Thanks to the Australian, we have full access to Senator George Brandis’s excellent speech “We Believe: The Liberal Party and the liberal cause”, delivered at the 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture in Melbourne on October 22.
Though I urge you to go read the full speech, Brandis is perhaps at his best when he takes aim at the way liberalism was mishandled under John Howard:
John Howard did not see the Liberal Party as simply the custodian of the liberal cause. For Howard, it was as much a conservative party as a liberal party - indeed, with the passage of time, rather more the former than the latter … Now Deakin would never have said that, and Menzies never did. The “two traditions” theory was a specific contribution of John Howard’s. In diminishing the centrality of liberalism to the Liberal Party’s belief system, and balancing it against conservatism; in qualifying the Liberal Party’s commitment to the freedom of the individual as its core value, and weighing it against what he often called social cohesion, Howard made a profound departure from the tradition of Deakin and Menzies.
Brandis goes to great lengths to show the critical importance of liberalism to Deakin and Menzies. However, while philosophically he is right, these two men both made the same practical choice of binding their liberal instinct into a general anti-Labor party that created Howard’s broad church approach.
In many ways, both Brandis and Howard are right. By 1909 Deakin, wearied and bloodied after a decade leading the continent realised that his middle liberal way was being trampled by the adolescent Labor party, and the aristocratic conservatives. His personal philosophy was much closer to Labor, but he could not abide their caucus control, and so chose to make peace with the conservatives and form a party “Fusion” between the two anti-Labor forces.
This was a practical choice to ensure the survival of his MPs, but sacrificing the dominant position of liberalism on the anti-Labor side to a more generic mix. Menzies likewise made a similar choice, knowing that a coalition was the only way to ensure they could keep Labor from power.
It is this practical history that Howard claims informs the modern Liberal party. Yet the Liberal party would be nothing if it was stripped of its liberal elements. Even Tony Abbott in his conservative manifesto Battlelines can’t help himself from repeating many liberal ideas without seeming to notice the contradictions to his professed conservatism. Liberalism is the party’s soul; it is as Brandis argues, the cause of its proud history.
In every age, whenever liberalism and conservatism have come into contention, the victory of liberalism has enlarged the freedom of the individual, which later generations of conservatives have then joined with them in striving to defend. But every time, it was the Liberals who were the animating spirit.
No fair analyst of the Liberal party could disagree with this claim. Menzies may have held on to power a long time, in part due to conservative scaremongering, but winning power is not the same as using it, and Menzies books (Afternoon Light, Speech is of Time, Measure of the Years) all play up and look back favourably on his liberal actions, guiltily ignoring his more conservative indulgences* in the name of electoral success.
Menzies is also an interesting Liberal due to his rather Millian take on why freedom is important. Modern Liberals seem to see freedom as an end in itself, and while it is, Liberalism has a second reason for wanting as much individual freedom as possible. From the grandfather of Liberalism, J.S. Mill (again via Brandis’s speech):
It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation.
That is, freedom’s greatest reward is that it enables individuals to improve and develop themselves, to build their talents and skills, to flesh out and give style to their character. To become who they are, rather than who society might like them to be.
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