November 18th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Full audit can end dual-citizenship fiasco

CANBERRA OBSERVED High Court high handed to 'foreigners' in Parliament

MANUFACTURING Auto industry loss result of government policy failure

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Financing infrastructure for development and jobs

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the indictments of ex-Trump campaigners

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Beersheba charge enabled a pivotal victory

ECONOMICS China intends to party like it's 1949 ... again

ENVIRONMENT Core of climate science is in the real-world data

U.S. HISTORY Why Americans stick to their guns

MUSIC New styles: Dipping into the melting pot

CINEMA Loving Vincent: A mystery in oils

BOOK REVIEW Just what is the conservative idea?


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Just what is the conservative idea?

News Weekly, November 18, 2017

ABBOTT’S RIGHT: The Conservative Tradition from Menzies to Abbott

by Damien Freeman


Melbourne University Press, Carlton
Paperback: 188 pages
Price: AUD$27.99

Reviewed by Michael Quinlan


Dr Damien Freeman is a visiting scholar at the PM Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University. He studied classical Hebrew and Aramaic, philosophy, and law at the University of Sydney before completing doctoral studies at Cambridge. He enjoyed an interesting legal career which included being tipstaff to the Hon. Mr Justice K. R. Handley AO and private secretary to Lord Brennan QC.

Freeman has written several books and been published in Quadrant, Spectator, Weekend Australian, and The Australian Financial Review. He has also appeared on ABC Radio’s Counterpoint, Weekend Arts, and Between the Lines.

In this short book, Freeman considers the nature of the conservative tradition in Australia, focusing on that tradition as it has been lived out in the Liberal Party of Australia from Menzies to Abbott. The book also includes a short essay in response written by Mr Abbott.

The book is not a detailed history of the Liberal Party but focuses on some of the key aspects of what Freeman considers to constitute the “conservative tradition”. The book is definitely worth reading and makes a good contribution to the topic, but there are some aspects of it that I found a little frustrating: the use of “values” language and the general omission of the Irish contribution to the “conservative tradition” in an Australian context.

Words are important and they can have particular meanings in particular countries. Menzies choice of name for his new party should not be taken to suggest that the party was not intended by its founder to be “conservative”. When the Liberal Party was founded, the term “conservative”, as understood in Australia, would have neither been a good choice nor a good description of the fledgling party. As Hancock explained in 1930: “Conservative is a word which has no currency at all; in Australia it signifies reactionary. Similarly, if a politician declares that he is liberal, his audience will understand that he is by nature conservative.”

The Liberal Party was clearly intended to be an anti-socialist party that was “liberal” (that is, “conservative” in Hancock’s sense) but not reactionary. Freeman uses the Amish as an example of reactionaries. He opines: “To be reactionary is to be opposed to change; to seek to preserve the old ways at all costs or, indeed, even to return to a past way of life that seems preferable to any new way of life that might be on offer in the future.”

Hancock’s understanding of conservative seems still to hold much currency in Australia. It is in that reactionary sense that Tony Abbott is often sneeringly dismissed a conservative. Abbott would reject that.

Freeman quotes him as saying: “I think it was Lord Salisbury who said that change is to be resisted to the last possible moment because change is always for the worse. I prefer Disraeli’s view: that change is to be welcomed provided it’s change that accords with the best customs and the best traditions of our people.”

On another occasion Abbott observed: “The past is to guide us and to inspire us, not to shackle us. That, at any rate, is my idea of true conservatism.”

‘Values’ language obscures

Given the regularity with which politicians refer to “values” – and its usage is as ubiquitous in Australia as it is in North America – it would be nigh impossible to write a book such as this without resorting to the term. Freeman certainly does not resist doing so. The problem with this is that, as George Grant explained: “Values is an obscuring language for morality, used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed.”

