Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Another new conservatism

It's not uncommon to find thinkers within the Australian Liberal Party who want to create a fusion between liberalism and conservatism.

The former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, is one such figure within the Liberal Party who has argued for such a fusion. In his book Common Ground he claims first that,

As its name implies, ours is a liberal government holding liberal principles.

He then sets out a typically right-liberal view of liberal principles, in which the market is held to be a better regulator of society than the state. He rejects the idea that "because something is considered desirable it should be provided by the state", preferring that it be provided "by voluntary action on the part of individuals joining freely together, and by the mechanism of the market".

So, if Mr Fraser believes in right-liberal "principles and values", what role is left for conservatism? His answer is significant. He explains that,

I have stressed the commitment of the Government to liberal principles and values. Precisely because of that commitment it is also concerned to conserve and protect those principles and values.

Once liberal institutions are installed in a society, a government which wishes to preserve them must in some sense be conservative.

Note carefully the meaning of this. Mr Fraser is saying that if liberalism wasn't the established orthodoxy it wouldn't be a conservative movement at all. It's only "conservative" in the sense that the liberal status quo needs to be preserved.

In exactly what way can conservatism help to sustain liberal values? Mr Fraser gives this highly revealing answer. He talks of a "new conservatism" which,

is concerned to ensure that while the enterprise of those who initiate desired change is encouraged, those who suffer loss as a result of it - either materially or spiritually - are given some protection and help to adjust to the new circumstances.

Think about what Mr Fraser is arguing here. He is saying that liberals must be encouraged to initiate change, even though people will suffer a spiritual loss because of that change. The role of conservatism, for Mr Fraser, is to help people "adjust" to a spiritual impoverishment brought about by such "desired change".

Mr Fraser's fusion of conservatism and liberalism, therefore, is coherent, but only because conservatism has been relegated to a keeper of order and stability for a liberal establishment. In no way is Mr Fraser's conservatism allowed to establish its own values and principles. Mr Fraser's conservatism is not even able to inform him that a change which brings about a spiritual loss ought not to be desired.

A more recent attempt to fuse liberalism and conservatism was made last week by the federal Minister for Health, Tony Abbott. Mr Abbott is at the most conservative end of the current Liberal Government. In a speech to the Young Liberals he defended the conservative credentials of Prime Minister Howard.

Mr Abbott endorsed in his speech the idea of a fusion of liberalism and conservatism. He said,

Howard has often referred to the Liberal Party as a "broad church", which included the intellectual descendants of Edmund Burke as well as those of John Stuart Mill. This is far from an uneasy stand-off or messy compromise...

However, it has to be said that Mr Abbott doesn't attempt to fuse the two philosophies in the same way as Mr Fraser. Unlike Mr Fraser, Mr Abbott does allow a place for conservative values and principles within his liberal/conservative fusion. He describes some aspects of a principled conservatism quite well. For instance he writes that,

Conservatism is inclined to be inarticulate, at least about politics. There are no conservative utopias, no abstract models for political zealots to inflict upon the real world. Still, the conservative instinct to cherish home and hearth, to protect kith and kin and to ponder the higher things is hard-wired into human nature.

Similarly, he praised Mr Howard for understanding,

that ideas are important in politics but so are the bonds of solidarity and belonging that should exist between all the members of a successful society. Howard has always appreciated the importance of the communities in which the individual finds meaning, the context without which an individual can hardly exist.

Another good quote is Mr Abbott's description of a "mainstay" of conservatism being "respect for traditional values and institutions and consciousness of the 'ties that bind'."

So, you would think from this that a genuine conservatism has found a place within Mr Abbott's politics. Think again! When we get to practical outcomes it turns out that Mr Abbott sees the role of conservatism in a very similar way to Mr Fraser.

According to Mr Abbott, the Prime Minister's achievement has been to "massage away" a "fear of Asia", and a "mistrust of difference" so that the "new conservatives" he is leading "no longer feel threatened by diversity and think the extended family is a good metaphor for contemporary Australia."

So here again we have talk of a "new conservatism", the primary task of which is to adjust people to liberally "desired" change, namely the displacement of an existing population and its culture by mass immigration and multiculturalism.

At least Mr Fraser's attempt to fuse liberalism and conservatism was logically coherent. Mr Abbott makes conservatism more important in theory than Mr Fraser, but then completely fails to connect it to reality.

In what way is mass immigration and multiculturalism an attempt to protect "kith and kin" or "bonds of solidarity and belonging" or "communities in which the individual finds meaning" or "ties that bind".

Mass immigration can only overthrow these things. If you think that the community you live in will change in its very ethnic composition at least once or twice in your own lifetime, you will not find a deep and meaningful attachment within it.

So Mr Abbott's fusion of conservatism and liberalism is a failure. He asserts a conservative theory and a liberal programme and simply fails to connect the two. The result is that his conservative theory, no matter how eloquently he describes it, becomes a dead letter.

The moral? We need to be crystal clear that our role as conservatives is not to uphold liberal outcomes. Our role is not to "massage away" or "adjust people" to the less palatable consequences of liberalism, nor is it to maintain the stability and order of a liberal society.

Our goal is not fusion with liberalism, but its defeat.

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