Conservatism is our virtue while liberalism is the vision
The choice presented to modern Liberals from Sir Robert Menzies’ legacy is not to simply yearn for the comfort of tempering their opponent’s success. It is to have the tenacity for liberalism’s renaissance to beat their opponents in the contest of ideas through an alternative vision that empowers people.
Monday’s 75th anniversary of the “Forgotten People” speeches, understandably, has prompted nostalgia in Liberal ranks.
In a column in this newspaper on Monday, former prime minister Tony Abbott argued that there were three lessons from Menzies’ work — to “know who you represent”, “your values” and “never shirk a fight in a good cause”. On those he is right, but Abbott’s observations represent only the conservative chorus.
Completion requires the liberal verse — know where you want to take Australia. Menzies’ exceptionalism comes from understanding that successfully prosecuting a political message follows from commanding the context of choices before a country, not just the answers.
The collective wisdom of his radio broadcasts was to ask Australia the type of country it wanted to be in 1942 because he knew “the foundations of whatever new order is to come after (World War II) are inevitably being laid down now”.
His solution was to frame Australia as a nation with an organic society born of individuals, forming families, building community as the foundation for nationhood. It is a citizen-up approach from the middle class to slay the easy temptation of Canberra-down government planning.
He then built a modern, forward-looking Liberal Party to ensure “in a country like Australia the class war must always be a false war”.
In doing so he also knew it was not the only “false war”. So was the debate about whether his party was liberal or conservative, because such a debate starts from a falsehood.
It cannot be a debate about competing or different political philosophies for one very simple reason: conservatism is not a political philosophy. It’s a disposition. A temperament. An approach to bring the best of the past forward with incremental change.
In his memoir Afternoon Light Menzies wrote of taking “the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea”. Menzies knew that without an alternative liberal vision, you were left defining yourself by your conservatism and vulnerable to merely tempering the speed of your opponents’ success.
After all, a person can be socialist and conservative. They’re called Fabians. Conservatism is the virtue. Liberalism is the vision.
Yet liberalism alone is not a solution. Liberalism is the force of water through a loose garden hose that flaps around indiscriminately after the tap has been turned on. Conservatism is the calming hand that directs the hose towards the plants needing hydration.
The task facing modern Liberals is knowing how to frame the case for that vision. That means more than just rejecting the will of our opponents.
Today the symptoms of what must be rejected are obvious, from identity politics, increased dependence on taxpayer-financed welfare, rising public debt, placing the needs of government before households and the corrosion of our culture.
But recharging the nation’s course requires analysing the disease. The disease is the shift of the centre of gravity that was, as Menzies described it, anchored in the ambitions of “homes material, homes human, and homes spiritual” that built the foundations of our society from the citizen up.
In place of the home and family life has been a centre more closely anchored to the ambitions of the academy, state capitals and Canberra, driving a vision of a nation from bureaucracies and institutions down.
With greater centralisation Australians find it harder to change the circumstances that govern their lives. Accountability decreases, and so does respect for the individual in deference to the interests of databases, systems and bureaucratic ease.
The consequence is people of “the left” and “the right” are turning to populism to break the system in an attempt to regain the certainty that comes from being in control of their lives.
For left-progressives the turn to populism brings a silver lining because it creates the opportunity to tear down the institutions that underpin liberal democracy and remake them to achieve their ends.
For modern Liberals the task is to re-anchor our national life. It can be done by using institutions to shift power enjoyed by the few squarely back into the hands of 24 million Australians. The disease won’t be cured by simply seeking to contain its spread. It will be dealt with through the projection of a continuing Liberal vision where every Australian can see how their lives can be lived through the values Menzies articulated so beautifully 75 years ago.
Tim Wilson is the federal Liberal member for Goldstein.