Orwell recognised the imprecision of the term and Notre Dame Australia’s Dr Iain Benson seems to be on a personal mission to eradicate its use. Once you are alive to the fact that the term “values” in itself has no content, it becomes annoying to read it in print. Even when it has words like “American”, “Australian”, “Christian”, “Liberal” or “conservative” added to it there remains a gelatinous fluidity to the term. It supports a populist, pragmatic and relativistic approach to politics.

The attraction of the term to politicians is obvious and it can be expedient to them at least in the short term. All members of the Liberal Party respond to references to “Liberal values” (at least when capitalised) and Australians generally respond positively to references to “Australian values”. The phrase Freeman seems to prefer is “values of the Australian tradition”. This at least appears to have some content to the extent to which it is tied to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In my view, at least,  conservatism does not mean that everything is up for grabs but rather it recognises that there are unchangeable principles, the virtues and the natural law, that evil exists, there are actions which are good and actions which are bad, that some actions lead to human flourishing, there are differences between men and women, human life is intrinsically valuable and so on.

When Freeman speak of “values in the Australian tradition” it remains unclear whether he recognises the existence of such benchmarks against which the laws enacted by politicians oughts be judged and from which the goods and goals of human flourishing can be devised. Conservatism recognises that – as anyone who has read Aquinas must surely appreciate –John Howard was right on the money when he said: “A conservative is someone who does not think he is morally superior to his grandfather.”

What seemed to be a hint of recognition of unchangeable, universal goods in Freeman’s discussion of “positive liberty” is eviscerated by his analysis. Freeman correctly observes: “Positive liberty requires that we have an idea of what it is for a person to flourish, and it is the task of government to enable people to flourish in that way even if the people themselves would rather flourish in some other way.”

Troublesome view of ‘positive liberty’

His purported example of positive liberty is, however, deficient. Freeman argues that a supporter of positive liberalism “would support programs in schools helping students to realise their true sexuality and gender identity”. This assumes that children can be “helped” to identify a true (presumably meaning inherent and immutable) sexual orientation and gender identity. Such a view is not borne out by the evidence.

As Mayer and McHugh observe, those who report same-sex attraction as adolescents do not necessarily report that attraction as adults and most children who feel an inclination to identify with the gender other than their biological gender ultimately identify with their biological gender. If that is correct, “support programs” would seem not be at all helpful for most children.

The extent to which Freeman supports governing in the true best interests of the people seems tempered by pragmatism as he eschews any “pure” philosophy and ideology. He writes: “The deepest insight of the conservative is … that you cannot govern by imposing ideas on the people. You have to govern in conformity with the temper of the people. This requires policymakers to adopt the right cast of mind.”

It is not reactionary to recognise the difficulty with this sort of approach. It provides no solid foundation for resisting policies that do not lead to human flourishing, such as redefining marriage, no-fault divorce, liberal drug laws, abortion on demand, euthanasia and experimental treatments of childhood gender dysphoria.

Irish, religious lacunae

No doubt Freeman will gag at the suggestion that his book omits the Irish since it is in large part an ode to the Anglo-Irish 18th-century Protestant statesman, Edmund Burke. However, the Irish impact on the Australian tradition is substantial. It ought to have been recognised, at least, in the section on the republic, where Mr Abbott’s celebration of the Crown and of Australia’s British heritage completely ignores the fact that there is more to the Australian tradition that its British component.

Unlike Roy Williams, who traced the religious influences on Australia’s Prime Ministers in his book, In God They Trust?, religion is not a major focus of Freeman’s book. It would have been interesting to consider the impact of Abbott’s Catholicism on his willingness to embrace Burke’s thought. Burke understood society as a compact between the living, the dead and those yet to be born.

Burke’s approach also resonates with the Catholic tradition: an ancient Church which celebrates and respects the living, the yet to be born and the communion of saints. Certainly the history and success of the Liberal Party is intimately connected with state aid to Catholic schools and to the mainly Catholic anti-communist “Split” in the Australian Labor Party.

