Do you even liberalism?!

(Or, being a small-l liberal in Australia and having to explain what that means is getting old)


I’ve been debating a bunch of people lately on the internet, where all errors of fact and history are settled in an you never see anyone resort to sound-bytes or name-calling. Ever.

Confusion has sprung up among middle class Labor voters about my ideology. Now, middle-class, educated Labor voters are clearly intellectuals, because they vote for the Labor brand Party against their perceived self interest and because they want their friends to know they’re intellectual and compassionate are interested in wealth redistribution and a fair go for workers.

They are intellectuals who would never debase themselves by voting for the Liberal Party, who favour the interests of rich, white and hetero crowd in Australia.

The above is completely a pisstake on the absolutism of people wholike to posture as politically savvy commentators without really looking deeper than the surface of an issue or policy. If I say that they’re voting for Labor because they don’t understand politics but want to make a choice that will look good to their friends, why, that’s outrageous! If you suggest that the Labor party is a party of union thug socialists, that’s also outrageous. Yet saying voting Liberal is something only stupid, duped people who are racist do… perfectly acceptable. Something’s missing in the discourse. Thinking, for one.

I am a liberal. The intellectual left-wing set, swaggering with their tight jeans and designer sunglasses (proletarian as fuck, bra), assume I’m just saying Liberal or conservative. The conservatives, dressed like window mannequins from a Polo store, greet me as their own. I’m not left or right wing and it’s a shame people don’t know better. But, to be fair, if you don’t know what liberalism is, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Firstly, what is liberalism? I’m going to defer to Wikipedia on this – don’t worry, I’ve got two degrees in political science and I’ve done actual lab tests to confirm that it’s accurate. Trust me, I’m a (political) scientist!

Liberalism is:

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis)[1] is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality.[2][3] Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and private property

Right away, there’s elements many of you probably identify with, and elements you don’t. Most of it, in fact, right down to free trade and publicly, at least, private property. In that you wear vintage Marxist brand views on property but if push came to shove, you’re as capitalist as they come. (Don’t worry. I am too. )

Liberalism, as an ideology, owes its roots to Enlightenment theory and in the Anglosphere at least, has been hugely influential in the UK and US in particular. If you look at the core ideologies of the two parties in the US, both of them are fundamentally liberal. They disagree about elements and the Democrats now show an influence of JS Mill’s later works, in response to socialism. But the US tradition is fiercely independent and it’s why socialism or trades unionism never really took off there.

Australia shares the UK’s history of socialism and conservatism (post WWII, Australia was proto-socialist for about 5 years) but our liberal tradition is much, much weaker. The UK retained that liberal tradition – Locke, (who has the excellent birthday of August 29) and Adam Smith both heavily influenced the Whigs; and if you were to swing a stick in a room full of liberal philosophers from history you’d probably hit an Englishmen. Oh, and of course there’s the Liberal-Democrats in today’s world.

Firstly, in our context, you could look to Federation but the trouble began with the name Menzies gave his party in 1945. The Liberal Party. Being in opposition to the socialist Labor party, the Liberal Party was a “broad church” that included conservatives and liberals both. Robert Menzies, in his last address to Parliament, said:

“As the etymology of our name ‘Liberal’ indicates, we have stood for freedom. We have realised that men and women are not just ciphers in a calculation, but are individual human beings whose individual welfare and development must be the main concern of government … We have learned that the right answer is to set the individual free, to aim at equality of opportunity, to protect the individual against oppression, to create a society in which rights and duties are recognised and made effective.

A noble sentiment, but Menzies was as much influenced by conservative stalwart Edmund Burke as much as anything else. So… mostly but not completely accurate.

It wasn’t until Don Chipp, a South Australian Liberal, quit the party and started the Australian Democrats, with the mandate of “keeping the bastards honest”, that we got a true liberal party.

By way of background; I became affiliated with the Democrats back in about 1995 or 1996, and joined the party the first year I started at Macquarie University in 1998. I loved their agenda and their beliefs, and liberalism has stuck with me for years for damned good reason. It’s s-m-r-t.

