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Shifting debate on personal freedom spells trouble for Liberals

By Richard Denniss - posted Monday, 26 May 2008

Alcopops, selling kidneys and lasers all point to a wider issue.

They might not know it yet, but the Liberal Party have got more to fear from alcopops, the sale of human kidneys and the regulation of laser pointers than they do from the internal bickering and leadership speculation they are currently enduring.

Should teens have the right to low taxes on alcohol, or should the government intervene to protect them from themselves? Should individuals be free to do what they want with their bodies, including selling their kidneys for $50,000, or does the government know what's best?


Under John Howard, the Liberal Party was able to walk both sides of the philosophical street. On "economic" issues they were opposed to government interference in the individual's "right to choose", but on "social" issues the Liberals seemed comfortable with the idea that government knew best.

The rights of individuals to choose what to buy was seen as sacrosanct, but not so the rights of individuals to choose when to end their own lives, or who they could marry.

This unholy alliance between libertarians and social conservatives could only be held together by a leader as politically skilled, and philosophically flexible, as John Howard - a man who knew how to keep his troops in line. The only new feature of the stoush about what the Liberal Party stands for is that it has become public.

It is far easier for a prime minister to contain such battles than it is for an opposition leader, because governments can deliver while oppositions can only promise.

Mr Howard kept delivering reforms, such as WorkChoices, to keep the libertarians in his party happy, while at the same time resisting pressure to let individuals take more control over their personal lives in order to appease his socially conservative supporters.

From time to time, the contradiction that lay at the heart of the former prime minister's strategy would be revealed.


Cardinal George Pell, while seen as a strong supporter of Mr Howard, was publicly critical of the unfairness of the WorkChoices legislation. Despite most churches expressing concern with the equity impact of IR reforms, Mr Howard no doubt thought he could retain their support if he maintained a "strong stance"' on same-sex marriage and other social issues. The libertarians in his party cringed in silence.

The Liberals will find it much harder to unite their broad church while they are in Opposition for two distinct reasons. First, because all you can deliver in Opposition is words, your members and supporters care much more about them. A prime minister can placate competing groups with different policies, while an opposition leader must invent a language, and a policy agenda, that unites and excites their whole party.

The second challenge is the increasing irrelevance of the "market good, government bad" distinction that has defined the Liberals in recent decades.

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First published in The Age on May 20, 2008.

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About the Author

Dr Richard Denniss is Executive Director of The Australia Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Crawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University.

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All articles by Richard Denniss

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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