Freeman does, however, recognise that in an Australian context at least the Judaeo-Christian tradition is inseparable from conservatism, which is animated by the Western tradition. As he notes: “The habits, standards, practices, rules and moral codes that membership [of religious institutions that promote the Judeo-Christian ethic] endow the world with the very value that is at the core of the Western tradition.”

I would have liked to have seen more recognition of the fact that the history of Australia – and the history of the Liberal Party – is a history of grappling with religious differences, albeit, until recent waves of immigration, in a mostly Christian context. The Australian tradition is a hard fought – and still legislatively (as the postal poll that took place in the absence of any draft legislation comprehensively demonstrated) – underdeveloped tradition of religious tolerance.

The marriage issue

Abbott’s approach to the demands for the redefinition of marriage resonated Burke as he observed: “Of course we can’t shirk our responsibilities to the future; but let’s also respect and appreciate values and institutions that have stood the test of time and pass them on undamaged, when that’s best.”

In contrast, Freeman sees in Abbott’s plebiscite proposal a failure by the Parliament to act as Burke expected. He saw Parliament as required not to sacrifice its opinion to those of the public to act as “a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole”.

Freeman seems to share Dean Smith’s professed concern about the precedential value of a plebiscite on redefining marriage. Smith suggests that if the Commonwealth is prepared to hold a plebiscite on redefining marriage it ought be prepared to do so on other social issues, such as euthanasia. In this analysis Freeman ignores the fact that, unlike the United Kingdom, Australia was formed by plebiscites. The Federation was preceded by plebiscites in the colonies and referenda and plebiscites are part of the Australian landscape in a way that would have been unimaginable to Burke.

There have been about 30 federal, state and territory plebiscites over the years. These include asking the people directly about social issues such as whether to federate, grants to religious schools, religious education, gambling, conscription, the national song, prohibition and closing hours.

On each occasion there were quite specific reasons why the particular parliament sought a view from the people. Redefining marriage to provide for state recognition of same-sex unions as marriages, is the sort of rare issue where seeking the people’s opinion by a formal process is appropriate.

Unsuccessful attempts to redefine marriage in the Commonwealth Parliament (of which there have been 18 since 2004) have not dampened the demands for change. In 2013 (in The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory (2013) 250 CLR 441), the High Court of Australia took the unusual step of defining the meaning of the word “marriage” in s51(xxi) of the Constitution.

The Court did so in a case in which no party argued that marriage between one man and one woman pre-dates society itself or that the term “marriage” in the Western tradition from ancient Roman times, in natural law and certainly at the time of Federation, had certain fixed elements.

Recognising that polygamy had been recognised in overseas jurisdictions as marriage even at the time of Federation, that some countries now recognised unions between persons of the same sex as “marriages” and that in Australia the marital age and divorce law had changed over time, the court concluded that marriage had no fixed meaning and that it was a “juristic” term. Of course this reasoning was deeply flawed.

It ignored the fact that terms can have a specific meaning in Australia distinct from the same term when used overseas (see the quotation from Hancock above). It wrongly concluded that changes such as those to the divorce law do not equate to there being no fixed elements of marriage.

The High Court did not reason in accordance with its own logic because it in fact concluded that marriage in the Constitution did actually have some fixed elements. It defined marriage in the Constitution to mean “a consensual union formed between natural persons in accordance with legally prescribed requirements which is not only a union the law recognises as intended to endure and be terminable only in accordance with law but also a union to which the law accords a status affecting and defining mutual rights and obligations”.

In this way the High Court found that the Commonwealth Parliament had power to introduce marriage laws recognising as marriages unions irrespective of sex and of the number of people who might join in such a union.

That finding would obviously have been a major surprise to our founding fathers and, had the High Court not so decided, a referendum would have been necessary before the Commonwealth could redefine marriage. In short, Abbott’s approach to the issues does not appear to me to be anything but a conservative approach.

All in all Freeman has written a very interesting and engaging short book. It is sure to get readers thinking about conservatism, tradition, liberalism and the past and future of Australia.

Professor Michael Quinlan is Dean of the School of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney.

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