The Democrats are a spent force in politics now, and the main reason for this can be discovered by discreetly pointing at former icon Natasha Stott-Despoja when she’s not looking. Meg Lees had the right of it when, as leader, she worked with the Howard Government to shape the GST legislation. Howard got a mandate for the GST in the ’98 election and it was the duty of the Democrats to not only honour the mandate, but ensure the legislation that passed was fair, robust and suited the needs of business and the community. The Democrats split between the centre and the left, and the left faction took over from Lees in leadership. This ideological shift, from liberalism to soft left activism, left the party not only out of touch with it’s core supporters but filling an unwanted niche between Labor (a more established, pissweak on the left-wing flavour, party) and the Greens (proper left, and if you’re going to vote for radical ideas you don’t do it in half-measures). By 2007, the Democrats were a memory.

So, what would a liberal today do, vote-wise? It’s pretty awful. You end up finding the closest set of beliefs to yours and regardless of whether you feel comfortable voting ALP or Liberal, you’re going to have to put up with a lot of bullshit. Both from an electorate that’s not nearly as politically savvy as it thinks; and from the side you picked when they do something idiotic. Which they will do.

The Economist, which is a bastion of liberal thought (note: some people, like the idiot/s who put up that “don’t be a fucking idiot on Saturday” flyer, think the Economist is right wing. Incorrect. Idiots believe this; smart people are above that. WHAT ARE YOU GONNA BE, HUH?), said the following two quotes which are relevant. One is about their ideology, the other is about which party they most align with in Australia:

1) “What, besides free trade and free markets, does The Economist believe in? “It is to the Radicals that The Economist still likes to think of itself as belonging. The extreme centre is the paper’s historical position“. That is as true today as when former Economist editor Geoffrey Crowther said it in 1955. The Economist considers itself the enemy of privilege, pomposity and predictability. It has backed conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In foreign affairs it once, under Emmott’s editorship declared itself openly “Americanophile”, and it long supported the Americans in Vietnam, as it supported the later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in their time it also endorsed Harold Wilson and Bill Clinton, and it has long espoused a variety of liberal causes: opposing capital punishment from its earliest days, while favouring penal reform and decolonisation, as well as—more recently—gun control and gay marriage.

– Economist, “About Us”, 1 May 2011

2) “Of the country’s two main parties, the Liberal Party, now in opposition in a Liberal-National coalition, is the natural home of The Economist’s vote: a centre-right party with a tradition of being pro-business and against big government. But the coalition’s leader, Tony Abbott, does not seem an instinctive fan of markets… His social conservatism does not appeal to us”

– Economist, “Australia’s Election: Lucky No More”, 31 August 2013

The Economist, by the way, endorsed Rudd for another term. They have supported Labor and Liberal, Democratic and Republic, and Labour and Conservative governments at election time. Calling them right wing is wonderfully stupid and immodestly ignorant.

Given this, why then am I voting liberal? I don’t like the Coalition’s conservatism. My previous blog entries, on both gay marriage and on “non-issues”, show a disdain for socially conservative viewpoints. I’m not religious, and align most with Christopher Hitchen’s views that religion was once necessary but isn’t anymore. I dislike the arrogance of Richard Dawkin’s atheism and the pretentious “brights” comments. I am in favour of free trade, globalisation, and deregulation. I believe liberal economics is what will cure poverty and I think in time the market, not the state, will be the most effective force in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I support liberalising abortion and euthanasia. I firmly oppose capital punishment (the state does not give life, therefore it cannot take it away as it does liberty). Investing in education makes sense, even if it means partnering with the private sector. Private education is as crucial as public education.

But above all;

Over one’s mind and over one’s body the individual is sovereign” – JS Mill.

So why do I vote Liberal? Because whilst the left wing of the Liberal Party and the right wing of Labor could claim common ground on most if not all of the above beliefs, Labor does not share my core tenet that “Over one’s mind and over one’s body the individual is sovereign.” Labor is instinctively and structurally collectivist and on those grounds I will struggle to vote for them.

Honestly, though… do we not need, now more than ever, a true liberal party in Australia?


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