Democrats were truly liberal. So liberal that Meg Lees was hounded from the party for expressing a point of view by a committee which operates in a manner not unlike the Stasi. So liberal that they think public policy should be arranged so that members of political parties tell elected representatives what to do regardless of their representative responsibilities.


According to Mr Barns, Abbott's sins are these:

  • he believes there are "job snobs" who decline employment that they regard as beneath them;
  • he believes in right and wrong;
  • he believes that people ought to give something in return for receiving social security;
  • he believes in the free market;
  • he believes that euthanasia is wrong;
  • he believes that mothers should have the option to stay home and look after their kids;
  • he believes in the sanctity of life and the obligation of the state to maintain it.

Which of these is antithetical to liberal thought? The hot-button issue is, of course, euthanasia, but as I have written elsewhere in this journal, opposition to euthanasia is not inconsistent with liberalism. In fact analysis from first principles shows it to be entirely consistent.

Why is a belief in right and wrong bad? Doesn't that question itself show the absurdity of the proposition that a moral compass is a defect in a community leader? Abbott might be a little more right wing that I would like, but his "right-wingedness" doesn't really expose itself in the list of what Mr Barns regards as sins. I have always been on the liberal side of the broad church. I am yet to meet a fellow liberal who doesn't believe in the free market. I am yet to find one that regards mutual obligation as a sin against liberalism.

The mutual obligation doctrine is hardly right wing. We are bombarded with warnings from social commentators of every political flavour about the fragmentation of our community, about the paradox in which greater electronic connectivity can lead to lesser social connectivity. Mutual obligation is important both because the people who have to go to work want to know that their hard earned dollars are being appreciated not just spent and because there is value to be gained by welfare recipients in feeling they have earned what they are given to sustain them. It is hardly illiberal to pursue such a policy. Indeed, Noel Pearson, hardly a right-winger, recognises the damage done by the lack of mutual obligation in the Indigenous community.

That Mr Barns' proposition does not follow from the facts he lays out is obvious, but (as the man on TV says) there's more. The Liberal Party has open to it, if it chooses, the excesses always available to governments which are unchecked by meaningful opposition. The Labor Party has no capacity to seriously challenge the government whoever leads either party.


The Labor Party lacks what a variety of liberals and conservatives provide to the Liberal Party - a moral compass, a sense of direction guided by principle. Its lack is demonstrated by the fact that since Bob Hawke left power, it has failed to take a position of principle on any major public issue with the exception of land rights. Keating opposed the tax reform he himself had wanted. Beazley opposed similar reform for nothing other than political advantage. Beazley went with the Prime Minister on border security because he and his colleagues were too afraid to take the position that they really believed in.

While Labor remains in that morass, the leadership of the government is almost irrelevant.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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